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The Watchman's Lot

Chapter Text

"All right, people, settle down," Dean said, and for a wonder most of them did. 

Getting the whole of Ropewalk Watch together for one of their infrequent meetings was always a bit of a performance.  First he had to arrange for one of their sister-Watches to cover their patrols if the meeting was going to take longer than half a candlemark – not easy – then he had to bully all of the off-duty constables into coming in for the meeting outside of their shifts.  And finally he had to have all the doors locked against the indignant populace of the Strangers Quarter, a good half of whom, it always seemed, would decide they needed the services of the Watch right now just as soon as they were denied entrance to the Watch House.

Fun times.

"Are we just going to let them hammer on the door?" one of the six young Watch-runners wondered, as the front door did indeed rattle under someone's demanding fist.

"Yep," Sergeant Murgo replied stolidly.

"They're gonna be pissed when we open up again," someone else said, not as quietly as they'd intended, and Murgo eyeballed them warningly.

"So are we.  We'll all live through it."

"When you're done," Dean said dryly, "I've got a few announcements to make."

"Oops," the first runner said quietly.

Dean felt his stomach tighten slightly, but ploughed onwards.  The first announcement was the least pleasant of the lot, so he wanted to get it over with.

"First up," he said steadily, "I'm sure you've all noticed that Constable Godyr is absent today."  There were a few exasperated sighs and derisive snorts at this, but Dean knew the Watch and despite everyone being in agreement that something needed to be done about Godyr and his drinking problem (which had led, inevitably, to his reliability problem), he was under no illusions that they were going to like what he had to say next.  "I don't need to tell you all that Godyr's had some problems over the past year, and that they've been getting worse over the last few months."  Understatement, considering that Godyr had been arrested in Penny Street's jurisdiction two days previously, for violently assaulting someone while under the influence.  "Well, I had a conversation with him yesterday," and it had actually been a conversation, as opposed to the litany of reaming-outs Dean had given him over the course of the year, "and as a result he's handed in his Bully and he's leaving the Watch voluntarily, effective immediately."

There was a short silence, broken by one of the senior constables, Jed.  "So he's just gonna walk and leave us short a man?"

"Better than him turning up for duty hung over and heading straight for the nearest wine shop when he goes out on patrol," Constable Lu grumbled.

"That'll do," Second Lieutenant Jody said sharply.

"Command are sending us more people within the week," Dean said placatingly.  "And that's just as well, considering my next two announcements."  And he took a surreptitious deep breath, because of course it never rained but it poured, even if these next surprises were positive ones for the individuals involved.  "First of all – we're saying goodbye to Constable Mïti, who's being reassigned."  She blinked at him in surprise, so Dean gave her the most reassuring smile he could manage.  "Our loss is a gain for Black Kilns Watch in the upper city.  Mïti, you report to Captain Hartley's First Lieutenant at the start of next week."

There was a rumble of mingled congratulations and disappointment from the rest of the crew; Mïti had made herself popular in the months that she had been with them.  That said, it had been inevitable that she would move on sooner rather than later.  She was a career-track Watch Officer and destined to be a captain herself one day, Dean had no doubt of that.

"Next – Probationary Constable Harvelle, get used to not being called "the rookie" from now on."  Dean allowed himself a small grin at her, for he'd been holding back on this announcement until he was sure everything was in place.  "Congratulations, you're a full Constable at last."

That brought a cacophony of congratulations from Jo's fellow constables, along with a gruff admonition not to get cocky from old Rufus.

"That's the good news," Dean said ruefully, when everything had calmed down once more.  "The bad news is you have to spend your first year at another Watch.  Penny Street get the joy of rubbing off the last of your sharp corners," he continued.  "You report to Lieutenant Sandburg next week."  He saw the look of mingled relief and disappointment on her face and wasn't surprised.  On the one hand she knew everyone at Penny Street, but on the other it meant she would be staying under her mother's roof for a while longer.

"So we're down three people," Olivia spoke up, resigned.

"Yes we are, but not for long.  We're getting three new constables, not two – they should be with us before Jo and Mïti finish their final shifts – and this afternoon we get a new probationer."  There was a murmur of surprise at this.  Dean looked across to where Henryks and Jody leaned against the rear wall.  "I'm thinking she might as well start out in my shift for the rest of this week, unless either of you prefer to take her on."

Jody shook her head, and Henryks shrugged.  "Given what we discussed before the meeting, that makes sense," he commented.

"Fair enough."  Dean turned back to the assembled Watch.  "Last item, people.  Since we've got four new people joining us, Henryks, Jody and myself have decided we'll be rearranging the shifts starting next week."

Groans.

"We're gonna try to make sure none of you have to make any extreme changes," Dean said, raising his voice over the immediate chorus of complaints, "but I'll be posting the new rosters in the next day or so and you have two days to petition against your new position.  No guarantees I'll be able to change things, but I'll listen to any serious arguments."

He gave them a few minutes to grumble and bat the issue around, then slapped one hand on the note stand in front of him.  "All right, that's everything from me for now.  Anyone got anything else to say?"

Henryks raised a hand.  "Just a reminder that everyone's invited to my Uncle Nen's cantina tomorrow night, and bring your friends.  Mazuli just got her Scarlets and she's home to celebrate and play for us before she's assigned someplace."

That got some cheerful comments – after all, this would probably be the first time a Full Bard had played in the Strangers Quarter in living memory.  After that most of the Watch were eager to go about their business, so Dean dismissed them.  Everyone scattered, the two off-duty shifts disappearing out of the door, Dean's day shift grabbing their assignments and heading out onto the street, and the two on-shift runners settling themselves in a corner of the squad room with their slates and a bunch of old Command Circulars to practice their reading and writing while they waited to be called out on messenger duty.

Unsurprisingly, it was Mïti who hung back, waiting to speak to Dean.  She looked like she was having mixed feelings, which didn't much surprise him.  She was her own biggest critic.

"You're gonna be fine in Captain Hartley's Watch," Dean told her straight away.  "I know her, a little.  Her First Lieutenant's a guy called Hunter – he's all talk, but he knows his business and he won't give you a hard time because you joined them from this end of the city."

"Black Kilns cover the merchants' sector ..." she said uneasily.

"Trust me," Dean said, "once you meet Captain Hartley, you'll know why you don't need to worry.  She's nobody's idea of a fine lady – she's career Watch and she gets the job done.  And I'm pretty sure the people under her are more of the same type.  You'll fit in just fine."

She nodded, looking a little easier.

"Not that I'm happy to lose you," he added, because she deserved to hear that, "but you need to spread out a little if you're gonna make senior constable. Between the two of us, Black Kilns have a vacancy coming up in the next year, when one of their people pensions out.  You keep doing as well for them as you have for us, and you'll get that promotion."

That earned him a blush and a disclaimer, but that was to be expected.  Then she surprised him.

"Permission to speak freely, sir?"

"Sure.  We ain't in the Guard here, Constable."

Mïti slanted him a cautious look first though.  "About Jo – shouldn't she really be going further away than Penny Street?"

"Yep," he said ruefully. 

And that had been the thing - District Command had insisted, with Dean in full agreement, that Jo needed to move around and get experience with other Watch Houses.  Normally that would mean sending her to another quadrant.  Her mother Ellen, however, hadn't wanted her to be posted to a distant Watch House that would have necessitated Jo lodging away from home.  As a very well-connected former Watch Officer herself she'd called in a lot of favours to prevent that happening, a number of which had been with Dean himself.  So Dean had put his neck on the line and had managed to persuade Command to make her new posting nearer to home. 

One day in the not-too-distant future Jo would need to battle this out with Ellen for herself, but in the meantime Dean was hoping she didn't find out he'd been involved.  It didn't help that he wasn't sure he'd done either of them any favours in the long run – but on the plus side, this would put Jo under Jim Ellison's command for at least six months and that certainly wouldn't do her any harm.

Mïti said nothing, but her expression conveyed a hint of sympathy.  She and Jo had become friends in the last few months, and Dean was sure that someone as observant as Mïti now knew far more about Ellen and Jo, and Dean's relationship with them, than she really wanted to know.  Since her mother was the captain of Pieman's Yard Watch, she had probably heard chapter and verse on Dean's relationship with Jim Ellison too.

Possibly she even knew of the reaming out Jim had given him over the Godyr business.  Dean had wanted to spare Godyr the ignominy of being kicked out of the Watch, a fate that would all but guarantee he couldn't get any reasonably-paid, reasonably respectable employment in the city.  That had been why he'd gone to such lengths to get Godyr to resign instead.  Jim had told him that he wasn't actually doing Godyr, or Godyr's future employers, any favours, and in fact hadn't been doing so for any of the last three 'final' chances he'd given the erring constable.

There was more to it than that, of course, most of it involving Dean's history with his father Jon and his ultimately fatal addictions, as Jim Ellison knew only too well.  That had made the conversation about ten times more uncomfortable.  There had also been the unpleasant memory of Lieutenant Anderval, who had been prejudicially dismissed within weeks of Dean joining Ropewalk Watch, and the consequences of that.  Dean didn't want to see another Watch officer's family having to deal with those consequences.

Hopefully Mïti didn't know about either of those things, but Dean wouldn't like to wager anything substantial on it.  Privacy in the lower city was a bit of a joke really - if you were Dean, at any rate.

"She ain't getting a soft assignment," he told Mïti.  "Captain Ellison runs a tight outfit.  Not that that'll hurt her."  Mïti's wry smile said she knew exactly what he meant.

Yeah – no more running her mouth off at the captain for Jo.  Dean doubted she'd ever get a chance to try that on Jim himself.  He had two lieutenants who definitely wouldn't let her go that far.

He wondered if the new probationer was prone to expressing herself freely.  That reminded him that he had her file to go through before she arrived, so he dismissed Mïti and headed back to his office to do that.

Probationary Constable Valera arrived promptly at noon and was shown into Dean's office by Murgo.  She was a slightly built young woman with dark hair still cut in a Guard-regulation chin-length bob and big, apprehensive dark eyes.  According to her file she was from a village near Covey on the southern border, surprisingly close to where Dean himself had been born; she'd enlisted at eighteen, but while her superiors wrote well of her, she'd been more than ready to quit when her initial three-year stint was up.  And instead of returning to her home village, she'd made her way to Haven.

To Dean that said she'd joined the Guard to escape home and when that didn't work out for her she'd joined the Watch to avoid having to go back.  He wondered what she would do if the Watch didn't work out for her either.

Well, that was jumping ahead of things. 

Valera was quiet and nervous as he went through his usual introductory talk and showed her around the Watch House, but she showed a promising level of attention to what he was saying and even asked a couple of sensible questions.  Dean made sure she was outfitted properly, asked Murgo to assign her a locker, then raised an eyebrow at her.

"Ready to head out and see our patch?"

She looked even more nervous at this, but nodded and said "Yessir" as firmly as she could manage.

There was something to be said for someone who'd done a tour of duty with the Guard.  At least they didn't question what the captain said.

"Then let's go, Rookie."

Mostly he wanted her to get a sense of the area they worked, since she wouldn't be going anywhere on her own for a few months.  Unlike Jo, who'd been a runner initially and had to do all her training on the job, Valera was already combat trained.  She'd had the usual two weeks at Command HQ, getting the basics, but she emerged from that already considered fully trained in using the Watch's primary weapon, the 'Bully' or truncheon, and in the defence and riot training they all had to pass.  Probably simple stuff compared to her Guard training.

What Valera would be learning now was the stuff no training course could give her – experience in walking their beat and keeping the Queen's peace here in the city.

For the most part it was a regular day for Dean.  They wandered the streets, being attentive and visible, while he kept up a low-voiced monologue about notable people and places they encountered.  Unlike Jo, Valera was definitely not a talker – or at least not so far – which made a refreshing change for Dean, but he rather hoped she would come out of her shell sooner rather than later.  He didn't actually enjoy the uninterrupted sound of his own voice that much.

They broke up several minor fights between kids, and a more serious one between two drunks outside a tavern, and listened to a number of complaints from a variety of citizens.  Then Dean tested Valera's mettle by doing a spot-check on a brothel; the madam had an old conviction on her record for pimping out children, and Dean had received two recent complaints that one of the current girls was being held against her will.  Since both the complainants were business rivals he was somewhat sceptical, but it still needed to be checked.

Dean was in no doubt that there were people in the Strangers Quarter who were being held in genuine slavery, despite the best efforts of the Watch, the Guard and the Heralds, but his instincts – and information network – made him think it was unlikely in this instance.  Still, you never knew, and what actually constituted slavery under Valdemaran law often came as a surprise to the perpetrator and victim alike.  The definition was a good deal broader than in other kingdoms.  If the girl in question was being kept under lock and key while she worked off a debt, then the madam would shortly be explaining herself to a magistrate.

"This particular knocking-house only has a licence to run from dusk 'til dawn," Dean told Valera as they approached the nondescript frontage sandwiched between a tavern and a cheap wine shop.  "So there shouldn't be any customers on the premises right now."

"And if there are?" she asked.

"Madam gets an on-the-spot fine of a crown for every person on the premises who ain't working for her."  He pointed his Bully at the lantern hanging over the door.  "Lamp's not lit.  Not that that means much."

"How are we going to do this, Sir?"

"We go in, we check her paperwork – that's the licence and her register of employees – and then she brings 'em all out and while one of us checks 'em off on the register, the other goes and does a check on all the rooms.  I'm thinking that should be you."  She gave him a startled look, but as far as Dean was concerned it wasn't a job that involved higher mathematics.  "It's fine – what you're checking for is any customers lurking around and any sign that someone's being locked up.  I'll be checking who all the people in there are and if there's any obvious signs of abuse."

Dean thumped on the door with his Bully and after a long wait and a repeat, the door finally opened.

"We're closed," someone rasped around the edge of the door.

"It's the Watch," Dean said crisply.  "Open up."

That got him a litany of complaints in a nasal whine ... plus an open door.  The person behind it was of indeterminate gender and age, dressed in a grubby linen shift and looking half-asleep.  They backed up as Dean and Valera entered the building.  All the windows were shuttered, rendering the place a gloomy cave except for where random shafts of light found their way through cracks in the shutters and through the open door behind them.  The place smelled of stale wine, old bacca smoke and the very cheapest perfume, all layered over a vaguer, more ingrained odour of sweat and animal muskiness that Dean had long since learned to recognise as the mark of any premises where sex was sold as the primary business, regardless of its price or reputation.

"Where's Mama Vivvi?" he asked the doorkeeper.

"She's asleep."

"Well, you'd better go wake her up – in fact, wake 'em all up and get 'em out here.  This is an inspection."

That got another stream of whining complaints, but when that got the doorkeeper nowhere they reluctantly went off to rouse the mistress of the house.

"Asleep, my ass," Dean commented to Valera.  "This place opens in less than two hours.  More likely she's doped up."

"Is that normal?"

He snorted.  "Her poppy habit is the reason this place is always on the verge of being shut down by her creditors."

It took a good ten minutes for the occupants of Mama Vivvi's House to assemble in the main room on the ground floor, and Mama Vivvi herself was one of the last to appear which, she told Dean in a disturbingly coquettish manner, was due to needing to dress appropriately for his visit.  By that time the still-anonymous doorkeeper had lit a few tallow lamps and Dean could see Valera trying to control her reaction to the madam's appearance.

The rest of the residents were a motley gaggle, for the most part dressed in ragged shawls over their nightclothes.  Mama Vivvi, in company with many other brothel madams, liked to refer to her employees as her 'family'.  Dean had encountered a wide variety of family types since arriving in Haven  and reluctantly had to give her a pass on that one; this was far from the most dreadful family set-up he'd ever seen.  There were six girls, plus three other individuals, including the one who'd opened the door to them; those would be servants/drudges.

After another delay, Mama produced her paperwork and Dean signalled to Valera to go check on the rooms.  The licence and register were in the usual mess, not helped by the fact that Mama Vivvi was only passingly literate.  There was yet more time wasted while she explained to Dean in unnecessary detail, with multiple digressions, that all the crossings-out and scribbles on the register were due to hiring and firing, and difficult girls who were unable to decide if they wanted Mama's protection and kept trying to go it alone only to return when things didn't work out on the street.

None of the girls would look Dean in the eye when he called their names from the register.  That was a little unusual – in his experience, there were always one or two tougher cases in a brothel who liked to work their wit off the Watch Captain.  On the other hand, all of these girls were young – not underage, as far as he could tell, but he doubted any were over twenty summers – and they all showed signs of addiction that made him grit his teeth.  One thing was for sure; if they hadn't been addicts when they arrived on Mama's doorstep, she would have made sure they were before the week was out.  None of them looked well-fed, all of them had an assortment of bruises of varying ages, and Dean was willing to bet that they had a range of untreated intimate diseases between them.  But there were no signs of the kind of radical abuse that could justify him intervening, and they had all appeared in the main room ahead of the madam without apparent duress.

Unfortunately, no matter how much he disliked this place and the woman who ran it, there were limits to what Dean could do for people.

The three servants were revealed to be a man and two women – at least, Dean thought the doorkeeper was probably a woman, as they had a fairly feminine name.  Unusually the 'heavy', the one who acted as bouncer and did any heavy lifting around the place, was a middle-aged woman who had probably been in the Guard at some point.  The man was the house pot-boy; he was nondescript, thin, twitchy and nervous, and fairly obviously shaych as the slang had it, and had probably been hired because he was unlikely to cause problems for Mama with the girls.

Despite the state of the paperwork, this all appeared to be in order.

Then Valera returned and Dean raised his eyebrows to her enquiringly.

"All the rooms were unlocked and empty, Captain," she reported, but there was an odd look on her face.

"Problem?" he asked.

"There's a bad smell in the left hand room at the top of the stairs, Sir," she said, and she grimaced.

Dean's first reaction was that the whole place probably smelled pretty bad if the main room was anything to go by.  On the other hand, for Valera to mention it suggested it might be more than that.

"What kind of bad?" he asked her.

"Something-died-bad, Sir."  From the look on her face, she knew that smell better than she liked.  Well, she had done three years with the Guard.

"Whose room is that?" he asked Mama Vivvi.

"It's mine," one of the girls said, before the madam could reply.

"You're ... Karli, right?"  She nodded listlessly.  "You notice a smell in there?"

"Sure, but I couldn't find anything."  She shrugged and pushed her lank hair off her face.  "I guessed it was a dead rat under the floor maybe."

Dean hesitated and looked at Valera.  She shook her head slightly, her eyes wide.  Clearly she didn't agree with the rat idea.  He sighed inwardly.  Searching what was almost certainly a lice-infested room in search of the cause of a bad smell was not how he'd planned on ending his shift, but he also wanted to start his working relationship with Valera on the right foot, and convincing her on her first day that the captain didn't trust her judgement was not the way to go.  If she was wrong then they would have to have a conversation, but for now he would go with it.

"Show me," he told her.

Most buildings in the Strangers Quarter were not quite as poorly constructed as in the more notorious Exiles Gate sector, but on the whole they tended to fit a certain type, being narrow, dark and multi-storeyed with precipitous internal staircases that were a tight fit for men of Dean's build.  They made it to the top floor without him hitting his head or getting stuck, but it had been a close call in a couple of places. 

The room was a pathetic hole with space for little more than a narrow-framed bed and a shallow closet against the opposite wall.  There was no window; the light came from a small votary lamp above the bed.  The bed was piled high with desperately worn blankets and a single flat pillow; there was a hand-made rag rug on the floor that had seen many better days.  Dean was hit by a double wave of odour as he eased around the door; the first was unwashed human and sex, and the second was definitely decomposition.

"How the fuck does she sleep in here with this?" he muttered, for this was not a fugitive whiff of dead rodent sneaking out from under the floorboards.  It was a full-on, week-old, butcher-shop stink, and it was coming from the closet.  "There's no room in here for a body.  Did you look in the closet?"

"Yessir.  There's nothing inside that could account for the smell, but it's definitely worse in there."

Dean squeezed around Valera and opened the closet door.  She was right, the stench was much worse in there.

"Just out of curiosity, what did you think might be in here that would cause it?" he asked.

"Something with a lot of blood on it, Sir," she said promptly, which was both a good answer and raised a lot of questions about what had led her to think in that direction, none of which were appropriate right now.

Dean looked at the small pile of clothing on the shelves, then pushed it aside and rapped on the wall behind.  It sounded vaguely hollow and he tried to remember where they were in the house relative to the neighbouring property. 

"This room must back onto the attics of the wine shop next door," he said, stepping back and closing the closet doors.  "That wall's just lath and plaster."

"So the smell could be coming from next door?"

"I guess so.  We'd better go take a look.  If it stinks like this in here, then there's probably a body in there."  Dean saw Valera's face.  "I did warn you earlier that you'd probably see at least one dead body before the week was out."

"Yes, Sir."  She didn't look happy.

"From the smell of this, it's been there a while.  Not gonna be pretty, and you're gonna have to deal with that."

"Yes, Sir."

"All right.  Let's go do it then."

The wine shop owner was not happy that the Watch wanted to examine his attic.  He swore there was nothing and no one up there, but when pressed he divulged that the attic had been rented out to someone for storage some time previously and he swore never seen them come or go.  Then he handed over the keys and invited them to help themselves, which was only sensible as they were going to do that anyway.

"'Storage' is hinky," Dean commented to Valera.

"Why's that, Sir?"

"Most folk around here don't have enough possessions to rent storage, or not like this anyway.  It's more likely someone's using this to hide stolen goods.  That's probably why he hasn't questioned what they're doing."

"Would someone hide a body up here?"

"Maybe.  But you wouldn't get it up here easy."  Not if it was in one piece at any rate, but Dean wasn't about to put that idea in the rookie's mind if it hadn't already occurred to her.  "Might just be a hole in the roof and a big pile of dead pigeons." 

That had actually happened once, when he worked in the Pottery District.  Pigeons had kept finding a way in under the eaves of a local worker's roof, so he'd laid out poison-laced grain for them in the attic without stopping to consider what would happen to all the sick and dead birds afterwards.  It had been pretty unpleasant, especially as it had been early summer.

Another climb up some more very steep, narrow, unlit stairs and they found themselves outside a small door that Dean struggled to unlock even with the aid of the lamp Valera was carrying.  There was a definite stench working its way around the frame, enough to turn Dean's stomach.

"It's gonna be a lot worse when I open the door," he warned Valera quietly, "and there's gonna be flies.  You know that, right?"

He heard her swallow.  "Yessir."

"Try not to throw up."  That was as much an admonition to himself as her.  The smell resurrected memories of Crowley's yard of macabre horrors back in the spring.

Dean opened the door and would have sworn if the stink of rotting flesh hadn't briefly robbed him of breath.  After a moment, he wheezed "Fuck!  Pass me the lamp?"

She did so and he held it up to get a better look at the attic.

It was small, but so was this building.  The roof was quite low, but not so much that he had to stoop provided he stood under the ridge.  There was very little in there – a messy collection of old blankets that looked like a makeshift bed, an unlit pottery lamp standing on the floor next to them, and a fair-sized leather trunk pushed against the wall that divided this building from Mama Vivvi's.  The smell was coming from the trunk, and what flies there were – fewer than Dean had expected – were congregating around it.

The trunk was unexpected, for it had clearly been an expensive, high-quality item at some point in its existence. It was made of leather which had once been a rich red colour but which was now faded and heavily scuffed, and it had metal strapping around it and metal reinforced corners.  The lid was secured with complicated catches, although there was no overt sign of a lock.

Getting close enough to undo those catches was going to be a shitty job, Dean realised, let alone opening the lid.  There were plenty of Watch Captains who would simply order the probationary constable to do it, of course, but while Dean would freely own to being an asshole on any day of the week, he wasn't that much of an asshole.  Opening the lid of the trunk could actually be dangerous, for dead bodies gave off poisonous miasmas that would have been somewhat contained and concentrated within the trunk.  The damn thing might even explode.

As he hesitated, he was aware of Valera's eyes watching him anxiously.  There was no prize for guessing what was going through her mind.

"I think we need an expert," Dean said finally.

xXx

"This is becoming a habit, Captain," Healer Cassie Welles said, as she walked through the door of the wine bar.  She was a short woman of around Dean's own age, with bouncy red curls and – according to Captain Ellison of the Penny Street Watch – an over-enthusiasm for getting involved in the Watch's investigations.

"I swear I don't dredge up bodies on purpose," Dean told her.

"I'm reserving judgement on that.  What is it this time – animal, vegetable or mineral?"  She paused, her nostrils flaring at the second-hand stink clinging to him and Valera.  "Animal, it seems, and dead a while."

"Could be an animal, could be human," Dean told her.  "I need you to take a look and advise us on the best way to handle this."

Welles raised her eyebrows.  "Now I'm intrigued.  But before we start, have some mint."  She held out a sprig to Valera, who took it and chewed gratefully.

"Come on up," Dean said.  "Valera, you stay here and guard the stairs."  He raised his voice slightly.  "Permission to use your Bully if any of these idiots try to force their way up."  There had been a certain gruesome curiosity on the part of the shop's patrons.

Valera looked even more grateful and squared her shoulders.

"New rookie?" Welles asked, as they climbed the stairs carefully.

"Yep.  First day on the street, poor kid."

"Oh well – better to get the first body over with quickly," she said philosophically.

"I'm not even sure if we have a body."

"Phew!  With this much stink?  You've at least got body parts – stomach complete with contents, if not the rest of it.  You never mistake that smell."

They emerged into the attic and Dean gestured to the trunk.  "See the problem?"

Welles was silent for a moment.  "Damn," she said finally.  "I was wondering why you were so equivocal.  We should be safe trying to open it though."

"Seriously?"

"The smell wouldn't be this bad if was airtight – everything that creates the stink would be contained inside, you see.  My guess is the lid doesn't fit properly, either that or there are some holes in it somewhere."

"Well I guess that's something," Dean muttered.

Welles blinked at him.  "Don't get me wrong, you did the right thing by not trying to open it, Captain.  Fortunately it was an unnecessary precaution, because having to drill a hole into the box to release the gas would be almost as dangerous as trying to move it."

"Right."  Dean stared at the box.  The smell wasn't getting any easier to bear.  "So, how do you want to do this?  Can we move it somewhere else first?"

"Well I'm not going to examine the contents here.  I'd prefer it if we could take it back to the Temple."

"Right."  Dean pinched the bridge of his nose, because getting the trunk down the stairs was not going to be amusing.  Then he had an idea.  "You know what – those guys downstairs were pretty keen to take a look, so let's give 'em the chance."

Oddly enough, the bar's patrons were less excited about the prospect of rubbernecking when they realised what Dean expected of them, but two tough, wiry individuals covered in brick dust and spackle shrugged and agreed to help out when offered a couple of coins. And in the end, Dean was deeply grateful that they did, for they had a better grasp of how to manoeuvre a heavy trunk (carefully wrapped in a an old sheet donated by the landlord) down the breakneck staircase than he did and the whole thing was carried out without incident.  He and Valera stayed behind to document and secure the scene, eventually removing the pitiful pile of bedding and lamp from the attic for further examination elsewhere, while Healer Welles accompanied the trunk to her Healing Temple.

It was Valera who found the one piece of evidence that might suggest an identity for the person who had briefly lived in the attic, for as she was neatly bundling up the blankets she discovered a small object that shone in the low light from their lamp.

"Sir, look at this ..."

It was a pewter disk about the size of a copper crown, with something embossed on it.

"What is that?"  Dean twisted the lamp, trying to get the light at a good enough angle to see the markings clearly.

"I don't think it's a coin," Valera said.  "It's only engraved on one side and there's a hole at the top.  The image looks like – maybe a horse and rider?  No, someone standing on the back of a horse, I think."

That was the most consecutive words Dean had got out of her all afternoon.  "So maybe a pendant or medallion.  Could be religious I guess.  Good work."

"What religion would have someone standing on the back of a horse?" she asked, surprised.

Dean smiled wryly.  "How long have you been in the Strangers Quarter, Valera?"

"A couple of weeks, Sir."

"Stick around.  That ain't the weirdest religious symbol you'll see, trust me."

They took the blankets, lamp and medallion back to the Watch House.  By now dusk had fallen, but despite this technically being the end of their shift they would now have to go to the Healing Temple and find out what was in the trunk.  Valera took this stoically, which was a welcome change from the grumbling Dean would have got from Jo.

The trunk was sitting, unopened, on one of the stone tables the Healers used for examining dead bodies, and with Healer Welles was Captain Jim Ellison of the Penny Street Watch.  The Temple was within Penny Street's jurisdiction, so having someone there from their Watch was to be expected, although that person being Ellison was unexpected.

"This ain't your shift," Dean greeted him, surprised.

"I was just going off duty when I saw them hauling this in here," Ellison said.  He gave Dean his customary half-smile.  "Might have known it was yours."

"Yeah, I get all the weird ones.  This is Probationary Constable Valera, by the way."

"You're taking the place of Jo Harvelle when she joins us then," Ellison said to her.

Valera assented to this, renewed nerves making her nearly inaudible.

"What have we got?" Dean asked the Healer.

"It's an interesting box," Welles said.  "Did you notice the catches?  Sophisticated – expensive work.  Not your usual locks for this kind of thing.  But what's more interesting are these – "  She indicated something on the side of the trunk, and Dean reluctantly got close enough to look.

"Huh!  Holes – proper holes."

"There's two on each end and four at the back, just above the hinges.  Difficult to say for certain, of course, but it looks like they might have been deliberately built into the box."

"Why would you do that?" Ellison asked.

Welles shrugged.  "Obviously it was intended to hold something that needs air."

"Or – " Valera stopped, conscious perhaps that she hadn't been asked for her opinion, but Dean nodded encouragingly, so she cleared her throat.  "Maybe you don't want to keep something in a sealed box in case it gets mildew," she offered.

"Good point," Dean agreed. 

"Trunks and boxes a little like this are common around Lake Evendim," Ellison commented.  "Used to see them a lot when I was stationed there.  No idea about the air holes though.  The air is pretty damp around the Lake I guess."

"Right."  Dean grimaced.  "So – we gonna open this?"

That was easier said than done.  It took a couple of attempts to undo the catches, and in the end it was Ellison who realised that they opened in the opposite of the obvious direction and that there was a couple of stages involved, where a stiff flap had to be lifted, something underneath it unlatched, and the whole thing folded downwards, before the lid was freed.  The latches were sprung somehow, too, making them inclined to snap back and re-secure themselves.  Then it took Dean and Ellison together to force the lid up, because the contents of the trunk fitted very tightly into the available space.  A small cloud of flies erupted from the trunk as they did so, making both of them jump back.

What finally lay exposed was a whole human body, dressed in thin, close-fitting garments and folded up so neatly and compactly that it was hard to imagine how it had got inside the trunk.  Whoever he or she was, was curled up tightly on their side, knees to chest, head tucked in, elbows pulled in towards the lower belly and hands over the face.  Even their toes were pointing smoothly downwards towards the buttocks, heels pushed into thighs.  It was like a child's puzzle toy constructed of multiple oddly shaped blocks that fitted neatly together to form a square with a picture on it.

"Wow," Welles said.  "This is a first for me.  I was ready to swear you couldn't get a whole body into a box this size, or not an adult at any rate."

"Is it an adult?" Dean asked.  He had to take a step back – the smell wasn't exactly worse, because that would have been difficult at this point, but opening the lid had released a fresh burst of corruption and there were still a few maggots wriggling nauseatingly around the corpse.  Valera had her hand over her nose and mouth, and she was starting to look a little green.

"Judging by the size of the hands and feet, they're probably past adolescence.  I'll know more once we've got them out and laid them out properly."

Ellison was shaking his head in disbelief.  "How the hell did anyone get a dead body tucked up into that trunk like that?  Even a fresh body is damn hard to manhandle around."

"Let's not speculate without evidence," Welles said firmly.  "Officers, there's no reason for you to stand around while we do this.  I have two trainees who are interested in the mysteries of the dead, and they can help me."  Her tone suggested that she thought the trainees in question might change their minds after this; ergo a valuable lesson for them.  "I'll send a runner to Ropewalk Watch in the morning, when I've had a chance to examine the body."

"That'd be good," Dean agreed, relieved.  He would have stayed for the examination if she asked, but he wasn't sorry to walk away.

"I need a bath now," Ellison said wryly, "and if I do, then you two definitely do."

"It was all your idea to hang around," Dean joked, but he clasped the older man's hand gratefully.  "Thanks for helping out, Jim."

"No problem.  I'll be interested to hear the whole story in due course."

"Sure, if we can ever work it out."

"What now, Sir?" Valera asked, when Ellison had walked off.

"Now we go back to the Watch House, grab our spare uniforms and head for the baths in Beadweaver Street," Dean told her.  "Pro tip - you do not want to be heading back to your digs smelling of dead people."  He paused.  He didn't remember if her file said where she was living.  "Do you have local digs?"

"Yessir, a room in Sprangmaker's Yard."

Dean suppressed a grimace.  It wasn't a terrible place, but there were an awful lot of prostitutes operating out of Sprangmaker's Yard, and places where whores worked invariably attracted trouble.  This was a double-edged blade – the girls would undoubtedly be pleased to have a female Watch officer within reach, and would accordingly treat her well, but Valera would almost certainly end by getting dragged into all of their problems.

"Right.  Once we're done at the baths, I'm gonna introduce you to my landlady.  She does a special deal on laundry for the Watch, and she might know somewhere better for you to get a room."

At this time of year – mid autumn – the baths stayed open for a few hours after dark, to maximise on the trade from people like Dean and Valera who were finishing a late shift.  Dean passed on yet another piece of invaluable Watch wisdom to the rookie, namely to ask the attendants for the special soap that would wash away the very clingy scent of decomposition, then took himself off to the men's side of the baths.  It was quiet enough that by the time he'd finished lathering and scrubbing himself five or six times and rinsed off, he got one of the smaller hot pools to himself.  He settled into the water up to his neck and finally relaxed.

You around? he asked Castiel cautiously.  Castiel's training had ramped up recently, and Dean had not only not seen him for nearly three weeks, but their evening chats had been curtailed by his weariness and consciousness of an unrelenting schedule that demanded he get every scrap of sleep he could manage when he wasn't studying.

I am, but I have another lesson in about twenty minutes.

Damn – he even sounded tired in Dean's head.

Won't keep you then, Dean said, shoving his disappointment down deep.  I guess you won't be able to make it down here to see Mazuli play tomorrow, if you're this busy.

On the contrary, I'm running myself ragged today so that I can take some time to visit tomorrow.  I can't promise I'll be able to stay for more than an hour or so, but I will definitely be there.

Cool.

What are you doing? Castiel asked.

Just soaking in the baths.  Dean gave him a rapid run-down of his day.

A body in a trunk?  That seems somewhat extreme.

Sure.  I mean, we see bodies all the time but I gotta admit, finding one packed into a box like that is kinda new.  Say, you ever seen anything like the medallion the rookie found?  Dean sent him a mental image.  I'm thinking it's maybe religious.

It might well be, but it's nothing I recognise.  You could show it around at the gathering tomorrow and see if anyone recognises it though.

That's an idea.  Dean sighed.  He was starting to get wrinkled.  Guess I'd better let you go, and go collect the kid.

She doesn't seem that young, Castiel said, a little amused.

Yeah well, there's young and there's young, Dean told him.  I'll see you tomorrow.

xXx

The next day, Dean and Valera's first job was to inspect the meagre bits and pieces they'd removed from the wine shop's attic the day before, for clues to the dead person's identity.  The ragged bedding was unexpectedly clean – it smelled faintly musty but there were no lice – and it was comprised of old blankets and a variety of pieces that turned out to be clothing, mostly long tunics and the kind of hose with feet that had leather soles, and a single threadbare cloak. 

"This style of weaving is from Rethwellan," Valera volunteered, pointing out two of the blankets, "and those tunics – they're very old-fashioned, almost like a mummer's costuming.  No shoes though."

"And there were none on the body.  That's not unusual," Dean told her.  "Sometimes we get called to robberies where people have had their shoes stolen from them in the street.  People in this part of the city and Exiles Gate are often so poor they go without shoes well into the winter, so some thieves will steal your shoes before they'll take your jewellery.  If someone did kill our person, that might explain why there's no shoes here, but on the other hand, they had these hose – not something I'd want to walk around the streets in much, but I've seen worse."

Valera nodded, and picked up the small, cheap pottery lamp.  "No oil and only a shred of a wick.  It must have burned out."

"Anything worth noting about it?"

"I haven't seen this type of lamp for sale around here.  It's ... very plain."

"Well spotted.  All the lamp sellers around here have patterned lamps, even the cheapest ones.  This came from one of the really cheap stalls around Exiles Gate.  Anything else?"

She bit her lip.  "Well ... I was thinking about the medallion – "

Dean picked it up and turned it over in his fingers.  "Someone riding on horseback."

"Like a horse-dancer," Valera said.  "Maybe that would fit with the mummer-style clothes?"

"That's a thought."  Dean picked over the remnants and tugged apart a bundle that had probably served as a pillow.  Most of the parts of this were torn from other garments and he pulled out something that, when reassembled, was a hooded woollen capelet of the type known as a capuchon, very tattered and threadbare, with an honest-to-the-gods liripipe; a garment that had probably been hopelessly unfashionable even in Herald Vanyel's day.  Multi-coloured and elaborate, it had probably been a very dramatic garment in its time.  That argued even more strongly for someone who performed - or had performed, before something went wrong in their life.

It wasn't the capuchon itself that caught his attention, so much as the faded and damaged embroidery on it.  It pinged a long forgotten memory, of watching his mother folding garments into her dower chest.

"This didn't come from Rethwellan," Dean said.  "This came from eastern Jkatha."  On that dangerous border with Ruvan in the Magus Hills, where his ancestors had eked out a living.

"How do you know that, Sir?"

"See this jagged symbol stitched on it here, over and over?  That's the lightning bolt of the thunder god Tungur."  Tingar Dean's people pronounced it, and he was a demi-god at best.  He was referenced sometimes in the rites of Bel, the fire goddess, as lightning could cause fires.  Dean ran his fingers over the stitching pensively.  "The people who made this drove my people out of Jkatha.  My grandmother does embroidery in this style, but never with Tungur's bolt."

Valera's eyes were wide.  "So this is someone from your community?"

"Doubt it."  Dean tossed the capuchon back on the pile.  "Blankets from Rethwellan.  Old-fashioned costumes with bits from Jkatha.  A medallion with a horse-dancer on it.  I reckon we've got ourselves a travelling entertainer of some kind – only question is how they ended up in that box."

xXx

After arranging for some of his shift to make enquiries about the provenance of the trunk, Dean took Valera and went back to the Healing Temple to find out more about the deceased.

Well ... it was never quite that simple, and they were inevitably side-tracked several times by people who demanded Dean's attention or wanted to pass on titbits of information, but eventually they reached the temple and found Healer Welles waiting for them.

"The smell isn't a lot better," she said matter-of-factly.  "Just to warn you."  She led them into her examining room where the body from the trunk was laid out on her stone table.

Valera balked in the doorway, not that Dean blamed her.  The corpse was in terrible shape, the flesh significantly blackened down one side – the side that had been undermost in the box – and somewhat misshapen, presumably from the unnatural position and constriction pressures on the limbs.  The garments that had been removed were laid on another table to one side and were discoloured and noxious.

The appearance wasn't helped at all by the long seam down the centre of the body, where Wells had opened it up and stitched it closed again when she was done.

Despite the condition it was in, Dean saw at once that it was a woman.  She'd been small and painfully thin, with brown hair cropped unusually short around her head.  In the right clothing she could probably have passed as a teenaged boy in spite of the delicacy of her features.

"How long has she been dead, can you tell?" he asked.

Welles made a face.  "Well, I can't be absolutely certain of course, but at least a couple of weeks.  Rigour and bloating had long since subsided, although I'd say the position she was in assisted in venting any gasses."

"How old do you think she was?"

"Again, difficult to say thanks to the state of the body, but I doubt she was much older than your probationer there."  The Healer sighed.  "Actually, I believe she was much younger – seventeen or eighteen at most.  There were almost no stomach contents, so it looks like she hadn't eaten in a while, and she clearly hadn't been eating anything like enough for some time.  Small signs of early damage to the liver suggestive of drinking far too much alcohol, and similar small signs of damage to the lungs suggesting she may have smoked some form of intoxicant occasionally.  There's also evidence in her pelvic structure that she gave birth at least once in her life, although definitely not recently – more likely in her early teens."

"Any sign of injuries?"

"Nothing obvious, although there was some bruising on her arms and shoulders.  Nothing that would have killed her though.  No injuries to the head, no stab wounds.  It is a strong possibility that she suffocated though, perhaps from the position she was in."

"What about sexual violence?" Dean asked.  It was a routine question, especially with female deaths, though he flinched a little inside every time he had to ask.

Welles shook her head.  "Impossible to tell with the body in this state.  I can tell you that she had numerous broken bones at various points in her life – both arms, one ankle, her collar bone, multiple ribs and several fingers.  All of them had healed properly, suggesting she received skilled care when they happened."  She sighed again and walked over to the table with the clothes laid out.  "Her clothes are interesting, inasmuch as they fit her like a second skin.  Very thin, flexible hose and a matching sleeveless singlet.  No breast band or stays, although I doubt she ever had much in the way of breasts that the lack would be a problem.  The hose made me think of some of the more acrobatic actors in the theatres."

"That might fit," Dean agreed.  "We're thinking a travelling entertainer, maybe a horse-dancer."

Welles shrugged.  "Perhaps.  As Captain Ellison will no doubt remind you, that's your job to determine, not mine.  Can I get her wrapped for burial?"

"I guess so.  I can't think of a reason not to, anyway.  We'll speak to the undertaker and arrange for her to be collected, and I'll get a couple of my people to pick up the trunk and her clothes."

xXx

With the arrest and incarceration of Crowley and his employees, the Ropewalk Watch and their neighbouring Watch Houses had had to find another undertaker to deal with the indigent dead of the lower city.  This wasn't too difficult, as the Crown paid a small sum to provide a very basic pauper's burial in cases where the deceased had no saleable assets, and there was a graveyard outside the outermost city wall designated for their last resting place.

Unfortunately, that new undertaker was Fillick and the only real edge he had over Crowley – aside from not being currently imprisoned – was that as best as anyone could ascertain he was not selling body parts on the black market.  In all other particulars they were very similar men, so once again Dean used this as a learning opportunity for poor Valera, who might as well discover now as later that the city undertakers were people who had been hardened to their profession in some very obnoxious ways.

After that it was almost a relief to switch to more ordinary patrolling, checking on the local beggars to try to ensure that none of them were running obvious scams, returning a marauding toddler to her frantic older sister, pointing out a dangerously loose wheel on a merchant's wagon, and taking statements on a set of opportunistic kitchen robberies.

At the end of their shift, Dean escorted Valera back to the Roadhouse Inn, where his landlady Ellen had some good news on more respectable lodgings for the probationer.  He left Valera in her capable hands, and ducked into the kitchen to see Anaelia, before retreating up to his own rooms to change out of his uniform.  There he found evidence that at least one of his brothers had returned and was planning to spend the night, although there was no sign of the actual brother in question.

Thanks to being paid his proper wages for half a year, instead of the plundered sum his corrupt former District Commander had been doling out, Dean was now in the position of being able to afford an extra set of off-duty clothes.  The fancy set he'd worn to Spring Festival wasn't really warm enough for this end of autumn, but he'd managed to purchase a pretty nice tunic and breeches in a warm brown colour along with a soft linen shirt and a woollen cloak with a removable lining that would be really welcome when the winter properly set in.  All someone else's castoffs found for sale in a street market, of course, but none the worse for that.  Certainly respectable enough for Mazuli's party, and if he wasn't wearing his uniform then he was officially off-duty for the evening.

Unless a crisis happened, something that demanded his attention, but he really hoped that wouldn't happen.

xXx

Dean hadn't bothered to tell Castiel where to find the party – there was no need.  The streets were as busy as ever in the early evening, and most of that traffic was making its way to and from Nen's Cantina and the surrounding premises.  The community Henryks came from had a tradition on these occasions, that the more attendees the greater the honour paid to the one being celebrated, and so they were effectively open house events where even complete strangers and passers-by were encouraged to step inside for a quarter candlemark and accept the hospitality of the house. 

Dean could remember asking one of his fellow lieutenants how the Watch controlled something like this when he was first posted to the Ropewalk Watch.  The answer had been very simple: they couldn't control it, so the only way to ensure that as little untoward happened as possible was to encourage many Watch officers to attend whether on duty or not.  There wasn't much opposition to this, as the food and drink flowed freely, any hint of stinginess being in complete opposition to the spirit of the occasion.  Dean was unsurprised to find the streets surrounding the cantina full of the 'street people' of the Strangers Quarter, the prostitutes, beggars and orphaned children for whom the rare bounty of this event was a siren lure.  He already knew that provision would have been made to ensure that all of them got a fair share, as charity was also a requirement.

He could remember wondering how on earth said community would feed everyone at such an event, as they were no better off than anyone else in the Strangers Quarter, but as with the big seasonal festivals many of the local people and businesses pitched in to help.  It was also traditional for invited guests to bring a food or drink item with them as a gift, if they were able, which was why as soon as Dean stepped through the cantina door he looked for the table where such gifts were deposited and set down a large jar of spicy tea-pickled eggs Anaelia had made for him for this purpose.

This wasn't the first such celebration in Henryks' community that he'd attended, so he wasn't in the least surprised to see that the table in question was in the best spot for all the guests to view it, and – more importantly – very close to where the senior women of Mazuli's clan were all seated in a strict pecking order around the elderly matriarch, who also happened to be Henryks' buya or grandmother.

Dean had no idea what her name was.  She was "Buya" to everyone.  She sat in the most imposing chair, with Mazuli, resplendent in her new Scarlets, in the seat of honour at her left hand, and she dominated the entire gathering by sheer force of personality.  Physically she was tiny and ancient, and when standing her head reached somewhere well below Dean's shoulder.  She was a fully trained and accredited Healer, although he'd personally never seen her wearing Greens.  Her reasoning for this was perfectly logical: she worked almost always with people within her own community who might otherwise not have wanted to consult a Valdemaran Healer, so she wore traditional robes that put them at ease.

He knew the protocol in this situation, although it was never less than thoroughly unnerving to be stared at expressionlessly by the assembled ladies while he paid his formal respects.

"Good evening, Buya.  It was very kind of you to invite me to celebrate with you tonight."  He indicated the jar, which Anaelia had added an extra flourish to in the form of an intricately woven straw wrapper.  "Please accept this small token of my respects."

Buya inclined her head to him, unbending enough to give him a small approving smile, which all the other ladies took as their cue to also give him small nods and smiles.  These were the tantis or aunts – Dean didn't know what their actual relationship was to Buya, or to Henryks or Mazuli for that matter, he only knew that once a woman in that community reached a certain age and level of communal respect everyone called her "Tanti".  But having received Buya's approval and that of the tantis, he was now free to tender his congratulations to the smiling Mazuli and retreat to find a drink.

"I hope all of the eggs in that jar made it here intact," an amused voice said in his ear.

"Excuse me, I got my own jar back home," Dean said indignantly, and Castiel chuckled.  "Did you beat me here?"

"By five minutes at most," Castiel said, handing him a full mug of something that smelled pleasingly of hops.  "I felt sure you would be here before me."

"Had a burial to arrange, but forget about that.  There's a whole bunch of folks have been asking how you're doin', and most of 'em are just over there, so let's go be friendly."

xXx

For Dean, this evening was better than pretty much any festival he'd celebrated since coming to Haven.  Both his brothers had come, as had Hawkeye and Castiel's brother Gabriel, and most of his workmates and acquaintances at the very least put in an appearance.  The music was better than anyone could have imagined, for not only was Mazuli herself performing but two other newly promoted Bards who were friends had come with her, and several other, more senior Bards who had taught or mentored her had decided to attend as well.  That was significantly more Bards than anyone in this sector had ever seen in their entire lives, let alone heard perform.

Mazuli had been taken away for training at the Bardic Collegium a year after Dean's family had arrived in Haven, and had only been seen briefly at intervals since.  Everyone who knew about her in the Strangers Quarter had been mildly bemused, for while children with the Healing Gift were occasionally discovered in the lower city, Choosings were incredibly rare – Castiel had been only the second person Chosen in the thirteen years Dean had lived there – and younglings with the Bardic Gifts were pretty much unheard of.  Indeed, before Mazuli the best known Bard to have emerged from Haven's slums was still Bard Stefen.

Until now Dean, along with almost everyone else present, had never heard a true Bard perform and was somewhat hazy on what differentiated them from lesser musicians.  Mostly he assumed it was something to do with the level of skill and probably a better than average voice; certainly he had a good enough ear to recognise a bad musician when he heard one.  So when Mazuli settled onto a tall stool in clear space set aside for the Bards, and picked up one of her instruments, Dean settled back to listen with nothing more than the comfortable expectation of enjoying whatever she chose to play for them.

The first thing he noticed was her posture and bearing.  She radiated warmth and confidence.  There was an old proverb that sprang to mind when Dean glanced around at her audience, the one about a prophet being revered everywhere but in his home village.  Facing an audience composed almost entirely of family and friends and a wider community who would all remember every one of her childhood peccadilloes must surely be intimidating, but you would never have known it from her cheerful face as she tuned the –

What is that? he asked Castiel privately.

It's a hurdy-gurdy.

Seriously?  I thought she'd play, I dunno, a lute or something.

She probably will, later.

Now that Castiel had identified it, Dean sort-of recognised the instrument, although he didn't think he'd ever heard it played before.  Someone had handed one in to the Watch House as lost property a few months previously, and it was a pretty weird-looking piece of kit to his eyes.  Mazuli played a couple of notes on it to check the tone, eliciting some unexpected sounds, before saying:

"Some of you will know that I spent my journey period around Lake Evendim, so I thought I'd start by playing you a couple of popular songs I learned there.  The fisher-folk call this a shanty ..."

And with that, to the delight of her listeners, she launched into a fast-paced and decidedly bawdy drinking song that had everyone clapping and stamping along by the end of the first verse.  After that, she changed the pace entirely, switching to a large stringed instrument (A cittern, Castiel told Dean) and playing a gently mournful ballad about mythical people who lived in the Lake and were half-fish.  It wasn't until the final notes of the song drifted away that Dean realised that this – the way Mazuli held her audience in thrall and imbued the song with tangible emotion – was the Bardic Gift he was experiencing.  And it had reached him right through his mental shields.

She's good, isn't she? Castiel said.

No arguments here, Dean replied.

After that, Mazuli picked up a different instrument again, a small, deep hand-drum, and she moved smoothly into a folk song from her own people's tradition.  Meanwhile several of the other Bards quietly began to set up their instruments and music stands behind her for what was evidently going to be an ensemble performance.

"You think they have this all planned out?" Dean asked Castiel softly.  He was a little surprised by the level of organisation if so, for he'd got the impression that this evening was supposed to be a more off-the-cuff thing where the music was concerned.

"Perhaps.  But I think some of it is just practice.  They would not be so good at their jobs if they couldn't work together somewhat spontaneously if needed."

"Point."  Dean was about to ask another question when he felt something clutch at his leg.  "Hey, what – ?"

He bent down to look and found a small, curly-haired girl hiding behind the tall stool he was sitting on.  She was perhaps three years old, dressed in a warm nut-brown dress over a yellow shift, and when she saw him looking she giggled madly.

Dean grinned.  Littles he could deal with on any day of the week. 

"Who are you hiding from?" he asked in a stage whisper.

More giggles.

Dean looked up and around cautiously.  Someone must surely be wondering where she was, but he couldn't tell who it might be.  Hawkeye was giving him a quizzical look, though.

"There ain't nobody hiding behind my chair," Dean whispered.

Hawkeye frowned and bent down to look.  "Huh.  Tali, what are you doing?  Where's your mom?"

"Shhhhhh!" Dean heard her reply, and he had to suppress a laugh.  There was a small dish of stuffed dates in honey on the table beside him; he bent down again and held them out to the bright-eyed child.  "I guess no one wants these ..."

The dish was promptly taken from his hand and Tali sat down cross-legged on the floor to consume them.

You are gonna be in so much trouble with her parents for feeding her those, Hawkeye told him.

While she's eating 'em she ain't going nowhere, Dean retorted.

Mazuli's song came to an end and this time she stepped off her stool as she accepted everyone's applause, and moved to one side so the other Bards could finish setting up.  People took advantage of the break to move around and find themselves more drinks and food.

Tali, having consumed all the dates in record-breaking time, peered out from behind Dean's stool.  He offered her a hand up and lifted her onto his knee with an exaggerated grunt of effort.

"Oof, you're a big girl!  So, milady, where's your mom and dad?"

Tali was far more interested in the lacing on his tunic.  Her face was smeared with honey and she left sticky fingerprints on his sleeve.

"Is this Ziva's daughter?" Castiel asked Hawkeye.

"Yep."

"You're gonna get me into trouble with her again," Dean told Tali, who beamed at him and made a grab for a dish of nuts on the table behind him.  "Ah ah, no – you choke to death on one of those and I end up in the pokey, princess."

"TALI!"

"Prepare to meet thy doom," Castiel said, his eyes crinkling up with amusement.

Herald Ziva emerged from the crowd on one side of Dean just as a tall Bard suddenly popped up on the other.  There was an odd pause in which Ziva gave the Bard a grilling look, while he looked unnerved and defensive.

"I knew where she was," he stated unconvincingly.

She rolled her eyes.  "Tell it to someone who doesn't know you, Tony."  She turned to Dean.  "Thank you, Captain."  Then she did a double-take at her daughter's sticky face.  "Tali, what have you been eating?  Tony!"

"Hey, no, that was me," Dean said.  It wasn't fair to let the guy take the blame, even if he had taken his eye off the little girl.  "I gave her some honey-dates to stop her running off again.  Sorry."

"Well I hope you thanked Captain Winchester, little mischief," Ziva said, lifting Tali out of Dean's arms.  Tali, utterly unrepentant, waved a goodbye to him.

The Bard was eyeing Dean a little suspiciously.  "Thank you," he said rather stiffly.  "I think."

Dean didn't think he'd made a friend there, but he shrugged easily.  "No worries, man.  Littles that age have got some serious moves on 'em."

"Right – oof."

Ziva had slapped him in his midriff.  "Don't be so ungracious!" she hissed at him.  She turned back to Dean with a smile, ignoring the Bard's spluttered protests.  "Thank you, Captain.  It's good to see you again."

"Likewise, ma'am."

Dean watched the trio walk away, Ziva and the Bard bickering.  Tali was peeking over her mother's shoulder and she waved to Dean happily.  "That is Tali's father, right?"

"Yep.  The very special Bard Tony DiNozzo," Hawkeye said dryly.

"Yeah?"  Dean gave him a mystified look.

"Ask Phil about him sometime.  Or better yet, ask the Herald he works with – Tim McGee."

"Why does a Bard work with a Herald?"

Hawkeye gave him an odd look.  "You know what Bards do, right?"

"Sing?"  Dean rolled his eyes.  "Come on, man!  How would I know?  People in the Strangers Quarter will be telling their great-grandkids about tonight – the first and last time any Bards ever came here and played."

"You work at the Palace," Gabriel put in unexpectedly.  "You're used to seeing Bards all the time.  I've lived here for over two years and this is the first time I've seen one."  His eyebrows twitched up mockingly at Hawkeye.  "It's not as though they're easy to miss in those red clothes they all wear."

"They carry information around the kingdom," Castiel said peaceably.  "News, for the most part.  It supplements the information carried by the Heralds, and a Bard can sometimes transmit it in ways that are ... more easily digestible, shall we say.  And they bring information back of course."

"Right."  Dean glanced between him and Hawkeye.  "Are we really saying this guy works with Heralds because he's a spy?" 

Perhaps it was because he was conscious of being surrounded by a wide mixture of people, but the word he unthinkingly used was the Jkathan one – wejar-go, literally "watching-man" – and he found himself being looked at oddly by everyone but Castiel.  Gabriel looked amused as well, but Hawkeye, Sam and Adam were frowning.

"A conversation for another place perhaps," Castiel suggested.

"Right."  Discomfited, but not sure why, Dean took a heavy swallow of his drink.

"Why do you do that?" Sam asked abruptly.  He had been a little sullen all evening, something Dean had put down to the absence of his girlfriend, Jess.

"Do what?" Dean asked warily.

"One minute you'll be talking normally, and the next you're talking – what is it?  Jkathan?  You never used to do that.  I didn't even know you could speak it until Castiel came here!"

That threw Dean onto the back foot a little.  "Wasn't no one here who spoke it before, 'cept a few elderlies," he said after a noticeable pause.  "And they never wanted to speak it to me 'cause of my accent."

Which might have been the end of the matter, but then Gabriel said "What accent?"

"Gabriel," Castiel said warningly, and Dean blinked at them.

"You said his people came from the east border," Gabriel said, and yeah, there was that note in his voice that said he was needling ... someone.  Dean couldn't tell if it was him or Castiel.  "He talks like a Throne City merchant."

"Because he's spent more than half a year talking with me."

"Little brother, I know the east border dialect – it's more than a quarter Ruvanese and they all talk like inbred goat-herders."

Dean stiffened.

"Gabriel."  Castiel glared at him.

"You're the one with the dancing goat, so we'll just assume that's how you know so much about in-bred goat herders," Hawkeye said before Dean could think of something to say, and his bland expression seemed to quell even Gabriel's love of flirting with danger.

"I still haven't seen the goat dance yet," Adam said wistfully.

"Seriously?" Dean said, and even Sam cracked a grin at his exasperated tone.

But Gabriel slapped Adam's arm cheerfully.  "For you, my friend, a special performance on your birth-feast!  She will dance like an angel!"

"Angels dance?" Dean asked Castiel.

Castiel gave him a long-suffering look.  "Please don't make me explain that very obscure philosophical argument."

"I'm more interested in how you get a goat to dance," Hawkeye said, eyeing Gabriel.  "I've seen a lot of animals perform, but never goats.  Damn things are too contrary."

"You need a knack," Gabriel said, shrugging, but he shot Hawkeye an odd look over the rim of his tankard.  "A knack, my friend, for managing animals.  Then they perform willingly."

Hawkeye's eyebrows shot up.  "That'd explain a lot.  You 'manage' other animals?"

"Birds, occasionally.  Dogs, horses.  And ferrets – ferrets are intelligent and very useful."

"They smell," Castiel said sourly.

"You're over-sensitive."

"He kept ferrets in our rooms when we were boys," Castiel told Dean.  "They were always escaping and I'd find them in my clothes press.  They bit me."

"Lies," Gabriel said, but his mouth was twitching.

"You should've bit him," Hawkeye said to Castiel, before Dean could come up with a response, and that startled a crack of laughter out of Sam.  "That'd learn him to keep his ferrets to himself."

Gabriel rolled his sleeve up.  He pointed to a silvery scar just below his elbow.  "He bit me more than once when we were children," he said dryly.  "Please don't encourage him to give me any more scars – I doubt he'd use his teeth anymore, and he's a lot more dangerous now than he was then."

"At least you acknowledge that," Castiel said, and there was a reluctant smile hovering on his lips.

"I don't consider it an achievement," Gabriel retorted.  "There are enough warlike idiots in our family, thank you."

"Guys," Dean said, not liking the tone of this.  "This is supposed to be a happy occasion.  Can we all put the family feuding on hold for a few hours?"

"See?" Gabriel said to Castiel.  "He could have been born into my mother's family with an accent like that."

Dean stared at him, then turned to Hawkeye.  "Was I just - ?"

Hawkeye nodded.  "Yep."

"What the hell – I could've sworn I was talking normal!"

"Well, to be fair, they've been switching back and forth all evening and you never seemed to notice."

Hawkeye didn't seem to view this as a matter for concern, but he was a difficult man to read when he was in a public place like this.  Dean, on the other hand, was suddenly consumed with panic.  He had genuinely not noticed he was switching between the two languages and he couldn't see how that was possible.  More than that, he hadn't noticed Gabriel and Castiel speaking Jkathan at all and that had never happened before.

Or had it?

Stop that, Castiel Mindspoke him suddenly.  This is a noisy place, full of people speaking all manner of languages, and you've been drinking more than you usually do.  You've relaxed, that's all.

Cas ...

"I don't see why you bother with it," Sam said suddenly, impatient.  "You three must be, like, the only people in Valdemar outside the embassy who speak it.  What's the point?  It's rude when nobody else here speaks it."

"Lot of that goin' round," Hawkeye commented under his breath.

"Maybe it reminds us of home," Gabriel said, raising his eyebrows.

"For you maybe, but Dean's already at home," Sam retorted.

"You know what, I'm going outside to clear my head," Dean said abruptly and he stalked off.

"What the hell!"  Adam turned to stare at Sam.  "What was that about?"

"Why are you asking me?"

"You're wrong, Sam," Castiel said.  "This isn't really home for Dean, and never has been."

"How can he be homesick for Dell's Crossing?" Sam demanded.  "None of us remember it!"

"You don't remember it," Castiel corrected him.  "Dean does, very vividly.  And he speaks Jkathan with me because it's the nearest he can get to the language he spoke as a child."

There was a pause in which Sam looked confused and angry.

"That still doesn't explain his accent," Gabriel remarked.

"No, it don't, but I'm not interested in having a round table debate about it," Hawkeye put in bluntly.

"'Scuse me," Sam said abruptly, and he stalked off too although in the opposite direct to his older brother.

Adam sighed heavily.

"What ails Sam?" Castiel asked him.  "He's been in a strange mood all evening."

"Something to do with Jess, I think," Adam said.

"Ah."

But Adam wasn't really interested in Sam's problems.  "It's not just the Jkathan," he said reluctantly.  "With Dean, I mean."

Castiel frowned and even Hawkeye was watching Adam warily.  "What?"

"He was talking to Sindel Shoemaker and his family over there earlier," Adam said, nodding to a noisy group on the far side of the cantina.  "They're from Rethwellan, or the grandparents are anyway.  Dean was talking to Sindel's grandma and she can barely speak a word of Valdemaran but she was just ... talking to him, in her language.  Didn't look like he needed the kids to translate."

"So?" Gabriel said, when Castiel couldn't think of anything to say.  "In this part of the city there is a myriad of tongues.  He must have picked up words and phrases over the years."

Adam shook his head.  He looked at Castiel.  "Is it the - ?"  He tapped his forehead with a finger.  He and Sam both knew about Dean's MindSpeech although it was never mentioned between them.

"It might be," Castiel said.  "Better to say nothing on that head though.  I'll talk to him later."

"There's no language barrier with it," Hawkeye said cryptically, as Gabriel frowned at them.

"Better to say nothing," Castiel repeated firmly, and Hawkeye shrugged his agreement.

xXx

Are you going to come back inside? Castiel said.  Many of your friends are here and asking for you.

What language are they asking in? Dean asked sarcastically.

The language of affection, Castiel retorted.  Don't make a grand drama of this – you allowed yourself to relax for a moment, that's all.  Hardly a crime.

Dean sighed.  Cas, I don't think you get how scary this is.

It's as scary as you allow it to be.  Dean, please come inside.  Mazuli's friends are about to play.

Dean swore softly, but made himself walk back inside the cantina.

Castiel hadn't lied; there was a mob of Watch officers crowding around their table now, most of them off duty but a few still in uniform.  Dean was pleased to see that someone had brought Valera along and she seemed to be relaxing among her new peers.  And seated next to Hawkeye was someone who was giving a solid impression of being an off-duty Watch officer when he was anything but.

Dean sighed inwardly, more in resigned amusement than anything else.  He accepted the noisy roar of acclaim from his crew, had a drink pushed into his hand by the cantina's owner, Nen, as he passed by, and managed to edge himself onto a stool at the table again.

"Where did you leave my favourite person?" he asked Hawkeye's friend, and Herald Phil Kolsen's pale blue eyes twinkled at him.

"In a comfortable place of honour just outside, where she can hear the performance, of course."

"Glad to hear it.  Remind me to snag a pocket pie for her when I leave."

"Sometimes I think you like her better than me," Kolsen said, his eyes crinkling at the corners in amusement.

"I do, but try not to take it too hard."  Dean saw Hawkeye eyeing him pointedly, and jabbed a finger at him.  "Don't you look at me in that tone of voice, man."

Hawkeye hitched a shoulder, but Dean knew it was just an act and one performed more for Kolsen's benefit than his at that.  It had taken a while for him to recognise that Hawkeye's touchiness over his friendship with Kolsen was motivated by the archer's own relationship with the Herald, but that mild misunderstanding had been cleared up once he found a way to mention his lifebond with Castiel (awkward, but he'd made the effort).  It had struck Dean as a little weird that it had even been necessary – there had never been anything more than friendliness between him and Kolsen, and much as he liked the man it had never crossed his mind that it could be anything else.  But he was coming to realise that Hawkeye had his own insecurities; he just hid them really well.

As for Kolsen suddenly appearing here like this, potentially risking being recognised as a Herald if he'd come with his Companion, Lola, Dean was instantly suspicious.

Did you call him? he demanded of Castiel.

Castiel gave him an exasperated look.  No.  And if you become any more paranoid, I shall ask one of these Bards to play you a soothing lullaby in front of all your friends.  "My Lady's Eyes" quite possibly.

Then why's he here?

To listen to good music with friends, perhaps!  Really, Dean.

The soft ripple of notes played on a harp interrupted anything Dean might have considered saying next, and the whole cantina quieted in anticipation.  The young Bard with the harp smiled at them all – he had the cherubic, beardless face of a choirboy and hair so blond it was almost white even under the lamplight of the cantina.

"I know it's a very old and sung far too often, but I hope no one objects to "Sun and Shadow"," he said.

"On'y if yer plannin' to play it on a washboard and a pair o' spoons!" some wag called out, and everyone laughed, including the young Bard.

"I think we can manage something better than that, my friend!"

Dean had heard "Sun and Shadow" sung more times than he could count, and usually badly.  It was one of the oldest and most popular folk songs in Valdemar and was meant to be performed as a duet – not that this ever stopped people trying to sing it solo.  The Bard singing Shadowdancer's role now was an older woman with bright red hair and a stunning soprano voice, and the pair sang the full version rather than the shorter introductory duet that was more common.

Dean really wanted to enjoy it, but he couldn't.  The music and voices were beautiful, the best he'd ever heard, but the lyrics, full of poignant tragedy for doomed lifebonded lovers, set his teeth on edge.  He endured it, setting his jaw and pinning an appreciative look on his face, but it was an ordeal and one which he soon noticed was shared by someone else at his table – Sam, who looked as though someone was trying to pull his teeth out with hot pliers.

Aw, hell.  That look, and the fact that Jessica wasn't here with Sam tonight, told Dean a lot about what had been bugging his little brother all evening.  Guess it's about time for that awkward conversation I didn't want to have with him.

The song went on for about a dozen verses longer than was strictly necessary in Dean's highly biased opinion, but it eventually ended and he applauded dutifully along with everyone else, and heaved a purely private sigh of relief when the Bards changed up the mood with a very rowdy song that everyone could sing and clap along with.

Under the cover of this, Castiel quietly and reluctantly told Dean that he needed to slip away.  "You needn't come with me – "

"Nah, it's late and I got a long day tomorrow.  If I stay any longer I'll drink too much and regret it."

Who said he couldn't be a sensible adult when he chose?

Easing out of the cantina was no problem; the press of people was such that their seats were filled almost before they vacated them.  As a courtesy, Dean Mindtouched Hawkeye and Kolsen to wish them farewell, and on his way out of the door he managed to liberate a couple of pocket pies that went straight to Eslan and Lola when they met up with them in the courtyard outside.  There were a couple of other Companions there – presumably one of them was Herald Ziva's – but they were being royally spoilt by a crowd of children and not in noticeable need of a pocket pie of their own.

"Did you have a chance to ask people about the medallion you found with your dead woman?" Castiel asked as they walked slowly through the streets.

"Yeah – no one recognised it, but Hawkeye was interested in the box we found her in, so he's gonna come and look at it when he gets a chance."

"It would be a shame not to put a name to her before she is buried."

"I know, but it's lookin' kinda unlikely.  Pity, but she's not the first I've had to bury without a name.  Happens all too often, to be honest."

"A hazard of the job I suppose."

"In this part of the city, anyway," Dean admitted.

Castiel drew a breath.  "There's something I wished to tell you face to face, but it's better now there are not so many people around."

Dean felt his stomach tighten.  "Right?"

"It's likely I will given my Whites very soon."

"That's - that's fast, isn't it?  You've only been training since spring …"

"I'm not like the younger trainees though," Castiel reminded him.  "I had a very complete education before I started, so there was no need to give me lessons in literacy or mathematics, and I was mostly fully trained in my Gifts as well - "

"'Gifts' plural?" Dean said, startled.  "I thought you were just a MindSpeaker?"

Castiel smiled.  "I'll show you when we have more time.  But much of what I needed to learn was … history, geography, law, and what a Herald is.  It's the opinion of the Circle that some of this I will absorb better under a mentor in the field, so at the moment I'm concentrating on the things that are better learned in a classroom, with the aim of being mostly ready when the mentor they have selected is ready to return to his circuit."

Dean's mouth had gone dry.  He'd always known that Castiel wouldn't need years of training, but this was a lot faster than he'd been prepared for.  "You know who that is?" he managed.  "And, uh, when?"

"They haven't told me his name, but his usual circuit is around Lake Evendim.  He's coming back to Haven for the Midwinter holiday, I'm told, and the aim will be for us to set out in the new year as soon as it's safe to travel."

Dean already knew that Heralds travelled in conditions that most people wouldn't consider safe, and it was true that with Companions they could travel faster and in more adverse weather than was feasible for the average individual.  This was helped, of course, by Valdemar having an exceptionally good road network that was well maintained by the Guard rather than the more haphazard arrangements with local landowners that were common in other kingdoms.  (Dean still remembered his father's grudgingly respectful comments about the roads on their journey to Haven from the southern border.)

All the same, winter tended to hit hard in Haven and from what little Dean knew he doubted it would be much better in Evendim or along the most common route there, the Exiles Road.

"So – three months maybe?" he said.

"Perhaps," Castiel agreed.  "We won't be travelling alone, I understand.  This man has family in Haven - a wife and mother-in-law - whom we will be escorting at least as far as Zoe before starting our circuit."

So that might slow them setting out, as they would have to travel in conditions civilians could manage.

Zoe was the nearest thing Valdemar had to a second city - there were other places that were given the courtesy title, but Dean knew from talking to the ex-Guards of his acquaintance that most of them were really only very large trading towns.  The original second city, Highjorune, was in roughly the same region, but had long since dwindled thanks to Zoe's better position as a trading post.  It was closer to the Lake, where huge amounts of trade were done, and sat at the head of the Exiles Road, making travel to and from the capital faster and safer.  Its citizens, as in Haven, came from all corners of the kingdom and beyond.  And both Zoe and the Lake were notorious for attracting trouble, primarily in the form of smugglers, pirates and slavers.

It was a dangerous circuit, that much Dean knew from listening to men and women like Jim Ellison and his sergeant Olivia.  There was probably no such thing as a safe circuit for a Herald, of course, except perhaps for those older Heralds who worked in Haven's courts, but some tours of duty were more notorious than others and Dean knew that Lake Evendim ranked easily alongside the Karsite border in terms of danger.

And there was no point in saying that.  Castiel surely already knew the dangers if they had given him a preliminary briefing.  And, Dean forced himself to remember, he'd been a member of a militant order of monks before he'd come to Valdemar.  Yes, he had spent a significant portion of his religious career as an exorcist, and he'd even acted as a secretary for a while to the master of his order, but he'd done several tours of duty in an active light cavalry unit at different times and he was far from soft according to Hawkeye.

Not that Dean needed Hawkeye to tell him that.  Castiel might talk like a nerdy little bookworm - which, of course, he was - but Dean was the one who all-too-occasionally got carnally physical with him and it was impossible to miss the muscle and reflexes that lay under the uniform, the calluses on his hands from sword and bowstring, and the combat scars on his body.

And none of this made him feel any happier.

Eslan suddenly gave him a rude shove in the ribs, and when Dean turned to stare at him in bewildered indignation Castiel was grinning at him.

"He says I'm not exactly going alone you know."

Eslan nodded emphatically.

"Well 'scuse me for not liking the idea of either of you heading off to Evendim to take on pirates and wreckers and gods only know what else!" Dean grumbled.  "Leavin' me behind, I might add."

Castiel nudged him more gently, affectionately.  "We must make the most of things before I go," he suggested.

"Damn right."

Dean wondered how they would manage that when Castiel was spending every hour he had in training, though.

xXx

He walked with Castiel and Eslan to the edge of the Strangers Quarter, then slowly walked back to the Roadhouse Inn via the Watch House, checking in with Murgo to ensure that nothing out of the way had occurred.

Ellen was just calling last orders at the Roadhouse when he walked in.

"So how was the music?" she wanted to know.

"You didn't drop by?" Dean asked, surprised.

Ellen lifted one shoulder in a shrug.  "I paid my respects to Buya earlier in the evening.  Didn't seem fair to keep Podina and Tamar from going, so Anaelia and I managed this place."

"It was good," Dean acknowledged.  "Best I'm ever likely to hear," he added wryly, and she snorted.

"Ain't that the truth!"

"It's nice that a bunch of Mazuli's friends turned up.  Maybe they'll remember what a good welcome they had and come back sometime."

"That'd be a thing, but I ain't puttin' any money on it," Ellen advised him.

"You're probably right.  Hey, I meant to ask - did you find anywhere for Valera?"

"'Course I did!  What d'you take me for?  I wasn't about to leave that kid in Sprangmaker's Yard of all places."

Dean was relieved.  "Thanks, Ellen."

"Go to bed, Dean," she told him gruffly.

The stairs suddenly seemed a hundred miles high but he dragged himself up them and let himself into the small suite of rooms that had been home since his father died.  It was dark in there, but Dean was used to it and well able to find his way to his own bedroom.  He lit the small oil lamp beside his bed, toed off his boots, and was just stripping off his tunic when there was a tap on the doorframe.  Sam was standing there, looking awkward.

"Hey, you're back," Dean said, mildly surprised.  "Adam here too?"

"You can't hear him snoring already?" Sam asked wryly.

Now that he mentioned it, Dean could.  He rolled his eyes.  "How much did he have to drink?"

"I wasn't counting, but he got pretty friendly with Castiel's brother and I don't think he was counting either."

Of course.  "Right.  Well, let's get him on his side, just in case.  Might even kill the noise, you never know."

It took both of them to roll Adam onto his side; for someone so slight, he was remarkable heavy and awkward in his drunken sprawl.  Dean wedged a rolled-up blanket behind him to stop him rolling onto his back again; throughout this procedure Adam never awoke.  He briefly stopped snoring with an unmusical grunt - then drew in a huge breath and started again.

"Great," Sam said unenthusiastically.

"You can crash at the other end of my bed if you want," Dean offered.

"Nah, whatever, it's fine."

"Right."  Dean eyed him warily.  "You all right?"

Sam walked out into the tiny sitting room between the two bedrooms and lit the lamp above the table by the window.  Dean followed, shutting the bedroom door behind him, all too aware that this was probably not the best time to have this conversation with Sam.  He was tired and had had a little too much to drink, and he suspected the same could be said for Sam as well.

"Sorry I said stuff earlier," Sam said over his shoulder.

"That so?  Any 'stuff' in particular?"  Dean pinched the bridge of his nose.  He hadn't meant to say that.

On the other hand, he wasn't very impressed with Sam's attempt at a generic apology, and the incredulous bitch-face Sam was giving him was half-hearted at best.  He knew he'd been caught in a weasel move.

He wasn't ready - quite - to admit it though.

"Castiel says you're homesick."  Sam folded his arms across his chest.  "That true?"  When Dean didn't immediately answer - seriously, why the hell would Cas say something like that? - he snorted.  "Do you even remember Dell's Crossing?  Really?"

- light filtering through the canopy of huge trees far above his head, the smell of damp leaf mould and wood smoke, men bantering as they sawed logs in a clearing, the sound of axes and a horse whickering -

"Only when there's nothing to make me forget it," he said, deliberately speaking in the broad Jkathan dialect he'd learned at their mother's knee.  Sam's face twisted in confusion, and Dean switched back to Valdemaran.  "That answer your question?" he said tiredly.  He pulled a chair out from the table and slumped into it.  "Sit down, Sam, and tell me what's really bugging you."

"There's nothing bugging me," Sam muttered.

"Fine, don't tell me.  Pretty sure I know what it is anyway."

"You think you know, huh?"

"Jess's absence tonight was pretty obvious," Dean retorted.  "Dammit, Sammy, will you just sit down already?  I don't need you looming over me to know you're pissed off!"

Sam threw himself into the other chair sulkily, for all the world like Adam half a year ago.  Whatever he'd had to drink had stripped away a good chunk of his emotional maturity.  Dean held his peace for a few minutes, mostly so he could review what little he knew of what was going on with Sam's girlfriend Jessica Moore.  He knew that while she was also studying law, it wasn't the same as Sam's curriculum.  Jess was the daughter of a prosperous merchant - exactly how prosperous Dean had avoided asking - and she'd attended the prestigious Trade Guilds School in Haven before securing a place at the Collegia.  Unlike Sam, she was specifically focussing on business and contract law, with an additional class in accountancy, because her father had no sons and as his heir she was expected to work for him when her training was complete.  But when that would be Dean wasn't sure.  Unlike Sam, there were no formal examinations in her studies - all she had to do was keep passing her assignments until she completed all of the classes in her curriculum.  This was the more common route for Unaffiliated students from backgrounds in the trades, many of whom went into advanced apprenticeships when they finished their courses.

Dean wondered if Jess was on the verge of completing her studies, and if this had triggered the friction between them.  Supposedly Sam had met Jess's parents and sister at least once and they had been kind to him, but Dean had harboured powerful doubts about their relationship ever since learning about her background. 

Dean was a pragmatist.  The Moores could be the most easy-going and generous parents in the world, but it was madness to assume they would not have misgivings about their daughter's relationship with Sam who, after all, had little but his intelligence and good manners to recommend him at present.  He had no money or possessions of any note, no profession or trade, and no prospects.  He was also barely nineteen – legal to marry without the consent of a parent or guardian under Valdemaran law, but still very young by upper city standards.  Dean couldn't imagine many parents viewing him as a serious prospect even at the lower end of the city, where it was more common to marry young.  For a split second his brain presented him with the image of Ellen's reaction if Sam and Jo had declared their intention to wed, and even that complete fantasy almost made him break into an anxious sweat.

"When does Jess finish her studies?" he asked Sam, deciding bluntness was the only way forward.

Sam shrugged.  "Next spring maybe."

"Right.  And then what?"

"She starts working with her father, learning his business."

"And where are you while she's doin' that?"

"I've got another year at the Collegium," Sam said, "but I'll be looking for full internships, hopefully with the courts here in Haven or maybe a bit further out if not ..."  He trailed off for a moment.  He was resting his forearms on the table between them and Dean saw his fingers clench.  Then his voice firmed up again, and there was borderline defiance in it as his eyes met Dean's.  "We want to get married."

Dean considered and discarded half a dozen possible responses.  In the end it seemed better to say nothing and let that be his answer.

"Not right away," Sam said, when the silence had stretched out between them too obviously.  "I mean, until I have work and – and I'm settled – we can't - "

"I'm glad you realise that," Dean said dryly.

Sam's mouth tightened angrily.  "I'm not stupid, Dean!"

"Never said you were."

"I – I know I have to work hard and prove to her dad that I'm the right person for her!"

Dean wondered if that was in response to something Jess or her father had actually said, or whether it was Sam's own awareness of his unsuitability as a potential husband.

"I can't imagine being with anyone but her," Sam said.  His eyes slid away from Dean's - a very telling sign – and his voice dropped slightly.  "I think maybe it's a lifebond."

No.  Dean had no idea why he could be so certain, but it sprang from the same part of him that had recognised the truth when Castiel had told him they were lifebonded.

"Now that is stupid," he said curtly.  "You don't want to be lifebonded to anyone, Sam."

"What would you know about it?" Sam flared at him.

Dean pressed his lips together.  He hadn't told either of his brothers about his lifebond – or anyone, in fact, other than Jim Ellison and Hawkeye, and only then because he had been more or less forced and he knew they wouldn't talk.  He hadn't even mentioned the more common side of his relationship with Cas to anyone else, although he was fairly sure that certain people – like Ellen – had guessed up to a point.  But as far as Sam and Adam knew, they were just friends.  Knowing how heavily Jon Winchester had emphasised the wrongness of same-sex relationships to his sons, Dean had not wanted to risk their reactions.  He certainly wasn't about to take that risk with Sam now, with the mood he was in.

"Were you listening to any of those ballads the Bards were singing tonight?" he demanded instead.  "The ones all about doomed lifebonded lovers?"

"Bards," Sam said dismissively.  "They're just songs, Dean!"

"Do you know what happened to Bard Stefen after Herald Vanyel died?" Dean said.  It was a strain to keep his tone calm and conversational.  "He wasn't even twenty and he spent the next sixty years alone, with a giant hole in his life where one of the kingdom's most famous men had been.  Funny how all those songs about Vanyel never mention that, huh?"

"How do you know that?" Sam demanded, startled.

"I have a friend who's training to be a Herald, remember?  Among other things, he got a crash course in our history that includes all the shitty parts the Bards skate over because they're not romantic enough."

Sam didn't have an answer for this, but he looked uncomfortable.

"You don't want a lifebond with Jess, Sammy.  Focus on being her friend instead because, married or not, that'll be better for both of you in the long run."  Dean levered himself up out of his chair, exhaustion and sobriety making his body feel twice its normal weight.  "Put the lamp out when you go to bed, yeah?"

And he left Sam sitting at the table.

xXx

Perhaps there was more he could have said.  Perhaps he should have been blunter or more open with Sam.  But Dean didn't believe any amount of bluntness or honesty would have helped, not then.  Sam was still not ready to hear uncomfortable truths – especially not the ones he already knew.

In spite of his weariness, Dean lay awake in the darkness long after he heard his brother shuffle off to bed.

"A giant hole in his life."  It was a pretty bald description of the thing he most feared these days.  Dean already had holes in his life left by other people, although he rarely dwelled on them.  He wondered if he could survive one shaped like Castiel.

Are you all right? Castiel himself asked gently.

No.  Sam thinks he has a lifebond with Jess.

No.  He doesn't, of that much I'm certain.

Yeah, me too.  But I guess he thinks it's romantic and, I don't know, maybe a clinching argument of some kind.  Dean sighed.  I really wish I could hear her side of all this, because the way he's talkin' makes me think there's some kinda showdown on the horizon.

Is reality starting to force itself on his notice?

Not yet, but soon I think.  Dean grimaced.  It ain't gonna be pretty when it does, Cas.

Perhaps not.  But there's nothing more you can do tonight and you need your sleep.  Try to set it aside, Dean.

Yeah, I know.  Did I disturb you?  I'm sorry.

There's nothing wrong with your shields, Castiel assured him before he could start to fret about that.  Some things make themselves known across the bond.  I could ignore it if I chose – but I don't choose to.

That was strangely comforting.

Besides, I wasn't asleep.  An image of a book briefly flashed into Dean's mind, one with some unexpected illustrations.  Tomorrow's lesson, weather permitting.  Fortunately I've rowed a boat before, although it was some years ago.

They're teaching you to sail!  Why?

Lake Evendim, Castiel reminded him, amused.  You don't think I'm going to stand on the shoreline and shout my judgements to people on their ships, do you?

Damn.  And kids grow up wanting to be Heralds?

The excitement, the adventure, the Companions!

The wet feet, Dean retorted.  Well, try not to drown is all I'm gonna say.  You didn't come all the way from Throne City just for Mother Terilee to make you her consort.

I'll bear it in mind.  Good night, Dean.

'Night, Cas.

xXx

Castiel felt Dean's mind slide into sleep, comforted by the contact, but the knowledge that Sam was deluding himself about lifebonds left Castiel himself feeling uneasy.

In truth, he knew more about lifebonds than most.  His Order, back in Jkatha, had made a study of them.  Which might seem an odd thing for a celibate, military order of monks to do, but as one of their specialities had been exorcism the information had proven unexpectedly necessary; certain types of demonic creature could sense lifebonds and make use of them.

Thanks to the fascination Bards and storytellers had with lifebonds, they tended to have a regrettably rosy image in the minds of the general populace.  But it was a fact that the kind of bond Castiel had with Dean – the stable, acknowledged lifebond between two consenting and unrelated adult humans and, in short, the kind of lifebond most people assumed was the norm – was relatively uncommon.

The uncomfortable truth was that lifebonds were not some sign of favour from the gods that most people assumed they were.  They were far more random and irrational in their manifestations than that.

A bond could be one-sided – one unlucky individual being tied to another who did not experience the bond.  Although rare, they could sometimes occur between three or more people, and usually not simultaneously.  The third might join an established pair years after the initial bond occurred, and this was not always harmonious; that person might bond with one but not both of the others, causing friction.  Lifebonds could happen across extreme and inappropriate age-gaps.  They could occur in closely-related individuals – parents to children, brothers to sisters, or across two or three generations.  There were even cases of them occurring across species, although mercifully only ever with another race of human-like intelligence.

Examples of all these and more had appeared in the texts Castiel had studied as an apprentice exorcist.  Most of them had been dispassionately described as tragedies for the participants and their families and friends.  Even the most straightforward lifebonds could be problematic for the participants; a lifebond didn't magically dispose of normal frictions in relationships and render them totally harmonious, after all, and specific situations could make for unusual stressors.  There were records, for example, of monarchs who had to make state marriages in spite of being lifebonded to others, and priests who had been driven from their temples for forming lifebonds incompatible with their vows.

Even the popular Valdemaran tales of Sunsinger and Shadowdancer, and Vanyel and Stefen, were tragedies at their core.  Castiel had been entirely unsurprised to learn the truth about Lavan Firestorm and his Companion, and just as unsurprised to find that their lifebond had been carefully excised from all but the most scholarly histories about the young Herald.  It was tragedy enough that he had been seventeen when he died.  The handful of songs about him left that part out as well.

For all that, Castiel could not regret the lifebond between him and Dean – some hitherto unrecognised missing part of him had been found and he would never not rejoice in that.  But he understood Dean's own concerns about their bond, and recognised the danger in Sam latching onto the idea as though it could be some saving factor in his own future.

And like Dean he had no idea what to do about it.

Chapter Text

A few days later Dean was on the night shift – and dealing with the fallout of the changes to the three crews he, Henryks and Jody had made the previous week, as well as working in three new constables – when Hawkeye arrived to take a look at the dead woman's trunk. 

As he mostly did when he was visiting Dean, Hawkeye chose to dress in the conservative manner of someone's private groom.  Dean wasn't quite sure how he, or Kolsen for that matter, continued to pull off their masquerades in the Strangers Quarter considering how suspicious he knew the locals to be, but somehow the pair of them always managed to operate on a level that escaped notice.  It probably helped that they didn't usually spend very long in the area.

"We've got the box out back," Dean told him, leading the way.  "It still smells a bit – just to warn you."

"Won't be the worst thing I ever smelled," Hawkeye replied with a shrug.

It was in the covered part of the training yard.  Dean lit a lamp and the two of them squatted down next to the trunk while Hawkeye examined it carefully.  He seemed to be particularly interested in the catches, opening and closing them, and then carefully examining how they were attached inside the trunk.  He was also interested in a couple of rivets inside the lid that Dean hadn't been able to guess the purpose of.

Finally he closed the box up again.  "You said there were clothes as well?"

"Sure – over here."  Dean indicated the pitiful little pile of rags on a shelf above the trunk.

Hawkeye examined these carefully as well, before folding them up and putting them back on the shelf.  "You found out anything else about her?"

"Not so far.  Even the landlord couldn't tell me much – he didn't even know she was a woman and he only saw her briefly every couple of weeks when she paid her rent.  He says she had a low voice and an accent, but he couldn't say what kind of accent, just that it wasn't local.  She mostly slipped in and out without being seen and never caused him any trouble.  Nobody else remembers seeing her."

Hawkeye nodded.

Dean shoved down his impatience.  "What do you think?"

"I think you're right, she was a travelling player.  There's nothing here I recognise from the people I worked with, but the style is pretty obvious to anyone who knows player folk."  Hawkeye shrugged.  "I need to talk to someone, but I might have something to show you in a few days.  I won't be able to put a name to her," he warned.  "But I have an idea what happened to her."

"Right.  Care to give me any hints?"

The other man cracked a smile.  "You'll just have to hang onto your britches until I'm good and ready, Winchester.  You coming up to the Collegium on your next rest-day?"

"Maybe.  Sam and Adam have been coming here lately, and since Cas is so busy right now ..."

"Come on up anyway.  There's someone I want you to meet."

Dean was immediately wary.  "That so?"

Hawkeye rolled his eyes.  "Not like I'm gonna introduce you to the Queen's mama, you ass!"

"Good, I'm holding you to that.  And leave my ass out of it."

It was odd, Dean thought as he saw Hawkeye off the premises, that they were able to bicker with each other like brothers, when his relationships with his own brothers were often so much more awkward.

He'd barely returned to his office when there was a light tap on the doorframe.  Constable Fraya, who had joined his shift for the first time that week, was standing there.  She was a short, stocky woman only a handful of years older than Dean himself, with prematurely greying red hair and a diffident manner that led the unwary to assume that she was a soft touch.  Dean had sent her out with Valera earlier, so he was a little concerned that Fraya was back already and Valera was nowhere to be seen.

"Have you got a minute, Cap'n?"

"Sure."  Dean gestured for her to take the spare seat in front of his desk, but was more concerned when she very carefully closed the door first.  "Problem?  Where's the rookie?"

"I told her to get herself some tea in the ward room," Fraya said, and she perched uneasily on the edge of the chair.  "We had a run-in with that jackass Pyote and she was kinda shook up."

Dean pinched the bridge of his nose wearily.  "Right.  Did you fill her in on him?"

Fraya grimaced.  "I didn't need to.  I think she's met him before."

He frowned.  "Well, she came to us from the Guard," he said doubtfully.  Not the City Guard though, or there would have been a note in her records.

Fraya was looking doubtful too.  "I don't think it was that, Cap'n.  He was ... well ... insinuating that he knew stuff about her, you know the way he does."

Dean knew.  Pyote liked to tweak at him like that too.

"She didn't take it too well," Fraya said rather lamely.

Dean didn't claim to know Fraya particularly well – she had spent all of her time with the Ropewalk Watch until now working in Henryks' shift – but he got the impression she was trying to convey something to him that he was missing.  "Did she tell you what the problem was?"

"She didn't want to talk to me."  Fraya shrugged.  "She's a really reserved kid, you know?  I didn't want to push.  It's not like I have the authority."

Much immediately became clear to Dean.  Henryks had mentioned once or twice that Fraya, while being a perfectly solid and reliable constable, had a grievance she occasionally aired obliquely; namely that Paoli had been advanced to Senior Constable over her despite Fraya having more years in the Watch.  The problem was that Paoli had a clean record, while Fraya had a couple of black marks in her file from her previous posting.  Paoli had also shown leadership skills, while Fraya had never shown any particular willingness or aptitude for managing her fellow constables.

In fact, this situation pretty much summed up the minor problem Dean and Henryks both had with Fraya; she could have made a push to find out what Valera's issue was and help the girl, but instead she was dumping it on Dean and using her lack of senior status as an excuse.  More frustratingly, she was currently the only other female officer in Dean's shift and it was an unwritten protocol that, where possible, issues with female constables should be looked into by another female officer, at least initially.  Paoli and Olivia wouldn't have hesitated.  Hell, had they still been here Mïti and even Jo wouldn't have hesitated and seniority be damned.  Women in the Watch generally looked out for each other.

Dean wasn't about to order Fraya to do it though.  An unwilling confidant was worse than a male or no confidant at all, and Dean wouldn't put it past her to be just insensitive enough to make Valera clam up permanently.

"Right," he said dryly.  "You head back out, Constable.  I'll talk to the rookie."

"Yes sir."  And Fraya was gone before he could formally dismiss her.

Dean waited for a few minutes though.  On one point Fraya had been quite right; Valera was very reserved, and he seriously questioned whether he was the right person to have this conversation with her.  The trouble was that none of the other female officers – Paoli, Olivia or Jody – were due on duty for several hours, and the moment would surely have passed by then.

"Fine," Dean grumbled to himself, rubbing his temples, and he went to find the probationer.

There was always a kettle of gillyflower tea hanging over the stove in the ward room, especially during the colder months; always acidic, the constant stewing left it strong and bitter enough to strip off the tastebuds.  Watch House tea was notorious for being ghastly which probably explained why, when Dean walked into the ward room, he found Valera warming her hands around a mug but not noticeably drinking from it.

He pulled a smaller teapot and caddy from a cupboard at the side of the stove that no one else was allowed to touch, and measured a couple of spoonfuls of a different tea into the pot before adding hot water from a second kettle that was kept towards the back of the stove.  It took a few minutes for the tea to steep, but he was in no hurry to start this conversation.  Out of the corner of his eye, Dean could see Valera trying – and mostly failing – to compose herself; he'd seen a look like that a few times before, the look of someone realising a personal catastrophe, and regardless of the root cause it made him want to wring Guardsman Pyote's flabby neck.

He startled Valera by matter-of-factly taking her mug from her and throwing away the over-boiled tea in it, before replacing it with tea from his own pot.  It was a milder blend that he'd bought in the market a couple of weeks before, and it had a spicy, citrus flavour.  Dean was rationing out the leaves, as it hadn't been cheap, but he felt it was worth sharing just this once if it would help Valera to open up to him a little.

He gave her back the mug and took a seat on the bench beside her, thinking that it would probably be better to open with something innocuous.

"So ... a pal of mine has taken a look at that trunk and he thinks he might be able to explain what was going on with our dead woman.  He's gonna get back to me on that."  Dean took a slow, reflective sip of his tea, but Valera had nothing to say to this.  All right.  More quietly, he said, "Fraya told me the two of you ran into one of our local trolls earlier – a Guardsman named Pyote."

She nodded jerkily.

"Apparently he spewed some of his special brand of toxic shit at you.  Fraya seemed to think you'd run into him before though."  Dean paused, but she still said nothing.  "That true?" he prompted her.

She nodded again, and whispered, "Yessir.  Wh–while I was at Headquarters.  Training."

"What is it he thinks he's got on you?"

Oh shit.  She was going to cry.  Dean rolled his lips together and focussed his gaze on his own mug.  Maybe if he gave her a moment she'd get it under control.

"Whatever it is," he said carefully, "I'm pretty sure it's nowhere near as bad as he made you think it is.  In fact, I'll go further and say it's probably nowhere near as bad as the shit he thinks he's got on me."  That got him a startled look, but at least he had her attention.  "But I can't help you if I don't know what it is."

Silence.  Dean tried another tack.

"Look, something you need to know about Pyote is he wouldn't still be wearin' that uniform if he wasn't useful to some folk in high places, but that protection's got limits.  He talks a lot and he likes to stir up shit here and there, if he thinks he can get something for it, but a lot of the time it's just talk.  He knows he don't dare go too far, and he'd have to think he was gonna get something real worthwhile out of it to actually tell folks.  So what is it he thinks he has on you?"

Valera put her mug down on the floor beside her; her hands were trembling and she scrubbed them restlessly on the rough canvas of her uniform trousers.  "He – he said he bought my debt," she whispered.

Dean frowned.  "What debt?  Your file said you signed to confirm you didn't have any outstanding obligations."  Unpaid debts of any size were usually a bar to being employed by the Watch, at least until they were substantially cleared.  Trying to keep his tone neutral and encouraging, he asked, "Did you lie on your application?  Come on, it's all right, I'm not gonna turn you in."

Valera was shaking her head though, blinking hard.  "Not – not that kind of debt, sir," she muttered.

Dean stared at her blankly – then he took in her averted eyes and face scarlet with humiliation, and he began to get an inkling of what she was trying not to tell him. 

"I think you're gonna have to tell me the whole story," he said.  Valera shook her head frantically.  "I know you don't want to, but like I said - I can't help you if I don't know what happened.  If it helps at all ..."  He drew a slow breath, because this was a big risk for him to take, but: "I know I'm a guy and that makes it worse, so if it helps at all, I'm pretty much shaych.  And you're, like, only the third person I've told that, so ..."

Valera's head whipped around and she stared at him for a few seconds wide-eyed, then hastily looked down at her hands.  She said something so faintly that Dean had to ask her to repeat it.

"So am I," she said, in a small voice.

xXx

Valera didn't quite relax, but Dean got the impression that his confession had made it easier for her to resign herself to having to talk.

Being shaych, it seemed, had just been the start of her problems.  That didn't come as much of a surprise to Dean.  The Valdemaran policy on it, as in so many other areas, was officially tolerance.  The problem was that tolerance was just as readily mandated towards those of the opposing viewpoint, which in practice often led to conflict.  His own reluctance to make his sexuality public was deeply rooted in those same conflicting viewpoints.

For Dean, it had originally been a handsome fellow Guard cadet who had been as much a friend as a potential lover.  For Valera, it seemed, it had been a second cousin called Maya who had been perfectly happy to be her lover … up to a point.

"We talked about how we could be together.  Stay together," Valera said unsteadily, after they'd drunk some tea and Dean had refreshed their mugs from his teapot.  "But it didn't seem like there was a way at home.  Our village is so small, everyone's related to each other somewhere, and when you're old enough you just ... get married to someone in the village.  You know?"

"Yeah, I know," Dean said wryly.  "You grow up, you get married to one of the neighbours, you have a hat-trick o' littles.  Ain't no one really questions it, it pretty much just happens."

Valera nodded.  "But me …" She blew out an exasperated breath, the first really natural, unthinking expression he'd seen from her.  "I didn't want that.  I really didn't want that.  And Maya said she felt the same.  The only thing I could think was that we had to go somewhere else and find work.  We'd neither of us ever been further than the market at Covey, but I thought if we could make it to Freeland or even Tindale - Tindale is huge - there would be lots more opportunities."

"Like what?" Dean felt compelled to ask.  "What did you think you were gonna do?"

Valera met his eyes almost defiantly.  "I thought Maya could find work in an inn and I could join the local militia."  When Dean blinked at her, she said, "I was the best shepherd our village ever had.  Da and Ma only had girls and I'm the oldest, so Da taught me to use a sling and staff and shoot a bow.  I was – I am – good with them.  I was pretty much my Da's son, and I was never stuck in the house, tied down with skirts and learning to make and mend like my sisters."

That seemed a little odd, looking at her – she was slight and feminine, nobody's idea of boyish, but Dean had to admit that neither was she 'girly' in the way so many young women were.  In a very small village with strictly defined gender roles that would probably be enough for her to stand out, especially if she didn't wear traditional female clothing.

"And they were all completely shocked when you decided you didn't want to marry some dumb farmer's son and spend the rest of your life in the kitchen," he said wryly, and he shook his head at her world-weary assent to this.  "Never stops amazin' me how folk only see what they want to see.  So what then?"

"We started making plans, 'specially when Da started hinting that maybe I should think about marrying Rickon – he was Da's best friend's son and he helped us with the flocks," Valera explained.  "I thought we should get as much coin together as we could by Spring Festival and then just go.  But then Maya's parents arranged for her to marry the headman's oldest son and – and – "  She stopped.

"She changed her mind," Dean guessed.

"She said she couldn't be d-different like me.  She wanted to be normal.  S-so she was going to marry B-Benedik."  She stumbled to a halt, swallowed hard.  "I - there was nothing I could do.  So I went back out with the flocks, but Rickon was there and he - he asked if the things Benedik was saying were true.  And that's how I found out Maya had told Benedik about us."

Dean grimaced.  "I'm guessing he didn't just talk to Rickon, right?"  Because he knew what young men were like when they got together with their friends.

"Yes, but I found that out later," Valera said tiredly.  "I had to deal with Rickon thinking he could "cure" me first."  Dean flinched, but was heartened to hear her give an angry little snort.  "I got him good with my stave and cured him first – served him right, the wussy little schtompik." The word, which literally meant pig-runt, seemed pretty appropriate.  "But he went whining off to his Da, and that got me in a whole bunch of trouble with my Da.  Then Ma said people were talking and …"

For a long time Valera was silent, visibly trying to decide what to tell him next.  Then she gave up, shaking her head.  "So I couldn't stay there," she said finally, very simply.

Dean thought there had to be another dozen stories in there somewhere, but they probably weren't important right now.  "So how did you end up joining the Guard?"

"Outside the village there's a place where a Hermit lives.  I knew sometimes she would tell fortunes, so I went to her and asked her advice.  She told me the Guard was always looking for recruits and the nearest Guard Post was closer than Bakerston, so I should go and enlist, and she told me the route to take.  I started walking 'til I reached the north road and kept going.  I got lucky about a candlemark along the road, there was a wagon-driver passing and he offered to take me most of the way there.  Still, it was late when I got there and the Guards on the gate, they were all men, and they - they weren't helpful.  At first they told me to run along home - laughing, you know?"

"Yeah," Dean said grimly. 

"After a while their sergeant came out and he - he asked me where my gear was, and I said I didn't have any.  So he said if I signed up they could outfit me but I had to pay for my equipment.  I told him I didn't have any money to pay for it."

She stopped again and Dean stared down into his mug.  He could guess where this was heading.

"He said he'd help me out.  He said it was against regulations but he'd do me a big favour and call it a loan and I could … I could pay it off slowly.  In trade."  Valera's voice was a thin thread.  "I didn't have anywhere else to go.  I didn't even have any way to get home again.  I didn't know what else to do."

"Weren't there any other women at this Post?" Dean asked.

"A couple but they were - older and - and a lot like the men."

Dean thought of all the different women he'd met over the years who were Guards or former Guards.  He knew the type of female soldier Valera meant, and he wasn't even surprised because if they were the only women in the company then they pretty much had to be like that to survive it.  But he felt queasy at the knowledge of what that Guard Post must have been like for a girl like Valera, with no one to turn to.

"I'm gonna guess again," he said quietly.  "That asshole of a sergeant made sure you never had a way to claim you'd paid off your so-called debt to him, and he made sure you knew that if you told anyone you'd never be believed and it'd just end in trouble for you."

"It wasn't just him," Valera whispered.  "He - there were others, people he - he made me go with.  Officers once or twice.  After that he asked me if I knew what happened to privates who were caught with officers.  When I finished my basic training I was sent to the Guard Post at Wineboro.  I thought once I was there I'd be safe, but the sergeant there … he took me aside one day and told me he'd bought my debt.  So nothing changed.  Nothing ever changed, until my three years were up and I could leave."

"And you came to Haven thinking you could put all that behind you, but you ran into Pyote, who makes it his business to know stuff like this."  Dean blew out a long breath.  "Right.  I guess by now I don't need to tell you that ordinary recruits don't pay for their equipment?  Only the officer recruits have to provide their own gear."  Valera nodded sadly.  "So there's no fucking debt you have to pay off to Pyote or any other rat's asshole out there."

"He said - "

"Valera, I don't care what he said.  There's a word for what he's tryin' to do to you and that's called blackmail.  He tries to call in this goddamned debt, you tell me and we go straight to the District Commander, you understand?"  Dean's breath hissed through his teeth.  "We should tell her anyway - "

But Valera was shaking her head.  "No!  No - I'm not telling anyone else, Captain.  I won't.  Please - you don't understand, all he has to do is tell people and - and they'll know I'm a whore."

"The hell you are!"

"You don't understand," she repeated.  "Sir, if people find out, they won't care how it happened, they’ll call me a whore anyway.  You have to know that!  Besides, it - it wasn't just me.  There were others and if I tell …"

Dean stared at her, wondering how it was possible that this could get worse.  "Others?  You mean other cadets were being - ?"

"I can't tell on them," she insisted, and for all the fragile calm in her voice, her eyes were huge and frightened.  "I don't have the right to - to make it worse for them.  Sir, please, I'm begging you - say you won't tell.  Oh gods, I wish I hadn't told you!"

She was quietly frantic in a way that bothered him more than if she'd become hysterical, and worry about what she might do if he refused made Dean realise that he had no choice but to go with a lesser evil.  At least until he'd had a chance to think it all over properly.

"All right, all right, I'll hold my tongue," he said, and he scrubbed a hand through his hair.  Bitterly, he added, "But it's anyone's guess how I'm gonna see you out of this mess if I can't get help.  I'm telling you this much though - there is no fuckin' way I'm letting you pay off any more 'debts', to Pyote or anyone else, even if it means I have to break that scum-sucker's head myself."

xXx

Worry over what to do about Valera's trouble meant that Dean almost at once began to lose sleep to it.  Perhaps inevitably Castiel was the first to notice - and how Dean managed to keep the details from him was a mystery even to himself, but it probably had something to do with how busy Cas was.  He was followed rapidly by Ellen, and in some ways not telling her was worse because she had been acting as Dean's unofficial sounding-board for some time now, and she didn't take it well when he clammed up on her without warning.

The following week, just after Dean's Watch had moved to days, Dean received a note from Hawkeye to say that he would be coming to see him when his shift ended.  It was a timely reminder that business elsewhere was still carrying on as usual - but it was swiftly followed by another timely reminder that his life was a never-ending storyteller's saga for other people, in the form of Jim Ellison leaning on his office doorpost just as he was getting ready to leave.

"Going somewhere in a hurry, Winchester?" he asked casually.

Dean didn't need to ask to know that Ellen had decided an intervention was necessary, but he hoped that for once he might be able to deflect his fellow captain.

"Got a friend who thinks he can explain how that body ended up in the box," he told Ellison.  "Wanna come see?"

"I'm game."

"Cool.  I'll just grab the rookie and we'll go." 

He would have taken Valera with him anyway, for she had been there at the start of the mystery and deserved to be there at whatever ending they could assign to it, but Dean had been keeping her close by ever since her revelations, on the sound principle that Pyote would be hard pressed to try anything while Dean was around.  And when he couldn't shadow her himself, he'd discreetly come up with excuses to make sure one of the other members of his Watch was with her.  It wasn't perfect, but it was the best he could manage.

Ellison didn't precisely look askance at Dean including the probationer in this expedition, but Dean had an uneasy feeling that he was going to be answering questions about her at some point.

The day shift ended around the third candlemark after noon, which was a relief after nights at this time of year.  The streets were full of noise and bustle, and the Roadhouse Inn was already packed with customers when they got there.  Ellen had become accustomed enough to Dean's friendship with Hawkeye, however, that she merely said she'd suggested he and his companion might be better waiting for him in his rooms.

Companion?  All right then …

Hawkeye was sitting at the small table when the three of them walked through the door; his 'companion', a slender redhead Dean had seen with him a couple of times before, was sharing the window seat with his cat, Baby, who had not yet decided whether to be offended by this unprecedented invasion of her space.  On the floor by the table was a trunk of roughly the same size and construction as the one the dead woman had been found inside, only this one was somewhat newer and of only slightly faded blue leather.  The only real difference was a thick carrying handle on one side.

Dean exchanged greetings with Hawkeye, nodded cautiously at the woman, and said, "I don't know if you know Captain Ellison …"

"Penny Street Watch," Hawkeye acknowledged, clasping Ellison's outstretched hand.  "We've met before."

"And this is Probationary Constable Valera, who found our dead woman with me."

Hawkeye nodded to her, and turned to his companion, who stood up gracefully.  She was covered from chin to toe in a heavy dark cloak, but she offered them all a pleasant smile.

"This is Natasha, she works at the Palace with me."

He didn't say what she did, and Dean was conscious of the omission.  But it was none of his business who and what she was.

"I have not always worked there," Natasha said unexpectedly.  She had a light accent that Dean couldn't place.  "I have led a varied life in many different places."

"Right," Dean said uncertainly, and he looked at Hawkeye, who said, "As you know, I took a look at the box you found your dead girl inside and a few things about it jumped out at me, but before I explain, Tasha's gonna give you a demonstration.

Dean glanced at Ellison and Valera; Ellison had his arms crossed over his chest and looked calmly interested, while Valera was looking at Natasha with wide eyes.  He turned back to the others.

"Sure - go right ahead."

Hawkeye knelt down in front of the box and flicked the catches undone; they were clearly in far better condition than the ones on the other box and snapped open crisply.  He threw the lid back and stood back. 

Natasha shed her cloak, giving it to Valera to hold, and revealed that underneath she was wearing nothing but the same kind of thin, close-fitting singlet and hose that the dead woman had worn.  Her red hair was clubbed into a neat knot at the base of her skull, and for all that she was as slightly built as Valera, it was impossible not to notice that she was very shapely.

Dean forced himself to focus on her face, but he could feel his neck heating up and from the wicked amusement in her eyes he could tell she had noticed his discomfort.  But she merely stepped into the trunk - Dean noted that she was wearing thin, tight-fitting leather slippers on her feet - and very gracefully, without fanfare, curled herself up into the trunk like a folding puzzle.  At the very last minute she reached out over her back, twisting her arm around in a way Dean would have been ready to swear the human shoulder and elbow joints wouldn't permit, and grabbed a narrow loop of leather riveted to the inside the lid of the trunk.  This she used to pull the lid over herself and once it was fully closed the sprung locks snapped shut all on their own.

For a moment no one said anything.  Valera's mouth was a perfect O of surprise.

"Damn," Ellison murmured, impressed.

Quite casually, Hawkeye bent down and grabbed the handle on the side of the trunk and picked it up.  He acted as though it weighed no more than it had empty, but Dean could see the deceptively practised way he did it, and the bulging muscles in his arm and shoulders told their own story.  Still, it was an impressive move.  For all her delicate build, Natasha was after all a grown woman.

Smiling slightly, the archer gently set the trunk down again and rapped on the lid lightly with his knuckles.  There was a pause, then a rasping clunk, and the catches flew open.  Natasha pushed the lid back and just as gracefully unfolded herself from the trunk and stood up, stepping out.

"How did you do that?" Valera burst out.

Natasha smiled at her kindly.  "Practice," she said, with a shrug.  "A very great deal of practice.  And I learned this skill very young, before my joints and muscles could tighten."

"It's called contortionism," Hawkeye explained.  "It has a long history in the travelling entertainment community - in the circus I was in there was a whole family, four generations, who did it.  The littles start when they're babies."

Natasha sat on the edge of Dean's table, then slid herself further back on it and drew her knees up.  She twisted herself around at the waist - and then proceeded to pull one leg back, up and round her shoulders.  She paused for a moment, smiling, adjusted her balance, and drew the other leg up around the other way.  From there she seemed to perform a kind of backward roll, unhooking her legs and manoeuvring herself around until her body formed a smooth inverted loop with her upper body resting on her elbows between her feet which were planted firmly on either side of her.

Valera was so delighted that she actually clapped her hands, before she remembered who she was with and turned a vivid scarlet in embarrassment.

Not that Dean blamed her.  His eyes were threatening to cross at some of the poses Natasha was putting herself into, and even Ellison was smiling.  It was an effort to remember not to get carried away by the performance.

"So that's how our woman got into the box," he said.  "Why didn't she let herself out though?"

"When I checked her trunk, I found the lever that released the locks was broken," Hawkeye explained.  "Take a look - it's under the rim of the trunk roughly where her hands would be."

Dean took a look and saw the lever - it was a long bar that clearly connected to the lock fixings on the inside of the box.  "Damn, I never even noticed that."

"No reason why you would - it's not meant to be seen unless you know where to look.  But one end of it had snapped off, probably from wear and tear.  The locks wouldn't release once they were closed, and she'd be trapped."

"There are holes in the trunk to provide a small amount of air," Natasha said, unfolding herself and sitting cross-legged on the table.  "But they are not intended to be used for any great time, and the position and folds of the body constrict the lungs."

"So she asphyxiated," Ellison concluded.  "Suffocated," he clarified, when both Dean and Valera looked blank at the unfamiliar term.

"Most likely.  If she panicked when the locks would not release, it would hasten the process."

"That's a hell of a way to go," Dean said grimly.  "But why the hell was she in there in the first place?  There's no evidence anyone else ever went up into that attic.  She just had a bunch of rags and that damn box - why?"

Hawkeye and Natasha exchanged glances.

"You said you couldn't find anyone who seemed to know her," Hawkeye said.  "All those raggedy bits of clothing were in outkingdom player styles, and none of the players I know recognised her description.  No one's sayin' they're missing a contortionist.  Not that they'd necessarily talk anyway, but … my guess is she was foreign, here alone for some reason, and straight outta luck.  She was lonely and the box was a safe, familiar place for her."

"Didn't Cassie Welles say she showed signs of alcohol and drug abuse?" Ellison asked Dean, who nodded.  "If she was drunk or high, she might not have been too careful of her safety."

"That family I knew in the circus," Hawkeye added, "the great-grandma had to be eighty if she was a day, but she would still climb inside her box regular, even though she didn't perform anymore.  Sometimes she'd lie in it all afternoon.  She said it was her favourite place in the world - it felt safe.  But she always left the lid up, just in case."  He shrugged.  "Maybe your girl was a little out of it, got inside the box and pulled the lid down without thinking."

"She may even have done so many times before," Natasha added.  "Until that one day when the lever failed her and her fortune ran out."

They all shared a sombre silence for a while, then Dean forced himself to shake it off and turned to Valera.

"Congratulations, Constable.  You've closed your first case.  I'll show you how to write it up tomorrow."

"Sir?"  Valera was staring at him in shock.

Dean shrugged, a little amused at her expression.  "Your case," he repeated.  "We wouldn’t have found her if you hadn't pointed out the bad smell in that room at Mama Vivvi's.  And you were the one who spotted her medallion and the style of her clothes."

"Good work," Ellison added, before she could protest.  "Keep it up, Rookie.  We need smart recruits like you."

xXx

Dean offered to buy Hawkeye and Natasha a meal or a drink, but they were both firm in their refusals, Hawkeye explaining that they'd left their cart racked up two streets away and needed to retrieve it.

"Don't forget you're coming up on your rest-day," he reminded Dean as they left the Roadhouse. "And wear boots."

"Why?" Dean demanded, but the only answer he got was an amused look from Natasha.

Valera was also keen to return to her lodgings - which was fair enough, it had been a long shift - and Ellison volunteered to walk with her, sparing Dean the necessity of escorting her himself.  He didn't mention this, of course, but the look Ellison gave him over his shoulder as they left said louder than words - Yes, I know and we will be discussing this.

But that was a problem for another day, and he was tired and hungry, so Dean gratefully took himself to the bar with every intention of ordering himself some food and perhaps discussing the outcome of The Case Of The Body In The Box with Ellen if she was so inclined.

Alas for good intentions: He had barely begun scanning the board for the day's specials - Anaelia had made sausages, which seemed like a long-overdue reward for him being a good little Watch Captain - when the street door was unceremoniously shoved open and Guardsman Pyote lumbered through it.

Ellen was out from behind the bar in a flash.  "You - out!" she snapped.  "I told you a dozen times already, you're banned from my house."

Pyote rolled a contemptuous eye at her.  "Only your house 'cuz ye swindled yer old man's family," he sneered, leaving her spluttering. 

Not for the first time, Dean wondered if Pyote had an actual death wish.  Coming in here and mocking Ellen in her own bar was all but begging for retribution, not just from Ellen herself but her entire staff and most of her regulars as well.  Even Dean's fellow lodger, Ash - surely the most laid-back individual in the entirety of Haven city - would be itching to smack Pyote around for that.

He cast a weary eye over the Guardsman.  "You gonna do us all a favour and get lost?" he asked.  Realistically, he acknowledged that it would probably be up to him to enforce Ellen's edict, at least if he didn't want to preside over a bigger mess than he had the energy for, but perhaps one of the customers - like brawny Tebbut the wagoner - would give him a hand in slinging Pyote out into the street.

Pyote was grinning at him in a way that displayed an unwelcome vista of stained and chipped teeth.  "I see'd your cute little probie goin' up the street with Ellison," he leered.  "Guess you two must be sharin' her, huh?  I've heard stories 'bout what a sweet ride she is."

It took Dean a space in the pin-drop silence that followed this to assimilate what Pyote had said.

The next thing he knew, Pyote was out cold on the floor before the bar and he was standing over him cradling his right hand.

"Nice," Ellen approved judiciously, peering down at the Guardsman.  "Never thought he could be cold-cocked that easy.  I'll get you a wet rag for your knuckles."

xXx

"Winchester, you are a god-damned pain in my ass," Ellison told him in the deepest disgust.  "You want to tell me what the hell you're doing, banged up inside one of my cells?"

"I didn't put him there!" Sandburg's voice asserted, just out of Dean's line of sight.  "He shut himself in there, and we have absolutely not charged him with anything!  This is not my fault!"

"Like I told your desk officer and First Lieutenant Sandburg," Dean said wearily, and somewhat pointedly, "I committed an assault and I'm handing myself in.  And if I knew you were all gonna act like this, I'd have saved myself some time and just gone to Glassblower Alley already.  Pretty sure Bela wouldn't have a problem booking me."

"Or you could have just gone to your own Watch House," Ellison said sarcastically, and Dean glared at him.

"Henryks wouldn't book him either!" Sandburg said, still out of sight.

"Imagine my shock." Ellison waved a hand at him.  "Come out of there, dammit.  I'm not having this conversation with you through a set of bars - you're damned lucky there's no one else in here to see you."

"Jim - "

"No.  In my office, Winchester, on the double."

Dean reluctantly followed Ellison into his neat little office, feeling exhausted and fed up.  "Why does everyone but Bobby have a nicer Watch House than me?" he grumbled, slumping into the seat in front of the captain's desk.  "Your cells are almost comfortable."

The look Ellison gave him said louder than words that he was not amused.  "What the hell are you playing at, Dean?"

"I assaulted Guardsman Pyote," Dean said baldly.

"That so?  And how did you do that?"

Dean held up his right hand to display his bruised knuckles.  "Punched him and knocked him out cold in the middle of Ellen's bar."

"I'll start arranging the street parties," Sandburg said from the doorway.  Ellison glared at him, and he threw up his hands in surrender.  "Going already."  And he left.

Ellison levelled a look at Dean.  "No, you didn't," he said flatly.

Dean stared at him.  "Uh … yes I did."

"No, you didn't," Ellison repeated.  "I swung past the Roadhouse on my way back here, and when I got there Pyote was lying in the middle of the street, moaning about how you punched him out."

"Right," Dean nodded, then he frowned.  "Wait, how'd he end up in the street?"

"He got slung there by a couple of Ellen's more helpful customers after he had his 'accident' inside," Ellison said acidly.  "An 'accident' he wouldn't have had, she reminded me, if he hadn't been flouting the ban she put on him last year."

"So, what - she's saying he tripped and landed on my fist?" Dean demanded.

"No, she's saying he tripped and knocked himself out on the corner of one of her tables."  Ellison paused for effect.  "All of her staff and a dozen of her customers told the same story.  One of them even pointed out a smear of blood on the table in question, which was interesting because he didn't have a single cut on him."

Dean groaned.  "Jim …"

"I'm not charging you for this shit," Ellison told him, exasperated.  "It's tempting to throw you back in that cell just for getting me called back in after my shift's over, but I'm damned if I'll make myself a party to the fiasco that'll happen if you try to answer charges for this.  I've got you and Pyote saying you punched him, fine, but that's up against fifteen eye-witnesses ready to swear blind it never happened.  And if I know anything about the matter, it's that Pyote practically handed you a written invitation to rearrange his face for him.  He's an invitation to gross assault just by walking around."  He paused, waiting to see if Dean would say anything, then continued, "According to Ellen he made a pretty nasty remark about your rookie.  Now, I've no doubt your reputation in some quarters is going to go through the roof for being willing to publicly defend her honour, but it's gonna make people think there's something in what he said, and you and I both know you don't swing that way anymore.  Besides, you're the last captain I'd finger for having a little fun with the people under you, so.  You gonna tell me what the hell is going on with that probationer?"

"You gonna tell me what happens when Pyote complains to District Command?  'Cause you know he will."

"I'll tell them I investigated his allegations at the time and found no evidence to support them," Ellison retorted.  "You gonna argue about it?"

"I should," Dean said.  "It's a complete lie, Jim.  Not a good thing for either of us to be party to."

"Play the long game with me here," Ellison told him.  "What kind of message does this send Pyote?"  Dean was silent.  "It tells him his shit won't be tolerated.  This is a guy who cries wolf, Dean, but worse than that, this is a Guardsman who can't be trusted in any situation, and it's not just you and me who know that.  Most City Guards get rotated into the regulars every few years, to stop them getting soft, but Pyote hasn't done a single rotation outside Haven since he first took up post here.  You know why that is?  Because his commanders have made an assessment of him, and while they can't have him drummed out – he's too well protected for that – they know if they move him to the regulars people will end up dead as a result, and he'll probably be one of them."

"Let's not forget how useful he is," Dean retorted.  "Someone's payin' good money to keep him in that uniform."

Ellison shrugged.  "Preaching to the choir, Dean, but we have to live with it until that someone realises he's far more trouble than he's worth.  Until that happens, I say the best thing we can do is contain the sack of shit and make it clear there are consequences when he steps over a line.  Today he learned you have limits on what you'll take from him.  But better still, he learned a whole lot of people will back you over him when that happens."

Dean shook his head.  "I say he's a rat and we just put him in a corner.  And I don't think I did Valera any favours by makin' it about her."

Ellison eyed him, then sat back in his chair slowly.  "Ellen says he made a tasteless suggestion about you, me and the rookie, and that if you hadn't punched him she likely would have done the honours with her old Bully instead.  Leaving aside the hyperbole, how often does Pyote say stuff like that?  Can't be many women in the local Watches, or the City Guard for that matter, that he hasn't made personal remarks about.  What's different about Valera?"

"That ain't my story to tell," Dean said tiredly.  "It's been a long day, I guess, or I wouldn't have taken any notice of what he said."

"What does he have on her?" Ellison asked softly, and Dean met his eyes for a pregnant moment.

"Like I said," he repeated, "not my story to tell, Jim."

"Why am I getting the feeling you probably should tell me?"

Dean shrugged.  "Should and would are two different things.  And I would if I could, but I can't."

xXx

A few days later Dean had a meeting with the District Commander, an ad-hoc one-on-one review as opposed to the monthly meeting of the local Watch Captains at the Command's offices.  The timing of this seemed ominous under the circumstances, but the Commander was her usual brisk, somewhat impersonal self with nothing to indicate that anything untoward had prompted the meeting.

Meetings of this kind typically focussed on the more routine operations of his Watch House, and since the return of his clerk Ash and the arrival of the District Commander herself, Dean's administration of his Watch House was in pretty good order in his opinion.  It seemed that the Commander agreed, as they cruised through the budget matters, crime records, and staff updates smoothly. 

Dean was just beginning to think that he might brush through this without problems, when the Commander slowed her juggernaut pace and paused over a sheet of palimpsest in the file in front of her.

Writing materials of almost every kind were expensive, and a sheet of even the cheapest parchment would be sanded for reuse multiple times, which might explain why the Commander was taking her time reading through this document – no matter how carefully or professionally it was resurfaced, after a while palimpsest developed a texture that made reading anything written on it a challenge.  This sheet looked like someone had bought it from a scrap seller in one of the local markets; it was thin to the point of translucency and there were some unhelpfully placed stains around the edges.

Eventually the Commander looked up.  "This is a letter from one of your constables," she said.  "Fraya.  She was recently moved to your shift, correct?"

Dean blinked.  "Yes, ma'am."

"She complains that she's been overlooked for promotion to senior constable on three occasions now, and that other constables with fewer years in the Watch have been promoted over her.  Is that the case?"

Dean's heart sank a little.  "Essentially, ma'am, but – "  He stopped.  The previous District Commander had not been interested in explanations, but she gestured for him to continue.  "Constable Fraya is a solid officer, ma'am, and I have no issues with her conduct generally.  She came to us on a prejudicial transfer due to two minor incidents in her previous posting, but I'm happy to report that nothing similar has occurred since she joined Ropewalk Watch.  That said ..."  He grimaced.  "That said, Lieutenant Henryks and I haven't seen any evidence that Fraya is suitable for advancement.  She's not unpopular, but she's shown no leadership or willingness to take on more responsibility, and I haven't noticed any real initiative in her either.  She waits to be given her assignments, and then she carries them out to the letter – but that's it."

The Commander sat back in her chair, looking thoughtful.  "She mentioned one particular Senior Constable – "

"Paoli," Dean guessed, and she nodded.  "We promoted Paoli in the shake-up after I first took command.  She's a good officer, keeps an eye out for the other constables, and she's got a lot of initiative.  She'll make a good sergeant one day."  He hesitated, then said, "To be blunt, ma'am, she's not the kind of Watch officer who walks their beat waiting for the candlemarks to burn down."

"And Constable Fraya is?"

"That's the impression I have of her," he admitted.  "There was an incident a few days after she joined my shift where another female constable was put in a upsetting situation while on patrol with Fraya.  I'd expect most of our people to at least make an attempt to help a fellow constable in that situation, even if it was just an ear for them to talk into, but Fraya brought her back to the Watch House and handed the problem to me to deal with.  That's not the kind of conduct I'd expect to see in someone senior."  

He saw the Commander's eyes move to the chart of the Ropewalk Watch's shifts.  Despite Dean's attempt to anonymise the incident, it would be clear that the female constable in question was Valera, and he clenched his hands in his lap. 

But she made no comment.  "I agree," she said briskly.  "I should add that my clerk pointed out two previous letters in a similar vein sent by Constable Fraya.  On both of those occasions I directed a response should be sent advising that she should raise the matter with her Watch Captain in the first instance.  Has she done so?"

"Not directly," Dean said.  "She makes little remarks now and then, but she's never asked to discuss it with me so far."

"In that case I'll instruct my clerk to say that if she persists in bringing this matter to me over your head, she'll be receiving another discredit in her file.  That should focus her mind a little."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"Not at all.  I'm of the same mind as you, Captain Winchester – years in the service on their own are not enough to justify promotion.  A lazy or disengaged officer can cause just as much trouble as a dishonest one."  She made a note on Fraya's letter and set it aside.  "How are the new transfers bedding in?"

"Pretty good," Dean said.  "It's early days, but they seem to be getting stuck in.  Nobody's complained to me about them yet, anyway.  Well – apart from Sergeant Rufus, but I'd honestly be worried if a day came when he didn't complain about the younger ones."

"Ah yes – Rufus.  Hm."  Dean waited for the Commander to clarify this, but instead she changed tack.  "I have to tell you, Captain, that one of the new constables – Pittou? – has already applied for a transfer out of Ropewalk Watch."

Dean was dismayed.  So soon?  "I'm sorry to hear that.  Did he give a reason, ma'am?"

"Nothing specific, but this will be his fourth transfer this year, and every time he's sent the request directly to Central Command rather than to this office.  He's looking for a post outside of this quadrant, and not for family reasons."

Dean knew what that meant, but it would be impolitic of him to say He wants a more prestigious Watch.  "I guess we're a little challenging in the Strangers Quarter."

The Commander could be as impolitic as she liked, and her snort of derision nearly made him laugh.  "A very tactful way of putting it, Winchester!  His previous captain noted that Pittou seemed to think he'd joined the Watch to spend his days taking leisurely patrols around wealthy neighbourhoods, not arresting drunks and mediating quarrels between prostitutes and their customers."

Rumour had it that constables in some of the districts nearer the Palace were paid extra by wealthy residents to effectively act as private security for their properties.  Perhaps that was what Pittou was hoping for.

"If he wants to go, ma'am, I'm not gonna fight it.  But that'll leave us back at our old staffing levels."

"On the contrary, it presents a well-timed opportunity.  Sergeant Rufus has finally indicated that he'd like to retire."

"He mentioned it," Dean acknowledged, "but I have to say, ma'am, he's talked about it before but never handed in his papers, so ..."

"This time he has," she said, and Dean didn't bother to hide his astonishment.  Rufus had been hanging on for years, despite constant pressure to retire from his relatives – including Henryks's Buya, who was also related to Rufus somewhere in the vast, complicated family tree of their community.  "He's given the standard three moons' notice, which allows plenty of time for replacing him."

Dean wondered how this and the loss of another constable constituted a well-timed opportunity.  It sounded to him like a depressing piece of news to carry back to Jody and Henryks.

"We've also received a request to transfer in to this district," the Commander continued.  "A Sergeant Bradbury – "

"Charlie Bradbury?" Dean exclaimed, forgetting himself in his surprise.

The Commander raised her eyebrows.  "Yes.  I take it you know her?"

"Yes, ma'am, she was a constable when I was second lieutenant at Pieman's Yard.  She's a damn good officer, if you'll pardon me saying so."

"Always good to know.  Her request notes that her father resides in the Strangers Quarter and due to her concerns about his increasing ill-health she'd like to move back there, even if it means taking a prejudicial post.  Since you'll have a sergeant's position opening in the near future, and Bradbury has seniority in that area, it should be possible to move her straight into it once Rufus leaves."

Dean did a rapid mental review of his senior constables, who would normally expect to be considered for the sergeant's post.  Kirrick had only been promoted to Senior Constable when Dean himself became captain; it was too soon for him to be promoted again.  The same was true of Paoli.  Jed had been a senior constable for several years, but he was also rapidly approaching retirement age and had already indicated that he was uninterested in further promotions.  Taking Charlie on as a regular constable and then promoting her over them shouldn't cause any resentment, provided he was open from the start about how it was coming about.

Well, he was sure Fraya would have something to say, but that was by the by.  Charlie herself was known to a few of his crew, but her father, also a former Watch officer, was a familiar and well-liked figure in the Strangers Quarter and the constables all kept an eye on him.  As for Dean, he had always liked Charlie and it was a welcome lift to his spirits to know that she could soon be a part of his crew.

"That should work," he agreed, "although we'll still be one down when that happens."

"We can look at that nearer the time," the Commander said, closing her file.  "Well, this is all very satisfactory, Captain Winchester.  There's only one final thing I wanted to mention before you leave."

"Ma'am?"

"I've received a complaint about you from Water Street Barracks.  One of their Guardsmen claims you assaulted him a few days ago."

Dean froze.  When he didn't say anything, the Commander continued, "I don't know if you were aware of the matter, but just so you know, I'm not planning to pursue it and so I've advised the commander at Water Street.  As it happens I already had a report from Captain Ellison at Penny Street – he advised that he happened to be in the vicinity around the time the alleged incident occurred and was called upon to deal with it, but a number of witnesses contradicted the Guardsman's claim and he himself could find no evidence to support it.  He also noted that the Guardsman in question had wilfully entered an establishment he knew he was banned from, and that further enquiries suggested he should have been on duty somewhere else at the time."

Dean looked at her, unable to think of something suitable to say.  She was an older woman, perhaps in her mid-fifties, with a face that had probably been described as 'pixie-ish' when she was young, and nearly white hair cut very short around her face.  She was also surprisingly small, something that most people noticed once when they first encountered her and thereafter forgot thanks to the extraordinary strength of her personality.

He realised, despite the lack of change in her expression, that she'd guessed the truth about the incident with Pyote – and she was unmoved by it.

"This isn't the first time I've had reports about that particular Guardsman," the Commander commented, sitting back in her chair.  "He's a perennial problem.  I've suggested to his commander that perhaps if he was where he was supposed to be, carrying out his duties as he should, accidents would be less likely to happen to him.  His habit of blaming those accidents on random citizens and members of the Watch is unamusing though."

Dean drew a breath.  "Sounds like he's an unlucky guy, ma'am," he managed.

"He could yet become unluckier," she said bluntly, and her eyes met his in an unmistakable look of  warning.  "When that day comes, Captain, I'd prefer that it wasn't blamed, rightly or wrongly, on one of the people under my command."

He swallowed.  "Understood, ma'am."

"Very well, Captain Winchester.  Dismissed."

xXx

I dunno, Cas, he said later, lying back on his bed with Baby curled up on his pillow in the curve of his neck.  Not gonna lie to you, it was a relief when she said she wasn't pursuing it.  But at the same time …

Yes? Castiel prompted him.

It hadn't been Dean's intention to burden Castiel with the Pyote affair, but it had been difficult to hide his mixed feelings.  Sometimes it felt like he had squirrels in his head, running around.  And he wouldn't have that mental image at all if Cas hadn't told him with some amusement that he might as well tell him what was wrong because he was like a squirrel chasing nuts, a saying Dean had last heard on the lips of his grandmother.

He sighed.  But I shouldn't have done it, and it don't sit well with me that everyone seems fine with it.

Have I said I'm fine with it? Castiel asked mildly.  Has anyone said that?

No ...

You're right - you shouldn't have done it and you shouldn't feel comfortable with it.  But at the same time, Dean, Captain Ellison's viewpoint has merit.  It's not right that someone in a relative position of authority like Guardsman Pyote should be able to wander the city unchecked and abuse people like your probationary constable the way he does.  That he's some official's paid informant is neither here nor there - he's the worst kind of bully and he drags down the reputation of the City Guard.  And I would personally question how effective an informant he is when he's distrusted by so many.

Which is a point, Dean acknowledged.  Sometimes I wonder if he isn't just a distraction, to keep folk from looking at the real spies.

Not as unlikely as you might think, I suspect. 

Emotion was something that made itself felt mostly by overtones and undertones to their MindSpeech, so what Dean received from Castiel now was something like distaste surrounding the words, and a distinct impression that he wanted to drop that particular subject.  Since it wasn't one Dean wanted to pursue either, he was perfectly happy to do so.

Should I ask what Pyote said to invite a fist to his face? Castiel asked unexpectedly.

Dean sighed.  He made a suggestion about what Jim an' me were doin' with Valera.  And passed a remark about her reputation.  Like I told Jim - if I hadn't been real tired I probably would've let it go.

Castiel was silent for a moment or two.  That isn't the whole story, is it?

No, Dean admitted reluctantly.  I had a long talk with Valera near a week ago, but the stuff she told me was in confidence.

Then you shouldn't tell me, Castiel said at once, and Dean was surprised.

That's not a problem?

Of course not.  And there was no mistaking the warm affection this was said with.  Dean, of course I don't expect you to break a confidence!  I will say that I'm impressed that she feels comfortable enough to confide in you so soon.

It's my charm and stunning good looks, Dean joked.

And your natural modesty, of course.

It’s like you've met me!

Castiel snorted, which was a whole lot funnier via MindSpeech.  Are you coming to the Collegium as usual on your rest-day?

Hawkeye made a couple pointed remarks about it, so yeah.  Will I see you?

I will make time for you if it kills me.  But what about your brothers?

I'll stick my nose in if they're around, but they've probably got stuff of their own to do.  Dean hesitated.  I'm thinkin' I might make time to check in with Jess, though.  What d'ye think?

To find out her side of Sam's story?  Not a bad idea, although she may not want to discuss it with you.

And that's fair enough, but I think I should ask at least.  That lifebond shit he came out with spooked me a little, I gotta admit.  Which is probably nothing to how much it's got her spooked, if she don't feel the same way.

I think she's sincerely attached to him, but she has a very level head, Castiel commented.  Not the sort of person to run away with romantic ideas of lifebonds.

Yeah, that can't end well, Dean said glumly.

There is a thing most of my teachers here have been at great pains to emphasise, Castiel said after a quiet moment.  That not everyone can be saved, no matter how much you try.  I suspect they repeat this to us because Heralds are the kind of people who are naturally inclined towards trying to save everyone.  I also suspect that we are not alone in that.

Yeah, Herald Asrel said that to me once.  Thing is, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

That's the point, I think.  Try by all means, but remember when you fail that others also have the free will to lose themselves if they truly must.  Castiel hesitated.  You can do your level best to make Sam see sense, Dean, but if he's set on following a course that can only lead to disappointment, then you must step back and let him take it.  It's his right as an adult to make painful mistakes.

xXx

"Where are we goin'?" Dean asked Hawkeye warily, as the archer led him around the side of the Palace in a direction they'd never taken before.

"Paddock just off the Royal Stables," Hawkeye said easily.

"Why?"

"Like I said, there's someone I want you to meet."

"In a paddock?"

"For a swaggering asshole you're a suspicious little shit."

"Ain't no sweet-talk gonna get 'round me, man," Dean warned him.

"Yeah, yeah, hold onto your pantaloons, Princess."

It was at rare moments like this that Dean got a small insight into just how large the palace complex was.  It seemed like a never-ending vista of elegant buildings - even the most utilitarian buildings were elegant - gracefully spread out across beautiful parks and meadows.  There were whole woods contained within the boundaries of the palace grounds.  It was immense.

He would have been startled to discover that most of the residents and workers there considered the complex to be a hopelessly inconvenient mess of higgledy-piggledy old-fashioned buildings in a mixture of uncomplimentary styles.

The Royal Stables were one vast complex of buildings among many and Dean was suitably awed by them and their inhabitants, who were surely some of the finest horseflesh in the northern kingdoms.  He might not know much about horses, but he liked their enquiring faces and the friendly sounds they made as he and Hawkeye passed them.

Then they were approaching the paddock and Dean could see there was one horse hitched to the fence there, a chestnut who was already tacked up. 

"This," Hawkeye told him, as he casually vaulted the fence, "is Sonnet.  She's an eight-year-old palfrey mare, and she's my best, sweetest girl - aren't you?"

She whickered at him affectionately as he unhitched her from the fence.

"You should've told me," Dean said, leaning his arms on the top bar.  "I'd have brought her an apple or something."

"Eh.  There's a barrel of 'em in the feed store - you can give her one later."

Sonnet approached Dean and when he carefully offered her his hand she blew into his palm and then pushed her nose against his tunic in the friendliest way.  He stroked her nose then scratched her ears, and she sighed deeply.

"Told you," Hawkeye said, amused.  "Sweetest girl in the stables.  Wanna hear something wild?  The Queen's Horsemaster has stud records going back hundreds of years - practically to the Founding.  And Sonnet here can trace her ancestry right back to an Ashkevron riding mare called Star.  Make a guess at who she belonged to."

"No idea," Dean said, a little perplexed.

Hawkeye shrugged.  "Name's a giveaway to anyone in Valdemar who knows horses.  The Ashkevrons breed the best in the kingdom - they're the family of Herald Vanyel."

"Are you winding me up?" Dean asked suspiciously.

"Nope.  Sonnet is a direct descendant of Vanyel's last riding horse before he was Chosen.  And one belonging to Bard Stefen, for that matter - mare called Melody."

"You know a hell of a lot more about your ancestors than I know about mine," Dean told the mare.  She nodded her head and pawed the ground lightly with her off-fore.

Hawkeye chuckled and patted her neck.  "She's smart too.  Now get over here and say hello properly."

"Why?" Dean demanded, although he hopped over the fence quite readily.

"Because it's polite to say hello before you ride a lady," the archer said blandly.

"What - wait.  No.  I am shit at riding.  Ask Eslan and Lola.  And anyway, why?"

"It's a useful skill - "

"Yeah, real useful for this lower city boy!"

" - and I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy it."

"Shit at riding," Dean repeated.

"Shit at riding pillion," Hawkeye retorted.  "And you can learn to not be shit at riding, which'll do everyone a favour.  Come on, mount up."

"I have literally never done this without someone helping," Dean said, staring in dismay at the stirrups.  It seemed like they were an awfully long way off the ground.

"You just did, getting over that fence," Hawkeye said, with more patience that Dean would have expected under the circumstances.  "It's not that different - here, watch, I'll show you."

He put his left foot into the stirrup and swung himself up into the saddle effortlessly.

"I am gonna fall on my ass," Dean muttered, as Hawkeye dismounted again and waved pointedly at the saddle.

And that was exactly what he did do, making Hawkeye cackle and Sonnet peer around at him in bemusement.

"Try again," the archer said, grinning, and that was enough to make Dean determined to master this if his ass ended up black and blue from the attempt.

His second try was clumsy but after a couple of moments of hopping on his right foot - mercifully Sonnet was like a rock as he clung to the pommel - he managed to correct his balance and pull himself into the saddle.  It was less mounting and more scrambling though.

"Feet in the stirrups," Hawkeye reminded him, "and relax, idiot, she's not gonna toss you."

For Dean had tensed up, grabbing at the pommel when the mare shifted slightly beneath his unfamiliar weight.  "Not like she's a Companion …"

"Nope.  She's a highly trained, well-mannered riding horse.  She won't throw you without a lot of provocation.  Now relax and straighten up.  Your posture's lousy and you're gonna hurt both of you if you keep hunching in the saddle like that."

The implication that Sonnet could be hurt was enough to make Dean straighten his back, no matter how unnerved he was.

"Good," Hawkeye said.  "Let's get started."

By the time Castiel joined them nearly two candlemarks later, Dean was riding Sonnet around the paddock unassisted at a careful trot.  He was concentrating hard, but his posture was relaxed and comfortable and Sonnet's ears were pricked happily.

"Is this another thing he's naturally good at?" Castiel asked Hawkeye, who was standing by the fence, watching intently.

"Yup.  Not that you'll get him to believe that, or not yet, anyway."

"He's enjoying it."

"I knew he would," Hawkeye said simply.  "He's that kinda guy.  He puts on a good act, but he's not really a city boy.  Every time he comes here, I catch him looking at the trees like he's itching to climb 'em.  And Sonnet there's got a great instinct for folks that like horses - she went right up to him as soon as she saw him."

"May I ask why you decided to teach him to ride?" Castiel asked curiously.

"Other than him getting a kick out of it?"  The archer never took his eyes off Dean.  "No reason.  Well, 'cept maybe your Eslan'll thank me for it.  And it could be useful someday, who knows?"  He shot a sly look at Castiel.  "Stick around.  He hasn't tried to dismount yet, and I'm pretty sure it's gonna be hilarious."

xXx

Later - after Dean had mostly made it out of the saddle without falling on his ass again, Sonnet had been fed the apple he had promised her, and Hawkeye had waved off his offers to help rub her down etc. - Hawkeye groomed and settled the mare in her stall, cleaned her tack and stored it away.  He had a couple of older Bardic trainees booked for an archery lesson after dinner, but he went back to his quarters over one of the stables first, to change his shirt. 

When he walked through the door, he found Kolsen stretched out on his bed reading one of his books.  This was a more common occurrence than most people would believe, and his voice was heavy with irony as he said "Heyla Phil.  Make yourself at home, why dontcha?"

"Thank you, I have."  Kolsen put the book down and looked at him, his expression equally sardonic.  "I made tea - it should still be hot."

"And what did I do to deserve that?"  Hawkeye investigated the pot that was standing on his tiny stove and poured himself a cup.

"Oh, you haven’t yet." 

That should have sounded like a come-on, but it clearly wasn't.  Hawkeye eyed him warily.  "That so?"

Kolsen smiled blandly at him.  "Why are you teaching Dean Winchester to ride?"

"Like I told Castiel, I knew he'd enjoy it.  Problem?"

"I know you better than Castiel does.  Did he accept that excuse?"

"He didn't rag on me about it."

"He wouldn't."  Kolsen sighed.  "Clint, how often are we going to have this conversation?"

"You tell me."  He sat down in one of his two comfortable chairs with a sigh, and set his teacup on the little table at his elbow.  "Look, I honestly thought he'd enjoy it, and what d'ye know - he did.  So we can argue about this again - pointlessly - or you can ask me a more important question."

"Doing so does not mean I'm letting this go," Kolsen warned him, sitting up.  "But tell me."

"I talked to Dean in Hardornen.  He answered me like he'd been speaking it all his life.  I switched to Karsite.  He never even missed a beat.  I tried that Trader-speak I learned from the Brendani crew in the circus, and he actually made a fucking pun in it.  And he never even realised he was doing it."  Hawkeye grimaced.  "Honestly, I was tempted to try Tasha's language and see what happened, but I'm not fluent enough and I didn't want him to realise what I was doing if I screwed it up.  But if this is something he's doing with MindSpeech, I'm not sure how.  I didn't think it worked like that."

"Not MindSpeech itself, certainly, but … perhaps a wild Gift that works with MindSpeech."  Kolsen considered this.  "It makes a kind of sense, you have to admit.  He works among people who speak a broad spread of languages and dialects, so being able to talk to them all without struggling can only be useful."

"It's dangerous if people there notice he's doing it," Hawkeye said.  "You know that, those folk are superstitious as hell.  It can't be long before they notice, if they haven't already.  And are we going to ignore the fact that he has two Gifts?  Isn't it weird enough that he MindSpeaks strongly enough to chat with his boyfriend clear across the city, without this as well?  People keep telling me that that's unusual enough even for Heralds!"

"Well, we both know that's not true, don't we?" Kolsen said dryly, giving him a pointed look.  "Besides, people like simple answers.  Nice, straightforward categories they can slot people into.  The truth about Gifts is they're a good deal quirkier than anyone can imagine, and while there are certainly some that are far more common than others, there's also an extraordinary spectrum of lesser Gifts.  I haven't heard of anyone having a Gift for language, but I wouldn't be in the least surprised if it's happened before."

"So what happens next?"

Kolsen sighed.  "Well, I suppose somebody - I have no idea who - is going to have to go speak to Dean about extra shielding to try and keep a lid on it.  That should be amusing, if it really is a wild Gift, since without knowing exactly how it works, it'll take some patience and experimentation to find strategies to control it.  I doubt I can do it, I have no special insight into mind-magic.  It ought to be Ansel or Raylor, but for obvious reasons they can't go wandering around the lower city on a whim."

"So make an excuse and get him up here," Hawkeye suggested impatiently.  "I can tell you now, the first time someone calls him out on this he's gonna panic.  He got panicky enough that night at the cantina."

"Did he lose his shields when that happened?" Kolsen asked curiously.

"Not that I noticed."

"You'd have noticed.  When he was first learning to control the MindSpeech he told me that people around him spooked whenever his shields slipped, mostly because he was panicking about it."

"And that's not weird at all," Hawkeye said sarcastically.

"On the contrary, it's very unusual," Kolsen said.  "But on the upside, at least that's not happening anymore."

"Great," Hawkeye said dryly.  "He's not sending everyone screaming into the streets."

"Small mercies, Clint.  You learn to celebrate them where you can in this job."  Kolsen sighed and stood up.  "Well, much as I'd love to stay and continue sampling your horrible taste in literature, I'd better go find Raylor and let him know about this.  He'll be delighted."

"If I have a horrible taste in books," Hawkeye drawled, "who introduced me to 'em?"

Kolsen gave him a look that was pure naughty little boy.  "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Ha!"

xXx

"You're going to be sore in the morning," Castiel told Dean, amused, as they walked back towards the Collegium.

"Tell me something I don't know already," Dean retorted wryly.  "Worth it though."

"You enjoyed it then?  He said he thought you would."

"Hell yeah!"  Dean looked thoughtful for a moment.  "Gonna have to come up with something to return the favour."

"You terrify me," Castiel said gravely.  "I'll be amazed if he goes along with one of your ideas again, after the last time."  But there was a lurking twinkle in his eyes and Dean grinned at him.

His last effort had involved introducing Hawkeye to one of the myriad of odd entertainments to be found in the Strangers Quarter if one knew where to look - namely, snail-racing.

"Hey, it's not my fault he backed a lane-jumper!"

"I don't think it was the lane-jumping so much as the cannibalism," Castiel pointed out.

Hawkeye's snail had not only committed the crime of climbing out of its own lane on the 'track', but had compounded the foul by making a spirited attempt to eat one of its competitors.  The snails involved were not common garden snails, but a Pelagir Hills variety the size of a man's fist that had a surprising turn of speed - for snails, at any rate.   The fully grown molluscs occasionally had an unfortunate appetite for their own kind, however.  Snail aficionados knew to select those specimens that were just under full growth and less likely to try to take out the competition in defiance of the sport's rules.  Hawkeye had made a newcomer's mistake in choosing a larger snail with more aggressive instincts.

"Takes practice to choose the right snail," Dean opined.

"I'm sure.  And what must I do to prevent you introducing Gabriel to this so-called sport?"

"Cas, I don't need to introduce him to anything on my patch.  Pretty sure he already knows about everything going - he already knows about the cricket fights, I know that much.  I caught him buyin' up a bunch of those little mesh cages they're kept in a while back, so he's probably breeding 'em."

"Of course he is," Castiel said, resigned, and Dean chuckled.  "Speaking of brothers, have you seen Sam and Adam today, or are you going there now?"

"I looked in on them when I got here – well," Dean amended, "I looked in on Adam, but Sam wasn't around.  I'm gonna stick my nose in on Jess before I go, though, assuming she's at her lodgings."

"Have dinner with me first.  There's an inn on Pump Street that serves good food and isn't too far from the student houses."

The food was good, and Dean enjoyed the leisurely meal and conversation with Castiel, even if it was a little disappointing that they so rarely seemed to have a chance to do anything else.  He didn't say so, of course, but he knew they were on the same page.

"Over Midwinter the Collegium closes," Castiel said, as they were walking back through the darkening streets.  "Most of the trainees go home for the holiday ..."

"That mean you're gonna come stay with me at the Roadhouse?"

Castiel's face lit up.  "I hoped I might.  Although Eslan says he will stay here rather than put Ellen to any difficulty.  He can always come to us for any celebrations, of course."

"I'll be disappointed if he don't!"  Dean suddenly felt a great deal lighter.  The Midwinter festivities went on for a couple of weeks and certainly he would be working for most of it, but he knew Castiel well enough by now to know that he was perfectly well able to entertain himself when Dean wasn't around.

And then they could entertain each other when he was around.

Sam and Adam would also probably visit for part of the holiday, but that could be managed.  Or – and here Dean drew a purely mental nervous breath – he could simply take the opportunity and tell them what was going on with him and Cas.  Or most of it at any rate.  Mentioning their relationship would surely be difficult and risky enough, without throwing lifebonds into the mixture.

Well, perhaps that was something to think about a little.  There was plenty of time.

"How are you getting back to the Strangers Quarter?" Castiel asked.  "I can take you – "

"Nah, man, it's fine.  I know you got stuff to do.  Tebbut brought me up here, and he said he'd wait for me in the Blue Hen Tavern. I'll drop in on Jess, then head over there."

"Very well."  Castiel seemed reluctant to go and it didn't take MindSpeech to know why.

But they were in the middle of a public street.  Just as reluctant, Dean forced himself to clasp Castiel's hand instead of the embrace he wanted to give him.  "I'll be talkin' to you," he said, and he winked.

"Be sure that you do," Castiel retorted, but he squeezed Dean's wrist and released him.

xXx

Most of the student boarding houses were in a cluster as near to the Palace grounds as possible.  They were all extremely nice houses, almost ruthlessly well-kept with neat courtyards behind high walls and solid gates – hardly surprising, as they were seated on some of the most prime real estate in the city.  Sam had told Dean once that there was constant low-level agitation from their nearest 'neighbours', most of whom were noble families with large, elegant town houses, who resented living cheek by jowl with lower class younglings availing themselves of an education at the expense of their 'betters'.  All of the boarding houses were, in one way or another, owned by the Crown however and despite frequent attempts no one had ever made a successful bid at purchasing them.

Inside, they were neat if somewhat spartan and firmly managed by an array of landladies, most of whom had a background of some sort in managing adolescents.  Each house boarded either youths or girls – for obvious reasons they were never mixed – and the majority were male.  Jessica Moore lived in one of the two boarding houses reserved for females.

The law in Valdemar was that all had a right to a basic education, and that where someone had a particular ability additional training would be provided, up to and including attendance at the collegia.  The practical logistics of this were where the system often failed in one way or another.  The educational right was extended equally to boys and girls, but old customs died very hard in many communities and for some of the girls among the Blues it took outright defiance of parental will for them to pursue their education here.  And even where the parents were willing, the funding was sometimes difficult or impossible to find.

Jess was not one of those girls, though.  Her well-to-do parents had pushed for her education and where money had been needed it had been forthcoming.  That did not mean her situation was easy, and there would have been a time when Dean would have had difficulty seeing that, but talking with Jess over the past months had taught him a few things.  She was an intelligent girl and she wanted to do right by her family, but she was also young and human and there were things she wanted that clashed with her parents' ambitions for her.  And like Sam, there was nothing she could do to change that. 

Only a fool with their head in the clouds could say "Follow your dream and to the four winds with anyone else".  Real life wasn't like that.

Dean knocked at the front door of the house and asked for Jess.  He half expected her to be out, perhaps with Sam, but the young girl who had answered the door offered him a seat in the hallway and ran away up the stairs to find her.

Then Jess was hurrying down, still wearing one of her blue student uniforms, surprise written all over her face. 

"Oh it's you!  I thought it might have been Sam.  Come into the common room."

"I'm only poking my nose in," Dean admitted, following her into a room full of chairs and stools with lots of handmade soft furnishings.  "Hadn't seen you for a while and thought I'd see how you are."

"That's kind.  But I'm fine, as you can see!" 

She gave him a bright smile, but Dean wasn't fooled; there was tension there and dark circles under her eyes.

"Sammy told me you're near the end of your studies," Dean said, taking the seat she offered him.

"Yes - I don't have any final examinations like he does.  I think I told you that, didn't I?  I'm almost at the end of the curriculum and then that'll be it."

"Guess your dad'll be pleased."

"Yes, I suppose so." 

Now Dean knew he wasn't mistaken - a distinct shadow had crossed her face.  "It'll be strange though - going back home after all this time doin' for yourself."

For a moment he thought she would deny it, but then Jess sighed and nodded.  "I love them all, but I'm not entirely looking forward to having to follow my parents' rules again," she admitted ruefully.  "And there are other things."

She didn't specify, but Dean decided to just say it.  "Like Sam?"  Jess bit her lip.  "Gonna be honest, Jess - that's why I wanted to check on you.  I had a conversation with him back when he came home for Mazuli's party and - "

"He wants us to get married," she blurted out.

"Yeah," Dean said and waited.

"I want that too," she assured him, as though she was afraid he would be offended if she didn't.  "But now … isn't a good time."

"You're not gonna hear any argument from me about that," he said wryly.  "Not like he's got a bean to his name right now, after all."

"I have to have a good argument to put to my father," she explained, "because he's got a list of possible names for me, friends and business contacts and their sons, and I need to be able to make a good case to him why Sam would be better for me than them.  But right now all I can say is that I love him, and - and my parents, they're not unreasonable, but I have to be reasonable too and saying I want to marry Sam right now wouldn't be reasonable.  Do – do you understand?  He's ... it's horrible to put it like this, but he has nothing right now, and they expect me and my sister to marry men who'll bring something to our family – it's not even about money, or not exactly, it's - "

"Jess, you don't have to explain to me," Dean soothed. "I already pointed stuff out to Sam, but I'm not sure he was listening to me."

"Big surprise," she said sourly, then looked vexed with herself.

"He's not listening to you either, is he?" Dean said wryly.  "Thought not."

"There are people in his classes," Jess said.  For a moment she seemed to debate with herself what to say, then the sound of other voices in the next room brought her up short.  She got up quickly and went to close the door.  "A couple of the girls here are related to some of them," she explained, lowering her voice a little.  "Dean ..."

"You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to," Dean told her quickly, a little wary of the sudden intimacy of this situation.  "I don't want to get you into trouble with Sam or anyone else, but – "

"I'd better tell you everything," Jess decided.

Ah ...

xXx

Dean met up with Tebbut nearly a candlemark later, feeling tired and deeply unsettled, and wondering when he had become the ideal confidante of young women.  This was not a role he particularly wanted or felt suited to, but that had not stopped Jess.  Fortunately she didn't have anything nearly so harrowing as poor Valera to unburden herself of, but it hadn't made for reassuring listening regardless.

Fortunately Tebbut wasn't on a tight schedule; his load of empty ale barrels had to be delivered back to the brewery he was hauling for but there was no especial hurry for that and he'd enjoyed having the justification for an extra half-candlemark or so in the tavern with a few cronies.  He was also a comfortably stolid, unimaginative man who, apart from the odd remark, required little in the way of conversation from his passenger, which left Dean plenty of time to chew over what Jess had told him.

Sam's classes at the collegium were made up primarily of highborn youths, the occasional of son of such people as wealthy guildmasters and merchants, and the odd novice priest on the career track in their Order (usually these were the sons of nobles too).  The judicial law classes weren't always one hundred percent male, but it was a far less common career for women; most female justices were Heralds and they, of course, were trained separately from the Unaffiliated students.

Something Dean hadn't really been aware of was that the social order in Valdemar was a little different to that in neighbouring kingdoms.  There was, for example, less separation between the nobility and those who merely possessed wealth.  In Rethwellan it would be almost unheard of for a nobleman of any rank to permit his children to marry the sons or daughters of rich merchants.  In Valdemar, a less than wealthy noble would be only too happy if one of his daughters could bag a well-off merchant's son, and in fact he stood a good chance of being the envy of his peers if she did so.  Valdemaran nobles also sometimes engaged in business and trade themselves, and being able to do so successfully was somewhat respected.  Merely possessing a great deal of money or assets was not in itself viewed as something special.

To the young men Sam associated with on a daily basis – and their parents - Jessica Moore was a desirable matrimonial prospect.  Her family was not at the top of the mercantile social ladder, but they were highly respectable and respected, and her father was considered to be a man to watch.  That he had no son to inherit made him all the more interesting, as the man who married Jess would effectively inherit everything.  If the Moore family wanted, Jess could probably marry a title and thereby have a foot in the door at Court.

That this wasn't precisely what Jess's father wanted – he was looking for a son-in-law who could assist him and Jess in running the business between the three of them – was beside the point.

The point was that any number of Sam's classmates had an acquisitive eye on Jess, and they had every reason to believe that Sam, her official beau, was no competition whatsoever.  In fact, he was considered so insignificant by most of them that they didn't make any efforts to hide their good-humoured contempt or disguise their own attempts to court Jess.  He came in for considerable teasing, and they were all quite confident that once Jess finished her education and returned to the parental household, Sam's days as a pretender to her hand were over.  Some had probably said as much to his face.

Much about Sam's recent behaviour became clear to Dean once this was laid out for him by Jess.  Knowing that her father was looking for something quite different for her and was in no hurry to marry her off, Jess believed that she and Sam had plenty of time to win him around – time for Sam to finish his studies and perhaps find a suitable apprenticeship.  Time to show himself worthy of a second look.

But Sam was panicking, surrounded by predatory young men, all of whom he knew to be infinitely better prospects than himself and most of whom he didn't trust enough to call friends.  As Dean knew, he was already feeling doubtful about his professional prospects because of those self-same peers with their better connections and opportunities.  To know that he might also lose his girl to one of them had to be driving him nearly mad.

Jess had been at some pains to assure Dean that she had made it quite clear, both to Sam and her various would-be suitors, that she was not interested in anyone but him.  Dean didn't need to be told that this had not been successful.  He knew enough about the entitlement of highborn young men generally to know that whatever Jess said would fall on deaf ears.  As for Sam, he was not yet mature enough to understand the complexities of trust in relationships; his response to the perceived threat was to snatch at Jess and look around him for any means to bind her to him, not realising that this could create a breaking point between them instead.

Dean wished now that he'd had time to track Sam down and talk to him again, although what he could have said he didn't know.  He also wished heartily that their father hadn't allowed him to switch curriculums after his first year at the collegium.  Sam had originally been in the same set of classes as Jess, and had he only continued there he would perhaps have been in a better position for so many things now.  Top-flight training in trade law and bookkeeping might have made him more interesting to potential employers and Master Moore.  But someone – one of his instructors – had suggested that Sam had the right sort of mind for the judiciary, and while that encouragement had undoubtedly been kindly meant, it was proving a disaster now.

Tebbut dropped Dean outside the Roadhouse Inn, and he dragged himself inside, suddenly feeling every stiffening muscle from the unaccustomed exercise earlier.  It was getting decidedly chilly outside at night, and in response to that Ellen had ordered the taproom fireplace to be lit; walking through the door was like being hit in the face by a thick blanket of heat and noise.

When Dean hesitated, wondering whether to have a drink before retiring for the night, Ellen herself came to serve him.

"Which of 'em put that look on your face?" she demanded bluntly, leaning her hands on the bar.  When he groaned, she said dryly, "Well I know it wasn't Cas or your pal the birdman, and Adam's almost become civil lately.  That just leaves Sam, and I got a good look at his face when he rolled home after Mazuli's party, so what's up with him now?"

"Wasn't Sam, it was Jess," Dean said, mostly out of contrariness.

Ellen stared at him hard for a moment, then slapped the bar top.  "Not here," she decided.  "Take yourself in the kitchen and I'll bring us both a drink."

I don't need another fuckin' girl talk! Dean wanted to say, but he knew better than to argue with her.  The kitchen fire had been banked for the night and Anaelia had long since gone home to her grandchildren, but although the room was dark it was still warm and smelled comfortably of the pease porridge sitting in its covered cauldron for tomorrow's breakfast.

Ellen finished giving the first hearty warning to her customers that she would be closing in a candlemark, helped Tamar and Podina with the rush of last orders, then left them to it.  When she came into the kitchen she was carrying a tallow dip and a small pitcher.

"Made it small beer," she told him, setting both down on the wide, heavy table.  "Don't know about you, but I don't sleep so easy on ale anymore.  And you're on duty early."

Dean shrugged.  "Drink's a drink."

She poured it for them, then sat down opposite him.  "Tell me."

So Dean did, figuring that if nothing else Ellen would at least understand why he was worried about Sam.  It took a while, and at the end she sighed and said mildly, "That girl's too good for him, and not just because her daddy's rich."  When Dean would have protested, Ellen pointed a finger in his face.  "You know this."

"If she'd been your daughter and – "

"She could be the daughter of a brothel-madam at Exiles Gate, and she'd still be too good for him.  It's nothing to do with who her parents are or where she's come from.  Hell, I'm not even sure if it's anything to do with her."  Ellen gave him a hard look.  "He's getting wrapped up and possessive and he's living in the clouds.  He wants what he can't have and he's not listening to nobody, not even her.  And he avoided you today.  You're not admitting that, but it's true."

Dean looked down at his mug.  She was right – he hadn't wanted to admit that, but his brothers had known perfectly well when Dean would be visiting and Adam had been there but Sam hadn't.  And there was no real excuse for that.  He could have left a message with Adam or his landlady if he'd genuinely been too busy elsewhere.  But he hadn't.  That smacked of avoidance.

"Not like I tried too hard to find him," Dean said, "but ..."

"Yeah.  'But'."

"What the hell am I gonna do, Ellen?"

"Nothing," she said flatly.  "What can you do?  Too late to haul him back home, he's of age now.  And even if he was listening, what could you tell him but the truth?  The girl's right, he's got nothing to bring to the table.  He's not gonna have anything to bring to the table for a long time, even assuming he pulls off a miracle and gets work in the courts."  Ellen gave a disgusted snort.  "I always said your dad shouldn't have let the pair of them near that collegium.  Giving 'em ideas …"

"That's not fair," Dean felt compelled to say.  "They were bright, they won those places fair and square.  Adam's already had an offer of an apprenticeship when he finishes his schooling."

"To do what?" she demanded sceptically.

"Engineer, building roads and bridges and shit."

"Huh."  Ellen was reluctantly impressed by this. "But all that schooling's not likely to be a help to Sam, is it?"

"It might, if he wasn't so set on being a judge."  Dean had thought about this, and he hadn't forgotten how well Sam had done helping Herald Ziva back in the summer.  Clerks and scribes could always find work in the city and larger towns, especially those who understood the law and how the courts worked.  It wasn't the same as being part of the judiciary but it was still paying work, and what Sam had been paid as a court clerk had been respectable money in Dean's opinion, considering his age and lack of experience.

He said as much to Ellen, who shrugged.  "That's probably where he's gonna end up, then.  Question is - will he accept that?"

Not right now, that much Dean knew.  And he doubted it would be enough to persuade Jess's father to let them get married.

"You're gonna have to lay it out straight for him sometime soon," Ellen concluded, not entirely unsympathetically. "You're gonna have to tell him that, like it or not, he can't have what he wants and he's just gonna have to suck it up like rest of us.   And yeah, it's hard, but that's life."

"Nobody likes being told they can't have what they want," Dean said glumly.

Ellen practically hissed at him.  "Gods dammit, Dean Winchester!  You ain't tellin' me anyone ever had to tell you that!  The list of things you want but you can't have has to be as long as mine, but I never saw you sulking about it!  Fact is, Sam's plain selfish.  Selfish to keep expecting you to humour him and bail him out, and selfish to offer that girl false coin.  It's time he damn well grew up, and you know it!"

xXx

There is a point at which exhaustion can lead to insomnia; odd but true.  Dean chose to tell himself that this was the reason for him giving up on tossing and turning, and climbing out of his window and up onto the roof instead.  It was easier than admitting that his worries about Sam on top of everything else were making him lose sleep.

It wasn't often that he did something like this – the difficult days just before and after his father's death had been the last time, although there had been a number of points when he was still a boy where it had been easier to sleep on the roof than deal with Jon's chancy temper inside.  That wasn't something he'd ever mentioned to anyone.  He wasn't the only child in the lower city who did it, after all, not by a long shot.

At least this time he was able to keep his squirrel-brain to himself instead of bothering Cas.  That was something.

And when the teenaged roof-walker came creeping around the chimney in search of an access into the inn, Dean was able to administer some timely admonishment and a brisk warning against trying that at the Roadhouse in future.  That proved to be a reasonable cure for sleeplessness after all.

Even if Dean did end by regretting his sore muscles twice as much the following morning.

 

Chapter Text

A few days later Dean was going through winter preparations with Ash – everything from checking all the constables had weatherproof cloaks and boots and a set of ice-cleats in good repair, to inspecting the roof of the Watch House and the charcoal braziers used to heat it in bad weather – when Valera, who was manning the front desk on her own for the first time, came dashing into the rear practice yard to tell Dean, wide-eyed, that there was a Herald waiting to see him in his office.

It surely couldn't be the first time she'd seen a Herald.  People in remote villages saw them more often than folk in the city slums, ironically.

"Did you offer his Companion a seat?" he asked her, straight-faced, and Ash stifled a snicker at Valera's blank look.

"It's a woman," she said uncertainly.

"I'm teasing you, Rookie," Dean said, tucking his own grin away.  "Did you get her name?"

"Oh!  Yes – Herald Peggy."

"Huh."  Not someone he'd met before then.  "All right, I'm coming.  Ash, you got this for now?"

"No problemo, my man."

Dean rolled his eyes and left him to it.

The woman waiting in his office would once have ticked all the boxes for him.  She was a brunette of average height, with a slim, curving figure, very beautiful ... and she carried herself like a unsheathed knife.  Dean had always had a weakness for dangerous women, and Herald Peggy looked as though she had graduated to her present impressive form out of an adventurous childhood spent trouncing several older and larger brothers, both physically and intellectually.

(Those members of the Heraldic Circle who knew of Peggy's background would have been startled and amused at how quickly Dean saw through her carefully cultivated veneer of elegance and ruthless efficiency.)

"Herald Peggy?  Dean Winchester."  He offered his hand and she shook it firmly.

"It's good to meet you at last, Captain."  Her voice was just as crisp as her appearance.

Dean raised an eyebrow at her.  "Sounds like I shoulda met you before.  There a reason for that?"

"I work with Herald Kolsen," she said.  "I'm a Special Messenger attached to the Lord Marshal's office."

"Right ..."  Dean offered her a chair and went to sit behind his desk.  "What can I do for you, ma'am?"

"Nothing terrible," Peggy assured him.  "Firstly, we wanted to let you know – as an interested party – that there was an attempted break-out from the Kleimar Prison Quarries earlier this month."

Dean stared at her.  "Crowley?"

"I'm afraid so.  It didn't come off – his attempt to suborn the guards backfired on him, but it was still a rather near thing.  The garrison is being replaced, just in case, and we're debating whether to move Crowley himself.  The other convicts are a little too much under his influence."

"Yeah, that sounds about right," Dean said grimly.  "He's good at winding folk around his fingers."

"Just so.  Anyway, Kolsen had the notion that some of Crowley's former associates here in Haven might get a little excited about it," Peggy continued, "so we're putting you, Captain Ellison and a few others on alert, just in case.  It's astonishing how some of these organised criminals manage to maintain contact with their crews after they've been taken down, but they do nevertheless."

"Tell me about it.  All right, I'll warn my people.  Thank you."

"Not at all."  Peggy took a folded slip of paper out of her belt pouch.  "The other thing is an old friend of yours is retiring. "  She gave Dean the paper.  "Captain Torrold Glenn of the Bardswell Watch."

Dean blinked.  Captain Glenn was just a name to him – Bardswell Watch was on the far side of the upper city and he'd never had a reason to go there.  He frowned, but Peggy nodded pointedly to the paper, so he unfolded it.

     Please go along with anything Peggy says.  K.

"Torrold, huh?" Dean said slowly.  He crumpled the note.  "Well damn.  They'll feel the loss in that Watch.  He's a damn fine captain."

"Just so."  Peggy relaxed fractionally.  "He's an old friend of Kolsen's as well and he wasn't sure if word would filter through to you in time.  There's a small gathering at the Silver Kettle in Well Street in two days' time, about a candlemark after your shift ends.  If it'd help, I'd be happy to give you a ride there, since I'm attending myself."

Dean sat back and looked at her for a moment.  For all that he understood why Kolsen had taken this approach – there was always a risk of being overheard in the Watch House - this was a little too cloak-and-dagger for his liking, and Peggy's cool gaze offered nothing for him to work with.  He was tempted to try MindSpeech but something told him her shields would be rock-solid too.  For a moment he considered refusing, just to see what she would do, but being an asshole on duty was generally frowned upon and doubly so when the target was a Herald.

"That's a very generous offer, ma'am," he said finally, and he had no compunction about giving her a sarcastic smile to accompany it.  "How could I refuse?"

"Excellent," Peggy said, unmoved, although her expression suggested she wasn't unappreciative of his annoyance.  "I'll collect you after your shift then."

"Though if I get many more Heralds turnin' up on my doorstep, folk'll really start to talk," Dean drawled pointedly.

"I know," she said mock-sympathetically and gave him a dazzling smile.  "How did you get so lucky, Captain?"  She got up to go.

Dean grinned reluctantly.  He couldn't help but like her.  "What's your Companion's name?" he asked suddenly.

Peggy raised an eyebrow.  "Rowenna.  Why?"

"She prefer apples or pears?"

"Pears," Peggy said after a moment, "but only if they're crisp and sweet."

"Got it.  See you in a couple days, ma'am."

xXx

So there was another thing for him to worry at like a sore tooth.  And why hadn't they just got Cas or Hawkeye to pass the message on to him?  Cas was busy, of course, and not yet a full Herald either.  And Dean had never worked out just how much Hawkeye had to do with Herald business.  Assuming this was Herald business.

That Peggy was a cool customer, though.  Dean appreciated that Kolsen had someone like her at his command.

He spent the next couple of days tasting fruit at various market stalls as he went about his business.  He didn't want to disappoint Rowenna with a soft or sour pear.

xXx

Herald Peggy was punctual; Dean had barely hitched the bag containing Rowenna's pears to his belt and pulled his cloak on before she and her Companion appeared outside the Watch House.  Rowenna sidled up to a nearby public bench in a manner too pointed to be coincidental.

Dean smiled wryly.  "You've been talking to Eslan, haven't you?" he said to the Companion, who regarded him with amused blue eyes and nodded emphatically.  "That's fair."  The bench made a passable mounting block and his recent practice with Sonnet made the whole business more straightforward.

"Just out of curiosity, has anyone questioned how you know Captain Glenn?" Peggy asked him, once he was settled behind her and they had set off.

"Nope, but I didn't tell 'em I was going to his shindig," Dean said.  "They could ask questions later 'bout where I've been with you, but maybe you'll have thought up a story for me by then."

"Why me?" she demanded.

"You're the one who wants me at Glenn's party," he said blandly.  "You gonna tell me why you're taking me there?"

"You're not going to his party," she retorted.

"Oh good – I wasn't sure if I should be bringing a present."

She sighed.  "There's someone you need to meet with, but they can't come to the Strangers Quarter."

"Never seems to stop Kolsen," Dean commented.

"You must surely have realised by now that nothing stops Kolsen," Peggy said dryly.  "Look, I'm sure you haven't spent your whole career at the Ropewalk Watch.  Couldn't you have met Glenn while you were serving elsewhere?"

"Doubt it.  He's an upper city man; I've never left the lower city."  A dry note entered his own voice.  "Former runners from Exiles Gate don't get rotated to upper city postings.  The folk there don't like to hear our accent."

"I suppose that's true.  How stupid!  Well, I'll give it some thought."

Dean didn't know how to take this, and in the end he didn't bother to respond.  Stupid was one word for it; he could have thought of a few others but none of them were polite.

Companions always seemed to move at a leisurely gait while covering twice the ground of a galloping horse.  Despite the maze-like back-and-forth of the streets, they arrived at the Silver Kettle Inn in a very short space of time, and Dean gave it a rapid once-over as they rode through an arched gate big enough to accommodate a sizeable wagon.  The Silver Kettle was a large travellers' posting house and clearly the usual clientele were of better quality than any inn in the Strangers Quarter ever saw.  This was not the sort of place where the common ranks of the Watch gathered to drink and decompress after their shift; Glenn's retirement party was obviously intended for captains and above only – and not captains like Dean Winchester either.

He wondered how the constables of Glenn's Watch took that.  Perhaps they were used to being excluded by their officers.  He couldn't imagine Isobel Hartley of Black Kilns or Claeton from Wrights-and-Smiths having a party in this place though, let alone restricting it to the brass.

The inner courtyard they rode into was lit up with, to Dean's eyes, a staggering number of oil lamps.  That alone said a lot about the wealth of the inn's patrons and the kind of money the owner had to be making.  There were also servants beyond counting moving briskly about the place.  Peggy allowed one of the numerous grooms to tend to Rowenna; from the way he spoke to her he was used to Companions.

"Hey, you'd better take these," Dean said, and he gave the groom the bag with Rowenna's pears.  "They're for the lady."

Rowenna whickered her thanks and gave the groom a firm nudge with her nose, and they went off to the stables together.

"This way," Peggy told him, and she led him to a side door.

The door led to a narrow stairway that bypassed the public areas of the inn, which led Dean to believe that it was probably intended for use by the servants.  They emerged into a corridor of what was probably the less expensive rooms for hire, but Peggy led him swiftly away from there, out across a broad, well-lit landing at the head of the main stairs.  Below, Dean caught a brief glimpse of a busy taproom below and a lot of noise – at least one Bard was playing, easily audible over the voices of a more genteel crowd than he was used to – before Peggy led him along another corridor, down another set of stairs, around a dark corner, and across a passage to a closed door.  She knocked and gestured for Dean to follow her inside.

By this point he was beginning to feel a little unnerved, so it was a relief that the first person he set eyes on was Kolsen.  The second was another Herald, this one a middle-aged man with collar-length greying dark hair and a goatee.  Dean didn't need to see the understated silver trim on his Whites to know who he was.  They'd met before; this was Herald Raylor, the Heir Presumptive to the throne.

Raylor gave him his quiet smile.  "Good evening, Captain Winchester.  It's good to see you again."

Dean didn't like to think of himself as being an unusually paranoid man, but a situation like this was bound to make anyone suspicious.  He looked across at Kolsen, who was standing to one side of a very nice fireplace with a welcoming fire crackling away in it, and he also smiled at him.

"Hello Dean.  Will you have something to drink?  It's an unpleasantly chilly evening."

"I'll have an explanation, if it's all the same to you," Dean said flatly.

"Of course.  I promise you, it's nothing sinister." 

"I'll be in the tap with the revellers," Peggy said diplomatically.  "Let me know when you're done here and I'll take Captain Winchester home."

"I'm thinking I'm done already," Dean told her, but she only looked amused.

"Nice try!  I'll see you in a while."  She nodded to the other two and slipped out of the room.

"If it helps at all, Captain, I would have preferred to come to you," Raylor told him.  "Unfortunately, people in the Circle and at Court get very twitchy at the idea of me wandering around the lower city.  And to be honest, it would be difficult for us to have this conversation safely in your usual environment."

"Still not hearin' what the problem is," Dean said.

"Please," Kolsen said firmly, "take off your cloak, sit down and have some mulled cider."  He said something else, but it sounded like gobbledegook to Dean. 

"Sorry, I didn't catch that," he said, reluctantly pulling his cloak off.

Kolsen paused, looking at him rather intently, then unexpectedly he laughed.  "You're shielding a lot more tightly than usual!"

Now Dean was bewildered.  "Well yeah.  I just got dragged clean across the city to the party of a Watch Captain I never met before in my life.  Last thing I need is to lose my shields in a place like this, full o' fancy folks and brass."

"You can relax, there's no need," Raylor told him calmly.  "I doubt there's anyone here but ourselves who can MindSpeak to any degree, but that's why Peggy has gone outside to mingle.  She's very good at picking up on eavesdroppers, deliberate or otherwise, and she can shield us from them if necessary.  And if you do lose control – but I'm not expecting you to – then Phil and I can manage it.  Have a seat – please."

"Right."  But Dean took the proffered chair opposite Raylor and accepted the goblet of mulled cider he was handed by Kolsen.  "I get why you don't want to be caught slumming," he said, "but why waste Herald Peggy's time with all this?  You could've just asked Cas to tell me to come here."

"Hmm.  That's part of what I want to talk to you about."  Raylor crossed one leg over his knee and regarded Dean thoughtfully.  "I'll be blunt, Captain.  You do realise it's unusual for you to be able to MindSpeak Castiel at such a distance?"

Dean looked at him rather blankly.  "It is?"

"Oh yes.  We have a few very strong MindSpeakers in the Circle – I myself can almost reach to the northern border if necessary, but only with the assistance of my Companion.  I imagine Phil could contact another MindSpeaker at the other side of the city without assistance, but no further."

"That's about the limit of my range, yes," Kolsen acknowledged. 

"You however ... I believe Sitwell's last training trip went almost as far as the Guard post at Trevale, is that correct?"  Kolsen agreed.  "You had no trouble reaching Castiel there at all, and he admits that he couldn't have contacted you in Haven by himself, despite being quite a strong MindSpeaker."  Raylor cocked his head at Dean.  "In other words, we haven't yet established the full extent of your Gift, and that's – well.  Rather unexpected, to put it mildly.  It would be unusual even if you were Chosen."

Dean began to feel distinctly uneasy, and took a quick swallow of his cider to cover that.  "That a bad thing?"

"Not in itself."  Raylor considered for a moment or two, then uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.  "I understand you can also pick up on the thoughts of unGifted people."

"Nothing like talking to you or Cas or other MindSpeakers," Dean said hurriedly.  "That's not – look, I hear words when I talk to Cas and Hawkeye and you all.  Like I'm talkin' to you now.  Right?  It's not like that, hearing other folk.  It's – it's hazy and vague, and kinda like bits and pieces and sometimes pictures, and – and it's all jumbled up – "

"Dean, you're not in trouble," Kolsen said.

"Truly, you're not," Raylor added reassuringly.  "But Dean, most MindSpeakers don't really hear the unGifted either, and the unGifted can't hear them.  When you lose your shields, the unGifted react – that means they can hear you.  And that's a very rare form of MindSpeech."

Dean looked from one to the other of them.  "This is a problem?"

"When we ran through the ethics of MindSpeech last Spring, we didn't plan for this kind of ability in you," Raylor admitted.  "I think we should probably revisit that training, because the use of MindSpeech is very carefully regulated for Heralds in the course of their work, and for you it could be highly problematic in a number of ways.  And we need to be sure that your shields are up to scratch, although I can already tell you're doing very well in that regard."

"We should probably talk to you about over-use of your Gift as well," Kolsen said, "just in case.  If you strain yourself you can end up with a very painful headache, just for a start - remember the headaches you got in the beginning, when you were holding your shields too tightly?"

Dean made a face.  "Right."

"You're shielding quite tightly now," Raylor noted.  "Ease up on them a little."

Dean sighed, but he had got a lot better at this over the course of the year, especially after Castiel had given him some tips from his own, rather different training.  Most of the time, in fact, Dean was able to go about his business with just enough mental awareness of his surroundings to let him know if there was a problem somewhere, and that was really no different to the kind of alertness any good Watch officer maintained.  He was just hearing with his mind instead of his ears.

"That's better," Kolsen said.  "Tell me, are you using MindSpeech for anything other than talking to Castiel and Hawkeye occasionally?"

"Depends what you call 'using'," Dean said warily.  "I'm not going into people's heads, if that's what you mean.  I keep my ears open, so to speak, but I'm not even actively listening most of the time. Just aware of people - "  He stopped, seeing Raylor pinch the bridge of his nose.  "What, is that bad?"

"No, that's a perfectly acceptable use of your Gift, provided you're not relying on it," Kolsen said, but his eyes were on Raylor too.  "Raylor?"

Raylor looked up at Dean, his expression very wry.  "Dean … how long have you been able to speak Hardornen?"

"I … don't?"

"What about Rethwellan?" Kolsen said idly, but his eyes were fixed on Dean's face.  "It would certainly be useful to you, I understand there's quite a big group of Rethwellan expatriates in the Strangers Quarter and the older ones probably don't speak much Valdemaran."

"I know the odd word maybe," Dean said, looking from one to the other in confusion.  "What the hell has that got to do with anything?"

"Dear gods," Raylor said.

"Do you want me to try Karsite again?" Kolsen asked, looking amused

"What?" Dean said, perplexed, but Raylor was shaking his head.

"No, no … that's quite enough.  I can see the problem."  He squinted at Dean suddenly.  "Possibly I'm alone in that though.  Dean, you don't realise what you just did, do you?"

Dean was getting that quivering sense of panic again that had overcome him at Mazuli's party.  "Is this a joke?  'Cause it's not funny."

"No, it's not," Raylor agreed.  "Apparently you have a second Gift, and it's a wild one too.  I don't believe we've ever had someone with a Gift for languages before."

"I don't - "  Dean stopped, his breathing going shaky.  "What the hell?  I - I don't - "

"I just spoke to you in two different languages and you answered me in the same, word perfect and colloquial," Kolsen told him.  "Dean, breathe!  It's nothing to panic about.  It's almost certainly an extension of your MindSpeech, or you'd know you were doing it."

"Good point," Raylor acknowledged.  "It also cuts out when you're using heavy shields, or you would have understood Phil when he spoke Karsite to you after you arrived.  In that respect it's a little like the Bardic Gift and Empathy, in that it works even through regular shielding.  Amazing!  Let me know if you ever want a job as a translator, you can probably name your price."

Dean put his goblet down and put his head in his hands.  This was too much after the month he'd had.

"Clint told me that you were switching back and forth between Valdemaran and Jkathan at Bard Mazuli's party," Kolsen said after a moment, "and that you didn't realise you were doing it.  He also said Castiel's brother had pointed out that you were speaking Jkathan like they do, rather than the very distinctive dialect you grew up with, and your own brother, Adam, mentioned you were talking to someone with no difficulty when he knew they spoke almost no Valdemaran.  So when you visited him recently, Clint made a point of talking to you in several different languages - Hardornen, Karsite and a trader patois he learned in the circus that he was reasonably certain you could have no way of knowing.  You not only understood every word, but you replied to him with perfect fluency."

"What the hell, man."  Dean looked up at them both, shaken to his core.  "I never even heard of this before."

"Like I said - a wild Gift," Raylor told him sympathetically.  "What's odd is you only showed signs of this fairly recently, despite being a MindSpeaker since your childhood.  That makes me think this is something to do with Castiel, which is … also very odd, if I'm honest."

"Why would Cas have anything to do with it?" Dean demanded.

"Well, you are lifebonded.  That's a very subtle connection, and …"  Raylor paused, something occurring to him.  "It's a pity Ansel wasn't able to join us this evening, this is more his area than mine.  But - Dean, most Heralds don't really develop Gifts until after they're Chosen and it's generally accepted that the bond between Herald and Companion is what triggers them.  If a lifebond is similar, then perhaps that would explain it.  You had the potential for unusually strong MindSpeech and an associated Gift of language, and meeting Castiel triggered them."

"The interesting part is you don't realise you're doing it," Kolsen put in, "and I suspect that's a simple matter of awareness.  You're going to have to listen a good deal more mindfully in future, if that's the case, but that shouldn't be too much of a hardship.  The important thing will be to not give yourself away, because I don't need to tell you how awkward and even dangerous it could be for you to walk around the Strangers Quarter speaking every language under the sun, when the people there are used to you not understanding them."

This time Dean caught him at it.  "All right, I understood every word of that, but I still don't know what language you're speaking."  Then he wondered what language he was speaking.  He was reasonably sure it was Valdemaran, but now there was a niggling doubt.

Kolsen smiled.  "Progress already!  That was Hardornen again.  I considered Karsite but I know I'm not overly fluent in it, which might have given me away."

"Right.  And what language am I speaking now?"

"Valdemaran."  Kolsen gave him a steady look for a moment or two.  "I think if you find yourself struggling that way, you may need to concentrate on the individual words, rather than the sense of what you're saying or hearing.  Pick a word out and ask yourself how it's spelled, perhaps.  That should soon clue you in."

Dean rubbed his forehead and muttered a sour invocation to Bel - definitely in Jkathan, thank you very much, it was one he'd picked up from Cas in the regular way.

"This is going to be like your first lessons in grounding and centring," Raylor told him.  "Initially it's going to involve a lot of concentration, but once you get a lock on it it'll become like breathing - something you do without thinking."

Dean wanted to beat his head on the wall.

"Practice," Kolsen told him, firmly but not unsympathetically.  "Listen to what I'm saying and then tell me whether I'm speaking Valdemaran or not …"

Raylor called a halt after a candlemark, mainly because Dean was definitely getting the beginnings of a reaction headache.  Fortunately they'd planned for that in advance, although he didn't much appreciate the taste of the herbal tea that was pressed on him. 

A couple of things had become clear during the course of the 'lesson'.  The first was that Dean didn't know what language he was speaking or hearing; he could only translate it, which Raylor said was logical since he was effectively picking the language out of the other person's head without any particular context or associated information - he was piggybacking their ability to speak it.  Consequently he wasn't learning the language, either - the ability relied on him being in mental contact with someone who knew it, and once they were out of range, which so far seemed to be fairly limited, he stopped being able to translate.  Also, it didn't work with the written word, or not so far at any rate.

"It would be interesting to see if you could develop the ability to read a document in a different language if a person with that knowledge is present," Kolsen commented.  "Logically, it should work the same way, because you're borrowing that person's ability."

"Hasn't happened so far," Dean told him.  "I can't read and write in Jkathan, even when I'm with Cas."

"But you might develop it in time, you never know."

"What I know," Dean said, as patiently as he could manage when he had a nauseating ache behind his left eye, "is that somehow I gotta do my job tomorrow without accidentally translating half my orders into whatever languages my constables grew up talking.  I think I got enough on my plate right now, don't you?"

xXx

Raylor gave Dean a small bag full of the special herbal teas and recommended that he have another dose when he reached the Roadhouse, preferably with a biscuit or piece of bread to prevent it upsetting his stomach.  Fortunately Ellen was busy in the bar when he got home, and the only person who caught him steeping the tea in the kitchen was Podina.  He told her it was a pre-emptive hangover cure, which made her tut, but when he gave her a sad-eyed look she made him a thick slice of bread with toasted cheese on it and slipped a piece of honeycake onto the plate as well, which made for a reasonable supper and smothered the horrible taste of the tea besides.

One thing to be said for the tea was that it did work.  By the time Dean had consumed the last crumb of the cake, the ache behind his eye had vanished along with the general sensation of his brain swelling beyond the capacity of his skull to contain it.  On the other hand he felt unusually sleepy, but perhaps that was all to the good.  A reasonable night's sleep would surely put this whole nightmare-cum-farce back into perspective.

Climbing the stairs to his rooms threatened to take the last of his energy.  Ellen had been in there at some point, for a tidy pile of winter blankets had appeared on the end of his bed, still smelling pleasantly of the herbs they'd been stored in.  Baby had also acquired a new, thicker, patchwork pad and blanket in her basket on the window ledge, which probably explained why she was hunkered down on one of Dean's pillows instead, exuding an air of petulance and indignation.

Dean moved all the blankets to the top of his clothes press except one, which he tossed over his bed.  Only the knowledge that he would regret sleeping in his uniform gave him the impetus to remove it; he left it thrown over the chair in the corner, rolled himself into his blankets and retained just enough strength to snuff out his candle before falling headlong into sleep.

He was jolted awake just before dawn by the conviction that he could hear something howling in the distance.  Initially he lay frozen, convinced that he was still dreaming - something nightmarish about being hunted through the streets by enormous spectral dogs - then he heard it again, a sound-that-was-not-a-sound that was both an ear-splitting shriek and the deep baying of hounds, setting his nerves buzzing with alarm. 

It took some moments for Dean to realise that this was not an actual sound - this was something he was picking up through his shields, and there was more than just the mental noise of something hunting, it was being carried to him on a wave of terrified emotion and whoever or whatever it was, it was somehow familiar to him.

The last thing he wanted to do at that moment was lower his shields.  There was a wrongness with the sensation that reminded him, all too timely, of the warnings he had been given about the risks to an unshielded MindSpeaker if something malevolent chose to attack.  But there was a painful urgency there, and a conviction that whatever was occurring was happening to someone he knew.

One of the benefits of getting tips on shielding from Castiel was that he now knew a technique for thinning his shields without lowering them completely.  Dean eased them down with painful care until the panic that rushed in developed a familiar flavour.

Jo.  Something was happening to Jo, over in Penny Street's sector, and somehow his sleeping mind had picked up on it because he had a connection to her.

Dean was out of bed and pulling on the previous day's uniform before he fully realised what he was doing.  The Roadhouse was still and silent around him, which seemed incredible to him when, with every passing second, the sense of chaos and panic and terror was growing and beating at his mental shields.  By the time he had pulled his boots on, it wasn't just Jo he could sense but several other familiar minds - Megan Connor, Sandburg, Ellison's second lieutenant Henri …

What the hell was happening in Penny Street?

Dean snatched up his Bully and bolted for the stairs.

xXx

Haven never slept.  It was a common enough saying, but only those who patrolled the streets at night knew the truth of it.  The dawn light might not yet have made it over the horizon, but carters were already driving through the alleys, men and whores were staggering out of all-night brothels and taverns, and people of every age and description were picking their way along the pavements, either coming off shift for the night or heading out to the start of their working day.

Dean ran through the streets, making the early morning walkers jump and curse as he plunged past them.  He was still within the boundaries of Ropewalk Watch's sector when he heard the first distant ringing noises that was beleaguered Watch constables sounding the alarm by rapping their Bullies on the kerbstones.

Penny Street - the actual street of that name, not the Watch House - was a broad thoroughfare that housed a semi-permanent market place, with solid wooden stalls that were closed up and left in place at night.  On the far side of the market were a number of secure compounds owned by larger scale merchants where they stored goods for trade or sale.  When Dean arrived the market was empty and dark, but there were lights at the other side of it and from the noises he could hear it was clear that a large-scale altercation was in progress in one of the merchant compounds.

"What in Astera's name - " someone said, and Dean jerked around to see Constables Fraya and Abel at his elbow, wide-eyed.  Abel would have been on duty and probably patrolling not far away, but Fraya was off duty and dressed all by guess, and Dean remembered that she had lodgings somewhere just inside Penny Street's sector.  She'd probably heard the alarm being sounded, and for all her faults she had at least come running, something Dean made a note to remember later.

"Fraya, you got your Bully?" he asked her, and she nodded sharply.

"Yessir."

"Good - you're with me.  Abel, you're quicker on your feet, you run like hell to Water Street and turn out the Guard, you hear me?"

"I'm gone, sir - "  And true to his word, he was.

"Constable, I don't know what the fuck is goin' down here - "  Dean was silenced by another of those ungodly mental howls and even Fraya jerked in response to it, something he would have been ready to swear she wasn't sensitive enough to hear.

"Permission to find out, Cap'n?"  Her voice quavered slightly, but she raised her Bully to her shoulder grimly.

"Granted."

xXx

This was what Dean's report would later say: That he and Constable Fraya entered the compound, armed and braced, with the intention of rendering whatever assistance Penny Street Watch required; that the scene that met their eyes was bloody and chaotic, with an unknown number of individuals locked in combat with an uncertain number of Watch officers; that at least two Watch officers were down and, at the time of his entry into the compound, Dean could not be sure of their status; that the situation was rendered significantly more hazardous by the presence of a number of large and vicious dogs running loose and attacking the Watch; and that there was a woman standing to one side, slender, red-headed and dressed in a blood-red gown, who gave the appearance of being the author of the incident.

This was what was not written down in his report: That as soon as he entered the compound, Dean's attention was caught both by the way the dogs were behaving and by the mental presence of the woman who, he believed, was in control of the dogs and was deliberately setting them on the Watch.

What also caught his attention was that one of the constables on the ground was Jo Harvelle, and she was not moving.  Some instincts overrode all sense, and Dean had always been protective of the people he loved.

Senior officers in the Watch - sergeants and above - got a certain amount of training in things like conflict resolution and handling smaller multi-person incidents, and the one thing that had stuck with Dean was that when something like this occurred there was usually one person or perhaps two who instigated it and pushed the other participants into acting, and that whether or not those instigators retained control, it was always best practice to neutralise them first, as they were the 'leaders' and their 'followers' would likely lose steam without them.

In this case, there was certainly one man shouting and rallying the others against the Watch, but Dean knew - knew - that he was not the real focus here.  Despite how still she was, and how she remained to one side and away from the melee, the woman was the real instigator - and if she really was in control of the dogs, then she had to be neutralised fast. 

Getting to her across the compound would mean wading through the thick of the fighting and putting himself right into the path of the dogs.  But there was more than one way to skin a rabbit, as Dean's mother had said when he was a child, and when he looked around a solution presented itself.  There was a stone mounting block just inside the wall of the compound, and at the base of it, broken and ignored, was a heavy clay mug with most of its handle missing, probably dropped by some worker weeks before.  Dean scooped it up and leaped up onto the mounting block.  That gave him a clear line of sight right across the compound to where the woman stood, fists clenched in her skirts and her eyes tracking avidly over the conflict.

As Hawkeye had pointed out to Kolsen more than once, Dean's aim was lethally good with pretty much any projectile weapon you put in his hand.  But even he could not have predicted all the variables when Dean let fly with that lump of broken crockery.

He had been aiming for the woman's shoulder, with the idea that the blow would knock her off balance and hurt her enough to disrupt her concentration.  But at the last second she turned to look at him as though he had called out to her -

The mug hit her square in the throat.

She could not have been felled more completely if someone had hamstrung her.  Dean saw her collapse, felt the connection between her and the dogs snap, and he quickly jumped down from the block and ran to where Jo lay unmoving on the filthy cobbles.  As he did so, more Watch officers were arriving in the compound at a run; he saw Jody and Olivia among them as well as constables from Exiles Gate.

He was shouting orders even as he crouched down beside Jo, mostly to do with dealing with the dogs he thought, although he felt as though the part of him that was directing them was somehow separate from the part of him that was turning Jo over to examine her, and afterwards he couldn't actually remember what he had been telling people to do.  She had been savaged, there were dreadful wounds on her hands, arms and face, and there was so much blood.

Someone - later he would realise that it was Sandberg - came to help him administer emergency aid, and out of the corner of his eye he could see Fraya doing something similar for the other constable who was down on the ground.

And finally, the Guard arrived bringing with them torches and Healers, and their commander took control of the scene.

xXx

Dean's hands were shaking and he couldn't make them stop.

One of the Healer trainees at Fountain Court Temple had given him a mug of strong sweet tea some time after they arrived, but it hadn't had a noticeable effect.  It was no consolation that Sandberg was equally shaken.  Jo had been alive when they carried her in here, but she'd been in a bad way and Dean hadn't liked the way so many Green-clad Healers had swarmed around her before they shut him out of the room.

Ellison had arrived a short while ago, escorting Ellen who even now was in there with her daughter.  He was across the room, talking quietly to Sandberg.  After a while, he straightened up and clapped his second-in-command on the shoulder.  They both stood up and Sandberg, looking exhausted, slowly walked out of the waiting room.

After a moment, Ellison came to take a seat next to Dean.

"She's alive," he said calmly, "and sitting here isn't going to do her or you any good.  Has anyone taken a statement from you?"

"Someone from Command came a while ago.  Not sure how much good it'll do 'em."

"How much did you have to hold back?"

Dean blinked and turned his head to stare at Ellison.  "What?"

Ellison's crooked smile was completely lacking in genuine humour.  "A surprising number of constables said they could hear demons howling or that the dogs were devil dogs with scarlet eyes.  And not all of them were the kind of over-imaginative people to cook up tall stories."

"It was the howling that woke me up and led me there," Dean admitted.

Ellison nodded.  "All right."

"The dogs were being controlled by the woman in the red dress," Dean added.  "You've got her in custody, right?"

There was a pause, then Ellison said, "That's something we need to talk about.  But first, you need to clean up and come with me."

Dean looked down at himself and abruptly realised that he was still covered in Jo's blood - his hands were red with it and there were smears all down the front of his jerkin and on his tunic sleeves.

"I'll find you a clean uniform," Ellison said.

Another Healer trainee provided Dean with a bowl of warm water and some cloths, and the use of a small rest room to wash and change in.  He cleaned himself up in numb silence, and by the time he was done his hands had finally steadied up, but when he joined Ellison again he remembered something.

"Where were you while all this was goin' down?" he asked, perplexed, as Ellison led him through the temple.

"I got called out to a different incident before it all kicked off," the other man replied.  "That's one of the things we need to talk about."

He led Dean into the temple's mortuary, where a short, red-headed female Healer was working over a body on a stone table.  Dean recognised her after a moment - it was Healer Scully, who he had met during the Crowley case.  Then he recognised the body as well and was brought up short.

It was the woman from the compound.

"She's dead?" he demanded.

Healer Scully looked up, pinning him with her sharp blue eyes.  "Yes, she is.  A heavy blow to the throat can do that."

Dean stared at her.  "Wait, what - I did that?  But …"

"You threw this, I believe."  Scully held up the heavy, broken mug.  "You have a strong arm and a deadly aim, Captain.  It crushed her trachea - that's the windpipe.  My preliminary examination suggests that she choked to death."

Dean's eyes went to Ellison, but the other captain seemed unmoved by the verdict.

"I'm sorry she's not alive to take responsibility, Jim," he said after a moment, "but I can't feel much regret, seeing what she did."

"Were you aiming to kill her?" Ellison asked calmly.

"What?  No!  I aimed for her shoulder, but she moved at the last minute."  Dean shifted on his feet, feeling a sudden dragging exhaustion.  "We know who she is?"

"Still making enquiries," Ellison said, "but the name I was given is Rowena McLeod.  There's a woman of that name listed in the last census as being our old friend Crowley's mother, but this woman's obviously too young so I'm working on the assumption that she's some other relative.  The compound was one of his, by the way."

"What were Jo and the others doing there anyway?"

"The Proctor served Notice of Forfeiture on it yesterday and I arranged a rotation of guards on it until it could be cleared today.  According to Sandberg, this woman - " he nodded to the body, "turned up with a handful of bully-boys in the early hours to reclaim it."

"And the dogs?"

"Were already in the compound, although until the gates were broken open there was no sign of them."

What a mess.  Dean rubbed his face with one hand.  "Please tell me some of the bully-boys were arrested."

"Almost all of them, excepting her."  Ellison looked at Healer Scully.  "I assume you'll have a more certain cause of death by the end of the day?"

"Sooner, if I can get Healer Welles to help with the autopsies," she said.

"Autopsies, plural?" Dean asked, dismayed.

"That's why I wasn't with everyone else earlier," Ellison said.  "I got called out to deal with another body a couple of candlemarks before dawn."

Dean didn't like the sound of this.  "Anyone I know?"

Ellison looked across at Scully, who led them over to a second corpse on a slab on the other side of the room.  It was bulky and covered with a sheet that she pulled back just far enough for Dean to see the head and shoulders.

It was Guardsman Pyote, and his corpse had the bluish-white look of someone who had been dead for some hours.

"Ah, shit," Dean muttered.  "Ain't like anyone's gonna miss him, but damn.  Please tell me he dropped dead of a heart-attack."

"No such luck," Ellison said grimly.

"Marks on his neck suggest someone made an attempt to strangle him," Scully said wryly.  "Unsuccessfully, as it happens, but they appear to have got far enough that when they gave up, he collapsed or fell and hit his head.  It was probably the blow to the head that finished him off, but again, I'll know more when I've completed a full examination."

"I don't envy you the list of suspects," Dean commented.

Ellison was regarding him intently.  "Don't take this the wrong way, Winchester, but where were you after you went off shift yesterday?"

"You gotta be kidding me," Dean said, in flat disbelief.  "Seriously, Jim?"

Ellison shrugged.  "You can tell me now or the District Commander later."

"I was at Torrold Glenn's retirement party all evening."

Ellison gave him an odd look.  "I had no idea you knew him."

Dean shrugged.  "Only a slight acquaintance, I'll admit, but I was invited."  He gave Ellison a bland look.  "You can ask the Lord Marshal's Herald, if you like.  He was there too."

Ellison's eyebrows shot up, but he relaxed slightly.  "Fair enough.  The other person we need to account for is your rookie."

Dean shook his head.  "No idea.  She's on my shift, so she was off-duty too, but Jim - "

"He's been spreading rumours about her," Ellison interrupted.  "I respected your refusal to talk before, but after this?  One or both of you needs to tell me the truth, because the stuff I've heard suggests Constable Valera could have a motive, and you should know that a couple of Pyote's cronies at Water Street are already throwing accusations around about you and her."

"Great.  Just … great."  Dean sighed.  "Fine, let's go find her."  Then he had to think again.  "What time is it?"

"A little over two candlemarks past dawn," Ellison said.

"Gods.  I got another candlemark before I go on duty.  What happened to Constable Fraya, do you know?"

"I talked to her before I came to see you and Sandberg, and sent her to your Watch House to make a report to Jody.  Jody'll stay on shift 'til you get there."

"Right, thank you."  Dean pushed back his weariness and straightened up.  "Let's go find Valera then."

xXx

Valera was exactly where Dean had hoped she would be; at home, in the lodgings Ellen had arranged for her.  The only downside to this was the possibility of there being no witnesses to her being there all evening, but as it turned out she claimed she had been out with friends all evening and her landlady was ready and willing to bend his and Jim's ears about her rather late return.

"Good," Dean said, although he hadn't missed Valera's slight caginess about where she had been and who her friends were.  That was not his worry right now.  "Get a uniform on - " she was talking to him around the edge of her door while wearing a large blanket, "we have to go to District Command and swear statements about where we were."  At Valera's look of alarm, he added, "Relax, Rookie, if you've got witnesses to where you were, we don't have a problem."

"Did that seem off to you?" Ellison asked, when Dean joined him at the foot of the stairs to wait.

"What, that she wouldn't let me in?  Nope.  Based on what I know about her, I'd be more surprised if she did."

"All right."  Ellison considered him for a moment or two.  "Word of warning, Winchester."

Dean looked at him.

"Don't try that story about going to Glenn's retirement on the Commander.  She was actually there."

Dean sighed.  "Right.  Thanks."

The explanation to Valera of what was going on had to wait until they reached the District Command's HQ.  Dean was unsurprised to find the District Commander herself waiting for them, but Valera was understandably alarmed.

"In my office, please," the Commander told them curtly, and Dean hoped to all the gods that she wasn't about to chew them out, because he felt sure that would be enough to make Valera shut up tighter than a miser's strongbox.

The atmosphere certainly wasn't propitious as the three of them filed into her office behind her and took the seats she sharply indicated.  The Commander took her seat behind her desk, giving Dean a hard-eyed stare.

"I don't suppose, Captain Winchester, that I need to remind you that this is precisely the situation I was most concerned about when we spoke last week."

"No ma'am," Dean admitted.

"So Guardsman Pyote is dead, and although I intend to wait for the formal report from the Healers before making any judgements, I am very unhappy that the initial evidence suggests someone may have killed him.  Not, I would stress, because the man wasn't inviting it at every opportunity, but because already there are individuals pointing fingers at the Watch."

At Valera's sharp intake of breath, the Commander's eyes went straight to her.  "Probationary Constable Valera, you should know that I'm not a woman to take much account of gossip.  Your name has been specifically mentioned in this matter, however, and I can't ignore that.  So I most sincerely hope that you have an alibi for your time after you went off shift yesterday."

Valera's expression was blank.  Dean eyed her, and said, "Where were you, Constable?"

Her eyes flicked to him.  "S-sir?"

"Where did you spend your evening?" Dean repeated.

"I - I was with friends."

He told himself to be patient.  She was shocked and probably frightened.  "I know that, Constable.  But where?"

A dull flush climbed her face and her eyes dropped to her lap.  "At the Blue Bird Teahouse, Sir," she mumbled.

The Commander frowned, perplexed by this, but Ellison only raised an eyebrow.  The Blue Bird Teahouse was known in the ranks of the Watch for a certain type of clientele.  Reluctantly, Dean said to the Commander: "It's a place on Half Copper Lane where shaych folks tend to go.  Especially women."

"I see," the Commander said, and from her milder tone she really did.  "Go on."

"Got anyone who can confirm that?" Dean asked Valera.  "If we sent someone there now, could any of the staff say you were there?"

She had to think about this for a moment.  "Yes," she said finally, and she looked relieved.  "We asked the blonde barmaid with the ribbon flowers in her hair to let us use the Hinds and Hounds board they keep behind the tap.  She was the one who reminded us it was nearly midnight, when the game went on longer than we realised."

"'We' being?" the Commander asked dryly.

"Guardsman Alli from Water Street, ma'am," Valera said reluctantly.  "But …"  She stopped.

"But she probably won't want to admit that," Dean finished for her, and Valera nodded slightly.

He wondered if this was the right moment to push Valera into talking about what had happened when she joined the Guard and Pyote's part in that, but then the Commander said, "Very well, Constable.  I'd like you to step outside and write a formal statement about what you just told us, while I get Captain Winchester's story.  One of the clerks will provide you with paper and ink."

"Yes ma'am."  Valera looked very pale, but she saluted them crisply and left the room, shutting the door carefully behind her.

The Commander drummed her fingers on the desk.  "I don't like the nature of the accusations being made about that girl," she said abruptly, "or the gossip that our unfortunate corpse saw fit to pass around about her.  And something about your expression, Captain, tells me there's more to it than meets the eye."

No point in denying it.  "Yes ma'am."

"I see.  We'll come to that in a while, though.  First of all, I'd like to know where you were yesterday evening."

Dean licked his lips nervously.  "I was at Captain Glenn's retirement party, ma'am."

Ellison shifted in his seat slightly.

The Commander considered the fingernails on her right hand for a moment.  "I was at that party," she commented.  "It's odd, but I don't remember seeing you there.  Why is that, Captain?"

"Probably because I was actually meeting with Herald Kolsen at the same inn, ma'am."

She looked at him.  "The Lord Marshal's Herald," she said flatly.

"Yes, ma'am."

They stared at each other for a very long time, and Dean couldn't imagine what his expression must look like.  He was waiting tensely for the next question, but it never came.  Instead, the Commander leaned her elbows on her desk and pressed her fingertips to her closed eyelids for a long moment.

"A man who was quite possibly an informant for the crown is done to death in a back alley," she said, a little indistinctly, "and you tell me that at the moment that was happening, you were in the upper city surreptitiously meeting with someone who was probably one of his handlers.  I'm not sure that's something I needed to discover this morning."

It took Dean a moment to realise that she had put two and two together and come up with … at least five.  Possibly six, even.  Then he had to wrestle down the urge to set her straight, because the last thing he had wanted to tell the District Commander was that he was a MindSpeaker, and she had most fortuitously just offered him an out.  Out of the corner of his eye he could see Ellison hastily wrestling his own incredulous expression back under control.

Well, hell, it wasn't like Dean had planned this, but he wasn't going to turn his nose up at it either.  Anything was better than the dust-up that would happen if his so-called Gift came to light.

The Commander dropped her hands with a sigh.  "Winchester, it's a damn good thing that you're very good at your job, because otherwise I'd be strongly tempted to find a reason to kick you out of my command.  A man who works for two masters, no matter how well-intentioned, is sooner or later going to end up having to make a choice between them, and in my experience that means the Watch will suffer for it.  But if you've sold your soul to the Queen's spymaster, there's nothing I can say about it.  All I want to know is this - will he back your story if he's asked?"

"Yes, ma'am."  Of that Dean was certain.

"Fine.  We don't mention this again, is that understood?"  Her gaze raked over the pair of them, but they were both swift in their agreement.  "Good.  Now tell me how the hell we ended up with a second body in the mortuary this morning."

That story took some telling, both by himself and Ellison, and at the end of it the Commander was left looking dissatisfied again. 

"I accept that you judged this woman to have some key role in the incident, and Lieutenant Sandberg's evidence indicates that you may have been right, Winchester, but I'm not comfortable with the fact that she ended up dead, however accidental it may have been.  Despite his appalling crimes, Crowley still has friends in this city.  A member of his family being killed by the Watch, especially a woman, is a tool that can be used to beat us."

"Believe me, ma'am, I didn't aim to kill her," Dean asserted.  He didn't regret taking the action he had, especially given what had happened to Jo, but there was no satisfaction in knowing that someone had died and he had struck the fatal blow.  "I was aiming to break her concentration, but she moved at the last second - "

"Well, I would sincerely hope you didn't aim to kill her," the Commander retorted, but her tone was milder than he had expected.  "That's not what the Watch is here to do.  But in a tight situation, people who incite disorder must accept the risks they bring upon themselves by their actions.  I'll want a full write up from both of you, and any members of your Watches who were involved, by the end of  tomorrow."

xXx

"You have the devil's own luck," Ellison told Dean quietly, when they left the Commander's office.

"Feels like someone's lookin' out for me," Dean admitted, "though I'll tell you to your face that I ain't sure if it's a good thing or not."

"If you must look a gift horse in the mouth, Winchester, at least try not to count its teeth," Ellison retorted wryly. 

"Ain't gift horses I'm worried about.  Someone killed Pyote, and I don't mind admitting that I'd rather know who they were and why they did it."

"I think we can rule out someone deliberately taking down a shitty, unreliable spy," Ellison said.  "A half-assed, unfinished strangling sounds personal and opportunistic to me."

"Sounds like someone without the physical strength," Dean noted.  "He wouldn't have been much of a challenge for you or me, even with all that blubber around his neck."

"Maybe."  Ellison sighed.  "We'll know more when the examination is complete.  Meanwhile, you have to be going on duty.  I'll let you know when Healer Scully's ready to report.  And Winchester - "

Dean paused, looking at him.

"I still want to know what's going on with that rookie."

xXx

Dean diverted to Fountain Court Healing Temple on his way back to the Watch House, and was relieved to discover that the Healers had finished working on Jo for the time being.  She'd been moved to a bed in a room with three others, and although she wasn't conscious yet, Ellen was sitting at her side.

She looked up when Dean stopped in the doorway, then got up and gestured for him to follow her out into the corridor.

"How is she?" Dean asked.  Half-healed and covered in dressings, Jo looked better than she had when he and Sandburg had carried her in there, but that wasn't saying much, and he couldn't tell how bad the damage was.

"They say there's nothing life-altering," Ellen said.  "There was some muscle damage in her arms, but they were able to heal that and the tendons weren't touched.  But they don't know how bad the scarring will be to her face."

Dean swallowed.  Jo was a pretty girl, and while there were women in the Watch and the Guard who boasted of their scars, he didn't believe she was the type.

"Don't look like that," Ellen said sharply.  "You and Sandburg saved her life, she would've bled out otherwise."

"Cold comfort," Dean said.

"Maybe so, but that's the risk you run when you join the Watch.  I warned her; she didn't listen and now she's gotta deal with it."  Dean grimaced, but he saw her blinking rapidly and knew she wasn't as calm as she wanted him to believe.  "Heard you took out the one who was running that show."

"Wasn't intentional, but yeah," he admitted.  "She was some sort of relative of Crowley's, they think."

"Then she's no loss," Ellen said harshly.

"Don't suppose you heard yet, but Pyote got himself killed last night too."

Ellen stared at him.  "Are you serious?"  Dean shrugged wryly.  "Same incident?"

"No - he was found in a back alley somewhere.  Looks like someone tried to strangle him, but they're not sure how he actually died yet."

She snorted sourly.  "Sounds just about right for him.  Well, I ain't gonna mourn him - that's one less bastard out there, as far as I'm concerned."

There wasn't much Dean could say to that, so he changed the subject.  "You planning to stay here long?"

"Just until she wakes.  Tamar and Anaelia can manage the Roadhouse until then."

"I gotta get back to the Watch House, but if there's anything you need from me, send someone over," he told her.

He was perhaps half a candlemark late going on duty, but it could have been worse.  He gave Jody a brief run-down of the events of the night before she went off duty, then called Valera into his office to warn her against getting talkative or cocky about Pyote's death.

"Best thing you can do is keep a low profile for a while," Dean told her.  "He might be dead, but he had buddies - guys like him always do, and they might try to make trouble for you.  So stick to the usual routine and try not to get caught out on your own.  And if any of 'em try to confront you, make sure you've got witnesses if you have to defend yourself."

From the look on her face as she assented to this, he didn't think it was likely that she would do anything stupid, but he knew only too well that sometimes the stupid could be thrust upon you, no matter how careful you were.

"Something else," he told her.  "The District Commander's heard a bunch of the rumours about you and sooner or later she's gonna be asking questions.  Captain Ellison already is.  So you need to start thinking about telling one of 'em the story you told me, and maybe doin' it before they ask formal-like. I know you don't want to," he said, when she began to protest, "and I'm not volunteering the information, but I'm telling you now, Constable, that I'm not gonna lie if I'm asked a direct question about it.  I will back you all the way, but not to perjury-point."

Valera was silent.

"Pyote getting himself dead in a gutter might be the best opportunity you could have to bring this out," Dean told her.  "Not like his death can be pinned on you, and I'm willin' to bet there's a whole barrel of shit about him that's gonna come out now he's out of the way.  It'll be just one more thing in a whole pile o' things, instead of the story of the month.  Think about it, all right?  There's no rush."

"Yes, sir," she said, subdued.

"All right.  Dismissed."

After that Dean settled in to write his report for the District Commander.  He was still wrestling with that several candlemarks later when someone tapped lightly on his door, and he barely grunted out an assent to them entering the room, so it was a shock when a female voice said:

"Heyla, it's only me.  Bad time?"

Dean's head shot up, then he was on his feet and rounding the desk to take the slender redhead in a hug.

"Charlie!  Goddamn, woman, but it's good to see you!"

Charlie Bradbury laughed into his shoulder, then punched it lightly and stepped back.  "Hey, bitch, what's going down?"

"Ugh!  Don't even ask.  Was I expecting you?  'Cause I gotta tell you, today went down the shitter before it even started."

"No, I was visiting Dad, and since my transfer papers came through this morning and they're assigning me to Ropewalk, I thought I'd take a look in on you."

"That's great news," Dean said, "for me, anyway - grab a chair.  You sure you're happy with this?  'Cause Rufus ain't leavin' 'till the Spring, so you're gonna be takin' a couple steps down for a while."

Charlie shrugged.  "Won't hurt to come in and get my bearings first - meet the crew and charm the pants off 'em - that kind of thing."  She gave him a wink.  "You've got some nice scenery on your front desk, I gotta say."

Dean grinned.  "You're in luck, she's your type."

"Excellent!  When do I start?"

"You tell me.  I think Pittou's last shift is in two days' time, but we're always short-handed so as far as I'm concerned you can start tomorrow if you want."

"I think I need to give my current captain a little more warning than that," Charlie said wryly, "but the end of the week is probably doable.  Who am I working with?  You've still got Jody and Henryks, right?  What about the rest of the crew - didn't Jo Harvelle sign on here?  How's she doing?"

The smile slid off Dean's face.  "That's a story you should probably hear from me now.  You got half a candlemark?"

Charlie raised her eyebrows.  "Sure."

It was a grim story, but Charlie was a good listener and at the end of it she said, "It's not good that the woman died, but I can't see what else you could have done."

"Yeah, I've been askin' myself that," Dean said with a sigh.  "Thing is, it was a hell of a mess before me and Fraya ever arrived, and you know what the conflict training says about situations like that."

"Take out the primary antagonist," she said, nodding.  "What made you so sure it was her, though?"

Dean hesitated.  To anyone else asking that question he would have tried to make up a plausible explanation.  But Charlie was a little different; they'd hit it off like brother and sister from the moment they'd met.  She was both level-headed and imaginative, and it occurred to Dean that it might be sensible for someone within his Watch to know about his abilities in case of trouble.  He didn't fancy explaining it to Jody or Henryks, but he felt he could trust Charlie to take it in her stride. 

"All the evidence pointed that way," he said cautiously.  "Look, are you heading back to your sector right away, or can I meet you to talk after my shift?"

"Works for me," she said easily.  "I'm spending the night with Dad, but he won't mind if I get dinner with you.  You still live at the Roadhouse, right?  I can meet you there if you like."

"Good idea.  The meal's on me."

"Damn right it is, Captain Winchester!"  But her smile was impish and familiar, and Dean felt a surge of gratitude at the chance that had brought her back into his life.

As well as the other thing, he wanted to tell her about Cas, an urge that surprised him only a little as she was possibly the only person in his life who had known from the start that he swung both ways.  Actually, he wanted her to meet Cas, but that would have to wait.

He saw Charlie out, then checked in with Valera who was looking anxious.

"Was I right to let her go through, Captain?  Only she's a sergeant and she said she knew you - "

"It's fine," Dean told her.  "Sergeant Bradbury's gonna be joining us soon - she just wanted to talk it over with me.  We've known each other for years."

Valera relaxed.  "There's a message from Penny Street, sir, it arrived while you were talking.  Captain Ellison's compliments, but you won't be getting results from the Healers until sometime tomorrow now.  There was a building collapse a couple of candlemarks ago and two people killed, and the Healers are tied up with that."

"Seriously?  Do they need help in Penny Street?"

"No sir - I did ask."

"Good thinking," Dean approved, and the smile that broke over Valera's face was very heartening.  She needed to feel more confident in what she was doing.  "Any others?"

"Only Widow Keffrey about - "

"Her neighbour's cats?"

"Yessir."  And Dean was amused by the exasperation in Valera's voice.  It hadn't taken her long to discover what a pain in the ass some of their regulars could be.  "She says they stare at her."

"She's lucky that's all they do.  My cat screams at me when she wants attention."

She relaxed and returned his grin.  "I asked her what she thought we could do about it.  She was … really rude."

"Yeah, that's how she usually is.  Don't let it worry you - we can't spend all our time running 'round to her neighbours just because she can't learn to live and let live.  Anybody else?"

"No.  Not even the man with the goat."  Valera sounded mildly disappointed.

"Please tell me the goat isn't in our lock-up again."

"No sir.  Does it really dance?"

"I've never seen it dance," Dean told her, "but I hear plenty of folk pay good money to watch it, so I guess it must.  Maybe."

He left her to it, and went back to finish his report.

xXx

Knowing that the staff at the Roadhouse must have been pushed for time, with Ellen unavailable for at least part of the day, Dean took the decision to buy a meal to take home with him.  A caupona on the corner of Threadneedle Street sold clay pots of spicy pork stew and fresh flatbreads wrapped in a warm cloth, and he remembered that Charlie loved spicy food just as much as he did.

She was waiting for him by the bar at the Roadhouse, chatting up Podina between customers.  Podina looked flattered by the attention and rather confused by it.  Dean doubted Charlie was serious though; flirting was just something she did.

"Is Ellen back?" Dean asked Podina.

"She got back just half a candlemark ago; she's having a bite to eat in the kitchen."  Podina looked relieved at this.

"How's Jo doin', did she say?"

"She gonna be all right, but they won't be sure about her face 'till tomorrow."

"She's alive and she's healing well," Charlie told Podina firmly.  "Everything after that's good luck.  Now - can we have a pitcher of medium cider?"

"I have seriously missed the food in the Strangers Quarter," she said, as they sat down at Dean's small table and split the flatbreads between the two of them.  "Is this pork?  It smells amazing.  Here, have some cider …"

"Dig in," Dean told her, and they both burned their mouths simultaneously.

"So what is it you wanted to tell me that you couldn't say at the Watch House?" Charlie said a short while later, after they'd soothed the scald with cold cider and the food had cooled enough to actually eat.

"Something that mustn't go any further," Dean warned her, "for reasons I'd hope are pretty obvious."

"Dean, you're the asshole big brother I never had.  Your secrets are totally safe with me, so spill."

So he told her everything, including the story of Sam and the demon, which was normally never mentioned even by the people who had been there and knew it to be true.  At the end of it, it was perhaps not surprising that Charlie's reaction was one of wide-eyed dismay.

"So demons are real," she said in a small voice, and Dean nodded glumly.

"Luckily, not too common though," he offered.

"Yeah.  And if one does pop up again, your sweetie has all the moves," she pointed out.

Dean felt himself turning red.  He hadn't actually mentioned his relationship with Cas yet, but he should have known she would pick up on that.

Charlie laughed when she saw his face.  "I knew it!  I knew you had to have it bad when you mentioned the guy had big blue eyes!"

"Aw, Charlie, come on!"

"Please tell me you jumped his bones already and it was totally steaming hot!"

Dean didn't know whether to laugh or groan.  "Why do you care if it was hot?  You're not interested in men!"

She made a rude noise.  "I'm shaych, not dead!  Besides, you said he was a priest - does he know what he's doing, or do I need to give him tips?"

"Ugh, stop!  He doesn't need any tips, trust me!"

"Glad to hear it."  When he pulled his face out of his hands, she was grinning at him but it was one of the kindest smirks he'd ever seen.  "You deserve to have someone awesome, Dean, and he sounds pretty badass to me.  Promise me you're not gonna try to push him away or anything lame like that."

"Don't think I could if I wanted to," Dean said, but he decided to leave the lifebond part of the story for another day. 

"The MindSpeaking thing's gotta be tough though," Charlie commented.  "If you're not allowed to use it …"

"Honestly, I don't want to," Dean said.  "Not as an everyday thing.  Just letting go of my shields here, in the evening …  The city's kinda loud, Charlie, and you don't want to know what folks are thinking all the time."

"You live over a tavern, I think I can guess."  She made a face.  "It's bad enough having some of 'em tell me sometimes!  What about the language thing though - that has to be useful, right?"

Dean shook his head.  "It could be, if it wasn't so damn risky.  I mean, most people in this sector know I don't speak a whole bunch of languages, so it's gonna look as weird as all hell if I suddenly start, 'specially if they speak a rare dialect or something.  That's how Cas's brother caught me out - I mean, I grew up talkin' Jkathan the way my mom and grandparents spoke it.  Turns out, that's not how the fancy folk in the capital city talk and I was picking up the way he and Cas were speaking all along.  Besides, right now I don't always know when I'm doing it - it just happens, which is freaking me out if I'm honest."

Charlie looked uneasily fascinated.  "How can you not know when you're speaking a different language?"

"I know, right?  It's dumb as hell, but it all sounds straight inside my head.  It's only when I concentrate that I pick up that the sounds are all wrong."

"What with that and the shielding, it sounds like you have to be concentrating pretty much all of the time," she commented.

"Yeah, that kinda sums it up" Dean admitted.

"You're ruining the romance.  And to think I always wanted to be a Herald," Charlie said.

"Yeesh - why?"

"Please!  The uniform, the Companion, the villages full of pretty girls - "

"Did you know they have to learn to sail a boat?" Dean demanded.

Charlie stared at him. "Why would they need to learn that?"

"Lemme see, how did Cas put it?  Because when you're posted to Lake Evendim, you can't stand on the shoreline and shout your judgements at people."

"Does the Companion have to get in the boat as well?"

Dean laughed in spite of himself.  "No idea.  I'll ask him for you."

"I'll ask him myself if you promise to introduce us," she said.

"Deal."

xXx

Later - after Dean had peeled Baby off Charlie's lap so Charlie could go home - he cleaned up the remnants of their meal, took his dirty uniform to Podina for laundering and checked in with Ellen, then stretched himself out on his bed.  He had a book by his hand that Charlie had lent him; he'd forgotten her taste for cheap adventure tales, and he fully expected this one to be hilariously lurid.  That was for later though.

Heyla, you around? he MindCalled softly.  He didn't want to disturb Cas if he was busy.

But Castiel had been waiting to hear from him.  Have you had a good day?  You seem cheerful.

Bad day, but better evening.  Dean told him a little about Charlie.  So she wants to meet you …

And I her, Castiel said at once.  It's good that you'll have a friend in your Watch now.  But what went wrong earlier?  I had a very odd dream in the early hours and I felt sure it had something to do with you, but you were shielding so tightly.

Devil dogs? Dean asked wryly, and at Castiel's start of surprise and assent, explained about the incident in Penny Street's sector.

Gods above and below.  Is Jo going to recover?

Ellen says so, but she may have scars.  And that woman -

Dean, if she was directing those dogs, you had no choice but to take the action you did.  That she died was pure bad luck.  When Dean was silent, he added more forcefully, Do not blame yourself for this.  Other people would have died, Jo among them, if you hadn't acted.

I don't understand what was going on with those dogs though, Cas.  Can people control animals like that?  Is it a Gift?

Yes.  Castiel's immediate confirmation of this took Dean by surprise.  There are several Gifts related to animals - some people can MindSpeak them, while others merely have a strong affinity with them.  Some of the senior men and women working here in the Palace stables, kennels and mews have animal-related Gifts.  I suspect Hawkeye does and … possibly Gabriel also.

I always had this idea that Gifts weren't common, Dean said slowly, but I'm starting to wonder.

Strong Gifts aren't common, certainly, Castiel replied.  And outside of Valdemar mind-magic of any kind is rarer.  It tends to run in families - I come by mine through my father's mother, as would Gabriel, if he is Gifted.  She was a MindSpeaker too.

I guess you know about the conversation I had with Kolsen and Raylor yesterday, huh?

Yes.  Forgive me, but I felt obliged to mention to them that your Gift was even stronger than we had previously realised.

And the language thing?

Castiel was silent for a moment.  I was aware, but I believe the person to raise it was Hawkeye.

Yeah, Kolsen said.  Dean wanted to be annoyed about this meddling in his life, but he found it hard to resent the fact that his friends cared enough to meddle.  Cas, what the hell am I gonna be doing next? Throwin' rocks around with my mind?

Do you feel that you could?

No!  But I didn't feel like I could talk a thousand and one different languages either!

Herald Raylor was right, you know, Castiel said mildly.  With a Gift for languages you have a whole world of new options available to you.

But that idea actually frightened Dean, who had grown up believing himself to be the stupid brother, the one who would always live a mundane life in his little corner of the city.  I'm a simple guy, Cas.  I'm a Watch officer, that's what I do.  I sort out bar fights and catch pickpockets, and at the end of the day I come home to my cat.

You underestimate yourself, but I don't wish to argue the point.  Try not to see these things as something bad, though.  You never know when you might be grateful to have them.

I guess, Dean said dubiously.

There is a reason I was waiting to hear from you, Castiel said.  Will you be on the same shift tomorrow?  I have something to tell you - nothing bad, just a surprise, but I would like to tell you in person.

Sure, I'll be here.  It's my last day on the early shift, so I'll be home mid-afternoon.

Good!  Eslan and I will be there.

Dean was intrigued, but Castiel wasn't letting a hint through of what it was about, so he let it go.  What exciting lesson have you got next?

Nothing new, just a pile of books on the law and one on advanced bookkeeping.  All of this makes me truly grateful I spent so much time assisting the Master of my Order in Throne City, if only because it taught me how to study very dry subjects.

Sounds like you need a break from it.  Tell you what, I'll let you have this book Charlie lent me when I'm finished with it.

Do I want to know what it is? Castiel asked suspiciously.

Hm, let's see …  Dean picked it up and read the faded gilt lettering on the battered cover.  The Garnet Treasury by A Gentlewoman.  Uh - wait, it's a collection of short "romaunces".  Yep, this is gonna be bad.

Why has Charlie given you this? Castiel demanded, amused.

It's a thing she used to do when we served together at Pieman's Yard.  She's got a thing about cheap and tacky stories.  There used to be this shop that sold old books and music and stuff, I reckon Charlie was their best customer.  Probably still is, actually.  She buys the books, reads 'em, then sells 'em back to the shop.

Are these the ghastly romantic novels that so many of the noblewomen here seem to read?

Dean shook with silent laughter at his appalled tone.  Let's find out!  He opened the book and found the contents page.  Oh, look what's up first!  "The Hidden Casks: An Adventure In Smuggling".

Written by someone who has no idea how dangerous and pernicious smuggling can be, no doubt!

Hush!  Don't be such a killjoy.  "Bard Pandolin And The Magic Flute" - not gonna lie to you, I'm hoping "magic flute" is a euphemism for something else. 

Of course you are!  He could practically hear Castiel rolling his eyes.

"The Goat-Girl And The Hawkbrother" - oh yeah, I can see where this is heading.  "Medalli Of Kata'shina'in".  What's Kata'shina'in?

It's the Shina'in trade city on the edge of the Dhorisha Plains.  A place I doubt the author has any personal knowledge of!

Or any knowledge at all, honestly.  It's probably a 'slave girl gets bought by a handsome Shina'in prince' story.

They don't have princes, Castiel said dryly.  Or slaves.

You're determined not to get into the spirit of this, aren't you? Dean said, amused.  See if I read you the most exciting bits!

It'll be a struggle, Castiel assured him, but somehow I'll contain my disappointment.  I'll see you tomorrow, Dean!

Dean blew him a cheerful mental raspberry.

xXx

Reading the book was as soothing as Dean remembered. 

Back in the old days, he and Charlie had speculated about the authors of these so-called 'cheap' romances.  Cheap was relative of course; any printed book was expensive by lower city standards but these were printed on the very lowest grade of paper with pasteboard covers and crude cloth bindings, and were probably cheap to the wealthy folk who were their initial buyers.  By the time they reached the bric-a-brac salesman who enjoyed Charlie's custom, they were battered and stained and often the one or other of the covers was missing, and they were genuinely cheap at the couple of pennies he asked for them.  The authors were always anonymous or characterised by obvious pen-names, and the skill of the writing varied - the style was often florid and the plot better not examined too closely, but sometimes there would be an unexpected gem among them, a story that was better thought-out and more sensitively written, with characters that had depth and humanity. 

The two of them had always speculated that perhaps those tales were written by an actual Bard, although Dean was sceptical because why would a Bard need to write his or her stories anonymously?

This book, needless to say, was not one of the better ones.  The first tale was hilariously unlikely, but the fun for both Dean and Charlie had always been in the ridiculousness of the stories, so Dean was not at all put off by the story of the poor, handsome and painfully honest young fisherman who found a bunch of hidden casks behind his boat shed one day, one of which contained a beautiful young woman who had a fish-tail instead of legs.  Admittedly, Dean's main thought was that there was a word for a fish-person in a barrel and that was "pickled", but … never mind.

It did give him some wild dreams that night though, which he rather wickedly hoped Cas had inadvertently shared.

xXx

The following day was one of those odd autumnal moments when the sun came out and the temperature unexpectedly rose, giving everybody one last, false, fleeting glimpse of the summer they had put behind them.  Dean awoke to discover that he'd pushed all his extra blankets to the foot of his bed in the night, and Baby had taken advantage of this to roll herself luxuriously in them.  She was still ignoring the new pad and blanket in her basket.

It was surprising how much a little sunshine could improve everyone's mood.  While Dean consumed toast and coffee in the kitchen, Ellen speculated hopefully that Jo might be well enough to come home in a few days.  When he reached the Watch House, Jody's crew were going off shift with none of the usual grumbling about chilly morning air, and his own shift had arrived in good time and ready for action. 

Dean sent Valera off with Jed for a change, leaving Rufus on the desk, and braced himself for a requested meeting with Fraya.  Apparently she had taken the District Commander's last warning to heart, but the conversation he had with her about her possible advancement in the Watch - especially considering Charlie's imminent arrival - was more positive than he expected.  He was able to use praise for her excellent performance during the incident at Penny Street Market to sweeten the disappointment a little and promised a review of her record in three moons.  Realistically, they both knew that she would not be able to advance anytime soon at Ropewalk Watch, but improvements in her record might allow a transfer to a better position in another Watch.  Unexpectedly, the frank conversation led to a spontaneous admission by Fraya that some of her poor attitude was due to a difficult personal situation, with a highly critical widowed mother and an over-achieving brother in another Watch further up in the city.

That done, and feeling as though he'd made the achievement of the month as a result, Dean spent a candlemark battering his paperwork into submission, then grabbed his Bully and went out on patrol for a while himself. 

Two pickpockets, a drunk and disorderly, and a lost toddler later (not to mention all the people stopping him to grumble or ask for directions), Dean returned to the Watch House.  It was well past noon and Rufus had a bunch of messages for him.  The first was from District Command and gave him the welcome news that Constable Pittou would be replaced, although with another probationer (Dean accepted this philosophically, everyone had to start somewhere); the second was a complaint from Widow Keffrey that no one in the Watch took her complaints seriously (since she did this at least once a moon, Dean gave this the consideration it deserved).  Most of the others were notes from various businesspersons in the sector wanting to pass him information or request updates on investigations. 

The final one was from Jim Ellison, noting that Healer Scully had requested a meeting with the two of them mid-afternoon to discuss her findings in the two autopsies she'd carried out.  Dean was a little surprised that he was included, as both cases were Ellison's, but he wanted to know what she'd found and it was always better to hear it firsthand.

A youthful messenger arrived for him just as he was setting out for the Temple; a private messenger, rather than a Watch runner, with a note from Ellen.  This filled Dean with misgiving, assuming it was bad news about Jo, but instead and to his surprise it said:

Sam's girl is here at the Roadhouse, in a state and wanting to talk to you.  Told her you won't be home for a couple candlemarks, but she says she'll wait.

If Ellen said Jess was in a state, then Dean was inclined to believe her and he was immediately worried, for it could only be about Sam.  For two pins he would have gone there at once, but he couldn't in conscience blow off a meeting with a busy Healer for a personal matter.  So he borrowed Rufus's pen and ink and scribbled a hasty reply on the back of Ellen's thin scrap of paper:

Got a meeting first, be back as soon as I can.  Tell Jess she can wait in my rooms if she wants, and stick any drink she likes on my slate.

He gave the messenger a penny to carry this back to Ellen and the boy was gone in a flash.  Trying not to speculate on what had gone wrong now with Sam, Dean hurried off to the Temple.  The sooner he got done there, the quicker he could find out.

Healer Scully met Dean and Ellison in Healer Welles's office, as she wasn't herself permanently posted to the Fountain Street Temple.  She was one of a handful of Healers whose speciality was the dead, and she also taught, so she was usually to be found at the House of Healing at the Healers Collegium.  Most of what Dean knew about her actually came from her mother, Maggie, who was one of Ellen's cronies and was sometimes to be found sitting by the kitchen fire at the Roadhouse, gossiping with the staff there.  That was probably why, when Healer Scully showed them into the office that afternoon, he suddenly and very randomly remembered that she had a small son called Will and a husband who was a Herald, although he didn't think he'd ever heard the guy's name mentioned.

"I'm sure you're busy, gentlemen, so I won't keep you waiting around," she said.  One thing Dean liked about her was her air of dignity and quiet composure; he thought that on those occasions when she had to deal with relatives of the deceased, her manner must be very soothing.  "I asked to see both of you, because I thought Captain Winchester would also be interested in my findings, particularly in regard to the woman from the market compound."

"Her identity has been mostly confirmed," Ellison put in, crossing his legs as he sat back in his chair.  "We don't have much information about her though.  I can't find any records for a female relative of Crowley's by the name of Rowena McLeod, other than his mother.  I assume she must be dead, as no one has seen her in some years, but there's no record of that either.  But the residents at neighbouring properties of Crowley's old house recognised this woman as being someone living there that Crowley claimed as family."

Scully made a wry face.  "I don't believe what I'm about to tell you will help much.  Actually, my colleagues and I don't know what to make of it.  As you saw for yourselves, she looked to be a healthy woman in her late thirties or early forties perhaps.  But when I opened her up, her internal organs told a different story - to be frank, she had the body of an eighty year old woman on the inside, and not a healthy eighty year old either."

Dean exchanged a frowning glance with Ellison.  "Is that possible?"

"Normally, I would have to say no - any one of a number of things should have rendered her bedfast at the very least, but to pick one particular issue that stood out, her heart was so congested and scarred it was a wonder she could walk around unaided.  Her kidneys would also have barely been functioning, and she had the lungs of someone with a lifelong bacca habit."  Scully sighed and rubbed her brow, flipping over sheets of paper in a thin file in front of her.  "Her joints were degraded and in an advanced state of arthritis … she had cirrhosis of the liver - "

"What's that?" Dean asked, not recognising the term.

"It's what happens when you try to drink yourself to death," she said bluntly.  "The liver hardens and becomes scarred, and there's a list of other side effects that aren't really relevant right now.  There's no cure, except weaning the patient off alcohol, and it's often fatal anyway, one way or another."  She flipped the file closed and sat back.  "The last body I saw like this was of a man in late middle age who had spent his life eating, drinking and smoking illicit substances to excess.  I was so shocked, I asked three colleagues to come and confirm what I was looking at."

There was a moment where they all looked at each other uncertainly.

"How do you explain that?" Ellison asked finally.

Scully sighed.  "I don't, Captain.  This is something quite outside of my experience.  There were a couple of other anomalies - primarily her teeth, which were in perfect condition.  And I do mean perfect, which is unheard of for anyone past their teens, and I include wealthy people who can afford to pay for the very best treatments in that.  The other odd thing was that a few hours after you left her with me, all her hair fell out, including her eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair.  I don't have an explanation for that either."  She paused, then said, "If I were basing my judgement purely on the internal evidence, then I would suggest that she was actually Crowley's mother - she'd be about the right age and she appeared to have borne at least one child.  But the external evidence says that's not so."

Dean looked across at Ellison.  "And you say I get all the weird cases," he said dryly.  "What now?"

Ellison shrugged.  "We continue to try and find out who she really was.  So far none of the men who were with her are saying much about that, but perhaps if I put all this information to Herald Asrel, she'll authorise the use of Truth Spell on them."

Dean thought that was unlikely, since Truth Spell wasn't a measure Heralds liked to use willy-nilly, but it wasn't his call and he wasn't sorry about that.

"What about Guardsman Pyote?" Ellison asked.

"I've released the report on him to his Commander, as the Guard may want to take over the investigation," Scully said.  Ellison shrugged at this; undoubtedly he was busy enough - and the case troublesome enough - that he wouldn't be sorry to see the back of it.  "What I can say is that the result of the examination wasn't as straightforward as it first seemed.  Someone had definitely attempted to strangle him and failed, and the initial examination suggested that he might have collapsed as a result and hit his head, perhaps on a kerbstone.  When I examined him more closely, however, that blow to the head wasn't nearly enough on its own to have killed him."

"So what did?" Dean asked curiously.

"There was another, pre-existing head injury," Scully told him.  "Not immediately obvious until I looked inside the skull, but it looks like he received a heavy blow to the face perhaps as much as a week ago which resulted in a small bleed - small enough that he probably didn't notice anything was wrong, except perhaps for some light-headedness.  However, it created a weakness and when he collapsed after the attempted strangulation, the secondary blow caused the leaking blood vessel to rupture completely.  He effectively died of a catastrophic brainstorm."

Dean was suddenly conscious of his pulse hammering in his ears.  "A heavy blow to the face," he repeated.

"Yes, in fact there was some residual bruising around the nose and eye socket.  I'd say someone punched him -  Captain, are you all right?"

"It's a little stuffy in here," Dean muttered, getting up.  "Excuse me, I just need to - "

He walked out without waiting for their reactions, and kept walking until he was standing by the fountain in the courtyard that gave the Healing Temple its name.  His mind was a horrified blank, but his hands were trembling and in the end he tucked them under his armpits to still them.

He wasn't sure how much later it was, but eventually Ellison came to find him.

"It's not your fault," he said, and Dean stared at him in disbelief.

"You're kidding me, right?  Because what I heard in there was that Pyote wouldn't have died in that alley if I hadn't laid him out cold a week ago."

"You don't know that," Ellison retorted.  "Even she can't say for sure what would have happened if he didn't already have that bleed on the brain.  You didn't stay to hear the rest of her report, Winchester, but I'll summarise for you: He was grossly overweight, hopelessly out of shape, and he was more than halfway to liver failure thanks to some of his vices.  There's a good chance that semi-strangulation, followed by a heavy fall, would have killed him anyway.  His heart gave out, as well as his brain."  He paused.  "It could as easily have happened the next time he bothered to turn up for a routine drill at the barracks."

"But it didn't, did it, Jim?  It happened because yours truly punched him in the face and left him bleeding inside his head!"

Ellison looked to be at a loss.  "What do you want me to say, Dean?"

"The fuck if I know!  How about Congratulations, you murdered two people in one night?  'Cause let's face it, that has to be some kind of a record for a Watch Captain!"

"You are not a murderer!" Ellison snapped, appalled.  "That woman - "

"That woman was trying to kill people I know, and I'm sorry she's dead but I'm not sorry I took the action I did," Dean interrupted him.  "But there's no excuse for what I did to Pyote, and now he's dead of it.  That's on me, Jim, and no amount of fancy work with words is gonna change that."

They stared at each other.

"So what now?" Ellison demanded.  "Are you planning to go hand yourself in to the Commander at Water Street?  What do you think he's going to do, Dean?  Do you really think he cares who took Pyote out?  That guy was a massive thorn in his foot - he's not in any hurry to find out who did it, hell, I’ll be amazed if he chooses to take the case off me.  He's not going to thank you for complicating his life with this.  And for the record, nor will I or the District Commander.  Think about that for a minute, will you?"

"That makes it all just fine and dandy to you, does it?"

"Dean, it was an accident.  It was sheer bad luck.  Any other guy, if you punched him he'd maybe go down, then he'd get back up again and walk away from it with nothing more than a black eye and a vow to punch you back at the first opportunity.  And you seem to forget that someone else tried to strangle Pyote before he died, otherwise he'd likely still be walking around today!"

Dean shook his head.  "You don't get it, do you?  Well you know what, I'm done talking.  You let me know when you're ready to look at this from my side."

He left Ellison standing beside the fountain and walked away from the Temple, not particularly caring what direction he took.

xXx

Dean must have wandered the Strangers Quarter for nearly a candlemark after that, his mind in chaos. 

Worst of all was the realisation that he still loathed Pyote to his very marrow, and somehow that made his involvement in the man's death so much worse.  His primary emotion was a horrified revulsion; had Pyote dropped dead of any other cause on any other day, he would have experienced absolutely no regret whatsoever, only a sense of 'good riddance' .  But it was one thing to witness the hand of the gods reaching out in awful and satisfying judgement, and another entirely to find himself in the position of judge and executioner, however unintentionally.

Eventually he found himself walking towards Sisal Alley, and there on the corner by his worn out little shrine was Father Joe, administering to his flock of street children as usual.  He saw Dean approaching and he turned to him with a smile.  Then he took a closer look, and he turned back to scatter his motley collection of young disciples before they could converge on Dean and pester him.

"I hope this is the end of your working day, Captain," he said kindly.  "You look weary.  Have a seat with me here at the feet of the good Lady and rest yourself a while."

That seemed like a good idea.  Dean sank down on one of the worn out steps in front of the shrine and Father Joe sat next to him.  For several minutes they were quiet.

"How are your brothers?" Father Joe asked eventually.

"Pretty good, thanks," Dean said vaguely, although that only reminded him - distantly - that Jess was waiting for him at the Roadhouse.  "Still studying."

"It's an excellent opportunity for them - I hope they make the most of it."

"Yeah."

"From the look on your face," Father Joe said quietly, "something more than ordinarily trying has happened.  Will you tell me and share the weight of it?"

Dean felt unexpected tears pricking at the back of his eyes.  "I dunno, Father.  I don't suppose you've got many illusions about me but - "

"No illusions," Father Joe interrupted him gently, "but respect.  Yours has never been an easy life.  Please - tell me what ails you."

Dean didn't know where to begin, so he was shocked to hear himself say helplessly: "I want to go home, Father."

There was a startled pause.  Then Father Joe said carefully, "It's only two streets away, Dean."

 - trees stretching above his head forever, cool shadowed forest, pollens from great curling ferns dancing in the air, the smell of fresh leaves and old fungi, and the sound of birds calling -

Dean shook his head.  "No it's not.  It's hundreds of miles away in the south, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to go back there."  Castiel had been right about him, he realised dully.

He had no idea if Father Joe knew of his family's background.  In any event he didn't ask, saying instead, "Why are you thinking about that today?"

Dean thought about it.  "I guess," he said slowly, "because some days I look at this city and everything in it seems so damn grubby - the buildings, the people, the whole way of life here.  Back home life was cleaner.  I was cleaner."

"Was it really cleaner," Father Joe asked, "or is that just how you think you remember it?  People are people, Dean, no matter where they are.  They're just human and so are you, when all's said and done."

"Still a pretty grubby one," Dean said.

"And why would that be?"

So Dean told him.  When he was done, he asked, "Are you gonna tell me it wasn't my fault now?"

"No," Father Joe said calmly.  He didn't seem particularly shocked or dismayed by Dean's confession.  "But I'm not going to call you a murderer either.  Guardsman Pyote's death was one he laid the groundwork for with his own hands, over a long space of time.  As so many do.  As did that woman who also died at your hands."

"How evil does a person have to be for their life to be worthless?" Dean asked him.

"There's no such thing as a worthless life," Father Joe said, a touch of sternness entering his voice.  "Every life has some value, from the moment we're born.  We're given that valuable life by the gods, to do the best with it that we can, but it's not their fault if we squander their gift."

"It doesn't matter that Pyote was pondscum," Dean explained, frustrated.  "That didn't give me the right to kill him."

"In a weak moment you gave in to his provocation.  Very well, I agree that's hardly to your credit.  But you didn't set out to kill him and at the risk of annoying you by echoing Captain Ellison, you weren't the person who put the final seal on his fate.  Remember this: He got up and walked away, and for several days he continued to carry out his duties … or what passed for his duties, at any rate.  And that tiny bleed in his brain would surely have killed him at some point, Dean, but it might not have happened for many more days.  What if he'd simply collapsed in the street, or died in his sleep, a week or more hence?"

Dean was silent.

"You know as well as I do how it would have gone," Father Joe said.  "There'd be a cursory examination by one of the overworked Healers at his barracks, because in all likelihood there wouldn't be reason to look at the matter more deeply.  And they might have noted the bleed in his brain, but if there was no obvious evidence of an external cause, they would look at his physical condition - which was quite clearly poor even to those of us with little knowledge of medicine - and conclude that his death was a result of his way of life."  He poked one long, bony finger into Dean's shoulder.  "Which is was!  And you would have heard he was dead but thought nothing of it."

"Still doesn't make what I did right," Dean said stubbornly.

"No, it doesn't," Father Joe told him.  "There's a lesson in this for you.  Allowing your temper and dislike of a person to overcome you, no matter how great the provocation, can come with a horrible price.  But at the same time, you have no business claiming everything in this matter is your fault - rushing to whip yourself for the things you didn't do is a sin as much as the blow you struck.  You're allowing it to overcome your better judgement, and in the process you're forgetting something very important."

"What's that?" Dean asked.

"That someone out there really did try to murder Guardsman Pyote," Father Joe said dryly, "and no matter their motivation, that's a crime.  What are you doing to find them?"

Dean let his head fall forward for a moment, then looked sideways at the old priest.  "You’re right," he admitted.

They sat for a while longer in companionable silence, then Father Joe gently smacked Dean's knee.  "Are you in a better frame of mind now?"

"Yeah."  Dean gave him a faint smile.  "Yeah, I am.  Thank you."

"You're welcome.  Now, one final bit of advice: go back to the Roadhouse, have something to eat and get some sleep.  You'll feel a great deal better tomorrow if you do.  In fact - " he stood up slowly, groaning a little at his creaking knees, " - I'll walk with you that far.  I want to visit Saloman Baker and see if he has any unwanted bread I could redistribute for him."

It was perhaps the fifth hour after noon; the shadows were beginning to lengthen, but it wouldn't be sundown for another candlemark yet.  Dean walked slowly with Father Joe along Sisal Alley to where it intersected with Hemp Alley.  There were still plenty of people bustling about and children racing around.

"You're good with the motivational speeches, Father," he said, as they walked down Hemp Alley towards the Roadhouse Inn.  "Any chance I can get you to talk some sense into Sam next time he's here?"

"Absolutely!" Father Joe said cheerfully.  "What's he been up to?"

"I'm not sure," Dean admitted, "but I got a message earlier that his girl Jess is waiting to talk to me at the Roadhouse, and I got an idea it's because he's tossed all his common sense out of the window."

"Ah!  That rather charming young lady whose parents are merchants in the upper city?"

Dean wasn't in the least surprised that Father Joe - and probably all of their neighbours - knew Jessica's personal circumstances.  Someone would have made it their business to find out after the first time she was seen in the Strangers Quarter with Sam.  "Yeah," he said wryly. 

Father Joe gave him a look that was both knowing and sympathetic.  "Too many dreams to see the cold light of reality?"

"Something like that."

"Well, by all means send him to me, although if he's as alike to your father in stubbornness as he is in looks, I can't promise much of a result.  But he might listen more to an outsider than an older brother, you never know."

"Thanks Father."  Dean paused on the step of the Roadhouse to clasp the priest's hand gratefully.

"You're welcome, Dean.  Take care."

Dean watched him amble up the Alley towards the bakery, responding to greetings from everyone and anyone as he went, then turned and went inside.

xXx

"You took your time," Ellen accused him.  "Sam turned up not five minutes ago, I can't believe you missed him, and the pair of them - "

Dean could hear raised voices coming from somewhere on the upper floor, and a few of Ellen's customers were beginning to show an interest in whatever was going on up there.

"Aw, hell," he muttered.  "Right, I'm going."

He headed for the stairs, Ellen following.  "You want me to come too, just in case?" she demanded.

That seemed like the worst possible idea to Dean, who could just imagine Sam's reaction to her involving herself.  "No, it's fine, I can handle it.  You've got customers."

It was only when he reached the top of the stairs that he wondered if that had been a sensible move after all, for although he couldn't hear the actual words, he didn't like the tone of the argument he could hear.  Jess was a tough girl; Dean hadn't forgotten her making her way to find him, after dark, in a part of the city she knew nothing of, the last time Sam had been acting irrationally.  But he didn’t like the distress and pleading he could hear in her voice now, or the fury in Sam's, although the latter didn't - quite - have the ugly note that had characterised the demon Azazel back then.

Ash popped his head out of his room further down the landing as Dean approached his own door.  He gave Dean a quizzical look.  "Problem, Deano?"

"I'm handling it," Dean told him.

"Okeydokey.  Shout if that changes."  He disappeared back into his room.

Dean braced himself and opened the door.  Baby shot through it, and raced across the landing and down the stairs; all her fur was standing on end.  He went inside to find Sam and Jess facing off across the table, and for once he felt no compunction whatsoever in dropping his shields enough to try and 'hear' whatever was going on with his brother.

Jess was practically a blank slate to Dean, which came as no surprise as he already knew that while she wasn't completely mindblind, she was definitely on the extreme lower end of the non-Gifted. Sam on the other hand … he couldn't actually hear any coherent thoughts from his brother, but what he did get was an emotional punch to the gut.

Sam supposedly had a very minor empathic Gift, which he'd been taught to shield and control in the same way that Dean had his MindSpeech, but by the Queen's Own Herald Ansel, rather than Herald Raylor.  There was little of that control in evidence right now and, Dean suspected, no shielding either, which meant it was lucky that his Gift was minor or everyone within range would have been reacting to his incandescent rage and betrayal.

It took Dean a moment to find enough breath to speak.

"What the hell is going on here?" he demanded.  "Sammy?"

He was startled when Sam's reaction to his arrival was to stalk across the room and get right into his face.  It was surprisingly intimidating, even for one trained to face off against aggressive people; they were practically nose to nose.  It occurred to Dean that when he finally stopped growing Sam was going to be significantly bigger than him, and right now that was not a helpful thought.

"What is this?" Sam demanded furiously.  He jabbed a finger at Jess without taking his eyes off his brother's face.  "Are you meeting with her behind my back now, you asshole?"

"Sure," Dean retorted, with the sarcasm he could never quite control.  "In my ample off-duty hours from halfway across the city, of course!  What the hell, Sam?  Have you completely lost your mind?"

"I know you!" Sam snarled.  "I know what you're like with women and I've seen you looking at her, but I never thought you'd actually - "

"You know fuck-all about me," Dean interrupted him coldly, and he could feel his own anger rising.  "Especially if you think I could do something like that - and will you get the hell out of my face?"

He shoved Sam back roughly, and suddenly realised that the rage Sam was projecting was triggering a similar response in him somehow.  He was too tired and emotionally unsettled to deal with this after the day he'd had, and it was a struggle to pull his shields back into place.  When Sam surged back at him, he didn't even bother to deal with it diplomatically; he deflected the sloppy blow Sam aimed at him and used the momentum to grab his arm and twist him around.

Then Sam was face down on the table with Dean pinning him there, his arm twisted painfully up behind his back.  He roared his fury into the table top but Dean ignored him for a moment, looking across at Jess who had backed away.

"Are you all right?" he asked her.  "What the hell set this off?"

Jess looked exhausted.  "We talked - Sam wanted us to just get married, right now, but I said - I said no, we have to wait, and he - "

"Flipped his shit?" Dean suggested.  He leaned over to look Sam in the eye.  "What are you thinking, Sammy?  Are you even thinking at all?  We talked about this, dammit!"  Sam snorted something dismissive into the table top.  "Who's been twisting your tail?" Dean pushed. 

"You don't understand!" Sam cried out, but he had suddenly relaxed and gone limp under Dean.

"You don't know fuck all about that either," Dean said wearily.  "You gonna behave if I let you up?"

"Whatever."

Dean waited a moment, then let go of him and quickly stepped away.  He could see Jess backing up against the wall too, and a tiny part of his mind registered this unconscious move on her part as a bad sign.  She'd weathered and come through the inevitable reactions to Sam's behaviour while he was possessed by the demon, but this might possibly be the final straw.  He didn't have the demon as an excuse this time.

"That asshole Brady you told me about," Dean said to his brother, with a sudden flash of what he hoped was insight.  "He the one who's winding you up?"

"What would you know about it?" Sam retorted, rubbing the wrist Dean had twisted.

"Nothing if you don't tell me!  But I know this, Sammy - it don't matter jackshit what anyone's doin', because it don't give you the right to treat Jess like this.  Are you hearing me?  Acting out like this, that's an asshole move - "

Sam's eyes blazed.  "You don't get to tell me what to do, Dean!  You're not Dad and I'm not a kid anymore!"

"No, I'm your brother and I'm calling you on your shit, Sam!" Dean flung back.  "And lemme tell you, I am fucking tired of you and Adam squealing about me not being Dad every time I catch one of you spewing bullshit like some spoiled highborn brat - "

"Will the pair of you just stop?" Jess shouted suddenly.  She had her arms clasped tight around her and she was fighting back tears.  "I'm done with you, Sam, do you hear me?  I am done.  I can't deal with this anymore - "

She made for the door, but Sam blocked her path.  His face was scarlet and his eyes wild.

"No!  You're done when I say you're done!" he shouted, and he grabbed for her.

Dean pushed between them, shoving Sam back towards the door and away from Jess.  "Sammy, don't you dare - "

"NO!"

The shout made Dean's ears ring, and in the shocked silence that followed it seemed like everywhere else - the taproom below and street outside - was startled into silence too.

Then Sam threw out his hands and struck at Dean - but not with his fists.

He didn't even touch him, but was like being hit by an avalanche; the force was immense and unstoppable, and seemed to hit Dean's whole body all at once, throwing him through the air towards the window.  Then he hit the window and there was a tremendous crashing sound and a shock of pain down his back and shoulders that drove the breath out of him. 

Something gave way and the world seemed to slow to a crawl. 

Jess was screaming, but Dean barely heard her.  The air around him was full of flying debris, glass, shards of broken timber and chunks of masonry - he was flying through the air - and then he was falling backwards, staring up at the jagged and rapidly retreating hole that had appeared in the upper storey of the Roadhouse's frontage.

His vision blurred …

- deer stepping gracefully into a sunlit clearing, the shadows from the canopy above dappling their hides, birds singing, insects humming, the tension of an arrow on a bowstring -

… and he hit the ground and there was nothing.

 

Chapter Text

A tap on his door made Castiel pause in his efforts to look at all of himself in the tiny mirror on his wall.  He opened the door and outside stood Steve Rogers, smiling hopefully and wearing his own brand-new set of Whites.

"Well?" he said.  "How do I look?"

"I think that's my question," Castiel commented, a little amused, but he stepped outside - there was barely enough space in his tiny room for both of them - and they sized each other up.  "It creates a very sleek line," he commented finally, "but this is surely the most conspicuous uniform in the world."

"It's supposed to be," Peggy said.  She was leaning against the wall a few feet away, her arms crossed loosely beneath her bosom.  "You're meant to be the focus of every eye wherever you go, it's how people recognise your office."  She eyed them both with a lurking smile.  "You're both very pretty, ladies.  Now the real question is - are you ready for the next step?"

The two of them exchanged glances.

"No way to know until we try," Steve said philosophically.

"Good answer."  Peggy straightened up.  "Call this a free day, and go show your Companions and all your friends your nice new uniforms.  But try not to get them dirty, the housekeeper will have something to say if she has to launder them after only one day's wear."

"You gonna head into the city?" Steve asked, as they walked out to the Companions Field.

"Oh yes.  I told Dean I would visit today because I had something to tell him."

Steve gave him a speculative look.  "You think he'll be pleased?"

Castiel wrinkled his nose.  "As to that - I think he'll be pleased for me, but the feeling will not be unmixed."

"Yeah," Steve said sympathetically.  "Gonna be kinda difficult for him when you're gone, I guess."

"It is what it is, and he accepts that."  Castiel liked Steve, but this wasn't a conversation he wanted to have with him, so he diverted him by asking, "What of you, will you visit your friends at the barracks?"

"Maybe in a while.  I thought first I'd go for a ride around the field with Sam and get used to the fit of these things."

Castiel grinned.  The breeches and tunic were made of very soft, supple leather, and although the fit was well-tailored, it was very different to the feel of the heavy canvas trainee uniform.  He was reminded of his old uniform from when he'd been a priest of Bel, which had also been leather but somewhat rougher than this.

Sam and Eslan were waiting for them when they reached the Field, both tacked up already.  Steve immediately vaulted into the saddle and rode away with a casual wave, but Castiel paused in front of Eslan.

"What do you think?" he asked.  "Do you approve?"

It looks very well.  You are now a true Herald and we will do the work we are meant to do together.

"All in good time," Castiel told him good-humouredly.  "I still seem to have a great many lessons to undertake, and all in all a very great deal of work to be done before Spring comes.  I'm not entirely sure it will be possible to finish it all in time, but I'm told to take today as a holiday and so I shall."

You will be ready, Eslan said firmly.  He pawed the ground.  But for now, shall we visit Dean?  I imagine he'll be very surprised.

"So do I," Castiel admitted, mounting up.  "He's been preoccupied lately."

Riding through the city was almost a new experience.  Before, people had noted that he was a Herald trainee but not accorded him much special attention; now, however, in full Whites he was suddenly a notable figure and complete strangers would acknowledge him in passing, sometimes even calling out a friendly greeting.  It was something quite out of Castiel's usual experience.

People love Heralds, he commented to Eslan.

For the most part, yes, at least here in Haven.  There are some parts of the kingdom where we are less welcome, however.

Is Lake Evendim one of those parts?

There are some severe pockets of … villainy … there, Eslan admitted.  Your mentor will explain in more detail, but I believe you'll be surprised at how embedded the culture of smuggling and piracy is.

Regrettably, my friend, I've yet to be surprised by the human propensity for wickedness, but hopefully I can still be surprised by some of its infinite variations.

Now that is a morbid thought on such a pleasant day, the Companion noted good-humouredly, and Castiel chuckled.

As you say.  Very well, away with all cares!  I like the look of those apple pies for sale there - shall we buy some to share with Dean?

Pies purchased and hanging in their cloth wrapping from the front of the saddle, they turned into Hemp Alley and Eslan slowed to avoid scampering children and an elderly woman with a broom.  There seemed to be an unusual number of people idling about as the two of them approached the Roadhouse Inn, and the reason for that quickly became clear.  Castiel could hear a quarrel going on somewhere nearby, although the actual words being spoken were indistinct, and people were stopping to listen and speculate among themselves about it.

There was a narrow entranceway at the side of the Roadhouse which led to the laundry at the back of the inn.  Ellen would never have allowed a horse - or any other animal larger than a cat - in there, but as Eslan was essentially a person in horse form he had special privileges and was always assured of a comfortable welcome.  Castiel had to dismount first though; the little alley wasn't wide enough for him to ride in there.

It was clear by now that the quarrel was coming from the upper storey of the Roadhouse, where Dean's rooms were.  Castiel felt a sharp pang of alarm; he tried to reach Dean's mind as he dismounted, but his shields were up tightly and all he got was a sense of seething rage from somewhere else in the room.

Is that Sam? he asked Eslan, alarmed, but before the Companion could reply the window exploded outwards in a hail of splintered beams, masonry and glass shards. 

Castiel ducked away instinctively, but Eslan stood rock steady and radiating an unseen shield against the debris, something Castiel hadn't previously been aware he could do.  A woman inside the room above was screaming, and so were people in the street.  The crowd scattered and none too soon, for a body flew out amid the wreckage and landed with a cruel thud on the cobbles.

Chosen, quickly!  It's Dean!

Castiel scrambled under Eslan's belly, his eyes fixed on his lover's body.  He wasn't moving and his head had fetched up against one of the uneven kerbstones.

Someone else passed him more quickly - Father Joe, who fell to his knees beside Dean and carefully, so carefully, examined him.  There was a small but growing pool of blood around his head and as he joined the old priest at Dean's side, Castiel stared at it in blank horror.

Father Joe set his long, bony fingers delicately on the crown of Dean's head, and incredibly the blood stopped flowing.  "Look at me!" he said harshly, and Castiel's eyes snapped up to his face.  "He lives and I can hold him, but not for long on my own.  I need you to channel strength to me - can you do that?"

For a hideous moment Castiel's mind was blank.  Then he felt Eslan somehow inserting himself between him and the shock, and his mind cleared.  "Yes - yes, I can do that."

"Good."  Father Joe looked around and raised his voice.  "You - Miri!  You're the fastest.  I need to you run as quickly as you can to Fountain Court Temple and bring back a Healer!"

"My Companion will take her!" Castiel said, as he settled his hands over Father Joe's.  "Someone put her in the saddle and he'll do the rest."

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a burly individual covered in sawdust lifting a young street girl into Eslan's saddle, then the Companion was wheeling around and heading back down the Alley at a fast trot, people hurrying out of his way.

"Slow and steady, Herald," Father Joe murmured, and Castiel willed himself into the half-trance that would allow him to feed strength into the other man.  His vision and focus narrowed to their hands on Dean's head, but around him he was still dimly aware of activity - a babble of voices, people running, more people suddenly asking questions and giving orders, and then the sound of chiming hooves on the rough cobbles.

Abruptly another pair of hands joined his and Father Joe's, and Castiel registered the white sleeves above them.

"Here, let me help," a male voice said quietly, and more energy began to flow.

For a time Castiel ceased to notice anything but the steady flow of strength into Father Joe.  Then another hand reached between them to rest lightly on Dean's brow and a firm voice said, "Well done, all of you.  We'll take it from here."

Castiel snapped out of his trance to find a man in Healer Greens holding his face between his hands.  "Back with us?" the Healer asked, and he managed to nod.  "Good.  Come out of the way now."

Someone helped him up and the Healer immediately took his place at Dean's side.  The second Herald, a man he'd never seen before, was also on his feet and stepping back.  There was another Healer on her knees beside Dean, a woman with iron grey hair in an elaborate braided knot on the back of her head, and it was she who had spoken first of all.  She was engaged in carefully taking Father Joe's place, and someone was standing ready to lift the exhausted priest out of the way when she released him.

Eslan was nosing him gently, concerned.  He lives, Chosen.  Hold onto that thought.

Castiel felt numb.  I don't understand how this happened.

Herald Asrel is here, with many members of the Watch.  She'll soon know more.

The other Herald approached, studying him carefully.  He was a tall, lanky man, dark-haired, in his late thirties perhaps.  "Hey, are you all right?  Santha says you're Castiel.  I'm Mulder - I literally just got back from circuit when your Eslan raised the alarm."

Castiel licked his lips and found his voice.  "I - I'm sorry, I don't know what happened, we just got here and - he's my lifemate - "

He was babbling.  Mulder squeezed his arm reassuringly.  "I know.  Try not to think for a few minutes, just breathe.  He's alive and the Healers are doing everything they can.  Herald Asrel's put herself in charge here, but this is what's probably going to happen: If the Healers can stabilise him, they'll want to move him to the nearest Healing Temple.  When that happens you and I need to have a litter rigged between Santha and Eslan to carry him, so I'm going to go see what materials are available to do that.  Stay put, I'll be back in a minute."

The admonition was hardly necessary; Castiel couldn't have moved if his life depended on it.  He stood rooted to the spot, leaning against Eslan's shoulder and watching the Healers working on Dean.  There were Watch officers everywhere, questioning witnesses, holding back rubberneckers, and escorting a handful of patrons out of the Roadhouse and away from the scene.  A few minutes later, young Podina emerged from the Roadhouse bearing an armful of linen pieces ripped from clean sheets and took them across to the Healers, one of whom, without taking his hands or eyes from Dean, began to instruct her in forming the linen into a dressing.  The girl wept silently as she carried out his instructions.

Someone touched Castiel's elbow; when he started and looked around he found Ellen there, grim and white-faced, holding out a small mug.  "Drink it," she ordered him.  "You need your wits about you and this'll help."

He didn't argue but gulped it down.  It was tea, hot and overly sweet, with a dose of something in it that burned in his belly as soon as he swallowed, but she was right, it did help to clear his head and steady him.  Then Mulder was back and with him two workmen, one of them the man covered in sawdust who had helped Father Joe's messenger into Eslan's saddle.  They were carrying narrow lengths of wood shaped like railings and coils of rope.

"We need a length of canvas, or something similar, big enough to form a kind of hammock between the two Companions," Mulder said to Ellen.  "You wouldn't have anything like that, would you?"

She drew in a shaky breath and nodded.  "Maybe a length of ticking?  That be strong enough?  Lemme see what we've got.  Worst case, Saloman'll let us have his summer awning I'm sure."  She went off to look.

"How are you doing?" Mulder asked Castiel.

He pulled himself together.  "I can do whatever is needed."

"Good man.  Come on, I'll talk you through how we do this."

Castiel had learned how to rig litters and travois when he was a novice priest, and that training had been supplemented by the Collegium when he was Chosen; but had he been called upon to do on his own today it would have been a dismal failure.  But Mulder was experienced in this sort of improvisation, and by the time Ellen and Saloman Baker brought the unwieldy roll of canvas that was his summer awning, they were ready for it.  Mulder's Companion Santha was a tall mare much on a par with Eslan's height, and the two of them seemed to know immediately what was needed of them.  The only real hitch was that Eslan was wearing his fancy formal tack with the bells, not a circuit saddle with extra straps and fixings that were needed to make the litter work, and Asrel's Companion Sygnir was equally unequipped for the job.

Fortunately, Herald Kolsen arrived just as they were debating how best to make up for the lack.  "I thought you might need these," he said as he dismounted, and he indicated Lola's saddle that had all the right accoutrements.  "Mulder, it's good to see you back, despite the situation.  Castiel, are you all right?"

"I'm managing," Castiel said, a little tersely, but Kolsen didn't take offence.

"Every minute he stays alive is a minute in his favour," he said bluntly.  "Hang in there.  Is there anyone other than you two who can tell me what happened?"

"Asrel's inside, talking to the witnesses," Mulder said.

"Right, that's where I'll be if anyone needs me."

"Let's get the bells off Eslan and rig him with Lola's fittings," Mulder said to Castiel.  "And you, er, might want to give someone that parcel of pies for safekeeping, just for now."

Father Joe approached as they were checking the litter was fully secure.  "The Healers are nearly ready to move Dean," he said. 

"How are we going to get him into the litter?" Castiel asked Mulder worriedly, for he knew enough about head wounds - not to mention the other injuries Dean must have suffered in the fall - to know that avoiding jostling him would be important.

"Ideally we'd have someone with a very strong Fetching Gift lift him," Mulder replied.  "Mine isn't nearly strong enough for that though."

"Nor mine."

Place him on a board so that he can be lifted safely by some of the helpers here, and the two of you combine your Gifts to help steady him and slide him into the litter, Eslan said.  Santha and I will guide you.

"I heard that," Mulder said, and it said something about the seriousness of the situation that neither he nor Castiel bothered to remark upon Eslan MindSpeaking both of them.  "Those guys who lent us the poles might have a board - they're refitting a shop up the street."

He went away again to organise this.  Much later Castiel would remember this about Mulder and realise that it was the mark of a Field Herald, that he could think on his feet, organise and improvise.  In due course he returned with one of the workmen, the two of them carrying a new, unpainted door between them.

Moving Dean onto the door was a ticklish business, and once it was done there was a pause while the Healers worked on him again for a few minutes, checking that it was still safe to move him.  There was a thick dressing bound against the wound on the side of his head; Ellen and a woman from a shop across the Alley brought more cloth to wedge against him and cushion any jolts, and long lengths of sheeting to strap him to the board.

Someone touched Castiel's arm, and when he looked around Podina was offering him a wet cloth.  "To wipe your hands," she said softly.

He looked down at his hands, confused, and found they were covered in dried blood.  There was blood on the cuffs of his sleeves and a smear down the front of his tunic.  It felt like a terrible omen, to have Dean's blood on his hands.  He muttered thanks to her and wiped his hands on the cloth, trying not to look at the spreading red stain on it as he did so.

"Right everyone," the female Healer said abruptly, and Castiel hastily gave the cloth back to Podina.  "Can we have a few pairs of hands here, please?  We need to lift him - slow and steady, no jolting, and keeping him level."

Castiel and Mulder stepped forward, along with several people in Watch uniforms.  Castiel found himself facing Henryks and Murgo, both of them grim-faced and anxious as they bent over their captain.

"On my mark, people," the male Healer said.  He still had his hands resting lightly on Dean's brow.  "Ready … lift …"

Getting Dean into the litter took time, for no one wanted to rush and make things worse.  Santha and Eslan linked with Mulder and Castiel, and under their guidance the two of them managed to take some of the weight of the board with Dean on it and guide it, giving enough 'push' to slide the board easily into the litter.

"Excellent work," Herald Kolsen congratulated them all when this was done.  He was standing a little back from the group, with a hand each on Lola and Sygnir.  "Healers, these ladies have offered to carry you back to the Temple, so you can get Captain Winchester there more quickly.  I'll follow on foot shortly, or Lola can come back to collect me."

"Castiel and I are going too, to help get him out of the litter at the other end," Mulder said.

"Do it," Kolsen said.  "I'll follow as soon as I'm sure I'm not needed here."

xXx

It was several hours later, and Castiel was sitting alone in the dismal waiting area at the Fountain Court Temple, when Herald Kolsen walked in and came to sit on the bench beside him.  Mulder had left some time previously; he had, after all, been in the saddle all day, and his wife and son were waiting for him to come home after a long absence.

"Is there any news?" Kolsen asked.

Castiel shook his head wearily.  "There must be half a dozen Healers in there still."

"They're still working on him, then.  That's a good sign."  Kolsen studied him for a moment or two.  "How are you managing?"

"I pray," Castiel said dully.  "I don't know what else to do."

Kolsen produced a cloth bundle; the small apple pies Castiel had bought a lifetime ago.  "You should eat one or two of these."  He shook his head - the last thing he wanted was food - but Kolsen gave him a stern look.  "You're exhausted and in shock still, and according to Ansel there's evidence that one half of a lifebonded couple can pull energy from the other in extremis.  So on the off-chance that Dean survives purely because of his link to you, do both of yourselves a favour and eat."

It was blatantly manipulative, but even knowing that Castiel couldn't bring himself to refuse.  He took one of the pies and bit into the pastry reluctantly.

"Do you know how this came about?" Kolsen asked him.

He shook his head, swallowing a dry mouthful.  "We'd barely arrived when it happened."  He didn't want to think about Dean being hurled through the air like a rag doll.  He hadn't even cried out.  "There was a quarrel going on that everyone could hear out in the street - I thought it might be Sam."

Kolsen sighed.  "If I'd known what trouble that young man was going to be, I'd have made sure a closer eye was kept on him."  He gave a brief synopsis of the incident.  "According to Jessica Moore and the scribe Ash, when Sam realised what he'd done he made a run for it - he went out of a window in one of the rooms at the rear of the Roadhouse Inn and escaped over the roof of the laundry.  We've sent an alert to every Watch in the city, but if he's not found by morning I'm going to set some very serious hounds after him.  We can't have someone with an uncontrolled Gift like that on the loose."

"I don't suppose he meant to do it," Castiel said, but he was finding it hard to care much about Sam's fate.  He stared at the pie in his hand and made himself take another bite, chew and swallow.  "Is Jessica all right?"

"She's unharmed but very distressed, as you can imagine, and blaming herself for having brought the trouble to Dean."

"Dean would have become involved sooner or later," Castiel commented.  "He already knew that Sam was becoming over-wrought.  We talked about it.  But it's hardly Jessica's fault, she's not responsible for Sam being …"  An idjit, Dean would have said.

Kolsen was about to respond to this when a door opened and the grey-haired female Healer emerged.  She looked drained, but her step was steady and she came straight over to them, and they stood up to meet her.

"Heralds," she acknowledged.  "I didn't get a chance to introduce myself earlier, I'm Healer Ronwyth."

"How is Dean?" Castiel blurted out, unable to stop himself. 

She tilted her head toward him sympathetically.  "Captain Winchester lives and we've managed to stabilise him and Heal a good portion of the damage.  You should know that in addition to the head injury, he had several broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder and fractures of both the scapular and pelvic bones.  Those were straightforward, as was the associated soft tissue damage.  The skull fracture is a much greater concern, though.  We've done a significant amount of work, but we need to stop now and see how he manages overnight.  I won't lie to you, it could go either way, but he's in as good a situation as we could hope for under the circumstances, and if he's still stable in the morning we'll look at moving him to the House of Healing so more specialist Healer can work on him."

"I can arrange for another Companion litter in that event," Kolsen said, and Healer Ronwyth accepted this offer at once.

"I'd like to stay with him tonight, if I may," Castiel said.  She studied him for a moment, so he added, "He's my lifemate."

"I see.  In that case, I believe we can accommodate you."

xXx

It was past midnight by the time Kolsen returned to the Collegium, but when he dismounted and walked into the Companions' Stable with Lola, he was unsurprised to find low lamps still glowing and Hawkeye waiting for them.  He was sitting with Eslan, who had returned to the Collegium when it was clear Castiel would be staying with Dean overnight.  Clint was going over his tack carefully, but he put this aside and got up when they walked inside.

"I thought I might find you here," Kolsen said wearily.  "Clint, no, you're not my personal groom ..."  For Clint had immediately set about removing Lola's tack.

"No, I'm Lola's friend," he retorted, "and yours.  Sit down while I do this and tell me what's happening."

"He's still alive," Kolsen said, doing as he was bidden.  He knew this was what Clint really wanted to know.  "How the fall didn't kill him, I can't imagine, but I should think having the devil's own luck was a large part of it.  He's stable and the Healers at Fountain Court have done as much as they can for him for now.  If he can survive the night and not worsen, they'll bring him to the House of Healing in the morning."

"Right."  Having put her tack to one side to be cleaned, Clint set about grooming Lola.  "What about the little shit who did it?"

That was uncharacteristically blunt, but Kolsen wasn't surprised.  Clint didn't make friends easily, and when he did he was unfailingly loyal.  At the same time, his personal history made him sceptical about families generally, and parents and siblings in particular.  His previous opinion of Sam Winchester, on the couple of occasions that he'd met him, had not been high; "real special" had been his rather curt comment when Kolsen asked him.

"He's in the wind at present, and every Watch in the city is on the look out for him.  For his own sake, I hope he isn't caught by Dean's people, though.  They aren't feeling very generous right now."

Clint snorted sourly.  "Permission to go pick him up?"

"You seem confident about that."

"He's not like Dean.  He's got smarts, but they're book-smarts not life-smarts.  Once he's outside of the parts of the city he knows, he's gonna struggle.  Pretty sure Tasha and I can track him, even in the dark."

"Captain Ellison suggested that he might already have left the city," Kolsen commented.  He didn't agree with that view personally, and he felt sure Clint wouldn't either, but he wanted to hear his reasoning.

"Not a chance," Clint said.  "Dean grew up in the country, he'd manage.  Sam's a city kid, making his own way on the road is a complete unknown to him.  But if he stays in the city, he only really knows the Strangers Quarter and the area around the Palace.  Doubt he's got much money on him, and he's gotta know the Watch and the Guard are looking for him.  So he's gonna have to hide and he's gonna have a rough night, wherever he is."

"In fact, there's a sporting chance he might hand himself in tomorrow, once he's had some time to think about what he's done."

Clint straightened up and looked at him.  Even in the dim light of the stable lamps, his eyes were as hard and cold as ice.  "Not if Dean dies.  He has to know what that means for him."

Kolsen pursed his lips.  "I doubt he'll hang for it, Clint."

"He should!"

"No," Kolsen said, as gently as he could.  "I truly doubt he meant to hurt Dean - or not the way he did, at any rate."

Clint made a disgusted sound in his throat and went back to brushing Lola.

"It's entirely possible that he wasn't aware he could do what he did until it happened," Kolsen persisted.  "It may even be triggered by anger - the gods above and below know there have been others who could only work their Gifts through rage.  Lavan Firestorm being the obvious example."

"That makes it all dandy, huh?"

"No, of course it doesn't.  But if it was unintentional, then there's still an opportunity here to prevent further damage and reclaim Sam before he's completely lost."  He sighed and added, "You know that's what Dean himself would want."

"Yeah, he'd come back from the dead to plead for his brothers," Clint grumbled.  "I'd like to see either of 'em doing that much for him!"

"If we all waited around for the thanks we deserve, nothing would get done," Kolsen said philosophically.  "I told Castiel I'd give it until the morning before sending my people out after Sam.  Let's give the Watch the opportunity to relieve their feelings by bringing him in."

"Yeah, right.  I'll be waiting for your word," was Clint's cynical response.

But by the following morning a bedraggled and miserable Sam had already handed himself in to Bobby Singer, the captain of Exiles Gate Watch.

xXx

Castiel spent the night in a chair, with one hand loosely clasping Dean's wrist.  He wasn't alone, as there was a Healer trainee keeping watch over Dean as well, but she was so quiet and self-contained that for the most part she stayed in the background and he was able to disregard her. 

In an attempt to keep his mind from endlessly replaying the events of that afternoon, he ran through every prayer for the sick and injured he could remember from his days as a priest, and after a while the cyclic rhythm of those prayers became a kind of meditative exercise allowing him some small measure of peace as he watched Dean's chest rising and falling with each breath.

Then all at once he found himself with his head pillowed on the blankets beside Dean's hip and faint dawn light was filtering through the long, narrow windows.  Another female Healer, one he hadn't seen before, had touched his shoulder to rouse him, and a new trainee was on the other side of the bed, carefully taking Dean's pulse.

"How is he?" Castiel asked, cautiously massaging a crick out of his neck.

"He's doing as well as we could hope under the circumstances," the Healer replied softly.  "He awoke about a candlemark ago - there seemed no point in waking you as it was only for a few moments and he didn't speak, but it's an excellent sign that he was able to come out of it by himself, however briefly."

"Then he'll be taken to the House of Healing today?"

"Yes, I think so.  There's at least one Healer there who's a specialist in head injuries and I know Healer Ronwyth wanted her to look at Captain Winchester's case."

Her tone alerted Castiel.  "Then I would wish her to see him too, but is there something in particular that requires a specialist's skills?"

The woman hesitated.  "Much of the damage could be repaired, and in particular we were able to reverse the blood loss and reduce the swelling in the brain," she said carefully.  "But there were some small fragments of bone driven into the brain that we weren't able to remove because of their location - none of us had the particular skills to do it.  So Healer Merewyn will need to consider how best to manage that problem."

"I see."  Castiel didn't claim to have any particular knowledge of the brain, but he knew a little about head injuries simply by virtue of having seen a number on the battlefields he'd fought on early in his career as a military monk.  He also knew, from associating with his Order's healers, that the brain was the one organ that still held significant mysteries for the healing fraternity.  He'd seen men with hideously severe head injuries eventually recover and pick up the threads of their lives as though nothing much had happened; while conversely men with seemingly minor bumps and bruises to the head could unexpectedly weaken and die without warning.  And there was a lot of space in between those two extremes filled with people who had suffered varying degrees of temporary or permanent damage.  "If those fragments can be removed, can the injury be fully healed?"

"It's too early to say," she told him, gently but firmly.  "And before you ask, I can't say what the impact would be of them not being removed.  Those are questions for Healer Merewyn."

"Then I shall ask her," Castiel said, "but I thank you for telling me the rest."

She went away, presumably to check on her other patients, but after a while the trainee returned bearing a large mug of tea for Castiel and a sticky bar of compressed dried fruit and nuts glued together with some kind of syrup.

"It's not much," he apologised, "but it'll keep you going until you get back to the Collegium, Herald."

It was going to take him a while to get used to being given that title.  "Thank you - that's a great kindness."

The bar took some gnawing on and was shockingly sweet, but the first bite of it made Castiel realise that he was ravenous.  It was satisfying and with the tea it made a reasonable breakfast.  When he was done with both, he reached out to touch Eslan's mind cautiously.

The Companion was awake and consuming his own breakfast.

You seem rested and calm.  How is Dean?

As well as he can be for the moment.  They say he even woke very briefly a short while ago.  So he will be brought to the House of Healing today.

I will be there to help.  Don't be surprised if Hawkeye comes with me.  He was very restless last night and wishes to be of use.

The help of a friend is always welcome, Castiel said sincerely.

But in the event perhaps others prevailed on Hawkeye to stay behind, for Eslan arrived accompanied only by a female Herald called Hatha and her Companion Arlo.  Hatha was in her fifties, stocky and grey-haired; she was a very rugged and experienced Field Herald, who brought with her a proper Companion litter designed for the purpose.  She showed Castiel how to rig it up and then displayed one of the more important reasons why she had been chosen for this task; her Gift.

"I know your Gift isn't nearly as strong," she told him matter-of-factly, "but you should link in with me to see how I do this, because the technique can still be very useful with a weaker Fetching Gift -  especially when you have the kind of Fetching that'd be better called Pushing or Pulling."

With assistance from Arlo, she was able to lift Dean and the board he was lying upon smoothly into the litter.  "Of course, we can only do that over very short distances with something as big as a person," she said when it was done.  She was breathing hard with the effort.

"It's still very impressive," Castiel told her.

"It could be impressive and useful right here in Haven, or at one of the Healing temples outside the city," Healer Ronwyth remarked, as she checked Dean over one final time.

"And what would the good people of the mountain regions do then?" Hatha asked amiably.  It had the sound of a regular exchange between them.

"They could stop getting themselves into stupid situations that require you to get them out again, perhaps," Ronwyth retorted.

Which was how Castiel discovered that Hatha was rather known for her daring mountain rescues in the north.  But he found that the least interesting thing about her, for it turned out they had something in common - she'd been a priestess before being Chosen.

"Although I was just a girl of course," she explained as they made their careful way to the Collegium with Ronwyth riding behind them on a donkey.  "The Foresight came on me early, you see, and the village priestess saw me as being a regular prophetess, bringing pilgrims to our temple from miles around.  You can imagine how annoyed she was when Arlo arrived."  She chuckled.  "It's still awkward visiting home, after all these years.  I have to go when she makes her twice-yearly pilgrimage to the shrine at Polsinn, and one time it very nearly all went wrong because my younger sister went into labour while everyone was out in the fields and there was no one else to deliver my niece.  Arlo and I had to hide in the barn when old Yelinn arrived home and we sneaked out in the night."  Disconcertingly, she added, "Have you taken midwife training yet?  Because I haven't yet met a single Field Herald who hasn't had to deliver at least one baby, and usually in the most awkward circumstances.  Myself, I've delivered three, and that's not including the yak."

Castiel asked to be told about the yak, and a very funny story it was too.  He was aware that at least part of Hatha's light, rambling conversation was deliberately designed to keep his mind off his worries about Dean, but he couldn't resent it.  The rationale behind it was logical after all; fretting would do him no good, but knowing that was not enough to take his mind off things alone.  The conversation was a calculated kindness.

"May I ask how strong your Foresight is?" he asked finally, giving in to temptation.

She gave him a look that said she knew full well why he was asking.  "It's fairly strong, but it only comes in very occasional bursts and these days it's usually tied to peril - things like earth tremors or a person taking a fall down a cliff face.  I avoid predicting things like the sex of babies … or whether people will live or die."

"Why?" he asked, a little surprised.

Hatha didn't take offence or try to duck the question.  "By the time I was given my Whites I'd made a decision, for good or ill - I wouldn't pre-empt the prerogatives of the gods," she said.  "The answers to that sort of question rarely bring peace for the people involved.  Besides, it does no good to live in the future and forget to live in the here-and-now."

Which was an answer to consider.

xXx

At the House of Healing Dean was given over into the capable hands of Healer Merewyn and her acolytes, at which point it was made clear to Castiel that hovering would not be welcome.  Kolsen had been waiting there for them, and he firmly led Castiel back to the Heralds Collegium where Hawkeye, looking more than ordinarily inscrutable, insisted on removing Eslan's tack and sorting him out himself.  Eslan seconded this and forced Castiel to go with the senior Herald for the time being.

"You should bathe and change your clothes, and eat a proper meal," Kolsen told him.  "You need to make a formal statement for Herald Asrel, who's in charge of the investigation.  But before you do all of that, you should know that Sam is in custody.  He went to Captain Singer a few hours ago and the decision was taken to hold him at Water Street Barracks for the time being."

Castiel found that he was mostly indifferent to this news.  But it reminded him of something else.  "Does Adam Winchester know what has happened?"

"Yes, I made a point of telling him myself.  He's very upset, not least because if Dean dies and Sam is held to account for it, he's left without a legal guardian."

That sounded about right to Castiel - an unusually cynical thought for him - although he was aware that he was probably being unfair.  Adam and Dean's relationship had improved immeasurably over the past few months, after all.  He decided not to think about this any further, until he'd actually seen Adam for himself.

"What was Sam's explanation for his actions?" he asked instead.

"As to that, I don't know yet."  Kolsen sighed.  "He'll have to be Truth-Spelled, of course.  It's inevitable that this will be seen as at least attempted murder."

"But you don't think that was his intention?"

"Do you?" Kolsen asked, a little quizzically.

Castiel shook his head.  "I'm trying not to speculate or even think about it too much.  I'll consider it if Dean survives this."

"Probably for the best," Kolsen agreed.  They had reached the trainees' wing by this time, and he gave the younger man a gentle shove towards the door.  "Go on, get cleaned up and eat.  Give the Healers time to do their job."

The corridor was empty when he made his way back to his room - which would not be his room for much longer, now that he had his Whites.  The trainees were all at their classes by now, of course.  Ridding himself of the blood-stained uniform was a relief and a bath very welcome.  When he emerged from his room after dressing again, he found Steve and Peggy waiting for him in the corridor.

"You heard then," he said, unsurprised.  The gossip network that was the Companions had probably spread the story throughout the adult members of the Circle by now.

"Only the barest facts," Steve replied, and his earnest eyes met Castiel's.  "Is there any way we can help?"

He considered this and found that there was.  "Company would be a kindness," he admitted.  "If I'm left to my own devices I'll end by haunting the House of Healing."

"That we can do, with pleasure," Steve told him.

"Do you feel up to telling us what happened?" Peggy asked. 

"I have to write it all out in a statement for Herald Asrel," he said reluctantly.  That was a ghastly prospect.

"Then I have a suggestion.  Phil told me you need to eat as well, so how would it be if we find you a meal and a quiet place for us all to sit while you eat it.  Then while you're doing that you can tell us what happened and I'll write it out for you.  All you'll need to do then is read it over and sign it."

That sounded ideal, but: "Peggy, you don't have to do that - "

"On the contrary, it'd be a pleasure.  Besides, I'm good at that sort of paperwork and I have very neat handwriting."  She gave him one of her beautiful smiles, the kind that didn't mask the absolute cast-iron determination underneath, and Castiel gave in at once.

"Thank you."

His part in the incident had been small and yet it seemed to take a long time to relate it all to them, for there were questions, digressions and speculation, but it was helpful to talk it through with them both.  Peggy in particular was very good at asking the kind of questions that helped him to recall details he'd forgotten or only noticed in passing.

He commented on this, but she only nodded.  "When you get back from your internship assignment, you'll know how to do it too.  It's one of those things that you really only learn by doing it in the field." 

The other thing that came out, which Steve prompted him to tell, was what he knew of the background history of Sam's outburst.  Castiel knew quite a lot of course, because Dean had discussed it with him on many occasions; and it was valuable information because at the present time it was the nearest anyone would get to a statement from Dean himself.  Jessica and Adam would also be telling what they knew, but as Peggy pointed out -

"I doubt Adam knows very much about Sam's business, to be honest, and Mistress Moore will have to be Truth-Spelled.  Because while I truly believe that she wants to help us, it's almost inevitable that she'll censor herself to some degree, probably without even meaning to do so.  She's too close to Sam and I suspect there are elements of their relationship that she won't want her parents to find out about, let alone a public courtroom."

"They wouldn't shame her in a public court with that, would they?" Steve asked, dismayed.

"Not without very good reason, but I do you really imagine she'll be thinking clearly about it?" Peggy replied wryly.

"I guess not."  He grimaced.  "I feel sorry for her.  She must feel real responsible, even though it's not her fault."

"So do I, but we can't let that get in the way of discovering the truth."  She turned back to Castiel.  "So Dean had no idea that Sam had a second Gift?"

"No, but in fairness I doubt they've ever really talked about their Gifts.  Dean finds his unnerving, especially the new ability with languages."  He saw Steve staring at him in surprise.  "Dean developed a secondary Gift recently," he explained.  "If a person speaks to him in another language, he can understand and speak it in return.  An extension of his MindSpeech, we think."

"Dang," was all Steve could think to say.

"It could be so useful, though," Peggy said.

Castiel laughed softly.  "I wish you might persuade him of that!  He's very distressed by it - he says he never knows what language he's speaking anymore, and of course it would look very odd to people in the Strangers Quarter because he's never done something like that before."

"So Sam doesn't know about that one?"

"No - in fact, I'm sure Dean has never mentioned how strong his MindSpeech is either.  I got the impression that he was afraid Sam would be resentful."  He pushed a stray pastry crust around his plate.  "Sam wants so many things he can't have."

"Your words or Dean's?" Peggy asked quietly.

"Oh, Dean's for sure, although I agree with him.  But it's a longstanding theme - he was worried about Sam's ambitions when I first met him."

"Funny how unrealistic ambitions end up getting folk hurt," Steve commented, but his tone said he didn't think it was funny at all.

xXx

Castiel returned to the House of Healing after the noon bell, having checked on Eslan first.  The Companion was concerned about him and insisted on linking to Castiel so that he could see and hear what was going on for himself.

Dean had been settled into a small ward with four beds; his was the only one currently occupied and there was another trainee Healer in constant attendance on him.  The dressing on his wound had been changed and he'd been washed and dressed in a kind of smock; he was clean and tidy and very pale against the bleached bedlinens.

Healer Merewyn arrived after a few minutes to speak to Castiel.  It was a relief to discover that she already knew he was Dean's lifemate and chose to treat him as his next-of-kin.

"Captain Winchester has had two sessions of Healing since he arrived," she told him.  "All of his injuries apart from the head wound are now almost fully healed and can be left to progress on their own.  He woke up again briefly in between sessions - we asked him some standard questions, his name, age, et cetera, but he seemed very confused and didn't answer."

"Is that a bad sign?" Castiel asked anxiously.

"Not especially.  Confusion and even memory loss are far from uncommon with head injuries."

"I understand.  What of the head wound then?"

"I believe one of the Healers at Fountain Court explained the nature of the problem with this injury," she said, and Castiel nodded.  "The bone fragments are small but sharp and lodged in a spot where they could potentially do more damage if they move," she explained.  "This is very problematic.  Removing them manually - with forceps or tweezers - is not an option as they're too far in, and attempts to draw them out using the Gift have failed so far.  There's a case conference scheduled for later today when the senior members of our Circle will discuss Captain Winchester's case and consider our options."

"What will happen if you don't remove the fragments?" he asked.

Merewyn pursed her lips for a moment.  "Difficult to say," she said frankly.  "They might stay where they are to the end of his life and never cause a problem.  Or they might move and cause a bleed that could in turn lead to a brainstorm, or even kill him.  We have no way of knowing."

"So the best possible course is to remove them."

"If we can," she agreed.

A faint sound intruded; when they looked around, Dean's eyes were open and he was looking at Castiel.

"Dean …"  Castiel went to his side at once, and clasped his hand, while Merewyn went to the other side of his bed to begin checking on him.

Dean's lips lifted in a faint, effortful smile but his grip was alarmingly weak.

"How do you feel?" Castiel asked him.

Dean gave him a puzzled look and made an enquiring sound in his throat.

Merewyn caught his attention.  "Can you tell us your name?" she asked encouragingly, but Dean's confusion only seemed to deepen.

His eyes went back to Castiel.  "Eija va, mi'haar?" he rasped, and coughed slightly.

Castiel was taken aback, for the question had been asked in the broadest dialect that any of Dean's kindred in Dell's Crossing might speak.  Certainly he'd never heard Dean himself speak Jkathan that way before, except once when he deliberately mimicked his grandfather.

"What was that?" Merewyn asked, surprised.

"Eija va?" Dean said again, more urgently.  "Cas, eija va?"

"Sa, sa, sa," Castiel soothed him.  "Vai eijo n'hai, min haaro.  It's the Jkathan dialect he spoke as a child," he told Merewyn.  He met Dean's eyes again.  "Do you understand me?"  When Dean only looked bewildered, he repeated the question in Jkathan.  It wasn't entirely successful; Gabriel had been right when he said the dialect Dean's people spoke was very different to the King's tongue spoken in Throne City, but with patience Castiel managed to make himself understood.

"That's interesting," was Merewyn's measured observation.  "Can you translate the questions I need him to answer?  We ask for the patient's name, age and where he is."

This was far more difficult than it should have been, and by the end of it Dean was exhausted and abruptly fell asleep again, but he did at least confirm his name, that he was five-and-twenty, and that he was in Haven.  He also managed to remember which year of the regency it was.

"That's a good sign," the Healer remarked. 

"But what of the language?" Castiel asked worriedly.

"It's a rare complication, but not unheard of," she assured him, as she made rapid notes.  "Sometimes people who routinely speak a second language can temporarily lose the ability after a head injury and revert to whatever tongue they first learned to speak.  It's a kind of amnesia, and it rarely lasts for long."

That was comforting, but Castiel could immediately see a complication.  Until Dean regained his ability to speak Valdemaran, Castiel himself or someone else who could speak Jkathan would need to be at hand to translate for the Healers.

Leave that with me, Eslan said unexpectedly.  Someone will be found.  There was an odd little pause, which Castiel had learned to recognise as his Companion withdrawing to speak to the other Companions, then he was back.  Taver suggests that you mention Dean's MindSpeech to his Healers.  Sometimes head injuries can affect the 'channels' the Gifts work through.

It spoke volumes for Castiel's distraction that it didn't occur to him to be surprised that the Grove Companion was involving himself in Dean's welfare.

"Are you aware that Dean is Gifted?" he asked Merewyn.

She raised an eyebrow.  "We noticed.  MindSpeech and something else, yes?"

"He has a secondary Gift for translation, and he's an unusually strong MindSpeaker."

She nodded.  "We placed a temporary block on his Gifts, as a precaution, but anyone Gifted visiting him should be warned not to attempt to MindSpeak him, just in case.  And that most certainly includes you," she added a little dryly.  "I realise the temptation will be very strong while he's unable to speak Valdemaran, but we must find a way of managing it that doesn't end in giving him a brainstorm."

I'll pass along a warning, Eslan said.  And Lola says that Kolsen has someone in mind to help with the language problem.

My gratitude to you all …

Your friends are concerned about both of you, Eslan told him gently.  It helps them to know there's something they can do.

Healer Merewyn had finished making notes.  She gave Castiel an assessing look as she put away her tablet and stylus, and said, "Are you sure you want to wait around here, Herald?  He's going to be sleeping a great deal after all the Healings he's received."

Castiel made a helpless gesture.  "I don't think I could rest elsewhere, Healer.  And it may reassure him to find me here if he wakes."

"As you wish.  We can at least find you a more comfortable chair, then."

She went away, and Castiel sat down beside Dean's bed once more.

Sam says to tell you that Steve will bring you some of your books in a while, Eslan said - this Sam was Steve's Companion.  Is there anything else you wish for from your room?

Yes - if he would be so kind, there is a carved wooden box on the shelf beside my bed.  It contained his prayer beads and book-of-hours.  He didn't need them at this point in his life, but counting off the beads as he worked through the regular cycles of prayer was a comforting, meditative ritual, and the book-of-hours also contained all the more obscure and specific prayers for sickness and injury that he rarely had cause to use in the past.

He will bring it to you.

After that, there was nothing to be done but wait.

xXx

Steve brought two of Castiel's textbooks along with his box, which gave him something to do while he waited, even though his heart wasn't entirely in it.  Dean awoke once more just as the light was starting to fade and the Healer trainee on duty at that time brought him a small bowl of bread soaked in warm milk, to see if he could at least eat a little.  Dean made a face and grumbled to Castiel about being offered baby-food, but he had little appetite and managed only a few mouthfuls before giving up and refusing the rest.

He wasn't inclined to go back to sleep, but lay there drowsily watching Castiel and the young trainee, and listening to the occasional noises that intruded from the rest of the House of Healing.  Twice he lifted a shaking hand to try and poke at the dressing on his head, only to be firmly discouraged by Castiel and the trainee.  The second time, he made a weak joke:

"What did I do, fall over my own big feet?"

"You don't remember then?" Castiel asked.

Dean thought about this, then shook his head slightly.  "No.  What happened?"

Castiel was sure that Healer Merewyn would not want him telling Dean anything that would agitate him at present.  "It's a very exciting story, but I'm going to save it until you're feeling a little better, if you don't mind."

"All right," Dean agreed, and that was not like him, to be so easily put off, but his attention span seemed to be very fleeting.  After a brief, thoughtful silence, he made a small gesture towards Castiel's Whites.  "Was that what you were coming to tell me?"

That indicated that he remembered something of the previous day after all, but he was smiling and Castiel was only glad that he was calm and reasonably cheerful.  "Why yes - what do you think?"

The smile edged into his usual smirk.  "Steer clear of any archers."

"I'm told that I'm supposed to be easily recognisable," he pointed out good-humouredly.

"Heya, but not by the Karsites!"

"Your confidence is overwhelming," Castiel said, amused.  "I shall take you with me on circuit, and with your stunning good looks I have no doubts of being completely ignored."

"Maybe I'll hold you to that."

But Dean's attention was wandering again, as was proven a few minutes later when he made a third attempt to touch his head.  He was inclined to take it badly when Castiel and the young trainee stopped him once more, but fortunately a distraction arrived in the form of Captains Ellison and Singer, and Dean's own second lieutenant, Jody.

Castiel had only met Bobby Singer once before, but the man seemed older, greyer and tireder than he remembered.  He looked at Dean with a mixture of relief and anxiety, but Dean was smiling a welcome and Singer went straight to his side to take his hand.

"How you doin', boy?" he demanded gruffly.

Dean looked helplessly at Castiel.

"Dean has temporarily lost his ability to speak Valdemaran," Castiel explained.  He needn't have worried about Singer's reaction to this; his expression froze for a split second, but he recovered almost at once and rolled his eyes dramatically.

"Of course you have," he grumbled to Dean, who grinned sheepishly when Castiel translated that.

"Captain Singer wants to know how you are," he added.

Dean managed a very credible smirk.  "Tell him it's just a scratch and I'm putting on airs to be interesting."

"Well I coulda worked that out for myself," Singer retorted, but the way he clasped Dean's wrist and shook it slightly told its own story.

Jody leaned around him.  "Everyone's askin' after you, Cap'n."

"Tell them I'm charming all the best-looking Healers and I'm in no hurry to come back," was Dean's response to this.

"We worked that out too," Ellison said, with his slow smile.

Watching their faces, Castiel knew none of them were fooled by this banter, however well they concealed it.  Jody especially kept running her eyes over Dean's wan face and the dressing on his head, but she confined herself to a few upbeat comments.

Ellison had brought a cloth-wrapped bundle which he handed over to Castiel.  "From Ellen Harvelle," he said.  "She said she'll try to get here herself if Dean's here for more than a few days."

"How is she?" he asked.  "And how is Joanna?"

"Jo went home this morning," Ellison said.  "She's in good shape and should be fit to go back on duty in a week.  There's a little scarring on her face and arms, but it's much better than we all hoped and she's young enough that it'll fade away in a few years."

Castiel let out a long, relieved breath.  "That's excellent news."  And he turned to pass it on to Dean, who looked pleased and raised his hand shakily with the thumb and forefinger pressed together in the common sign of  "all's well".

"I think the parcel's a batch of pastries," Ellison added.  "With everything that's happened, Ellen and her crew are stress-baking.  But she's got builders in to fix the damage already."

Castiel had to edit that a little for Dean's consumption, although he might as well not have bothered.  Seeing his friends had apparently triggered at least some degree of remembrance, and as soon as Castiel had finished talking he impatiently grabbed Singer's hand and tugged on it as much as he was able.

"What about Sam?"

Castiel gave Singer an agonised look even as he translated this, but he needn't have worried.  Singer gave Dean a calm look and said firmly, "He's just fine, boy, you don't need to worry about him."

"You sure?  He's all right?" Dean pressed.

"Me an' Jim, we've got our eyes on him, he's gonna be fine," Singer reiterated, and when Dean's eyes passed anxiously to Ellison, he confirmed it. 

"You have my word on that, Winchester."

Dean sagged back, nodding exhaustedly.  The sudden capitulation was of a piece with him allowing Castiel to deflect his questions earlier, but no one questioned it and after a few more minutes his fellow Watch officers took their leave.

Castiel went into the corridor with them, anticipating questions.

"It's not good, is it?" Jody said at once, and her mouth twisted.  "I've seen that look he's got before, back when I was in the Guard."

"How bad is it?" Ellison asked quietly, when Castiel struggled to respond to this.  "I've got to admit, I was surprised to find him awake and talking, but then he's lucky to be alive at all by most accounts, so …"

"There are fragments of bone lodged in his brain and the Healers are unsure if they can remove them," Castiel explained.

"And?" Singer pressed him.

"And … if they can't be removed, he could die or suffer a bleed that causes a brainstorm," he admitted.

Jody swore, but it was the grim, bleak look on Singer's face that Castiel really registered.  He knew that Dean was attached to the man, although he didn't have as many opportunities to visit him as he would like; it had been Singer who had been more of a father to Dean than Jon Winchester when the family had arrived in Haven.  The affection was clearly mutual.

"What of Sam?" he asked, mostly to change the subject before it could devolve into speculation or further questions that he couldn't yet answer.

"He spent the night in an old storm drain and turned up on my doorstep just before first light," Singer said curtly.  "I had to hand him over to the Guard - it wasn't safe to keep him in the Watch House.  There's ill-feeling."

"And then some," Jody remarked sourly.

"How does he account for what happened?"

"He was talking a barrel o' nonsense and contradicting himself every other word," was Singer's unsympathetic assessment.  "And the only one he really seemed worried about was that girl.  Took me pointing out that his brother damn near died before he thought to ask about Dean."

Castiel found that he had to clamp his mouth shut on the things he wanted to say to that.

Calm, Chosen, Eslan urged him.  Try to stay calm, for Dean's sake.

"Some of that could be shock," Ellison said levelly, "but for his sake I hope he rediscovers a sense of remorse before he goes before a judge."

"He'd better hope and pray Dean lives," Jody said sharply, "or he'll swing for sure, and plenty of folk happy to see it."

xXx

Dean was dozing when Castiel returned to him, but he opened his eyes as he sat down at the bedside again and smiled faintly.

"Good to see them," he murmured.

"And they were glad to see you awake and cheerful," Castiel told him.

"I put on a good show, heya?"

Castiel studied his face.  "Do you not feel cheerful then?"

Dean's smile slipped a little.  "Not really.  I'd rather not be here."

"Well, no one likes to be ill …  Shall we see what Ellen sent us?"

He unwrapped the bundle and found, wrapped in a strip of cheesecloth, two pastries that smelled of Anaelia's signature spiced sausages.  There was also a cloth-backed book.

"This is that set of horrible tales Charlie gave you," he told Dean, who grinned.  "I'll read to you a little later, if you like."

The final object to fall out of the wrapping was Dean's bronze Kyrnos pendant given to him by an elderly devotee back when they'd been hunting the demon.

"The Healers must have removed this yesterday," Castiel said.  "I wonder how Ellen came by it?  Do you want to wear it - ?  No, better not have it around your neck while the Healers are still working on you.  But you can hold it if you like."  He tucked the pendant into Dean's right hand, wrapping the leather cord lightly around his wrist to stop it getting lost in the bedcovers.

The sausage rolls smelled good enough that Castiel ate one there and then, breaking off a piece for Dean when he showed interest.  He ate it slowly, and expressed pleasure at the taste, but declined more than that tiny mouthful.  There were heavy shadows under his eyes and he seemed to be fighting off sleep once more.

"Sammy'll be all right, heya?" he asked finally, and there was worry in his voice.

"He has your friends watching over him," Castiel said, as calmly as he could manage, "and I know Herald Kolsen is taking an interest in the matter."

"All right then."

After that Dean seemed to give up and let sleep take him, but Castiel didn't like the worry lines that had appeared in his face. 

He wrapped up the other sausage roll and put it to one side along with the book.  Then he took out his prayer beads and settled himself to request the help of a higher power.

xXx

Healer Merewyn arrived a candlemark later with several of her colleagues; they were going to make another attempt at removing the fragments of bone from Dean's wound.  Castiel went out into the gardens around the Healers Collegium while they were doing this, where Eslan joined him and they took a slow walk in the shrubberies together. 

It was fully dark when they returned, but there were torches lit on the main pathways and Castiel found a bench to sit on near to the door.  It was only a short while after that that Merewyn came to find him.

"Partial success," she told him with a weary smile.  "We removed a number of blood clots and several bone fragments.  They were the shallower ones, but that gives us hope that we can remove the others."

Castiel let out a breath of relief and silently thanked the gods.  "When will you try?"

"Sometime tomorrow, we hope.  We need to monitor Captain Winchester overnight, to ensure he doesn't develop a fever in response so many healings in such a short space of time - the body will sometimes do that, but it could be very dangerous while he's in a weakened condition. So we're keeping him asleep, so that he can rest and recover some of his strength."

She touched Castiel's arm, her expression kindly but firm.  "I'm going to eat and get a good six candlemarks of sleep, assuming no emergency happens in the meantime.  Captain Winchester won't wake now until a couple of candlemarks past dawn, so I suggest you go back to your Collegium, have a meal, try to relax, and get a good night's sleep."  When he would have protested, she shook her head.  "I know you want to be close at hand, but there is nothing you can do here tonight.  I promise you he'll be closely watched and if anything changes we'll send someone for you.  But you need proper rest in your own bed, or what use will you be to him?"

Castiel accepted this reluctantly, but he hated leaving Dean there.  He went to look in on him before he left, and it took an effort to only touch his face and hands gently before walking away. 

Eslan collected him and carried him back to the Heralds Collegium, and Castiel came into the Companions stable with him to give him a good grooming - not because Eslan needed it, but to show his appreciation and also, it was true, to avoid having to meet with any of his friends for the moment and answer a host of questions.

Most of them already know the details, Eslan commented.

Have you been updating everyone?  That is very well thought of, my friend.

As I said, they are all concerned.

The truth of that was evidenced by Hawkeye appearing at the door of Eslan's stall a few minutes later.

"How's he doing?" he asked.

"Better," Castiel acknowledged.  "They were successful in removing some of the fragments of bone earlier, and if he passes a good night they'll try to get the others tomorrow."  He hesitated, then added, "I haven't abandoned him - I've been chased out because he'll sleep until morning now."

He thought he'd managed to hide his feelings about that, but Hawkeye's expression firmed and he gave him a brisk nod.  "You go get some rest.  I can watch him tonight from outside his room - they won't know I'm there, but if there's any change I can let you know directly."

Castiel was about to protest that this was unnecessary, when Eslan said, Let him.  He's fretting a great deal at there being nothing he can do for Dean - this will make him easier in his mind, and you will sleep better knowing he's there.

This was so true that Castiel didn't bother arguing.  He clasped Hawkeye's hand gratefully, and watched the other man leave the stables with a purposeful step.

Go get some food inside you, Eslan said, giving him a firm nudge with his nose.  Talk to your friends.  And I believe the dean wants to talk to you about moving you out of the trainees' wing.  Two Companions went out on Search today, so they'll need your room and Steve's for the newcomers shortly.

Of course this would happen now, when I'm in no mind for it, Castiel grumbled, but he didn’t really mean it.  It might seem extraordinary to him that mundane details should plague him when Dean was in extremis, but he knew full well that the rest of the world had to carry on obliviously with normal business.  And trainees would continue to be Chosen and need accommodation.  It would be a distraction for him at least, as much as anything could be.

xXx

Don't panic, but they moved Dean off the ward in the early hours and into a room on his own, was Hawkeye's announcement to Castiel the following morning, just as he was bolting down a bowl of porridge and some fruit.

Was there something wrong? he asked, alarmed.

Not with Dean.  There was some kind of accident in the city and they brought three guys in and put them in the ward.  I got the impression they thought Dean would be better off in a room on his own, away from any extra noise.  He's in the next corridor and his room's got a window and door out into the herb garden.  Hawkeye showed him the location.  He's still asleep, by the way.  He had a real quiet night - the trainee they had watching him starting reading one of your books to keep himself awake.

I'll be there shortly.

Castiel had no sooner left the Collegium than he ran into Adam at the public gate, arguing with one of the Palace Guards.  He'd completely forgotten the youngest Winchester brother until now, but no sooner did he set eyes on him than he was annoyed that it had taken until now for him to make an appearance.  But this turned out to be unfair.  Adam was in a genuine state of distress.

"I wanted to see him yesterday," he said in a rush, as soon as Castiel had persuaded the Guard to let him take charge of the teenager, "but there was an examination that my tutor wouldn't let me out of, and then I tried to visit him last night but the Healers said he was asleep and wouldn't be awake again until this morning.  Is he all right?  What's going on, they wouldn't tell me much - "

"Have you eaten?" Castiel interrupted.  He didn't want the boy fainting on him.

"I had a bacon roll," Adam said impatiently.  "Castiel …"

"He's as well as he can be at the moment."  Castiel explained Dean's current condition as they walked to the House of Healing together.  "So he will most likely have at least one more healing today," he concluded, as they approached the herb garden.

"But that's good, right?  They can fix this for him?"

"That is what we all hope."  Castiel was forcing himself to be cautious; the news the previous evening had been good, but until Dean got up and walked out of this place a fully healed man, he would be holding his breath, figuratively speaking.

"All right."  Adam's footsteps slowed a little.  "I can't believe Sam did this," he admitted unhappily.  "I mean, I know he was kinda up and down and all over the place lately, but - throwing Dean out of a window?"

"That's not exactly what happened," Castiel told him.  "Was it not explained?"

"Some kind of Gift."  Adam looked a little sceptical.  "Really?  I mean …"  He hesitated, glancing around to see if they were overheard, then said nervously, "I wondered if maybe it was something to do with that demon."

That thought had crossed Castiel's mind too, although probably not in the same way as Adam.  "The demon has not re-possessed him, if that is what you mean.  I took precautions in case of that some time ago, remember?" 

Back when he'd returned from his visit to Dean's home village, he'd arranged for all three brothers to have a protective symbol tattooed onto their chests that would prevent such a thing happening.  Strictly speaking it had been unnecessary in Adam's case, but it seemed sensible to take the precaution.  Azazel had been exorcised and banished to the Abyssal Plane, but destroying a demon of that kind was well beyond Castiel's ability and it had been necessary to ensure that he couldn't return to re-inhabit his preferred vessels.

But that didn't mean there couldn't have been side-effects, especially in Sam, who had been possessed for significantly longer than Dean.  Castiel had his doubts - if Sam had unexpectedly manifested the FireStarting Gift, he would have been more inclined to see a direct connection, but there was no obvious link between what had happened and the demon.  Other than, possibly, a loosening of Sam's natural self-control, but there was no way of proving that.

"Well at least that's something," Adam commented, and he huffed a little.  "Small blessings, I guess."

"Sometimes they are all we have," Castiel agreed, but he felt a tickle of unexpected amusement at the teenager's tone.

"They told me last night that Dean can't speak Valdemaran right now," Adam said, changing the subject.  "Seriously, this whole thing is wild, huh?  Like something out of a story.  Anyway, I got Emil - he's one of my classmates - to introduce me to his grandpa.  He used to work a merchant caravan that went as far as Seejay and beyond, and he speaks a little Jkathan, so I asked him to teach me some phrases.  It's not much," he added hastily, seeing Castiel's surprise, "but I can at least say 'hello' and 'how are you' now, and maybe I can pick up a bit more."

Castiel squeezed his arm gratefully.  "He'll like that."

They approached the door Hawkeye had mentioned, and found that Hawkeye himself was already inside the small room, sitting with Dean.  Dean was awake and looking much improved today; he was sitting up, supported by extra pillows, and there was more colour in his face.  The attending Healer trainee was removing a tray with an empty bowl on it and she was happy to report that he'd managed to eat a portion of porridge and honey for his breakfast.

"You're feeling better then!" Castiel said to Dean, pleased.

"Heya, but they won't let me have bacon," he grumbled, "and you'd think they would after I spent forever making pig-noises to make them understand what I was asking for."

"Life is very hard," Castiel teased.  "You can complain to Adam about it now."

The teenager was looking Dean over with relief.  When his brother turned to him, he coughed self-consciously and said, "Jolla."

The grin that broke over Dean's face was it's own reward, especially when Adam followed that up by asking how he was feeling.  His accent was dreadful, of course, but the effort he took was everything, as was the awkward and careful hug he gave his older brother.

"How are you managing to communicate?" Castiel asked Hawkeye curiously.

"I know a few words," the archer said with a shrug, "and we've been making up signs to fill the gaps.  I kinda hoped he would've got it back by now, but no luck."

Castiel had wondered about that too, but it was early days after all.  He said as much, adding, "And if by some mischance it doesn't come back, he can relearn it."

Hawkeye frowned.  "Why wouldn't it?"

"I've been wondering how much that secondary Gift of his has been involved," he admitted.  "He was twelve before he began to learn Valdemaran, and I'm sure I don't need to tell you that it's a difficult language to learn.  Yet he speaks it like someone born in the lower city."

"Huh," Hawkeye commented.  "Guess we'll find out then."

There was a light tap on the door leading out into the corridor, and Herald Kolsen walked in.  He greeted them all and smiled at Dean.

"You're looking very much better than the last time I saw you," he said.

"Feeling like it too," Dean said, when Castiel had translated this.  "They said maybe I can get up and walk a little bit in a while, to keep my muscles working."

"Excellent!"  Kolsen looked at Adam and Hawkeye.  "Can the two of you manage while I borrow Castiel for a few minutes?"

"Sure," Hawkeye replied.  "You can help us come up with more signs," he said to Adam.

Dean blandly offered him a middle finger when Castiel translated this.  "Here's a useful one."

"And I'll teach you the Jkathan word for 'asshole'," Hawkeye told Adam.

xXx

"I'm afraid to leave them alone together," Castiel remarked to Kolsen as they walked a short way down the corridor to what appeared to be a Healers' rest area. 

Kolsen chuckled.  "Take it as a good sign that his spirits are recovering!"

When they entered the room, there was a young Bard with white-blond hair seated at one of the tables there.  He stood up as they approached.

"This is Bard Irvin," Kolsen introduced him.

Castiel recognised him.  "You're one of Bard Mazuli's friends, yes?" he said, offering his hand for the Bard to clasp.  "I saw you at her party, you performed "Sun and Shadow"."

"That's right.  It's a pleasure to meet you, Herald Castiel," the young man replied, in perfect Jkathan.  At Castiel's astonished look, he continued in Valdemaran: "My parents are part of Valdemar's delegation to Jkatha - I was born there.  I grew up speaking both languages, and when it came time to do my journey-period I went back and spent the whole time travelling around the kingdom.  So I'm pretty familiar with some of the stranger dialects too."

"Bard Irvin has offered to help translate for Dean," Kolsen put in.  "Shall we sit down?  There's something we need to discuss before we introduce them."

That sounded ominous, but Castiel took a seat and waited.

"As I'm sure you know, Castiel, Sam Winchester is under guard at Water Street Barracks at the moment," Kolsen said.  "We've been busy collecting witness statements, and tomorrow there's going to be a preliminary hearing in the Heralds Court to determine whether he should continue to be detained and what charges he should face."

"I see," Castiel said warily.

"The first thing you should know is that Herald Asrel has asked for one of the other City Heralds to handle this.  Nobody doubts her ability to be impartial, but she knows Dean very well and given that feelings are running high in the Strangers Quarter at the moment, she wants there to be no doubts about the fairness of Sam's hearing and eventual trial.  So she'll be exchanging quadrants with Herald Matt Murdock for the duration of the case."

"That seems reasonable, but I don't believe I've met him?"

"He's an experienced judiciary Herald," Kolsen said.  "You won't have met him before because like Asrel he lives in his quadrant and rarely comes to the Palace.  Now, the one statement that hasn't been taken yet is Dean's own.  His Healers think he's well enough this morning to be questioned about the incident, so what I propose to do is take his statement now.  Irvin here can both translate for us and act as a legal witness."

"Very well, but is there a reason why I shouldn't translate?" Castiel asked.

"To be blunt, you're a fellow witness and too close the case.  You might be tempted to amend his words or add to them.  That's not to impugn your character," Kolsen said, seeing Castiel's expression, "but a recognition that this has been a very difficult experience for you, and for all that you're a Herald, you're still a human being."  Castiel couldn't argue with this.  "You can be in the room," Kolsen added, "but you need to take a back seat and let us handle this.  No attempting to help him."

"All right," he sighed.  "I understand.  What then?"

"That will depend on the hearing and Sam's conduct during it," Kolsen said, and his expression grew a little tight.  "There are a number of charges that can potentially be levelled at him, but the most serious is attempted murder.  His own account of what happened is rambling and inconsistent, but personally I don't put a lot of stock in that.  He had a rough night last night and he's still in a highly emotional state, but once he's calmer he may do better.  The real issue will be what he says at his trial, and that's important because he can't be Truth-Spelled until then.  That said …"

"Yes?"

"I know you've been studying the law, but no one would expect you to know everything about it, especially at this stage in your career, " Kolsen commented.  "Have you come across the law of Year And A Day?"

"I'm sure I have, but I can't quite recall it right now," Castiel admitted.

"The real issue here is whether Dean makes a full recovery from his injuries, which the Healers advise isn't a certain thing at the moment."

"There are still fragments of bone in the wound which they're not sure they can remove," Castiel said, feeling a sudden unease.  "If they can't, the outcome is … unclear."

"Precisely.  To put it bluntly, if Sam is convicted of attempted murder of his brother, there's a wide range of possible sentences that could be levelled short of hanging.  But the conviction he receives will almost certainly be conditional.  That is - if Dean should die of the injury within a year and a day of receiving it, it'll be deemed to be murder in fact and there's a very real chance that Sam could then hang for it."

"Please don't say anything of this to Dean," Castiel said after a moment.  "He'll be beside himself at the idea."

"I'm aware," Kolsen said wryly.  "Although I imagine he knows the charges and penalties already."

"Is attempted murder the only possible charge?"

"Well, that's why what Sam says at the hearing tomorrow will be important.  A lack of remorse, a failure to appreciate the magnitude of what he's done, could be very damaging.  But if he can make a good impression, it could certainly be reduced to one of the 'accidental' or 'misadventure' categories.  Of course, the witness statements will be important too."

"I would ask about those," Castiel said wryly, "but as a witness myself I expect it would be inappropriate for you to comment."

Kolsen's eyes crinkled a little, although he didn't actually smile.  "I'm afraid so."

"Fair enough.  One more question, though - does Sam have someone competent to advise him?"

"One of his teachers has volunteered and should be speaking with him this morning."

"Good … that's good.  If Dean asks, we can tell him that."

"How is Dean dealing with Sam's predicament?" Kolsen asked, as the three of them stood up.

"He's expressed some concern about his welfare, but for the most part he's been very quiet on the subject," Castiel said.  "I'm not sure why that is - it may simply be that he's feeling too ill to fret over it."

"I see.  Do you think there's any chance of him tailoring his story to his brother's benefit?  I only ask," Kolsen added, "because it could be challenged under Truth Spell when the trial happens.  I'd prefer that to be unnecessary.  It's upsetting for everyone involved."

"As to that, I couldn't say."  But Castiel knew the lengths to which Dean would go for his brothers, and consequently he wasn't at all sure what would happen next.

xXx

Perhaps the best thing to happen that day was introducing Dean to Bard Irvin; his delight when Irvin spoke to him in the broad dialect of his childhood eased matters considerably.  Dean tentatively mentioned the name of the village his grandparents had lived in back in Jkatha, and discovered that Irvin not only knew of it but had been there, and the Bard assured him that he would be more than happy to tell him anything he wanted to know about it.

"My friends are already bored of my travel stories, Captain, but if you're happy to listen then I have a whole trunk full of them to share!" he said cheerfully.

Hawkeye made his excuses and left at this point; he still had his usual duties to carry out.  But Adam and Castiel took seats out of the way, and settled to listen quietly while Kolsen walked Dean through the events of two days previously.

The real question, it quickly became clear, was not what Dean might try to claim in Sam's defence, but more what he was capable of remembering.  He had a clear recollection of his last shift and meeting with Captain Ellison and Healer Scully, and he remembered meeting Father Joe and walking with him to the Roadhouse Inn.  But after that his memory was patchy - he knew he'd had a confrontation with Sam in his rooms but he didn't remember Jessica being there until Kolsen asked him about her, and trying to recall the words spoken between the three of them and the sequence of events left him confused and frustrated.

"Did Sam hit you?" Kolsen asked eventually.

"No," Dean said at once.  Then he stopped and frowned, trying to work this out.  "Yes - no.  No!  Sam would never hit me.  That is … no … I don't remember."

"All right.  What happened to the window?"

"The window?  I don't … it … there was a hole.  I saw it from outside.  The window was gone."

"You saw it from outside?" Kolsen asked him casually, as though the question was of no great importance.

Dean looked at him blankly for a moment.  Abruptly, realisation seemed to come upon him; he put a hand up to the dressing on his head.  "Did I fall from the window?"

"You tell me," Kolsen replied.

"There was glass and bits of stuff - the window was gone."  Dean looked at him with wide eyes.  "I fell through the window, didn't I?  But it wasn't there."

"You tell me," Kolsen repeated patiently.

"I saw it - that's the last thing I remember.  The window was gone and I was falling."

"How did that happen, Dean?"

"I got thrown against it."  He seemed surprised at remembering this, then dismayed.

"All right," Kolsen said.  He paused, then asked again, "Did Sam hit you?"

"He must have," Dean admitted reluctantly.  He sagged back against his pillows and closed his eyes for a moment.  "But I'd swear he wasn't close enough to touch me - he was over by the door, I thought."

"Do you remember being hit?"

"No."  Dean opened his eyes again; he looked helpless and distressed.  "But I don't remember not being hit either."

They went back and forth over this for a while, Kolsen returning to earlier parts of the conversation to see if Dean remembered any additional details, but for the most part his answers remained the same and after a while it became clear that his strength was fading, so Kolsen brought the questioning to a close.  He flipped quickly through the accumulated pages of questions and answers that he'd written down, and looked at Dean.

"Dean, I'm going to transcribe this into a proper statement for you to approve later today, but before I do that I'm going to ask Bard Irvin to read this to you, so you can agree that these are your words and he can witness it.  That way, should anything untoward happen, we at least have this as a witnessed document."

"In case I don't make it?"  Dean smiled faintly as he said it, but he was quite serious.

Castiel hadn't realised that he knew how uncertain his situation was, but Kolsen didn't duck the question.

"Well yes.  I'm sorry, but we have to take these precautions you know."

"It's fine.  I'm a Watch Captain, I know the rules."

"As to that, I hope to see you back at your post very soon," Kolsen told him.

"You think Henryks will have got comfortable and refuse to let me back in the Watch House?" Dean joked.

Kolsen smiled.  "On the contrary, I think he'll be only too pleased to have you back so he can throw the whole mess back into your lap."

"That sounds more like it," Dean agreed.  He listened quietly as Irvin read the document to him, then nodded.  "I think I could sign it if you want."

"By all means."  Kolsen passed over his pen and Irvin held the papers on the writing board steady as Dean slowly traced his signature.  It was shaky but legible. 

"Hereby formally witnessed," Irvin said when this was done, and he added his own signature underneath, followed by Kolsen's.

"I'll take this and get it written up," Kolsen said, getting up.  "Dean, you should rest.  I believe the Healers will want to be at you again in a while."

"Tell them, if I'm asleep they should just carry on without waking me," Dean said, and Kolsen chuckled.

After he was gone, Castiel and Adam drew their chairs back around his bed.

"Shouldn't you be in class?" Dean asked his brother.

Adam shrugged.  "I've got some leeway, and this is more important."

For a wonder, Dean didn't argue with this.  All he said was, "All right, but you go when the Healers come and don't try to come back again till after supper.  I sleep for ages after they've done their stuff."

He was looking very worn again.  After a pause, Bard Irvin drew his lute in its case out from under his chair.  "I think you're a little too tired right now to listen to my stories, Captain, but may I play for you?  I might know some folk music that's familiar to you."

Dean's face lit at once.  "Are you sure?  Aren't you busy?"

"I'm without an assignment for now, so being able to help you is a pleasure, I promise."  He paused in tuning the lute.  "I wasn't joking when I said everyone else is bored with my Adventures In Jkatha."

Dean grinned faintly.  "Well I want to hear them."

"And so do I," Castiel added.

xXx

Within half a candlemark Dean was asleep again.  Bard Irvin put his lute away then, and sat for some time chatting quietly with Castiel and Adam.  The conversation turned almost at once to Jkatha and the community at Dell's Crossing, for Adam was intensely curious about the border community he'd been born into but knew so little about.

"Dean never talks about it, and Sam doesn't remember it," he explained to Irvin, then there was a tricky moment when his face clouded over, remembering that Sam was currently incarcerated for putting their older brother in the bed he was sitting beside.

"Have you visited Sam?" Castiel asked him.

Adam shook his head.  "There hasn't been time.  And I don't know what I'd say to him if I did."

On that point, Castiel couldn't counsel him.  He'd deliberately avoided considering what he would say to Sam, given the opportunity.

"Perhaps you should," Irvin said quietly.  "Forgive me if I'm speaking out of turn, but you might not have many opportunities - especially once the trial is over."

Adam nodded unevenly.  "I'll try to get leave to go."

With instinctive tact Irvin changed the subject, bringing them back to his travels through Jkatha.  It turned out that he knew Castiel's family a little - "Hard not to, given how prominent they are," he commented - and was familiar with a lot of the places that Castiel counted as personal haunts from his childhood. 

After a while, though, it became clear that Dean was not going to wake again soon and Adam reluctantly decided he would be better off going back to sit his last class of the morning, rather than waiting any longer, especially if Dean was likely to receive another healing when he woke.  Irvin also decided to return to Bardic Collegium, promising to come back after the noon meal.

This left Castiel alone with Dean for the time being, but he was content with that.  It gave him time to brace himself once more for whatever was about to happen next.

You have a streak of pessimism in you, Eslan observed.

I'm trying not to get my hopes up prematurely, Castiel replied.  I've never been comfortable with taking the favours of the gods too lightly, and there's so much at stake at the moment.

Peace, my brother.  The Healers had some success yesterday, and they may yet have more today.

I pray for that.  He seems very much better today, although answering Kolsen's questions - being forced to look at what really happened - took some of his strength away.

Dean is a strong man, Eslan reminded him.  Facing up to what his brother has done won't break him, you know.  And if the Healers can finish what they have started, something may yet be done for Sam.

Castiel hesitated, then confessed, I'm trying not to think of Sam at the moment.  I'm ashamed to admit it, but I'm finding it very hard to be fair about him.

Personally, I find it reassuring that you're having a normal, human reaction, Eslan retorted, with gentle good-humour.  Others are exercising themselves over Sam – you're not obliged to do so under the circumstances, and no one expects it of you.

That works out well then.

Dean stirred just as the noon meal was being served, which amused Castiel a little for it had made its presence felt through some delicious smells.

"Your appetite is the same as ever then," he teased Dean, when he saw him looking hopefully towards the door.

"That's how you'll know I'm dead," Dean told him.  "The smell of food won't wake me."

"Let's not put that to the test," Castiel said dryly.

One of the three Healer trainees who were rotating Dean-watching duties between them arrived carrying a tray with two bowls of a hearty gammon and vegetable soup, the second of which was for Castiel.  When he would have protested, she only winked at him.

"Healer Merewyn says you need to keep your strength up too, Herald!"

Merewyn herself appeared while they were eating, and expressed herself pleased at Dean's returning appetite.

"Give yourself half a candlemark when you're done, to let the meal settle, then you can try getting up and moving around a little," she told him.  "Just to the door and back, mind you - really we just want to be sure everything is working and under your control.  Do not overdo it!"

Dean gave her a look and plucked at his smock, a gesture that needed no translation; it was short and open at the back.

Merewyn gave him an amused look in return.  "We'll see about finding you some drawers and a robe.  Finish your lunch!"

And she went off again.

"At least I got some bacon this time," Dean said, satisfied, as he put his spoon back into the empty bowl.

Castiel had to laugh.  "Small pleasures!"

"Sometimes they're the best."  Dean leaned back against his pillows again.  "How's Eslan doing?  You're spending so much time with me, he's got to be missing you."

The genuine concern in this touched Castiel.  Can you perhaps come to the door here when he gets up?  There's plenty of room on the path, and I think he'd really like to see you.

Of course, Eslan said at once, pleased.

"If you can walk to the door, you'll see him for yourself," he told Dean, whose face lit up.

The Healer trainee returned to collect their tray, and brought with her a pair of loose, drawstring trousers and heavier cloth robe for Dean.  Sitting himself on the side of the bed and putting the clothes on clearly took more effort than he had been expecting, and it took the help of both the trainee and Castiel in end.  Standing up took even more effort and he had an unnerving bout of dizziness for a moment.  But he recovered and decided to accept their support before taking the first step.  By the time he'd managed the second, Eslan had appeared by the herb garden door and that was all the incentive Dean needed to walk unsteadily to the door on his own.

"That's excellent," Merewyn said calmly, observing his progress from the other doorway.  "Don't stay there too long, Captain - remember you have to walk back to your bed."

"I can't believe I'm so feeble," Dean said to Eslan, who blew comfortingly down the front of his smock.  "A few days ago I could walk from one end of the city to the other."

"Baby steps," was all Merewyn would say, when Castiel relayed this to her. 

"Still, it's real good to see you," Dean told Eslan, stroking his nose.  "You're looking good.  I'm sorry I'm being so much bother.  And I have no idea if you can understand a word I'm saying right now.  So much for that Gift of languages, heya?"

Eslan gave him a decidedly enigmatic look at this.  Then he gave Dean a very gentle nudge in the direction of the bed.

"You're right."  Rather regretfully Dean shuffled slowly back to the bed and sat down.  He looked up at Merewyn.  "So what's next?"

"We'll try another healing later this afternoon," she told him.

xXx

Castiel took the decision - pushed by Dean - to go for a ride with Eslan while the Healers made their latest attempt.  He was keyed up and anxious, but the long ride around the Companions' Field helped.  After that he gave the Companion another good grooming and checked over his tack, then took his advice and went to take a bath and change his clothes.  He checked in with Steve and Peggy, briefly reacquainted himself with Mulder, who had been meeting with the Circle after his circuit, and then went back down to the stable.  Hawkeye and Adam were waiting for him there, and they walked back over to the House of Healing together, with Eslan at their heels.

Dean was asleep again when they arrived, with another trainee in attendance.  The boy got up when they entered the room, nodding respectfully to Castiel.

"Healer Merewyn would like to speak to you, Herald.  I'll let her know you're here."

And he was gone before they could question him.

"He's looking kinda pale," Adam said, peering at Dean.

"Healings take a lot out of the patient," Hawkeye said.  "It uses a lot of your own energy - or that's what I've been told."

"That would be why they wanted him to rest and eat after the last healing," Castiel agreed, although privately he agreed with Adam as well - Dean was looking very pale after this last session.

Merewyn appeared before they could speculate further, and one look at her face told Castiel that she did not have good news.

"Would you come down to my office?" she asked him. 

"Of course."  He looked at Adam.  "You should come too."

Adam looked alarmed at this, but agreed.

"I'll stay here with Dean," Hawkeye said, his eyes flicking between their faces.

Merewyn's office was small but very neat.  She invited the two of them to take the chairs in front of her desk, then drew her own chair around so that she wasn't seated behind the table like a teacher.  Castiel didn't find this reassuring; it looked like she was priming herself for landing what she knew would be a blow, and he was not wrong.

"I'm going to be completely straight with you," she said at once.  "We weren't successful in getting any of the remaining fragments of bone out of Captain Winchester's brain.  In fact, one of the largest splinters moved further in.  That's one of the great difficulties of trying to use the Healing Gift on brain tissue - it's an organ with its own energies, for want of a better description, and sometimes they act in opposition to the energies we summon to Heal.  We don't know why.  Unfortunately, the brain is still something of an enigma to us."

"What does that mean?" Adam asked worriedly, when Castiel failed to find his voice.

"It means we've probably reached a point where we have to stop trying to heal your brother," Merewyn said bluntly.  "If we make another attempt and that large splinter goes in any further, it'll pierce a blood vessel and that will almost certainly kill him.  And there's something else we have to consider, that there's a hole in his skull - not a large one, admittedly, but a hole nevertheless, and we're running a constant risk of infection by leaving it open.  We can't continue with that indefinitely, and in fact it's the opinion of my Circle that we should close it by this time tomorrow at the very latest."

Castiel managed to speak.  "If you're sure of this, then why is the wound still open?"

"Because I feel it's Captain Winchester's right to make this decision for himself, if he can.  If he wants to take the risk, I'll go back to my Circle and ask them to allow one more attempt to remove the fragments."  Merewyn sighed.  "I'm not confident they'll agree, but I'm willing to ask."

"And if the hole is healed over with the splinters still inside?"

"I can't say with any certainty what will happen, but the balance is, I think, tilted towards one of those fragments of bone eventually moving and causing more damage - possibly a brainstorm.  The real question is not 'if' but 'when'.  His skull might heal, and he become as hearty as ever and live for years.  Or getting up and moving around - going about a normal life - might cause the fragments to move very quickly.  It's impossible to know."  She pressed her lips together for a moment.  "That's why I say it's a decision for him to make.  It's his life."

"He'll want to take the risk," Adam said at once.  "That's … Dean's that kind of guy.  He won't want to sit around, waiting for it to happen.  He'll want to try, even if it kills him."

"I agree," Castiel said.  He was vaguely surprised that he was still able to speak or even breathe.  It felt like there was a huge lump of ice lodged under his breastbone.

Merewyn nodded.  "We should ask him as soon as he wakes.  Assuming the Circle agree, we won't be able to make the attempt until morning - he needs to rest and recover from this latest session.  But regardless of the outcome, that will leave time to finish Healing the wound itself later in the afternoon."

xXx

Dean said no.

Like Adam - and indeed Hawkeye, when the news was relayed to him - Castiel had been sure Dean would want to take the risk, rather than dooming himself to an indefinite period of uncertainty.  But he listened intently as Castiel translated Merewyn's explanation, and then sat thinking about it.  This was a moment when Castiel desperately regretted the embargo on using MindSpeech, for he had absolutely no idea what was going through Dean's mind as he stared out of the window with his thoughts clearly very far away.

"There is at least a chance," he said to Dean finally, when the silence had gone on for too long.  Bard Irvin had arrived in the meantime, and he could hear Hawkeye softly bringing him up to speed in the background.

Dean looked at him, and the affection in that look nearly undid him.  "A pretty low chance, Cas."  He looked across at Merewyn.  "How likely do you think it is that you'll be successful?  Honestly?"

It was Irvin who translated, when Castiel found he couldn't speak.

"I can't say," the Healer replied.  "Getting the smaller splinters out - I think there's a fair chance of that.  We only desisted last time because of the unexpected movement in the larger fragment.  Of getting that one, well … I'd be lying to you if I told you it wasn't exceptionally risky.  The two Healers working with me were pessimistic about it, and they also have considerable experience in this type of injury."

"Right."  Dean looked away again for a moment, and when he turned back Castiel didn't understand his expression.  "If something happens … I mean, if you tried and I died, what would happen to Cas?"

There was a pause after Irvin translated this, Merewyn seemingly thrown off balance by the question.  Castiel saw Adam's confused expression and the sudden, pained twist of Hawkeye's mouth before he ruthlessly controlled himself.

"We're lifebonded," Dean reminded the Healer when she didn't speak, and Irvin dutifully relayed this.

"Well … I'm not an expert," Merewyn said, even more off balance.  "He - won't die.  The separation, it's supposed to be psychologically painful, I believe, but - but certainly survivable.  And he has his Companion, I would assume that would make a difference …"

"Whereas if you heal up the rest of the damage, I could go on for a while."

"Dean …"

"Cas - "  Dean took his hand and gripped it with as much strength as he could manage, which wasn't much.  "I don't want the last thing I see to be this room and not know if I'm going to wake up again.  I don't … that's not how I want to go out."

Castiel returned the grip, though it hurt to feel Dean's weakness and see the look on his face.  Irvin, with great tact, did not translate that last exchange, but he could hear Adam asking him and Hawkeye: "What lifebond?!"  He ignored them.  "That's not what I want either, but what happens to me shouldn't be what you base your decision upon!  If Merewyn is willing to try - "

"You heard her," Dean said.  "It's pretty bad odds, and chances are the Circle won't let her try again anyway."

Castiel drew in a ragged breath.  "Then what do you want?"

"I want to go home."  The honesty of that shook him.  "When you told Sam I was homesick, you weren't exactly wrong.  I don't want to die in this city.  I want to go back to my grandparents' house, and then when it happens, it happens, but at least I'm back where I belong."

There was silence after Irvin finished translating this.  Hawkeye was the first to move, folding his arms over his chest and ducking his head for a moment.  When he looked up, there was resolve in his face.

"Then we'll make that happen," he said simply.

"What lifebond?" Adam repeated more insistently, and Hawkeye rounded on him sharply.

"Is that some kind of a problem for you?" he demanded.

"What?  No!  Of course not!  I just … I mean, I guessed they were maybe more than friends, but - lifebonded?  Really?"  Adam looked oddly shattered by this, but there was no condemnation in his face.  "I guess I get why you didn't say anything," he told his brother.  "I mean, Dad would've flipped his shit, and probably Sam too."

"Well now you know," Castiel said, rather more curtly than he intended, for he didn't like to see the tension that had briefly surged through Dean in anticipation of Adam's reaction.

"It's not just about the lifebond though, is it?" Adam said, disregarding this.  "You're doing this for Sam.  I know about the year-and-day law!  You - you think if you can just make it for a year, then they can't - "  He couldn't finish the sentence.

It was a fair point and Castiel, who translated it, added, "If that's why you're doing this - "

"I'm not," Dean interrupted him tiredly.  "Or maybe partly.  I don't believe he meant to hurt me and he shouldn't be branded a murderer.  Heya, if I can stop that happening, then I'll be glad.  But I'm not going to be wrapping myself in lint because of it.  I mean it - if I'm going to die, I just want to be back in Dell's Crossing when it happens.  Bad enough that Dad's in the Pauper's Boneyard."  He looked at Castiel with a kind of plea.  "You know.  We wait until autumn, back home, and scatter the ashes with the leaves on the forest floor."

"I know."  Castiel had to look down for a moment, to try to compose himself.  He wasn't particularly successful, and when he looked at Dean again his throat tightened with the pain.  "But I don't want to lose you."

Dean's fingers tightened on his.  "I know.  I know.  I hate it, Cas, hate it.  But my gut's telling me that if I let them try again, I won't even get a chance to say goodbye."

xXx

After that, it seemed like it was all about arrangements.

The first task, Merewyn advised, would be getting Dean into good enough shape to be able to do the things he wanted to do.  That was straightforward from her perspective; that he'd been able to get up and move around earlier had been a good sign, and therefore what was required now was to heal the remains of the original skull fracture, closing the small hole that had been left while they tried to remove the remaining fragments, and then build up his strength. 

In the meantime, Hawkeye said he would talk to some friends and consider the best way to get Dean back to Dell's Crossing.  But first, Dean asked him to request Kolsen visit whenever it was convenient.

"I've got to make arrangements for Adam," he explained.  "Do you think he'd be willing to take over guardianship?  It's only for a year, and I'd rather it was him than Jim Ellison or Bobby, since the kid's living here, not in the lower city."

Adam looked taken aback.  "But I'll go with you to Dell's Crossing."

"No, you won't," Dean said firmly.  "You've got a life here.  You're nearly finished at the Collegium, you've got that apprenticeship lined up.  If I let you come with me, you'll be a fish out of water.  You don't speak the language, you don't know anything about the life.  And maybe you could learn to live there, I know my grandparents would make you welcome, but you shouldn't have to.  This is your home."

"You'll have to ask Phil about that," Hawkeye said, before Adam could think up an argument for this, "but I think he might."

"Right."  Dean was beginning to look rather worn again.  "I should talk to him about Sam as well.  Maybe there's something more I can do."

"You can rest until Kolsen comes," Castiel said firmly.  "You don't have to do everything now.  Rest until supper."

"I'll go set things in motion," Hawkeye said to him.  "Tell people what's happening so you don't have to."  He took Dean's hand for a moment, gripping it.  "Don't go anywhere before I come back," he told him, and Dean gave him a faint grin.

"Thank you …"

"You'd do the same for me."

When he was gone, Irvin stepped forward hesitantly, his eyes sympathetic.  "Would you prefer that I leave for now?"

"No … no, please stay."  Castiel slowly got up from his chair, still holding Dean's hand.  "I think Adam would like to talk to his brother, but I need to speak to Eslan right now."

He could tell that Dean wasn't fooled, but he only squeezed Castiel's hand slightly before releasing it.  "Tell him I'm sorry?"

"Dean, you have nothing to apologise for."

"I'm not so sure about that," Dean said, and his smile was wry.

Castiel went out of the garden door and took the path into the herb garden.  Moments later Eslan loomed up before him, a great, luminous, white shape in the growing autumn twilight.

Castiel buried his face in his mane and tried to remember how to breathe.  The ice in his chest felt like it was stabbing him through his heart.

I am here, Eslan said softly, and that was all that needed to be said.

xXx

Kolsen came just after supper.  Hawkeye had not yet returned, but Kolsen commented that he was talking to various associates about Dean's projected journey.

"He makes contacts in all sorts of places, it's a habit he picked up in the circus when he was a boy."  More privately, though, he MindSpoke to Castiel: Clint's spending some time with Natasha.  He's more distressed about this than he'll let on, but she’ll help him come to some level of acceptance.

He was willing to accept guardianship of Adam and suggested that the teenager accompany him when he left, to seek the advice of a Herald who was particularly experienced in that area of the law.  In respect of Sam, however, he advised that at this point there wasn't much more that Dean could do, other than perhaps drafting a personal statement to be submitted to the court in due course.

"And that, I think, is a job for when you're feeling a little stronger," he suggested.  He had maintained a calm, straightforward tone all through the conversation; it was only when he was preparing to leave that he hesitated, then said quietly, "Dean, I'm sorrier than I can say that this has turned out the way it has.  I respect your decision, though - sometimes the best course is not the obvious one.  If there's anything else I can do to help - "

"I'll let you know," Dean agreed, smiling faintly.  "But if you're willing to look out for Adam, that's a huge weight off my mind."

"Then I'm glad to be able to do so."  Kolsen clasped his hand gently.  "I'll see you again tomorrow perhaps."

When he left, with Adam in tow, Irvin also got up.  "I think I should go for now," he said, "but with your permission I'll return tomorrow."

"I still want to hear your stories," Dean told him.

"Then I'll certainly be back," the Bard said, smiling.

There was relief in the quiet, once it was just Dean and Castiel again.

"You'll stay?" Dean asked him.

"Where else would I go?" Castiel replied, a little quizzically.  "We're lifebonded - thus we're almost one person, are we not?"

"I never thought about it like that before."  Dean pressed his lips together for a moment.  "I'm sorry.  I know you wanted me to try another Healing - "

"Your reasons are valid," Castiel interrupted him, "and you are right.  This way, perhaps, we will have more time … with luck, a very great deal more time.  As much as we'll need, I hope."

xXx

Kolsen was wearily unsurprised to find a small delegation waiting for him in his office, when he returned there after seeing Adam off the Palace grounds.

"You've all heard then," he commented, as he hung his cloak on the back of the door.

"Eslan passed the word to Taver almost immediately," Ansel replied.  "Come and have some tea.  You look like you need it."

"I don't suppose any of you know where Clint has hidden himself?" he asked, as he sat down behind his desk and pulled his boots off.

"I discreetly asked Bobbi and she says he's squirreled himself away in one of his high-level boltholes with Natasha in attendance," Peggy replied.  "I carefully didn't ask which particular bolthole though."

"She probably doesn't know," Kolsen said.  "I trust Tasha to look after him.  He'll come to me when he's ready."  Then he paused and had to put his head in his hands for a moment.

"Tea," Ansel said quietly, pushing a mug across the desk.

"We won't be able to send Castiel out in the field until this has been resolved, you realise," Kolsen said, unheeding.  "The death of a lifemate is very traumatic … aside from the unfairness to him, it'd be grossly unfair to his mentor to leave them to deal with the fallout."

"I think it may be better to accept that Castiel will be going to the south border with Winchester, and semi-regularise the situation instead," Raylor commented.  "But I don't propose to try and sort out the logistics of the matter right at this moment."

"We'll need to think about it sooner rather than later, though," Kolsen said.

"Yes, but not tonight," Ansel told him firmly.  "Right now, I'd prefer that you drink this tea and admit that this is a blow for far more personal reasons."

"Well, yes," Kolsen muttered.  He picked up the tea and took a swallow.  "I like Dean, I consider him a friend.  So if you want me to be completely honest, then I'll admit I'm probably not going to deal with this much better than Clint.  I mean, aside from anything else I'm absolutely furious at the way it's happened and at the waste of someone with so much talent.  This is the kind of thing that makes me beg questions of the gods, quite frankly.  And it makes me even angrier that he's still trying to find excuses and ways out for the young idiot who did this to him."

"But being young and idiotic is not a crime," Ansel said gently.  "If it were, we'd all have been put behind bars in our youth."

"Being young and idiotic to the extreme of nearly killing your brother in a tantrum is a different matter," Peggy retorted, before Kolsen himself could.

"I'm happy to leave the final determination on that to Matt Murdock," he said bitterly.  "Although at this point, even if Sam Winchester is completely acquitted, I can't imagine what we'll do with him.  All I know is that something will have to be done, one way or another.  He's crossed a line and become dangerous, and after the previous incident we can't possibly take chances on him again."

"If it was a wild Gift that he used against Dean, then the solution may have to be for the Healers to burn it out," Ansel said reluctantly.  "It's not often done, but if the Gift turns out to be linked to anger then we can't afford to take chances.  That lesson was well learned with Lavan Firestorm."

"But what effect will that have on him?" Peggy asked uneasily.  "Surely it can't be as simple as the Gift just being gone - it's an intrinsic part of a person after all."

"I don't know," Ansel admitted.  "I'll need to research it and speak to the experts at the House of Healing.  All I know is that it can be done, and has been done on a couple of occasions in the past.  Taver might be willing to give me the benefit of his experience, since he was probably there when it happened."

Raylor stirred.  "That's for another day.  Phil, you need to rest.  Let me know if there's anything I can take off your hands tomorrow to give you some breathing space."

"Steve will want to support Castiel," Peggy offered.  "And I'll offer my assistance to Clint, since he's taken on making arrangements for Captain Winchester to go south."

"Thank you, that'll help.  And Raylor - it'd be a blessing if you'd take my place at that meeting with the Queen Dowager tomorrow.  I know it's cowardice, but I really can't face one of her pointed inquisitions right now, and the chances of her not knowing what's going on are almost nil."

"You should just snap at her like Maria does," Ansel commented, smiling faintly.   "Tell her to mind her own business."

"My relationship with her is very different," Kolsen replied dryly.  "If you can call it a relationship, and I'm happy not to."  He dragged himself out of his chair.  "All right, I'm going to bed.  Tomorrow will probably be a long and difficult day."

xXx

Dean awoke as the first light of dawn began to show through the window of his room.  He hadn't been sleeping much anyway; he had too much to think about, but he'd deliberately faked sleep, initially so that Castiel would feel less guilt about stretching out on the pallet the Healers had provided beside Dean's bed, and then during the early hours to escape the watchful eyes of the Healer trainees.  Mostly he'd dozed, on and off.

He awoke properly now, though, because the boy currently on duty - he was the youngest and least experienced of the three trainees - had been distracted by something out in the corridor and had very quietly gone to investigate, pulling the door closed behind him.

Dean slowly and carefully pulled himself up into a sitting position and looked over the side of the bed at Castiel.  The light from the single night-lamp by the door was very dim, but it was enough to show that he was asleep, and his deep, slow breathing indicated that it was the heavy sleep of exhaustion.

Dean felt a deep, hurtful pang inside at that.  On one level he had come to terms with the knowledge that his time was now likely to be severely curtailed, but knowing what it must be doing to Cas - and what it was doing to himself - was still enough to make his breath shorten in his chest.  He'd known for a very long time that life wasn't fair, but this situation made him remember for the first time one of his father Jon's sayings: Fate plays with loaded dice

The truth of that had never been more stark to Dean.  He'd spoken the truth when he said he wanted to go home to Dell's Crossing and his grandparents, but part of him was wondering if he'd even make it that far.  He had a curse inside him now, one that was counting down his remaining hours on its own enigmatic timescale, and there was no saying when it might be triggered. 

He watched the light slowly growing outside the window until something large and white suddenly appeared there: Eslan.  The Companion was looking directly at him.

Dean looked down at Castiel, but his lover wasn't stirring so clearly Eslan hadn't come here for him.  He looked across to the inner door.  He could hear voices faintly down the corridor, but there was no sign of the trainee returning.

All right, then.

Dean slowly and carefully pushed the blankets back and eased his legs over the side of the bed.  He'd been allowed to keep the loose trousers on earlier; he reached for the robe and pulled it on.  It all seemed to take a very long time to accomplish, but eventually he managed it.

Next he stood up.  It took some effort without anyone to help him, but he remembered the dizziness from before and waited it out.  He felt fairly steady as he took his first uncertain step, but then more confidence swept over him.  He actually felt a little stronger.  He reached the outer door without difficulty and quietly unlatched it, pushing it open.

Eslan was standing on the path a few feet away, flicking his tail idly, his eyes fixed on Dean's face.  There was a light breeze and some pleasant smells from the herb garden were drifting on it, and after a moment's hesitation Dean stepped outside cautiously.  He was half expecting it to be a gravel path, in which case his adventure would have ended there and then as he didn't have any shoes on, but it turned out to be made of sections of smoothed stone fitted together, cold but manageable.  One hand on the wall to balance him, Dean walked over to Eslan, who immediately offered him a warm shoulder to lean on.

"Nice morning," Dean commented, smiling faintly.  He still had no idea if Eslan could understand what he was saying, but perhaps it didn't matter.  "I'm not supposed to be out here, but … this is nice."

He breathed the cool, fresh air for a few moments, then Eslan took a step down the path and Dean was forced to go with him or fall over. 

Then another step. 

And another.

"Uh … where are we going?" Dean asked him curiously.  He trusted the Companion wholeheartedly, but he hadn't been expecting to go for a stroll and he wasn't sure if he was up to it yet.  He was already leaning very heavily but Eslan kept going until they turned around the corner of the building.  There was a stretch of grass between the rows of shrubs there, and waiting on it were two Companions.

Dean squinted at them.  One was unmistakably Taver.  The other, a tall stallion, he didn't recognise.

"What's going on?" he asked Eslan, perplexed, although he didn't really expect to get an answer.

Eslan led him carefully up to the other two, then abruptly stepped away, leaving Dean standing unsteadily in front of them.  Taver stepped forward and nosed his forehead very gently for a moment - and suddenly the block on his MindSpeech that the Healers had put in place was gone, although something that felt like Taver himself seemed to be standing between Dean and the chaotic mental noise of the House of Healing.  Then Taver stepped back, and the other Companion approached Dean.

Dean stared up at him, wide-eyed, and all he could see was blue eyes.

Hello Dean Winchester, a gentle male voice said.  Please don't be alarmed.  My name is Inias, and I Choose you.

 

Chapter Text

Chosen … Chosen, please wake up.  It's important.  Chosen …

Castiel swam up out of the deepest sleep, wondering what was going on and where he was.  He'd had nothing but shapeless, unsettling dreams and -

CHOSEN, PLEASE WAKE UP!  WE NEED YOU HERE!

"I'm awake, I'm awake!" 

Castiel struggled up, fighting off his single blanket and dragging himself to his feet by dint of grabbing the leg of Dean's bed to haul himself upright.  For a moment he blinked around in the early morning light, confused and still more than half asleep.  Then it hit him.

Dean was gone, his bed empty.

"Dean!"

"Oh gods!"  That was the Healer trainee, who should have been sitting in the chair on the other side of the room, but who was instead standing in the doorway out into the corridor.  "Herald, I swear I was only gone for a few minutes!"

Chosen, we need you out here NOW!

Where is 'here'? Castiel demanded.  Eslan, where is Dean?

Out here, quickly!

Eslan all but grabbed him mentally and showed him the place.  Castiel gasped. 

"Get Healer Merewyn - quickly!" he snapped at the boy, and he ran for the garden door.

How had Dean managed to get outside without waking anyone?  Why had he come out here, in the cold, with no shoes or proper clothes, at this hour of the morning?  And what -

He hadn't fully assimilated the meaning of the mental image Eslan had given him, so when he rounded the corner of the building, he was shocked to see Dean on his knees in front of a strange Companion, with Taver standing close by.

Then Eslan was in front of him.  Not just yet, Chosen.  Listen to me, for this is important.  Are you listening?

Eslan, what is going on?

Dean has been Chosen, Eslan said, and for the umpteenth time since Dean's accident he somehow inserted himself between Castiel and his shock, helping him to stay calm and focused.  Listen to me carefully, Chosen.  Any moment now Inias will release Dean, and when that happens Dean will probably collapse.  You need to be ready to catch him, so he doesn't injure himself further.  Then you must give instructions to the Healers who are coming.

What kind of instructions? Castiel asked, unable to take his eyes off Dean and - Inias?

They will need to stand ready to assist, as Inias is going to remove the bone fragments inside Dean's head and Heal him.

A thousand questions clamoured to be answered, but Castiel voiced none of them.  He had grasped the only thing that mattered right now: Dean was going to be healed.

Quickly now, Eslan urged him, and he stepped out of the way. 

Castiel ran forward and dropped to his knees behind Dean.  Inias stepped back, Dean sucked in a huge, shaky breath - and toppled over.  Castiel caught him just in time and supported him to the ground, holding his head carefully in his lap.

There was a rush of Healers to the scene - Merewyn first, using language he hadn't imagined her capable of, then a couple of others.  Castiel quickly began to relay the instructions Eslan was giving him.

"Someone needs to bring the pallet from our room, and the pillow and all the blankets from Dean's bed.  We need to lay him down and keep him warm while Inias works on him.  It'll probably take a couple of candlemarks … Inias wants you to help, by managing the bleeding and preventing any fever or infection attacking Dean while he's out here …"

He thought they might protest, but Merewyn took one look at Inias and Taver, and turned to give orders to someone behind them.  The pallet was quickly dragged out by two trainees, while another brought the bedding.  In short order Dean was made as comfortable as possible, and then the Healers had to make room on one side of him as Inias lay down beside the pallet and focussed his attention on him.

"We need to get the dressings off him," Castiel said, beginning to untie them himself.

"Someone bring a big wad of lint," one of the other Healers ordered, "and some fresh dressings for when we're done here.  Dear gods," he added more quietly, almost to himself, "I hope this fellow knows what he's doing."

"It'll be one for the history books if he does," Merewyn said replied tersely, and she helped Castiel to carefully unwind the final layer of the dressing and expose the wound in Dean's skull.

xXx

Dean re-awoke in the early afternoon, back in his bed in the House of Healing.  Inias had taken just under two candlemarks to ease out the last of the blood clots and fragments of bone, heal the soft tissue damage left behind and close up the hole in his skull, although he'd warned that the area of new bone would be thinner than that around it for a while, it being better that it completed the healing process on its own and to a more normal timescale.

The real concern had been the possibility of a dangerous reaction fever, which led to both Castiel and Merewyn sitting tensely by Dean's bedside as he slept off the last of the healing.  Inias remained just outside the room with Eslan, watching his Chosen through the open window.  Hawkeye had come not long after Dean was moved, bringing with him a warming blanket and nosebag of feed for the Companion; by that time Herald Ansel was also there after hearing of what was happening from Taver.  The final person to arrive was Adam, who had been fetched by Bard Irvin as soon as he arrived and heard the news.

So it was an anxious little group that witnessed Dean's eyes blinking open, halfway through the afternoon.  He seemed a little bleary-eyed and confused for a moment, then he saw Castiel bending over him and managed a small, lopsided smile for him.

"Heyla," he murmured.  "What happened this time?"

Adam let out a smothered yelp of relief, for the question had been asked in Valdemaran at last.

Castiel's smile could have lit up the room.  "So many things, Dean – you have no idea!"

Dean's eyes travelled over the them all until they reached Inias, who was now gazing back at him from the doorway, and widened.  "I thought I'd dreamed you," he said wonderingly.

Inias made a sound remarkably like a chuckle.

"No dream, Captain," Ansel told him, smiling.  "You're one of ours now."

"How do you feel, Captain?" Merewyn asked him.

Dean thought about that.  "Hungry?" he ventured finally.

She smiled at him.  "I'm glad to hear it.  We'll get you something in a moment.  But tell me how your head feels."

"It's a little weird," Dean admitted.  "Kinda tender on that side and it feels like I ought to be deaf or something."

Inias has temporarily replaced the block on Dean's Gifts, Eslan reported.  He thinks it best if the injury is given another day or so to recover from all the healings before he uses MindSpeech again.

Castiel passed this on, and both Merewyn and Ansel agreed that this seemed sensible.  Dean made a face though.

"Means I can't hear you," he said to the Companion directly.

"Enjoy the respite," Ansel advised him, amused, and Dean laughed weakly at the outraged look the Companion gave the Queen's Own.

Then he looked at Hawkeye and held out his hand.  The archer took it with a crooked grin.

"You asshole," he told Dean.  "Don't you ever scare us like that again, you hear me?"

"Ain't in my game plan, buddy," Dean told him ruefully.  "Do me a favour?"

"Name it."

"Find a treat for my new pal there for me?"

Hawkeye looked at Inias, and winked at Dean.  "They all know the Palace kitchens are making apricot and apple pies tonight.  I'll sneak a couple out for him and Eslan."

"I owe you."

"Nah, you don't."  Hawkeye was grinning.  "You just helped me win an argument I've been having with Phil for months, and that's worth gold, believe me."

Ansel huffed a laugh at this.

"Enough," Merewyn said, but she was smiling.  "Captain Winchester needs to eat, and then I suspect he'll need to sleep again."

"Feels like I've slept enough for a couple months already," Dean grumbled, as Merewyn went away to order him some lunch.  He tried to sit up and had to submit to Castiel and Adam lifting him; he was very weak.

"I would make the most of it if I were you," Ansel said.  "You'll be busy enough for three soon enough."

"I guess."  Dean sobered a little.  "Does it help Sam at all, now I'm not gonna croak any time soon?"

Castiel grimaced.  "Dean, you shouldn't worry about that just now."

"He's on a deadline, Cas."

"He can't be tried for your murder, so there's that," was Ansel's rather dry comment.

"What's the worst he can get for attempted murder though?" Dean asked.

He and the Queen's Own looked at each other.

"Eight years in the quarries," Ansel said with a sigh, "as I suspect you know."  He didn't bother to add - what everyone present surely knew - that many people sentenced to that length of time in the quarries didn't survive their full sentence.

"I don't believe he meant to do it," Dean told him plaintively.

"No, but regardless of his motivations, he did do it and more than that, the evidence points to him doing it with his mind alone.  It's a very dangerous sign when someone with a powerful Gift uses it violently in anger, Dean.  We can't just ignore that."

"He ain't gonna be any less dangerous in a quarry," Dean pointed out.

Ansel pressed his lips together for a moment.  "There are ways to neutralise it if necessary," he said finally, "but I'm not about to discuss that with you now, because you're in no shape to deal with it.  Besides, the decision on Sam is unlikely to be in my hands - he'll stand trial in ten days' time in the Strangers Quarter."

"Could I talk to Herald Asrel?"

"Asrel is not taking this case," Castiel told him.  "She knows you too well to be unbiased."

Dean's brow furrowed.  "Then who?"

"Herald Matt Murdock," Ansel replied.  "He normally sits in the First Quadrant Court."

"Will he listen to me?"

Ansel studied Dean for a moment, a rueful smile playing over his lips.  "You're going to be a troublemaker, aren't you?"

Dean gave him a look.  "That guy," he said, pointing a shaky finger to Inias, "didn't hire me to be a yes-man, now did he?"

"He's got you there," Hawkeye told Ansel.

xXx

The Heralds Court was held in a big market hall on the edge of the Strangers Quarter; not the usual venue, but there was more interest than normal and the Herald had asked for somewhere with more space so that everyone who wanted to could attend.  There had been a lot of talk and speculation about Sam Winchester's trial, and feelings had run higher than usual in the community, which made it imperative that everything was seen to be done in the open.

It was a bitterly cold day.  The previous night there had been a hard frost and the sky was overcast for much of the morning, with a hint of icy moisture in the air that suggested the first snow of winter was imminent.  Scarves, hats, mittens and warm cloaks were the dress code of the day, and a significant number of those cloaks were regulation Watch issue as those members of the local constabulary who were able came to witness the trial of the man who had nearly killed one of their captains.

Ellen Harvelle sat at the front on the witness bench, next to Father Joe; Jo Harvelle was sitting in the row behind her, back in uniform at last and sharing a bench with Captain Ellison and Captain Singer. Behind them were a number of constables from Ropewalk Watch, while scattered across the other benches were constables and officers from other Watches, including the captain of Glassblower Alley Watch, Bela Talbot.  There was a small group of Heralds sitting on the front bench on the far side of the aisle; and as the last few stragglers filed in through the door at the back of the hall, Jessica Moore arrived with her parents and resolutely came to take a seat next to Ellen, who patted her hand kindly.

It was a subdued assembly.  Despite the way opinions on the matter had raged for the past week or so, there was a general awareness that what had really happened here was a family tragedy; a reminder in the form of Adam Winchester was sitting at the front with one of the Heralds, looking white-faced and anxious.

Finally the Herald handling the case entered the court room and made his way to the judge's table at the front, with his assistant at his elbow.  He carried a long cane and walked with confidence but precision; he also wore a set of wire framed eye-glasses with lenses that were tinted black to hide his eyes, for he was completely blind.  The effect, as he took his seat, was disconcerting and quickly subdued any mutters within the crowd of spectators .

He made himself comfortable in his chair and waited while his assistant quickly set out his papers and readied his tools to make a record of the proceedings.  Finally everything was in readiness, and the Herald cleared his throat softly.

"Good morning.  I'm Herald Matt Murdock and this morning we sit in judgement in the case of the Crown versus Samuel Winchester.  Before we begin, I would ask you all to bear in mind that while I appreciate this is an emotive case, I will tolerate no interruptions or noisy outbursts from the public benches.  I hope that's clear to everyone."

The room was suddenly very quiet.

"Thank you.  Guard, please bring out the accused."

Two Guards came through a door facing the main room, leading Sam Winchester to the makeshift dock.  He was dressed in the heavy sackcloth uniform worn by prisoners held at the Guard Barracks, with his wrists manacled and chained to the two Guards, and he looked worn down and defeated.  There was a thick white cross painted in whitewash on the front and back of his dark overtunic; a stark and deliberate target to make him stand out to archers should he somehow manage to escape his Guards.  The Guards settled him, not ungently, in the seat designated for him and took up positions on either side of him.

Murdock waited until this was done, then said: "May the charges please be read out."

His assistant stood up and read from a  sheet of parchment adorned with a ribbon and seal.

"Samuel Winchester, you have been brought before Her Majesty's Court to answer the following charges: Namely, that two weeks ago you did, in the first instance, while within the business premises known as the Roadhouse Inn in Hemp Alley, Lower Haven, prosecute a quarrel with and attempt a physical assault upon the person of one Mistress Jessica Moore of Plover Street in Upper Haven; that in the second instance you did commit an act of criminal violence resulting in some twenty silver crowns worth of damage to the property of one Madam Ellen Harvelle, proprietress of the Roadhouse Inn; that in the third instance you did make an attempt upon the life of your brother, Captain Dean Winchester of the Ropewalk Watch, whilst he attempted to restrain you in accordance with his lawful duty; and that finally, you did attempt to evade the consequences of your actions by fleeing the scene of your crimes."  He sat back down.

"Please stand to face the Court and answer the charges brought against you," Murdock said, tilting his head towards Sam.

Sam stood up slowly, clasping his trembling hands in front of him.  His voice a little hoarse, he said, "I'm guilty, milord Herald."

That raised a murmur from the public gallery, but Murdock waited until it had settled, his hands folded on the table in front of him.  When the room was quiet again, he said calmly:

"Very well.  Please sit down again."

Sam all but collapsed back into his seat.  Murdock was running his fingers over the stack of documents on the table before him, an odd little gesture that probably perplexed some of the watchers on the public benches, for he was surely unable to read any of them.

"I have here a significant number of testimonies made by every person who could reasonably be considered to have an interest in this matter," Murdock noted.  "Evidence given by the investigators and expert witnesses, testimony from eye-witnesses to the incident itself, and a not-inconsiderable number of personal testimonies as to the character of the accused.  I've considered each and every one of them, and taken them into account in my deliberations.  The facts of the case appear to be these:

"Two weeks ago, Samuel Winchester, known to his family and associates as Sam, made the decision to ask the young woman he was courting, Mistress Jessica Moore, to marry him.  This was done in defiance of the expressed wishes of Mistress Moore's parents and the advice of his older brother, Captain Dean Winchester, and appears to have been in response to some unfortunate remarks made by other young men of his acquaintance.  Mistress Moore rejected his proposal, stating her own wish to wait for a more favourable time, and by her account Sam's response was to act in such an intemperate manner that she was alarmed and formed the decision to seek the advice and assistance of Captain Winchester in bringing his brother to see reason.

"Accordingly, Mistress Moore sought out Captain Winchester at his lodgings in the Strangers Quarter, but while she was waiting for him at the Roadhouse Inn, Sam followed her and at once fell into a quarrel with her over her presence there.  A quarrel which, according to the proprietress, Madam Harvelle, and her employees, was loud and aggressive to the point of her considering summoning the Watch to mediate.  However, Captain Winchester arrived as this was happening and he engaged himself to manage the situation.

"According to the testimony of Mistress Moore and that of the scribe Ash, also a resident at the Roadhouse Inn, Sam Winchester then attempted to turn the quarrel upon his brother, accusing him of trifling with Mistress Moore and acting so aggressively that Captain Winchester was forced to physically restrain him.  Captain Winchester then secured his brother's agreement to act more temperately and released him, but the quarrel only resumed.  At this point Mistress Moore attempted to leave the scene, but was physically prevented from doing so by Sam, who then made certain unspecified threats against her person.  His brother once more intervened, at which point Sam, by methods which are currently the subject of some speculation, threw Captain Winchester across the room with such violence that he was thrown out of the window of the first floor room and into the street below."

Murdock paused here, and the silence in the room was profound.  He continued:

"It's the testimony of numerous witnesses to this incident - witnesses who include Herald Castiel and the mendicant priest Father Joe, and subsequently the two Healers and three other Heralds who attended the scene - that had immediate aid not been rendered to Captain Winchester, he would certainly have died of his injuries.  And indeed, even with that aid and excellent subsequent care, he may yet die of the head injury he sustained - "

He was interrupted by a soft, rather embarrassed cough from the group of Heralds at the front of the public gallery.  Murdock turned his head in that direction, and said pointedly, "Yes?"

Dean Winchester got to his feet slowly and carefully.  He was dressed warmly in a full length heavy grey cloak and the soft knitted cap he wore against the cold didn't fully conceal the pristine white bandages that were underneath.  He was rather thin and pale, but the sight of him there, alive and well, sent excited whispers around the room.

"With respect, Herald, and begging your pardon for interrupting you, but I'm Dean Winchester and for the record I'm not going to die anymore - or no more than anyone else, at any rate."

Sam's head had been down, staring at his hands, but at this it came up and he let out a cry of relief.

Murdock didn't actually seem terribly surprised, but he nodded slightly.  "I think I speak for everyone here when I say that I'm very glad to hear that, Captain."

"Thank you, sir."

"Please resume your seat."

Dean did so, but for a moment or two Murdock seemed to stare down at his hands folded on the papers in front of him.  Then he tilted his head towards Sam again.

"Sam Winchester, you've admitted your guilt in this matter, and that's to your credit.  But these are serious charges and I think if I'm to pronounce a just sentence upon you, it's important for everyone here today to understand why this incident happened.  Especially as you're the only interested party who hasn't submitted a statement so far."

Sam swallowed and stared at his knees, but Murdock only fixed his gaze in his direction.  There was a short silence, and then a soft cloud of light settled around Sam's head and shoulders.  The watchers in the public gallery murmured in satisfaction; this was the Truth Spell.

"Tell me, Sam Winchester," Murdock said, "in your own words, what happened on that day two weeks ago."

So Sam, stumbling a little, told them what had happened that day - of the goading by two of his classmates, his desperate attempt to get Jessica to agree to a formal betrothal, their subsequent quarrel, and his furious retreat to his brother's lodgings in the Strangers Quarter.

"Did you know Mistress Moore had gone there too?" Murdock asked.

"No," Sam said, and the light around his head vanished.  The watchers set up an angry rumble at this, knowing it for a sign that he'd just lied.

"Try again," Murdock said levelly.

"Yes," Sam said reluctantly.  "That is … one of her friends said she thought that was where Jess had gone."

"Did you go there to pick a fight with her?"

Sam paused for a moment, but the light remained steady around his head this time.  "I don't know.  I guess I did?  I was angry when I heard where she'd gone, but I didn't really think about what I was gonna do when I got there."

"Why?"

"Because I wasn't thinking straight and I thought - I thought it was because Dean - Dean has a reputation with women, and - it was stupid but it seemed to make sense at the time because I was just so angry."

Murdock considered this.  "You decided your brother had seduced her?"

"It seems stupid now, but it made sense when I was angry," Sam admitted.  "I don't know that I even really believed it then, it was just … an excuse."

"And did you intend to hurt her?"

"No!  Never.  I just wanted her to listen to me."

"But you weren't listening to her, were you?"

"No," Sam admitted sadly.

"And then your brother arrived," Murdock said.  "Tell us what happened then."

Sam stumbled a lot more over that - the accusations, the brief fight, Jessica's declaration that she was done with him, and Dean putting himself between them before Sam could hurt her, intentionally or otherwise.

"And then what happened?" Murdock prompted him, when Sam fell silent.

"I threw him against the window," Sam admitted.

"How?"

Sam was chewing his bottom lip.  "I meant to push him away - just - push him."

"But that's not what happened?"

"No sir."

Murdock nodded slightly, as though to himself.  "Please describe in your own words what actually happened."

"I - I put out my hands like I was going to push him - " Sam raised his hands in front of him, fingers splayed, "and I pushed, but - I didn't touch him."

"Quiet please," Murdock said sharply, for there was a sudden outbreak of muttered conversation at this in the public seats.  He turned back to Sam.  "We'll come back to that in a moment, but first, tell us what happened next."

"Dean went flying through the air - much harder than he would have if I'd actually hit him," Sam said.  "He hit the window so hard - I didn't mean that to happen, I swear!  And - and the window broke and he fell through it …"

Murdock gave Sam a few moments to calm himself, then pressed on.  "What happened then?"

"Jess was screaming," Sam said shakily, "and I just, I panicked.  I just wanted to get away from it, so I ran …"

"Go on."

"I went out of a window at the back of the inn and over the laundry roof … I ran as far as I could," Sam said miserably.  "But after a while I had to stop, and then it was like all my strength ran out.  I felt exhausted and sick, and my head ached - it was like I had a fever or something.  I ended up hiding in an empty storm drain and sleeping till dawn.  And then …"  He stopped and swallowed.  "And then, when I woke up everything seemed so hopeless.  I was near Exiles Gate, so I went to Uncle Bobby - uh, Captain Singer that is."

"All right.  We know what happened then.  Let's go back to the moment when you tried to push your brother.  You said you didn't touch him.  So what did happen?"

"I felt like something inside me pushed him," Sam admitted.

"Has that happened before?"

Sam hesitated, opening and shutting his mouth for a moment.  He looked down at his hands.  "Once or twice, maybe?  But nothing like that.  There was once, when I was trying to study in my room - I'd had a bad day, like it felt like everything had gone wrong.  And I pushed my book away on my desk and the whole desk slid forward - just a couple of feet I guess.  I kinda convinced myself that I'd pushed it with my foot or something without meaning to.  And once - that was so weird - I'd had a nightmare and I woke up to find all my blankets and pillow on the other side of the room in a heap."

Murdock nodded to himself again.  "Herald Kolsen?"  Kolsen stood up from where he was sitting with Dean and the other Heralds.  "You're here as the representative of the Heraldic Circle?"

"I am," Kolsen confirmed.

"For the benefit of the public gallery, would you explain what the Circle believes Sam Winchester did when he 'pushed' his brother?"

"Certainly."  Kolsen turned to face the watchers on the public benches.  "As I'm sure many of you know, people - usually Heralds, Bards and Healers, but not always - sometimes have what we call Gifts, abilities such as speaking with the mind, seeing into the future and so on.  What's less well known is that there are many variations on the most common Gifts, and sometimes also what we call 'wild' Gifts, which involve rather more unusual abilities.  We believe that Sam Winchester has a variation of what we call the Fetching Gift - and with Herald Murdock's permission, I’d like to ask my colleague Herald Hatha to demonstrate for you what we mean by that."

"By all means," Murdock said.

Hatha stood up, looking completely ordinary and no-nonsense.  Kolsen took an object out of his belt pouch - a palm-sized stone paperweight shaped like a coiled dragon - and held it up so everyone could see it, then set it down on the far side of Murdock's table and stepped back.  Hatha looked at the paperweight - and it vanished, to reappear with a tiny pop on the other side of the table.  There were muffled gasps from the people closest to the table.

"That's what people with the normal Fetching Gift can do," Hatha said matter-of-factly.  She did it again, so that people further back had a chance to see.  "Some of them can move objects that way over miles - as it happens, I can't do that, but what I can do is this - "  And the paperweight suddenly slid across the table to its original position.

People were on their feet, craning their necks to see, and there was an outbreak of astonished commentary that Murdock made no attempt to silence for the time being.  To make sure everyone saw, Hatha made the paperweight move back and forth a few times.

"I can do that with surprisingly large objects," she said, when the noise died down a little.  "And I can also …"  The paperweight suddenly rose up off the table and hung in the air, rotating gently.  "I can even lift a person, although not for long.  I tell people that it'd be better if my Gift was called Pushing And Pulling," she said, and she suddenly smiled.  The paperweight lowered itself gently to the table top, where it settled with a tiny click.

"Herald Hatha, could you do what Sam Winchester did?" Murdock asked her.

Hatha's smile faded.  "Yes, I could," she said.  "More easily than I like to imagine, and especially if I was angry - it's not clear why, but strong emotions sometimes make it easier to do things with our Gifts, and anger in particular can lead to a loss of self-control, of course.  I'd add that everything he did makes perfect sense to me - including running away and then handing himself in.  It must have been a little bit like being on a runaway horse - first the prolonged anger, then the sudden, violent outburst from his Gift, and then a panic response to what he'd done.  But when the energy from all that ran out, he suffered a severe reaction and that's what made him feel like he'd had a fever.  I'm not surprised he decided to just give himself up after all that, he must have been emotionally and physically exhausted."

"Thank you, that's helpful," Murdock told her.

"One thing I'd like to add," Hatha said, not moving.  "The difference between me and Sam Winchester is that I'm fifty-five years old and I'm a Herald.  My Gift didn't really come to me until my Companion Chose me, and I was taught to use it and control it properly, in a safe place, by people who knew what they were doing.  I wasn't young and scared and being tormented by a bunch of ignorant fools when it all happened.  That's a lot to ask someone his age to cope with."  The room went rather quiet at this.  She glanced around, and said, "That's all."

"Thank you," Murdock said, and this time Hatha took her seat again.

Kolsen cleared his throat softly, drawing attention back to himself.  "It's the Heraldic Circle's opinion that when things like this happen, it's a tragedy but one that we recognise.  And we believe that it's one that could be managed in a couple of different ways, if the court deems that to be appropriate."

Murdock's expression was a little wry by this time - not surprising, really, given that his court had been rather hijacked by his fellow Heralds - but he nodded and thanked Kolsen, who sat down.

There was a long pause now, while Murdock seemed to be considering what had been said.  At length he turned his face to the public gallery and said, "Mistress Moore?"

Jessica stood up, her hands clasped together tightly before her.  "Yes, milord Herald?"

"Your statement is already a matter of record, but do you have anything you wish to say to the court now?"

Her mouth tightened unhappily.  After a struggle, she said, "Yes.  I don't believe Sam meant to - to do what he did.  He's not a bad person, Herald, he wants to do so many good things … but it's hard when you don't have anything and you're surrounded by people who have so much."  She looked at Sam, who was staring at her miserably, and they shared a moment of helpless grief.  "For what it's worth, I've forgiven him for everything that was said, so I hope you won't be too hard on him."

Murdock nodded.  "Thank you.  You can sit down."  He was still facing towards her bench.  "Madam Harvelle?  Do you have anything to say?"

Ellen got up, arms folded over her chest.  The look she gave Sam was one of not unsympathetic exasperation.  "I'm with the girl on this, your Honour," she said bluntly.  "The Winchester boys are enough to drive me to drink sometimes, I swear, but they're none of 'em bad.  For all that they're smart kids, Sam and Adam are both young for their age, and I've always said that being at the Collegium isn't necessarily good for 'em - too easy to forget where they're from and get into trouble along the way.  I don't believe Sam meant to do this either, but the fact is he got all wound up around himself and now here we are.  But I don't see how throwing him in prison or a quarry is gonna fix anything or make it better.  So I'd ask you to see your way to finding a better solution - if only because his older brother'll go stir crazy and take the rest of us with him if you don't."

That rather dry rider made several people snort, but Murdock only inclined his head to her.  "Thank you, Madam Harvelle."

"Anytime," she drawled, and she sat down again.

Murdock sighed slightly, and turned to the Heralds' bench.  "Captain Winchester?"

Dean stood up again.  "Herald?"

Murdock raised his eyebrows quizzically.  "Will you?  Go stir crazy and take us with you?"

That caused a little rumble of amusement in the room, but Dean took the question more seriously.

"He's my kid brother, sir.  It's my job to look out for him and fight his corner."

Murdock propped his elbows on the table in front of him and rested his chin on his clasped hands.  It was difficult to remember that he was blind; with his eyes neatly concealed and his uncanny ability to pinpoint where everyone was, it seemed like no handicap to him at all.

"I have to point out that Sam is nineteen years old, Captain," he said conversationally.  "Legally he's an adult and responsible for his own actions.  And I shouldn't have to point out that he very nearly killed someone two weeks ago - you."

"Well yeah," Dean agreed, "but …"

"But?"

Dean licked his lips nervously.  "Herald, when I was six years old and Sam was just a tiny baby, our family home burned down and it was me who carried him out to safety.  I've been looking out for him and Adam here ever since, and I just think that after nearly twenty years it's a little late to be asking me to stop.  Him and Adam, they're my brothers and I love 'em.  That's just how it is.  There's only the three of us, after all."

"I'm sure I can't be the only one who thinks this incident stretches the bonds of family very thin, Captain."

"Yeah, well."  Dean sighed.  "You've read my statement so you'll know I've done some things myself lately that don't sit well with my conscience.  I'm a lot of things, sir, but a hypocrite ain't one of 'em.  It don't seem right to me that I should get to walk away from that, but Sam doesn't."

Murdock shook his head slightly.  "I take your point, Captain.  Very well - please sit down."

For a few minutes there was silence as he seemed to consider all the testimony he had heard.  Finally, he looked up, fixing his unseeing gaze somewhere in the middle of the room.

"The law of our land sets out the penalties for crimes committed," he said clearly, "but it also allows that when a Herald sits in judgement we may exercise our discretion in judgement and sentencing.  The maximum sentence for the crime of threatening a physical assault upon another person is a fine to the sum of fifteen crowns.  The maximum sentence for criminal damage to the property of another person is a fine equalling the total sum required to make the damage good, plus a quarter of that sum again in compensation.  And the maximum sentence that may be imposed for attempted murder is eight years of hard labour in the quarries. 

"On the charge of threatened assault, having heard testimony from all those present during the incident, I find that the evidence does not adequately support the charge to merit conviction, and I therefore find the accused not guilty."

There was a low rumble of comment at this, but Jessica looked relieved.  Murdock waited for this to calm down, then continued:

"On the charge of criminal damage, I find the accused guilty.  In the matter of a fine, the victim has indicated willingness to consider restitution in place of part or all of the sum in question, and this will be subject to arbitration at a later date."

More comment, but Ellen Harvelle nodded, satisfied.

"On the charge of attempted murder," Murdock said, and the room went very quiet, "I would note that the usual test is that it should be found beyond reasonable doubt that the intent of the accused was to cause death by his or her actions.  On this occasion, I find that the evidence does not support such an intention, and am therefore reducing the charge to one of accidental injury by reason of misadventure, of which I find the accused guilty."

Sensation.  Sam slumped forward in his seat until his head almost met his knees.

"Sentencing for accidental injury is discretionary, but usually involves restitution and, sometimes, some form of re-education or rehabilitation," Murdock added.  "Herald Kolsen, you mentioned earlier that the Heraldic Circle believes there are ways that Sam Winchester's Gift could be managed."

Kolsen got to his feet again.  "Yes, we do.  There are two ways to handle this - the first is to provide Sam with suitable training to enable him to control the Gift and perhaps even to deploy it usefully.  Should the court find that solution unsuitable, the second is for the Gift to be stripped from him by a qualified Healer."

"I have concerns about the safety of the latter procedure," Murdock commented.

"I’ll do it."  That was Sam and his sudden interjection drew every eye to him.  "Milord Herald, I'll do it, if that's what it takes to make sure I never hurt anyone again."

"Noted," Murdock said dryly, "and it's to your credit that you've made the offer, but let's not be too hasty.  For one thing, I've heard that the procedure could have severe and unpleasant side-effects."

"Potentially," Kolsen admitted.  "And it's impossible to say what they would be - according to the Healers Circle, people react differently according to the strength and type of their Gift.  But the procedure is there, should it be deemed necessary."

"I see.  Thank you."

Kolsen nodded, and sat down.  Murdock paused again, considering, and then finally raised his head.

"Would the accused please stand for sentencing."

Sam got to his feet, waiting nervously.

"Samuel Winchester, this court finds you guilty on the charges of criminal damage and accidental injury by misadventure, and sentences you to rehabilitation and restitution.  You will be taken from this court and returned to custody at Water Street Barracks to await a further arbitration hearing, when the full terms of your sentence will be decided.  Does anyone have anything further to add before I declare this case closed?"  There was some subdued muttering, but no one spoke up.  Murdock nodded.  "Case closed.  This court is now adjourned."

And at once the room was awash with noise.

Dean got to his feet at once and walked unsteadily across the room to where the Guards were trying to make Sam go with them.

"Give them a moment, please," Kolsen instructed them, and the two men reluctantly stepped back to allow Dean to hug his brother.

"I am so sorry," Sam said brokenly into Dean's shoulder.

"I know that, moose," Dean told him.  "It's all gonna be all right now."

"Are you really healed though?  I felt sure you were dead …"

"Well yeah, but then I got better," Dean teased him.

"That is so not funny," Sam told him shakily, but he managed to return Dean's grin.

"It's a bit funny," Adam said from his other side, "except for all the ways it's not."

"Pretty much," Sam agreed, and he accepted a hug from Adam too.  "Sorry I was rude to you when you visited me."

"That's all right," Adam told him.  "I'll just keep reminding you of it for the next thirty years."

"This is very heart-warming," Castiel's voice said from behind Dean, "but if we don't return Dean to his Healer very shortly, I suspect she'll find ways to punish us.  And Sam's Guards are anxious to take him back to Water Street."

"He's right, you should go," Sam said to Dean reluctantly.

"You gonna be all right now?" Dean asked him.

"Yeah - yeah, I am."  As if against his will, Sam looked around and found that Jessica hadn't left her seat, despite her parents clearly waiting a few feet away.  She smiled at him, and the relief in Sam's face made Dean smile wryly.

"Go on then.  I’ll try to be at the arbitration hearing."

He and Adam watched as Sam was led away, but when Dean turned around he found that a lot of the Watch officers who had attended were waiting for him, as was Ellen Harvelle.

"Oh man …" he said sheepishly.

"Damn fool Winchester idjits," Bobby Singer growled, pulling him into a hug.  "I turn my back for two minutes and you go and get yourself Chosen …"

"But it was all my Companion's idea, Uncle Bobby," Dean pointed out.

"Right - and your other plan was to take yourself off to that damn border village to die, or so I heard," Bobby retorted scathingly.  "Least the Companion had some constructive ideas."

Dean's eyes met Castiel's for a moment of shared amusement.  "Oh yeah, I can tell who's gonna be everyone's favourite from now on."

"They usually are," Kolsen said, his eyes crinkling.

It seemed like everyone wanted to touch him and say a few words, which … actually felt pretty good, he had to admit.

"I’ll pack your stuff up and bring it to you," Ellen told him.  "When are they moving you to that Collegium?"

Dean looked at Kolsen, who said, "Hopefully the day after tomorrow.  We're still sorting out a room for him."

"That works," she said with a nod.  "Jo's got her half day then, and we can borrow Micho's cart.  And you and Castiel are coming back to the Roadhouse for Midwinter, you hear?  Bring the Companions, we'll find space for 'em.  Then everyone can come see you and catch up."

"Sounds great," Dean told her.  Then he quickly turned to Henryks before anyone else could grab his attention, and they exchanged a fierce hug.  "You're gonna be a hell of a better captain than I ever was," Dean told him, but Henryks snorted.

"No such thing!  And you're still one of ours, you hear me?"

"Damn right," Jody added, and there was a chorus of agreement from the others.

In the end, Dean collected hugs or handclasps from every Watch officer there as he made slow progress towards the door. 

Charlie was waiting there for him.  "You did this just to get out of having to be my captain," she accused him cheerfully.

"You found me out," Dean agreed with a grin, and he hugged her.  "Oh!  You wanted to meet Cas, didn't you?"   He pulled Castiel forward.  "Cas, Charlie - Charlie, Cas."

"Your eloquence is stunning," Castiel told him.

"Bite me," Dean advised him, and Charlie snickered.

"I'm gonna drag you into a corner at Midwinter and tell you every embarrassing story I know about him," she told Castiel.

He smiled.  "I look forward to it."

"Sounds like you're screwed, Winchester, " Jim Ellison told him, amused.

"Yeah, that never changes," Dean said wryly.

It was wonderful to see them all, but he was a little glad when everyone said their farewells and went about their business.  He was felt drained and more than a little shaky, and when the Companions appeared at the market hall door he couldn't help thinking that getting into Inias's saddle was a very daunting prospect.

"Need a little lift?" Herald Hatha asked him kindly.

"Might have to be a big one," Dean admitted.

"Not a problem.  Grab the front of the saddle."

"Whoa!"  Dean was in the saddle without quite realising how it had happened, and for a moment he was afraid he might overbalance -

I would never let you fall, and neither would Hatha.

I know, buddy, it was just a surprise.  Dean looked at Hatha.  "Thanks.  Hey, you think you could teach Sam to do stuff like that?"

"It's an idea," she commented, and she went to mount up, taking Adam up behind her.

Castiel and Eslan sidled up to Dean and Inias.  Castiel was studying him with concern.  "We should get you back to the House of Healing," he said.  "Be honest with me - how do you feel right now?"

"Pretty rough," Dean said.  "I'm half afraid I'm gonna nod off in the saddle, moving or not."

Then let us go home, so you can rest in comfort, Inias said.

In fact Dean did drowse a little during the ride back to the House of Healing, something he wouldn't have believed possible, but as he had little to do but sit in the saddle and Inias's gait was very smooth, he found himself fighting to keep his eyes open.  He was jolted back to full awareness when Inias came to a halt on the herb garden path outside the little room he'd been in for a fortnight now, and Hawkeye was waiting to help him dismount.

For a moment, once he was back on the ground, Dean leaned against Inias's shoulder.  "I should be grooming you and stuff," he told the Companion, a little incoherently for he was almost ready to fall on his face.

All in good time, Inias replied, nosing him affectionately.  Go and rest!  I'll come to you in a while.

"I'll take care of Inias," Hawkeye told him, rolling his eyes as he handed Dean over to Castiel.  "You worry about not tripping over your feet."

Merewyn was waiting for them and tsked over Dean as she and Castiel got him out of his outer clothes and settled back into his bed.  She insisted on performing a comprehensive examination, and reluctantly concluded that he'd come to no harm.

"You still need to rest though," she told him sternly.  "The last thing you need is another fever."  That was a reference to the two reaction fevers he'd suffered in the past ten days.  Inias had not been overly concerned about this - he and the Healers had calmly noted that something of the sort was only to be expected after the level and number of Healings Dean had received in a relatively short space of time.  It had  left him weak though, and he'd lost weight as well, something that would take time to regain as his appetite was unexpectedly capricious.

In spite of all the unaccustomed activity, once he was stretched out in bed Dean found that he couldn't sleep after all.  His brain was still running over the trial, and although he was deeply relieved that Sam hadn't received the level of punishment he'd feared, there was still the question of the next hearing to determine his actual sentence.

"You're still worrying," Castiel said wryly, sitting on the side of the bed.

"Yeah, I guess," Dean admitted.  "If Sam's fined, I'm not sure how we'll raise the money."

"It seems more likely that they'll find some other means of him making restitution.  There's little point in fining someone who clearly has no means of paying it.  And frankly I think restitution would be more appropriate - the lesson may stick better.  But there is nothing you can do about that now."

"Nothing I can do about it at all," Dean said surprisingly, "but I can't always switch my brain off."

"Talk to me for a while, then.  Tell me about the second statement you submitted to the court."

Dean looked at him uncertainly, for he'd deliberately dictated that statement to Bard Irvin while Castiel was out of the room, but there was no accusation in Castiel's face, only interest.  "What do you want to know?"

"You said to Murdock that you'd done things lately that didn't sit easily on your conscience.  Were you referring to the woman who died?"

"Her and Pyote," Dean said.  "Do you know about that?"

"Father Joe told me," Castiel said.  "He said you blamed yourself for the Guardsman's death."

"I was responsible, Cas.  So I wasn't the one who tried to strangle him, but if I hadn't hurt him first the rest of it might not have killed him."  Dean's hands twisted restlessly in the top blanket for a moment.  "You know I'm not the kind to go all religious over stuff, right?"

"I'm aware."  Castiel's smile was gently teasing.  "You may have made it clear once or twice."

"Yeah, well.  It just occurred to me that this shit that happened to me … well, maybe it was a lesson or something."

Castiel's smile faded and his eyes searched Dean's face for a moment.  "To teach you what?"

"The guy died from a bleed in his brain, Cas.  Don't tell me you don't see the irony."

"I see the symmetry, certainly."  Castiel sighed softly.  "You may as well know that Father Joe was very struck by it too."

Dean looked at him.  "Well there you go.  You're a former priest.  You think someone was sending me a message?"

"If they were, you've more than amply received it, I should say.  But no, I don't think it was anything other than a coincidence.  Do you want to know why?" 

"Yeah?" Dean said doubtfully.

"Because you had already recognised the wrong you had committed and repented it," Castiel told him.  "Had you treated the whole matter more flippantly, and expressed a remorse you didn't feel - or no remorse at all - I might be prepared to consider this a lesson for you.  But you're not that kind of person, Dean.  There was no evil intent in anything you did.  The woman died while you were taking measures to save others from her ill-doing.  And Guardsman Pyote set out to provoke you - your reaction was not a typical one for you and you regretted it.  Your role in his subsequent death was an unfortunate accident, nothing more."

"That's kinda what Father Joe told me," Dean admitted.  "Then he asked me what I was doing to find the person who really did try to murder Pyote."

"I think we can hold you excused on that count," Castiel said gravely.  "You've been a little preoccupied lately."

Dean breathed a laugh.  "Yeah, I guess."

"Let Captain Ellison deal with that particular matter, Dean.  He's well able."

"I know he is.  It's just kinda hard to let go of that stuff, you know?"

"I do," Castiel agreed, "but we are all part of a larger picture, and if we are to work together for the greater good - Watch Officers, Guards, Heralds - then each of us has to know when to step back and let a colleague who is better placed do their job.  This is one of those occasions."

"Yeah … I know.  But it's not just that, Cas.  I still got a loose end to tie up - Valera.  If I can just get her to talk to someone … Herald Peggy would be a good person."

Castiel didn't ask why, but Dean's weary, anxious expression concerned him.  "Peggy is an excellent person, and I feel sure she will be willing to help in any way she can."

"Yeah, but gettin' Valera to talk to her's the problem," Dean fretted.

"The matter has waited this long, it can surely wait a little longer," he soothed.  "And if it helps, I will bring Constable Valera here myself when you are better placed to talk to her."

"That could be a while," Dean said, shifting restlessly.

Castiel considered this.  "Then … perhaps I can act as your agent and speak to the constable."

"But she didn't even want to talk to me …"

"I know, but I think perhaps it may be possible that I could persuade her to talk to Peggy without the need to tell me her story.  May I try?"

"Yeah … yeah, I guess.  Thanks, Cas."

"You're more than welcome.  Now will you please try to rest?  Merewyn's right, you really don't need another fever to set you back again."

"All right." 

Dean finally gave up the fight and his eyelids drooped almost at once.  He submitted to having his blankets tucked around him more comfortably, and Castiel was surprised and pleased when he unexpectedly took his hand and held onto it as he drifted off to sleep.  Dean wasn't usually keen on public displays of affection, but he'd been a little more open since the accident and seemed less concerned about what other people might think. 

He had to wait until Dean's grip slackened before he could quietly get up and go to the herb garden door.

Inias had returned and was peering through the door at his Chosen.  He looked at Castiel and made an odd chuffing noise, like a little huff of exasperation, that made him smile.

"I know, my friend.  You've taken quite a task to yourself by Choosing him.  May I leave him to you for now?  I have an errand to run."

Inias nodded his head in agreement, and settled himself to watch over Dean.

Eslan met Castiel halfway back to the Heralds Collegium.  He was still wearing his tack, and someone had strapped Castiel's cloak to the back of his saddle. 

 You know me better than I know myself sometimes, Castiel noted wryly. 

Strike while the iron's hot, the Companion replied, it's the logical thing to doAnd Peggy is still here in Haven at the moment - she might not be by the time Dean is strong enough to have this conversation with the constable himself.  So shall we go?  If we hurry, it may be possible to get there and back again before supper.

Do you think we can persuade the girl to speak to Peggy? Castiel asked him, as he pulled his cloak on and mounted up.

I think it's worth the attempt.  Inias wishes us to try too - he's concerned about the way Dean is fretting about this matter, almost as much as he worries about his brother.

Then let's try.  Ellen Harvelle will know where best to find Constable Valera, if she's not on duty.

xXx

They were in luck; there was something of an impromptu party going on at the Roadhouse when they arrived, and Castiel was greeted with noisy acclaim when he walked through the door.

Ellen brought him a glass of michlok - the hot milk-and-wine drink reserved for celebrations in the Jkathan community - and invited him to make a toast in honour of Dean being Chosen.  There was a Bard in the seat of honour near to the fireplace, and for a moment Castiel thought it might be Bard Irvin, but it turned out to be the father of Herald Ziva's daughter.  He couldn't quite remember the man's name -

Tony DiNozzo, Eslan supplied, and if he's here, it's because someone has asked him to be.  Possibly Herald Kolsen.

Ah, I see.  Sampling the tone of the locals hereabouts after Sam's trial? A sensible precaution, given that the sentence has been delayed for a further hearing.

True, I hadn't thought of that, the Companion admitted.

Well, I grew up in a very political household.  Being able to judge atmosphere is an important skill.  And the last thing this place needs is for any ill-feeling about the trial to cause more trouble. 

Ellen drew him to one side, allowing Bard Tony to recapture his audience, and Castiel was perfectly happy not to be the focus of attention.

"Dean all right after all that fuss today?" she asked him shrewdly, after she'd pulled him into the kitchen where they could talk unhindered.

"He's fussing a little, but too tired to stay awake.  I expect he'll sleep until supper, and then hopefully feel able to eat."  At her questioning look, he added, "His appetite has been slow to return since the last healing he received, and he's lost a lot of weight."

"I noticed."  Ellen nodded to herself.  "I'll ask Anaelia to make him some treats."

"That's very kind - "

"He's one of ours," Ellen retorted.  "I've been watching out for him since he moved in here - much as he'd let me, anyhow.  He's got a good heart, for all that he's an ass when he chooses."

"There is something I hope to do which may make him easier in his mind," Castiel told her.  "Ellen, would you know where I might find Probationary Constable Valera right now?  Is she on duty or …"

"You’re in luck," Ellen said, mildly surprised.  "She's here, she turned up with Olivia 'bout a candlemark ago and stayed to hear the Bard.  There a problem with her?"

"Not with her - but I think she might have a problem that I hope she'll let me help her with."

"Wouldn't surprise me.  She's in the near right-hand corner as you walk into the taproom."

Castiel had been a soldier once.  "A concealed spot with very good sight-lines, a wall at her back, and at least two possible exits," he summed up.

"Yeah," Ellen said wryly.  "I get the feeling she does that a lot.  Best of luck with that."

The unusual number of patrons in the taproom was helpful.  Everyone's attention was focussed on the Bard, and there was plenty of covering noise as they sang along with some of the bawdy songs he was playing for them.

Valera was on her own, quietly watching the entertainment, but she didn't miss Castiel's approach - not that he'd attempted to disguise it.  He took a stool at her small table, making sure that he didn't block her view of the exits, and politely put a tankard in front of her.

"Madam Harvelle says you're drinking mulled sweet cider," he said.  "I hope you'll do me the honour of drinking to Captain Winchester's Choosing with me."

He saw a quick flash of wary alarm in her eyes, then she glanced at his Whites and visibly made herself relax.  She accepted the drink shyly and they touched mugs.  "To Captain Winchester," she said softly, and took a sip.

"I don't think we've met before, but my name is Castiel," he pushed forward.  "I'm Captain Winchester's lifemate."  Valera's eyes widened and he gave her a small smile.  "Not many people know that."

"He told me he's shaych," she said cautiously.

"Then he must trust you.  Even his brothers didn't know until very recently."

She was watching him carefully, he noticed, even when she didn't seem to be.

"It's not something that's easy to talk about," she said.

"One has to be very sure of one's friends before admitting it," he agreed.  "It's not viewed with … horror … where I come from, but it's not something one tells the world either.  I never told my own family, because I knew at best it would have been seen as an inconvenient irrelevance.  It was easier to become a priest and submit to the vow of celibacy than challenge them."

"I left home because everyone talked about me," Valera admitted.

"That's a hard thing to face.  Walking away must have taken a great deal of resolution."

Valera had nothing to say on this point.  Castiel let it lie for a moment, listening to Bard Tony bantering with some of Ellen's older customers.  He struck Castiel as being rather supercilious, and he would have been ready to swear that such an approach would have alienated most people in this part of the city, but somehow the man had struck the right note with this particular crowd and now they were lapping up every odd, rambling and slightly insulting comment he made and rocking with laughter.  Humour was truly a very odd and incalculable thing.  He was an excellent musician, however, and seemed to have an inexhaustible repertoire of bawdy and riddling songs.

"Constable Valera," Castiel said finally, "I wanted to speak to you because Dean - Captain Winchester - is worrying about you, and I'd like to set his mind at rest so he can concentrate on healing from his injuries."

Valera tensed at once.

"I know you confided something to him," he continued carefully, "although please don't think he's broken your confidence, because he hasn't.  I know nothing of what you told him.  All I know is that he's worrying about it."

"He doesn't need to," she said, and Castiel thought she was getting ready to flee.

"I don't think he agrees.  He takes his responsibilities very seriously, you know.  Being Chosen won't stop him worrying about you or any of his other friends in the Watch.  Dean cares for the people he considers his own - I think perhaps he sees you all as being part of his family."  He gave her a wry smile.  "I don't know if you were at the trial today …"  She nodded quickly.  "Then you saw how he spoke up for his brother, even though Sam had hurt him so badly."

He thought perhaps that resonated with her.  She had stilled at any rate, thinking this over.

"Constable, Dean made a suggestion before I left him to come here.  I want to tell you what that was, and see what you think.  May I do that?"

"I guess," she mumbled.

"Thank you.  He said he wished he could persuade you to talk to someone, and he suggested a colleague of mine, a Herald named Peggy.  She's a remarkable person and I think you would like her.  And if you could bring yourself to confide in her, I have no hesitation in saying that I believe she will be able to help."

Valera was silent, staring into her mug, and Castiel didn't want to push her too hard.  He sipped his drink and listened to the singing; a young man, whose clothes and general sootiness suggested he might be a charcoal hauler or chimney sweep, was singing along with Bard Tony in a clear, tenor voice.

"He wanted me to tell the District Commander," Valera said suddenly.  "Captain Winchester, I mean."

Castiel waited hopefully.

"Captain Winchester was kind, and I trust him, but … I couldn't do that," she continued, blinking.  "I know he meant well, but I knew if I talked to Command it would all get written down and - and other people would see it.  And then it would get out.  You know?"

"I understand.  You wouldn't be able to control who saw it, and not everyone would have your welfare at heart."

Valera's mouth trembled.  "If I tell this Herald …"

"If you tell her, you will be safe," Castiel said gently.  "Because she is a Herald.  And she has powers the District Commander does not.  I believe this, Constable Valera, and therefore I pledge myself in Dean's place to stand with you if you do this.  Will you trust me and my Companion?"

He thought she might cry, but as Dean had noted before him, Valera was much stronger than she looked.  She bit her lip and nodded quickly, taking a hasty swallow of her cider.

"Then will you come with me to the Collegium now and let me introduce you to Peggy?"  Please tell me you've primed Peggy through her Companion, he added in a silent aside to Eslan.

Of course.  Rowenna says she's holding herself in readiness should you succeed.

"Now?"  Valera looked almost terrified for a moment.

"If we wait she might get assigned to a mission away from Haven."

For a long moment Castiel thought she might change her mind.  Then she looked at his Whites again - and squared her shoulders, although her voice wavered.  "All right then."

I begin to see the power of the uniform, he commented to Eslan.  "We can slip out through the kitchen - there's a door out to the laundry and Eslan awaits us there."

xXx

Castiel was taking breakfast at the Collegium with Steve the following morning, when Peggy turned up at their table wearing travelling leathers and a heavy cloak.

"That was quite a hornet's nest you dropped into our laps last night," she said to him wryly.  "Thank you for that."

Castiel stared at her.  "Truly?  I still have no notion what her story was."

"And I was told confidentially, so I can't enlighten you," Peggy replied.  "What I can tell you is that I now have a number of Guard Posts to visit as a result, but I stopped by to let you know that you can tell Captain Winchester to stop worrying.  The matter is being dealt with."  She let out noisy sigh.  "Phil had a few rude words to say when he heard the whole story.  It made sense of some unpleasant rumours we've been trying to get to the bottom of."

"Then persuading her to speak was the right thing to do?"

"It most certainly was."  Peggy touched his shoulder lightly.  "Well done.  You have a delicate touch."

"I'd like to take credit for that, but Dean laid the groundwork," Castiel said.  "I don't believe she would have talked to me if he hadn't persuaded her to trust him first."

"People keep telling me he's an asshole," Peggy noted, amused.  "I can see why they think that, but there are some unexpected depths in him.  Well, I must be off."  She nodded apologetically to Steve.  "I can't say how long I'll be gone, but I'll hopefully be back for Midwinter.  Keep the wine mulling for me."

"I'll walk with you to the stables," Steve said, getting up.

That is most satisfactory news, Castiel said to Eslan, as he took his and Steve's dishes to the scullery hatch.

Indeed.  And Inias tells me that Dean slept well last night and ate a good breakfast this morning.

Better and better!

He ran into Kolsen on the path to the House of Healing and they stopped to talk.

"I believe Peggy told you the outcome of your efforts last night?" Kolsen said.

"Yes - I apologise if it created more work for you - "

"It's the kind of situation we exist to deal with," Kolsen said philosophically.  "And on a smaller scale, giving that poor girl an opportunity to bleed off some of the pain she's been carrying is a very good thing.  I know Dean thinks well of her as a constable.  I hope this will help her on a personal level - I think Peggy made a good connection with her, which is a start.  She doesn't need to carry all of that alone anymore."

"Dean will be relieved, I hope." 

"It needed to come out, and between the two of you, you found a way.  That's what we do, you know."  Kolsen gave him a small smile.  "Anyway, I was hoping to catch the two of you over at Healers, but since you're here perhaps you can pass on what happened.  Plus there's something else he'll perhaps be glad to hear, and I think it might come better from you."

xXx

Dean was up, bathed and dressed, and sitting on a bench in the gardens with Inias in close attendance when Castiel arrived.

"You’re looking well today," Cas observed, smiling.

"Feeling pretty well too."  And Dean did indeed look better, more like himself.  He patted Inias's leg gently.  "This guy tells me he's helping to keep me calm for now, and I'm good with that.  I wanna get well as soon as I can."

"Sensible," Castiel agreed, although he was privately a little surprised at Dean's agreement to it.  Inias must be a master of words to persuade him of the necessity.  He took a seat next to him on the bench.  "I have some good news for you." 

He told him about the previous evening first, and Dean was relieved to hear that Valera had finally unburdened herself.

"That was good work, Cas," he said sincerely.  "Thanks for doing that."

"There seemed to be a window of opportunity that it would be foolish to miss," Castiel said.  "I'm grateful it worked out.  I understand Peggy is on her way to some Guard posts as we speak." 

"That's gotta be good for more than just Valera," Dean commented.

"Perhaps so."  Castiel took a breath.  "There's something else that Kolsen asked me to tell you - he received the information only this morning.  Hopefully this will also be good news."

Dean looked puzzled.  "Go on."

"Captain Ellison has reported that the person who tried to kill Guardsman Pyote is in custody."

Dean immediately looked strained.  Inias stepped a little closer to him, nosing his shoulder gently.  "I'm all right," he said, apparently in response to something the Companion had said, and he looked at Castiel almost a little fearfully.  "Did Kolsen say who it was?"

"Not a name," Castiel said gently, "but perhaps you will know that.  A man handed himself in to Henryks, who passed the matter over to Captain Ellison as the crime was committed in Penny Street's sector.  He was a servant at a brothel owned by a woman named Vivvi?"

Dean looked blank for a long moment, and then suddenly he drew a sharp breath in realisation.  "The pot-boy - he's shaych …"

"Just so.  It seems Guardsman Pyote had been abusing him - and some of the girls at the establishment - for some time."

"And Pyote either had something on Mama Vivvi that made her play along, or she was hand-in-glove with him somehow," Dean said bitterly.  "Maybe even both.  You know, I thought those girls were kinda quiet when Valera and me inspected the place.  Usually, there's at least one who has to be mouthy with the Beaks, but not them."

"You couldn't know, Dean."

"Maybe," Dean said, resigned.  "So what happened, did Kolsen know?"

"Apparently the man encountered Pyote by chance - he said he seemed to be drunk and he … took the opportunity offered by that.  But he wasn't strong enough and Pyote fought back, so he gave up and ran, leaving him in the street.  It came as a great shock to him when Pyote was actually found dead."

"Pyote, drunk?" Dean said, incredulous.  "Don't get me wrong, the guy could definitely drink, but pretty much everyone knew that he was never as drunk as he liked you to think."  Inias stamped a hoof, getting his attention.  "Oh … right, I guess so."

"What did he say?" Castiel asked, looking from one to the other.

"He says the head injury might've made him act like he was drunk, if the bleed was getting worse."

"And being strangled finished the matter.  Or, rather, falling after almost being strangled."

"I guess."  Dean sighed.  "So what's gonna happen to the poor bastard who just wanted that asshole off his back?"

"This you will be happy with.  Captain Ellison says the District Commander has insisted on a full investigation into Pyote's abuses, so that all the information can be put before Herald Asrel in due course.  There will inevitably be some form of punishment for the man who did this, but hopefully it will be mitigated."

Dean nodded, a little relieved.  "I should be there when that case gets heard."

"You should discuss that with Kolsen perhaps, but I can't see why you shouldn't."  Castiel sat up, stretching slightly and feeling a deep sense of relief that Dean was taking this reasonably well.  Perhaps it was Inias's influence, but he was just grateful it was working in that case.  "So, in the meantime you have a whole new life to fit into.  Tomorrow you move to your room at the Collegium, but for now - how about coming to watch Captain May beat me into the floor at training?"

Dean smiled.  "Sounds good."

xXx

Sam's hearing happened a couple of days before the Midwinter Festival began.

Midwinter was a two week holiday in Valdemar, with Midwinter Night falling in the middle.  Dean couldn't remember celebrating it in any meaningful way since coming to Haven as a boy, and even before that it had been full of difficult associations, his mother having died just before Midwinter Night when he was six.  After coming to the city, he and his father had always worked through the holiday, Sam and Adam being left with minders who may or may not have included the boys in their own celebrations, if they had any.  Being with the Watch meant sometimes missing important festivals, and since becoming Captain, Dean had always worked on Midwinter Night so that Jody could be with her family.

This year he and Cas would be spending some of the holiday at the Roadhouse Inn, and not working, which was a strange and novel idea for Dean.  And there would potentially be some tension, as he discovered at the hearing.

The hearing wasn't open to public scrutiny the way the trial had been, so he was a little surprised when Ellen arrived, followed by Herald Kolsen and Herald Hatha.  Jessica wasn't there, but this was less of a surprise because she'd visited shortly after he moved into the Collegium, to let him know that her lessons had finished with the end of the collegia's autumn term and she was going home to her family.  They'd talked a little about Sam and what was likely to happen to him, but Dean thought Jess was attempting to put things behind her and move on; not that he blamed her.

He did wonder how Sam was going to move on after everything that had happened.

The reason for Ellen being at the hearing soon became clear.  Part of Sam's sentence involved making restitution to Ellen for the damage he'd caused to her business.  Herald Matt Murdock's opinion was that the simplest way for this to happen was for Sam to be employed by Ellen at the Roadhouse for part of his time, doing everything from washing pots and helping Podina in the laundry, to serving behind the bar and managing Ellen's accounts.

Once Dean realised that Ellen was not only willing but had suggested this, he was able to scrutinise the idea and recognise that there was a lot to be said for it.  The one thing Sam lacked was real experience of hard work - the kind of hard work most of his peers in the Strangers Quarter had taken for granted since they were old enough to bring in coin to help support their families.  He'd held down the odd part-time position doing things like counting stores for the Guard and helping less literate people to write letters, and he'd done about ten days' worth of work as a court scribe back in the summer, but that was nothing like the level of physical labour he would be doing now.  This was Murdock's way of teaching him that when he lashed out and hurt others, there was a more than just a monetary price placed on the damage he did.  Every coin spent in the Strangers Quarter was backed by the time and effort of someone who earned it, and now Sam would discover what that was like.

And there was a second, less comfortable lesson to be learned, because working at the Roadhouse would bring Sam face to face with the people he'd grown up around, all of whom would know why he was there.  And he was going to have to deal with their reactions to his disgrace.  That might on the face of it seem like an unnecessary level of shaming, but Dean managed to resist the temptation to see it that way.  Superficially it might seem easier on Sam to let him do his time elsewhere, but one way or another at some point he would have to face his former friends and neighbours in the Strangers Quarter, and knowing the community as he did, Dean knew it would be better to rip off the bandages and deal with the wounds now, rather than leave stuff to fester under the surface for any length of time.  Sam would undoubtedly have a tough time of it at first, but that also had value, because he needed to learn to control his temper and impulses and this would force him to do so.

That left the reparations for Dean's injury to be considered.  After consideration, he'd formally surrendered his right to suggest the terms, so this was entirely in the hands of Murdock and, it seemed, the Heraldic Circle, although the original idea, Kolsen later acknowledged, had actually come from Dean's comment to Herald Hatha after the trial.

"Sam needs to learn to control his Gift and use it responsibility.  It also won't hurt for him to spend some time helping the less fortunate," Kolsen told the assembled participants at the hearing.  "Since Herald Hatha has a very similar Gift, we propose that she teaches Sam to use his properly.  Once he's learned the basics, the Healing Circle has suggested that the two of them could help out by lifting people and equipment at the House of Healing and some of the Healing Temples around Haven.  It may be that other opportunities will arise to use it around the city as well."

Which was a pretty good idea.  Although Dean had a notion that Sam was going to be too tired to lose control for some time to come, considering that using a Gift for any length of time was easily as exhausting as chopping wood or laying down roads.

Murdock decreed that the term of Sam's sentence should be two years with a review at the end of it to ascertain if he had achieved enough control to be allowed back into the community safely.  Again, it would have been easy to see the potentially open-ended nature of this 'review' as another humiliation, but Dean already knew just how dangerous a poorly controlled Gift was, so he was more inclined to applaud Murdock's caution.

But there was one final sting in the proceedings, one Dean had truly not been prepared for.

"The court has considered recommendations for the defendant's accommodation for the duration of his sentence," Murdock said.  Once again he was fingering a bundle of papers in front of him, and this time Dean found himself wondering if perhaps he had a Gift that did in fact allow him to see without his eyes.  It was quite possible, based on what he was learning about Gifts.

Sam, who had remained quiet throughout the hearing until now, cleared his throat self-consciously and got to his feet when Murdock indicated he could speak.

"I was hoping I could maybe stay at the Roadhouse, sir, if Ellen doesn't mind."

Dean went cold all over, and was shocked to feel his chest tightening and his breath coming shorter.  He missed the next few minutes of the exchange between Sam and Murdock as he fought to control himself and shake off whatever the hell had come over him.  His agitation hadn't gone entirely unnoticed, either; he could feel the eyes of Murdock's assistant on him, and Cas discreetly scooted closer on the bench they shared and wrapped warm, reassuring fingers around his wrist.  Dean clung to that contact like an anchor, and all the while Inias was quietly repeating inside his head that he should be calm, he was safe, nothing bad was going to happen …

Murdock's voice cut through the roaring in Dean's ears: "While I acknowledge the defendant's request and the willingness of Madam Harvelle to entertain it, it's the opinion of experts in the Circle that a certain level of supervision is necessary for the time being and therefore the defendant will be lodged with his instructor Herald Hatha for at least the first year of his sentence."

Dean's breathing slowed and he regained enough control of himself to be disturbed by the chilly sweat soaking into his undershirt.  What the hell …?

Murdock was declaring the hearing over, detailing his next actions to convey the specifics of the sentence to interested parties, and then everyone was getting to their feet.

"Come on, you need to go back to the Collegium and have a hot drink in peace and quiet," Castiel told Dean, giving him a hand up.

But Sam was there, no longer in manacles and wearing civilian clothes, eager to speak to his brother.  Hugging him as usual was not a problem, which left Dean bewildered as to his reaction only a few minutes before.

"I really appreciate that you came," Sam said.  "Maybe … maybe we can talk sometime, yeah?"

"That'd be good," Dean told him, quite sincerely.  "Cas and me, we'll be at the Roadhouse for Midwinter, so we can catch up then, all right?"

Sam gave him a shaky, grateful smile.  "I'd like that."

"Neither of you are heading for the Pelagirs," Herald Hatha told them, a little amused.  "Sam will be fine with me and mine - my family have a house in the Merchants Quarter.  You'll always be welcome there, Captain Winchester.  And Sam's hardly going to be under house arrest, even if there are a few restrictions on his movements for now."

The Merchants Quarter - of course.  Jessica's family lived there too.  There were probably going to be restrictions on Sam contacting her.  From the look on his face, Sam hadn't realised that yet and Dean was cravenly grateful that it wasn't going to be his job to tell him.

So they parted on good terms, Sam to go with Hatha to her home, while Dean went with Castiel and Kolsen to meet their Companions and ride back to the Collegium.  Dean was now strong enough to get himself into the saddle, even if it wasn't yet an elegant manoeuvre for him.  Inias cosseted him all the way home, and it became clear that he had discussed the incident with someone else, because when Castiel took Dean into the kitchens to beg hot tea from the cooks, the Queen's Own was waiting for them at one of the broad wooden tables there, sipping tea himself.

"You'll just have to accept that sometimes the Companions snitch on their Chosen for their own good," Ansel told Dean, when Dean glowered at him, embarrassed.  "Besides, I'm not here just because of you.  One of the Companions nipped out earlier and Chose someone from the Strangers Quarter."

"I don't reckon the Strangers Quarter is gonna recover from all the stuff we've had going on recently," Dean said, taking a seat opposite Ansel.  "Three Choosings in a year?  Mazuli getting her Scarlets?  Bards and Heralds everywhere, murders, attempted murders, arson, demons, bodysnatching and mayhem …"

"From what I can gather, everyone's really excited to find out what's going to happen next," Ansel said tranquilly, which got a laugh from Dean and Castiel.

"That sounds about right.  Who's the new trainee?"

"She rejoices in the name of Miliana Kist.  She's thirteen."

"Kist …"  Dean rummaged in his brain for a moment and came up with a connection.  "Oh, I know!  That's the family who mend stuff on Threadneedle Street, they're two doors down from Yola Blue's place, where Dad used to lodge with Sam and Adam.  Wow - her folks are from a loooong way away.  Like, Thurbrigard maybe?  The men in the family mend all sorts of stuff, pots, pans, shoes, anything that needs a nail or a new handle or the dents knocking out, and they sharpen knives and tools.  The women are seamstresses.  Their granny sits on the stoop all day in good weather, finishing gloves."

"You have an encyclopaedic knowledge of your sector, Dean," Ansel noted, but Dean only shrugged.

"That's how you keep one step ahead of trouble, when you're Watch."

"It's something Field Heralds have to do as well.  Anyway, now we've procrastinated, what happened that made Inias bespeak Taver?"

Dean sighed, but over tea and a slice of nut cake, he reluctantly related his reaction to Sam's request to stay at the Roadhouse.  "I don't get it," he said, finishing up.  "I'm not mad at him, it's all good, I didn't have a problem talking with him afterwards.  I just …"

"The two of you are planning to visit the Roadhouse Inn over Midwinter and probably stay there for a few days," Ansel said.  "Your younger brother as well, yes?"

"Yeah - at least, I'm not sure about Adam, but probably."

"If Sam could get leave to join you for a couple of nights - "

That was all he had to say.  Dean felt every muscle lock tight again, his skin crawling with alarm.

Ansel reached across the table and touched his wrist lightly, and some of the fear drained away.  It took a moment or two, but Dean eventually managed to give in to the quiet urgings of Cas and Inias and sip his tea, which further loosened the tightness in his chest.  But the cold sweat was back, sticky and uncomfortable under his layered shirts and tunic.

"Gods dammit," he whispered, and he had to put his mug down.  His hand was shaking.  "I am not afraid of Sam," he ground out.

"Consciously?  No," Ansel said calmly.  "Subconsciously is another matter.  The mind is a complicated thing.  You understand rationally that there's nothing to fear from your brother - just as my sister Lady Pepper understands that the common spiders in the palace are nothing to fear.  But there's a part of your mind that's responsible for getting you out of danger, Dean, and that part is neither rational nor under your control.  It can't be - it's the part of you that helps you react more swiftly than you could consciously manage.  It learns through things like repetition and experience, and once it learns to react to something it's very hard to train it out of that behaviour.  When she was a small child, Pepper was bitten by a mildly poisonous spider and it made her very ill.  Since then she's had a powerful fear of all spiders, which she struggles to overcome.  A few weeks ago, Sam committed an unexpected act of extreme violence against you in your own home.  Now you're struggling with a powerful fear of having him in your home again.  It's going to take time and effort to overcome that, and I'll be frank with you - given that you're going to spend a lot of time away from him in future, you might never be entirely able to conquer it."

Dean stared into his tea for a minute or two, before looking up at the Queen's Own again.  "That don't seem real fair to him."

"Life isn't fair," Castiel said, before Ansel could comment, "and Sam has no one to blame for this but himself."

Dean was rather taken aback by his tone.  "Sounds like you're having a harder time forgiving him than I am."

"Oh, I am," Cas replied calmly.  "I accept that you will always forgive your brothers, Dean, but I am not obliged to do so, and in fact I don't.  Sam nearly took you from me, and so far I remain unconvinced that he truly recognises what he did.  I hope for his own sake that he learns better, but there are consequences to his actions and he must accept them."  He sipped his tea as Dean digested this, before adding rather dryly, "I don't know if you noticed, but I'm fairly sure he hasn't realised yet that you've been Chosen."

"I'm wearing the uniform," Dean protested.  "He couldn't miss it!"

"And yet I saw no sign that he noticed, either today or at his trial."

Ansel was smiling rather wryly into his mug, but felt compelled to add, "In fairness, Dean, adult trainees are usually less noticeable when their Companions aren't beside them.  People just don't expect to see someone your age wearing Greys, so they don't necessarily realise it's the uniform."

Dean sagged a little.  "So that's another thing Herald Hatha's gonna have to break to him.  I'm thinking she's volunteered for a shit job."

Ansel raised his eyebrows.  "Oh?"

"Pretty sure they're not gonna let Sam see Jess for a while."

"Ah, I see.  Well, don't worry about Hatha, Dean.  She's more than equal to your brother, and she won't put up with any nonsense from him.  She's been a teacher at the Collegium on several occasions, and in between enacting daring rescues in remote locations, she raised two sons and a daughter, and now has five grandchildren with a sixth on the way.  That's one of the reasons she wants to stay in Haven for a while."  He smiled slightly.  "She shares a house with her cousin Ronwyth, who's a Healer at Fountain Court Temple - "

"She was one of the Healers who worked on Dean's injury that day," Cas said, surprised.

"Indeed.  You probably noticed that Ronwyth is quite a tough character.  And also living with them are Hatha and Ronwyth's daughters - both Healers, also very forthright."

Dean laughed rather guiltily.  "So what you're saying is, ain't nobody in that house gonna take Sam's shit?"

"Pretty much," Ansel agreed, smiling.  "Honestly, I think the entire experience will be good for him.  They're a close-knit, caring family, but with three Healers and a Herald under one roof everything moves at a fairly brisk, well-organised pace.  Knowing Hatha, I truly doubt Sam will have time for self-pity or emotional outbursts."

"She's going to get along really well with Ellen," Castiel concluded, and Dean found he couldn't argue with that.

"It's all going to work out," Ansel said after a few moments, watching Dean's face.  "I know this is difficult for you, Dean - you're used to being the surrogate parent in your family, and suddenly that relationship with Sam in particular has been broken, with someone else taking your place.  But this may be better for the two of you in the long run.  You're going to have to renegotiate your relationship with him, and perhaps this time you can be actual brothers for a change."

"That'd be something," Dean admitted, ruefully recalling the numerous occasions when Sam and Adam had kicked at him about not being their father.

"So there you go."  Ansel finished his tea and put his mug to one side.  "Well, if you're feeling a little steadier, I have a meeting I should go and prepare for.  Besides, Melinda was looking for both of you a short while ago - "

Castiel muttered a sour invocation to Bel.  "I'm probably late for a session with her."

"And she wants to show me some exercises to get my muscles back into shape, ready for when I can start training," Dean added, making a face.

Ansel smiled.  "Better not keep her waiting, gentlemen.  And Dean - since Miliana has joined us and Midwinter is so close, the plan is to hold the first Orientation Class tomorrow, before the trainees all head home for the holiday.  That's about the only class you'll take with the other new trainees, so don't be late - it's the first period in the morning."

"I'll be there," Dean promised.

He and Castiel looked at each other when the Queen's Own had left them.

"Thus begins the next phase of your life," Cas said solemnly.

"That's supposed to feel weird, right?" Dean said.  "'Cause it feels weird."

"Honestly?  I wouldn't worry about it - soon you're going to be far too busy."

"Nothing new about that," Dean grumbled.

 

 

Epilogue

 

It was bitingly cold in the dim pre-dawn light, and here and there were great piles of dirty slush still lingering at the sides of the pathways, but the Foreseers had confirmed that Spring had arrived, and the major roads were all clear of snow now.  There would always be other hazards of course, but nothing that could prevent Heralds going about their business.

It was quite a pack train that was assembling in the Collegium stable yard.  Eslan and Santha were wearing their field tack, complete with all the extra straps, fittings and saddlebags, and there were two mules to carry all of Mulder and Castiel's gear.  There were also two sturdy saddle horses, as the Heralds would be escorting Healer Scully and her mother, and the couple's little boy, to her sister's home in Zoe before taking up their circuit, and third mule with all their gear.

"You know what's missing from this?" Dean said quietly to Inias, as they watched from the sidelines.  "A Bard, and a girl dressed as a boy who's on a quest.  Bonus points if she's wearing her dead brother's armour."

I need to introduce you to better literature, the Companion replied, amused.  Besides, you forgot the wise old man who's come out of retirement to be her mentor.

"Good point.  Cas gets to be the priest with the mysterious past though."

Perhaps.  And Madam Scully is bearing her husband's ashes with her, so they can be scattered on the Lake - so they have a sacred duty to carry out.

"Yeah …"

Dean watched all the activity with fascination; packs were now being carefully distributed between the mules.  This was being done by Collegium grooms, although Dean could see Castiel observing what they were doing closely, as he and Mulder would have to do this themselves thereafter.  It all seemed to take a very long time, and involve people going back and forth to the stables a lot, but at length Madam Scully appeared with her daughter and grandson, all three warmly dressed for hard riding, and having checked over both of the Companions and all of the horses and mules, Mulder approached Castiel and spoke to him briefly.

Castiel nodded, and turned to walk back to Dean.  He was wearing travelling Whites, including a heavy duty riding cloak; his hair was sticking up a little as usual and his eyes looked very blue in the growing light.  He looked faintly jittery, which didn't surprise Dean at all, although he knew Cas would settle down quickly once they were on their way.

"Well, this is it," he said, and Dean nodded.

"Looks that way, huh?"

They stared at each other awkwardly, and Inias huffed impatiently.

You're permitted to embrace!

Hush, you! Dean told him.  Go bug Eslan or something.  Inias snorted his exasperation and trotted off.  "Gossipy teenaged girl," Dean explained awkwardly.

"So I see," Castiel agreed, but he looked amused.  "So … you'll probably be in Whites yourself by the time I return, but try not to be sent out on assignment before I get back, hm?"

"Pfft.  They'll still be trying to teach me to eat with a fork by then."

That made Castiel genuinely laugh, for there had been some talk about Dean 'making his debut at Court' even before he got his Whites - he'd been noticed around the Palace grounds by some of the ladies of the Court, who had been powerfully affected by his good looks.  Dean had smilingly made it clear that anyone attempting to wrestle him into dress Greys would find out pretty quickly just how embarrassing he could be in public if he chose, which had led to what promised to be a feud of some duration with the Courtly Graces tutor.  Dean was still allowing her to think that he ate mostly with his hands.

"Try to behave yourself while I'm gone," Castiel chided him.

"Hey, I'm still a sick man.  How much trouble can I get into, really?"

"More than a grown man should, I feel sure!  Well, be good, and if you can't be good then at least write to tell me the details."

Dean grinned.  "That's more like it.  I'll even write in Jkathan - you'll just have to deal with my spelling."

"I'll hold you to that."  Castiel reached out and Dean stepped into the hug, gripping him fiercely.

"Hey Cas … you be careful out there, yeah?  No fighting a whole band o' wreckers single-handed or getting shot 'cause some ass mistook you for a dolphin or something."

"I think those things are unlikely," Castiel said gravely, "but I have every intention of being careful, I promise.  And you be careful too, especially until Inias and Merewyn declare you fully healed.  No more climbing the battlements and not having the strength to climb down again."

"That was once …"

"You distracted the Guards on duty there."

"And the Karsites didn't climb the walls and kill everyone while they weren't looking, seriously."  Dean rolled his eyes, but he sobered at Castiel's next words.

"I shall miss you more than I have words for."

Dean swallowed.  "Likewise.  But we're gonna stay in touch, right?  Like we planned?"

"For as long as we may."  Castiel loosened his grip a little and took a half step back, so that he could see Dean's face.  He was smiling a little.

"Then I'll talk to you tonight."

"Yes." 

Castiel seized Dean's face in gloved hands and kissed him, warm and deep and uncaring of who might be watching.  Then before Dean could get his breath back, he was gone, walking briskly back to where the others were starting to mount up.

If you think I am going to say goodbye, Dean, you're very mistaken!  Later …

Dean stayed where he was, Inias joining him and lending him a warm side to lean on.  They watched until the party were underway, waving until they grew smaller in the distance.

Later, Cas …

 

~ finis ~