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A Thousand Lights in Space

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--Day 118--

"So you just pulled 'Ichabod' out of thin air?" Dean asks Alison dubiously as he follows her toward the city square, feeling dusty and awkward and like he should be a lot more impressive as the leader of Kansas's only working army against Lucifer. "What was the name of the town before, anyway?"

Alison gives him a patient look not unmixed with disappointment, followed by resignation that he's what she's got, so she's making the best of him. He gets from her a lot.

"It was abandoned," she answers, nailing her cane in the dirt like she's imagining it's his head as she limps determinedly down the street like resting your sprained ankle is for losers. "By the time we got here, the signs were history and most of the official buildings trashed in the newer part of town. You're welcome to look for it," she adds, obviously doubting he'd recognize a city limits sign if he saw one.

Glancing at her, he thinks he gets now how she got past Joe at that first meeting in Harlin. Poker is a bluffer's game, and a couple of hands was all he needed to know she wasn't just good at it; it was instinct. Maybe five eight, late thirties on the outside, and so thin she just barely escaping gaunt (which goes for almost everyone he's seen), dark brown hair frames a thin, pale face, hazel eyes watching the world (him) critically from behind wire-rimmed glasses that have seen better days. Even limping, her movements are abrupt, and the impression of harried impatience and vaguely distracted disapproval--those goddamn glasses--is almost perfect.

As mayor of Ichabod (as in Crane? He's scared to ask) as well as the leader of the trade alliance between the towns, Alison took it on herself to welcome the leader of the terrifying militia just up the road (give or take a few hours at one hundred; Dean loves roads these days like a lot) via beating the fuck out of him and Joe at poker at their first meeting. Their relationship hasn't progressed much since then, which in fairness he can't blame on that, but he kind of wants to anyway. At least that'd be an explanation for her vaguely antagonistic attitude, though noticeably she still thinks Joe is awesome (and also noticeably, seems disappointed Dean's the one visiting regularly instead of him. Not that he cares. Much).

His second visit marked the official beginning of their tenure in Ichabod, at which time Amanda, Mark, and Kamal were formally introduced to the mayors and deputy mayors of the other towns as well as the working government of Ichabod: Alison and Claudia, the deputy mayor; the patrol leader, Manuel; Tony, who was in charge of town services; Dolores, a RN who headed up their medical personnel; Lanak, who was inventory and supply; Dina, head of all things agricultural (he thinks); and the town's council (many, many people), before everyone settled down to figure out how this would work in Ichabod as the guinea pig.

After approving the weapons transfer (he's now officially a weapons trafficker), the first shipment of food to Chitaqua (he may or may not have almost cried when Kamal showed him the refrigerated truck that carried the meat), and giving the towns the first part of the their wish list from James' supply run, he went to approve the preparation of the new training field. Ichabod designated a large area outside the town that may or may not have once been a hay field, the posts for the new fence already in place and a storage trailer in place for their class materials (weapons, lots of 'em). Leaving Amanda, Mark, and Kamal to their enthusiastic work with the residents, Dean spent the rest of those four days split between watching them teach the residents Dealing With Demons 101, walking through Ichabod's patrol routes with a cautious but approving Manuel, and carefully exploring the town, both the inhabited and uninhabited portions, as non-threateningly as possible.

After seeing the destruction in Kansas City and hearing about the other cities and larger towns in the state (and fucking Houston, like he could forget the leveling of a major metropolitan city anytime soon), he braced himself for sub-Chitaqua conditions and was pleasantly (read: enviously) surprised to see at least some places seemed to have survived relatively intact. Not that there weren't signs of some serious shit going down here at some point before the residents found it, even with all the work they did over the last couple of years to get the least damaged parts livable.

The other thing that surprised him (less pleasantly) was the realization that there were worse things than being trapped behind the Kansas border when it closed; there was being here and not being a native of Kansas. Dean wasn't lying when he told Cas that sometimes, he found it hard to forgive humans for their bullshit, and he really wishes that they'd stop finding new ways to make it harder.

Ichabod was settled by a group of contractors, both foreign and domestic, who were--of all fucking things--at a week-long business convention in Kansas City when the borders were closed. Many of them didn't even find out about the quarantine of Kansas until their flights were abruptly canceled, the news shared over the speakers by equally shell-shocked airline employees who were told any plane that got airborne would be target practice for the military already patrolling the skies. There were sixty-seven of them who left the airport together that day in loosely knit groups; a couple of weeks later, fifty-eight of them and forty others they picked up on the way settled in the deserted remains of the town they name Ichabod; today, eight-nine of the original settlers were still alive and grimly determined to stay that way.

Between the day they settled and now, they were joined by other non-Kansas natives who managed to survive long enough to find them, usually after being rejected--sometimes at the point of a gun--from shelter in a variety of small Kansas towns that weren't interested in outsiders as well as refugees from the cities who had nowhere else to go.

Out of state college students and professors; contractors on green card from dozens of different countries; workers whose lack of documentation was overlooked for the low, low price of less than minimum wage; migrant farmers on circuit through Kansas; a couple of vacationers and road-trippers; and a few people who were on layover between cities when domestic flights became a memory: Ichabod was pretty much the only option if they wanted to survive, and it now housed a population of over a thousand and change. Like Kamal, over three hundred of them aren't even US citizens, passports from India and China and Cameroon, Japan and Mexico and Costa Rica packed away as distant memories when their own countries, along with the rest of the world, chose to forget their existence. The three times Dean's visited, he's heard no less than seven separate languages being used in the streets and fields by Ichabod's residents, and that's just the ones he recognized.

He can't help thinking about what Joe and his team said about Harlin and their initial reception. Those military units might have been stationed in the cities, but that didn't mean that they never left them. Kansas is an infected zone, the borders guarded by soldiers as well civilian border patrols, and the only law is martial, which in some ways meant none at all, but in others, maybe a little too much. People are gonna be people and most of the time they're good at it, he knows that, but he's lived long enough to find himself looking at the women here and thinking how thirty miles in a military grade SUV isn't that far coming from Wichita.

He's not stupid enough to ask, and the welcome they received here so far reassured him at least a little that if it happened, it probably didn't happen here. There's no fucking way it didn't happen somewhere, though, and he's got a whole state of somewhere, half a fucking country of somewhere.

"Dean," Alison starts before they're interrupted by approaching shrieks, followed by a heavily accented, "Watch out!"

Bemused, Dean watches three enthusiastically screaming kids flash passed them and down the street, pursued by a fourth who he's pretty sure is the designated demon trying to steal their souls. Two adults hurry by with frazzled expressions shouting in what he's pretty sure is Mandarin, throwing them apologetic expressions as they pass. He didn't have the kind of childhood that came with playing Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers, and it wasn't until Leah commented during their first tour of Ichabod that he even noticed what the kids were up to these days. Glancing at Amanda, whose parents were both hunters and was raised by her mother with her two sisters on the road after her dad died on a job, he saw the same look on her face that he felt on his own: survival of the fittest shouldn't work like this.

Peering down the road, he watches as more people emerge from Main Street's repaired buildings, some still faced in faded nineteenth century storefronts, those with children heading toward the town center where the daycare's located while others head toward their jobs or assignments or whatever people do here that kept the town running. The old downtown Main Street, a half mile stretch of what used to be remodeled antique stores and art galleries and quaint mom and pop restaurants (great food), is now entirely residential; along with the two streets on either side and a few outlier, they hold the entire population of Ichabod with room to spare.

"You know, if you want to ask me something, it'd be easier if you actually did it," Alison says conversationally, giving him a single stern glance over the top of her glasses. "What's bothering you?"

Dean fights not to glance back longingly at his jeep at the edge of the town--a whole quarter mile behind them--but to his relief, they reach the eastern boundary of the town center, two massive old-school trailers set end to end in solid concrete that stretches across most of the road. Veering right, he follows Alison to the only entrance on this side and down the short, narrow corridor between the left of the second trailer and a heavily fortified three story former art gallery before emerging into the safest place in Ichabod, the town center, encompassing two city blocks and built when the entire population could fit in three half-repaired buildings, that now houses the town's daycare and school, administration, armory, infirmary, and supplies.

Alison heads toward the four story former antique store now administration building on the right side of the street, where someone sane left a couple of ragged armchairs and a broken down couch beneath the carefully repaired covered sidewalk built for the casual antiquer on the go. Pointing him at one of the armchairs, she sinks down in the other with a sigh of relief, frowning down at her wrapped ankle as if it personally betrayed her by spraining itself.

On the opposite side of what had been a charming two-lane street before the remaining asphalt was pulled up and concrete poured in its place (he can already hear Kamal questioning everyone he sees about how they did it to enable his rollerblading dreams at Chitaqua), the daycare slash school is a hub of early morning activity, kids appearing in twos and threes and sometimes sevens with parents in tow and left in the custody of the teenagers on child care duty.

Proof he's suffering from Chitaqua Syndrome (not unlike Stockholm Syndrome, but weirder): the first time he saw the kids, he stopped short, almost shocked. The echoes of that remain even now as he watches a blond man in dusty overalls pushing a repaired carriage to the edge of the sidewalk to hand off twins that can't be more than a few months old; two women with toddlers chat in rapid Spanish with the daycare's supervisor, Francisco, an elderly Hispanic guy who could be the proverbial wise sitcom grandpa right down to his silver-headed cane; and Eyong and Njoya, a middle aged couple from Cameroon he met briefly on his first and second visit, both once visiting math professors at KSU and now members of Ichabod's town council, dressed in practical cargo pants and work boots and leading a group of six, ages two to twelve, Eyong with a sleeping six-month old in his arms.

He can't stop the grin at the sight of Tony, a tall African-American petroleum engineer originally from Texas who's gotta be his sixties (not that Dean asked; he's not stupid), round, unlined face smiling broadly as he hugs one of the teenagers on daycare duty before the two of them work at disattaching a two year old blonde, face red with the beginnings of a mother of a tantrum, whose thin arms are locked around his neck. Waving at her as she finally settles (hostilely) in the boy's arms, he crouches to urge the six year old clinging to his hand and glaring at him accusingly to go inside, her tiny frowning face surrounded with a riot of black braids.

"Don't let Tony fool you with the old man act," Alison leans over to murmur, sounding amused. "He managed oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and Libya before he retired. He's in charge of town services for a reason."

He doesn't; anyone who willingly takes on two kids below the age of reason probably finds demons pretty fucking mundane in comparison, much less running herd over a whole bunch of civilians keeping them in electricity and running water.

As another young woman herds two pre-adolescents she couldn’t possibly be old enough to have given birth to across the street, Dean wonders how many of these kids are on their second or even third set of parents, both those who lost them during the attacks in Ichabod, and those who'd come here without any at all. Ichabod doesn't turn away anyone, and from what Dean can tell, they've spent the last two years being proactive about finding those who need just that.

Tony pauses to wave at the girls one last time before joining Eyong and Njoya on their way to the small group waiting for them by the western corridor, among whom Dean recognizes Neeraja, a thirty year old former programmer from Kolkata, India who lives in Alison's building, Min, a forty-something Chinese-American human resource specialist, and Dina, a short African-American woman in her late twenties who used to be the hippiest of hippy organic farmers (and still pretty much is; the colorful hemp shirt she's wearing under her jacket reminds him of Cas's guru wear) and now oversees their agricultural efforts.

Dean knows shit about farming, but he's learned this much: it's an all-year thing. Even now, when the harvest's over, there's work in Ichabod's orchards and communal gardens as well as the fields they cultivate for trade, maintenance of the massive combines and threshers they learned to use by dint of sheer persistence, repairing tools and equipment, the care and feeding of livestock, and checking whatever's growing now for the town's consumption, among many, many other things he can't entirely remember (because Dina is both enthusiastic and talks really, really fast).

Apocalypse or not, he reflects, people are people. It may be the end of the world tomorrow, but today, there are kids to feed and toilets to flush, food to get harvested or canned or jarred, and an electrical grid to keep running, jury-rigged to hell and back by Tony and Walter, a third year KSU electrical engineering student originally from Kentucky who got it stable with like, chewing gum and zip ties or something. He tries hard not to think about the fact that when it comes to Apocalyptic living conditions, Ichabod's doing it better than Chitaqua is, but it's kind of hard to deny when the daycare has several working TVs playing every Disney movie ever and the high point of his own career as a shitty electrician was an entire week without random generator failure.

Watching a typical morning in Ichabod, the vivid contrast between the healthy looking kids and the too-thin adults, he wonders again what the hell they're doing. He gets that Ichabod and the other towns are getting something out of this agreement--they agreed without reservation and from Joe's description, with enthusiasm--but he can't quite reconcile that Chitaqua's gonna be paid with the results of these people's backbreaking desperation to survive for doing what should be done for fucking free. And help during planting and harvests, right, there's that.

As the number of arrivals trickle off and the remaining kids are herded inside, he starts, "You know, we don't--"

"--need to eat?" Jumping a little--and hating himself for it when he sees her raised eyebrows--he tries and fails to remember what he was gonna say, which gets him another goddamn patient look. "Joe warned me about this during your first visit after you got a look around the town. He thought it would take another month orso, though, so guess where his next batch of Joe Beer is going?"

"How the hell does he find time to keep up production anyway?" Dean glares in the general direction of the temporary training field south of town. This deal sounded a hell of a lot better before he saw the too-thin residents whose work in the goddamn fields would be funding it, the kids in the daycare that depended what their parents could grow. He can't even offer guaranteed protection, though the patrol that's in charge of this district is under orders to check in regularly, which is once a week, which is great if nothing happens six days before and after they arrive. Amanda, Mark, and Kamal being here means word will get to either the patrol or Chitaqua fast--and Amanda's fucking terrifying, she's an army all by herself--but still. That nothing's happening isn't the point; it will, and Dean's making a bet with all their lives that somehow, when it does, they can get here in time to protect them. Which got him thinking. "Alison--"

"What I'm not sure of," she continues, ignoring him, "is what part is bothering you. Is it your side of the agreement or ours?"

Scratching uncomfortably at the back of his neck, he tries to decide how to answer that. "Both."

"You don't have the people to protect us full time, I know." She says it like it's a fact of life, and God knows for her it is and always has been. Other than patrol of Wichita, Chitaqua rarely came this far south, and Ichabod's been taking care of themselves for a while now (and pretty goddamn well; Manuel knows his shit). "Joe broke it down for us, exactly what you could offer, and kiddo, if you're smart, get yourself a more cut-throat negotiator one day."

"Should see what he gets out of the border guards," he answers, absently shifting his rifle to the ground between his feet and wrapping a hand around the barrel; he's still not used to carrying it, which may or may not mean Cas has a point. "We get food, you get protection maybe, if we can get here in time."

"That's more than we had before." She sighs, looking at him patiently over the rims of her glasses. "You don't have the numbers to be everywhere, but you're gonna try, I know that. That's why you're also teaching us how to protect ourselves better when you can't."

"You shouldn't have to," he answers bitterly. Just surviving these days is a full time job; adding this on top of it….

"Don't think Lucifer cares too much about should," she says dryly. "You don't think it's worth it, not to just know help will come, but that we're learning more about how to protect ourselves?" Before he can answer that--she makes it sound a lot better than it actually is--she sits back in her chair with a loudly protesting squeal of springs. "Why don't we skip ahead of the personal recriminations and you tell me--"

Abruptly, she turns around, and following her gaze, Dean sees a woman at the eastern entrance looking toward them hopefully. Getting ponderously to her feet--and it takes pretty much everything in him not to jump up and help her--she says, "Hold that thought. I'll be right back."

As she hobbles away--she keeps that shit up, that sprain's not ever gonna heal--and starts a spirited discussion with the woman, Dean tries once again to figure her out. It wasn't an accident she was casually having coffee on the porch this morning when he walked by her building on his way to the training field, and to give her credit, she didn't pretend it was, but as yet, she hasn't given him any idea why.

He gets she probably still has reservations (he would in her position) and that as Chitaqua's leader he gets to be the focus of them; he even gets why she might be more comfortable with Joe and Amanda and the others by dint of three of them living here and having more time with Joe during both negotiations and after. The thing is, what he's picking up isn't 'some reservations' but 'a lot of them and still growing', and he's not imagining it; all of them are about him and none extend to the people he stationed here.

Conversation apparently done, Alison limps back, dust rising with every pound of her cane on the concrete before dropping heavily into the armchair, knocking her bad ankle into the leg with a belated grimace.

"Amanda's been staying in my building," she starts, as if at some point he forgot about the living arrangements of those here (and Kamal and Mark are living on the eastern edge of Main Street in Rich's building, another member of the town's council, yeah, he remembers, thanks). "She's in for dinner most nights, but we have coffee if she's running late--that seems to be a thing in Chitaqua, from what she says--and talk about how it's going." He fights not to think there was undue emphasis on the 'thing in Chitaqua' bit, because that's paranoid. (A lot of people talk over coffee. That's what coffee's for, other than helping you accept mornings exist). "It's going great, which you already know, since you spend a lot of time watching her classes when you're here, and for more than the entertainment value of Dennis almost knocking himself out with a broom." Her slight smile fades. "How many of them do you want for Chitaqua?"

Neck prickling uncomfortably under her level gaze, he fights the urge to twitch. "Alison…."

"That's where this is going, right?" She tilts her head, eyes unreadable. "This hiatus--it's not going to last much longer, is it?"

"We don't know what made the attacks stop," he answers, tightening his grip on the barrel of his rifle, palm inexplicably sticky with sweat despite the crisp autumn weather. "But I'm pretty sure we're almost out of time, yeah."

"Not what I was talking about," she says deliberately. "I mean before humanity realizes we're living in the epilogue to a war we already lost."

Dean's head snaps up. "What?"

"Come on, Dean, I'm not an idiot, and I know how to turn on a radio," she answers acidly. "Croatoan is a worldwide epidemic, and there's no cure, no vaccine, and no way to stop it; all this zoning crap is doing is maybe slowing it down. Half the world doesn't know Lucifer's responsible, and most of the rest don't believe it if they do."

"If you believe that, why the hell did you accept our offer?"

"Survival," she answers succinctly. "Just because it's gonna end soon doesn't mean it's over yet."

Despite himself, he feels himself start to smile. "Cas likes saying that, too."

"Not surprising for an angel," she says, a faint flicker of humor softening the set expression. "Not that I've met any to make a comparison, of course."

"The ways of Cas are mysterious, even to other angels," he answers easily, keeping his smile firmly in place. "No explaining it. How you knew he was an angel, though--that I'd like an explanation for."

Alison stills, hazel eyes widening in belated realization. "Amanda--"

"--told you over coffee? Bullshit." Fighting back the spurt of guilt when Alison pales, eyes flickering to his gun, Dean put it together and wonders how the hell he could have been this stupid. "You ever play craps?"

She blinks uncertainly, hand tightening reflexively (defensively?) on the knob of her cane. "What?"

"I got a lesson in probability recently," he answers. "Really should have paid more attention. You shouldn't have beat me and Joe that much at poker that night. I was cheating better than that, even if I was trying to make a good impression. Psychic or impossibly lucky?"

Alison licks her lips. "Now I'm impressed."

"Psychic?" Glancing at his gun, she swallows before nodding slowly. "Have you been reading us?"

"Not you," she says quickly. "That night, I was reading Joe, yeah: that's why you kept losing. He knows most of your cheats and watches for them."

"But you can everyone else?" She nods again. "Just not me. And I'm supposed to believe that?"

"You're the only person I've met that I can't." She grimaces at his skeptical expression. "You're--you're different, okay? It's like--I don't know how to explain it."

Studying her, he tries to decide if she's sincere or just faking it really well. The slip about Cas definitely surprised her, and blaming Amanda was a knee-jerk response, not a planned one; she had to know better than that. A psychic who wants to stay hidden doesn't make those kinds of mistakes often, and a good one would have been prepared for when it did happen.

Nothing about her screams psychic engaged in manipulation for kicks and profit--though granted, she could be psychically manipulating him to believe just that--but paranoia is a survival trait here. He might not notice, putting anything unusual to imagination, but Amanda and Mark are both hunters just like he is and live here full-time. More than that, they're hunters who survived five years into the Apocalypse and were trained again at Chitaqua by a Fallen goddamn angel, and dealing with psychics was definitely part of the curriculum. She might have been able to fuck with one of them, but not all three.

"Does anyone else know?"

"A few," she answers cautiously. "Neer, Claudia, Tony, Manuel--a few others."

"The other towns?"

"Only Danny."

This wasn't on his list of things he thought he'd have to deal with when it came to the towns, but considering, it shouldn't be a surprise. This was going way too well. "Alison--"

"We all have secrets, Dean," she interrupts, hand white-knuckled around the head of her cane, tendons bulging in stark relief against the thin skin. "You, of all people, should know that."

"This isn't," he says as calmly as he can, "just a secret."

"No, it's not," she agrees. "I have reasons, probably some of the same ones you have for hiding that a Fallen angel was part of your militia."


"--different, right? It always is." She looks at him bitterly. "Yeah, I've been reading your people, Dean; do I look stupid? Three months ago, a militia camp up north we'd only heard about--not like you ever came around before--suddenly drops by Harlin to say hi and how's the Apocalypse going for you, had anything attacking you recently, and by the way, nice town, you seem to be doing well, see you later and call if you need anything."

He really, really needs to reread those reports again. "Mel didn't say that."

"I was paraphrasing," she says. "Less than two months later, you people are driving by in military grade SUVs every week, armed to the teeth and waving at anyone you happen to see: very subtle, Mr. Winchester."

"We just set up the patrol districts," he argues, though yeah, that does look a little questionable now that he thinks about it. "We hadn't been doing that before, it was new to them."

"And you decided now was a good time? Right after the military vanishes from the cities--who you were working with, from what I understand--and we enter a period of unprecedented peace and quiet?" she asks. "God knows what you were doing for food before, because it sure as hell wasn't traded on the border--oh wait, was that part of your deal with our martial law overlords?"

So useful information: one, he's gotta talk to Joe about seeing how much it would cost for the border staff to learn the meaning of 'discretion' (probably a lot); and two, she's not actually entirely wrong.

"Then you send Joe and company to talk to us--"

"Must have been a surprise," Dean agrees, sitting back. "I mean, that flat tire Harlin's patrol had was non-existent, but right when we usually show up, you just happened to stop to be sure? In the middle of the road?"

"We were curious," she bites out. "If you were gonna keep stalking us, figured we might as well find out what you wanted."

"We weren't stalking--"

"And then Joe tells them that all he want to do was talk, no pressure though, let me show you how many weapons I usually wear while I remove them one by one--"

"You're holding voluntarily disarming against us now?" Dean interjects before he can stop himself. "He didn't even tell me he was going to do that!" Alison's eyes widen, and in retrospect, maybe he should have left out that last part, but whatever, now he's committed. "Good to know, though: next town we talk to, we'll insist on bringing our rocket launchers to negotiations to show our good intentions. Because that's guaranteed to work."

Alison's eyes narrow. "You have rocket launchers?"

"Read my mind and find out," he answers challengingly. "If any of you actually thought we were gonna hold a gun to your head, you wouldn't have invited Joe to come to Harlin, armed or not. And if we were gonna do that, I sure as fuck wouldn't have given you a month's warning in weekly drive-bys, Jesus."

She smiles at him, all teeth. "Maybe you're just bad at your job."

"Inviting two members of the scary militia bent on extortion into town and give them snacks just in case there was any doubt you had food to steal: oh yeah, that's some genius there," he retorts, smiling back. "I mean, why not show Joe and company where the most useful hostages below the age of ten were located--oh wait…"

"Fuck you, that was after I read Joe and Ana for half a goddamn day to make sure what they said matched what they thought!" she snaps. "The only reason Joe even got a hearing with us was because Danny knew I'd find out what you really meant to do so we could be ready for it." She sits back in her chair, hazel eyes hard. "I'm not apologizing for using everything I have to keep us safe. That's survival."

Yeah, he actually does get that. "What you got from them told you we were telling the truth and you made the deal. So what's your excuse for what you got out of Amanda's mind about Cas?"

"You mean the people who were going to be beating up my residents for educational purposes?" she asks with really unnecessary sarcasm. "Amanda's great, don't get me wrong. We have dinner or coffee, we talk, she tells me stories about Chitaqua and her life before she went there; I haven't laughed this much in years. First day of class, though, and every day since, she gets up at dawn and she and Mark warm up by trying to kill each other for a couple of hours before their first students arrive, and they start showing them how to use everything in your standard arsenal."

Yeah, he called this one, and what Cas said about trust being tested. He tries to remember how he felt the first time he watched Cas and Amanda sparring, strips out the experience with hunters (and angels), adds 'civilian programmer' into the equation, work out exactly where she is right now; they only got one chance to get this right.

"Amanda scares you?" That, he doesn’t believe, not after watching them together. Amanda's as transparent as glass, and if Alison's been reading her mind, she knows that, just like she has to know that Amanda would swallow a bullet before she'd hurt anyone given into her charge.

"No, of course not." There's a brief hesitation. "Are you--are you all that good?"

"No," he answers slowly, making an executive decision and setting his rifle against the wall on the far side of his chair (what Amanda, Mark, and Kamal don't see and therefore Cas won’t find out about won't hurt anyone, especially him). Across the street from them right now is a whole goddamn building of screaming, shouting, running, playing reasons she might not be able to afford to act on faith, not after living here the last two and a half years and thirty minutes from Wichita, not after seeing the reality of what Chitaqua could do after learning the monsters weren't just real but that humans could still be worse. "But probably still better than most of your patrol, yeah. We have to be; we're hunters. It's our job and that's how we've survived this long to keep doing it."

"Fighting the good fight," she agrees cynically. "Would have been nice to have you fighting around here the last couple of years. I'm not saying I don't appreciate you offering now, and it's not like you owed us or anything, but why the change in policy?"

"I'm beginning to wonder about the psychic thing," Dean remarks. "Are you sure you're not imagining it?"

She snorts. "Chitaqua's leader, Dean Winchester himself, top of the list in every most wanted in the world, suddenly decides to save everyone and let's all be friends now?"

God, he almost forgot about that. "They announce that on the radio? How'd I miss that between commercials for air freshener and the 2015 Ford Blitz coming out of Detroit next year, which by the way, is still on fire?"

Alison's eyes narrow. "You're saying they're lying about you being responsible for Croatoan?"

"You know the American military was willing to deal with me, you can read my people's minds--don't pretend you didn't spend some quality time asking the right questions to find out what they thought about me--not to mention the border guards', but no, the radio, which forgets half the goddamn country exists on a daily basis, is your go-to for objective reporting?" he asks incredulously. "Please tell me you're not the one who negotiates at the border, because holy shit, tuna has not gone up to ten dollars a can no matter what they've been telling you. Do we need to talk about Santa Claus next?"

From the way she's gripping that cane right now, he's pretty sure she's counting to ten, each number accompanied with a visual of slamming it into his head.

"Everything you could get from the border about us, including that we were working for the military, should tell you our worst sins in Kansas were of omission, not commission," he continues. "You know I'm wanted for--everything, probably--but you knew that before you agreed to the deal. I'm leading a militia that scares you, which is why you were reading the people I assigned here, I get that, that's survival. You're still doing it, though, unless you're gonna tell me finding out about Cas isn't pretty recent and today's the day you just happened to slip up." He'll give her this much; she doesn't even try to deny it. "Tell me how the hell I'm supposed to trust you?"

"I wouldn't have to keep reading them," she answers flatly, "if I hadn't gotten five towns to agree to the deal with Chitaqua, offered my town up as the testing ground, and only then met Chitaqua's leader, the most wanted man in the world, and found out he was the one person I couldn’t read and as it turns out, the one I most needed to. I know what they believe you're doing, but your state patrol schedule isn't the only thing that's new."

"What do you--"

"I mean you."

He sucks in a breath.

"A few months ago, you had near-death experience in Kansas City and were MIA two weeks; they thought you might be dead," she recites tonelessly. "You came back, though, but you came back a whole new person." Frozen, Dean tries to think, chest tight; if nothing else, he's pretty sure she wasn't lying about reading his mind, or she'd know right now the reason for that. "Great story, they sure as hell bought it, but real life isn't a Hollywood blockbuster with a happy ending. So you tell me, Dean Winchester; how the fuck am I supposed to trust you when your own soldiers' only explanation is the plot of a shitty romcom?"

He hopes to God he looks calmer than he feels. "People change."

"Yeah, they do," she agrees. "But not as much as you did, and I'm not one of your soldiers, Dean. All the fairy tales that I've learned are true I also learned weren't made by Disney."

Jesus. "Do you want us to leave?"

"And if this hiatus ends and we need help?"

"We'll be here the minute you call," he answers steadily, meeting her eyes. "Send someone to get us, I mean, whatever. You want us to leave, I can give the order now and we're gone before lunch, deal over. We won't come back, not unless you ask us to."

She looks away, shoulders slumping. "I don't want you to leave, no. It's just--" She gestures at him. "I don't know what to do with you."

"Because you can't read me." So she read his soldiers as much as she could, trying to find something to tell her she could trust him, and learned all new reasons she shouldn't. "Do you know why?"

"I thought it was a fluke at first," she admits. "Or the number of people around. Some people are harder to read until they relax or start concentrating on something--"

"--like poker," he finishes for her, reluctantly impressed at her rueful nod. "And you got nothing. Besides most of my stakes that night."

She nods. "It was like…I'm not sure."

He raises an eyebrow. "Like….?"

"Like--" She grimaces. "Like I slide right over you and go somewhere else."

"Slide." And he almost thought this couldn't get weirder: why does he keep doing that? "To where?"

The hazel eyes unfocus. "A box," she murmurs dreamily. "Bigger than it looks, smaller than what it holds, and it holds everything. What goes in there is never coming out again." He only realizes he's started shaking when he almost bites his tongue. "It's cold in there." Abruptly, she blinks, the distant look dissolving into confusion cut with frustration. "Sorry, that's the best I can do. I got the feeling getting closer was a bad idea. I'm not very good at this yet."

He nods, not trusting his voice quite yet.

"When--when I found out Castiel was a Fallen angel…." She hesitates, licking her lips. "I wondered if maybe it had something to do with him."

"That's nothing like him." Dean pauses at the thready sound of his own voice and swallows hard. "He hates being cold, I mean. Sleeps with three blankets and a couple of pairs of socks. Why would--what makes you think it has something to do with him?"

"You'd know more about his sock habits than anyone, I guess." She raises an eyebrow at his expression, cautiously amused. "I like your Amanda. She's told me a lot about Chitaqua." They have coffee and dinner and long talks about how things are going, right, but--oh.

"She told you about me and Cas? Like, with words?"

Alison's expression visibly cools. "Was she not supposed to talk about that? Another secret?"

Disney, fairy-tales, happy endings…Alison said romcom: holy shit, his militia really thinks the explanation was a near-death experience and true fucking love. With Cas.

"No, nothing like that," he answers, wondering why Amanda would decide to bring that up. It wasn't casual; she knows gossip and how to use it---with terrifying results--so everything she says about Chitaqua is gonna go toward using it to build up trust with the town and especially with Alison as its mayor. "I just realized how many embarrassing stories she's got to share with a whole town of new people. Luckily, the best ones are about Cas, and there are a lot, so that should take a while. By the way, do you know what a Maharishi is?"

Alison blinks, startled. "Uh, no. Why?"

"The ways of Cas are mysterious and weird." Why the hell couldn't Amanda think something useful, like what the hell that is, along with talking about her leader's relationship status, anyway? Because that's what's important here. "It's not a secret, no. Just…."

"New?" she offers carefully. "She mentioned something like that."

Yeah, new, whole new person: one near-death-by-Lucifer experience and the love of a (good?) man, and he's patrolling the state, making deals with the locals, banging his ex-angel, ex-junkie best friend, and acquiring said as his second in command. It's not like he watches romcoms or anything, but he's gonna say if one of them had that kind of plot, he's pretty sure he'd have seen it because Sam would have a copy and make him watch it for progressive something something reasons. (And because Sam has a not secret at all thing for happy endings, not that Dean can blame him; God knows their lives didn't show any sign of that happening, ever.)

"You could say that," he agrees. "In so many ways. Some I'm pretty sure we invented." And time to get back to the subject, which isn't his gossip-based life-changing epic romance with Cas. "So you think Cas is why you can't read me?"

"I'm saying the first and only person I can't read happens to be involved with a Fallen angel," she answers, cocking her head. "Could be a coincidence."

Could be, but since she doesn't believe it is, he's pretty sure she's got more to go on than correlation equaling causation, and he'd really like to know what it is.

"Why don't you want to cancel the deal?" he asks instead, not surprised at all by the flash of relief when he doesn't question her further. "If you can't trust me--"

"That's the problem," she interrupts, hand loosening on her cane, and half turning, she places it against the wall, absently flexing her fingers as she looks at him. "When I met you, I believed you when you told me what you intended to do for us, even if I couldn't read it out of you."

"And now you don't?" Dean tries to think of something he might have done to worry her and comes up blank. He doesn't really do much, but that's because there's not much to do and not because Amanda, Mark, and Kamal all write reports for Cas, and the Eldritch Horror supply is getting suspiciously low. "What did I do?"

"Nothing," she answers impatiently. "Look, I thought maybe talking to you today--"

"You mean telling me how I'm an international fugitive and secretly planning to conquer your town or kidnap your people for Chitaqua or something was supposed to help?" he asks, borrowing Cas's exact tone of puzzled curiosity, perfected over the years at Chitaqua for maximum sarcastic potential. "I believe you can't read my mind now, Jesus Christ. What the hell?"

"I didn't say that."

"I was paraphrasing."

She glares at him. "You're the most wanted person in the world, you worked for the military--"

"Stopping Croatoan in the cities," he interrupts, "and fighting things that the military didn't even believe existed, much less how to fight, nothing else. Border guards had to have mentioned that, considering they told you everything else, including our regular shopping list. Hell, ask Amanda and read her mind when you do; either way, the answer will be the same."

From her expression, she does know that but doesn't want to admit it. "--and your militia is terrifying even when they're playing normal, which by the way, maybe you should work on that?" He doesn't dignify that with a response, mostly because it's probably true. "I believed you anyway. I still do, and I don't know why."

Huh. "Am I supposed to apologize?" From her glare, he feels like maybe he should, though 'being inexplicably trustworthy' is a new one.

"I thought after talking to you, maybe getting to know you a little better, at least I'd have some plausible after the fact excuse for it," she answers reluctantly.

"How am I doing?"

"Not too bad." She sighs, looking at him resentfully. "Future reference: you ever want to try the sociopathic solider angle, make sure no kids are around or no one's gonna buy it. Or volunteer to watch a class under five without a bet to justify it."

"I could have been luring you into a sense of complacency." She rolls her eyes. "It's possible."

"Yeah, I tried that one," she says glumly. "Even I didn't buy it, not with that age group."

Dean waits for her to add something to that, then gives up. "So…."

"So it looks like we're stuck with each other," she sighs with a real lack of enthusiasm, adding morosely, "And hope for the best, I guess."

"Thanks," he says, infusing his voice with all the sincerity in the world. "Glad we got that out of the way."

She starts to say something, then stops, hazel eyes searching. "Your Castiel, he was an angel? Wings, halo, the whole nine yards?"

"I don't think he had a halo." He should ask Cas about that one day; either way, his reaction will be priceless. "Wings, Grace, soldier in the Host, yeah. Why?" Her conflicted expression isn't encouraging and he wants to add something about glass houses and secret psychics throwing stones, but the words freeze on his tongue; once, just once, he wants humanity not to disappoint him. "Does that bother you?"

"No," she answers, shaking her head. "I get secrets, Dean. It's not that: the opposite, actually."

He waits, but she just sits there, being cryptic and annoying. "Anytime you're ready."

"I'm new at this," she blurts out and closes her eyes with a pained expression. "Really new."

"New at…."

"Oh, for--" She glares at him. "This. Being a psychic." Before he can think of a response--I had no idea, sorry about that, congratulations?, she continues. "At first, I thought I was going crazy. Then T--I got confirmation that it was real, what I was doing."

"Jesus, that must have sucked," he says without thinking, but the surprised expression on Alison's face tells him that for the first time since he met her, he might have actually said the right thing. Pam and Missouri were born doing what they could do, but Sam's powers came a lot later, and he never made the mistake of assuming just because Sam was willing to use them meant he liked them or what they did to him. Looking at Alison now, he can see the same resigned strain on her face he sometimes saw on Sam's before he learned to hide it better; like a lot of things in life, sometimes it looks a lot better on paper. "I'm sorry."

She blinks slowly, and just like that, the antagonism drains away. "Thanks."

"When'd it start?"

"About three--almost four months ago now." Dean stills. "When the attacks stopped--early August, I think, if my calendar's right. You and Amanda and Mark--you were hunters, right? Before all this?" He manages to nod. "Amanda told me about psychics she'd met on some of her jobs. She didn't seem surprised that I was interested in them, but she couldn't tell me much, either."

"I've met a few," he says slowly, thinking of Sam, of Missouri and Pamela, of the others he sometimes worked with and sometimes had to work against, but his mind keeps circling back to the timing: early August. When the attacks stopped. When Dean Winchester had his near death experience and returned to Chitaqua a whole new goddamn person. "I don't know much, though--"

"Would Castiel?" she interrupts, a thread of desperation in her voice. "Angel, I thought maybe--he might know something about what happened to me and why."

A way to make it stop, he interprets effortlessly; if only anything in life was that easy. "Maybe," he temporizes. "I can talk to him about the uh, new psychic thing, see what he thinks."

"Could you--" She stops short, looking uncomfortable. "Do you think he'd come here so I could talk to him?"

Yeah, that might be a problem. "Uh--"

"It's not just--I have dreams, and sometimes, they happen." She looks away, staring down at her hands. "Sometimes they don't, and sometimes they're just dreams, but--I don't know how to explain. I didn't think about it if I could help it, to be honest."

Clairvoyance, too: what the hell, Apocalypse? "When you became a psychic?"

"All my life," she corrects him nervously, watching his expression for disbelief and relaxing when she doesn't find it. "But I didn't--before, I could pretend…" She stops, taking a deep breath. "I was in Kansas City at the airport when they made the announcement that Kansas was zoned. They let us stay the night--not that they cared, everyone was getting ready for a border run--and that night, I dreamed…." She swallows, hands starting to shake before she locks them together in her lap. "When I woke up, I couldn't remember exactly what--but I knew we couldn't risk the border. Not if we wanted to survive."

"No details?"

"Neer asked me that when I was done throwing up," she answers, a flicker of reluctant amusement in her voice. "Whatever I saw--let's say I'm glad I don't remember it." After a long moment, she shakes her head, looking at him with haunted eyes, and yeah, he's glad, too. It wouldn't take any effort at all to imagine what went down here after what Cas told him about California. "I convinced my colleagues and some of the others there not to even try, that we'd find somewhere here to wait it out, somewhere safe."

"Ichabod." She nods. "You dreamed about that, too?"

"I think so," she answers, frowning uncertainly. "No details, remember? More a feeling than anything, that there was somewhere safe, and all we had to do is find it. It was strong, though, and I believed it. It took a couple of weeks, but when we got here, I knew this was where we were supposed to be. Not that we had a lot of choice." He can see the memory of those two weeks in her eyes, finding out just how many places weren't safe for them, the way humans could be the pettiest kind of monster. "It wasn't like anyone else was here to tell us we couldn't have it, so we took it."

"Ichabod." Now he gets it. "'The glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken.' First book of Samuel. " Her mouth falls open, and really, he never gets tired of that. "Kid was barely born and already lost his parents, his family, even God was gone because Israel lost the ark. Sucked to be him."

She stares at him wordlessly.

"Dangers of your partner being an ex-angel," he explains, remembering grimly pouring through goddamn King James word by goddamn word after the fever, because the ways of Cas are mysterious, weird, and apparently attracted to lyrical Biblical translations when making very elaborate jokes via Enochian symbols. Jokes that may or may not have ended up permanently tattooed on Dean's body if Chuck hadn't intervened that night, which means he may actually owe Chuck for outing him to the camp at this point and fuck his life so very hard. Also, lesson fucking learned. "Let's say forewarned is forearmed when it comes to Cas's sense of humor. Who came up with it? You?"

"Tony," she tells him. "I thought naming the town after a story involving a headless horseman was weird enough, but his explanation proved me wrong." Her mouth twitches. "Can't say it didn't fit, though."

"No shit." He fights down the unexpected spurt of guilt for not being here for them. He didn't even exist in this world then, and even if he had, he's not sure what he could have done, but he would have thought of something, that much he's sure of.

"Anyway, the dream thing has happened a few more times since we got here," she continues after a brief silence. "No details, of course, but knowing I had to do something to prevent--whatever it was I dreamed from coming true." She gives him a wry look. "Nothing quite as motivating as trying to prevent dreams you know you don’t want to remember from happening to make you pay attention to everything."

"I bet." He wishes, suddenly and futilely, that he could tell her about Sam; the visions that haunted him, the ones that they tried to change. That they'd failed sometimes doesn't mean that they ever stopped trying. "What about when you became a psychic? Any advanced dream-warning there?"

"Not exactly." She tilts her head, looking baffled. "It'd been a bad day, the fields were acting--I mean…." She trails off, darting an unreadable look at him. "Something was wrong that day, everyone felt it, not just me. I'd been having problems sleeping for a couple of weeks anyway--just elected, the fuckers didn't even tell me my name was up until it half the goddamn votes were counted."

Dean barely stops himself from laughing out loud at her disgruntled expression.

"What?" she asks suspiciously.

"Nothing." He quickly composes his expression into something closer to sympathetic. "Just--at least you knew ahead of time." That doesn't seem to help. "I'll tell you later. So what happened?"

"Fell asleep in my new office trying to work out how the hell Tony kept from going insane the last couple of years and getting why he resigned," she answers, still suspicious but letting it go for now. "I woke up and--I don't know how to put it."

He nods encouragingly as her frown deepens.

"You ever wake up thinking you'd forgotten something--maybe a birthday or, I don't know, if the season premiere was the night before and you missed it--but you can't remember what it was?" He nods again. "That, except the opposite; whatever it was, it happened right on time and I didn't miss it, so I should go back to sleep, it was fine."

He has no problem at all interpreting exactly what might have been happening at that moment in Kansas City. "Huh. And you realized you were psychic?"

"No, I finished up my paperwork and went to bed," she says slowly, like she's not sure he's paying attention. "When I woke up the next morning to about a thousand people talking in my head, then I suspected something else was going on."

He's glad he can't actually imagine what that must have been like; on a guess, 'sucked' is probably an understatement.

"Anyway, since that happened, my dreams have been a lot more--weird," she decides, going for understatement of the year with a vengeance. "Which makes the ones that aren't just dreams hard to miss."

The way she doesn't quite look at him may be a clue about the content of one of them. "About?"

"Well," she starts. "The week to the day before your Joe showed up to see if we'd negotiate, I woke up screaming."

Yeah, that's--even worse than he thought. "Huh."

"And when I got Danny's message to come to Harlin…." She trails off, looking conflicted.


"Barely remembered to stop and grab my shoes before going for the nearest truck," she confirms. "Manuel saw me running to the garage--carrying my shoes--and stood in front of the jeep until I agreed to let him and Hans come with me." She bites her lip. "And unlock the doors so they could get in."

"And you didn't tell them to shoot Joe and Ana and hide their bodies?" She looks at him incredulously. "Thanks for not doing that, by the way."

"We don't shoot people for giving me shitty dreams." From her expression, though, she kind of wishes now that she could. "When I met Joe in Harlin, I knew what I decided would also decide if I'd find out what I dreamed that night by having to live it."

"No pressure, then." She shrugs. "And fucking with Joe for four days was just business and not revenge for giving you shitty dreams, right?"

The hazel eyes widen before she abruptly starts to laugh, looking surprised at herself. "He told you about that?"

"Yeah, executive secretary of the Apocalypse, and thanks for giving Joe crisis of confidence." That sets her off again, and he watches as weeks--maybe months--of stress melt away. "I gotta know, what were you typing on that laptop anyway? It wasn't just notes."

"How many times 'Dean says', 'Dean thinks', and 'Dean insert word here' came out of his mouth," she admits to his horror. "Compared to how many times he just thought it: me, Claudia, and Manuel had a running bet." He feels his cheeks heat in what fucking isn't a flush, but for some reason, she bursts into laughter again with no sign of stopping anytime soon. So this is going well: definitely better than hostility. He thinks.

Finally, she sits back, wiping the tears from her eyes, but the faint smile remains. "Joe, Amanda, the others I met--people may be able to hide what they are, even from the people closest to them, but there's always a slip somewhere, even if no one wants to admit it. They believe in you. Not a single slip."

"Since I came back from Kansas City as a whole new person." Alison inclines her head. "Because now you believe in shitty Disney movies?"

"I probably should have mentioned I used to own every Disney movie ever released."

Seriously, what the hell? "So you think you made the right decision?"

"I'm still in the dark about my worst nightmare, so there's that," she admits a little dryly. "But yeah, I think I did."

"That's--good." It's really time he went back to check on Amanda and Mark, show he's paying attention and they're doing a good job, important leader shit. He starts to get to his feet in preparation for pretending this didn't happen so he won't have to think about reliving it when he tells Cas about it. "So anything else?"

"Actually, yeah."

God, he knows better than to ever ask that question. Dropping into the chair, he sighs. "Hit me."

She raises an eyebrow. "When I met you the first time--this was just a feeling."

He already hates it, hates it. "When you met me?"

"I would have told you then, but I don’t know if I mentioned this, but when we met--"

"--you couldn't read my mind and beat the shit out of me at poker to prove it," he finishes for her, and her eyebrow--impossibly--climbs higher. "And I didn't know you were psychic, so wanted to avoid a really awkward conversation, fine."

She nods, obviously waiting for something, but after this conversation, if she thinks he's up to any more deduction, fuck her.

"What? You couldn't tell me because without reading my mind, you also couldn't tell how I'd react to you being a psychic, obviously, yeah." Then--seriously, how is her eyebrow doing that--he gets it. "You were going to tell me you were psychic that night?" She nods in exaggerated affirmation, which maybe he deserves, but whatever, he's got this. "When did you find out what Cas was, anyway?"

"Last night." Which is why she was waiting for him this morning. The leader of Chitaqua was a lot less intimidating with his own Fallen-angel shaped secret. "Something you said made Amanda wonder if you'd told Cas that he was your second in command yet?" He laughs before he can stop himself, and Alison grins. "And something about sleeping on the couch as an alternative to smiting, and that being the reason you came back for another visit so soon after the last one."

"Our couch is fantastic, not that I'm sleeping on it or anything," he protests. "He knows, yeah, but everyone's still pretending they don't so he doesn't get spooked. It works."

"I'll take your word for it." She bites her lip. "You have no reason to believe me, but I don't--like doing this. Knowing what people think only sounds good until you have to actually hear it." That, he believes. "I figured a hunter who lives with a Fallen angel can't be too fazed by a psychic."

There's that, yeah. "What are you supposed to tell me?"

"It's--a feeling, like I said," she answers with a moue of annoyance. "We need to be ready. I don't know how long we have, but it'll be enough. Not by much, but somehow, it's gonna be enough." She hesitates for a moment. "And something about maybe."

He waits, but as Alison's expression changes to impatience, he realizes she's done. "Maybe what?"

"How the hell would I know? I told you, I'm new at this, okay?" He holds up his hands, but honestly. "What that is, I don't know, but you coming here--you being here--what you're doing, that's part of it. Now you tell me what you're thinking--since I can't find out for myself--because I think this is how we'll make that happen."

"About our deal with you?"

She cocks her head, frowning. "The look on your face when I mentioned recruitment. Did you change your mind about that?"

"No." More rethinking how to do it after three weeks with them and realizing how much went into just survival. Everyone in Ichabod worked--even the daycare is also the town school where the teenagers take shifts between classes with the younger kids--and if they have leisure time, it's spent desperately learning needed skills, from Dolores' evening classes trying to shove years of nursing school into a few hours a day and Walter spending his nights finishing his senior year in engineering with a couple of other residents under Tony's benign fist to Dina and her leads learning everything that has to do with farming and livestock, because mistakes didn't mean a run to the grocery store but potential starvation.

The only real comfort he's getting out of this deal is Amanda confirming that they're definitely lowering the workload on Manuel and his patrol leads. Because all the able-bodied adults who can take regular patrol shifts, all the residents have drills twice a week, and neither Manuel or his leads were natural teachers or had the time to learn ("There's a reason people who want to teach generally have to learn how to do it. A plan also helps a lot," Amanda told him ruefully. "I didn't know how much Cas taught me about method until I started actually doing it.").

"So let's start there," she says firmly. "You want an army."

"I have an army," he protests, and she raises an eyebrow. "It's just a small army."

"So making it bigger, that's where this is going? To fight Lucifer."

"Not just that, though yeah, that's definitely on the agenda." Gazing at her, he decides to just tell her. "Lucifer doesn't need to step on the field to win this war; right now, all he's got to do is wait until there's no one left who can fight."

"The infected zones are a buffet for things I didn't even know existed before we started fighting them." She licks her lips nervously. "You're a hunter; it wasn't always like this and there were just so many of you that no one noticed?"

Dean thinks about this Dean's notebook; in one way, the minimalism in reporting worked really well. When your entries were sometimes three lines or less, the sheer number of missions packed into every goddamn page--not even including what the patrols dealt with--made it painfully clear in only a couple of pages how much the scale's changed. Add in Cas's notebooks, remember this Dean's goal-oriented approach to hunting, multiply by a conservative ten, and it's not just 'a lot'.

"No, this is much worse." Maybe worse than it's been since humanity got the numbers not to just fight back, but win on their own. "Fighting Lucifer, great idea, but we gotta survive long enough to do it."

"Can we win?" she asks quietly. "Don't sugarcoat it; I don't need to read your mind to know if you're lying to me."

He can feel the weight of that sharp hazel gaze, the lives of everyone in this town, this state, this world. Is hope better than disappointment, how the hell can he believe he'll beat goddamn Lucifer when he can't even imagine how he's supposed to fight him, when the world's half-way to Hell--possibly literally--and destroying itself as much as Croatoan and the monsters are. He has no idea what the hell he's doing; the only thing in a hunter's job description is how to fight, and that didn't cover this kind of war.

"We need more people." He sees her nod. "You know we plan to recruit eventually, but the training--or so the resident expert assures me--takes three months."

"So you want to take some of my people to Chitaqua to train them."

"No." He nudges the newborn thought out to see what it looks like as a whole. "You need everyone you have, I get that. So this first group, we could train them here."


"Train them here," he says, turning it over in his mind and seeing all new ways this is an awesome idea. What Cas told Joe about how they appear to other people and Alison confirmed: this might help with that, too. "We really don't have a lot of space for more people right now at Chitaqua, anyway. We're working on that, but no reason to wait. If they're trained here, you can work with Amanda on how to work in their regular duties with training."

"Amanda will be training them?" Alison asks with a flicker of barely-hidden relief.

"She learned from Cas, and he says she can do it. I can assign a team to Kamal here temporarily to help her out and still keep up our part of the agreement," he continues. "That means we can guarantee help to you and the rest of the trade alliance, no six to twelve hour wait depending on where the patrol is." And if it's something that needs more people, Amanda and the team will be able to help them hold out until he can send more people from Chitaqua. "Good so far?"

"Do you have enough teams to do that?"

"I'll make it work," Dean says firmly, deciding to let Cas tell him how they're gonna do that. "You'll lose some labor you need, I get that, but in return for being host, you can rotate them in with your patrols, put 'em on thresher duty or watching kids, whatever you need when they're not on duty. Keep 'em in conditioning."

"And when they're done training, they'll go to Chitaqua?"

Yeah, that's part trickier; they still have a real lack of cabins without electricity. And roofs. "When we have enough people, we could find an abandoned town nearby and set up shop," he answers lightly. "Happen to know of any?"

"I could make you a list," she offers. "Now, are you going to answer my question? Can we win?"

"I'm answering your question," he says, meeting the skeptical hazel eyes without hesitation. "Yes, I think we can win. So how about helping me figure out how to do it?"

She doesn't answer for long enough to make him wonder if he already fucked up any chance of getting anywhere here. Before he steps on the goddamn field, though, any other answer would be a lie.

"How many do you want?"

Oh God, she wants a number. "Ten?"

"You think ten is enough to make a difference?"

"One is enough to make a difference, so ten times that sounds pretty good to me." Her expression doesn't tell him anything. "Look, talk it over with Joe--"

"I think I need his boss for this one," she interrupts before getting to her feet, teeth clenched together when she puts too much weight on her bad ankle and grabbing her cane with a sigh of relief. Jumping up, Dean gets a hand under her elbow before he can stop himself, holding his breath until she's straightens. To his surprise, she doesn't pull away this time. "Where's your jeep?"

"Uh, west end of Main." Belatedly, he grabs his rifle and swings it awkwardly over his shoulder, trying not to imagine Cas's expression if he'd seen him do that. "Why--"

"I need a ride to the training field. Amanda and Mark are teaching everyone how to not shoot themselves with a semi-automatic, if the schedule she gave me is any indication. We said you could use that land because it was far enough away to risk having firearms easily available without worrying about tiny hands getting hold of them," she says as they emerge from the town center and into the street. "I can work out living accommodations for the team you're assigning here tonight, so right now, we'll start with what else you need other than the trailer Amanda's using as an arsenal."

He nods agreement.

"We're one to two hours from the other communities and you know they're still not sure about how this will work," she tells him, giving him a sharp look.

"I know," he answers. "Hopefully, seeing how it works out with you, they'll--"

"We're the guinea pig," she interrupts smoothly, like he wasn't saying just that. "They'll come around eventually, but we don't have that kind of time, so new plan: the original deal? Let's make one change; instead of you going to them when they're ready, they'll just come here."

"Here?" he asks intelligently.

"Some already are, by the way," she continues. "I took Amanda with me when I visited Harlin and Noak, and she made a good impression, invited a few to come and join the classes now. They're coming already, so let's just make it official. I'll meet with our trade partners and offer to host permanently and work out how many they can send each that Amanda and Mark can handle now. They can relearn the art of commuting, or they can live here for the couple of weeks and we'll host them, freely given." She smiles up at him. "We all throw bread on the water these days; usually, we get it back when we need it. There'll be conditions, of course--"

"What are you doing?" he interrupts.

"I'm answering your question," she answers strongly, tipping her head back to look him straight in the eye. "How we're gonna win. Gotta start sometime, so might as well be now."

He nods slowly.

"Unlike everyone else you've met in this state, I didn't have to go on faith about your good intentions; I read it out of Joe's mind and everyone else's I met from Chitaqua since. You were my big problem, and now that it's solved…" She shrugs. "We don't have time to fuck around here, Dean. It's already been two years since this started."

He takes a breath, feeling a little lightheaded, and it's only the tight grip of Alison's hand on his arm that keeps him focused. "'We need to be ready.'"

"It's gonna be enough," she agrees, mouth quirking. "I don't know about you, but when my clairvoyance offers me fairly unambiguous advice, I err on the side of taking it. Not like it happens often enough to not appreciate it when it does. "

Looking at her, he sees his own hope reflected back at him. And disbelief, because seriously, neither of them work up this morning expecting to negotiate a whole new plan here. The only thing on his morning agenda was convincing Connie and Grant to take an early lunch because they looked hungry (read: go make out for an extra half-hour instead of staring at each other longingly over crayons and spilled milk) and help Dwayne and Sissy finish that Lego castle they were working on yesterday.

"Conditions," he hears himself say, relieved to find out he can still talk, and from the look on Alison's face, she was kind of out of words, too.

"Conditions," she agrees gratefully. "I want Ichabod to have limited access to the training field when you start training our recruits, just like we have now; mayor, deputy mayor, and the town council--you met most of them--and we claim to some amount of labor from whoever is stationed in Ichabod. However, Ichabod keeps its own patrol and it answers to us, not you."

He hopes to God Joe tells him later that's fair. "Okay."

"Amanda regularly consults the mayor--me, right now--and keeps me updated on what's going on. I won't interfere, but..."

"We'll figure it out."

She nods, taking a deep breath, shoulders slumping for a moment as her hand tightens on his arm again. Then she straightens, glancing toward the jeep only a few feet away. "We should get to the field."

He helps her into the passenger seat, feeling a little dazed as he circles the jeep and climbs inside. He has just enough time to turn the ignition before she says, out of goddamn nowhere, "You're not afraid of me."

"Huh?" He looks across the cabin of the jeep in bewilderment. "Because you're psychic or because you gossip with my people? Because hell yes on the second part. What are they telling you, anyway?"

"Well, gotta admit, your press agents there aren't nearly as inaccurate as I thought." Before Dean can take that in (What the hell are they telling her? Or she's reading from their goddamn minds?), she gives the gear shift a significant look. "You gonna start driving anytime soon?"

They're halfway to the training field before Alison breaks the uncomfortable silence with, "So when do you want me to call a meeting of the town council? I don't think there'll be a lot of objections once they hear it, but they'll definitely have questions. You need a few days?"

It's probably just his imagination that she sounds like maybe she wants him to say yes so she can suggest Joe pay a visit. "When's the soonest you can get them together?"

"Tomorrow morning," she answers, smirking at his expression. "Morning off duty for official business with included breakfast? No one argues about that."

He grins at her. "Works for me."

"I was hoping to get to the training field this morning," she adds, watching out the windshield intently. "Teresa just got back from her circuit of our trade partners last night and today's her first day in Amanda's class. Glad you came by this soon: she's looking forward to meeting you. They should be breaking for lunch, so I'll introduce you."

That might be that 'T--" she cut off. "Teresa?"

"My partner."

That explains a lot. "I'm looking forward to it."

"You heard me," Amanda says during the midafternoon break as she leans against the makeshift fence they erected around the training area. It's not a real barrier, more a boundary marker; here be people trying to learn to shoot, speak workable Latin in every possible accent (not like he can judge there), and learn a salt line doesn't need an entire goddamn bag of salt. Dean glares at her from his perch on the top, hooking his feet under the lower rail and watching in longing as Mark patiently walks his group through the punch-and-run-away-fast method of escaping evil, which works way more than anyone gives it credit for. "You even think of getting off that fence, I tell Cas you looked feverish."

Dean glares at the swinging blonde ponytail that mocks him silently. "That won't work forever."

"You'd be surprised. Vera said nothing strenuous until she gets back, and gotta tell you, Dean?" She turns to give him a clinical once-over. "You're way out of shape."

"I could take you," he lies, resting his elbows on his knees. "You always listen to what Vera says?'

She raises her eyebrows. "Uh, yeah."

At some point--not now, and definitely not when she's armed--he's gonna mention that torch she's carrying can probably be seen from space. They live together, for fuck's sake; you'd think by now they'd have fallen into bed together just on principle.

"So what'd you think of Teresa?" he asks casually.

Amanda tilts her head. "Nine, nine and a half, maybe--" Her mouth twitches at Dean's expression. "She's hot, okay? I've been stuck at Chitaqua for a while now. Forgive me for enjoying the new scenery."

"And Alison's girlfriend."

"Alison's hot, and I can be flexible." Her expression smoothes out. "She's a hunter."

"Teresa?" She nods. "I was wondering about Manuel after walking through patrol with him. They were partners before they got here, right?"

"Oh yeah," Amanda agrees, pausing to watch Mark start his next group running back and forth, eyes narrowing. Dean has no idea what she's getting out of this, but it seems pretty important, so he waits until she feels he's worth her attention again. "After working with Ichabod's patrol a couple of times, I wondered, but two years out here, you learn fast or die. Very different training, but it gets the job done."

Dean cocks his head. "Training?"

"Down to their sensible boots," she confirms wryly. "My bad: Cas taught me better than to assume combat skills were universal. Not that they don't have all the basics down just fine. Just not as much, and not as dependent on guns as most hunters are."

"They're from Laredo," Dean tells her, wondering how to put this. "Not a lot of people can afford to carry down there, let's put it that way."

She winces. "That might explain it."

"What's their weapon of choice?"

"Cas'll love 'em," she says, grin returning. "Pretty much anything with a blade. They know their metals, too: silver, cold iron, gold--not plated, either--and get this--bronze, and that's just the one I recognized on sight. And all custom work if I know my weapons. Manuel showed me his collection a few days ago, and Jesus. Handle, quillions, and thumb rise were fitted to his hand by an expert, unreal balance--not throwing knives, but I bet they'd do in a pinch--and weighted for his best reach. The blades…." He blinks down at her, wondering if he should maybe leave her alone or something before she sighs. "Anyway, haven't got a chance to ask to see hers yet, but on a guess, she's got the same. Only thing I couldn't figure out is why we wouldn't have heard about them; not a lot of brother-sister partnerships out there, and hunters are incestuous as fuck."

"Not if they only worked the border," he answers, remembering his time down there. "They'd have enough on their plate just there."

She makes a face, nodding agreement.

"What else you got?"

"She has some of the usual scars, but not in the right places and not as many as she should for her age, but she's got the experience and then some," Amanda says. "Not a lot of close-quarters type, either, if you know what I mean, but here's where it gets interesting; neither does Manuel." Dean looks at her for a long time. "There's only three bathrooms at Alison's; everyone's seen everyone naked, you get used to it."

"Are we ever gonna get you back to Chitaqua?"

Amanda smirks. "Did I mention they both have anti-possession tattoos? And a few others that looked pretty interesting?"

"Keep going," Dean sighs.

"I've been working with Manuel and Ichabod's patrol teams a couple of times a week when they have time, but now that I've met Teresa, I get what I was missing with him."

"Besides the fact he has a sister and they're both hunters?"

"He's used to having her at his back, which is why he seems off with anyone else." She whistles, shaking her head. "I really want to see what they do together. If how they've trained the patrol is any indication, they could teach us a few things. You know, when I officially find out they're hunters, partners, and…" she trails off suggestively.

"Their patrols?" She nods smugly. "She and Manuel also both command Ichabod's patrol. "So I'm not imagining it; they lied to us."

"Not lied," Amanda allows. "More left out a few things. And in case you're wondering if this was just Alison worrying about her girlfriend, it's not. Everyone I had out here today was watching me with her every goddamn minute."

Interesting. "How'd you even guess about Alison?"

"They've been together for two years and I live in their building," she answers in amusement. "You're with someone that long, it's hard to hide, and Alison wasn't used to even having to. Her absence was noticeable, trust me. I figured that was the problem at first."

"And you fixed it with your magical gossip powers." She nods brightly. "Now?"

"That was definitely part of it," she answers obliquely. "The circuit thing Teresa was on, though--that was true. A few days every month or two, she and a couple of others visit the other towns in their network. This time, though, it was longer, that much I picked up. Gay, Alison's girlfriend, hunter, patrol's co-leader--the first two I get being privileged information, but not the last two, not unless it has something to do with why no one will talk about what she's actually doing on that circuit."

"They're trade partners," he argues, more because Amanda's enjoying the roundabout approach and he's got some time. "She could be protecting whoever's visiting or representing Ichabod for Alison. Hiatus or not, you don't break that kind of habit."

"And that's so need-to-know they hide her existence for almost three weeks?" She looks up at him. "Manuel showed you the wards they're using, right? Did you recognize any of the languages other than Spanish?"

"I can't read 'em, if that's what you mean. They're all indigenous to Mexico, though, and at least one Manuel confirmed died out before Columbus came to fuck shit up for the natives. Why?"

"You've seen them before, though."

He hesitates. "When I was on the border a while back, I saw something similar. Manuel was pretty vague when I mentioned it, said it was standard down there, which makes sense."

Turning, the rests her arms on the top rung of the fence to look at him. "And?"

"Cas ever tell you the history of wards through human history?" he asks, and Amanda's eyes widen in unmistakable sympathy. "Interesting fact: all of them have the same base, everything else is extras, but the extras are what makes them do what you want them to. Pop question: would you be okay with trusting wards without knowing every goddamn symbol in 'em and what they meant?"

"If someone I trusted with my life--say, Cas--knew them. That's what I was thinking." She smiles up at him. "Any chance you can be sneaky and watch who checks the wards today and what they do?"

He glances at the sun; you learn fast how to calculate time when you don't have a watch, and it's about two hours past noon. "Hans did the refresh an hour ago."

"Try southwestern end of Main an hour before dusk." She smirks at him. "Manuel's not subtle when he thinks we're busy on the training field and you're not here; he's the one that been actually doing them, so yes, the one o'clock rotation of patrol doing them is indeed totally fake. Which explains why Hans skips a third of them." She shrugs at his expression. "I'm a ninja."

"No shit," he says, a little awed. "Anything else?"

"They both carry steel standard, but Teresa also carries a ceramic knife," she answers. "Six inch white blade, custom design, prettiest thing I've ever seen, wish I could have gotten a better look. Ceramic: harder than hardened steel, holds an edge forever, can take a lot of wear, and…."

"--defines the word null," he finishes, turning it over in his head. "I wonder what you'd use that for?"

"Everything," she says on a gusty sigh. "Or at least, everything that you can kill with a really goddamn sharp blade. Among other things, which I'm guessing Cas might know about."

"You want one, don't you?"

"I want all of them," she says sulkily. "There's gotta be a forge around here somewhere."

"You even know how to make a knife?"

She scowls. "I'm motivated to learn. Kansas Library's gotta have something." Before he can reply that 'Making Mystical Knives At Home' probably isn't a title that's gonna show up on a lot of shelves (though maybe Cas has one of those; he'll ask), she turns at Mark's shout and sighs. "Okay, break's over. You staying here or going back to town now to play with the three year olds?"

"Just doing my part so we look less crazy," he answers with dignity, turning to slide off the rail. Glancing at the sky again, he figures he's got about an hour to find someplace on Main to watch what's going on with those wards.

"That's what I meant." Pushing off the fence, she gives him a querying look. "By the way, I heard Alison telling Teresa you two talked this morning. Any problems?"

"Nothing like that." Dean answers with a shrug as he starts back to the jeep. "She just wanted to satisfy her curiosity."