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A Thousand Lights in Space

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--Day 134--

"So what's it like, then?" Alison persists.

What it's like: so many answers, so few of them comprehensible without a working knowledge of all the planes of Creation from its inception. "Television."

Alison frowns, resting her elbows on the table. "Television?"

"Premium cable package or satellite: every channel that exists, did exist, or ever will," he answers, warming to the analogy. "All of them at the same time, even the ones devoted to infomercials, but the programs started at the beginning of time, will continue into perpetuity, and you see all of the episodes at the same moment in time as well."

"Ten seasons of X-Files in the blink of an eye."

"It won't make the mythology any more comprehensible." Alison sighs in disappointment. "But you can pinpoint the precise moment Chris Carter realized he didn't know it either."

Alison cocks her head. "Watch a lot of TV after you came to earth?"

"Infinite knowledge, and yes, I did. It was educational in human customs."

"You're kidding." Alison fumbles her thankfully empty cup when he doesn't deny it, getting to her feet. "Want more while I figure out what the hell to say to that?"

"Please." Handing her his cup, he frowns as she limps determinedly to the coffee pot set by the oven, but doesn't make the mistake of trying to stop her or offering to do it himself. "I understand that it's exaggerated--and if you think it's overly so, I'd like to introduce you to Greece's entire creative output as refutation--but it's a fairly accurate roadmap for humanity in the general if not the specifics."

"I'm still dealing with you learning human via TV," Alison says, setting his cup in front of him before seating herself again. "That explains a lot."

He hides his smile behind the rim of his cup.

"So what did you get out of it? Roadmap-wise, I mean. We march ever onward to our destruction?"

"You certainly seem to believe so; the sheer glut of nuclear holocaust media alone is breathtaking in morbid speculation of not just the infinite ways to die, but the horrific mutants that will result, rendered in loving detail--you get that from my Father," he adds thoughtfully as Alison sips her coffee, eyes wide. "His work on the original genome that resulted in humans was a great deal like that, but at no time were tentacles going to be a serious addition, He just thought it was amusing as concept."


"You create your own destruction, yes, but almost immediately create a way out of it," he continues, returning to the original subject. "It's like watching endless dress rehearsals for what you might do and how to get out of it, on the off-chance you end up actually doing it. Combining cosmic horror with practicality isn't a universal trait by any means, much less turning it into a visual instruction manual: you are to be commended for that particular innovation."

"Tentacles?" she repeats blankly.

"Oh, that. Humans don't have racial memory, per se, but among the species you evolved from, some did. It's always been something of a thought exercise, wondering if somehow, they retained some faint inklings of that design possibility that you inherited, which would explain your otherwise inexplicable interest in hentai." He takes another drink. "Not that it's inexplicable now; I see the attraction of all those tentacles. Very versatile: the possibilities are endless. I think up new ones every day."

Alison spits out a mouthful of coffee on the table, and he helpfully retrieves a dishcloth from under the sink and cleans up while she remembers how to breathe correctly. Disposing of it in the sink, he returns to Alison's glare. "What?"

Her glare is very expressive; it says many things.

"A rule of thumb when it comes to enlightenment; be very sure you ask the right question, and be aware the answer will always be in essay form and continually in flux."

Alison's eyes narrow speculatively. "Depends on what channel you're on right now?"

He grins at her. "The invention of television is truly a miracle of our time, and not only for its value for not-entirely-inaccurate analogies." Setting his cup down, he considers her for a long moment. "It won't get easier the more that you learn about what you can do; if anything, it becomes harder, because the decisions you make will be greater in number and the consequences more far-reaching. You are the possessor of an ability that quite literally will punish you for being a good person, and the better your ethics, the more ways it will have to do it. It's like classical conditioning for the masochistically inclined. Are you? Masochistically inclined, I mean?"


"You have my sympathy; if possible, try to develop a taste for it."

Alison sighs heavily, taking another drink. "I actually said to myself--I did say this--'what could be worse than threatening to ritually execute me in the street? That's gotta be our low point.'"

"I feel we've both grown as people since then," Castiel says sincerely. "That was almost two weeks ago. At least twelve generations of fruit-flies have passed: it's time to move on."

"I said, 'Ask him for a little more information, can't be worse than that, right?''' Alison takes another drink. "Two minutes, you prove me wrong, and also tell me that wanting to fuck squid is in our genes."

"Or octopus." He thinks for a moment. "And it's been thirty minutes since you asked me to join you for coffee."

"Not gonna lie, the tentacle thing, that--never mind." She fixes him with a grim look. "Any good news? I'll take anything."

"Yes, but I need you to answer my next question honestly."

"I already know I'm going to regret this," she says in resignation, sitting back in her chair. "Hit me."

"Do you want to save the world?"

"Yes," she answers without hesitation, looking startled; most people do when they realize that they mean it. "I do, yeah."

"Then I suggest you pick up your sword and learn how to use it. This time, saving the world will be a group effort, and we need all the help we can get."

Alison sets down her cup. "That was actually pretty profound."

"I have my moments. I like to space them out," he explains. "Keep it fresh. Sometimes, I mix it up, throw in a few dead languages, it's--"


"Te pedicabo ut homo pulcher ovis vilis, the shepherd says to his lover," he intones. "I say, go forth and be fruitful, and please, think of the sheep. Or rather, don't, not like that. They can't possibly be enjoying it."

"Was that even real Latin?" she asks suspiciously.

"Did it sound impressive?" Her expression tells him it did. "Then it doesn't matter."

"Context says it involves fucking sheep," she says, still suspicious. "Do I even want to know?"

"Ask yourself, when you see someone--an infinite being, perhaps--wandering among your flock, why would you immediately assume that they want to fuck your sheep?" It's been on his mind since that conversation with Joseph. "At the time, I thought it was some inexplicable human peculiarity of thought; now, it's equally inexplicable but also deeply horrifying, which isn't an improvement."

"Wool is so scratchy," Alison says, resting her head on one hand. "The chafing--I'm just guessing here, not like I got the equipment to verify, but still, I have an imagination, I own sweaters. That's gotta hurt after a while."

"There are multiple facets of horrifying," he agrees. "Don't be afraid."

"Not afraid--baffled, maybe--"

"Of yourself." Alison stills, looking at him with wide, startled eyes. "What you are, what you'll become. What are you afraid of? Be specific."

"Becoming a monster."

"Good, I thought this would be difficult; don't become one. Anything else?"

She takes a deep breath. "What if--what if I become one anyway?"

"That's even simpler; stop being one." Alison raises her eyebrows. "Of all the things you can't control and have no power to change--the past, the actions of others, the need for regular excretory activities--you always forget that you yourself aren't among that number; you can change yourself, anytime you wish. It's a gift, one to be envied."

"Yeah," Alison says dryly. "A thousand people, you said, birth to death."

"That number might be a little low, all things considered."

"No shit; I've counted ten sitting across from me so far this morning and we're only--what, thirty minutes in?"

Startled, he just avoids knocking over his cup with the judicious use of speed; it's useful like that.

"Know thyself, Castiel of Chitaqua," she says, sipping from her cup with nearly visible satisfaction. "I see what you mean about the profound thing; the look on your face right now...."

"How do I look?"

She grins. "Funny as hell."

He sighs, finishing his coffee before pushing the cup to the side. "Are you ready for your exercises now? It's not as if linear time isn't endless--no, wait...."

"Yeah, I think I am, thanks. Promise, I'll be gentle this time." She extends a hand across the table, grin widening. "Don't be afraid."

He takes her hand without hesitation, squeezing the cold fingers reassuringly. "I'm not."

Castiel considers his second visit to Ichabod an immense improvement over the first, but then again, the bar was set very, very low.

That's unfair; Alison's welcome when they arrived yesterday was genuine, and as if to make up for the original party, she hosted a smaller dinner last night that was surprisingly--and he means this--pleasant. Tony, Claudia and her son Derek, Haruhi, Eyong and Njoya, as well as the other residents of the building were the only others in attendance other than him, Dean, and Amanda. An evening passed in interesting conversation with receptive people: they happened on TV, yes, but that he began to believe might actually be fiction.

Part of thinks, he admits, is that Haruhi, Eyong, and Njoya, like Sudha, Rabin, and Neeraja, may be natives to earth and humanity, but not so much to this continent. There was something very reassuring in receiving confirmation that some things are not only not universal, but utterly baffling to other humans.

("Americans", Njoya told him reassuringly when Dean, Alison, and Tony burst into raucous laughter after Tony's anecdote involving some incomprehensible mixture of football, the FCC, the national flag, and Superbowl commercials. "Just nod and smile politely."

"I knew every word Tony used in that story," Castiel said in bewilderment. "Yet nothing he said made sense. Where does the 'pigskin' come in? For that matter, what happened to the pig?"

"As I said, nod and smile politely, but never--and I do mean never--ask for an explanation. American football," she said grimly, "doesn't translate, but they truly think it does, and they will never, ever stop trying."

"Nod and smile politely?"

She nods and smiles politely. "Just like this.")

Njoya also suggested searching a community college for instructional texts on leatherwork specifically designed for beginners, as well as other very useful vocational skills, at which time Dean, Tony, and Alison decided to join the conversation. It was a very enjoyable evening.

As they leave Main Street for the training field after a very surrealistically productive session in Alison's kitchen, he glances across the cab of the jeep to see her frowning vaguely out the windshield. "How are you feeling?"

"I can't stop thinking about tentacles," she admits, forehead creased. "Woolly tentacles, thanks for that."

"I see you're working on your taste for masochism: excellent."

"Wool condom." Castiel winces before he can stop himself, and Alison grins in malicious satisfaction.. "There we go. Welcome to my brain right now. Chafing."

"Friction burns," he counters, to both their regret, sharing a shudder. "Talk about something else--anything, I don't care. Or never again to me. Either one."

"Dean ever speaking to me again for agreeing he should stay indoors today?" she asks after a moment of silence long enough for him to realize his mistake: woolly condoms on tentacles and the abomination resulting from a squid (octopus?) lying (floating?) with a sheep fill his mind without warning and refuse to leave. On the contrary, more arrive, each more surreal than the one before.

Vaguely, he remembers as an angel watching Dean's mind, fascinated by the way thoughts would pass in casual associative streams, sometimes with provocation (Sam, television programs, that strange spot on the ceiling, the Impala, Zachariah, memories of his father, Sam and Ruby, magazines with well-endowed women, Taco Bell) and with some kind of order, but often, there was neither rhyme nor reason to what caused it or why on earth he'd be thinking of cat whistles or Batman dancing on the Impala or butterfly cookies (whatever those are; Dean's image couldn't have been accurate). It could happen at any time, often when Castiel was explaining his Father's plan to him (in retrospect, perfectly understandable), but sometimes for no reason at all.

He would have been far more patient with it if he'd realized it's not necessarily easy to control; shoving them away creates two more in their place, and they don't actually go anywhere when shoved anyway, like a hydra who doesn't understand how hydras function and the heads refuse to die when you cut them off.


He jerks his attention back to the cab and Alison. Being distracted by Dean being provocative in his sitting and breathing is one thing, but this is ridiculous.

"You probably shouldn't have done that, no. Then again, I probably shouldn't have told him that before he left for the daycare. I knew once there he'd stay indoors, but for some reason, I couldn't stop myself from saying it."

"I hear you," Alison says with a sigh that denotes experience that she also seems to have problems learning from; so he's not the only one. "Speaking of, I checked with Dolores, and all the kids are up to date on their vaccinations, including the newest ones. Amanda explained about the fever he had, so maybe the flu's in his future, but nothing worse."

"The entire camp, as well as Dean, should be up to date within a few weeks. Alicia has a schedule." Vera wasn't here for the first delivery of vaccinations, but apparently Alicia was given strict instructions on what to do when they arrived. In all honesty, that might have been Vera's intention from the first; Alicia's cheerful implacability had been ruthlessly weaponized, and Dean (and the camp) received his first round (of four) the day before they left for Ichabod. Dean's cold was proof of Vera's (via Alicia) warnings regarding the natural consequences of being less isolated from others and the corresponding increase in the spread of communicable diseases.

("Welcome back STDs, we hardly missed you," Vera said wistfully with a sigh that Joseph echoed. "I'll remind Alicia to give the talk to everyone leaving the camp to hang out with the locals.")

"Is that a problem for you?" he asks curiously. "Your trade network is limited, and I assume they do the same."

"No. At least, not yet," she amends, leaning back in her seat. "We have a lot of kids, and some didn't come to us with parents in tow. Older than ten, they can usually tell us about the last time a doctor poked them with something sharp, but the younger ones--we can't take the risk. Lily--Tony's kid," she adds at his blank look, "was only a couple months old, we think, and the other kids didn't even know her birthday, much less her medical history, so we learned that lesson before it became a problem. Dolores loses sleep some nights just thinking about one shitty bug getting through, and not just because of the risk to the kids. Kids can deal better with some shit, but adults are a different story."

Castiel carefully makes the turn that leads to the training field. "And you don't require the same of the adults?"

"We would, but we can't afford it." Her expression darkens, probably thinking of the border guards; he's felt that expression on his own face often enough when reading Joseph's reports, not just on his own transactions, but those of the residents of the zone that travel to the border that he talked to. "Only so much cash we can scavenge, and let's say they don't pay full value for what we can find that they'll take as trade. Priority is to get every kid we can up to date, keep our antibiotic supplies at the ready, and hope for the best."

They both fall silent as the training field comes into view; it's a mistake.

"Would a sheepapus be--

"Land, probably mammalian in its abominable form," he answers immediately as they pull into the parking area west of the training field. "Otherwise, its woolen tentacles would become waterlogged."

She nods in relief. "That was bothering me, thanks."

It's nearly noon when Alison abruptly becomes distracted from the progress of Amanda's students, frowning into the distance. Castiel glances at her briefly, but she shakes her head, so he returns his attention to Amanda, quietly admiring her focused patience.

Alison abruptly grabs for the fence rail, and he barely catches her before her ankle gives out, lowering her gently to the ground. The hazel eyes are unfocused, pupils reduced to dots. "Alison?"

"I don't know," she whispers, blinking rapidly as she tries to gather herself. From the corner of his eye, he sees Amanda signal for a stop, jogging toward him, her hand already dropping to her gun. "We're--we're under attack. All patrol report immediately--they came out of nowhere, drove straight through the wards--lockdown." Her lips move soundlessly for a moment, face draining of color. "They're not thinking….crap, it's too far, it's just--impressions, mostly."

Amanda effortlessly vaults the fence, landing in an easy crouch beside them. "Cas?"

"The town is under attack," he says quietly, grabbing her arm with his free hand before she can move. It's almost a mile from here to Ichabod--even if it's muffled, her range is farther than he suspected. Very strong emotion would definitely be a factor, as well as motivation, however; it's her town. "Alison, relax and focus."

"Give me--" She grits her teeth, hazel eyes unfocusing again. "One minute."

"Could be raiders," Amanda murmurs. "Nothing going bump in the night encourages that kind of thing."

"Then we have the option of asking for their surrender before shooting them." Though not if they're pointing a gun at anyone, of course. "Alison, find someone who can see them and tell me--

"There isn't anyone, they're too far away--" Alison's hand closes tightly over his wrist, eyes narrowed. "Christ, it's loud, they're not thinking. Stop that shit!"

Castiel can almost taste the spike of adrenaline, bitter-iron on the back of his tongue. "Show me."

The noise is almost overwhelming, confusion and terror and rage in an undifferentiated, barely-coherent mass, individual thoughts jumbled between emotional spikes--

"There," Alison breathes.

--except the rage; there's no thought there at all. That's what she meant. "Croatoans."

"Fuck." He nods at Amanda, who gets to her feet and is shouting a command to Mark before she's cleared the fence.

"Can you find Manuel?" he asks, feeling the massive effort it takes her to try and find one mind in all that mass down to his bones. "Tell him we're coming from the training field. We'll report to him, but I need to know where to go."

Under literally any other circumstances, this would be fascinating; in a sudden switch, she focuses on Teresa without effort and uses her to find Manuel. It's impossible to politely look away, the quick, intimate exchange a flash of brilliance--love and fear and reassurance and trust given and received in a moment. Alison takes a breath as Teresa's presence buoys her, focusing with sharp clarity on Manuel.

"He's on east Main, roof of the second building on the north-northwest side; they crossed the wards from the north-northwest, hit the north fields. Six--eight, ten--twelve vehicles he can count he doesn't recognize." She hisses a breath, eyes narrowing. "He can't get a count--Syracuse reported in full lockdown, no one in the street, thank God. Two teams on Main, it's in progress; Second is a mess, both streets are clearing but way too slow. Patrol got the survivors coming from the field--fuck, get me numbers. Sorry, not you," she says, wincing guiltily. "Just venting on your behalf, promise."

Behind him, he hears Amanda arrive, barely landing before she's kneeling beside him. "Two minutes: Mark's checking everyone as they arm, Kamal's team's helping. Where are we?"

"Tell Manuel ETA under ten minutes," Castiel tells Alison. "Where does he want us?"

"He'll meet you at the northwest corner of Third," she answers. "He said hurry, he's not leaving you any if you're late."

"Mark's on his way here," Amanda says softly.

With his free hand, he retrieves his keys and tosses them to her. "Go get the jeep."

"I'm driving," she says over her shoulder before breaking into a flat run.

Abruptly, Alison's hand tightens, and Castiel sees it at the same moment she does; unlike her, however, he knows exactly what she's looking at. "Alison! Stop."

She blinks, focus breaking. "What--"

"Your one thing," he answers flatly. "Do it now."

"I need to--"

"Now." It feels like forever but it's only a few seconds before it's done, and Castiel pulls his wrist free, turning to see Mark just coming over the fence, Kamal and his team just behind him. "Mark, Alison's in your charge. Keep her here--"

"No!" Alison says, struggling to stand up. "I'm going with you!"

"Kamal, take everyone and report to Manuel on the northwestern corner of Third; follow his orders to the letter." A nudge of Alison's bad ankle sends her back to the ground with an audible gasp. "Tell him there's at least one demon orchestrating this, but assume hundreds so we'll hopefully be pleasantly surprised. Go."

Kamal's eyes widen, but he nods, turning to gesture toward the approaching students to follow him to the jeeps parked nearby.

"Cas, I'm going--" Alison starts.

"You're staying here, with Mark in attendance, while admiring how very bright your individual light is," he interrupts calmly. "Unless you want to spend the rest of your very short life as a meatsuit for a demon who will know exactly how best to use your mind--that would be to enslave or kill everyone in this town and possibly the greater Midwest--then please, come along."

She sucks in a breath. "I can't just--I need to help them."

"Then survive long enough to learn how. Mark," he says as Amanda brings the jeep to a stop nearby. "Don't let her out of your sight; if you lose her, I'll probably kill you myself from sheer embarrassment that I trained someone so incompetent."

"Or I will!" Amanda shouts out the driver's side window.

"I know what to do," Mark says firmly, meeting his eyes.

"Alison will tell you if whoever comes to tell you it's safe is being truthful," he says, extending a hand to Alison, who glares at it before grudgingly allowing him to help her up. "As there's also the fact that Teresa knows as well as I do what a demon would do with an inexperienced psychic, and her concentration should be on defense of the town, she won't be any less than painfully honest."

He can still feel her glare as he climbs in the jeep and takes a moment to admire Amanda's driving skills when she hits the gas; how they'll be when confronted with a building at this speed is a question he feels no need to have answered.

"Dean's at the daycare," she says quietly. "Safest place in town."

"He's fine." He concentrates on the speck of the town approaching far too slowly no matter how high the odometer climbs. "Croatoans can't drive, they rarely cooperate enough to hunt in groups, and yet somehow at least one demon conveyed greater than twelve vehicles worth into a small town that isn't even on the maps. Also, our hiatus is over. In case it wasn't obvious."

"Had to happen here," she breathes in frustration, and yes, he finds that interesting as well, and a very useful way to occupy his mind while the jeep seems to creep along the road at the speed of a dying snail. Dean is in the safest place in the town, surrounded by multiple salt lines, two very heavy trailers, Teresa's very effective wards, at least two teams of Ichabod's patrol, and of course, over a hundred vulnerable children in need of his protection.


"Do me a favor," she interrupts, staring at the road. "This time, let me stop the jeep before you jump? That shit's terrifying."

Castiel focuses on the buildings resolving before his eyes. "Stop faster, then."

Manuel slumped briefly in relief when Castiel confirmed that Mark was with Alison. "Thank God," he breathed, possibly on behalf of both himself and his sister, before straightening to give orders in the crisp, calm voice of an experienced leader. Listening to him, Castiel filed away a series of questions on some of his choices for later; Manuel's practical experience coordinating larger groups--and for that matter, defense as well as attack--is unquestionably superior to his own (or Dean's) and they have a great deal to learn.

Later, observing current events from the roof of a former bank on the northern side of Second Street--an excellent choice, where Manuel can see almost all of northern Ichabod as well as keep an eye on the three occupied streets--Manuel finishes taking brief reports from his handheld unit before looking at Amanda, who nods, raising her own unit.

"Mark reports she's sulking but fine," she answers. "Every fifteen minutes, if he can't get me, he'll go to you, then Teresa. Channel twelve: two misses of all three, we go to Plan B, do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars."

"If she'd been in town…."

"They would have found her immediately," Castiel agrees, scanning the road. The Croats vanished into the semi-urban wilderness of northern Ichabod and are moving south; a perimeter was established immediately to protect the occupied streets, but despite that, some still appear at random intervals on Second, Main and Syracuse, though thankfully all are reported in lockdown, and no one living remains in the streets. "Mark and Amanda were both instructed on what to do to protect her. He'll take her to Chitaqua if Mark judges the situation untenable, and I told him exactly what that meant, in detail."

Manuel wipes a hand across his sweaty face. "She doesn't know--"

"I didn't tell her." Taking aim at a Croat that makes the mistake of coming out of an abandoned building--no doubt, far too much blood and growling--he shoots it through the left eye, watching critically as the head nearly dissolves due to the high caliber; this is why he far prefers rifles to handguns for this kind of work. He has to admit, it's definitely an improvement over hunting things down to manually chop off their heads, though not nearly as personal.

Manuel stares down at the street intently, knowing as well as he and Amanda that the chances that this is an attack specifically to find Alison are very high. By this time, she can easily be sensed at fifteen miles from Ichabod, and if her estimation of her escalation is correct (depressingly, it probably is), that distance will double every time she grows stronger until she learns how to conceal herself. As long as she has her abilities suppressed, she's perfectly safe, which is why Mark is keeping her at the training field; an alternate possibility to demon possession is Alison reacting instinctively to the sight of her people dying, and instinct is a truly terrible way to find out what you're capable of, for everyone.

"I suggest you and Teresa do so as soon as possible, however," he continues. "After today, there's no reason to hide it and every reason for her to be aware of the danger to both her and her town."

"She'll try and leave," Manuel states flatly. "There's got to be a way to--hide her here for a little longer. Just until she can protect herself better." He doesn't need to say he and Teresa will go with her; Teresa would never let her lover leave without her, and Manuel considers her as much his sister as one born to his blood.

"There is," he answers certainly, taking aim and firing at a half-broken window at the flash of a face twisted into rage; Manuel jumps, jerking his binoculars in the direction of the building across from him. Protecting emerging psychics was so much easier before the invention of the automobile; horses simply could not travel very fast, and gathering your forces--even human ones--took time. "I just haven't thought of it yet."

"How the hell--"

"Fucking amazing eyesight," Amanda says, picking off a lone Croat inexplicably wandering down the middle of Third Street. Manuel retrieves his unit at the noise, raising it to his ear and listening as Amanda does the same at a burst from hers. "Kamal reports Sixth and Fifth are clear. They're finishing the sweep of fifth now and moving to Fourth in two minutes."

"Main reports all is well," Manuel says to them both, displaying unexpected courtesy even under pressure in keeping them informed of developments despite their status as--at best--foreign leaders within his town. Utilizing multiple channels on his hand-held unit to coordinate everyone, reports come at five or fifteen minute intervals, his patrol leaders show excellent sense and no sign of panic no matter what may be happening around them; he taught them extremely well. An excellent commander, Castiel reflects wistfully, and no possible way to pry him away from Ichabod for Chitaqua. "No movement on Syracuse or Main; everyone's reporting the town square's secure. Teresa says nothing's tested the wards there."

He and Amanda both let out a breath of relief; the prioritization of the town square, where the town's children are located, as well as where any citizen on lunch break would have fled if they couldn't get to their homes, was very obvious, but the updates help.

The sudden burst of sound from Amanda's device almost makes him jump, and Amanda's expression while listening tells him it's not just an update. "Kamal reports five--six groups, came out of nowhere heading straight to Second from the east, just crossed Teresa's wards east-southeast--"

"I felt it," Manuel confirms briefly, looking at Castiel. "First group came in north-northwest less than an hour ago. Two groups?"

"Maybe their car broke down on the way." She makes a face; yes, that's another thing that can't help but boggle the mind. Later, of course. "Long walk--yeah, I don't buy it. They think this would soften us up, maybe?" Checking her rifle, she grins at Manuel. "Kamal's gonna be busy with Third, so we'll take Second, if you want. Cas?"

"With your permission, of course," Castiel says, checking his ammunition as Manuel blinks at them.

"Just you two."

"Yeah," she says absently, easing her rifle back over her shoulder and pulling her nine millimeter. "Ask Kamal where they are now?"

"East-southeast, heading northwest toward the north corner of Second and White, ETA less than five minutes," Manuel says after a moment. "Need any help?"

"If you want, but you got enough to do holding the perimeter and clearing the fields," she answers dismissively, ponytail bobbing as she jogs toward the roof exit. "Cas, you coming?"

"I am," he answers, smiling politely at Manuel before following Amanda. "Thank you; idleness doesn't agree with me."

It took Falling for Castiel to begin to realize how much Croatoan showcased not just Lucifer's surprisingly insightful assessment of humanity's greatest fears, but his almost painful limitations, not least of which was a surprising certainty that prophecy would do the majority of the heavy lifting to usher in the dawn of his reign.

To face an army made up of semi-mindless monsters who feast on human flesh and whose primary weapon is their teeth and fingernails and who can make you join their number with the inevitable spray of blood is a horror beyond imagining; to fight an army of monsters and realize victory depends mostly on keeping a safe distance and sufficient reloads for your gun (and avoiding having open wounds or consuming their blood, the last of which is probably not terribly difficult) makes it far more mundane an endeavor. Minimal accuracy is preferable but not always necessary; more than once, he's thought of the minigun he'd read about on Wikipedia once with actual longing and dreamed pleasant dreams of mowing them down by the legion from a nearby rooftop without leaving the comfort of a convenient chair.

Two teams of Amanda's students appear before they finish with the street, and Amanda takes the opportunity to observe them with the few remaining Croats. It's as close to a controlled environment they'll get, and so he and Amanda take up a full sweep of Second Street west to east, herding the remaining Croats toward them. All have at least some experience on patrol--which is true of most able-bodied adults in Ichabod--but practice never hurt anyone and he needs to think, because something about this doesn't fit, other than everything.

They're doing very well, however; the Croats are being isolated and exterminated with admirable efficiency, keeping them away from the temptation of reinforced doors behind which the residents not assigned to protect the town are concealed. This would be going almost unsettlingly well if there weren't so many.

"And fuck my life, a third group just broke through, east-east-northeast--they'll hit north corner of Main in under ten minutes," Amanda reports, jogging up beside him with her unit against her ear. "Manuel dispatched two patrol teams to reinforce the perimeter." She puts it back in her belt with a baffled expression. "Jesus, they must really want her; this is a shitload of Croats to keep in reserve without them killing each other just to get one psychic."

Demons aren't known for their tactical thinking, and while 'throwing everything possible at the problem' is perfectly legitimate, this is a lot to throw, and there's no sign of it ending. His confirmed kill count is over eighty (eighty-three, to be exact), and that doesn't include the confirmed kills of anyone else, which he estimates now number well above two hundred. That number makes as much sense as the inescapable visual of demons herding hostile Croatoans into battered compact cars to attack a town in the southern central Kansas and then making them wait outside the ward line until needed, which is none at all. Even for the joy of slaughter and capturing or killing a powerful psychic, this is overkill for a population of a little over one thousand people.

As Amanda checks each alley on western Second again, Castiel pauses to reload just as a Croat emerges unexpectedly from the third alley connecting Third and Second Street. Annoyed, he slams the magazine in with his knee as he pulls his knife, gutting it when it lurches into range before cutting its throat. A boot on its chest keeps it still long enough for him to estimate the time since it manifested full infection before he shoots it in the head and dodges back to avoid excess entrails. It's not a danger to him, but one of the first things he was taught was to be a good example for others, and Amanda's students might be watching.

Hours, maybe: much more importantly, both the clothing and the thinness of the bodies confirm all of these people are residents of the infected zone, and there's no possible way they were from anywhere but Kansas itself.

Thanks to Dean and a stunning variety of automobile specialists at multiple garages across the greater United States, he knows in no world could this many substandard economy vehicles (nineteen at last count, all in terrible condition, according to Manuel) elude the border patrol on any existing road, and he just doesn't think the upper performance limit of a Honda Accord--even in mint condition, which none of these vehicles are--includes much off-road driving. Especially when the passengers are trying to kill each other, and the ones still alive look surprisingly intact for extended periods of time trapped with their own kind. He suspects when this is over and they check the plates, they'll be from within Kansas, with a potential rental car outlier, and the gas tanks will be very close to empty.

If Jeffrey could get into Kansas, any demon could (but didn't, not since Dean arrived here, not until Jeffrey, who said the barrier was weakening, not until now), and only one would be needed to begin spread of Croatoan again. Jeffrey's first order of business was to confront him regarding the barrier he didn't even know existed only miles from Chitaqua; this demon's (demons?) is to infect a large group to be immediately killed while attacking a town that houses a new psychic. Somehow, he doesn't think Lucifer would approve of such a waste of resources for someone he can kill at his leisure with a thought.

One who should have been killed the night she manifested, if Lucifer hadn't inexplicably abandoned this plane. Lucifer's a terrible general, but he did learn how to evaluate risk and eliminate it. If he knew about Alison, a mere human or not, he wouldn't send his minions to kill her; he'd do it himself.

Amanda jogs up beside him as he reaches the center point of Second Street, handing him a canteen of water and a clean cloth after a single amused smirk. Sighing, he wipes the small spray of blood from his face--he's out of practice dodging adequately, apparently--before handing her back the canteen and tucking the infected cloth into an interior pocket of his jacket. Croatoan blood remains infectious for some time, and they generally deal with the problem with the application of salt and fire.

"Everything north of Second Street is clear. Manuel said nothing else has breached the outer wards and nothing's touched the square," she says in a breath, adding, "Should have gotten a unit this morning like I told you to."

"I didn't know I'd be engaged in combat before lunch," he argues, which simply shows how badly he's out of practice there, too. "Main?"

"Outliers. They're shooting on sight anything that moves, but that's it." She hesitates, lowering her voice. "Manuel's worried about Teresa. She's holding two circles at once, and she's never had to for this long before, not like this. Those Croats are like sinks or something; barely slows them down when they cross, but it takes it out of her anyway when they do." She hesitates for a moment. "Earth's going dormant--it knows the seasons even if the weather doesn't--and she gets too much from it…."

"It will kill their winter crops and the land might not recover in time for spring planting, I know." The earth will protect itself from permanent damage, but that's all it will do; it's Teresa's responsibility to decide the threshold that would include human needs as well.

He calculates the amount of time it's been; the perimeter wards are the only thing they have to warn them if another group of Croats appear and may be the only thing keeping whatever demon or demons at bay who are controlling this. The wards around the square are the only thing other than salt lines that are protecting the town square should those guarding it be attacked.

"How much longer can she hold them?"

Amanda's lips tighten. "She said forever if she has to."

This won't stop until they find Alison or all of them are dead, and that may very well include the people of this town.

Give her the strength she needs, he thinks. She asks only for what is impossible to do alone. It's not so much to ask, for this one thing, in this one time, this place; what purpose could there be to deny her this?

Even to himself, he's not sure who he's speaking to, much less why.

"I don't know why Lucifer bothered with a war; we could have resolved this with a Playstation with the same effort involved in shooting semi-mindless targets." He evaluates the street again and focuses at the sound of a woman's voice cursing in very creatively obscene Japanese: Haruhi. "Amanda--"

"Yeah, I see her--crap, Derek's down." Castiel shoots the particularly annoying specimen menacing Haruhi, who's trying to reload her gun while protecting Derek, sprawled against the wall behind her, unconscious but not visibly injured, and the two members of her team retrieving him. It takes practice to do that when someone is trying their best to chew on you; all things considered, she's doing very well.

Haruhi doesn't waste time expressing surprise at a dead Croatoan at her feet; dodging sideways, she kicks a wheelbarrow at the one behind it, finishes her reload, and shoots it in the head, following with another shot when it hits the ground and skipping back to avoid the worst of the blood.

"That's my girl," Amanda says fondly, signaling to Haruhi that she and Castiel will take care of the others and watching the well-ordered retreat in satisfaction, Haruhi covering their back. Frowning, she helps him neutralize the remaining Croats, watching them die with an unsatisfied look. "Much longer, Dean's gonna be asking us if we're getting soft. Kind of surprised he hasn't yet."

"He's fine." Possibly making those guarding the town square miserable, but fortunately, they seem to have kept their individual units away from him so far. This could be much worse, he realizes in dawning horror; for want of a cold, Dean might have insisted on fighting and Castiel can't pretend he'd actually be able to stop him. For viruses give and they take away, blessed be vaccinations for those that can be and even those that can't-- "Lily was only a few weeks old."

"What?" Wiping her face carefully, Amanda continues her check of the nearly-empty street. "Tony's youngest? What about her?"

"Vaccinations--Alison said the other children didn't even know her birthday. She's approximately two and a half years old. Ichabod was just settled then; why would they already have children without parents that needed vaccinations?"

Amanda gives him a startled look but thankfully doesn't ask; woolly tentacle condoms and sheepapodes are probably not the answer she's looking for. "Uh, Lily--right, those kids. It was weird, actually, how they found them--I told Alison she should tell you and Dean about it, never heard anything like it. They were at--"

"A church," he says. "Fifteen children, two and a half weeks old to ten years, eight months, ten male, five female." He looks at Amanda. "They were the only survivors--them and a young woman."

"Yeah." Amanda searches his face. "Weird shit went down, they never figured out what happened--Cas, it's been years, you don't think.…"

"That they're not here for Alison? Not anymore." He takes the unit from her belt and flips it off, just in case. "What channels do Ichabod's patrol use?"

"Patrol uses first five," she says. "Main's got its own to report, but they're listening on the others probably. Why? Never mind, give it here." Taking it, she flips it on. "Manuel, can't hear anything over the gunfire; repeat your last order three times, would you?"

There's a brief pause. "Hold positions; repeat, hold positions; repeat, last time, hold all positions until further orders. Five units checked-in; good job everyone. Over."

She hands it back. "Last channel minus five."

He methodically switches channels until he hears Manuel's voice. "…anytime you're ready."

"When's the last time those guarding the town square reported?"

"Ten minutes ago: all's well. Why?"

"Contact them and ask them where Chitaqua's commander is in two minutes," he answers, shooting a lurching specimen emerging unexpectedly from an alley connected to Third before kicking it aside. "Manuel, this is important--don't use Dean's name. Also, sweep Third again; I just killed one coming from there."

"Got it," Manuel answers briefly before the channel goes silent.

"Cas?" Amanda asks as he starts toward the nearest alley with access to Main. "Want to catch me up?"

"We're being distracted very well. I'm almost impressed." The desired alley is guarded by a team of Amanda's students, their guns lowering only upon recognition: excellent. "Move."

They do so immediately, and Castiel gives Amanda the unit as he passes them--are those salutes?--stopping just short of Main Street and leaning out for a quick assessment. Several Croats attempting destruction in lieu of prey in full line of sight of the three people guarding the town center. Who show startlingly little interest in the Croats to match the lack of interest the Croats show in them: interesting.

"One minute forty-five," Amanda says after a brief look and turning on the unit again. "Ready."

Emerging onto the street, Castiel notes all three are suddenly very, very interested when they see him. At two minutes and twenty-eight seconds, he hears Amanda's unit make a noise followed by the faint sound of Manuel's voice.

"They said--they told Manuel that Chitaqua's commander's right in front of them," Amanda reports softly. "Manuel, call everyone in now not working perimeter; we got demons guarding the fucking town center."

"At least one is inside the square already." Castiel watches the demons, one shooting at a nearby Croat with very little aim and no enthusiasm at all. They need more practice with convincingly playing human.

"He says the wards haven't been crossed," Amanda says, but not in denial; she knows as well as he does that Dean would react very poorly to demons pretending to be members of patrol. Not to mention their reaction to Dean Winchester's apparent resurrection. "Teresa wouldn't have missed it."

"It was inside before they went up. They had help doing this."

Amanda catches her breath. "Someone in Ichabod?"

"New people, who needed their children vaccinated and could confirm the fifteen children from that church were in Ichabod," he answers as the Croatoans pause in their random labor, brought under control by their masters and turning toward them. Ichabod doesn't get many visitors and rarely leave the safety of the town unless on official business, but they do, sometimes, get new residents, some quite recent. Vera's lecture on the rapid spread of STDs was enlightening on many levels. "And probably gave the toddler room, their associated parents, and Dean that cold."

Amanda says something into the device before putting it away, coming up beside him as he takes in each face. "Are they residents of this town?"

"One's a new guy," she answers softly, observing the street beginning to fill with chill anticipation as her rifle falls into her hand. "None are patrol."

He nods. "I'll take everything on the right."

We are chaos incarnate, he once told Dean; in that much, the only thing that mortality changed was who held the leash, not what happened when it snapped.

He's within ten feet of the trailer when he sees one of the three demons, looking confused and somewhat annoyed only feet from the corridor leading to the town center, tiny sparks fading around him like the flutter of rainbow wings. Disorientation and loss of muscular control: excellent choice of warding to supplement the salt line, he thinks approvingly as he shoves it against the trailer, pinning its head against the metal before cutting through the spinal column and severing the spinal cord.

Averting his eyes from the burst of light as it dies, he lets it fall, kicking the head out of his way and identifying the entrance through the dust and dirt filling the air by the backward tumble of a body landing on its back with bone-breaking force. Still dazed, it stays conveniently prone, oily black eyes widening in belated surprise when his knee shatters their rib cage and spine, crushing the lungs and heart into the asphalt beneath them before he cuts its throat with a gush of blood.

Wiping his knife on the knee of his jeans, he goes still at the feel of a blade against his throat. "Castiel," a voice says in what might be shock, hesitating. "What are you--"

It ends in a grunt from the elbow in its side, bone shattering as he rolls away, catching himself on one hand and tossing the knife to Amanda as she passes him, appreciating her economy of movement as she slams the demon into the trailer, knife sinking into its unprotected chest. She jerks the knife out, turning her head away at the burst of light, and wipes it clean on her thigh before tossing it back to him and getting her rifle again.

"Kamal's team's keeping the other two distracted on the other side while Teresa finishes up a devil's trap," she says, kicking the last remaining Croat through the chest before shooting it in the head when it hits the ground. Adding a second shot that destroys the skull entirely, she jumps back to avoid the worst of the blood and brain, careful to avert her face. "Kamal confirmed they're both riding patrol. What's the call?"

"Hold them with minimal injury, if possible," he answers, starting toward the corridor and allowing for the first time the thought of what's happening to Dean in the town square; the certainty he's fine hasn't diminished in the slightest, but there are many values of fine. "Get a team of your students to guard this side and go verify the demons are safely contained personally, then report to me. I'll handle whatever's inside."

"Yell if you need help."

All three salt lines are intact, he notes at once as he starts down the corridor, stepping over each one, bracing himself for whatever awaits him inside before he emerges into the courtyard and empty, waiting silence.

Quickly, he catalogues the bodies sprawled in various types of dead (Dean isn't among them (he's fine), or any of the children), counting; twenty-one adults, among them two Croats. Near two adult bodies sprawled on the porch (gunshot to the head, not Croat, interesting), behind a barricade of armchairs and an overturned sofa topped with half-open, blood-stained lawn chairs, cluster a multitude of wide, unseeing eyes fixed on something in the center of the courtyard, the only area clear of bodies.

Taking out his shortest knife, he goes to the edge, taking in the completed circle: the outer edge is eight feet in diameter, the inner five feet, the design itself encompassing the one and a half feet between the inner and outer circles. It wasn't done well; the concrete shows signs of changes and corrections to the chalk, barely functional erasures, as if drawn for the first time by inexpert hands from memory. Slicing his palm, he circles the perimeter while letting the blood pool: the same pattern repeats throughout in short, ragged segments counterclockwise northwest to northeast until the last quarter, a more elaborate version of the pattern, new symbols appearing within before joining (barely) at northwest again: a closing sequence.

Crouching at the southeast side, he glances at the immobile children before sliding his hand from the outer edge to the inner circle and feels it unmake, like fabric folding sharp-edged into itself before dissolving from now. He looks up in time to see the children collapse, falling to the porch. Unconscious: that would be for the best right now, especially if they're unaware of what happened out here.

Wrapping his hand in fresh gauze, he takes a step toward the porch and stops short at the click of a safety. Turning, he sees Dean a few feet away, half-hidden from view by an overturned sofa and straddling another, unmoving body in a pool of blood, one blood-stained hand pointing a gun at Castiel's head.

It's too soon to feel anything like relief. "Dean."

"You're gonna have to wait," Dean says, never looking away from the demon beneath him. "I'm a little busy right now."

He's not sure he expected anything like this, if he expected anything at all.

A twelve-inch hunting knife is buried in the demon's forehead to the hilt as it stares eyeless into the sky. That one would account for the dismemberment of the demon; fingers at each joint to the palm, hand at the wrist, forearm at the elbow, upper arm at the shoulder joint, expertly performed and all pieces neatly stacked to the left of the head; the legs are only intact to the knee; the blade became too dull, he suspects from the ragged appearance of the stump, and Dean suited his next activity the blood-stained seven-inch dagger currently in his right hand, completing a full vivisection and castration, organs and flesh piled in an oozing mass just right of the shoulder, before going to work on its head.

"Wouldn't talk," Dean says softly, green eyes coming up to meet his like a punch. "Hard to do without a tongue, though. Didn't think of that."

Castiel nods, licking his lips; the demon's still in there, squirming weakly and not sane by any definition of the word, not anymore. "Dean, put down the gun."

"Not done yet." He looks back down at the demon with a slow smile. "Anyone ever tell you not to punch a three year old? Did you actually need to be told that? Seems pretty obvious to me, but hey, what do I know? No time like the present to learn, right?"

Castiel looks at the pile of upper limbs and focuses on a bloody, upturned palm. He missed it the first time; just visible beneath the drying blood is the symbol he didn't finish on Jeffrey in its completed form.

That, he supposes, would be why the demon is still in there. "Are you going to shoot me?"

Dean scowls, irritated by the distraction. "No, of course not."

"Then put down the gun." He doesn't wait, however; crossing the courtyard, he crouches, extending Ruby's knife to Dean as he takes out his boot knife and sketches the symbol on the demon's intact thigh. "When I unmake it, cut its throat."

"I'm not--"

"You're done," he says flatly, setting the tip of his knife against one edge. "Shoot me before I unmake this or cut its throat when I'm done; I don't know if even that knife can kill a demon before this is unmade and this isn't the time to test it. Now."

A quick slash across the lines unmakes it just as the body jerks convulsively with a burst of dull light. Wiping his knife clean, he sheathes it and turns to look at Dean, who's staring down at the remains of the demon's face, blankness being slowly replaced with a dangerous mix of rage and confusion. Getting up, he crosses to the right side of the body, kicking Dean's knife away as Dean drops his handgun and taking Ruby's knife from the lax fingers; Dean carries his boot knife on the right, and he can easily stop him before he gets it.

"Dean?" he asks quietly, getting his full attention. "Where are the rest of the children?"

"Top floor: Glenn and the other teachers are with them. Salted the door and top and bottom of the stairs myself," he says tonelessly. "They had a list, hit every room with it."

He nods, watching Dean's face carefully. "A list?"

"Of kids--said they needed to pick them up, that their parents wanted them; it didn't make sense." He grimaces, reaching to wipe a blood-soaked hand across his forehead, wet hair clinging to his skin in half-clotted spikes. "I just saw Tony, he was working at the plant today, said he might be late; no way he got there, did his shit, and got back in a couple of hours; they're trying to get Third street up and running. Wasn't even lunch yet--Callie and Emmy locked themselves in the second floor art room," he interrupts himself, looking toward the door of the daycare. "They might be infected, it was--an hour ago?" His expression hardens. "This morning--they timed it, had to, so they wouldn't get caught by the perimeter wards. Infected while stepping over them maybe, who does that?"

He examines the square again, marking out each of the twenty-one other bodies; six he recognizes as parents who dropped their children off at the daycare this morning; four as residents who probably came here when the alarm was called, too far from their homes, perhaps; two as adolescents assigned to daycare duty, weapons still clutched in some hands; two Croats near the unmade circle in the center of the courtyard; the rest, he's not sure.

"Who were 'they'?" It wasn't Callie and Emmy that Dean thinks deliberately infected themselves.

"They're new," Dean confirms, forehead creasing uncertainly as he looks down, but Castiel reaches for his chin, gently easing the green eyes back up. "Part of a group, came--two, about three weeks ago, Glenn said."

"And gave the toddler room and you that cold, I assume." Dean almost smiles, but it's gone before it's anything more than a twitch of blood-flecked lips. "How many were in that group?" Dean's at the daycare at least a few hours every day he's here; he'd notice new children, new faces in the daycare.

"Uh--seven adults, ten kids--Glenn told me about 'em, said they checked in at noon every day to have lunch with their kids, never missed a day." His mouth twists bitterly. "Thought they were really nice. Good parents."

"How old were their children?"

Dean hesitates, eyes distant. "Two in the toddler room, three preschool, uh…two in the five to seven room, two in the eight to ten, one eleven-twelve, one--"

"Thirteen year old," he finishes; that would be for the oldest possible surviving child. They needed a reason to visit every room in the age range of those fifteen children, become a familiar face to both the daycare attendants and the children; they must have checked at least one of the other towns in the trade alliance and to their good fortune, could get information on the other four towns with very little effort.

"I told Callie and Emmy not to let 'em leave--distract 'em, something--and Glenn and Una and Francisco to get all the kids to the top floor," Dean continues, then frowns uncertainly. "No--no, that was after. I was going to admin, but--I went to check the corridors first, don't know why. West side, all three lines were broken--I fixed them, went to admin…." He swallows.

"They were already dead."

He nods, eyes blank. "Two of the new people--they were outside, doing something with the chalk, I thought they were drawing something for the kids at first--I told them to run, tell Manuel about--and I heard Callie scream, right in time to realize they were changing….shot 'em both. I went to the eastern entrance, saw Jake staring down at the salt lines and not liking 'em. Just before Teresa's wards came up; fuck, if he'd been a little closer, they would have caught him. I should've…."

"The safety of the children was your priority." Five adult infiltrators accounted for, including the bodies of one of the demons: that leaves two more. The body Dean's sitting on wasn't one of them; a teenage male--he thinks it may be Grant, whose adolescent romance with Connie has been a fixture in Dean's anecdotes regarding daycare drama, as he calls it. "The other two new residents…."

"Guess he needed helpers that wouldn't turn on him and could still think," Dean answers softly, looking down at the remains with an expression he can't read. "They were keeping the kids in line--looked sad about it, too, Jesus, one was fucking crying--with this guy telling 'em…." He jerks his gaze up to Castiel. "How the fuck did it get across the perimeter wards, get in here to get him? Manuel says it's like touching a live wire when they go off!"

"Where are those two?"

His eyes dart to the porch briefly. "Dead," he says without regret.

"Good." The rest can wait; he'll need to check Callie and Emmy, but if Dean thinks they're infected, it's likely they are. "Were you injured?"

Dean blinks at him slowly before his mouth twists open in a barked laugh. "Yeah, I--" The sound changes into something horrible before it cuts off as he abrupt gets to his feet, taking two steps before his right leg gives out, and Castiel just catches him, easing him to the ground, noticing his flannel overshirt is efficiently wrapped just below his knee: not serious, and the blood he can see isn't fresh. Beneath the dust and drying blood, Dean's nearly grey with fatigue and potential blood loss as well as shock, but nothing sufficient rest and some medical attention won't fix.

"We should leave."

"I can't leave," Dean says, wiping his face tiredly. "The kids--Glenn's holding the third floor until he gets confirmation from you it's safe, I told him--told him not to let anyone else take them until you cleared it. What else…Callie and Emmy, got that--Christ, I can't think…."

"You can tell me later," he says impatiently. "Dolores needs to check your leg--"

"I. Can't. Leave." He stares at Castiel before looking down. Following his gaze, Castiel sees the shape of teeth imprinted in Dean's right forearm just above the wrist through the drying blood, but he has no idea what that's supposed to indicate. "Cas." Tearing his gaze away at the note of urgency in Dean's voice, he looks at him in confusion. "It got to the second floor, was gonna break the salt line, the kids…. I wasn't fast enough. Ten--fifteen minutes, maybe, I don't rem--not sure."

Familiarity with Dean's methodology tells him at least an hour was spent three feet away from their current position: at least one and a half hours since exposure, but less than two.

"Demons got away--I think one of them recognized us, figured out how shitty their lives were about to become. Dolores is checking the residents that played meatsuit, but they seemed--alive, anyway. Manuel reports they've cleared almost all streets, just mop-up now," Amanda says from behind him, rattling off the information as she enters the courtyard. "Do you need any--" There's a short pause--that would be when she realizes what she's looking at, he supposes--then in a completely different voice, "Cas?"

"Everything's dead that could be a threat," he answers mechanically, looking back to see the children are fully awake and staring at the courtyard with glazed eyes. "The children on the porch should be taken to Dolores immediately; they're in shock and should be placed in isolation, but tell her it's very unlikely they were infected. The rest are on the third floor with Glenn and the other teachers; it's best they stay there until…the building as well as the courtyard's been cleared, to avoid the risk of infection." Dean lets out a ragged breath, shoulders slumping. "Dean was injured by the demon, and I don't want to move him until I've seen the extent of his injuries. Secure the square and report to Manuel or Teresa immediately; whatever they were trying to do here failed, but I need time to examine it, and no one is to enter here until I give the order, especially Teresa. Put Kamal's team at both entrances to make sure of it."

"Got it," Amanda says quietly, starting across the blood-soaked concrete to the children. He has no idea how she gets them to move, but shock does have the advantage of encouraging docility. Eventually, they're gone, and he and Dean are the only ones remaining in the silent courtyard.

Dean takes a shuddering breath, then another. "Four to six hours?"

"Approximately. Eight is the threshold." As if it were as fragile as glass, he takes Dean's wrist, easing his arm closer to examine the messy, jagged tears--human teeth even wielded by Croats are not particularly efficient, but they are effective--as his mind runs through the statistical probability of exposure, searching for a single loophole; there isn't one, which probably means he needs to make one up very quickly. "I can't sense anything yet. It's possible--"

"Am I contagious yet?" The fear in Dean's voice is impossible to miss. "I was careful--I think, anyway."

"I told you, I can't sense anything yet." It takes an hour in most cases to show the first stage, but it can be as long as two. "We should--"

"Do it now," Dean whispers hoarsely. "Before I'm dangerous to anyone."

"Do what?"

"Shoot me." As if it's the most obvious thing in the world. "So I don't spread this, so I don't--"

"Shoot you." Sitting back on his heels, he reaches for Dean's face, noticing as if from a distance the tacky-red-black streaks he's leaving Dean's skin and ignoring his efforts to pull away to searches his face in disbelief. "You're serious. Why would I--"

"Cas!" The edge of desperation in his voice cuts through him more sharply than any bullet ever had; hearing it could kill him. "Cas," he says more quietly. "Don't make this harder than it already is."

"Harder." He watches his own thumb tracing the imprint of the wound, and thinks of finding Dean's body in Kansas City, empty windows watching him in the same shroud of silence that fills the courtyard now. He's always been here, he'll always be here; all this time, he never left. "You think--you think you know….you have no idea," he chokes out, "no idea what hard means, hard is--"

"Cas, listen to me--"

"--nothing like this!" he says savagely. "Killing is easy, I've done it more than you can imagine before you were even born. I took human lives in my Father's name without hesitation, but you, you think this is hard--for you, hundreds of my Brothers died trying to free you from Hell, and it was in your name I took the lives of those who survived, in nomine Dean--"

Dean's hands clutch desperately in his t-shirt. "Cas--"

"And thou art a merciless fucking god, Dean Winchester! Even my Father didn't make Abraham sacrifice his son to prove his love, but you ask me to sacrifice you, everything and all things to me, and you call it hard? You don't know the meaning of the word!"

"Cas, stop--"

"Why not, there's nothing else I haven't given at your command, soli Dean Gloria, offered on your altar, ad maiorem Dean gloriam--"

"Jesus, Cas, stop!" Dean shoves an arm around his shoulders, and Castiel collapses against him, helpless to control the broken sobbing. "I'm sorry," he whispers brokenly, breath warm against his temple. "I'm so sorry."

"I'd kill myself for idolatry," he breathes against Dean's shirt, fingers twisting helplessly in the threadbare material, "but it's the least of the sins I've committed meriting execution by degree, and even alphabetically, it's--it's--"

"Pretty far down, I get it." Dean swallows, arms tightening around him. "I'd do it myself, I'd have done it before you got here, I swear, but I'm out of bullets."

"You're out of bullets." He thinks of telling Alison this; he would already be dead, still warm but very dead, when I got here, except that he ran out of bullets. If you don't see the humor of that, I don't know what to tell you. "You forgot to bring sufficient reloads. You're still alive because you forgot--"

"I thought, this morning…" Dean makes a horrible sound that in another life might have been a laugh. "Wanted to see how long it took you notice at breakfast, forgot to grab 'em before I left."

"I suppose you won, then." Dean's shaking from--shock, blood-loss, fatigue, the countdown toward cannibalism and madness, your only hope of a clean, easy death exhibiting signs of incipient insanity, pick them all--and shuts his eyes, breathing in dirt and sweat and blood. He remembers when he thought that the hardest thing he ever did was let Dean Winchester go to that confrontation with Lucifer knowing he would die there; he didn't know the meaning of the word.

Castiel thinks: Give him something, I don't care what, just that it help him. Give me something, anything, that will save him. I ask only for what is impossible to do alone. It's not so much to ask, for this one life, this one man, in this one time, this place; what purpose could there be to deny me this when you've denied me all else? Please help me, help me, help me.

"I'm sorry." Dean's breath ruffles his hair, warm against his sweaty skin. "If there was anyone else--"

"I brought sufficient ammunition and used very little of it," he mutters against Dean's chest. "I could get through a significant portion of this town before anyone could get close enough to even try. I'm not sorry."

He's woken, sick with horror, from dreams of following Dean Winchester to that confrontation with Lucifer: sometimes, he's successful only in joining him in death; often, he fails even in that. Lucifer would mock him while in an alley he would never see, this man he only met once before would be slowly killed, or worse. More times than he can count those first weeks, he sat just inside the door of the cabin and watched Dean sleep until dawn, the rawness of grief somehow eased as he listened to every slow, even breath; Dean was here, he was safe, Lucifer didn't have him, and he never would.

The only thing we risk, he told Dean, is that we might experience a profound sense of disappointment if we survive long enough to realize that we've lost.

If he knew then that it would end like this--the first time he met Dean Winchester, when he rebelled, when he Fell, that moment in the alley, that night in the cabin and those first hideous weeks that were grief and rage and endless, monotonous duty driving every moment awake like a nightmare without hope of waking, the eternity of the fever, coffee and maps and quiet evenings on the porch, terrible Egyptian poetry--if he knew it would end like this….

"I'm not sorry." I'm not; not that I left Dean that night, that I was in that alley while he died at Lucifer's hand, that I met you and saved you, and it was never a question that I'd die for either of you, but you-- "I'd do it again, all of it. It was worth it."

"I know." He thinks he can feel every individual finger digging into his back, bruises he'll feel forever, unhealed. "What the fuck was I thinking…fuck!" Voice breaking, Dean slides a hand up, cupping the back of his neck and squeezing tight. "I'm sorry, I never should have asked you to--some things you don't ask."

Castiel squeezes his eyes closed, trying to concentrate on that touch, this moment, this man and nothing else. Help me. It's not so much to ask.

"Look at me." Dean gently eases his head up, and through the blur of tears, he sees his shaky smile. Biting his lip, Dean uses his sleeve to wipe roughly across Castiel's cheeks, thumb sweeping a gentle apology after. "There we go. You with me?"

"Don't leave me."

The smile wobbles, vanishing, Dean's face crumpling like paper. "God, Cas--"

"Please." Fisting Dean's shirt, he tries to jerk him closer, but the thin material tears away between his fingers no matter how hard he tries to hold on. "Please don't leave me."

"I don't want to." They're so close Castiel can feel his breath against his lips before he tips his head forward, forehead warm against his own. "You--you gotta know I--"

"Then don't!" He loses words in a breathless sob as Dean's fingers curve around the back of his head, shaking hand stroking through his hair. "I can't do this."

"Yeah, you can," Dean whispers. "And this is what you're gonna do now. You're going to give me your gun--"


"--and walk out of here," he continues inexorably. "You're not watching this, Cas. I'm not gonna do that to you. Fucker did that much for you; so can I."

Castiel shakes his head. "No. No--"

"You're gonna back to Chitaqua," Dean says, breath warm against his lips, "and you tell 'em it's not over yet. You're gonna keep fighting."

"It won't matter--"

"It matters!" Dean takes a ragged breath, fingers trembling against his face. "It matters, Cas. Every day, every hour, every minute, every goddamn second you can get, you're gonna take 'em."

"I can't--"

"You can. You will." Dean pulls back to look at him, fingers stroking back his hair to smile in his eyes. "When you step on the field, you're gonna tell Lucifer, the Host, and prophecy to fuck themselves, because you're gonna win this." His smile widens, the wet green eyes incandescent. "You never give up on anything, Cas. You don't even know how."

Dean turns head sharply, and in the distance Castiel hears the dull sound of voices, words slurred into incomprehensibility but growing closer each second that passes. Taking a deep breath, he looks at Castiel again.

"It's time," he says quietly, threading his fingers through Castiel's hair one last time before slowly letting go. "Let me do this, Cas. I'm ready."

It's forever; here, in that room, in that courtyard, in that grove; the voices beyond the trailers, the flat buzz of the monitors drowning out Vera's voice, the sound of Lucifer's footsteps, the shouts of the mob; it's the fate of all those born mortal, the inexorable sweep of death that leaves stillness and silence and unhealed, unhealing loss in its wake.

Time heals nothing. You have to want to.

You're useless to me, you're better than this, why isn't he responding, am I dying, I need time, I can't get a rhythm, it's been ten minutes, I'm sorry, he promised he would be here, you never give up on anything, so what's it gonna be?

Try again.

"Now tell me what the first rule is again?" Vera said sweetly. "Last time before you go, we'll say it together on the count of three: one, two, three--"

Don't panic.

"I'm not."

He catches Dean's wrist just short of his gun, feeling bones as fragile as eggshells beneath the thin skin, pulse beating frantically against the pad of his thumb.

"I'm not ready," he says, meeting Dean's eyes. "It's not over yet."

"Cas, you know how this ends--"

"--and every day, every hour, every minute, every second until then are mine." Holding Dean's eyes, he draws his gun and ejects the magazine, leaving one round in the chamber. "I'm taking them."

"Cas--" He stops, searching his face with sudden attention. "What's going on?"

"I need time."

He stills, a strange expression crossing his face. "Time."

"Do you trust me?" he asks, hearing the voices just beyond the trailers. "Yes or no, it's a simple question--"

"It's a stupid fucking question," Dean interrupts. "Answer's yes and always has been. Now tell me--"

"Then trust me now." Tightening his grip on the butt, he calculates the least damaging angle. "I apologize for the headache in advance. The kit in the car has a sedative; I'll use that on the way."

He's just finished wrapping the bite and easing Dean's limp arm into the protection of his own jacket when he hears footsteps behind him.

"I know Croat bodies when I see them," Amanda says quietly.

Castiel realizes his hand on his gun when he turns to confront her, Dean a limp weight against his shoulder. She doesn't move--even now, he can kill her before she can draw--but if she was going to kill him, she wouldn't have risked waiting; he taught her better than that.

Taking a deep breath, he drops his hand and watches her cross the distance between them. Dropping to a crouch, blue eyes scan Dean carefully, dismissing the leg wound and moving unerringly to his right arm, hidden beneath the sleeve of the coat. She must have seen it earlier, he realizes; she knew before she left with the children.

"I knew I should have assigned someone to watch him, just for the hell of it. Good practice, something." Her voice breaks on the last word before she composes herself. "Goddamn it. If there's a bullet, he's throwing himself in front of it. Or a pair of teeth aimed at three year old."

"It was my responsibility to see to his security while he was here."

She drops her head into one bloody hand for a long moment, shoulders shaking, tendrils of blood-streaked blonde hair that escaped from her ponytail clinging to her cheek, her neck.

"Let me handle clean-up in here," she says finally, lifting her head, eyes red but voice steady and clear. "Manuel went to get Alison personally. She's gonna give the quarantine order as soon as everyone's checked in, but I parked your jeep off the east entrance into here. She said to wait about ten minutes, though; she called a meeting, and that should be enough of a distraction for you to leave. Everyone will assume you and Dean went back to Chitaqua to tell them what happened and get Dean's wounds treated. She knows about the fever, didn't want to risk--you know."

"You knew and told her…." He swallows. "Why?"

"I thought…." She swallows. "I knew you'd want to take him home."

Dean wants more of his militia than unthinking, unquestioning obedience, and for the first time, he understands why. Habit isn't the same as trust, and that trust must be earned to have any value. "He's infected."

She nods, mouth tight.

"He'll survive."

Amanda's head snaps up; what happens to a person when they're infected has never been considered survival. "What?"

"He'll survive it."

She meets his eyes. "You're sure?"

"Yes," he answers. "He will."

She stares at him for a moment before she makes a soft sound, half-laugh, half-sob. Gulping, she wipes her eyes hurriedly and takes a deep breath. "Okay--uh." Glancing down at Dean, she hesitates, looking up, mouth trembling on a smile. "You knocked him out?"

"Yes," he admits. "And never before now have I appreciated more that our kits include sedatives."

"I'm glad I'm gonna be quarantined," she says with a tremulous smile. "Best excuse ever not to be in Chitaqua when he wakes up." Getting to her feet, she listens for a minute; the sound of voices outside the walls is muffled but becoming steadily more audible, though even to him the words are slurred into a dulled white noise. "Okay, you gotta go and I gotta get the courtyard cleaned up," her eyes flicker to the remains of the demon; retrieve Dean's weapons so they'll make the most useful assumption, yes, "and--"

"Glenn won't release the children without my authorization," he remembers. It occurs to him that at this moment, with Dean incapacitated, he's their commander. "Two adults and a possible unknown number of children are locked somewhere on the second floor due to potential infection from a dead Croatoan near the stairs to the third floor."

Amanda swallows. "Were any kids killed?"

"Yes," he answers, looking at the dismembered body only feet away; he wasn't fast enough to save them. "Possibly very young. Verify the salt line is unbroken between the second and third floor; knowing Dean, he salted the entire stairway just to be sure. I don't think anyone on the third floor knows for certain; don't tell them, not yet."

"There's a window facing the courtyard," she says after a moment, starting to the door. "Tell Glenn I'm safe when you see him."

It doesn't take long; Glenn's face appears briefly before the window opens, leaning out with an expression somewhere between fear and relief; he doesn't know. "Cas?"

"The attackers were neutralized. Amanda will instruct you on what to do after consulting with Manuel," he answers, watching the relief spreading over Glenn's face followed by dawning horror when he takes in the courtyard for what appears to be the first time. Good: he forgot he even needed to worry about that. "Send Amanda back down and stay with the children until she returns. Do not leave the room, do not open the door, and avoid the windows, if possible, until then."

Glenn's expression tells him that the last was a given: one look was enough. "Got it. Thanks, Cas." He hastily closes the window, and Castiel tries to think of anything he may have missed. It's several long minutes until Amanda emerges again, face blank, and he can guess what she was doing before she stops beside him.

"One Croat, five adults, and three kids on the first floor. Eight on the second by the stairs besides the Croat; one of the older kids, Una and--six more." He swallows; that's what he thought. "Callie and Emmy said they have four kids with them. Callie says they're all infected. I marked the door before I came down."

"Dean said the admin building--"

"Saw it the first time, counted three: Manuel said that was all that were there today, I asked before I came back." She jerks her head toward the exit. "Now, time for you to go before Dean--"

"Tell Teresa the symbol is inactive; it needs to be cleansed, but it's not dangerous--at least, not right now. No one should come in here other than those involved with the cleansing before it's finished. I'll be sending help from Chitaqua when I arrive; they'll be ordered to report to Manuel and you." Amanda waits, eyebrows raised. "I think that's all, yes."

"Okay, now--"

"Croatoans remain infectious after death."

"Seriously?" she bursts out. "Not my first time at the care and disposal of Croat corpses rodeo here! I'll be careful until--"

"Yes, but--" He stares at the body for a moment, thinking. "Can you get one outside the quarantine perimeter without anyone noticing? A demon would be better for this, but needs must."

Amanda frowns in confusion, then the blue eyes widen in understanding. "Yeah, can do. Training field's unoccupied: it'll be under the arsenal trailer, but tell whoever you send to check with me before they go get it." The white noise outside the square rises briefly, and Castiel hears Alison's voice followed by Amanda's sudden smile. "There's my signal," she says in satisfaction, jerking her head toward the eastern exit. "Convenient having a psychic around. Let's get him out of here."

Stage one begins less than twenty minutes from Ichabod; one hand curled around the back of Dean's neck, he steps on the accelerator more firmly and ignores the odometer. No matter what it says, they're going far, far too slowly.

He tries not to think, but he does anyway; it's hard to stop.

Angels haven't changed since the beginning of time. Surround them with holy oil and light a match, they're trapped; if a person tells them no, they can't take their body for their own; when summoned, they can't help but obey; and when they're banished from this plane, they must leave. The Host and their dogged adherence to prophecy, Lucifer and eons he spent waiting until he could put his plan in motion so he could win without a fight, and Castiel whiling away eternity contemplating the amoeba without irony, all because there was not, is not, could never be anything new, and Enochian has no word for 'boring'. It desperately, desperately needs one.

"Amoebas," he tells Dean, hysterical laughter bubbling up from where sanity once dwelled. In his lap, Dean stirs restlessly, turning his face into the blood-flecked cotton of Castiel's shirt with a sigh and falling still again. "I suppose you had to be there. You would have hated it."

An hour and a half from Ichabod, stage two shudders across Castiel's nerves, a repulsive sense of wrongness squirming toward the surface like maggots emerging from a putrid corpse, and he nearly drives off the road, black spots dancing before his eyes.

Slowing to a stop, he jerks the jeep into park and leans against the steering wheel, fighting back the grief and rage, the discipline he never bothered to exercise for two and a half years slowly, painfully relearned in the wake of Dean's death and brought into practice, because he doesn't doesn't have time for this.

"Don't," he breathes against cracking plastic, "panic."

Concentrating on the steady warmth of Dean's breath against his stomach, the weight of his head on his lap, the slow beat of his pulse against his fingers, he methodically locks everything away but what he needs now. To drive, for example. And arrive in Chitaqua in one piece, also important. With sanity intact. All he needs is time.

Straightening, he wipes his eyes and flips the jeep into drive, checking both ways on the empty road before easing back onto the asphalt and flooring the gas pedal. As the world whips by, he strokes Dean's hair back in apology.

"I just needed a moment to almost despair," he explains in a satisfactorily steady voice. "It's over now."

Castiel blinks in surprise, glancing down at Dean sleeping the sleep of the sedated in his lap. Still--as much as Dean can ever be--every third breath punctuated by faint snoring in arrhythmic accompaniment to the sound of the engine. And yet.

"I wasn't actually being ironic," he says, fighting to keep his voice calm. "I was very high but not stupid. I knew it the first time I saw you, I just thought it was too late. All things must have a name, Chuck was right, and it did; I named it after you."

For faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen: six sigils named in honor of an impossible man.

He sucks in a breath. "There."

An army unseen but vast, its numbers beyond counting, has just picked up their swords.

Dean begins to stir just as the walls of Chitaqua come into sight, grunting in irritation before burying his face in Castiel's shirt with an unhappy whimper.


Stopping the jeep in the middle of the road, he reaches for Dean's face and sees the bright flush just before he feels a burst of heat against his palm. For a long moment, he can't move, can't think, can't even breathe as Dean twists again, curling up into a tight ball as beneath Castiel's fingers, his skin grows steadily warmer, reaching one-oh-two point six-three-eight nine within two minutes, slowing but still climbing.

It might be chronic, Vera explained regretfully. Any stress to his immune system could set it off, no way to tell. We don't even know why he reacted like that. It was a brownie bite.

He makes a mental note to tell Vera that Dean's immune system is performing spectacularly well: they certainly know how to use their swords, in any case.

"We'll start with a bath," he says giddily, thinking of Dean's charmingly bizarre conversations with sheep as he puts the jeep into drive. "Just give me a few minutes and I'll run one for you. It'll be fun."

Fortunately, most of Chitaqua is either occupied with their duties, on patrol, or--extremely likely--avoiding open spaces for fear of Cynthia. Leaving the jeep on the far side of his cabin in a perfunctory attempt at subtlety, he deposits Dean on the bathroom floor with a blanket folded beneath him, still too drugged to do more than curl up in a tight, overheating ball of feverish hunter. Kneeling beside him, Castiel checks one more time--the eight hour threshold has most likely passed and Dean's still at stage two, contagious but lacking cannibalistic tendencies--before stripping Dean of his remaining weapons and locking the bathroom door on his way out. This shouldn't take long.

Emerging onto the porch, he watches David jog toward him, waving a cheerful greeting to match the wide smile spreading over his freckled face before he stops short, eyes widening as he takes in Castiel's current state. Belatedly, it occurs to him he killed a great many Croats today and wasn't terribly careful regarding exposure, as he can't be infected. Out of practice: he'll work on that.

"You probably shouldn't come any closer," he decides; good habits should be established immediately. Now that he's thinking about it, he realizes how unsettlingly often he ends up with bloody socks, like now. Dryer elves probably wouldn't take them even if their destiny didn't involve fire and a lot of it.

"Do you see me moving?" The hazel eyes scanning Castiel as he visibly shifts to soldier. "What happened?"

"There was a Croatoan attack on Ichabod," he answers, coming down the stairs as David mirrors him to keep a safe distance. "The attack was concluded successfully, but Ichabod's casualties were still being assessed when we left. Has Joseph returned yet? Where's Melanie? Her cabin?"

"No, yes, and fuck." David matches his pace toward Melanie's cabin. "Dean okay?" The barely suppressed fear is unmistakable.

"Yes, but he sustained several mild injuries, so I brought him back here for treatment; Dolores had enough to do, and--I wanted to avoid possible infection to the wound."

David's mouth twitches: so that explanation worked. "Yeah, Vera lectured everyone she saw on secondary infections while he's in recovery before she left. Twice."

"It will be several days before he can physically hunt me down to kill me," he murmurs as Melanie's cabin comes into view; he really must thank Vera when she returns. Perhaps they could have a party for her and Jeremy: Dean would approve very much of a camp wide celebration, perhaps involving something barbecued. "Alicia's returned? An extra EMT would be of assistance to Ichabod. Dolores's current staff will need help, and she knows what precautions to take to avoid exposure."

"Yeah, she came back this morning. How many are we sending?"

"Everyone who can carry a gun." David only nods, but his shoulders straighten in clear approval. "Brief Alicia and have her pass the word; I expect everyone ready to leave in half an hour. Then find Chuck and the other members of your team and report to Melanie's cabin; I have a special job for her when you get there, and she'll need her team's help."

"I thought you wanted something hard," David answers with a snort as they reach the steps, skipping back a step as he turns toward Alicia's cabin. "Fifteen on the outside."

Castiel realizes he's smiling as Melanie emerges onto the porch with a worried expression, already buckling on her belt. "I'll hold you to it."