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A Thousand Lights in Space

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--Day 135--

Dean comes to furious, unfortunately very lucid consciousness three hours past midnight, still lingering at stage two and immersed in a bathtub of cool--but not ice-filled--water. A part of him was looking forward to his conversation with imaginary sheep: it was like spending time with Kellie, but with fewer crystals showing up in inconvenient places and finding very strangely shaped bruises the next day.

"What--" he gasps, pushing Castiel's hand away and flailing briefly. One hundred and two, excellent: it's dropping again. Leaning tiredly against the cool porcelain of the tub, Castiel sees absolutely no need to elucidate while Dean orients himself, looking around the bathroom with a confused expression, sweat and water-damp hair clinging to his forehead.

"I'm in the bathroom," he says slowly, trying to focus on Castiel long enough to glare and achieving a credible if vague squint.

"Yes," he agrees, leaning an elbow on the lip of the tub. "Three hours into a new day, in case that was your next question. Is there anything else?"

There is, of course. With Dean, there always is.

"What happened?" Leaning back in the tub, he frowns, oblivious to the cool of the water and his own goosebumps. "Ichabod. There was an attack."

"That was hours ago. Technically, yesterday." Resting his chin on one hand, he resigns himself to what will happen next. The green eyes widen in memory, and jerking his right arm up, Dean ignores the knotted scar of his death-defying run in with a colony of brownies to focus on the scabbing bite in incredulous horror despite the fact it's covered by a layer of bandages and plastic wrap and he can't actually see it.

"Oh God. I was--"

"Between eleven and fourteen hours ago, approximately," he interrupts, fighting back a yawn. "Don’t be alarmed, but you're currently in stage two. It's possible that you're contagious, but on the other hand, you remain uninterested in consuming human flesh. The door is locked, and while I'm not visibly armed, it's only because you're unsettlingly good at acquiring other people's weapons and I can't risk you getting mine. How are you feeling?"

Dean jerks upright with a splash of water he can't bring himself to care enough to avoid. "I'm--"

"In stage two and feverish, though it's dropping again." Closing his eyes, he feels for his bottle and shakes it to verify the contents before taking out two pills and dropping it back on the floor. "If it helps, I'm not shooting up this time. That won't continue past the forty-eight hour mark, in case that provides motivation for you. I doubt it will take that long, however."

"What's going on?" Before he can answer, Dean becomes aware he's immersed in cold water, and to Castiel's amusement, that his teeth are chattering and have been through most of this conversation. Wrapping his arms around his wet t-shirt clad body--a distractingly good look for him, because Castiel is very tired but not close to dead--he draws up his knees before he unleashes his most effective glare, only marginally lessened by the continued chattering of his teeth. "Jesus, can I get out--wait, why I am in the bathtub?"

"Your home improvement efforts fixing the grout means it now leaks water much, much more slowly, and I don't know where the tub Vera acquired is." That seems to silence Dean, temporarily at least, which gives him enough time to reach over and feel Dean's flushed forehead, pleased to note it's entered the lowest three digit range. "Your temperature's dropping. You can get out now."

Stranding up, he dry swallows both pills on his way to the door and picks up two towels from the pile he prudently remembered to bring in here after stealing all he could find in the communal laundry room after everyone left for Ichabod. There were a surprising number in the dryers, which tells him he's not the only one who hates doing laundry; perhaps this could be considered some kind of life lesson should anyone ask why they were taken. Surely there's a life lesson that applies: he'll ask Alicia when she gets back, unless they're her towels, of course. They should definitely acquire more towels soon, in any case.

Returning to the tub, he ignores Dean's continuing glare and helps him out onto the rug (also stolen, and quite nice; they may not get that back), briskly rubbing him with the smaller towel until he's simply very damp before wrapping the larger one around him and easing him onto the floor. "How are you feeling?"

"Like shit," Dean snaps, huddling in the corner made by the wall and tub as he makes an attempt to bury himself in several feet of faded ochre terrycloth. Castiel watches his maneuvering in fascination before it occurs to him that multiple towels and the blanket might be of assistance and goes to acquire them, turning on the space heater as well; it is rather cold in here. Dean jerks them out of his hands immediately, and by the time he's seated himself again, Dean's achieved something like a very bad interpretation of a multi-colored cocoon, much like he does with blankets, but somehow, impossibly, even funnier. "Like I'm gonna be eating people soon, so--" He breaks off, staring at him from the depths of a frayed mustard-yellow cowl, and Castiel quite literally can't look away. "It's been eleven hours?"

"Between eleven and thirteen. It's not definitive," he admits, briefly distracted by the sight of his own bare foot sliding over the wet tile floor. "Except for the part where you're not progressing toward cannibalism, which I assure you is very new. I'm not despairing, worried, drunk, or high, if that helps. Unless you count on life, of course."

"That doesn't mean--"

"You said you trusted me," he interrupts. "Was that just words so I'd feel better about performing an immediate execution on you or did you mean it?"

Dean peers out at him from the depths of his terrycloth hood, and Castiel files this memory away for later enjoyment. "What're you doing, Cas?"

"That's not an answer."

"You still have a knife at your back. Saw it when you were picking up the towels," Dean points out. "You got your answer. Now tell me what you're doing."

Reaching back, he locates the hilt and tugs it out, skidding it across the floor toward the doorway and ignoring Dean's indignant protest. "No one dies from a brownie bite."

"Yeah, I heard. What the fuck does that have to do with--"

"No one dies from it. Most people never even know they're infected, it's that minor. It was too different for your body to recognize immediately, because this world was too different, which being you, required a dramatic response." Dean's swollen, red-rimmed eyes try to narrow, which makes him look extremely funny. "Not too much for you to adapt of course, but enough so that it took time for you to do it. Human bodies do this, given sufficient time. They're made to do it. You're made to do that, to adapt. It's your--purpose, if you had one other than to exist, multiply, and be fruitful."

Dean's teeth seem to finally decide to stop chattering. "Get to the point."

"Croatoan is one hundred percent infectious, it affects every single human being on this planet in exactly the same way, in the same time general time period with an eight hour threshold, with the exact sequence of stages of infection and with the exact same result, without exception. There's no variation except in compensation for the mass of the victim infected, and that's predictable as well."

"Right, that's…." He pauses, licking his lips. "Interesting, what?"

"That," he announces, "isn't natural."

"You think?" Dean bursts out incredulously. "Not natural, demon virus, really--"

"It's not even alive, not by any definition of the word, because what is living, what is of Creation, is subject to the same rules of existence: to be alive, there must be change. It's a construct of theoretically-organic material, a parody of life, but it's not and cannot be alive. It's--a set of instructions given form and power, but that's all it is. Microsoft could have written it, and in this case, could have actually done a better job of it than Lucifer."


Taking a deep breath at the wary note in Dean's voice, he slumps back against the tub, making himself focus.

"Lucifer did understand this much about Creation--about humanity," he continues, aware of Dean's strict attention. "The human genome is in a constant state of change--you have no idea how much, you won't for centuries, and new mutations are occurring all the time, some discrete and some that can be passed on to your offspring. He couldn't afford a single mistake in making this; he had to cover the fullest potential of human mutation as it was, as it is, and as it will be, and you may not be aware of this, but that information among angels is common knowledge."

"Of course it is," Dean agrees glumly. "Best way to kill us, really popular topic."

"Your entire genetic range--all you were, are, and will be--had to be in Croatoan before it was released, because once it began to spread among the population, all it would need to be stopped was one resistant human body." Dean frowns, terrycloth falling in loose folds around his shoulders. "Just one person is all it would take, a human body with the correct genetic makeup to create the exact antibodies needed to destroy it. Scientists could then have a blueprint for a vaccine, and unlike those associated with a true virus, one hundred percent immunity would be achieved and there would be no possibility of mutation in the interim. Not just to Croatoan; it's probable that immunity would extend to any constructed virus he devised afterward. Unlike my Father, unlike you, angels can't create, only mimic what is already done. He had one chance to get this right, because it wouldn't work again."

Dean nods slowly. "So it had to have everything he knew about humanity in there from the start. Missing anything and it might not work."

"He was also trying to make a terrible philosophical point, which is never a good basis for your method of conquest: perfection and unchanged versus the imperfect in constant flux. Which is why he turned this into an all or nothing without knowing it; he couldn't imagine the possibility of losing. How could he, when all of human evolution was known to him and placed within that virus?"

Dean's eyes narrow suspiciously. "You're enjoying this."

"His lack of a work ethic offends my sensibilities," he agrees. "He almost did it, too. You almost can't blame him for missing it; even prophecy didn't have a contingency plan to deal with a human appearing from an entire different world." Dean's mouth falls open in belated understanding. "Someone whose immune system was surprised unto near death by an infected brownie bite. Someone with a single difference on the genetic level caused by temporal displacement." Castiel smiles at him. "Something new."

"You're fucking with me."

"I'm not a virologist," he starts, grinning helplessly at the return of Dean's glare, "nor am I conversant with Lucifer's truly abysmal grasp of the scientific method, but while you're close, it wasn't programmed for close, because close--"

"--isn't perfect." Dean drops his head back against the wall with an audible thump.

"The brownie infection that lingers in your immune system reacts to stress; it wouldn't have had anything to react to unless, unlike every other human being on earth, yours detected Croatoan. It can't hide from you, you're killing it faster than it can replicate and spread, and it can't fight back, because it doesn't know how." He smiles into Dean's eyes. "He never thought he'd have to fight to win. You weren't supposed to even step on the field."

Dean takes a breath, eyes naked. "You're sure--you're sure that's what's happening now?"

"I know it is." Dean looks away, shoulders slumping slightly as the tension melts away. He hadn't expected that; at best, he hoped for a suspension of disbelief, a willingness to wait; at worst, the unpleasant necessity of restraints until his supposition was proven correct. "You believe me."

Dean frowns. "What?"

"You believe me," he repeats.

"You get I understood maybe ten, twenty words of that, right?" Castiel nods, still bewildered. "But you're saying--correct me here if I'm wrong--I’m going to survive this and not as a--"

"Living representation of the sum of all humanity's fears."

"Yeah, that." His eyes narrow suspiciously. "That's where you were going with this, right?"

Belatedly, he nods. "Yes. You'll survive and not as a mindless monster that devours human flesh for pleasure."

"Then yeah, I believe you." Leaning back against the wall, Dean closes his eyes, the boneless slump beginning to be in danger of becoming a slow slide. "You asked me if I trusted you. You didn't have to knock me out until you had proof. You saying it is proof enough for me." Sighing, his eyes slit open. "Can I get some sleep or--"

"Yes, of course." Dean nods tiredly, looking content to fall asleep sitting up, which can only lead to an unpleasant semi-concussed awakening when he makes painful contact with the floor. Before he can consider the consequences of acting on impulse, Castiel reaches over, tugging him unresistingly from his corner. Dean's eyes open long enough to convey irritation before half-turning and letting himself slump bonelessly into Castiel's lap, sighing heavily as he shuts his eyes.

"Rest," he murmurs, touching Dean's forehead, skin pleasantly cool against his fingers. "You have between an hour and an hour in a half until it begins again if the pattern I've observed so far is any indication."

"So two weeks of this and I might survive?" Dean yawns tiredly, tugging the towels around him before rolling onto his side, breath puffing against the damp material of Castiel's t-shirt, and he wishes he'd thought to bring in another blanket. As Dean curls closer, he firmly reminds himself not to take personally; he's probably a vast improvement on the floor. Not as cold, not as hard, and far, far less wet. "Sounds great."

"It's a construct, so replication isn't based on biological rules, but math, and Croatoan isn't nearly as complicated as a true virus. Between eleven and thirteen hours before you're no longer contagious, and thirty-six until the virus is eradicated entirely. And you'll survive, of course."

Dean nods in satisfaction, closing his eyes with a contented sigh. "Wake me for the next ice bath."

--Day 136--

Exactly forty-eight hours from initial exposure, Dean no longer exhibits any sign of infection. A brief check in the infirmary's small, makeshift lab, using the procedures Vera taught him, he confirms that Dean's blood is entirely free of any sign of the Croatoan virus.

After cleaning and sterilizing the lab, he returns to the cabin with two samples of Dean's blood, along with his notes, and locks them away before asking if Dean wants his grilled cheese sandwich with crust or not.

He doesn't want crust but would like another blanket.

Amanda's terse initial report, conveyed verbally to David at Ichabod's quarantine perimeter on their arrival, was by necessity limited to the immediate deaths during the actual attack, with less exact numbers regarding injury. On her return just before dusk with the last of the militia who went to Ichabod's assistance, she submitted her final report on the attack on Ichabod as well as conveyed Alison's message on Ichabod's status and her thanks for their assistance in enforcing her quarantine order on the town.

The meeting, attended by the teams who returned from Ichabod, was notable in both its brevity and the almost perfect silence broken only by the brief verbal responses to Dean's increasingly careful questions. In Amanda's initial report, none of Chitaqua's militia were killed or injured, but Ichabod wasn't so fortunate; three of Amanda's recruits were killed during the attack; Ichabod's patrol, one; civilians, fifty-eight, including the ten children who were killed outright at the daycare; Croatoan bodies recovered, four-hundred and seventeen. The final version included the addition of one of Amanda's students, one member of Ichabod's patrol, and an additional seventeen civilians, including Emmy, Callie, and four children at the daycare, the cause of death due to injuries accrued during the attack that proved mortal.

It's polite fiction; no one survives injuries sustained during an attack by Croatoans.

The math of Croatoan, as he told Dean, is unchanging, and its communicability one hundred percent; until Dean, there was never a single exposure that didn't end in manifestation or death. All that could be offered was a clean, easy end to life while they were still themselves, their minds and bodies their own, before Croatoan manifested and their lives ended in a protracted nightmare that only began in madness. Chitaqua's residents performed that service more times than he can count on careless people wandering into the cities and rescued far too late, stumbled upon during patrol, within Chitaqua's walls to more than one of their own; it was mercy, always. No one who had watched a human being succumb to Croatoan would ever believe anything else.

They never did this before, however: stood helplessly outside the quarantine line for a town whose people they were beginning to know and listened to the sounds of weeping adults, screaming children, and the sudden muffled silence that descended without warning but not without cause; they held their guns at ready as they tracked the perimeter to shoot anyone who tried to cross it, and it was only Ichabod's internal procedures that assured they didn't have to.

Amanda never did this before: waited helplessly within the quarantine line with the people she was given to protect and saw both the bodies of those who already died and the ones for whom death was merely delayed. She never stood over the bodies of her own students or sat with last one for the endless, too-short hours that remained of their lives. In Chitaqua, mercy was performed by team leaders or Dean himself and she only stood witness; she was never the one who must be merciful, to take their lives while they were still their own, before Croatoan could take it from them.

After the others leave to dim the memory of Ichabod in any way, every way they can, Dean drops a bottle of Eldritch Horror on the coffee table and three glasses, matching Amanda for every shot, listening to her eventually talk about those long hours after they left.

She led one of the teams collecting Croatoan bodies for examination, pictures taken of each monster who was once a human being, a husband or wife, a father or mother, a daughter or son, before they were carefully wrapped for burning. Habit, Alison told her: a photographic record against a day none of them truly believed would ever come, a chance for those who lived to one day finally discover the fate of their missing and mourn their dead.

It's late evening, the chill of the night closing around them, partially blocked by the heavy draperies over the door that Dean summoned from the depths of inventory (or more likely, told James to look for during his trips to Kansas City).

"We do that as well," Castiel says into the lingering quiet, realizing at Dean's surprised expression that he never told him that. "Chuck is backing up the records for Chitaqua with the external hard drives we took from the military."

"Good idea," Dean agrees, pouring each of them another shot and watching Amanda grimly throw hers back before she continues.

Ichabod's dead were gathered in one of the buildings adapted for that purpose. On the first floor, their bodies carefully placed for identification without risking infection to family members too distraught by grief to remember to care. On the second floor, the infected marked out the hours until they joined the dead, forbidden only physical contact but never company, never the comfort of family and friends, sharing those final moments before they said goodbye.

"Cyanide, usually, after a sedative," Amanda tells them dully, taking the shot Dean helpfully offers. "They--they asked me first if I knew how to shoot someone up," here, she smiles unhappily at Castiel, "and I told them, yeah, I had a friend showed me how to do it right. Jason told me he was honored--and then he went to sleep, and when they got to the bed to check him, he was gone. We did the burn at dusk after quarantine ended. I brought Jason's--" she stopped, taking a shuddering breath before continuing. "Alison gave me a copy of the town's records on him and Jules and Maggie and Finn to add to Chuck's records. Pics, too. They were gonna be ours, so--"

"They were ours," Dean says firmly, looking at Castiel for a long moment before filling their glasses from the second bottle. "First thing tomorrow."

"Her--Maggie's sister--came to talk to me after the burning. Asked if she could--could take her place. She'd do the extra work to catch up, anything I wanted, she said…" Amanda's eyes glaze, mouth trembling. "It's a tradition in the town--two years, but they sure as hell had plenty of opportunity to make them--that friends or family take the duties after if they could. Too many jobs, not enough people, everyone had to do everything; I guess we're part of it now. Jason's sister, Finn's uncle, and Jules' stepbrother showed up this morning with Vicky ready to go. Nights, weekends, holidays, whatever it took to get them up to speed. Cleared with Alison that morning, and I sure as hell would have appreciated the warning…." She trails off, mouth tightening.

"You gonna take them?" Dean asks softly.

"If they're able to do it," Castiel says before she can answer, "there's no reason to refuse."

"Is that an order?" she asks challengingly, almost knocking over her glass. "Train them up and send them to die before they're ready to--they weren't ready. I saw Maggie go down, a week, three days, she'd have been faster, the fucker would have missed her. Reflexes need time, she was almost there already--they all could have survived this, this was nothing, a fucking video game! Shoot, get out of their way, shoot again, it's easy, just don't let them get too close, don't let them gang up on you!" She swallows hard, eyes blank. "Once you know, it's easy. I should have--"

"Once you know, it's easier," he corrects her, wondering why Dean is looking between them. "They're still faster than we are, stronger, and not mindless enough to be predictable. That's why--"

"They weren't ready!" she shouts, coming clumsily to her knees, catching herself on the coffee table before she overbalances. "They didn't know enough, I didn't teach them enough--"

"You won't."

Dean sucks in an audible breath in the silence that follows, but Amanda stares back at him, wet eyes dark. "What?"

"You won't teach them enough. Even when you tell them they're ready, they aren't and you know it. Three months--hunters had to learn over years, often by trial and error, but we fit it into three months. It was a compromise," he says, thinking of those months with Amy and Dean and the other hunters. "We had to choose what was most important when all of it was important, what could be taught or learned without experience and what could only be learned by doing. The arguments…." He pauses, remembering listening to Dean and Amy, Bobby and Lissa and Byron and Doug, experienced hunters offering their services and screaming each other down as they tried to create something that would work, always work, that would buy a new hunter the time they needed to survive long enough to gain experience. "It was a compromise, three months, not six, not a year; we didn't have time, and neither did the world. You have three months to teach them what they need to know to survive long enough to learn the rest."

"It's that easy?" Amanda demands, voice shaking. "When you trained us, that was just a given; three months, now get out there and deal, good luck with that, now ready for the next group?"

"Amanda--" Dean murmurs, but he's looking at Castiel.

"Did you even remember any of us when you were done? Other than who you were fucking, I assume that got through." Amanda's voice hardens. "I can't do that, I can't just--"

"You have to," he says calmly. "Or did you think it would be simply a matter of being admired by your students for your abilities and--" He catches her punch before it connects. Dean hisses, but mercifully, he stays where he is. "This is what you can do," he continues, holding her fist effortlessly. "You can teach them what you know, all you can in those three months you have them. That is what you'll do, because there's no one else who can."

He can almost see Amanda running through various scenarios on what to do next: he knows everything about her, her weaknesses and her strengths, trained her ruthlessly to use the latter to compensate for the former, and how to use both to her advantage. She was a very good hunter when she came here, but now, he can think of few that could match her, and even fewer that could hope to defeat her.

Jerking back, she almost overbalances again before getting unsteadily to her feet and looking around a little desperately. "Bathroom's through there," Dean says helpfully, correctly interpreting her expression and pointing toward the bedroom door. "To the right."

"Thanks." Not looking at either one of them, she crosses to the door with the careful movements of someone far more drunk than they thought they were when they were sitting. Once the door's closed behind her, Dean takes her shot empty glass and sets with his own on the far side of the table.

"Okay, question," Dean says. "Am I supposed to do anything about her attacking you just now?"

"That wasn't an attack," he answers, tearing his gaze from the closed bedroom door. "She needs someone to fight. If she were sober, I would oblige her. She can't risk that with anyone else, especially now." Dean raises his eyebrows in mute query. "Her judgment is impaired, but drunk or sober, her reflexes are excellent. That combination simply means she won't know when to stop, and I'd rather not risk injury to either of us before she wears herself out."

"She really could hurt you?" Dean asks incredulously. "I mean, without you letting her?"

"Strength and speed are excellent tools, but they're only tools, and like any tool, they can be used against me. It's one of the advantages of being trained by a former angel; I didn't need to simply tell them that, I could show them. She probably couldn't kill me--not without a great deal of preparation and some luck--but a hunter learns to set the bar to the best possible, not the ideal. And right now, I'm fairly certain the bar would be something requiring painkillers." And possibly a splint.

Dean leans an elbow on the coffee table, glancing at the bedroom door for a long moment before jerking his chin at Castiel. "Okay, you're up. Go."

"Go?" he echoes. "Where?"

Dean sighs, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Cas, she didn't come here to tell us what we could have gotten from the report she gave us." He studies Castiel's bewildered expression for a moment and sighs again. "Jesus, okay. Cas, she needs her instructor, that taught her to do this, because he's the only goddamn one here who knows what she's going through now. That would be you." He points toward the door. "Go."

Hesitantly, Castiel gets to his feet. Amanda's reaction he'd expected and prepared for, but this…. "I don't know what she needs me to say."

"I don't think she cares what you say," Dean answers implacably. "She cares that you're there at all. Go. You'll figure it out."

Amanda's slumped on the foot of the bed, head buried in her hands behind a cascade of blonde hair. Carefully closing the door behind him, he tries to think of what to say that would be of help. She knows all of it now; earlier than he hoped she'd have to, but to say it would be better to have happened later is only in the delay.

She doesn't look up, even when he tentatively sits on the other side, but the tension seems to change, though he can't tell if it's for better or worse.

"I should assign you laps around the camp," he offers into the pregnant silence. "Why didn't you flip the coffee table first to distract me? It's probable in the confusion that you would have landed that punch."

She turns her head, swollen eyes narrowing. "Still had half a bottle of Eldritch Horror sitting there. Didn't want to waste it."

His judgment tonight may also be compromised; that seems like a perfectly logical reason.

"You know, back then, I didn't ask why you kept me back when Vera and the rest were cleared for duty. Or Mark," she adds belatedly. "Not then, anyway. No one else knew either; everyone else got the three months and good luck, but--Vera didn't believe me, that it could be worse than three months of Castiel on the training field. Get a full two months of his personal attention, then we talk about hard. My parents trained me from the moment I could walk, and I was doing jobs with them before I started high school, but that was like playtime or something. After, when Dean told me I was taking over evaluations for Chitaqua's militia, keep them up to spec, I thought that was the reason. I was your way to opt-out for good."

"It was very convenient," he agrees. "I almost wish I thought of it earlier. It would have saved me a very protracted argument about the needs of the militia."

Surprised, she straightens. "Back then--Dean wasn't recruiting. I mean, he wouldn't if you didn't do the training. If you were teaching me to train more hunters--"

"I didn't tell him that." He thinks of Dean in the next room, who suffers enough for what he sees as his predecessors sins as if they were his own. This one he can't add to it, not when the past is so easy to forget, to blur, overwritten with the actions of the man who currently bears that name. "At the time, there was no reason to do so; Dean didn't plan to recruit again in the near future. It might also be accurate to say that I didn't admit it to myself, which might seem hard to do, but I'd had a great deal of practice."

She nods slowly, waiting.

"I was instructed specifically to train hunters," he says. "It was my--purpose, I suppose. There was no reason to pass on those specific skills to you, but before I met you, I never wanted to. You weren't the best of that group; Mark was far better, and Debra was almost disturbingly prodigal even for a hunter, but--"

"Debra died, yeah."

"No." She frowns uncertainly. "The difference between you and them was that you could be more. In a field where the competition is very high, you could be the best I'd ever trained."

"Me." Her eyes widen suddenly. "You trained hunters before Chitaqua. That's what you meant about compromising."

"Yes. Dean was my first instructor, but not my last. One of them--the last, who took it upon herself to make sure that I could do this job--set a standard far higher than that required of anyone else. Not just because of my abilities, but because I wasn't human, and she didn't trust me to do it without--" He breaks off, not sure how to explain. "I didn't understand what she meant, and in the end, I think it was more in hope than anything that she said that I had performed to her satisfaction."

"She didn't think you were good enough?" Amanda's incredulity is almost palpable.

"To teach hunters to survive, yes," he answers slowly. "Her concern was why I was doing it. She said there was a difference between doing this because it was my purpose and doing it because it was something--something that I needed to do. Because I wanted to.

"Dean knew this would be my last class, and I agreed to do it without any other goal than to train you all to the best of my abilities. Meeting you and then Debra's death changed that; it was the first time I understood what she meant. The very last time I would ever teach, and in an exercise in irony, I not only wanted to do it, but had a student with untapped potential, one who could very possibly learn, after those three months, what before I'd only taught to the most experienced hunters who'd been approved by my instructor first. And one who would not only be able to pass on those skills to others, but wouldn't be able to stop herself from doing it because she needed to do it, too."

"How did you--"

"By the third day, you were already sneaking out to the training field at night to drill Vera and Joseph because you knew they needed more practice."

Amanda's mouth drops open. "Did Vera tell you--"

"Of course not," he answers, biting back a smile at her expression. "I watched you work with them."

"You watched?"

"Having to limit my substance abuse while I was teaching left me with a surprising amount of free time," he says. "I appreciated the entertainment a great deal."

Amanda gapes at him.

"When Dean told me you had started a separate evening class in Ichabod, he was concerned that you were stretching yourself too thin. I explained he shouldn't worry unless you started another midnight tutorial in addition to that."

"I checked the training field," she says faintly. "Where the hell…."

"I've had all of time to learn to hide." She makes a face before smiling weakly. "It wasn't particularly unexpected after watching you in class. You knew what you were all training to do, and you wanted everyone to be able to do it up to standard without exception. What you didn't know then--and I felt no need to inform you of it--was that the first week was evaluative. I use it to discover as much as possible about those I instruct, not only what they already know, but how they learn and what they'll need. Supplementary instruction would be provided after that, but between your efforts and everyone's utter horror of the unknown consequences of failure, your class did the work of three weeks in one. Thank you for that. The instruction in hostile dryads isn't standard; I had to come up with that when I realized we had two weeks left and why not."

"Oh." Amanda half-turns on the bed to face him. "Debra said something like that, but I wasn't sure."

"Debra was right," he agrees. "But she could have easily been wrong, and considering how good she was, she could afford to believe it. You couldn't afford it, because you weren't thinking of yourself."

Amanda's expression flickers. "Debra wasn't--"

"This isn't a judgment of her as a person; Dean instructed hunters at one time, but he didn't feel a particular burning desire to do it when it wasn't driven by the personal. If Vera had asked, Debra doubtless would have drilled her, but Vera didn't have to ask you, because after three days of training, you knew she needed more help, and your first instinct was to do something about it."

She nods slowly, looking at the floor for several moments. "You meant me to do this."

"You meant to do it," he answers quietly. "I only taught you how. The standard my instructor set for me, I set for you, and you exceeded it far beyond my expectations." Her shoulders hunch. "You get three months, but that's all you have; within that time, you teach them what they have to know so they can survive what can only be learned by experience. You can and you will, because you made yourself fit to do it; if you weren't, I wouldn't have taught you how."

When she lifts her head, the blue eyes are tear-bright, streaking her cheeks in shimmering silver lines. "And losing them? That's gotta be experienced?"

"I couldn't teach you that." He thinks of Luke for a moment, of Debra and Risa, of the names of everyone who passed through Chitaqua's walls in a litany, added to those who went before them, and slowly, uncertain, he moves closer to her. That seems right; she turns immediately, burying her face against his shoulder with a strangled sound, and all at once, the tension breaks into quiet, heartbroken sobs. Carefully, he wraps an arm around her, surprised at the loosening in his own chest, something he hadn't even known he still carried, had carried for so long.

Feeling her arms wrap around him, too, offering the same comfort, he takes a deep breath and shuts his eyes.

When he comes back out, the coffee table is cleaned of the excesses of the evening, and Dean's slumped in the middle of the couch, one foot on the coffee table, reading one of the journals with desultory interest. His head comes up immediately as Castiel shuts the door behind him, setting it aside. "She okay?"

"She fell asleep," he answers. "I promised the sheets had been changed recently." He takes a deep breath. "I don't want her to--feel alone tonight."

"Good call." Dean's mouth curves faintly before he reaches out, patting the space beside him. Still feeling unsettled, he takes the space and the offer of one half of the blanket draped over Dean's lap, settling his feet on the coffee table, and with the addition of the warmth of Dean's shoulder against his own, he feels less uncertain, more--whatever this is. A coffee cup materializes as if from nowhere, and taking it, he considers the possibility that Dean is actually a wizard.

"How are you?" Dean asks quietly, picking up his own as Castiel tests the temperature--still hot--raising an eyebrow at his surprise. "Please, you think I don't know that look? Sat with Jo and Sam after serious shit went down; it ain't easy to bear witness, especially when it's someone you care about. Bobby did it for me, too, though…" He wrinkles his nose. "Anyway--you okay?"

Taking a drink, he considers the question. "I don't know if I--helped."

"You did," Dean says positively, taking a sip from his own mug--still full, Castiel notes in surprise. "She felt okay complaining about our sheets? You got it right." He cocks his head, smiling at him. "Cas, you couldn't do it wrong. She needed you; being you was all you had to do to get it right."

He stares at the still surface of his coffee, aware of Dean's attention despite the fact he's gazing into the distance--the wall, from direction--and wonders what he's waiting for. After several long moments, Dean turns in place, bracing an arm on the back of the couch.

"Tell me."

"What?" he asks, not entirely truthfully.

"Three months." Dean raises his eyebrows. "It's always three months, you said."

"An advantage of an angel being indoctrinated into the training process," he says wryly. "I took my instruction very literally. It's one of the reasons Dean and Amy thought I would be an adequate instructor; when the final model was approved, they taught it to me first and supervised my first class. It was harder for the other hunters to argue when we already had the first group successfully taught using it, and they couldn't argue with me to change anything, since I wouldn't deviate from my instructions." Dean nods, taking another drink, and after a moment, he realizes what Dean wants to ask. "You want to know why Debra was put on patrol before she finished training."

Dean hesitates, studying him intently, before setting his cup down on the coffee table. "Was it Dean's order?"

"No." Despite the warmth of the mug, his hands are numb with cold. "It was mine."

Dean waits, sipping his coffee.

"We were--for a variety of reasons--running a skeleton patrol," Castiel continues flatly. "A recent fight in North Dakota meant we had too many people on either limited or very restricted duty. One of the regular patrol managed to sprain their ankle very badly during a routine check of Wichita, and we couldn't pull anyone to take their place. Everyone is trained to work in teams, and going out with one less, while not necessarily dangerous, wasn't encouraged. Dean asked me, since we had three hunters in this class, if one of them could be temporarily assigned to that patrol team."

"Asked?" Dean asks skeptically.

"My agreement to instruct Dean's hunters came with conditions," he explains. "Among them was that my authority wouldn't be challenged as long as they were in training. This was my class, the first that answered to no one but me." He searches Dean's face warily but sees only understanding. "So yes, he had to ask."

Dean's mouth twitches. "So when he asked, you agreed."

"There was no reason for me to refuse. It was both temporary and mind-numbingly routine; at the time, due to the efforts of the military, the threat was believed partially contained, so the patrol's only duty was to check the perimeter for any potential breaches." Not looking at Dean, he takes a breath. "Also--and this was possibly a factor--several of the militia, being off-duty and therefore with far too much time on their hands, had been observing training. Apparently, some of them didn't see why I insisted all of them must complete the full three months before they were allowed to go on duty and shared that information with the class."

Dean snorts softly. "Armchair quarterbacks. That's--"

"I recognize the reference," he says, belatedly smiling and nodding politely in emphasis. "For most of them, it was a non-issue; after a week, they knew very well what they didn't know. For Mark, it was less clear; for Amanda, I'm not sure, but it could have been because she was far too busy trying to single-handedly assure the entire class passed each morning evaluation, so she didn't have time to feel insulted."

"So she's always been like that."

"Even more now than then," he agrees, eyes fixed on the rim of his cup.

"Teacher's pet," Dean mocks gently, shoulder nudging his. "Blue-blackest of them all."

"I'm almost sure she's forgiven me for that."

Dean nods. "And Debra?"

He licks his lips. "Debra was the best of that class, and better than some of those currently on duty. She felt it was a waste of her time to be instructed again in what she already knew, and as she was very outgoing, she was already friendly with many of Chitaqua's members, including Erica."

"Especially the ones that told her she was too awesome to waste time with that training bullshit." Dean shrugs cynically. "Just a guess."

"I wouldn't know," he answers carefully. "We never spoke outside of training."

"Now there's a surprise." Dean sighs noisily. "Don't tell me--one of them told her about the position on patrol and she volunteered before you even got a chance to think about it."

"Erica told her; she and Debra became very close very quickly. When I arrived the next morning, Debra told me she had already went to Dean to volunteer, and he'd agreed."

Dean frowns. "I thought you said--"

"Dean asked me during the noon break the day before," Castiel continues. "Several people were listening, and I assumed by the time everyone returned, they'd all know. I couldn't take the risk that the wrong one would volunteer first and require me to refuse. Dean would want to know why."

"Who…." He sucks in a breath. "Amanda. You didn't want her to volunteer."

"I didn't want any of them to volunteer, but Debra was the best of them," he answers slowly. "She was the obvious choice to anyone who had been observing the class, but Dean hadn't had time due to his other responsibilities. It was much easier to assure that Amanda simply didn't have the opportunity to volunteer."

"What happened?"

"I invited Dean to watch the class for the afternoon and assured that Debra was paired with Amanda," he answers. "Debra could usually beat her, and that day, knowing Dean was watching, she was very motivated to do just that. Dean suggested Debra, I agreed should she volunteer, and Amanda--who was somewhat unhappy after spending several hours being enthusiastically beaten by Debra and rightly blamed me for it--asked her then-roommate to distract me and stole some of my vicodin so she could still have her midnight tutorial."

Dean bites back a laugh. "How'd she convince her roommate to do it?"

"We were both sleeping with her," he explains, and watches, bemused, as Dean loses the fight against laughter, burying his head against the back of the couch. "Joan could be extremely distracting when she wanted to be. I bore her no ill-will; that evening was certainly worth it."

After several moments, Dean sobers, though his cheeks are still flushed with hot color. "You blame yourself for what happened to Debra?"

"No, of course not. Debra was the best choice. That doesn't change the fact that of the two of them, Amanda was the one I wasn't willing to lose. The sin wasn't in commission but intention, I suppose. I wouldn't change it, if that's what you mean."


His thoughts circle restlessly; even after all this time, he's not satisfied with the answer, possibly because he never asked himself the question. "Amanda--all of them--I wanted to teach them. It was the first time I understood the reason I was willing to learn to do this, and it was the last time I'd ever do it. I'm not sure that class noticed any benefit from it, but I enjoyed it very much, and Amanda's supplementary and surreptitious instruction helped far more than I expected. That wasn't in the model," he adds thoughtfully. "We never had time for experimentation once we had it working, and we found out very quickly that choosing someone with the ability to instruct was as important as the model."

"Something new to while away the time until the end of the world," Dean says, mouth quirking. "Kept yourself entertained?"

"Drug-fueled orgies can happen at any time, but--" He shakes his head. "I couldn't think of a reason not to see what happened with them. When I started instructing Amanda and Mark after training ended, other members of their class and even some of the others would volunteer their time off-duty to give Amanda and Mark a class to work with after I taught them something that wasn't in the three month curriculum so I could observe their method of instruction and make corrections. I made things up from my own experience, which is why one of them knows a form of combat exclusively involving knives used only by a very small cult in ancient Mesopotamia roughly six thousand years ago."


"She has a natural affinity for bladed weapons--which is why her and Dean's breakup was stressful for everyone involved." He smiles in memory. "Alicia's the only person I ever met who, like me, prefers blades; it was a very enjoyable way to spend the evenings. She works regularly with Amanda even now to keep in practice. During the months after her separation from Dean, she practiced a great deal."

"Would this be when you also instructed them in the skill of stoned combat?" Dean asks thoughtfully.

"It was very late," he answers obliquely, wondering uneasily just how much they've told him. It wasn't a secret then, exactly--he certainly didn't make any comments to give that impression--but in Chitaqua there were few secrets, and the best kept ones were always the ones hiding in plain sight. Risa was a participant on occasion, and he assumed her promotion made her more determined to improve her skills, which was probably true--considering what she knew of the other team leaders, she would have been motivated by self-preservation as well. She was also, he remembers suddenly, Amanda's other roommate then. "Due to my schedule, I didn't have time for much recreational activity," he continues, wondering why he's thinking about this now. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. And that suggestion, by the way, was Vera's."

"Not actually surprised," Dean offers, but there's an odd, speculative expression on his face, and Castiel wonders what he's thinking. "You were having fun, weren't you?"

"I think plausible deniability to anyone but myself ended with the Etruscan drinking songs," he agrees. "Even I can't remember how I tried to justify that as a necessary part of training. I wanted to teach Amanda and Mark, but hedonism can also be expressed practically. I enjoyed it. I didn't want to stop quite yet." He looks at Dean for a moment. "So I trained them both to do something I never planned to let them actually do--much less tell them the reason they were learning it--and made sure they were far too exhausted to ask me why. It worked very well."

"That's why you pulled them from duty when Joe started negotiations," Dean says in amusement. "You weren't just refreshing them. You had to actually tell them." He chuckles quietly. "Jesus, I would have loved to hear that conversation."

"Fortunately, they took it in stride," he admits, remembering Amanda's carefully blank expression. "Both of them had been in the field long enough that after observing them, I could add instruction in what before it was too dangerous for me to teach without Grace to protect us both. I was drilled very thoroughly to do it with very experienced hunters for that eventuality, but it's been years since then, and reflex--as Amanda rightfully pointed out--needs time to develop, and it takes time to relearn them as well. It's one of the most important parts of training, especially since very few are naturally gifted, but with time, anything can be taught. I assure you, constant monotonous drilling will do the job for anyone, even the most clumsy, and you've met Joseph."

Dean laughs softly. "He really was that bad?"

"Terrible. He tripped over his own feet, and sometimes, he wasn't actually moving when it happened. However, the earnest desire to learn--and Amanda's midnight tutorials--assured that he could see his own progress and kept him motivated to continue. She still works with him and Vera regularly, as well as the others here, and when I told Dean to put her in charge of evaluations, she could make it an order if they refused regular practice." He realizes abruptly that he's rambling; it's only when Dean takes the cup away that he realizes his hands are shaking too badly to get to his mouth, skin sticky. "I don't…."

"Okay, yeah." Setting the cup aside, Dean regards him for a long minute before an arm goes around his shoulders, pulling him into gratefully into the solid warmth of Dean's body. Distantly, he can feel Dean's soothing murmurs, though the words stubbornly refuse to resolve into anything he can understand, chin resting on top of his head in another point of warmth. "I get it."

"After all this time," he breathes against Dean's shirt, "she came to me for this. Why would she need me? I don't understand it, I gave her no reason--when I was done with them, I--how did she put it--"

"Get out there and good luck?" Dean murmurs helpfully.

"I don't understand humans."

"Like the love of God," Dean says with what sounds suspiciously like relish, "we passeth all understanding."

"That's a terrible adaptation."

"Yet true." One hand smoothes up the length of his back. "Weird about life, when you start actually living it. Sometimes, it sucks, but sometimes, it just wonders why it took you so long to catch up."