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A Thousand Lights in Space

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--Day 138 B--

It's just an hour short of midnight when they arrive in Ichabod, which means either waiting for the patrol or deliberately crossing the ward line and seeing how long it takes for patrol to notice strangers wandering down Main Street. Which may or may not end with them being shot, though he assumes they'd be sorry afterward.

Fortunately, Dean decided against causing anyone post-murder anguish, which is why patrol finds them leaning against the hood of the jeep when a flashlight abruptly illuminates their faces, Dean with his arms crossed and looking annoyed.

"Dean?" a familiar voice says, and the too-bright light is immediately averted toward the ground. Blinking the spots from his eyes, Castiel makes out Amanda as she gazes at them in surprise, one of Ichabod's teams hovering behind her. For a minute, he hesitates, studying her, a sense of something different dancing across the surface of his skin that he can't quite identify. "Everyone stand down," she orders, looping the gun over her shoulder as the team with her does the same. "Hey, what are you doing here?"

"You run patrols now?" Dean asks, rubbing his eyes ostentatiously. "Not that I care or anything, but--"

"Mark took the kids this afternoon so I could sleep before taking the night shift. Manuel wanted a night off," she answers, beginning to smile. "Mercedes just found out she's pregnant."

Dean's faint frown evaporates. "How far along is she?"

"Twelve weeks, so she's pretty sure it'll be okay," she answers, matching his wide grin. "After the last few days, we needed some good news. There'll be a party on the next rest day, but tonight's was family." Amanda looks between them, smile fading. "Everything okay?"

"We gotta talk to Alison and Teresa," Dean says with a sigh. "She gonna kill us if we wake 'em up?"

Amanda's eyes unfocus for a heart-stopping moment. "No, it's fine. Give her a few minutes." Felipe, you're in charge until I get back." Felipe salutes playfully, punching Amanda's shoulder as he passes them toward Ichabod's perimeter. "I'll walk you down."

"Great," Dean says, looking at Castiel for confirmation before adding, "Hey, tell her we're sorry for showing up this late before you tell me when you started giving Alison an all-access pass to your head."

Amanda's shoulders stiffen. "Dean--"

"What's Alison's range, Cas?"

Coming up beside him, Castiel stares at Amanda for a long moment. "At least a mile with any reliability, but to be safe, behind Chitaqua's wards would be the my preference to assure there's no possibility that Alison--"

"I volunteered," Amanda interrupts, looking between them worriedly. "She didn't manipulate me, I swear. It's just an experiment."

"An experiment." Amanda's eyes widen at whatever she hears in Castiel's voice. "You consented to what experiment, exactly?"

Amanda shifts uneasily. "It's all or nothing, she said; she can shut everyone out or hear everything, and she needs to sleep, but since the attack, it's been tense. It's just a test to see if she can hear patrol if there's an emergency, that's all."

Castiel nods agreeably. "So she can wake up even if she's closed her mind entirely?" Amanda nods hesitantly. "Right arm below the elbow: let me see."

Amanda swallows before carefully removing her rifle, setting it on the ground between them before sliding her right arm out of her coat and pulling up her sleeve. Reaching out, Castiel takes her wrist and turns it to reveal her inner arm, aware of Dean beside him, frowning at the smooth expanse of winter-pale skin before looking at him curiously.

"You can't see it?" Dean shakes his head, lips tightening as Castiel draws a line across the barely-healed cut just below her elbow. "Blood was the binding: shallow cut, just enough to make a symbolic offering. Teresa's a strict traditionalist; if you can't see it, it was done with full and knowing consent of both parties."

"Ritual magic." Dean looks at Amanda's pale face, eyes narrowing. "That's a little more complicated than a psychic learning how to listen for someone specific."

"Dean, I didn't mean--"

"Alison can't yet." Letting go, Castiel takes a deep breath, fighting to keep his voice calm. "She isn't nearly experienced enough to filter that specifically; this required a very skilled witch."

"Five minutes," Dean tells Amanda as she pulls her jacket back on. "Exactly--and I do mean exactly--what you consented to and when."

"This evening before I went on patrol, she asked me and Manuel if we'd be okay with trying something, to get around the block she puts up to keep the town out until she's better at filtering all the mental traffic from everyone," Amanda says carefully, watching them both. "It was Teresa's idea how to do it, but she wasn't sure if it would work with me at all without a blood relationship like Manuel, so I made the offering. It's just a--like an indicator, wakes Alison up if I think directly at her or if something upsets me, but Teresa wasn't sure of the threshold or if that last part would even work."

"Active versus passive," Castiel tells Dean rigidly. "The first is simple, if difficult to accomplish; the second isn't simple even when there's a blood relationship. Alison--through Teresa--would need to be subconsciously monitoring your emotional state constantly to first get a baseline on you specifically before narrowing it down to only trigger at specific levels of emotional intensity. That would take weeks."

"She said something about that, but it isn't supposed to last longer than morning when she breaks it," Amanda agrees, licking her lips nervously. "That's why this is a test; she never tried anything like this, but she…look, she said she got the idea from you. Cas, I'm not an idiot; she explained the whole thing and the risk; the worst that could happen is it wouldn't work."

Castiel stiffens, but aware of Dean's flickering glance, confirms with a slight nod. Taking a breath, Dean turns to Amanda, who visibly fights not to shift in place under the cool gaze.

"You didn't think you should check with me?" he asks neutrally, but it's enough.

"No," she answers, voice subdued now. "I didn't think about it. I should have asked permission first, I'm sorry. I get my first responsibility is to you and Chitaqua."

"It was your call to go ahead with it if you wanted to," Dean answers, surprising them both. "You wouldn't be in command here if I didn't trust your judgment, but with great responsibility comes great--other shit, like making sure your commander knows what the hell you're up to. You tell me first, because you're ours first, and it'd be nice to know when you're about to do something stupid. You understand?"

Amanda blinks at him, disarmed. "Yes, sir."

"Not like I have enough hunters now," Dean mutters after a moment of silence, shoving his hands in his pocket to glare at the ground. "It makes a shitty impression to have one of my lieutenants suddenly go crazy, you know?"

"Right," Amanda answers immediately. "I knew that. She's breaking it at dawn, if you want to be there."

"I will definitely be there," Castiel says shortly, getting both of their undivided attention. Dean cocks his head, like he's about to speak, but before he can, the warm lights of Alison's home spill across Main Street in the distance.

"Amanda," Dean asks, still looking at Castiel, "anyone around who can send a message to Chitaqua? Joe knew we'd be late, but overnight might be stretching it."

"Uh." With an effort, Amanda thinks for a moment before nodding. "Kamal's up."

"Not Kamal," Castiel answers. "I need you both here tomorrow."

"Leah," Amanda says after a moment of thought. "She wanted to get a couple of things from home anyway, say hi to Joe. I'll wake her up; it'll make her night." The blue eyes look between them warily. "Should I--"

"We'll talk again tomorrow," Dean interrupts, squeezing Castiel's shoulder before he starts down the street. "I'm gonna go say hi to Alison right now. Cas, we'll be inside; take your time."

Castiel watches Dean jog toward Alison's building for a moment before returning his attention to Amanda, whose alarm abruptly returns. This shouldn't take long.

It doesn't. "Look, I didn't think--"

"That it would affect anyone else, other than the need to provide our contingent here with a new commander or losing another hunter?" he asks caustically, and Amanda takes a startled step backward. "Trust isn't the same thing as safety; even with the best intentions, what Teresa did was new to her, and you could have been injured. At very least, you should have requested a deferral to consult with others before making your decision."

"I should have sent a message to ask permission," she agrees quickly. "I get that now, I just--"

"No, you should have sent a message asking for me to come to Ichabod immediately, so they could explain, in all the detail I required, exactly what they wanted to do to you," he interrupts impatiently. "Then I would have explained it to you, including the risks, so you could make an informed decision on whether to proceed, and if you decided to do so, been present during the initial test to assure your safety. I'd expect you to insist on that much."

Amanda belatedly shuts her mouth. "I can do that?"

"I spent five months training you to protect yourself as well as others against anything you might have to fight!" he bursts out before he can stop himself. "You have no defenses against a psychic that powerful or a witch; no matter how good their intentions or how pure their motive, there is always and will always be a risk. You can't protect yourself from that, but in this case, I could have done it for you! Of course you can do that! You're supposed to do that! Is it that difficult to understand?"

"Oh. Right, got it." She shifts again, biting her lip before peering up at him, a flicker of humor in the blue eyes. "So in the morning, you'll tell me if it's okay to do again?"

"I'll evaluate the risk and give you my opinion after observing the process and speaking to Teresa and Alison. After I'm satisfied as to Teresa's intentions as well as the safety of what she asked you to do, we'll talk about it, and then you can decide whether you wish to continue."

"Okay," she answers promptly. "Sounds good."

"You can go," he says finally, not sure what to add that he hasn't already said; repetition would be perfectly acceptable, but Dean's waiting inside and she's supposed to be on patrol. Also, Joseph will be worried about them if they don't send a message. "Have a good night. I'll see you at dawn."

"You, too." As he starts toward Alison's building, however, he hears her add, a thread of warmth in her voice, "Sorry for scaring you, Cas. I won't do it again."

Before he can answer, she's vanished into the night.

When he arrives, Teresa is on her way to making up the guest room for them after ushering Alison reluctantly into the kitchen and a convenient chair, "…if you make your ankle worse--again--I'll tie you the goddamn bed until it heals. I'll make the tea when I get back."

"I'll do it." Activity, he's learned, is a superlative ameliorator of stress, and he's familiar enough with the kitchen to find the tea and set a kettle on the gas burner to heat. Turning around, he sees Dean and Alison staring at each other across the kitchen table with matching expressions. "Dean?"

"Oh, just checking that Alison gets I'm okay this time with messing with my people's heads," Dean answers evenly, never looking away.

Alison rolls her eyes. "Can't read your mind, Dean."

"Right now, I wish you could," he answers sincerely. "You get the only reason I'm even marginally okay with this is Teresa, right? Her oaths are strict when it comes to harm, and she wouldn't do something like this unless it was imminent death or zero."

"I know, and I should have asked you first." After a moment, she sighs, sitting back with what he hopes is a frown of profound guilt. "It's temporary, lasts a day at most even if we don't break it. This was just a test; symbolic offering, no commitment, just--"

"Do you even understand the rudiments of what you and Teresa engaged in tonight?" Castiel says flatly, watching Alison stiffen. "You don't, or you would never use the word 'just' when speaking of anything that requires a free offering of blood."

Alison's jaw tightens mutinously. "Cas--"

"It was Amanda's decision to agree to your request, but it was yours to ask her the question, and that carries a degree of responsibility in the outcome," he continues, keeping his voice even with an effort. "Especially since of the three of you, only one of you had any idea of the seriousness of what you engaged in, and what she was doing was based, at best, on a guess from what you sensed from Dean."

"I had more than that," Teresa says from the doorway, introducing herself into the room and the conversation before crossing to the table and seating herself to Alison's right and reaching absently for her hand, lacing their fingers together. "If you need to apportion blame, it's mine, not Alison's; it was my idea, and I convinced her to try."

"I think there's blame enough for you both," he answers, ignoring the way Alison stiffens, fingers closing more tightly around Teresa's. "Alison had no reason not to disagree, after all; the only risk was to Amanda."

Dean glances at him briefly before returning his attention to Teresa and Alison.

"If there'd been any risk to Amanda, I wouldn't have done it," Teresa says, voice hardening. "I know my craft, Castiel; I've practiced it my entire life."

"That you can say that means you know nothing!" he snaps. "The earth is old, Teresa, but it is hardly more than a child compared to me. I was there when it came into being; do you think I don't know what it is? There's no guarantee that the earth's priorities would include protecting Amanda if you made a mistake, however unwitting." He swallows, remembering the church again, the women there who were forgotten before anyone even knew that they existed at all. "It is vast, and it is ancient, and she's a single breath in all time and space; it doesn't know her, how important she is to those here, how--how we'd be lessened in her absence. It knows you and Alison through you, it can't not, but Amanda? She's small, do you understand that? It can't even see her!"

Teresa's eyes widen, defensiveness vanishing. "I would have made sure it saw her."

"I'm certain you would have tried," he says bitterly. "You must forgive me, however, for not giving the earth the benefit of the doubt on how much it would care, for value of 'care' with an entity that has no context for it."

"You know what it is," she agrees, "and you also know that's exactly what I am: context." Even in oversized sweatpants and a flannel shirt over a sweater, black hair twisted into a loose braid, Teresa gives the impression of stillness, dark golden-brown skin smooth in lines of highly trained calm habitual to the point of reflex. When she meets his eyes, the sheen within the brown of the iris doesn't make her any less human, but simply more; a curiosity alien to all that is mortal, fragile, that lives and breathes on the surface of its skin peers out as well, watching him as carefully as she does. He wonders what it sees when it looks at him, if it's offended a being so foreign to all it is dares wear the skin of those born to its ashes and its dust. "That's why I exist, Castiel; so it knows what we are, what we need, and that's not just because it's got nothing else to do. From the earth we came, and to it we return; it can't not care, not since we were first created from it. It wants to know us."

"Cas," Dean says quietly. "Kettle."

Startled, he turns to see the kettle starting to vibrate with the boiling water within and hastily removes it from the gas, turning off the burner with hands not entirely steady. As he starts to search the cabinets, Dean is abruptly beside him, hip-checking him before reaching for the mismatched cups himself and setting them safely on the counter.

"You okay?" he asks quietly, standing casually between him and the women at the kitchen table. "Tell me the call and I'll make it."

Slumping against the counter, Castiel takes a deep breath, then another, forcing himself to consider it dispassionately. "If Amanda were in any danger, it would have occurred immediately, not several hours later. She's safe."

"Not what I asked," Dean murmurs, stepping closer until Castiel has to look at him. "You want me to get her back here and they break this now?"

"Teresa was accurate in her assessment," he admits. "I do know, and that should be enough."

"It's never enough," Dean corrects him. "Not when it's someone you care about." He inclines his head toward the table. "Come sit down, have some tea, breathe a little. Do your dead eye stare at them for a while; it's creepy as shit and it'll freak them out."

"I don't do that," he protests, picking up two of the cups.

"You know, I get why angels always had to say 'be not afraid'," he says thoughtfully, getting the other two cups. "After seeing that, probably only way people didn't drop dead of a goddamn heart attack."

He frowns. "I never noticed."

"Now you know," Dean says cheerfully, shoulder brushing his as he goes to the table. "So enjoy it."

Castiel ignores the charged silence as they sort through the cardboard box of tea bags, choosing their favorites from the variety available. To his surprise, Dean picks over them for several seconds before fishing out two, dropping one in Castiel's cup and then his own.

"Try this one," he says as Castiel pours out the water in each cup. "Tell me what you think."

He considers the novel idea of Dean having opinions on tea as he fills the kettle with more water before setting it on the stove and turning the gas burner on. He suspects this conversation would be improved by alcohol, but not necessarily anyone's ability to think, so tea it will be, and probably a lot of it, if for no other reason than to give them all something to do other than look at each other. There's a pattern regarding his visits to Ichabod, he thinks; at some point, surely he'll get better at not offending anyone within moments of arriving. Stranger things have happened, like learning sugar makes everything better and how to fall asleep.

When he returns to the table, he picks up the cup curiously; though still steeping, the fragrance is very pleasant. "Black currant."

Dean shrugs. "Mom liked it. It's weird what you remember, but that smell--it took me a while to track it down."

Castiel considers his cup for a long moment before putting it down again to finish steeping. Alison's glare indicates they've lost several steps in the progress of their relationship; he supposes adding 'accusing her girlfriend of being stupid and terrible at her job' to 'threatened her with execution upon meeting' wasn't the best choice in reactions, all things considered.

"I will require a complete explanation of what you did," he starts, "its structure and requirements, the expected results as well as the actual, and for that matter what you were thinking in the first place and exactly how it relates to what you saw in Alison's mind regarding what she sensed in Dean."

"Both of you," Teresa corrects him mildly as she removes the teabags from hers and Alison's cups before placing them on a chipped plate apparently present for that purpose. The brown eyes study him for a moment before she inclines her head. "I should have spoken to your first about that. I meant to during your last visit…." The flash of pain is muted, but Alison shuts her eyes tightly, reminding him abruptly it's only been four days since the attack, less than three since quarantine ended and they burned the bodies of their dead. "Paranoia doesn't lead to clear thinking, and none of us have done much of that. I know better than to--"

"It was my decision, too," Alison interrupts, squeezing Teresa's fingers as Dean dumps both their teabags on the same plate and starts adding sugar to both cups. "It wasn't your fault. And I thought," she adds, turning her glare on Castiel again, "that by now we'd have earned the benefit of the doubt. Maybe less in the way of execution threats?"

"He didn't threaten to execute her, Jesus!" Dean answers, dropping the spoon. "What the hell, Alison?"

"Not yet."

"You think he shouldn't be a little upset?" Dean asks incredulously. "Fucking with Amanda doesn't fall under 'benefit of the doubt' here; Cas sure as hell had every right to question what the hell you thought you were doing. Using blood's serious shit; you know it's the bodily fluid with the most potential for mystical abuse?"

Castiel just avoid spitting out a mouthful of tea at the familiarity of the words, frantically fighting not to choke as Dean adds self-righteously, "So don't tell me we don't have some grounds here to be concerned!"

"Bullshit," Alison snaps back, ignoring Teresa's frantic squeezing. "We got enemies enough, Dean; we sure as fuck don't need our supposed allies turning on us for one goddamn mistake!"

"A mistake?" Dean exclaims, half out of his chair and oblivious to Castiel's attempts at a significant glance to indicate this isn't necessary. "You gotta be kidding me!"

"Teresa," he says over Alison's not-entirely-reasonable response, "I apologize for reacting as I did. It was a surprise, and after tonight, I seemed to have reached my limit on those."

"…don't tell me how to run my town!" Alison shouts, chair scraping back emphatically as she continues to clutch Teresa's hand. "Who do you think you are?"

"It's fine," she answers, glancing up at Alison when Dean answers with something both very short and extraordinarily obscene before picking up her cup with her free hand. "I'm sorry for not speaking to you and Dean first. Amanda's become a friend, and that's who I asked to help, not one of Chitaqua's officers and representatives in Ichabod. I forgot she had other responsibilities."

"…and you were the genius who invited us into your town!" Dean yells back, bracing a hand on the table with an audible thump. Castiel winces, taking a sip of tea. "You're lucky we didn't conquer your asses for the fuck of it! So that'd take Cas about an hour: I'll give him the rest of the day off before we take over the rest of Kansas! Week, maybe two, we'll talk about who knows what, how about that?"

Teresa gives him a querying look. "I was being hyperbolic," he murmurs in resignation. "At least a little: transportation alone would slow our conquest a great deal. As I was saying, under the circumstances, your actions were perfectly understandable. And a credit to Amanda as well. You've been very welcoming to her and our people here, and we appreciate that a great deal."

"…when I'm done with their minds, they won't be able to find their asses with both hands! Or remember what asses are!" Teresa winces, biting her lip. "So fucking try it, Winchester, I fucking dare you!"

"She can't even step on a spider," Teresa mutters, closing her eyes. "I have to take them outside so they can live and be free. She makes us watch The Bridges of Madison County once a month and cries the whole time." He makes a note to find that movie; Meryl Streep's performance was supposedly sublime, or so several very trustworthy websites assured him. "You and Dean made good choices on who to send."

"They all speaks very highly of the your town," he continues, trying to ignore Dean's unsettlingly convincing plan to salt the earth where Ichabod once stood as a warning to those who cross him. This is not a moment he would appreciate being corrected on several misconceptions on the feasibility, and that doesn't even include the existence of a witch with a bond to the earth being in residence who might object to poisoning the earth in front of her. "He spent hours explaining in detail to everyone at the camp what would happen to them if they made anyone in Ichabod so much as nervous. The only reason we're allowed to be armed is it was in the agreement with the alliance and the entire point of our being here at all."

Alison smiles at Dean, all teeth. "Bring. It. On."

"Amanda is very much enjoying living here," he tells Teresa's pained expression.

Teresa smirks over the rim of her cup. "I'd say so, yeah."

"As well as the residents," he adds casually, and Teresa's smirk widens knowingly. "Or so she's told me, in startling detail."

Teresa bursts out laughing, and as Castiel takes a satisfied drink from his cup, he realizes the kitchen's now unexpectedly silent. Looking up, he sees Dean staring down at him with an expression drifting between angry and bewildered. A quick glance at Alison verifies she's looking at Teresa in a very similar way.

"You're done?" Teresa asks sweetly, raising her eyebrows, and Castiel watches, fascinated, as Alison's mouth snaps shut, hot color spreading across her face not entirely the result of anger. "Tea's getting cold. Sit down and drink some. Now."

"It's very good," Castiel agrees, retrieving Dean's chair--which has inexplicably slid back several feet--and nudging the back of Dean's knees with it to indicate he should sit down before Castiel has to apply enough pressure to make him. To his relief, Dean does so without the need for additional measures, and if he's not mistake, the flush isn't entirely the result of energetic shouting of useless threats to any and all who would oppose him (that being Alison). "The tea, I mean," he adds, pushing Dean's cup in front of him. "An excellent choice: thank you. You should have some."

"Anytime." Warily, Dean takes a sip, eyeing a subdued Alison on the other side of the table uncertainly. "So--everything okay?"

"Yes," he answers, turning to Teresa. "I--"

"Any chance you'll get to the point of this little visit?" Alison asks, glaring at them both before jumping slightly, tossing an uncertain look at a serene Teresa. "I mean, please tell us. We truly want to know. Please."

Dean's left eye twitches, but a very gentle nudge to his ankle seems to cut off whatever terrifyingly explicit threat he was considering as a viable response. "What happened four days ago--we think we know what happened, or part of it anyway."

Alison's hostility fades as she searches Dean's face. "Right. You went to the church?"

"Yeah." He looks at Castiel.. "You want to start?"

"No, not at all," he says, setting down his cup with a rattle. "The first thing you need to know; it might not be over yet."

Teresa lets out a breath when they're finished. "Whoever said there's nothing new under heaven lied."

"An angel probably inspired it," Castiel tells her as she looks mournfully at her empty cup before going to retrieve the kettle. "They always lie."

Alison's mouth quirks, murmuring thanks to Teresa as she refills her cup before looking at Castiel curiously. "So using memory to keep it active--I'm guessing that's different."

"It's a creative solution to the vexing problem of interference in ritual human sacrifice," he answers as Dean selects their teabags. "However, as with all things, there is a price to be paid for every advantage. From what I've read from the design, the requirements are very strict regarding killing those marked after the circle is completed if they don't or can't do it immediately It's a risk that a more orthodox version wouldn't have; the victims can't simply be killed or die in any way other than according to very specific criteria or it fails and unmakes it all."

"The memory needs to be active," Teresa interprets, nodding. "And they don't forget it, for that matter."

"Both, though the second is assured by ritual itself when the memory is first created," he answers. "To recreate the original, the circle must first be completed anew and the victims must see it. That triggers conscious recall, which is required to connect the newly created circle to the original and bring it back into being, and only then can the victim be killed and their deaths qualify for inclusion. It does still has one component in common with all others, however: it's all or nothing when it comes to the victims. Everyone marked is part of the whole, and one single death outside those parameters makes it impossible to complete and unmakes it entirely."

Dean drops his teabag on the plate with a thump. "So one breaking their neck after getting away--"

"A revoltingly ironic way to unmake this, yes. And considering the mind of a demon, probably a perfectly acceptable as far as limitations go."

Dean grimaces as he finishes adding sugar to Castiel's tea. "No way out but death. Including being killed by someone who wanted it to fail and knew how to make that happen."

Alison takes a drink, looking grim. "I told Amanda everything I could remember about what we found at the church, but I can show Cas what I saw directly if that would help…." Startled, he fumbles his cup at the casual offer, tea spilling over the edge. "What?"

Ignoring Dean's curious look, he takes the towel Teresa offers and wipes up the tea as he tries to work out how to explain what should be obvious.

"Generally," he starts, "you don't simply--offer up your memories to anyone who may want them. You shoot them, in fact: I think we've discussed this? I know Amanda drills you weekly on the firing range; your progress is excellent, by the way."

"I knew you were behind that," she mutters, scowling at him. "Cas, I show you shit all the time during our--that thing we do when you're here. What makes this different?"

"It's different," he explains patiently. "That's for your benefit, and your consent limits me to exactly what is required to teach you, nothing more and nothing less, and that gives you protection."

"Then I consent to you seeing anything you want!" Alison says in exasperation before he can stop her--or even realize there was something he would need to stop--before picking up her cup again. "Though maybe after I slept? Reliving that…before breakfast, though."

Castiel closes his eyes; you can explain in small and very easily understood words exactly what not to do--in their mother tongue, even--and yet, humans give blood, memories, and consent in blank check form at the drop of a hat to whoever may ask.

"Cas?" asks he who didn't even bother himself to ask why Castiel wanted his blood that day for the wards and showed as much interest in his reasons after the fact as before, which was none at all.

"Tomorrow," he says shortly; perhaps by then, he may be able to frame a better explanation of why one doesn't give consent to even Fallen angels to do what they will, since historically that's exactly what they do and never, once, has that ended well for the human in question. "Teresa, what did you sense at the church grounds?"

"I've never felt anything like that before," Teresa answers, eyes distant. "The corruption was too large to risk cleansing alone, but I've checked it regularly, and it hasn't spread."

"It was wise of you not to take the risk," he confirms, seeing the lingering guilt; a witch bound to the earth would feel that as a failure no matter how necessary. "Anything you accomplished would have been temporary at best; as long as this exists, so will it. You also have greater responsibilities that must take precedence."

She shrugs, staring at her cup as the tea steeps into the water. "I know. It doesn't help."

"How'd you find out about it anyway?" Dean asks Alison, smiling in satisfaction at her guilty start. "That's what I thought. You do more when you're sleeping than I do awake these days. Any reason you didn't mention this before, like when we got here? A warning would have been good here."

"Dean, it was years ago," she argues with muted heat--probably as a result of Teresa's warning glance--before reaching for the sugar. "Pretty soon after we settled here, in fact, and I gotta tell you, since then, not exactly unusual to find whole towns wiped out."

Castiel gives Dean a sidelong glance. It's becoming an effort to remind himself Dean's only been here four months, but Dean's face doesn't reflect any surprise. "You went looking even after you settled here?"

"Church set a precedent, I guess," she responds, playing nervously with her cup. "We'd hear things, go check it out, see if there was anything we could do. Usually that was just burning the bodies, but sometimes, there'd be survivors. We'd bring 'em here; not like we didn't have room."

"'Hear things'?" Dean asks mockingly. "Really?"

She makes a face. "Sometimes euphemistically, but yeah. If I'm gonna dream the goddamn future so I can fix it, might as well get to doing just that. Why not?" She raises her eyebrows challengingly. "Like you wouldn't do the same goddamn thing."

Of course she would do something, and becoming mayor has only increased the scope of her activities, and he doubts her leadership will ever be other than by example, the more dangerous the better. He makes a mental note to speak to Amanda about arranging with Teresa regular time for Alison on the training field as well and verify exactly what she knows and what she's capable of doing now. Teresa and Manuel would have seen she knew the basics, but it was probably difficult for both of them to be objective with family, and Alison would take advantage of that uncertainty, since from what Amanda's said, Alison is not overly fond of exercise and the outdoors.

"Fine, got me there." Dean blows out a breath, aiming a rueful grin at Alison. "Go ahead; tell us about your dream trailer of the church."

"It was--I'm not sure how to explain." She glances at Teresa, hazel eyes unfocusing briefly before she nods and returns her attention to Dean. "Teresa and Manuel had just arrived a few days earlier with another group, and…" She grimaces, looking at Teresa again. "You were doing your thing that you do."

"Listening to the earth," Teresa says patiently, a sigh in her voice. "That was only during daylight hours, however. I was actually sleeping that night. I think I mentioned once or twice I hadn't actually practiced that part of my craft since I finished my apprenticeship. It was exhausting."

Castiel tries and fails to imagine sitting for hours doing absolutely nothing but communing with the earth. The sheer tedium….

"They knew what I meant," Alison objects.

"I didn't," Dean volunteers, getting a dirty look from Alison. "Keep going. What happened?"

"I woke up," Alison says, rolling her eyes at Dean's scowl. "Obviously. I knew the signs of something I needed to do, but this was--stronger. And you," she says to Teresa, "were awake in the kitchen."

"To get some milk," Teresa says, glaring at Alison in return. "You're the one with the weird visions, I just listen to the earth."

"And it talks back!"

"And I'm the one with a fallen angel," Dean says, looking between them. "I win forever, okay? And--wait, why does it even matter?" He cocks his head, studying them before he starts to grin. "You just met--you didn't know what either of you were, did you? That's when you found out?"

"Pretty much," Alison answers sourly. "Teresa kept asking me if I was okay--"

"You looked upset."

"You try having a strong compulsion to explain you dream the future--and don't get the details--to someone you've spent a week trying to convince you'd make an excellent life partner! While your brother was hovering every goddamn time I went near you!" Teresa's mouth twitches as Alison looks at them in remembered outrage. "They didn't give details about what happened before they came here, which join the party, that was everyone here, no one asked. I thought it was some nice, garden-variety homophobia from Manuel--you know, normal bullshit." She snorts, looking eerily like Dean for a moment. "Like it could be something that simple."

"I hear you," Dean commiserates. "So it was--wait, did you say compulsion?"

Castiel straightens; he assumed that was a figure of speech, but as Teresa's partner, she wouldn't use that word lightly, not anymore.

"Every time I opened my mouth, that's all that wanted to come out," Alison confirms as Teresa nods agreement. "Ten minutes of that, Teresa had a choice between being creeped the fuck out or trying to work out what was going on. Thanks, by the way," she says to Teresa. "I never did tell you I appreciated the part where you didn't go for your gun when I started freaking out on you in the middle of the night over warm milk and toast."

"I recognized what it was," Teresa tells them, curling her fingers through Alison's reassuringly. "Since I was the object, clear questions and physical contact helped clarify what she needed to tell me while repressing the memories, which I assume is why she put it on herself."

"Generally, clairvoyance isn't concerned with the continuing mental health of its bearer," Castiel says, surprised. "I wondered how she managed to avoid--"

"Cutting my wrists in a heroin bathtub?" Alison interrupts sweetly.

"Yes," he agrees, ignoring her scowl as Teresa nods. "You think she's deliberately blocking the memories?"

"In the Valley seers weren't uncommon," Teresa says. "I worked with enough of them to get an idea of what they could do, and I was called in for a few when they first manifested. It wasn't rare for them to block themselves entirely if what they saw was traumatic enough, especially if there wasn't anyone they could trust enough to tell what happened to them or would believe them if they did tell." Her expression darkens in remembered pain. "The ones that didn't decide on another option, that is."

The modern era isn't so different when it comes to those who are different, and true clairvoyance has rarely been anything other than a burden. Even during times they were believed, acceptance was always at whim; serving an emperor or burned alive, it was always a matter of luck even if they survived the horrors their own minds inflicted upon them. And even then….

"In any case, this time a compulsion allowed her to tell me before she forgot it, without having to remember it herself," Teresa continues in a more normal voice. Taking a sip from her cup, she shakes her head. "It's not impossible for someone to do it without training, the human mind is--"

"Like that," Dean agrees briefly, fingers slowly loosening from their tight hold on the cup. "So she told you what happened?"

"Of course not," Teresa says, lips curving in a mocking smile. "When does that happen? No, a very brief--but very detailed--description of the church and the grounds, that there was something we needed to do there--not much there, but after seeing it, I think I can guess why--and a rough idea of where it was. Luckily, there's a Catholic church in Ichabod, and I used the diocese records to find it. Not all that difficult: only place in Kansas that had a bishop's personal authorization for Father Francis to open and supervise a rural school for indigent children with funding provided by an anonymous donor into perpetuity." She grins at Dean's mystified expression. "You're not Catholic; let's say I can imagine the reaction here when a rural parish priest gets a bishop telling everyone to leave him alone to do his good work; talk about jumping a few levels of very important-in-their-own-minds bureaucracy. The letter was hilarious if you know what you're reading: no one can formally say 'fuck off and God bless you' like a pissed bishop to a whining local priest not happy he couldn't get a recalcitrant parish priest recalled and then finds out said priest got his school approved and fully funded."

Dean grins appreciatively. "¿Si vas a hacer, haga con huevos?"

Teresa laughs delightedly. "Spanish for tourists stuck, huh?"

"Shut up, your mom taught me that after the thing at the diner when I asked for eggs." Taking another drink, Dean taps a discordant rhythm on the table. "Got anything else on Father Francis from that church? I'd really like to know how long he was working on this."

"Not much, but I'll show you what we have," she assures him. "Anyway, Alison figured out I wasn't just another resident, and all things considered, took the witch thing really well." Alison gives her an incredulous look, and Teresa's mouth twitches. "Actually she said 'whatever, but are you interested in me?' While I was breaking and entering a church, by the way, to track down her dream location. Because that was the important part."

"It was to me," Alison protests, and from the corner of his eye, he sees Dean hide a grin behind his cup. "Anyway, we had location, so I woke Manuel up--and I apologized for calling him a homophobic dick and he forgave me when I assured him I didn't have any intention of burning Teresa for witchcraft--and we went to the church. It was--" She hesitates, looking at Teresa. "Teresa almost passed out when we stepped on the grounds; Manuel caught her just before she hit the ground."

"Yeah, you can thank me for Cas not having a bloody nose," Dean says, eyes darting to Teresa, who's frowning uncertainly. "Something else?"

"Yes," she says slowly, staring at the surface of the table intently. "Before that--just before I stepped on the ground--I thought…." She trails off, frustrated, then looks at Castiel. "It was now, had been, would be, always. It was nailed into the earth and the sky, unmoving, until we touched the ground. Then it was--now-now."

"Cas?" Dean prompts, and he realizes he's been quiet for too long. "What?"

"Time differentiation, but I've never heard it put like that," he answers, wondering at the very distant possibility he isn't interpreting Teresa's explanation correctly. "It broke when you stepped on the earth there?"

She nods. "Never felt anything like that, but the earth--let's say it confirmed what it was."

"When you entered the church, how long did it appear to have been since the slaughter?"

"Last death was two to four hours earlier," Teresa answers. "Rigor mortis hadn't set in on any of them when we got Dolores there, and she used that to get a rough time of death for all of them when we got them back to Ichabod. Best guess, they were all within six to twelve hours of each other, but how long it was outside the church grounds…."

Castiel sits back in his chair. "The earth didn't know?" Then, at Teresa's raised eyebrow, "It didn't tell you?"

"Which would normally injure my professional pride," Teresa admits, folding an arm on the table and resting her chin in her hand. "In this case, though--and keep in mind translation is sketchy when you're speaking to something that has no sense of time as singular instead of cyclical--it didn't notice it. Or possibly wasn't supposed to notice, that wasn't clear."

Taking a drink from the cooling tea, he thinks wistfully of far less stressful times, when his decisions only extended to the number of sexual partners in any given room and who would top. He also remembered those times existing, which is a feature he never realized could be optional instead of mandatory. "What you sensed was a fixed point in time, a kind of bubble, and grounded in the earth itself. Within it, time ran on a different scale, though at this point, there's no way to be certain on the difference. What was a day for them may have been weeks, even months here. Your arrival was apparently an indicator to bring the church and grounds back into the regular time stream, but whoever did it didn't compensate for the differentiation. Or rather," he adds, "may not have been alive any longer to fix it."

"And that means…." Dean trails off invitingly.

"It's younger than the rest of Creation," Teresa explains, with the ease of someone who's lived for years with someone who often required such explanations. "Not much, though: a quarter year, I'd be able to tell from the differences in the earth myself, and Castiel…."

"Cas," he corrects her absently, fighting down frustration with his lack of knowledge. "I should be able to tell no matter how much--I think--but observation states less than two months. Six weeks, if I were guessing, which I am."

"How much power does something like that take?" Dean asks curiously, taking another sip from his cup. "The time bubble thing, I mean."

"Almost nothing. It's practically useless, in all honesty. To put in human terms, it's the equivalent of a parlor trick." He bites his lip, amused by the incredulity reflected on Alison's and Dean's faces as Teresa hides her amusement at the same behind her cup. "Remember the frame of reference for the immortal is very different. It's generally used by the gods--and Gabriel, who possibly perfected the use--as a facet of extremely elaborate practical jokes on each other. Using it on humans was also an enjoyable pastime, but they couldn't really appreciate the full range of a joke that could last centuries." Despite himself, he has to fight down a smile, keeping his expression rigidly impassive; for the first time, he thinks he can understand the appeal. "Eternity is a long time, and even gods can become bored, I suppose."

"Better than an amoeba," Alison murmurs, one corner of her mouth quirking slyly. Ignoring Teresa and Dean's quizzical looks, she cocks her head. "Remind me before you leave: we got a couple of copies of The Three Stooges and I grabbed one for you the other day. Got a TV at Chitaqua by any chance?"

"We just acquired one," he agrees, intrigued.

"Tell me what you think after you see them," she says with a ghost of a smile before returning to the original subject. "Okay, time was stopped at the church for six to eight weeks, is that what you mean?"

"Slowed, not stopped," he corrects her absently and immediately becomes the center of attention. "Think of time like a river: if a dam was built, the output of power needed would be immense just to keep the pressure from destroying it, as well as require constant attention and maintenance." He sits back, slotting it together. "Stopping time is also very, very noticeable; it's rather obvious when a river stops flowing and bears investigation as to the reason."

"Hard to miss?" Dean offers. "Might as well put up a sign saying 'something interesting's going on here'."

"Complete with fireworks and a chorus, preferably Greek, yes," he agrees, warmed by Dean's smile. "Slowing time, however, is different; it's simply changing the speed of passage in a discreet space. To even see it, it'd be like looking at a large river and finding the slowest point on a glance; you'd have to know it was there to find it and exactly where to look. There's no way to tell without investigating whether it's a natural characteristic of the river or artificial, and why would anyone bother unless they were in on the presumed joke, since that's what they generally were?"

"Time has slow points?" Alison asks slowly, looking pained. "Chemistry was at one, physics was eight in the morning; sue me, I'm not a morning person."

"Don't trouble yourself," he tells her earnestly. "You were at least two centuries from accidentally breaking cause and effect while expanding your understanding of special relativity; have you seen Groundhog Day? It was like the director was there. I can point out the relevant scenes if you have a copy available."

Alison stares at him before she slowly begins to smile. "And it all started with sitting on a toad."

"One hundred and seventy-four million gallons per hour per square mile," he agrees, smiling back. "For three hours, thirty two minutes, and fifteen seconds, roughly."

"Do you need us here for this?" Dean asks, green eyes telling him that they'll be revisiting this topic in private for a full explanation one day. "Moving on from--both of you being freaks--let's go with this not being a practical joke of the gods, just so I can sleep at night."

"It wasn't a joke, but it would have looked like one on the off-chance anyone saw it and knew my Brother," Castiel assures him as he takes another drink. "Everything in that church was consistent with her purpose, except those children; that's what doesn't fit. Those woman were the foundation of her claim, and the execution of those demons was just. That was all she would have been interested in--in a sense, it was all she could be interested in--so why fix that point in time afterward? And for that matter, use time to hide it? Gods generally don't think like that."

"That's why it was slowed, not stopped," Dean says in a strange voice. "Hide it…Alison, this town, all of you are here because there wasn't anywhere else to go, right? What was the reaction to those kids when you brought them back?"

"We almost had a war on Main Street when we brought them home," she replies with a faint smile, remembering. "The older kids told us--those nuns, they were hunters, but they didn't just save them from whatever killed their parents. The nuns never told them this, but the older ones heard enough to--the towns wouldn't take them, even the ones their parents lived in before they died. Sometimes their own relatives…." She takes a breath, the flash of hot anger there and gone in an instant. "All of us here--we knew what that was like to lose everything, even our homes and some of us our countries. Let's say the kids were really surprised we almost had fistfights in the street over who got to raise them."

Dean nods, mouth softening. "That how you got your trade network started. The kids: you started working on contacting other towns, spread the word that there was still somewhere for the kids to go with the church gone, search towns when you heard something went down. I wondered about that."

"We'd only been here a little while, and there weren't many of us. Enough dry goods were left behind and some gardens still producing for us to be okay, but that wasn't gonna last forever. The future--what future did we have, just surviving ourselves was hard enough, you know? And even wanting to…." Dean nods. "The kids, though--babies need milk, kids need food, and they couldn't survive on their own; if we were gonna save them, we had to save ourselves to do it. So that's what we did." She shakes her head. "Word spread. We never turned anyone away without damn good reason. Side effect: regular contact with the towns close to us made us familiar--kids help with that kind of thing, I noticed--and half the battle was won right there. From there, it was easy to build up trust."

"Bread upon the water," Dean says, smiling. "You found those kids a month after you settled here, right?"

"About six weeks, give or take," she answers, looking amused. "God, those first weeks….we all huddled in the buildings and didn't even go outside if we could help it. Me, Neer, Sud, and Rabin would go days without seeing anyone else. Get out, stock up our supplies, cook on a fire in the fireplace downstairs, stay away from rooms with windows." The hazel eyes grow distant. "Then--out of nowhere--the lights came on."

"Tony and Walter got the grid up."

"Yeah, for five seconds. Then it overloaded and lights out, except--" She sits back, eyes fixed on the table. "Five seconds, I looked around and saw my best friends and I were sleeping on a pile of clothes and mattresses in a room with peeling wallpaper, with a pile of empty plastic bottles and crap we couldn't be fucked to throw away because why bother. Animals do better than that. We weren't living, we weren't surviving; we were marking time until we were dead."

Dean takes a sip from his cup.

"Me and Neer braved the wilds of town looking for the power station, found Tony and Walter, and they explained that they couldn't bring it up again without risking burning it out, not until we could lower the load on it. Every house in the town had to be checked to turn off the lights and unplug the cells and turn off the coffeemakers. A few months of hard work, and we'd have electricity. Probably. If we didn't miss anything."

"And option two?" Dean asks, looking like he's enjoying himself immensely.

"Everyone get together, pick one area for all of us to live, and he'd work out how to cut power to everywhere but there. We go though, flip everything off that needed electricity, and a week, two at most, we'd have lights." She looks up at Dean. "But to do it, it would take everyone, and we'd have to be outside, right in the middle of the street every day, going between buildings and checking and double checking, because we only had one chance to get it right.

"I lived in that goddamn building with peeling wallpaper and I wanted light to see how to get that shit off. I wanted to sleep in a bed and eat food off a plate and to do that, I had to go outside and I wanted to do that and not be afraid. I got three of four; I was still afraid, every minute, but when Tony showed us the guns he'd collected from around town, me and Neer were first in line to get them and learn to use them." She wipes hastily at her eyes, glancing at Teresa in a moment of shared warmth, before looking at Dean again. "And for his efforts, Tony got back to find out the lights were on and he was our first mayor. I don't think he's forgiven us for that one yet."

"So after six weeks, give or take, you got electricity, plumbing, and people ready to start living their lives again," Dean says cryptically. "Ready to start taking in survivors who didn't have any place else to go, and you get a goddamn dream telling you exactly where to get some kids who needed just that. Anyone see where I'm going with this?"

"You think that goddess screwed with time to hide them until they had somewhere to go?" Alison asks incredulously, eyes darting to Castiel. "Would she do that?"

"Her purpose was those women; that's why she was there. The children--she wouldn't hurt them without reason, but they weren't--" He pauses; they were small. "She wouldn't even see them."

"What about that novice?"

"If it was to save her, she could have taken her when she left." He studies the edge of his tea cup resentfully. "I need to point out, what we know is almost entirely speculation. It would help, of course, if the earth would give us a narrative of events," he adds in Teresa's direction, "but I assume you've done your best."

Teresa rolls her eyes, unoffended, while Alison and Dean both seem to find some point in the distance utterly fascinating.

"Amanda's report covers the rest," Alison says after taking an unnecessarily large drink of tea, cheeks suspiciously flushed. "When we had the kids and the novice home and were sure they were okay, we went back to the church, got the bodies down, and brought them here for Dolores to check out and give them a clean burn. The kids only knew the names they chose when they took orders, and since everything was either charred or wrecked, we buried them here under their names in the order."

"What about the novice--the kids had to know her name, too." Alison makes a face. "Don't tell me--they couldn't remember it. Because of fucking course they can't."

"Or they just aren't telling," Alison answers wryly. "They visited her every day, brought the babies with 'em. Weren't surprised when she left, either. On a guess, the older ones helped her out, though I can't prove it. All they said was it was a really long drive, and she really wanted to go home."

"Did she drive?" Dean asks.

"No missing gas or cars, but I guess she could have found one on the road," Alison answers, shrugging. "We got her picture still--in retrospect, I'm surprised she didn't take it with her--and Dolores' guess on her age and some basic demographics, in case--in case anyone came looking for her, we could tell them something."

There's a pensive silence after that, and it's Dean that finally breaks it.

"You said the kids don't remember anything about the courtyard? Or the church?"

Alison shakes her head. "The courtyard--it's blurred, lots of blank spots, shock I guess--but the church…." She gives Castiel an uncertain look. "What happened to them there--it's like…."

"Like the memories aren't there," he says numbly. "And no space where they should be."

"There should have been, right?" Alison sighs in relief at his brief nod. "Thanks, I was wondering about that. It was like it didn't even happen."

"Including the symbol?" Dean asks. At Alison's nod, he focuses on Teresa. "Do you remember? The symbol, I mean."

"Of course." She looks at Alison. "I haven't asked Kamal and Amanda yet, but I assume they do as well."

"We can ask them in the morning," Dean says grimly. "On a guess, they will. Anyone else see it?"

"Amanda followed Cas's order that no one else enter unless by my will and with my express permission," Teresa answers, choosing her words carefully. "Alison gave the order to the town, and no one disobeyed. I asked Kamal to join me in case he had seen it before, and he insisted on remaining in case I needed help to complete purification. No one else entered or left." She hesitates for a moment, exchanging a look with Alison. "Why did you ask if we remembered it?"


"Because what Alison described regarding the children's memories is what was done to mine," Castiel interrupts. "By me."

Alison's eyes widen as beneath the table, Dean's hand suddenly closes around his wrist, conveying reassurance with a warm squeeze. "That doesn't mean--"

"It means the goddess didn't remove their memories," Castiel says softly. "I told you, a god wouldn't do it like this, they wouldn't know how. I did it, and then my own. It doesn't make sense. Why wouldn't I simply let her remove the design from their minds or do it myself?"


"You said this works on active memory?" Teresa interrupts, leaning forward when she sees she has their attention. "Dean, you've seen the symbols for Ichabod's wards; do you remember all of them?"

Dean starts to answer, then grimaces. "Most of them, yeah. Why?"

"Most, not all, and you saw them in Laredo first; that's why you recognized them, right?" He nods. "But if I gave you a pencil and piece of paper, I'm going to guess you'd only get maybe get half of them accurately." Dean blinks at her, hand frozen in the act of picking up the cup. "What about that design in the courtyard?"

"Every line," he answers softly; he can't remember anything before Castiel's arrival, and nothing of actually seeing the design in the courtyard even after Castiel unmade it with his blood. He remembers that, however. "Teresa?"

"I can," she confirms. "So why can't the kids after seeing it this time? Even if it was shock, Alison should be able to find it in their memories, and she can't."

Dean sits back. "At all?"

"Nothing," Alison confirms, gulping the last of her tea before looking at Castiel. "No blank space, either."

"Why go through all the trouble of making something without a time limit and risk fucking it up by depending on the same shitty human memory that makes you lose your keys five seconds after putting them down?" Teresa asks in what he supposes is supposed to be a rhetorical question.

"That's a different type of memory," Castiel argues, unable to help himself. "In any case, what does that have to do with--"

"Think about this one. You escaped--or think you did--a human sacrifice and can't get the memory of that design out of your head," Teresa says conversationally. "What do you do now? Other than visit a psychologist: let's assume you realized you needed a little more specialized help."

"Go to a professional in the field," Dean says immediately. "A hunter. Ritual human sacrifice: that would get our attention. Protect them while we tried to figure out how to fix it, yeah."

"A psychic, a seer, a witch, any practitioner," Teresa says, counting off on her fingers. "Who else would a human who was desperate go to?"

"Crossroads," Dean breathes, sitting back. "Make a deal to get out of it."

"Exactly the people you don't want to know anything about this. Not a great way to keep a secret, especially if you want to hide this from other demons," Teresa says. "That's assuming our smarter than average sacrifice didn't run into any demons along the way who read their minds, saw that design, and realized what it did. First principle of keeping a secret: be the only one who even knows a secret exists."

"If the sacrifice doesn't remember the design until they see it again," Dean says, starting to nod, "they don't know it's even there, much less have any reason to try to find a way to get rid of it. Repress that shit and move on."

"We can remember because we weren't part of it; unintended consequence of making a memory stick, it works on everyone who sees it, but the full ritual is the only way to hide it after. If Alison can't see it in the kids' heads now, even going to a pro wouldn't help," Teresa continues, bracing both elbows on the table and leaning forward. "They wouldn't even know the person was still marked, or how, much less where to look." She turns at Castiel. "This thing is using organic human memory formation to do the job, no magic needed; the only thing new here is persistence, making sure you can't get rid of it and keeping it from degrading or altering, since memory does that all the time. Even if a goddess could wipe their memories of what happened entirely, how do you get rid of what they don't even know that they remember?"

"Human memory can't be entirely destroyed without physical alteration to the brain itself and that's not easy, even for a god," he says, thinking carefully. "When humans form and store a memory, each engram is encoded redundantly and with multiple alternate pathways should one or more be destroyed. The persistence isn't magic; the ritual simply takes advantage of what your brain already does on its own. What it does is protect it after formation, as well as the redundant copies. That would include hiding it, even from the brain itself so it wouldn't affect the memory."

"Exactly," Teresa says softly. "With only one built-in trigger: seeing the design. Perfect way to keep a secret: no one knows it's there, even the one carrying it, not until you want them to. Even if you know it's there, the only way to trigger it is to know the design and show it to them."

"Including an angel or a god," Castiel realizes, looking at Dean. "That's why those restrictions were added to the design; not just to hide its existence. To keep the memory from being removed at all; even if they were looking at it in a human's mind, they still wouldn't see it."

Dean swallows. "If that goddess couldn’t see it--"

"The only way to be sure it was gone would be to wipe their memories entirely. Everything they were, are, and could ever be, damaging the brain beyond repair." He meets Dean's eyes, seeing his own horror reflected there. "Tabula rasa, a blank slate whose pen was destroyed just to be certain; as they were at that moment they would always be. It would be kinder to kill them."

"Or an angel who just learned all about human memory the old fashioned way told her there was another option," Dean responds, looking at Alison and Teresa. "Cas, how'd you do it with yours again? You literally can't forget anything, so…"

"I removed all the memories from the linear sequence," he answers. "In effect--"

"Hid them," Dean finishes in satisfaction, and Teresa straightens with a startled expression. "Most of the benefits of wiping them, but no mindfucked kids. All the demons were dead, so far so good, there was no one alive who knew the design or about the sacrifice at all. The kids remembered almost being sacrificed, though; that just might make a demon curious when they saw it, and wiping it--big blank space--would get attention. So lower the risk, just in case. Take everything about that sacrifice, and bonus, improved mental health for the under-ten crowd."

"Best case scenario: all organic triggers would be gone that would retrieve the memory of the design, and maybe that would break it," Teresa agrees, nodding. "Didn't work, but it was a longshot anyway. Second best: with all the demons who were there for the first try dead, there'd be no one to come after them, so it wouldn't matter if it was broken or not. That doesn't mean word didn't get around, though, and that's exactly what happened. Removing the memory of the sacrifice would protect them not just from a random demon, but even from one who knew enough to go looking for some kids with a memory of a failed human sacrifice or--"

"--kids with a big blank space in their memories, all in the same place," Dean finishes for her, looking at Castiel. "I heard something about that being kind of noticeable. I'm guessing a demon would notice that, so instead, hide the kids in plain sight. Only way to find them would be knowing what to look for."

Alison closes her eyes. "And it almost worked."

"It worked perfectly," Dean says softly, but he's not looking at Alison. "The kids survived." With a flickering smile, he returns his attention to the others. "Not only that. Two and a half years since then; those demons weren't waiting, they've been looking for them. Only way they found them was using human tools who could ask the right questions and even then, they had to be here for weeks before they were sure it was these kids. And that's the only reason we know this exists at all, much less that somewhere out there, someone else knows not just it happened, but the design. All the kids were was confirmation; eventually, they would have tried this without 'em and we'd be fucked and not even know enough to realize how much." He slumps back in his seat, expression darkening. "And we're no closer to figuring out how the hell to get that out of the kids' heads before someone tries again. If the only way to remove it was mindfucking the kids, then…."

"We don't have to remove it," Teresa says slowly, looking up with a startled expression. "Just unmake it."

"They were watching when I unmade it in the courtyard," Castiel answers. "If that didn't work--"

"In their minds," she says, tapping the table restlessly. "Natural memory formation of the original, unnaturally persistent and no degradation, because it's protected; they want to make a memory a sacrificial circle, we'll treat it like one. Draw it again, let the kids recall it, then unmake it in their memory when it's active as well as here."

"And what about the copies?" Dean asks, the hope suppressed but there. "Will doing one get them all?"

Teresa looks at Castiel thoughtfully. "If they're linked by contamination, unmaking one will unmake all the copies. On a guess, though, they aren't; this thing makes the brain do the heavy lifting, so each copy will be discrete. However, that means every time recall is established, all the copies have to become active; not like they know about each other and can pick which shows up. Once it's in their conscious memory, Alison can see it--see all the copies--and we can find and unmake each one."

"We draw it, they remember, Alison reads their minds and…that's not where this is going?" Dean finishes at Alison's baffled expression. "Teresa?"

"She can see them," Teresa agrees, and Dean follows her gaze to Castiel. "Altering them, though…."

"She could," he admits finally, and Alison's eyes widen. "However, I wouldn't recommend this as a good way to learn the principles."

"I could do that?" Alison asks blankly.

"You can do it now," he tells her. "But it wouldn't end well, and please don't ask me to elaborate on what that means."

"I'm not asking," Alison assures him, looking shaken. "So how--"

"Something Teresa shouldn't even know enough to guess," he interrupts as Teresa shrugs. "The earth is indiscreet, I see."

"The earth," she says, "is practical."

He sighs, looking at Alison again. "Even if you were experienced, mistakes are still possible, and with something like this…. It's not a matter of knowledge or experience, but--something more fundamental."

"What?" Dean asks when the silence stretches to the (very short) limits of his patience. "Seriously, just say it."

"An angel would be very useful; manipulation of human memory is intrinsic to their beings, and they were created to serve humanity. However, due to their absence--and the restrictions against them, which may even apply to active memory.…" He closes his eyes, resigned. "The fact I altered my memory--and apparently that of the children--without ill effect proves I retained that, which shouldn't surprise me as it's certainly useless enough to qualify...nevermind. We can't make mistakes; it's instinct, and there's no danger of permanent damage to the brain because we know exactly how to do it. What I don't have," he adds, opening his eyes to stare at Teresa, "is Grace, or even a compatible source of power….you must be joking!"

"Me," Alison says blankly, looking at him, then at Teresa. "But I don't have any power. I just--do it."

He sighs, ignoring Teresa hiding her smile. "You do, it's intrinsic and specific to your abilities so useless for anything else, and I don't have time to explain more thoroughly on the off-chance you actually care, so just take it as a given. And this is a terrible idea."

"No, it's a good idea," Alison argues, looking between them. "It's fine, what do you need me to do?"

"Survive," he says quietly, watching the color drain from her face. "I don't know if I can see it without you, but even if I can, I would need you so I could make the changes, and that means access to your entire mind and exposing you to mine. You won't survive, not even for the few moments it would take me to unmake each memory."

She licks her lips before nodding. "I'll do it."

For a moment, he forgets how to breathe. "Alison--"

"I'll do it," she repeats. "So I'll ask you again: what do you need me to do?"


"Fifteen kids, Cas," she says, learning forward urgently. "It's worth the risk--"

"No." Focusing on the table, he takes a deep breath, trying to think. "The children aren't in immediate danger. We have time to consider other options."

"What options?"

"And time to think of them as well," he answers flatly. "This isn't and will never be one of them. Teresa, how you could even think--"

"On a guess," Dean says casually, "because she thinks she can protect Alison. Or the earth will."

Teresa doesn't answer, eyes darkening.

"Alison said you used to help her block everyone out," Dean continues, taking a drink from his nearly empty cup. "I didn't think much of it, but the thing with Amanda--Cas said she was the only one in danger, the earth would protect Alison. She's not bound to it, you are. So why would it care what happened to her specifically? Your feelings?"

"That's one way to put it," Teresa agrees reluctantly, flickering a glance at Castiel. "It's…private."

"Which is why Cas can't tell me?"

"Actually, I can." Teresa's eyes narrow. "The formalities required of an angel when interacting with Creation--which includes the earth and all that concerns it--no longer apply. It's a matter of courtesy, and I'm willing to discard that at need or simply for spite. This would be need, but spite isn't off the table."

Teresa makes a face. "She's bound to me, and what concerns me concerns the earth."

Dean blinks slowly. "What?"

"She did it to save me." Alison stares at her cup, fingers tightening in Teresa's. "I--wasn't entirely honest about--I didn't wake up hearing everything the next morning; it was two weeks before I woke up. In the infirmary, on an IV line, with Teresa looking at me like I just came back from the dead."

Dean lets out a breath, the set look softening. "How'd you do it?"

"Same way I was bound to the earth," Teresa answers, calm fragile enough to shatter. "It took me two weeks to find her, and once I gained her consent, I could take it from her enough for her to adjust."

"Noise shared is noise halved," he murmurs, and Alison, glancing up warily, nods. "That's what you meant."

"And finally wake up," Teresa whispers, eyes dark with remembered fear. "I'd die for her; living for her was a bonus."

"That's not to the death, you get that, right?" Dean asks, turning on Alison. "Teresa's bound until it lets her go, and death's not necessarily a dealbreaker. You get this--"

"I get her," Alison answers, covering their joined hands protectively. "Even if it wasn't my life on the line, I would have done it."

"Cas, I made my offering when I was bound to the earth," Teresa continues. "I got all of it in return, and I survived; that's the test, and that's how I passed. What I can do, she can, but that's not what made her able to interpret that memory she got from you: that was her. If she can do that--"

"One memory," he spits out, panic clawing through him. "One, and this isn't a memory. This isn't like your offering to the earth; all that it was, is, and will be is the smallest fraction of the whole of Creation, and Creation is only a single mote of what's contained within me. She'll shatter in a single breath!"

"Then when you're unmaking those memories," Alison says into the ensuing silence, hazel eyes certain, "do it faster than I can breathe."

Teresa thoughtfully left clean clothes for them on the bed, which is less of a surprise than it once would have been. Changing clothing specifically for the purpose of going to bed is still a concept he finds difficult to grasp, but in this case, it's not simply due to the sometimes inexplicable habits of humans. Dean is a hunter, and he rarely bothered to do so without some other factor (damaged or otherwise unacceptably soiled clothing, an injury requiring him remove it so it could be treated, a shower, sexual intercourse), but for reasons that elude him, Dean now does it every night and insists that Castiel acquire the habit as well.

Four months of experience have taught him this much; even the most inexplicable of Dean's rules for human cohabitation is perfectly acceptable when supplemented with a system of rewards for compliance. That would be less of a problem if the reward system involved regular sex; sexual favors offered to reinforce acceptable behavior is one of humanity few successful leaps of logic. That it's based entirely on Dean's personal happiness and sense of comfort in his surroundings is not something he's prepared to consider, at least until denial is no longer a viable option, which thankfully is not quite yet.

Picking them up--they're very large, and he wonders if Teresa and Alison simply keep random clothing for potential guests available at all times or if she borrowed them from someone living here--he flickers a glance toward the door and the safety of a Dean-mandated habit of showering before bed. Somehow, he thinks tonight Dean will feel an exception is warranted.

"Gonna have to skip the shower tonight," Dean confirms, kicking off his boots and setting them beside the nearby chair before pointing to the foot of the bed. "Sit down, Cas."

Reluctantly, he toes off his boots first, another inexplicable habit, as Dean makes himself comfortable against the headboard and warily takes his assigned position at the foot, extremely aware of the space stretching between them.

"Okay, first thing--you don't even remember what happened last time with that goddess," Dean says unexpectedly. "This is all guesswork."

"It's possible I had a nefarious purpose instead, yes--"

"Don't fuck with me," Dean says warningly, and he shuts his mouth. "Your experiments in doing shit like this are running one-one when it comes to safety, so tell me you know doing this won't kill you. I mean, not guess, not 'let's try seeing all things oops that was a bad plan and blood loss'; you can tell me this is totally safe."

"Altering their memories?" he asks in surprise, adding quickly at Dean's scowl, "No, there's no danger at all. But I'd like to remind you that I didn't agree to it."

"You will," Dean responds venomously. "Show you a fire, tell you it's hot, you'd walk through it just to see if you could. So let's get this part out of the way now: you're telling me it couldn't….I don't know, do something to hurt you? By accident? Or on purpose," he adds. "Let's put that on the table, okay? Alison's a psychic, tell me she can't--do anything to hurt you or--whatever?"

Castiel blinks slowly. "A human psychic?" Dean nods empathically, seemingly forgetting Lucifer's abject failure when simply attempting to read his mind. "Even if she wanted to," he says slowly, wondering if he should be offended or worried about Dean's display of very specific anmesia, "she couldn't, no." Then, "Why would you think she would?"

Dean's expression goes through several bewildering permutations, each equally baffling, before settling--almost gratefully, he thinks--on anger. "Just covering all the bases, okay?"


"Okay, next subject," Dean interrupts. "Why don't you want to do it?"


"The thing with the kid's memories and Alison," he explains, as if that's actually what he thought Castiel wished to have clarified. "Teresa thinks Alison will be okay, so--"

"She doesn't know what she's talking about." Dean cocks his head. "She's not wrong, but the scale against which she measures me is--inaccurate--because the earth doesn't know what it isn't, only what it is. Dean, the earth needs Teresa to tell it what you are when you walk the surface of its skin and are nourished by its bounty despite the fact you are born of it: it thinks of you as earth and is continually surprised you aren't stationary and require food and dislike earthquakes. The obvious escapes it with truly unsettling regularity, because it's limited only to what it is: earth and all that it encompasses. It knows what an angel isn't--earth. What they are--what I am--it cannot know, and as that's not earth, it doesn't even know that!"

Dean starts to nod then sighs. "I get--none of that, but you'd know, so I'll go with it." He does something with his hands that after a moment, Castiel realizes is supposed to convey calm. "It's a risk, a big one--"

"It's not a risk," he says flatly. "I will kill her. And possibly Teresa as well if their connection is as strong as I think it is and the earth doesn't take action to cut its losses when it realizes nothing it can do will save Alison from me."

"Right." Dean hesitates. "That's the only reason?"

"It's the only one I care about." Dean looks startled and tries to hide it, but not quickly enough. All at once, everything of this day, of the last four, coalesces into a single mass; anger, at those demons, at Lucifer, at the Host; at a goddess who's been dead for years who would have dissolved those children's minds without a thought; at Dean for what he asked of him and wants to ask of him now; at himself, for all that he isn't and even more for what he still is, for a small convent who died in horror, unknown and unmourned, their names lost, because they were too small, and he had other things to do. You don't understand, he wants to tell Dean; all I had to do was look, we could have saved them all, and I didn't. They were too small. "You think I wouldn't care."

Dean's eyes widen. "No, of course not. I just--"

"One human life," he hears himself say. "I've killed so many of you, so why would one more bother me? It would be for a greater good, after all; I've heard it before. It's always for a greater good. What does that even mean, greater good? Are there small ones? Who cares for them?"

"Cas, listen--"

"I'd shred her mind into ribbons, and I'd see it happening and still be unable to stop it," he says, hearing his own horror in every word. "Every part of her would be dissolved into infinity, into what I am, into me, and it would take forever, I would watch it, she would feel it, we would feel it forever, because where we'd be when we do this, there's only now. And when it was over…." He'd gaze upon the still-breathing corpse of a living woman, one who sees the vastness of humanity as he once did, a field spread with lights brighter than any star could ever be. He showed her herself, one light among so many, and he--he'd be the one to put it out. Simply by being what he is. It would never be over. "Killing is easy, Dean. If you want an executioner, let me put a bullet in the head of one of the children the way you asked me to put in yours; it would break the circle, take far less time, be far less painful, and one human, after all, is very much like another. You tell me which child: I'll wait."

"That's not--" Dean starts, starting to look upset: good.

"What you meant? Of course it's not: you're not the one who has to decide whose head gets the bullet! That decision is and will always belong to the person who's holding the gun, and that isn't you either!"

"I know." Dean takes a deep breath, clenched hands relaxing with a visible effort. "Alison volunteered. Look, I'm not saying to do it--"

"Yes you are."

"--just--look, if the only option--"

"It's not," he says. "There's a choice, it's just not one you have to make, so you don't have to admit what it would be. Alison volunteered; you don't have to say her life matters less to you than those children's. I'm the one who will kill her; you don't have to suffer a single sleepless night after her death. Did I miss anything that you won't have to do?"

"Fuck you," Dean says hotly. "You think this is easy for me?"

"You'll be alive, you won't grieve for your lover and your sister, and you won't have killed a woman whose mind you knew and remember each and every horrific detail of how she died for the length of your life," he answers and has the satisfaction of seeing Dean flinch as if he was punched in the face. "Yes, I do think it's very easy for you, and only you would be stupid enough to imagine you had the right to even ask that question."

Dean licks his lips. "I'd take her place if I could."

"You should be glad you can't or there'd be one less child alive tonight and the circle would be broken," he says, turning away from Dean's stricken expression. "Don't pretend to be surprised; it's simply their misfortune that they aren't you. You'd choose otherwise, I'm sure, but much like killing Alison, much like your request that I kill you, it isn't your choice to make. Spare me your horror and your protests: this isn't about you, no matter how much you think it should be."

Behind him there's only silence, the room closing tight around him; he can barely breathe, but they're not home in Chitaqua: there's nowhere else to go.

"I'm going to take a shower," he says on his way to the door. "Don't wait up; it may take the rest of the night."