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A Thousand Lights in Space

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--Day 139--

Dean's weirdly unsurprised to see Alison come in the kitchen, sleepy eyes focusing on him briefly in insomnia-fueled hostility before melting into relief when he points at the kettle. Returning to the table with cup and hot water, she stares at the box for a moment before selecting green tea, which as far as Dean's concerned isn't tea, which should be fucking black as God intended. He has opinions on tea, okay.

After taking a drink--unsweetened, Jesus Christ--she sighs. "Nightmare."

Dean lowers his cup warily.

"Not that kind," she says scornfully. "Teresa. Before she came here--that last town."

He thinks about the wall in Cas's cabin, an invisible map of bullet holes lingering beneath repaired drywall and paint behind the TV. "Yeah."

"She was alone," Alison whispers, "hiding in an overgrown field. She could hear them shouting that they had to find her, so she had to be quiet." She stares down at her cup. "I'm just standing there, watching them coming for her, and I can't do anything. Just watch."

He swallows a scalding mouthful of tea and barely feels it.

"I'm guessing talking about the church set this one off." The hazel eyes grow distant. "Lucifer wiping out humanity: doesn't seem like a bad idea, nights like this." She lifts her cup, smiling sardonically. "So I come downstairs and have tea and think about tomorrow's schedule. I'll tell you this; for not being a people person, mayor really works for me. I don't have a lot of free time to contemplate the pros and cons of the genocide of humanity by an archangel with daddy issues."

"I clean guns," Dean offers. "Tell myself I'm not tempted to use them, which sometimes works, since the people I'd use them on are already dead."

She raises an eyebrow. "You want to talk about it? It's rare these days to say that to someone and not be ironic."

He does, actually. "Some people at Chitaqua--they tried to kill Cas. Long time ago, when we were all--more crazy than now, considering." He swallows, tracing a finger over the rim of his cup. "They hated him, which--I'll be honest here, I tried to kill him the first time we met, not like I can judge. Yet I still do, a lot."

"You tried to kill an angel?"

"I didn't know he was an angel!" he objects, feeling defensive. "Comes in the barn, whipping coat, giant fucking wings, talking about my destiny, defecting bullets, putting Bobby to sleep…" Alison's eyes widen. "Maybe you had to be there. It got better."

"You do win for weird on that one," she agrees. "My sex partners have been exclusively human, and generally women. Yours include angels."

"Mine were all human women. You know, before." He reconsiders that in light of the fact that actually, no, they weren't. Even excluding his non-existent sexual relationship with Cas. "Okay, Anael, but--"

"Sounds suspiciously like it rhymes with 'Castiel'," she observes just as he catches he totally used the wrong name there. "Not that I'd know the naming conventions of angels--"

"She wasn't an angel then, that was before." Oh yeah, that helped. "And later."

"So you slept with his sister first? Kinky." Alison gives him a malicious smile, but before he can explain how completely non-kinky it was, she adds, "Though I'll give you this one; no one can claim two angels on their scorecard. Not bad."

"Yeah," he says a little flatly, turning that over in his head and weirded out by his own vague sense of annoyance that technically, it's actually still only one; two would, actually, be pretty goddamn sweet.

"What happened?" Alison says softly, taking another sip from her cup. "With the people who wanted to kill Cas?"

"They stalked him all day, didn't even hide it." She nods slowly, eyes dark. "They--he and Vera--she was a target, too, that's another fucked up story right there--were in his cabin. Waiting for them." Like Gaius in the Grove of the Furies, his murderers screaming for his blood while he told a Messenger about how humanity was better than this and believed every goddamn word he said. Because that was the important part for him: not his death only moments away, but an idea, a promise received from an infinite being to remember it no matter what. Cas didn't forget, not when it mattered most; that's the reason twenty-something murderers didn't die in Chitaqua that night. "They survived. Un, I mean--"

"Yeah, I figured," she interrupts soothingly, and reaching across the table, she takes his hand, work-callused fingers tight around his. "You didn't know?"

I wasn't even here, Dean thinks helplessly, but it doesn't matter. "No. I should have, though."

"You think?"

Dean jerks his hand away and almost spills the remains of lukewarm tea at her odd smile. "What the hell--"

"Oh boy," she mutters. "Let's hit all the magic words now: should, would, could, hindsight's twenty-twenty, objects in the rearview mirror--"

"--may appear closer than they are," he finishes in disbelief. "Meatloaf, really?"

"Bat Out of Hell II. It's a ten minute track, pretty hard to forget," she says with a shrug, picking up her cup again. "Yet you still forgot. How is that working out for you, anyway?"

He blinks at her.

"It's not," she tells him, waving expressively at--his cup? His head? No idea--before rolling her eyes. "I'm gonna give you the cheat sheet on this one; yes, you should have, would have, could have, and you didn't. Now hindsight's twenty-twenty, we both know the Meatloaf song by heart, so move the fuck on already." She starts to take a drink and scowls unhappily at her empty cup. "More tea?"

"Yeah," he says blankly, watching her retrieve the kettle and pour them both more water before taking it back and after a moment, refilling it and setting it on the burner. Dropping a teabag into his cup, he gets another of the green shit and places it in hers to seep, sighing. "You don't know all of it."

Alison sits down again. "Then why don't you tell me?"

To his own surprise, he does.

"So that's why you waited until after we talked to bring him around," Alison says, retrieving the kettle and giving them both a refill before refilling the kettle and sitting back down. They both go for black this time and let the fuckers steep; caffeine is everyone's friend tonight. "Makes sense."

Sweet and strong as fuck: just like he likes it, nearly scalding his tongue on the first drink. In hindsight, it occurs to him that he didn't have any actual reason for not asking Cas to visit Ichabod before Alison revealed what she was; he just didn't.

"Yeah, it's--"

"Wait, you said it was a feeling," Alison says suddenly, and Dean catches up just in time to see an arrested expression on her face. "Like--random and inexplicable hostility at a large party you put up to someone being a dick? Anything like that?"

Dean takes a drink of tea; there is no safe answer to that.

"Oh God," she says, slumping back in her chair. "There were like, seventy people--"

"Eighty-three," he corrects her, because he's dumb like that. Alison spears him with an incredulous look. "Look, it's not everyone getting the shitty vibes, okay? Just some people--"

"How many?"

"Five left the house, eight avoided any room he was in, and six just stared at him from behind furniture," answers whatever's got control of his tongue. "Look--"

"And that would be why you were Mr. Creepy Possessive Boyfriend all night," Alison says, and Dean blinks as guilt and regret chase each other across her face. "Goddammit, Dean--"

"They can't help it, it's not a big deal, and Cas didn't want you to know, so don't tell him," Dean bursts out before he forgets the first two; the first and third may be true, but the second isn't, not to him. It's not that he objects to getting her on his side in this, but he's still just sane enough to realize one of them just might regret what happens when a psychic gets pissed off, and her expression says that's definitely on the table. "He really--really--doesn't want you to know, okay?"

Alison licks her lips uncertainly. "Why? If I didn't even feel it--"

"That," Dean interrupts desperately, "would be why."

She's quiet for a few seconds, hazel eyes distant. "Everyone--feels it?"

"Everyone feels something," he confirms. "Except me. And you." He hesitates, then decides to just say it. "He can't hide what he is, so--not like I can read his mind here--I think it's nice to be around someone who literally can't tell the difference."

"Other than his boyfriend, yeah, I get that." Alison chews her lip, reaching for her cup before giving Dean a searching look. "People can't help it?"

"That's what he says," Dean answers grudgingly. "Not like I can tell. It's a great way to pass the evening,though. Next time we meet a whole bunch of new people, I'll see if he wants to start a betting pool, figure out if I can call it on sight."

"Can't live his life for him," Alison says practically. "Can't order him to stay in your camp--oh wait, you can do that. My mistake."

Dean glares at her and takes a drink of tea before he says something else he really won't regret.

"Every time Teresa's late getting back, I remember how a few of the people in that town looked really sketchy last time I visited. And why did they want her back so soon, anyway?" Alison takes a long drink, shaking her head. "Kind of suspicious, don't you think? No one mentioned those new vegetable experiments at the last meeting; I wonder if there's a connection?"

He nods slowly; that would be it. "Every time?"

"Every. Goddamn. Time." She takes a drink. "My hindsight starts when she leaves town, Dean. I'm godmother to Danny's next sprog, and yet, I'm trying to figure out if I can give them all the plague with my mind--Jesus, hope that isn't a coming feature, I can tell you right now that won't end well for anyone--because the roads suck and yes, it does take that long every time to get back." She gazes at him over the rim of her cup. "It won't get better, in other words. That doesn't help, does it?"

He tries to remember why he thought he liked her. "Not even a little."

"Could be worse," she adds more lightly. "You could dream the tragedy that is the future and know your job is to stop it from happening on top of that. While not even remembering it."

"Could be," he says, staring down into his cup. "Don't do it."

Alison pauses mid-drink

"He's right, the kids aren't in danger right now, so why jump the gun?" he continues in a rush. "Options: we'll find 'em. All we need is time."

"Dean, we don't know if there is time," she answers, setting her cup down. "Two of those demons got away, and they're going to come back and try to finish this. We both know it's not just a matter of time; it's going to happen and soon."

"I'll put more people here--"

"And when more come after them?" she asks. "And more? How many are going to die to protect them? All of us," she says, answering her own question. "We will, Dean, we'll protect them until every one of us is dead. Or--I do this."

"Or I take them to Chitaqua." Alison opens her mouth, but hey, that's actually a goddamn option, who knew? "Nothing--and I mean nothing--can get through our wards. Not demons, not Lucifer, not the end of reality itself, whatever. It'll be fine."

"…the end of reality?" she falters, eyes wide, and Dean looks suspiciously at his tea; drunken confessions usually need you to be drunk first.

"If that happened." Yeah, that's not reassuring, but he'll pretend it is. "Which it won't. Look, this'll work, I'll just--"

"Move fifteen kids and their parents to a militia camp?" He tries to decide if he should be offended: they got outdoor lights and finished hole for their future mess, and though he still doesn't know why you have to dig a hole before building something (pipes are involved, and maybe concrete?), he's gotta admit as holes go, it's pretty awesome. "Dean, no."


"Because your cabins don't have roofs, and he's not going to kill me, so let's save ourselves some stress and do it this way." She takes a serene sip from her cup. "Which I don't need to be psychic or even reasonable observant to know is the problem here."

Dean grits his teeth. "Look--"

"You realize your room is on the other side of the bathroom from me and Teresa's?" she asks curiously, and Dean shuts his eyes, finishing his tea in a blind gulp. "Walls are great, didn't get the words, but tone--and volume--were pretty self-explanatory."

"I don't want you to die, and I sure as fuck don't want him to have to live with him being the reason." He's still not sure how he ended up apparently arguing for Cas killing Alison for the greater good--what the hell?--but Cas sure as fuck believed it, and Dean picked that up way too late to course-correct back to sanity. Which is why a waterlogged Cas is currently asleep on the very edge of his side the bed (they do, actually, have sides) in the most miserable huddle of ex-angel he's ever witnessed, and he's discovered all new, amazing vistas of guilt.

(It also dawned on him way too late that staring at someone's sleeping back for an hour straight qualifies as goddamn creepy, which would be why he's up the ass-end of the ass-end of the morning. Discussing his domestic issues with his presumed boyfriend, potential human sacrifice, and Meatloaf's back catalogue over tea with a lesbian psychic between sharing stories of how their partners were stalked by mobs who wanted to shoot and/or set them on fire and how to handle that.)

"Tried offering sex?" Alison asks, wide-eyed as she sips from her cup. "Works for me."

Jesus, if he thought that would work, he'd be naked and enthusiastically putting off the inevitable sexual identity crisis for when he has time to deal with it (after: Lucifer's defeat, saving the kids, curing Croatoan, finishing the mess, remembering the password to his goddamn laptop, saving the world, building the new room on the cabin, dealing with that end of reality thing….seriously, he's got a lot of shit to do). He's not goddamn Nate, fucking with Zack's head for two years and change because he can't deal with what he wants and making everyone else not-deal right along with him. For once in his goddamn life, he's not gonna fuck up, and there's no margin of error here, not when it comes to Cas.

…he has no idea where that was going. "He's not doing it. I'll make it an order if I have to." Engaging Cas's auto-reaction to someone giving him an order…it's not that Dean doesn't believe Cas when he says (sincerely, even) that he can obey, but Dean thinks testing that should be left to later, and by that he means 'never'. But whatever, he'll deal.


"Not happening," he says, gulping the rest of his tea and regretting it at the burn of scalding liquid all the way down. Suppressing a cough, he glares at Alison. "No."

"He's not going to kill me."

"You don't know what you're talking about!" he answers, just barely remembering not to shout, though honestly, if tonight's drama double-feature didn't wake the rest of the building up, nothing will. He scrabbles for something--anything--that might make her understand, but he doesn't understand, and that's the entire problem. "You don't understand what he is--"

"You're right," she answers calmly. "I don't."


"Have you ever just watched the stars?" she asks. "I tried, once; my ex tried to introduce me to constellations, swore it was just like connect-the-dots." She makes a face. "Shitty visual imagination or everyone else is crazy, no idea, but I couldn't see it, and I tried, Dean. She was hot."


"I get it now," she continues quickly, staring at the table between them. "He thinks of us in constellations; all the lines are how we're connected--family, friends, guy you met once, it's the Kevin Bacon game but you're playing with infinity and it's not six degrees, it's like four, but in three dimensions--maybe dozens, who knows...." She makes a face, shaking her head. "I don't need to see the lines; they're just there, and some of them are so strong…you have no idea."

Dean licks his lips, chest tight. "Cas."

"I think I reached the edge of the solar system about an hour ago," she adds, emptying her cup in a single gulp. "Not sure, but he thought that was Pluto, anyway, and who am I to argue with an angel's memory?"

He looks at his empty cup and heaves himself to his feet, hoping the kettle's still got some water left, then rethinks that. Turning around, he sees Alison pointing at the cabinet. "Top left cabinet, top shelf."

Coming back to the table with a dusty bottle, splashing three fingers in each of their mostly-empty cups. Clicking the clay rims together, they both take a drink, and Dean makes a mental note to ask where she got this, because Jesus.

Coughing, Alison wipes her eyes, color coming back to her cheeks. "Never used to drink before I got here," she wheezes, setting the cup down unsteadily as tension rolls out of her like an unspooling thread.

"I used to drink a lot more." These days, he's got to set a good example for the crazy ex-angel sleeping the sleep of the Dean-related in the bedroom who's still hazy on the line between recreational and rehab. Between Cas's religious adherence to well-balanced meals and the lack of convenient bars, despite the entire fever shit, he's never been this healthy in his life; somewhere, Sam is waking up to burst out laughing and has no idea why.

Shoving aside the low ache when he thinks of Sam--so habitual he barely notices it in more than changes in pressure--he reaches for the bottle and pours two more fingers for each of them before firmly screwing on the lid.

"Okay," he says, meeting her eyes. "Tell me why you'll survive it."

Alison picks up her cup, contemplating the whiskey. "I'm not sure how--"

"Start with the memory thing," he interrupts. "What memory?"

This part, Dean actually gets.

"It's like this," Alison tells him, hands closed white-knuckled around her cup but expression wondering. "It wasn't just the memory; it was all the times he remembered it, too. How he remembered it and that--changed what he saw," she corrects herself uncertainly, peering at Dean. "Does that make sense?"

It does; the difference between living it and the colors you paint it in afterward. Cas's memory is perfect, it couldn't change, but how he viewed it did. Two children by the ocean: the impersonal curiosity of an angel whose recalcitrant charge was a source of both bewilderment and distant stress, the first time Cas maybe started to question and search out the answer. The layers came afterward, when they became Dean and Sam playing in the surf miles from the motel they'd been trapped in for days before they finally escaped.

(He wondered why they built a sandcastle, then wondered about the lack of accuracy in the turrets, then wondered why they didn't get more water to achieve better sand-to-liquid ratio and wished he could have helped; he wondered why they ran into the ocean laughing, then wondered why they didn't do it more, because it looked very enjoyable, then wondered what it would feel like to walk into the water himself, feel it lapping around his feet and knees and be consumed beneath the waves; he wondered why they loved it there so much, what attraction the sand and water and air could offer them, then wondered, with a pain almost physical, how they could bear to leave, and how their father could possibly want to make them; he'd stay forever if he could.

It's a good thing he never drives when he's drinking; otherwise, he'd have thrown Cas in the cabin of the jeep already and made for the coast, direction unimportant, just so Cas can walk on his own two mortal feet on shifting sand and see his face the first time he steps into the surf.)

"He likes remembering it," Alison murmurs with a secret smile, eyes distant, like she's feeling it herself, and the blaze of envy, jealous, anger, pick them all, is so strong he can't even speak for a moment, harsh words trapped on the tip of his tongue. Like she's taken something away from him, even just that glimpse into Cas's mind.

"Yeah," he says roughly, pouring them each another finger; they need to pace themselves to get through this, no matter the attraction of more alcohol to drown out what he can't deny. "Keep going."

She does, putting into awkward words what no mortal in all of time has ever experienced; she's glimpsed infinity--a single drop of time and space within a single infinite memory--and survived to tell him she can do it again.

They've done some damage to the level of alcohol in that bottle when Alison says, "It's not just that, though."

Resting his chin in his hand, Dean sighs; of course it's not. "Look, it's not that I don't believe you--"

"You don't believe me."

That's true. "I believe you believe it," he concedes, picking up the bottle and pouring them both another couple of fingers. "Cas knows he will kill you, though. Believe versus know…you see where this is going?"

"Which is a problem," Alison agrees, looking into the depths of her cup thoughtfully. "I'm not sure what to do about that, though. Any ideas?"

Dean stops mid-drink, lowering his cup. "What?"

"Know he won't kill me," she says, turning the cup in her hands. "Even 'maybe': I can handle it from there. Only a second, Dean, that's all it'll take him to fix the kids' minds; that long, I can do this. But not if he doesn't know I can. And that he won't. Kill me, I mean."

He briefly considers just how much alcohol he's had tonight, but depressingly, he's pretty sure that's not why he knows exactly what she means. What he's started to suspect--vaguely, but he's pretty certain he's right--is only confirmed by what she's told him.

For an angel, 'personality' is a very thin veneer over the massive combination of infinite knowledge and cosmic power that makes up what they are and what they do, and that doesn't even include the built-in shit Cas calls instinct because Dean wouldn't understand it under any other name (he does get Cas dumbs shit down for him a lot and appreciates how Cas manages not to roll his eyes when he does it). It makes sense, he supposes; it can't be easy to even develop something approaching individuality when most of you isn't even, technically speaking, 'you', and that's even if you--for what value there is of that--know what that even means.

Angels, like gods, don't have free will, and maybe that should have told Dean everything all on its own, but it didn't, not until he realized he was looking at one that had just that. Nothing like watching someone hemorrhaging blood in front of you to teach you fast exactly what encompasses 'all things' no matter how sketchy the explanation might have been, and what it meant that he could turn it on but not off. There are rules, Cas told him more than once, but for a god, for an angel, those rules are there from the moment of their creation, and those kind of rules aren't the kind that you can break.

When Cas couldn't stop, he looked surprised, but Dean wasn't, not really, not when he thought about it. Watching Cas's increasingly frantic efforts, it hit him like a truck that it might not be possible for Cas to stop; in all his existence, he'd never had to or needed to--or even a concept of doing that--and it would follow the off-switch may not simply be hidden, but not even exist. The built-ins for an angel didn't include how to stop being one even when they weren't one anymore.

Then again, he wasn't sitting on an angel's lap that day; this was Cas, and even back then, Dean was starting to understand the only limits on what Cas could do given motivation were the ones he believed in himself. If there wasn't an off-switch, not a problem; Cas would fucking make one, and if he never knew the difference, all the better. All Dean needed to do was get him to do it, and if there's one thing Dean Winchester's past and present got down to an art, it was that.

"Even if--" He cuts himself off; even saying that much is a betrayal, though of whom he's not sure. "What if you're wrong?"

"The risk--"

"I know the risk!" Alison stiffens, eyes wide. "If it's not a hundred percent guaranteed, it's zero, and he's not doing it."

He tosses back the contents of his cup; it's not about you, Cas told him, and it may be simultaneously the truest and stupidest thing said in that room tonight (and God knows, it had some competition). The place where Dean's supposed to be a leader is still in progress, but he'll get there one day. The place Cas has was there first, though, and when those two aren't compatible, he's not sorry at all about which one's always gonna win. Cas doesn't need to fight everything on his own, not anymore; for once in his goddamn existence, he'll have one person that's fighting for him, and he's still not sure just how pissed he is that Cas hasn't figured that out on his own.

After a protracted silence, Alison sighs, refilling both their cups. "I didn't think you'd go for it."

"I'm surprised Teresa did," he answers without thinking and is rewarded with Alison's cup making very aggressive contact with the table. Looking up, he catches a fleeting look of resentful guilt and does the (only slightly drunken) math. "Tell me why you're up this late again?"

"Nightmare," she says shortly, daring him to contradict him as she takes her shot and pours another; at this rate, they're both fucked, so why abstain? "Your fucking boyfriend gave her second thoughts, happy?"

"Hell yes." Saluting her, he takes a moderate sip from his cup, grinning maliciously at her. "Must be weird."

She rolls her eyes, reaching for the bottle again. "What?"

"You and Teresa--" He just catches himself, wondering what the hell he's saying. She gives him a querying look over her cup, and he tries desperately to think of something else to add to that. "Did it bother you--when you found out? What she was?"

"Why would it?" The hazel eyes narrow. "She could have been a werewolf, and we'd just, you know, work with it. Avoid hanging out during full moons, that sort of thing."

A werewolf-witch: only a surprise he hasn't run into one of those before, now that he thinks about it. "And the thing you have--"

"Bond?" she clarifies with elaborate patience.

Dean grimaces; 'thing' was working just fine for him, thanks. "It's like a shitty episode of Star Trek when you say that."

"TOS or TNG?" He opens his mouth to answer and just barely catches himself at her satisfied expression. "That's what I thought."

"Look, easier to let Sam watch his shitty sci-fi than argue, okay?" Alison blinks, brown eyes focusing abruptly, and Dean curses whiskey and a liver that's way more surprised by alcohol these days than it has any right to be. Licking his lips, he opens his mouth to tell her cousin, friend, random dude on the street, but the words die in his throat. Denying Sam's like denying part of himself--the best part, the part that gave him a reason to get up in the morning and go to bed at night, live high school again in report cards and books and essays and fucking Trig and Calculus when dawn was only hours away and exhaustion sure, but that could wait, Sam had class and it wouldn't. There's nothing of him that Sam didn't create, change, mold into the shape of the man he became, and denying it would be like killing both of them at once. "My younger brother."

"Oh." She straightens, fingers closing more tightly over the body of the mug. "Brother. That--huh."


"Nothing," she says too quickly, taking a drink from her cup. "Random thought, dreams--"

"You're bad at lying."

"Shitty side effect of being psychic," she mumbles, giving the cup a resentful look and then adding him for good measure. "Nothing like being able to read other people's thoughts--whether you want to or not--that makes you sympathetically honest just to compensate."

Despite himself, he's curious. "People lie to themselves a lot?"

"Know thyself," she snorts. "Most people never even met themselves, it's crazy. I'll tell you something else--nothing like being a psychic to learn people. I avoided it most of my life, and trust me, I get the dramatic irony of it."

"Can't help your opinion on humanity," he says wryly, unbelievably glad he doesn't have to deal with that. Sometimes, it feels like he's a shitty thought away from being a really efficient serial killer; sometimes, he thinks he already is and just got really lucky on his preferred choice of victim. It's not a thought that keeps him up at night, though, and that should worry him more than it does, which is never. People lie to themselves: no surprise there. Who would want to know themselves, that's the question.

"Lies about lies about lies," she sighs. "People are so much better than they think they are."

Dean checks himself, cup half-way to the table. "What?"

"Tell me about it," she says with a snort. "Prescriptivist judgment calls they'd never expect another person to live up to, but themselves….it's like living inside a goddamn purity test that never fucking stops, and those went out with the dodo bird and flannel shirts when I was in grad school. People bend themselves into every shape under the sun to get all the answers perfect. It's not that hard to be a decent human being," she adds. "But everyone--and I do mean everyone--thinks they're one step and bad day from a clock tower. Metaphorically speaking."

Dean tightens his grip on his cup.

"I catch myself hugging people," Alison continues, bafflement in her voice. "No way I can tell them, it's okay, it was one extra ration of grain, it happens. You yelled at your kid: surprise, kids are people and can be dicks, too. You faked sick to get out of work: sunshine, everyone pulls that shit, including Teresa's mysterious migraines that clear up amazingly after a chapter or two alone in a not-so-dark room."

"My migraines," Teresa says from the door, voice husky, and whoa, maybe not something he needs to be dwelling on, "are not fake."

Alison's face lights up, hazel eyes glinting green and gold like light through stained glass, even as she settles her features into sardonic amusement; he wonders, uncertain, what it's like to have someone look at you like that, like you're the best part of their world.

"Yes, dear, of course," Alison answers with syrupy sweetness. "Fran finally banging Stuart was better than morphine, I noticed that."

"'The Stand', Stephen King," Teresa tells him, hovering behind Alison's chair and curling her fingers in the loose hair to tug Alison's head back and glare into her face. "Educational as well, considering our lives."

"My mistake," Alison answers mockingly. "Your migraines are educationally cured. You are truly a wonder of nature." The corners of her mouth turn up. "Literally. Or so the earth seems to think."

"Insomnia," Teresa tells Dean, still looking down at Alison. "And this is my life. It's all I dreamed of as a girl."

"And you're marrying me," Alison marvels. "Should I give the ring back?"

"Fuck you," she answers, leaning down for a kiss that Dean really thinks may deserve privacy, which doesn't change how he's totally not looking away. Plucking the cup from Alison's hand, Teresa bolts the contents and sets it back on the table. "Anytime you're ready."

"You're getting married," Dean says belatedly, looking between two sets of startled eyes; yeah, they forgot he was even here. "I mean--are you?"

"Yep," Alison answers as Teresa pulls back her chair, a smile lighting up her face. "Come summer--it's kind of a thing here, no idea why. Giant party, lots of food, do the marriages and baptisms and comings of age thing, whatever." She smiles lasciviously. "Do the math at the daycare; we got a lot of births come March and April."

Dean smirks. "Keep on keeping on. People are awesome like that."

"Manuel and Mercedes are relieved," Teresa says, reaching for Alison's hand and manually guiding her out of the chair. "That we will no longer be living in sin, as it were. I get lectured about making Alison an honest woman every time he goes to confession."

"Judge not," Alison intones as Teresa steadies her, and not just because of her ankle, "lest not ye be judged."

"Lightweight," Dean says mockingly, raising his cup in a toast. "Love, honor, and obey, not that I judge."

Alison's eyes narrow before they dart sideways and she begins to smirk. Dean's got no excuse for being surprised when he hears, gravelly and rough, "At least the two of you aren't playing poker until dawn."

Dean closes his eyes as Cas crosses the room, stopping just behind his chair, but for some reason, he can't quite stop smiling. "That didn't happen."

"It did happen," Teresa says, a ripple of laughter in her voice. "But I acquired several pairs of socks and a Glock automatic, so I'm not complaining. You got him, Cas?"

"She looks like a high school teacher," Dean tells Cas, tipping his head back and noting Cas looks hilarious upside down, "but she's a shark, dude."

"Yes, we're fine, thank you, Teresa," Cas tells Teresa, and Dean watches in bemusement as Cas takes his cup and checks the contents before finishing it off. He stands up on his own, though, unlike Alison, who Teresa's supporting pretty much completely (table's kind of unsteady, though. And the floor, too). "Have a pleasant night."

"Night," Alison says over Teresa's shoulder on their way to the door. "Don't do anything I wouldn't. Though that's not much. Except for dicks; never really got into them."

Teresa makes a soft sound that Dean assumes means she'll be laughing her ass off once she's got Alison dumped into bed. Turning around, he looks at Cas, who stares back balefully.

"What?" Searching Cas's face, Dean remembers their earlier conversation. "Killing Alison. That's not on the table."

Cas's expression melts into--holy shit, what is that?

"I don't. Want that." Dean stares into Cas's eyes as hard as he can. "I figured it out. Got us some options. One option. Good one, though."

Cas blinks at him helplessly before tilting his head toward the hall. "Perhaps we could discuss this in our room?"

"Alison says the walls are great, but tone carries," Dean tells him wisely, waving a free hand and immediately losing his balance. Cas catches him, of course, heaving one of Dean's arms over his shoulders with a strangled sigh. "I'm not drunk."

"You're very drunk," Cas corrects him, eyeing the bottle on the table that looks--actually, really empty, and he's pretty sure it wasn't near that earlier. "If it's any consolation, Alison is as well."

"I'm not that much of a lightweight," Dean protests, and proves he just might be when his feet refuse to do the walking thing, knees dissolving like water. "Am I?"

"Now you know I felt the other night," Cas answers sympathetically. "It's very disconcerting."

"Pot may be a sacrament," Dean tells him as they start toward the hall to their room, "but alcohol is like, air or something. This is wrong."

Maneuvering them through the bedroom door, Cas pauses to close it behind them before walking him to his side of the bed and easing him onto the mattress, vanishing only to return with a fucking huge glass of water and watching until Dean gets it all down. "You should lie down--"

"I wouldn't ask you to kill Alison," Dean says again, looking up at Cas. It's too dark to see his expression, but he hopes it's getting through. "You gotta know that."

"No, you wouldn't."

"I don't want you to, either."

Cas stills, and God, Dean would do anything right now to see his face. "If you want to talk, lie down first. You're much better, but it seems I need to remind you that you just recovered from yet another ridiculous fever and your strength is limited."

"I do it just to piss you off," Dean tells him, but lies down anyway, watching Cas circle the bed. "It's fun for me."

"I suspected as much." Pulling back the blankets, Cas climbs in with the faint awkwardness of someone practicing a new skill. Rolling on his side, Dean waits for Cas to notice him and has the satisfaction of seeing him actually jump a little. "You should--"

"You don't believe me." He may be drunk, but he's never felt more sober in his life. "Why? You think I don't get--"

"You think--think I should consider it, however."

"I think we should consider all our options. That's not the same as doing any of them. And I got a new one anyway, so let's consider that one, how about that?"

He can actually feel Cas's gaze sharpen. "What option?"

"Take 'em to Chitaqua," he answers promptly--and maybe a little smugly, but whatever. "Wards will protect 'em until we can figure out how to fix 'em. Buy us some time."

Cas seems less than impressed. "Chitaqua?"

"Repair some cabins, get 'em water and a few generators, it'll be fine." Cas isn't the only one who can handle logistics. Details are kinda sketchy on how to make that happen, but he'll figure it out. "It'll work."

"And Alison agreed to this?" Cas asks dubiously.

"She will," he answers confidently. "So what do you think?"

For some reason, he's getting the feeling Cas isn't feeling this plan. "Dean, have you considered--"

"It'll work," Dean interrupts; maybe he just needs time to think about it more, see the awesome? "They're safe, and you don't worry about--you know, what's not on the table. Not even think about it."

"Moving fifteen families to Chitaqua isn't…." Cas trails off. "So I won't think about it?"

Dean nods, unbelievably grateful Cas made him lie down when the room does something a lot like spinning in place. "Exactly. I'll make it an order."

"That…I won't think about it?"

"Do it." Finally he thinks his eyes have adjusted enough to get an idea of Cas's expression, which just makes it fucking annoying he still can't read it. "So you don’t have to, you know."

"Think about it?" Dean nods enthusiastically and regrets it; that nodding thing really should have been a lesson. "Oh."

Cas's silence is somehow worse than the anger, creating a distance that nothing he's said seems to be able to cross. "Cas--"

"Tomorrow--or later today, I suppose---we should discover more regarding what happened at the church if we can, since my lack of memory makes a great deal of our conclusions simply speculation." To Dean's surprise, Cas lies down, tucking an arm under his head before continuing. "I'll request access to Dolores' records on what she found when she examined the bodies. There are certain--things that would be more familiar to me than to you. Historically speaking. They might give us more information, or an indication of where we should look next."

Dean nods slowly; maybe he was imagining--whatever that was. Lightweight, he reminds himself hopefully.

"I'm helping with breakfast," Cas adds in an abrupt change of subject. "According to the schedule on the refrigerator, it's Sudha's turn tomorrow, and she promised last time I was here to show me how to make nopalitos con huevos with naan. Apparently, nopal did wonders for her morning sickness, and she's acquired a taste for it."

"It's cactus."

"It's nutritious, and the recipe involves several other vegetables, which according to my calculations, will cover two of your four daily helpings of fruit and vegetables."

Vera wasn't actually joking about Cas reading her books, but it was so much funnier when it was obscure diseases, prescription interactions, weird allergies, and Vera's suffering. "I don't hear bacon on the ingredient list."

"A third of the household is exclusively vegetarian," Cas says didactically, because he takes Dean's food intake seriously and asks people about things like this, "so most dishes are meat-optional and meat is prepared separately and added to the dish for those who eat it. Sudha's husband, however, does not have a religious dietary restriction against pork, so that will probably be a feature in the morning. He seems to have a fondness for chorizo."

"Fuck this army to fight Lucifer bullshit," Dean breathes. "Let's live here and be farmers."

"And salsa," Cas adds, like it's no big thing when holy shit, salsa, "as Manuel was able to successfully culture the correct peppers in their garden and the results preserved in jars in their pantry." He frowns. "Making Eldritch Horror did make me familiar with preservation techniques when applied to alcohol, and I certainly was extremely successful in my gardening efforts, such as they were."

Dean blinks slowly. "You want to--plant a garden in Chitaqua so you can make salsa?" Dean's tries to work out what gardens need and how they can get it to Chitaqua. It involves dirt and seeds and watering cans--on TV, they have flowers on 'em, no, he'll get something more metal for Cas--and Cas spreadsheeting his gardening efforts (color coded, that map pencil thing told him a lot), maybe chewing straw because TV, but even his imagination fails at Cas in overalls. "We can do that. When do you want to start?"

"I wasn't serious."

"Yeah you were." Cas wets his lips, and the lack of denial is pretty noticeable here. "Why not?"

That's the bulletproof question: Cas's approach to life on earth hasn't been--by any sane measure--an unqualified success, but coming in as a rebel with way too many causes (legion, even) means he gives zero fucks when it comes to bullshit restrictions on anything and the why-not threshold, as far as Dean can tell, is set somewhere in the stratosphere.

In the part of his mind that's deeply uncomfortable with even the comparison, Dean wonders if his predecessor tried the Raising Sam Method with Cas, a proven approach that totally works right up until it fails like a lot (age 9, if anyone's curious). It's not that he's comparing Sam and Cas (he really, really is), but if he's right (oh God, he thinks he is), Dean the former got lucky; Sam just ran off to college: evidence suggests that if Cas had run off, it'd been to Oklahoma or Waco or something to start a freaky sex cult fueled by mescaline and pseudo-adolescent rage against the man. It's not like entire thing about driving is subtle, above and beyond Cas's completely unsurprising lead foot when given highway and a means to drive it. He has previous-Dean-shaped demons of long drives past to dispel and fantasies of the German autobahn to aspire to. Not a problem, though he's waiting for Cas to finally snap and just shout he gets a hard-on for triple digit speeds.

Wow, he's totally a lightweight; definitely the alcohol talking. Thinking. Something.

"I don't have time for frivolous pursuits," says the founder of the Chitaqua Stoner Society and Group Sex Project, who organizes his map pencils by tint, private armory by functionality, pantry on a rotating schedule getting more esoteric by the week, and gets really intensely into the right mix of oils to get that 'does this a lot' gleam to his guns. Someone Dean owes a lot taught Cas to fold their clothes department store-crisp, and he really, really needs to go to Laundry Day soon and observe the magic of Cas facing down that dryer with the broken timer. "There's too much to do--"

"There's not, and if there was? Blow it off."

Cas looks at him blankly, oblivious to the existence of all-night orgies with a Sex Pistols soundtrack and a 'shroom religious experience in the training field, the colors, man, infrared is like--dude. Intense. Or so Mark said.

"Hobby," Dean explains, and if anything, Cas's expression enters a whole new realm of bewildered. "Thing you do because you like it and it's fun. Just because you want to. It's relaxing." Or so he's heard; the hobby thing is new territory, and for a while, he had a vague idea it had something to do with stamps or coins or sitting in trees staring at birds or something. "It'd be good for you."

Cas' radiates a combination of confusion and suspicion, like maybe Dean's fucking with his secret garden of the year aspirations for kicks. "You don't have a hobby."

"I could get one," Dean counters. "Gardening? Sounds cool: I'm in."

"You're serious." Like he just can't believe they're having this conversation. That makes two of them; this went sideways somewhere along the way, but fuck it, he's committed now. "You want a garden."

"You want a garden," Dean answers firmly: watering cans, seeds, things you dig with, some claw thing, can't be that hard, goddamn cavemen pulled it off, but he's not okay with overalls, that's just not happening. They'll start when they get back to Chitaqua, and this--this entire thing will be over. It'll be fine. "So we're making one. Any questions?"

The smell of deliciousness wafts into the bedroom, drawing Dean from his hard-earned rest and into the shower and then the kitchen without any clear memory of the chain of events that led him to holding a cup of hot coffee and being gently ushered through a couple of rooms and out a door he's never seen before.

Blinking uncertainly, Dean comes to realize he's standing on a small stone patio and the subject of three sets of curious eyes and also, there's a lot of green out here. "Hey."

"Not just you," Manuel tells him, hovering over something that looks--he's not sure, it's green. No sign of peppers, but maybe it's the wrong season or something. Do peppers have seasons? "Sudha said we were screwing with Cas's concentration and threw us out."

Dean gulps a mouthful of scalding coffee to get something like clarity, sinking down on the concrete steps and taking in what he's pretty sure is what he and Cas are going to be trying to create real soon now.

What was probably once the back alley of this building and the one on the next street has undergone a revolution; concrete pulled up, rubble turned into what he thinks are maybe borders. Craning his neck, he looks either direction and is faced with what looks like miles of greenery, the bobbing heads of other people up at this ungodly hour doing their thing. Whatever that is.

Straightening, Teresa stretches her back, sighing at the audible pop, and makes her way to the steps, snagging a coffee cup from the ground and dropping beside him with another sigh, resting her head on one hand. There are faded olive stains on jeans liberally dusted with fresh earth and the ragged flannel shirt over a worn Henley has the same look of habitual garden wear. So there's clothes for this that aren't overalls: good to know.

"God," she groans, taking a drink. "It's too early to be awake."

"You out here every morning?" Dean asks, trying not to be appalled at his potential future spread out before him in all its organic majesty.

"Nah, just once a week during the off-season unless we're growing for personal use," Teresa says with a yawn, eyes falling half-shut. "We're late spring and summer on this street; Syracuse does fall and winter. Herbs and specialties are Second Street That way, everyone gets a seasonal break. Slack off."

Dean's eyes travel to Manuel hovering over his plants protectively, staring at a leaf intently like it's telling him secrets. Well, his sister's a witch who talks to the earth; if Manuel can talk to plants, not a surprise. And really useful, come to think; he wonders how well Eldritch Horror would trade for talking up Cas's garden and encouraging it to be bountiful and lush and amazing. One thing even Cas won't be able to believe he did wrong.

"So these feed everyone here?" Dean doesn't even pretend he can do vegetable math, but he's falling short on quantity per person.

"There was life before mass farming," Teresa tells him, sounding amused. "People did it like this for centuries and it worked out just fine. Give or take a famine or two." He follows her gaze to Mercedes, serenely hard at work moving--leaves?--around, long brown fingers twist-tying pieces of what Dean realizes is chickenwire into shape around a group of plants huddled close to the ground. "South fields, too: north fields are where we grow what we're gonna trade."

"And the animal--stuff." Teresa winces. "You, either?"

"This close to vegetarian when I took my first shift and we were doing a culling," she says sadly, holding finger and thumb very close together. "I named them. I didn't know."

Yeah, that's what he figured. "I have no idea how you're all doing this."

"Me either," she answers, smirking at his surprise. "I'm just a pair of hands and a check-in with the earth. Mercedes and Alejandro are third-generation migrant and Dina got a degree in agriculture. They do all our crop planning. Every season, they take a week and three laptops to one of the rooms in admin and do a review, call in the leads to survey the land, Lanak from inventory for our supply lists, work out the margin of error we have to work with." She give Dean a wry look. "INS saves lives, who knew?"

He grimaces. "Mercedes and Alejandro were in custody when the borders closed?"

"With me and Antonio," she confirms, blowing out a breath. "The migrant circuit--let's say there's a lot of people confusing 'assumption' with 'fact'. I grew up in the Valley, went to UT Pam-Am after I graduated high school--"

"Did an apprenticeship for witchcraft," Dean interrupts.

"--and got a degree in History," she says, raising her chin. "I kept busy." The faint smile vanishes. "After my first circuit with them on a hunt, I started carrying my birth certificate and social security card with my ID, like Mercedes told me when I volunteered to follow them in the first place. Hearing 'Do you speak English' as the first question anyone in a uniform asked me stopped being funny really fast, and so did being taken into custody until they could verify my citizenship." Her expression darkens. "They were used to it; show their papers, get stared at for a while, then they'd get let off with a warning to be less Hispanic or something, that never was clear. I wasn't." She slants a look at him. "You made a weird la migra, Dean; you never asked the right questions, for one. "

Dean closes his eyes, fighting the urge to curl up in a ball. "How much did they tell you?"

"A gringo with a Spanish For Tourists in his jacket pocket, that he'd actually try to use?" She leans closer, mouth curving in a smile. "It was nice; I got back from New Mexico after a stupidly long job--fucking fae, in goddamn Phoenix? Why?--and got to feel professionally inadequate because the reason they didn't call me back was some random guy showed up. And your eyes--Jesus, if I heard one more sigh about 'totally like jade or emeralds, Teresa'…."

"Zena," Dean says immediately, and Teresa's eyebrows soar to her hairline. "Uh, we--got to know each other. She was really helpful. Hey, tell me what you're growing? Do you use a watering can?" Then, "So you--knew her?"

"First cousin on my mother's side," Teresa says with relish. "Third year of her apprenticeship; she came to it late and volunteered to vet you." She waits a deliberate, heart-stopping beat. "Thoroughly."

He'll say this much; Zena was very, very fucking thorough. "Uh."

"You passed, by the way." Teresa laughs heartlessly at his expression. "Mama thought it was hilarious, once she was sure you were legit. A hunter in the colonias of all places--how old were you, anyway? Twenty?"

"Twenty-two," Dean answers glumly, taking another drink of now-cool coffee; Sam just left for Stanford and Dad was being Dad a little too much for close contact without the potential for patricide. "One of my first jobs on my own. It was late, bartender in Las Cruces mentioned something going on west of McAllen, thought I'd check it out."

"You were there to exorcise the altar boy." Teresa sighs noisily. "Everyone wants to. We have a club for it. I got four hundred years of maps and notes from about half a dozen generations, never got anywhere. In Laredo, before you ask."

"I'd kill to see 'em," Dean says honestly. "A border guard or two wouldn't bother me too much. Just saying."

"Raised their prices again?" she asks wryly. "Tell me about it."

"You wouldn't believe what they charge for some shit," he answers, frowning at his cup. "Information and prescription speed, not a problem--okay, the prices are ridiculous, but still. Anything else, though…." After getting his hands on Joe's meticulously documented records of his supply runs over the last couple of years, he learned more about economics than high school ever got around to explaining. Talk about the raw potential of supply and demand when demand needed it to survive.

Teresa gives him a curious look. "What were you trying to get? Viagra?"

"Funny." Finishing his cup, Dean sets it on the porch, staring at the greenery. "Okay, so this is your summer crops. So how does it work? You--"

"Why," she asks suspiciously, "does this feel like actual interest for more than guilt-related purposes?"

"I feel guilty," Dean protests, clutching his coffee cup and feeling trapped. "This is guilt. So much guilt." Then he gives up, because come to think, he's really gonna need help with this. "Cas wants a garden at Chitaqua."

From beside him radiates silence that can't mean anything good.

"Look, he's done it before," Dean continues a little desperately. "The gardening thing, I mean, it was just--"

"Marijuana, friend of us all," Teresa drawls, south Texas dripping off every word, and yeah, gossip. "I'm assuming this isn't going to be Chitaqua's cash crop…."

"I'm still not okay with being drug dealer to Kansas," Dean interrupts. "Call me crazy, but we got standards."

"Please, like we don't grow our own," Teresa sniffs. Before he can process that, she adds, "So Cas wants a garden? For what?"

"Maybe salsa?" He can actually feel Teresa's eyebrows go up. "I don't know. Something that'll grow and he can preserve or something." Running a hand through his hair, he sighs. "Look--"

"Give me a minute," Teresa says in a different voice. Startled, he looks at her, and sees her eyes unfocus for a long minute, something gleaming in them before she starts to grin and relaxes. "Sorry, I didn't know the earth could laugh."

"You're really working the weird angle this morning," Dean points out, depressingly not even a little unnerved.

"Let me talk to Mercedes, see what'll work for a beginner," she says, still grinning. "You want me to come up and check the land? Tell Cas it's ready to grow things, give him some confidence?"

"Yes, please," he answers gratefully, only belatedly aware it was a test by Teresa's expression. "We weren't lying--if you and Alison need help, bring your family and come. We should get you up there anyway sometime soon; Cas has to do something with the wards to key you or whatever. Make it a weekend. We can get you a cabin. Might even have electricity."

Behind them, the door opens and Cas's head pokes out, surveying the garden with a brief, speculative look that confirms that no, last night wasn't a weird alcohol-related hallucination; he's not that much of a lightweight, and right this moment, that's a genuine goddamn disappointment. So. He and Cas will be planting a garden. Jesus Christ.

"Breakfast will be ready in five minutes," he announces, accomplishment adding a sense of righteousness to his voice that Dean hasn't heard since Cas talked about the Lord's work. "You're supposed to wash your hands beforehand." A glance at Dean, accusing, tells him that he didn't know this was a prerequisite for meals and guess what Dean'll be doing when they get back in Chitaqua.

"Thanks, Cas," Dean tells him sincerely as Cas deliberately shuts the door, aware that Teresa's looking at him quizzically. "Human cohabitation rules. He takes notes. Doesn't need to, just wants 'em to use against me later. Who knew that 'we were inconsistent in applying them'. That's a quote, by the way."

"And that's your partner," Teresa observes.

"Yeah," he answers, matching her grin; it's true. Getting to his feet, he extends a hand to help her to her feet, then seeing Mercedes rubbing her back, remembers what Amanda told him last night. Skipping down the stairs, he uses one of the little concrete-block paths--oh, that's a good idea, remember that--he helps her up.

"Hey, Amanda told me last night," he says, suddenly feeling awkward, because she's not even showing yet, and is it his imagination or is she glowing? Or maybe just from work. "Congratulations. The baby, I mean."

Mercedes smiles up at him, immediately moving in for a hug, and Dean fights the terror of touching her too much--Jesus Christ, she's not made of glass, just pregnant--while Manuel wipes his hands on his jeans on his way over, looking so happy that Dean's chest tightens in sympathy.

Honestly, this is one of the better mornings he's had in his life.

After breakfast--and Dean's never blessed Cas's perfect memory more than at this moment, doesn't even need to write down the recipe--Dean and Teresa take over clean up while Alison and Cas argue silently using their forks and food to express their feelings until there's literally nothing left on that table they can eat and everyone else has cleared out (looking sympathetically at Dean and Teresa, but not sympathetic enough to stick around).

Clearing the table hastily of the detritus of breakfast, Dean escapes to the sink for voluntary dish duty as soon as he can be reasonably sure it doesn't look like the full scale retreat it is, Teresa right behind him.

He's learned this morning that the water from the sinks and the showers are redirected into some kind of filter thing and then to the gardens out back, so watering cans are for spot-checking only. So all he's got to figure out is how to do that, and Cas's adventures in upgrading Chitaqua's plumbing woes to minimal human standard are gonna come in handy. The reports covering Home Improvement Weeks have their own box, but Dean's pretty sure Zack's name was on the list of people who knew shit about pipes, but on a guess, this is gonna be a camp-wide effort.

Then Cas says, "I wish to address the parents of the affected children today. When would be the most convenient time to do so?"

"What," Dean asks blankly, wrist-deep in soapy water.

"What?" Alison asks almost on top of him. "Why?"

"I was present during the initial attempt to sacrifice their children," Cas answers. "They have the right to know what happened--"

"You," Dean says over his shoulder, unsteadily handing Teresa a plate, "don't remember what happened."

"--and that I was there to witness it." Only belatedly does Dean recognize the lack of vocal cues, sarcasm and amusement and personality flattening away; Cas the angel is back in the building, and it's nothing, nothing at all like what he was doing that day in the cabin. "And what I am."

Dean turns around. "No."

"They should know," he says to Alison, and Teresa catches the cup Dean's still holding that drops from numb fingers. "I want to tell them, if you think they'll believe me."


"I'm updating my playbook," Cas says simply, not looking away from Alison. "So far, it's been somewhat successful. As you told me it would be."

"For the record," Dean answers tightly, "I was lying, all of it. Baby steps, Cas. Let's start with people I can shoot without feeling bad about myself because I command 'em."

"Teresa?" Alison asks as Dean stares at Cas, a faint prickling running up his spine. "What do you think?"

Glancing at Teresa, he's surprised to see her watching Cas. "Alison, call a meeting with all the parents for after the noon meal; we need to do it anyway, so might as well do it now. I'll take Cas to get copies of Dolores records on the bodies before we burned them. Dean, meet us at admin at one. Until then, Alison can show you our crop schedule."

"I'm what?" Alison asks blankly, almost drowning out Dean's "What?"

"I don't really care what you do," Teresa says dismissively, nudging Dean to finish the few remaining dishes. "Anything's fine. That's the plan. Deal with it."

Talking with Tony--currently in admin and Alison's first stop in times of trouble, as mayor emeritus is apparently a lifetime position--is reassuring in that way that nothing's really reassuring right now, because Dean's been at Chitaqua too long. After sending someone to pass the message to the other affected parents, they settle down in Alison's office for some quality sitting time.

"You know," Tony says thoughtfully, leaning against the official desk of the mayor, which looks like it went through a couple of wars and what he's pretty sure is actually char on the right side, "that explains a lot."

Dark skin uncreased by time, Tony still has the body of a roughneck, thin but carrying the rangy muscle of years working on rigs; even the boss got down and dirty when it came to living on an tiny metal island miles from the coast for months at a time. He doesn't show his age in anything but experience, and considering his experience ranges from Gulf rigs to Mediterranean ones, traveling under the radar through half the Middle East because nineties America loved oil but their contractors were disposable, that says something. Fluent in more than one dialect of Arabic, learned the old fashioned way from crews who didn't speak English and disliked Americans on principle (and as Tony remarked wryly over homemade beer, for pretty good reason), it doesn't surprise Dean at all he's the one that held Ichabod together from the first and built it into the town it is now. Alison is only now learning to work with people, but Tony's life didn't offer a lot of choice in getting people skills fast, and you can't do much better than model on someone like him.

Dean, slumped in one of the ridiculous comfortable chairs, all sun-bleached overstuffed comfort and smelling vaguely of outdoors--Alison's office is awesome, no lie--stares at him in bewilderment. It's not that Cas isn't weird, but….oh. "You saw him fighting the Croats?"

"Walter recorded it," Tony confirms, flooring Dean once again on the ways of Ichabod. "Security cameras. We installed them last year on Second and Main, because Walter needed something to do and inventing cold fusion and the internet again wasn't working out. We figured it couldn't hurt, surprised us all when he got them online. He flips them on during attacks on the town. Unexpectedly useful when we can get them up; he's still working on that part."

"Of course he is," Dean commiserates at Tony's put-upon look. "So the footage was weird?"

"Cas was with Amanda a lot," Tony says wryly, crossing his arms. "I've seen her on the training field, so she was a good baseline. Between them, they almost cleared Second and Main all on their own. He decapitated two Croats that got too close by ripping off their heads, didn't even slow down on his way to the square." Tony radiates cheerful satisfaction, which makes sense; this is Apocalypseworld, those were Croats, and people here are crazy. "Manuel and Amanda had all the patrol leads and the trainees review the footage. Might have pulled rank and sat in to watch."

"You don't have any in the square?" Dean asks casually, fighting the urge to rub his arm. He doubts it, which is great--Croat bite and talking about feelings and everything--but that blank space should worry him a lot more than it does.

"Not yet," Tony answers ruefully. "He only found six in working order--don't ask where unless you really want to hear the details of the epic search through every deserted retail outlet in town--so he set them up on, let me get this right, 'the potential vectors of attack'."

"Sounds like Walter," Dean agrees. "It's eerie. We could find you more cameras. James is jonesing for another supply run in the city. Tar."

"Potholes," Tony says wisely. "Send him down on his next day off-duty and I'll hook him up with my road crew. If you want, I can send them back with him for a few days, do some work."

"You just saved everyone's sanity," Dean answers sincerely, sinking more deeply into the cushions with a sigh. "Mira may start talking to him again. It's been touch and go for a while; Cas says she's been requesting way too much target practice."

"How's her aim?"

"Creepy as shit if you're a guy," Dean says, trying not to shift uncomfortably. "Cas encourages her. He thinks it's--"

"Cathartic?" Alison asks sweetly, both elbows on her desk.

"Funny," Dean says shortly, relieved that Tony joins him in glaring at her unrepentant smile. "Gotta be leftover from female vessels or something, I don't know."

"I never thought about it until Amanda told me some stories," Alison says thoughtfully, horrifying him almost beyond words. Almost. "Militia camp, and same problems as we have here. Just different scale."

"They're weirder problems," Dean counters. "Mira's fighting with James, Brenda and Zoe take her side, Joe stupidly--so fucking stupidly--tries to talk to her and suddenly, half the camp's in on it and the mess is inedible because Brenda forgets to add salt to anything. Then Cas announces a low-sodium diet promotes good health because he does shit like that just to see what happens, and I got Phil writing poetry about the moon's fucking wisdom and kindness without the glare of the capricious fucking sun obscuring his glow--"

"Is Phil trying to steal your boyfriend?" Alison asks maliciously. "You're the sun in this scenario? Just checking."

"Yes, he is," Dean tells her grimly, because finally. He's never missed Vera so much as during those conversations with Cas; she'd confirm what Phil is doing. "Cas doesn't believe me. He just says his command of iambic parameter--"

"Pentameter," Alison murmurs.

"--is getting better." Dean glares at Tony and Alison, who aren't even pretending they don't find this hilarious. "Look, everyone's got a past--I'm not judging, I got my own--"

"Including Cas's sister," Alison tosses in there because she's fucking evil. Tony's eyes widen, but he keeps his pokerface, which right now Dean really appreciates.

"--but mine doesn't look at me like I committed a federal crime trapping Cas in sober monogamous bliss against his will!" Dean snaps. "Add in Phil, who I swear to God would poke holes in the condom if he got Cas into bed to get Cas to marry him so he won't be a single parent. Phil is like this, no lie. Vera was with me on this one: this shit's gotta be shut down now."

"Uh." Tony scratches his head, looking at him sympathetically. "Look--"

"I live in an Apocalyptic soap opera," Dean tells them bitterly. "I'm fighting a war against Cas's brother. Tell me Phil isn't pointing that out when I'm gone--"

"Dean," Tony says gently. "Breathe. It'll be okay."

"--not that he and Lucy get along or anything--"

"Telling the parents what he is," Alison says from the other side of the desk, understanding filling her eyes. "It'll be okay, Dean."

He wets his lips, wondering how the fuck they ended up here. Cas in Chitaqua, safe and sound, surrounded by wards and people who know Dean won't hesitate to shoot if it comes down to it. Cas on the roof, staring wistfully into the darkness at a world only he could see, a world he only visited with another Dean Winchester's permission, business only, because he didn't know how to let go of anyone, not even just to let them breathe. Cas' entire world was behind the walls of Chitaqua, because it was safe; it wasn't, though, and it's not that Dean doesn't think he could do better--he can--but he's pretty sure even thinking that is missing the entire goddamn point.

Chuck was right about the why, Dean knew that; he just didn't expect to live it. Sam's safe and sound in another world, and after this long, he's either figured out what happened or is working on the grieving process and starting to move on. God, he hopes he's moving on, somehow, that this isn't Gabriel redux, that Sam won't spend his life searching for him, carry on the Winchester tradition of mistaking revenge for a life lived. Sam deserves better than that, and Cas deserves it, too.

"I told him," Dean says roughly, "that we weren't all like that, so why should dickheads with a fucking grudge get to define what people are like? People can be awesome, and that if he got to know them, he wouldn't be disappointed." He looks at Alison helplessly. "Being shot, is that the same as disappointment? He'll be too dead to feel it, so I guess that counts."

"Dean," Alison says softly, "it'll be okay."

"Because people are better than they think they are?" he asks bitterly. "Good to know, but it sure as fuck never stopped them from trying to put a whole goddamn wall of fucking bullets in someone's head!"

Tony and Alison exchange a long look before Alison says, "They won't, for one; these are my people and I can vouch for them."

"Yeah, I feel better, did I mention I recruited the fuckers who went after Cas?"

"…and I'll be reading their minds the entire time," Alison adds, raising her eyebrows. "What happens today, Dean, you won't be going on guesswork and faith. Though that offer about hiding in Chitaqua? I may need to take you up on that, since I'm telling them what I am, too."

Dean stares at her. "You--"

"If he can do it," she says, meeting his eyes, "so can I."

"You're not going anywhere without us," Tony says, half-turning to look at her as Dean takes that in. "You and Teresa go, your family'll going with you, including me and the kids. We'll find another town; God knows there're enough of them." He spears Dean with a look. "Unless you could use a petroleum engineer, of course."

"Sure," Dean says, knee-jerk. "I mean, anyone who needs it, yeah, it's fine. Great. How are you on fixer-uppers? May need a little work. A roof, I think, but that cabin definitely has water."

"Love 'em," Tony answers firmly, then looks at Alison. "Backup plan, good call. But that's not gonna happen, and you know it. Because they're good people, and it's gonna be fine." Huffing a breath, he frowns at Dean. "How close are you to dragging Cas to your jeep and making for Chitaqua?"

Dean reaches down into his pocket, completely unsurprised by his lack of keys. "Cas picked my pocket."

"Right, and God knows where Teresa's hiding him now," Tony says, pushing off the desk. "Alison, you got nothing to do this morning, so I'm making a request of the mayor for desperate mayor duties at the power plant. Dean, you're coming because you're curious about electricity."

"You hook it up and turn a few screws," Dean says vaguely. "Then add gas and--it comes on. Hitting it helps, sometimes."

Tony nods agreeably. "Time to learn. Electrical Engineering 101: you can take notes. Let's go."

"He's where?" Dean asks when they arrive back in admin just short of lunch.

Teresa winces. "The daycare."

Dean's never thought deeply on the combination of 'Cas' and 'kids'; it's one of those things that just stretches beyond weird territory and into the blessed unknown. Also, the few experiences he's observed with actual interaction involved non-standard children, such as demonically possessed or Anti-Christs, which isn't what he'd call a good baseline (please God, let Cas show unusual insight and not mention that, ever).

If he's ever interacted with a normal child (and remembered it, anyway), Dean will be really surprised; nothing he's gotten from Cas so far indicates his awareness goes much farther than 'immature versions of the adult of the species' and really, he should have tested him with puppies and kittens, got an idea on Cas's concept of 'cute', 'adorable', and 'awesome'. He's got squirrels--small and possibly cute, who knows--that were used for meals before they got real food again, which tells him nothing useful except more proof Cas' hatred of food isn't unjustified.

Which means there's no good reason for Cas to be there but a lot of very, very shitty ones.

"If you did this to convince him to--" Dean starts, trying to sound threatening while facing someone who can (maybe?) get the earth to swallow him whole or something if she gets annoyed.

"I didn't know!" she answers, looking harassed. "We were touring the fields, and he said he was interested in attempting to commune with the earth while in this form--"

"And you believed him?" The guy who invented transcendental orgies because meditation was too boring asked to voluntarily sit still, clear his mind, and stare at the dirt for a while: he supposes Cas could have said straight out he was making a break for it for purposes unknown, but maybe that would have been a little too subtle.

Teresa's eyes narrow dangerously, but to his surprise, Alison nods with a resigned expression. "My fault, I should have warned you about that; his attention span's shorter than mine."

From the appalled look on Teresa's face, that's pretty goddamn short. "So why--"

"Because he's an idiot. Wait here," Dean snarls to Alison, starting out the door of admin and across the town square toward the daycare with Teresa on his heels. "How long ago?"

"Less than an hour," Teresa offers, coming up beside him. "He wants to see the kids, doesn't he?"

That's pretty much the only thing Dean's sure of; the why is still up in the air.

Entering the foyer, Dean starts to tell her to split up and do this room by room, but a nervous-looking Serafina is just coming from the hall, and the relief on her face tells him finding Cas isn't gonna be a problem. "Where is he?"

"Second floor, third door on the left," she begins, and Dean starts for the stairs, taking them two at a time: they switched up the rooms when they got the daycare cleaned out for reasons Dean's pretty sure were good ones but right now he can't remember, like he can't remember what group's in that room.

Reaching the top, he starts to count doors and abruptly realizes he doesn't need to. One's open and apparently a hot spot for kids to gather, clustered close to the doorway and staring inside. A little farther down the hall, a couple of people on daycare shift linger, watching the kids with resigned expressions but not making any effort to get them back to their classrooms.

A hand closes over his arm. "Serafina says--"

"That's them." He doesn't need Teresa to confirm: thirteen, so the other two must be inside. The oldest girl picks up a five year old, bracing him on her hip so the kid can see inside, big brown eyes wide.

Height has its advantages; coming up well behind them, he can just see over their heads, and barely stifles a surprised smile.

From the look, this is the new toddler room; surprisingly good hand-drawn pictures of Mickey Mouse and Goofy and the entire Loony Toons cast as well as crayon drawings line the warm yellow walls, low tables covered with crayons and markers and paper surrounded by tiny chairs scattered around the room, and plastic crates overflowing with toys stacked against the walls.

Cas is sitting rail-straight on a colorful rug in what Dean assumes is the reading-slash-nap area with a worn hardcover book in his hands and surrounded by ages two through four, with Glenn sitting beside him, eyes carefully not darting to the door even though it's obvious he's aware they've got an audience. Ambient noise makes it impossible to hear what he's solemnly reading, but Dean bets its awesome and Dr. Seuss-like, because Cas has a thing for rhyming (explanation for Phil, maybe?). He would love to know how Glenn got him to do it and reminds himself to ask later.

"Serafina said they gave up herding the kids back to class," Teresa murmurs, though why she bothers he's not sure; those kids aren't paying attention to anything outside this room. "They just come right back, so why fight it?"

"They didn't react like this last time." He glances down at Teresa. "Did they?"

Teresa's mouth twitches. "Last time he was here, it wasn't to see the kids." His bewildered expression must convey he's not getting it. "He wanted to see what you were doing, Dean. Five, maybe ten seconds."

He looks at her uncertainly.

"Might not have mattered anyway," she continues, eyes going back to the door and narrowing speculatively. "That was before."

"If they don't remember…."

Glenn enthusiastically leads the clapping after Cas closes the book with the kind of ceremony due a major religious rite, staring at the kids like a deer realizing the headlights aren't good news, but it's mixed up with utter fascination. Only this age group, Dean thinks, wouldn't notice they're being studied under a Cas-shaped microscope; he almost can't wait to hear his observations later.

As Glenn jumps to his feet, waving toward the tables, Cas's attention fixes on the tiny brown-eyed blonde Dean recognizes as Tony's younger daughter Lily, and Paul, Claudia's youngest son; with his dark hair in its first careful twists, he looks enough like Derek to be his brother by blood except for the startlingly blue-green eyes. Getting to their feet, they ignore the others, wandering up to Cas with the open curiosity of kids who've never been anything but welcome wherever they go.

"Lily was the youngest in the group," Teresa says softly, "but Dolores put Paul at about three months and change. I don't think this has anything to do with memory."

Toddling closer to Cas (who can indeed sit very still when he wants to), they peer into his face, Paul's tiny eyebrows drawn together for a long moment before he says something. Cas's eyes widen, then he slowly nods, and with a kid's lack of boundaries, they crawl into his lap, Lily trying to stand up. Cas steadies her before she tumbles backward, and she breaks into a bubbling laugh, chubby arms wrapping around his neck.

Cas's expression answers one question, at least; he does like kids.

Dean swallows, watching as Cas tentatively rests a hand on her back, looking down at Paul's happy grin with an expression it's no effort at all to interpret. The blue eyes flicker to the door, widening as they take in the audience, and like it was permission they were waiting for, they trickle inside.

"It wasn't supposed to notice, so it didn't," Teresa murmurs, almost as if to himself as the kids settle down on the carpet. "Earth can't lie, but it does know how to confuse the issue if I don't know the right questions to ask. Not bad." She glances up at him. "You knew."

"Which part?" The oldest girl--Jessica, got it--asks Cas something, dark head tilted curiously; there and gone, amusement flickers over Cas's face, but he answers with the seriousness of profound dialogue, and she sits back, satisfied. "Only thing I couldn’t figure out was how the hell he got that goddess to go along with this, but if Alison and Lucifer can't read his mind, good luck a goddess getting through." Too bad it would be two years and change and a meeting with fucking Lucifer to find out about that little trick again. "Not bad for a plan made up on the spot; it worked perfectly."

Teresa's eyes dart back to the kids inside, then to him. "They survived. That's what you meant."

"Not like she'd know he was lying through his teeth about what he did with their memories," Dean answers softly. "Jesus, she even gave him the power to do it. Angels being better at manipulating human memory and everything: he must have pulled out all the stops for that one."

Teresa's eyebrows climb disbelievingly. "Then why didn't he--"

"I know; he doesn't." There's nothing on Cas's face right now but interest in all the immature humans surrounding him who define the difference between what you remember and what you know in your bones. If Dean was guessing, right at this moment Cas is way too distracted by the company to remember why he came here in the first place, but seeing Dean watching might just remind him. "We should--"

"--go, yeah," Teresa agrees, falling into step with him on their way to the stairs. "How'd you know?"

"Five minute rule." Bobby would shit himself; someone actually paying attention to his words of wisdom. "If you can't kill it and you can't run away from it, buy time to figure out how to do one of those things. Also applies to saving kids from goddesses whose purpose was just those women with a design stuck in their heads you don't know how to get rid of." The fucked-up part is it would have worked, too; the end of the Apocalypse would have taken care of this little problem by way of mass death of humanity. If that's not irony, he's not sure what is.

Reaching the first floor, Teresa stops him, tilting her head toward the kitchen before leading him down the hall. It's empty, which is a relief, and Dean settles against the counter to think. About what, he's not sure, but he thinks--just maybe--he knows why Cas wanted to see them for himself, and it sure as hell wasn't sentimentality or guilt.

"Cas really has a thing for figuring out how to hide in plain sight," he says abruptly, feeling the pieces slowly assemble into something he maybe should have guessed last night. "There was a time--after he rebelled, the Host hunted us constantly." " He hesitates, thinking about that year on the run with Sam, all the times that Castiel was there, but now he wonders uneasily about all the times he wasn't, how somehow, he never got around to asking about. Cas was hunted for three years here, two longer than Castiel had to deal with, and then he ended up in Chitaqua, where he was hunted all over again with nowhere to hide. "Off the top of my head, I'm not sure there's anyone who hasn't fucked him over and back again. That's gotta do something to you."

"You live and you learn." Glancing over, he sees her staring hard at the wall, eyes dark. "And then you get up and try again, because they don't decide the terms on which life is lived. And you meet someone…" She pauses, mouth curving in a slow, private smile. "Someone whose pick-up line was 'I knew I felt the earth move the first time I saw you' when I told her what I was."

"Oh God," he says, appalled.

"Exactly." Teresa's smile fades. "Cas may not remember what happened in the church, but it's not like it's not obvious. The earth doesn't answer to anyone it doesn't want to, even its own gods. It had to be someone with dominion over Creation itself who could give that kind of order and have it obeyed." He looks at her in surprise. "Perk of being bound to it: there aren't a lot of secrets it can keep from me, and even fewer it would want to. I thought about this all last night and this morning, and what you just said, about Cas and hiding in plain sight, that makes sense now. That bubble was grounded in the earth so the earth itself would hide it, and that included everything inside it. Anyone but me looking at it wouldn't have even seen the church itself."

"Alison and Manuel both saw the church when you got there," he counters, but he thinks he knows where she's going with this. "But if you aren't with a bruja blanca so the earth knows it's okay, what are you gonna believe; the earth telling you nothing but rocks and dirt are here, or your own two eyes? It's not even a lie; there definitely dirt and rocks around."

"Exactly." Teresa studies him for a long moment. "He doesn't want to admit it."

"He's just not thinking about it. He's good at that little trick."

"Do you know why?"

He thinks about the way Cas smiled when he talked about gods and tricks: jokes that last centuries, so why not two years? "Yeah, I think I do."

Alison and Tony, being fucking turncoats, agree with Teresa (another of them) that Dean shouldn't be at the meeting.

"Other than the fact you look two steps from jittering out of your skin and you'll scare them to death?" Alison asks caustically, cornering him on the first floor in admin before he can get upstairs. "I can't have Chitaqua's leader in that room, Dean."

From the first step, Tony nods agreement, one hand resting on the bannister.

"What," Dean asks, outraged, "do you think I'm gonna do?"

"Nothing!" Alison answers impatiently. "But what they'll see is the man who leads a small army watching them, and unarmed or not, you're a living, breathing warning. They don't need that."

"This is just a goddamn talk!" Turning, Dean paces toward one of the empty desks shoved against the wall, wondering how the hell he's supposed to deal with this. "Can I at least listen or--"

"I'll be fine," Cas says, slumped against the bannister and looking bored. "I understand some things humans do are best done on their own, so as to develop character--"

"You," Dean says, pointing at him, "have all the character you need. You got enough for three people, okay?"

"I think you're outvoted," Alison says, despite the fact Dean doesn't remember agreeing this was a democracy (it's not). "Go talk to Amanda, watch training, take a drive, but Dean--this is proving good intentions time. You cannot be here, they have to know you're not here, that everyone associated with Chitaqua is safely in the training field because this has nothing to do with the militia being here. This is about Ichabod's kids and what happened to them."

"Goddamn it--"

"I got it, Alison," a voice says from the door to the street, and Dean spins around to see Amanda come inside, pink cheeked and breathless before exchanging a glance with Cas like he needs confirmation this was planned. "Come on, Dean," she says coaxingly. "One on one, I'll even let you win. Maybe."

Dean looks between her and the group by the stairs helplessly. Cas can probably take an entire room of worried parents without even breaking a sweat, he gets that; he also gets that disappointment never killed anyone, but he's so fucking tired of it, and he doesn't think how much hope will survive if he sees it on Cas's face, unsurprised, because Dean was wrong about people.

"It'll be fine," Tony promises, jerking his head toward the stairs. "We should get up there."

Amanda's beside him before he even realizes she's moved, one arm sliding through his. "Let's go," she says more quietly, pulling him unresistingly toward the door. "Mark's drilling the kids, so I got some time. What do you want to do?"

Looking back, Dean watches Alison, Teresa, Tony, and finally Cas vanish up the stairs. "Anyone on the target range?"

Amanda fails not to look impressed, though she makes an effort, he'll give her that. Retrieving the targets, she drops them on the growing pile, circling to raise his right hand and frowning at tremor from before he switched hands, then glancing his left, steady as a goddamn rock. He wasn't careful, again, and he's got to stop doing that.

"Hold up your arm," she says, tugging back his right sleeve and running her fingers over the scarring from the brownie, fingers trickling faintly over the bandaged Croat bite. "No sensation yet?"

"Not much," he says, making himself look at the still-ugly red-raw ropes of scar tissue extending from two inches below his elbow to an inch above the Croat bite; at this rate, his entire right arm's gonna be unrecognizable. "Vera said it could come back or not, which, useful to know. That nursing degree of hers really paid off."

Amanda rolls her eyes, placing a hand under his elbow and taking the weight; the tremor eases slightly, but overwork is overwork, and he hopes no one wants him to sign anything today, because that's not happening. "Any weakness generally or is it just when you overwork it?"

"I'm not sure," he admits as she stares at his skin like she's reading hieroglyphs by guess. "Why?"

"Thinking," she says absently, cocking her head before removing her hand. "On your very special shooting range at home, Cas having you work your left more? Your accuracy's better than it was before the fever, which is saying something. Probably better than mine now," she adds with a grin. "Always had the best eye of anyone I ever met."

"Pretty much every time I go out," he admits, feeling a flush of pride and trying not to think he just won a non-existent competition with the other Dean Winchester as well as Amanda, but yeah, he's thinking it, because that's exactly what he did. "Got a recommendation, sir?"

"Funny." She takes the nine millimeter, checking it before returning it to the weapons table. They've hit everything on it, and he's got the feeling Amanda's trying to decide how creative she should get. When she turns around, though, she surprises him. "Cas gave me Vera's notes, and I think right now it's as healed as it's gonna get. It was one hell of an infection and between ripping out the stitches while you were feverish and the drainage cuts, there was a lot of damage that can't be fixed. Biggest danger is what you can't do anything about: it's gonna degrade, but how much is anyone's guess." Before he can take that in, she adds, "I don't think it matters, though."

Dean blinks at her, distracted from starting a nice session of self-pity. "What?"

"First, you should know me and Cas have been planning for this," she says easily. "Exercises you've been doing until now were light so nothing would interfere with the healing. Now we know that part's over, we start working on building the muscle up again, and I'll tell you right now it's gonna suck. Cas says you can tell when the tremor's about to start; your job, and you kind of have to accept it, is extending the time you got until then. Strength will help, but what we need here is endurance, and then learning how to compensate for the tremor when you have to shoot anyway."

"Then how doesn't it matter--"

"That's second, and I was getting there.Dean, how often are yo u gonna need to shoot that long without a rest?" she demands. "Short range, even with a tremor, the margin of error is pretty good; long range, switch hands and be done with it. You miss them close up, switch hands and then punch them in the face. Tremor's not gonna affect a fist to the face with your shoulder behind it, you get my meaning?"

Dean blinks, startled. "Uh--"

"Hunting is the art of the practical," she continues, ignoring him. "You taught us that in the field again after Cas banged it into us during training. You are never just gonna stand there for hours with your arm up shooting shit; the enemy'll be bored with that even faster than you. The only time this might--and I emphasize the might--be a problem is with the rifles or shotguns, and that's just a weight issue. Come on, they're bulky and show us down on the run, anyway and you're sure as hell not going to be carrying it in your hand for hours. Jesus, you're hunter and we're pretty fucking mobile on a hunt. This is barely a blip."

He wets his lips. "I don't like having that kind of limit."

Amanda shrugs, unimpressed. "I don't like having a leg that remembers when I broke my femur at age twenty-one and didn't finish rehab when I run too long." He pauses, scanning her legs blankly, like maybe she'll suddenly fall over or something. "Weirdly, I will rarely need to sprint five miles, and when I do, the least of my problems will be my leg at that point. How I got into that situation is way more worrying, you know?"

"Five miles?"

"Three, fine, and some of it at a jog," she bites out, looking annoyed. "Welcome to the twenty-first century; we have jeeps."

"We could run out of gas," Dean points out.

"I'll get a horse." She shrugs. "Hunters don't survive because their bodies are in pristine condition; they survive because their brains are in working order and that's the best weapon you'll ever have. The rest--that's just details."

Dean wrinkles his nose at Amanda's smirk, sighing when she inclines her head toward the conveniently placed chairs and bottles of water, because they're responsible about being well-hydrated. Dropping into the chair, Dean takes a long drink from the bottle Amanda offers as she joins him.

"I should be doing more before now," he says finally, rubbing a heel into the dirt and wondering if the earth is telling Teresa he's sulking and if she'll tell Cas. Very crazy, he thinks hopefully, but the idea just sits there like that's actually sane. Jesus, his life. "Should have gone out in the field more, fevers are almost gone--"

"You're what, three days from the last one?" Amanda asks, eyes traveling to his wrist and staring significantly before meeting his eyes. "Dean, we don't get time to heal up--really heal up--because we don't take the time to do it. I didn't, and I'm paying for it with a two mile--"

"I thought you said three."

"--fuck you, lots of jogging for the three, maybe limping," she says, taking a drink from her bottle. "Loners can pull that shit and regret it later; lucky us, we got an entire camp to enforce the beauty of the healing process. Deal with it."

"We may not have that kind of time."

"If you're set on jumping off a cliff," she says, "at least wait long enough to get there to do it. Otherwise--no reason to jump, unless you just want to make dust clouds."

Dean turns in his chair to stare at her satisfied expression. "That was a terrible analogy."

"Obviously not, since you understood it," she points out smugly.

She's got him there. Taking another drink, Dean frowns toward the distant training field, Ichabod in the two mile distance, then at the sun sinking toward the horizon. "So this is taking a while."

"Good sign," Amanda assures him. "They're listening. When it begins with 'so your kids are part of an ongoing human sacrifice', listening is something that's gotta be worked up to."

"Hopefully they didn't start with that."

"I'm sure they eased into it," Amanda agrees. "Tomorrow's winter solstice. You know what that means, right?"

Dean racks his brain for whatever unholy event is associated with solstice--something about the lack of sun really makes people crazy? Freaky ritual? Yule log?--when he stumbles over the obvious answer. "Four days until Christmas."

"Merry Christmas," Amanda corrects him, nudging his shoulder. "So what'd you get him?"

"Get him?" he echoes blankly, then realizes what she's talking about. "Wait, like a present?"

"Yeah?" She frowns at him. "You forgot?"

"Uh, no." It doesn't count if he didn't think of it at all, but that's probably worse. Since this is his serious imaginary relationship here, and also apparently Christmas. "We don't do that. Do you do that?"

"Am I half-married to anyone?" she asks.

"Besides Vera?"

Amanda's eyes narrow. "You're pushing it."

"Just saying, her gorgeous perfection and everything--"

"I was so drunk," Amanda mourns, slumping in her chair. "Rules of drinking games: we don't talk about drinking games and what was said. Don't turn this into an arm's race, Dean; I'll win."

"My lips," Dean lies, "are sealed. Unlike you, I don't need to be bribed with Eldritch Horror." Amanda scowls at him. "By the way, how'd it go this morning?"

"Fine," she says in surprise. "Cas said it was okay. Did you, uh--"

"He woke me up and said he'd watch and I could sleep in," Dean answers. "Not much to see; was there chanting, waving hands, the earth moving?"

"There was coffee and naan with butter and cheese," she tells him. "Rabin brought me burritos from breakfast during break."

"It's nopales con huevos."

"It's wrapped in a bread substance: burrito. If the bread is hard: taco." He cocks his head, blinking at her. "Yeah, I'm in beginner Spanish class an hour every night now, Manuel officiating. Como esta, puta?"

Dean takes a drink of water, fighting down the temptation to verbalize her relationship with sheep in Yiddish, via Joe being awesome. "You scared Cas last night."

"I know." Amanda sighs, setting the empty bottle on the ground. "I apologized for that."

"Good." Finishing his bottle, he tries not to check the horizon again; it's just gonna confirm the sun is lower and they're still waiting. "Don’t do it again. Check in before you start giving blood to people, you have no idea what that shit can do. Ask Cas: there's a list, it's unreal."

"I won't," she answers. "Dean?"

He looks at her.

"I'm sorry I scared you," she says in a breath, like she's not sure this is a good idea but doing it anyway. "Just throwing it out there."

"Me? I'm fine," he answers, crossing his arms. "Not even--a little, maybe."

"Right." Abruptly, she swallows, and Dean closes his eyes. "Looks like a jeep's coming from Ichabod."

"Yeah." Dean takes a deep breath, standing up, checking the sun just touching the ground, and nods to himself. "Let's go."

Dean isn't even pretending he's casually leaning against the fence as the jeep comes to a stop. Behind them, Mark's wrapping up training for the day, oblivious to the drama happening as the passenger side door opens in slow-motion and Alison gets out, Teresa coming from the backseat. Taking a deep breath, he hears the driver's side door close, Cas circling the jeep, and wonders why it's so goddamn hard to look at his face.

"So," Alison says, shutting the door, expression half-guilty, half furtive triumph, and Dean suddenly knows exactly why they didn't want him at that meeting. "I should--"

"We're going to try and unmake the design in the children's memories," Cas interrupts. "Emphasis on try."

Yeah, how the hell did he not guess this was coming. "How--"

"Something I didn't consider last night," Cas says as Teresa joins Alison, and from the look on her face, she's in on it, too. "Even if the earth can't protect her, Teresa's attachment to Alison will allow her to pull Alison out should she become distressed before any damage occurs, just as she did when Alison was catatonic. Tomorrow morning will be an experiment to see if she can do that much while I simply observe; if she can, then I can judge if that would be enough time to alter the children's memories since while doing that, I won't be able to concentrate on anything else, including her."

"And the parents?" Dean hears himself ask in a voice way too calm for how he's feeling right now. "They're okay with this?"

"Yes," Alison says, glancing at Teresa. "Cas told them everything, and they consented."

Dean watches Cas watching him; it's not about you, he said. The choice belongs to the people doing it, he gets that.

"So," he says into the awkward silence, "it's about time for dinner. I'll cook."

Everyone goes to bed early--from Alison and Teresa's expressions, it's been a long day for them, too, or maybe they have the crazy idea that Dean's kind of pissed--and he patiently waits for Cas to fulfill his shower and brushing his teeth habits, wondering just how long it will take for him to--

"I would have told you," Cas says abruptly, apparently realizing that he's already dressed for bed and has zero reason to need to search his bag for this long. "I wasn't sure--"

"Sure enough to get Alison to keep me out of the room this afternoon," Dean interrupts, sitting up against the headboard. "Afraid I'd talk you out of it or agree you should do it for the greater good?"

Cas winces, closing his eyes briefly before pushing to his feet. "Dean--"

"Not," he continues mildly, "that it's got anything to do with me. Because this, it's not about me, right?"

"They knew me." Cas looks up, and yeah, that's what he thought. "And I knew them. Teresa confirmed the earth wouldn't answer her question on who--ordered it to ignore the church until it returned to the regular time stream, because it can't lie to her. I gave her two names, however, and when she asked, it was silent for only one of them."


Cas nods, obviously bracing himself for the obvious question. "Okay, if the earth--if you tell it--something, release it, whatever--can it tell us what happened?"

Looking surprised (relieved), Cas drifts to the foot of the bed and sits down. "It couldn't tell us very much, even if translation and context weren't a problem. The corruption of the earth would have been its priority, and I doubt it even noticed--or cared--what was actually happening in the church itself, it not being earth," he answers, pulling one knee against his chest and frowning. "Even if it could, however, I wouldn't release it."

Dean blinks. "Why?"

"When Teresa said--what she understood from the earth--is because she's bound to it and it has no reason to be less than entirely truthful," Cas answers slowly. "However, should it be asked by someone else, the answer would depend on how precise the wording of the question asked. Anything outside that, the answer would be the equivalent of 'I have no idea what that question means'."

"Earth can play dumb, who knew." Dean blows out a breath. "Wanna share the reason?"

"Because if I went through the trouble of ordering it not to reveal who gave the order, I probably first asked exactly how to make sure the earth never had to give the answer," he says, resting his chin on his knee. "Just in case someone of higher rank in the hierarchy showed up to countermand me, and using that, could simply go back in time to watch what happened for themselves."

"Lucifer." Okay, so that changes things. "Why would he care what was in that church, Cas? The design?"

"He can't see it." Right, he forgot about that. "The children wouldn't particularly concern him, either, and while the goddess would be of interest, the bubble would have been set after she left. There must have been something in that church that I didn't want him to know about, but what…."

"So Lucifer--I mean, this is the guy that took out all the gods, he's that paranoid. Why wouldn't he check it the bubble just on principle?"

To Dean's surprise, Cas starts to smile, like he did when he showed Dean how he powered the wards. "Lucifer doesn't have a sense of humor."


"I think it may bother him, actually," Cas continues, smile widening maliciously. "Not that he'd admit it, of course--it's beneath him--but this isn't something he simply chooses not to understand; he actually can't. I'd be very surprised if he even understood what 'fun' was, much less the amount of effort one will put into achieving just that. Time bubbles are usually part of a game--something I would be amazed he could even conceptualize--as well as a useful way for the human-hybrid offspring of gods to gain full maturity quickly, I forgot to mention that part. You can't play unless you choose to be subject to linear time; otherwise, it's just a river, and to continue the metaphor, it's a very big river and this is very small."

"You can't see the slowest part unless you know what you're looking for."

Cas nods. "If Gabriel found it, he'd check it just to see what it was, and if he won. Lucifer, on the very off-chance he even lowered himself to acknowledge something so trivial, would find it beneath him to even show interest, as one does when they don't understand the joke, and voluntarily subject himself to linear time just to confirm his ignorance--no. The Host suffers from the same problem, and Gabriel used it to his advantage." Abruptly, Cas's smile fades. "Gabriel and Lucifer were once very close, and he knew Lucifer very well. Hiding something important inside a game: that is very much something Gabriel would do."

"You miss him," Dean says without thinking and immediately corrects their course. "Okay, yeah, we didn't have a great relationship, but compared to the rest of your family, definitely my favorite."

"I'm sorry to hear your feelings for Anael have suffered a revision," he answers, raising an eyebrow "Also, thank you for the interesting conversation I had with Alison--"

"Jesus," Dean groans, covering his face; what was he thinking? "Sorry, last night--lightweight, remember?"

"I've never aspired to out-perform Zeus's hideously complicated family relationships while on earth," Cas muses. "However, fucking my sister's ex-boyfriend, with whom I also share a brother via his current vessel and who I resurrected in what could be considered analogous to--"

"Don't say it, Cas."

"--creating life--it's certainly far more straightforward than some of the ways Zeus fathered offspring, but that's not saying much." Abruptly Cas tilts his head, looking disturbingly thoughtful. "I don't object in principle, you understand, but had I known this was a potential future, I would have chosen a female vessel. Surely by now, we'd all be waiting with bated breath to discover if you or some other human fathered my nephilim offspring. It's an Apocalypse; a hybrid abomination with tendencies toward giantism and megalomania would fit in perfectly."

Dean stares at him in horror. "How long have you been thinking about this?"

"Alison told me before the meeting, I assume to add a note of levity before I faced worried parents. It was a long meeting and a great deal of it required I merely sit there and try to project righteous serenity and kindness toward all mankind."

"They buy that?"

"Apparently." Cas takes a deep breath before abruptly adding, "I should have told you this earlier, but--Phil doesn't possess a uterus. However, that is immaterial in this case, as he seems very unclear on the facts of biology while I'm this body."

"Fuck my life, I'm gonna kill Alison--wait, what was that about Phil?" Dean stops staring resentfully at the door to see Cas sigh. "You talked to him? When?" Then, incredulous, "Hold up, he really thinks you can knock him up with--how?"

"If I apologize for not believing you and assure you I told him that I was deeply in love with you as well as sexually enslaved and will therefore forsake all others unto my literal death," Cas says quickly, blue eyes haunted, "will you let me relegate that part of the conversation to the very farthest reaches of my memory?"

Dean hesitates; there's not a lot that would make Cas look like that. "That bad?"

"Dean, I will promise to forsake all others until my literal death, thus dooming myself to a life of tragic celibacy and unsettlingly frequent masturbation, if I don't have to--would that conversation define the concept of 'awkward'?"

"No," Dean answers sympathetically, feeling vaguely like he should be patting Cas's shoulder or hugging him or something. "That's trauma, and repressing is legit; go for it." Cas relaxes, the haunted look beginning to fade, which is why he thinks it's okay to ask, "So he's gonna stop, right?"

Cas closes his eyes--oh Jesus, not good. "I’m not sure. It's your turn; deal with this, I don't care how."

"How do you want me to…." Dean trails off; he likes this plan. "I can do this."

"Are duels still an acceptable way to deal with someone encroaching on a romantic relationship?"

Dean looks at his left hand complacently, remembering all those targets this afternoon. "We'll let Phil decide." Glancing at Cas, he notes he has both knees pulled up and may be clutching them against his chest; oh, Phil's got this coming. "You need anything?" Hugs are definitely on the table.

"What were you drinking last night?" Cas asks without hesitation. "Is there more?"

Or that. Dean slides off the bed. "You got it."

With the lights off, the thin spill of silvery-grey coming from the window turns the room into ghostly shadows, wall vanishing behind a curtain of gloom. Could be the alcohol--not like he's got Cas's night vision--but he has no problem making out Cas at all, sprawled stomach-down on the bedcovers beside him, socked toes just touching the edge of the mattress, head pillowed on one arm and three fingers of fucking amazing whiskey clutched in his free hand.

He's not the only one working with a liver that's confused; Cas is relaxed to the point of boneless, squinting at his third drink like it's betrayed him but he can't remember exactly why. "How long have I been…" Trailing off, he frowns at the cup, then at Dean. "Did I stop drinking? When?"

"We stopped drinking," Dean corrects him, taking a very moderate sip from his own cup; last night was educational on his current limits. "Well, we had coffee. Me anyway, but I was dying; what's your excuse?"

Cas lifts his head to take a larger than recommended for the long-term sober drink--oh, mistake, Dean really should warn him about that--before dropping back to the bed with a grunt. "It's very pleasant. Addictively so."

"Coffee?" To be fair, Dean's really drinking, just not nearly as much. He's not Cas's mother--freakish Greek gods and their freakishness--and if Cas needs this after facing Phil's creepy, creepy passion head-on as well as everything else, he gets it. Judging Cas's exact state of slump, he thinks just maybe it's time they talked about the thing they're not talking about; like the reason Cas went to the daycare today. "Cas?"

Cas wrinkles his nose, and Dean will shoot himself before acknowledging it's kind of goddamn adorable. "Hmm?"

This was a much better idea before he actually had to figure out how to actually do it. "The kids….what happened at the daycare? When you were with the kids?"

Cas half-sits up and finishes the cup, thrusting it carelessly into Dean's lap before rolling onto his back. Catching it before it rolls onto the mattress, Dean gratefully sets aside hangover temptation on the bedside table before turning his full attention to Cas.

"My family," Cas announces, sounding painfully earnest, "tried to kill, possess, or manipulate yours, and with surprising success considering their utter lack of anything resembling competence or subtlety. It helps to have a playbook written by my Father; all they had to do was follow it to the letter while he conveniently took an unexpected roadtrip for eons." He wets his lips, a faint impression of pink, there and gone. "I miss him."

Dean nods; he's not talking about his Father right now. "He was your brother."

"I didn't--that concept is foreign to them, to feel that absence." Dean notes the switch of pronouns in interest and files it away for when he has a clearer head. "When I made--the first time I summoned Lucifer inside the wards, I thought--Gabriel would have approved. Mourned the lack of a chocolate aspect, of course, but you can't have everything. He would have….."

"You wanted to think he made that time bubble around the church," Dean says softly. "That he was there."

"It's not proof, I have no idea if I could sense his Grace on those children….this is so much like him, all of it. I thought how he must have laughed when he saw the tape." Turning his head, he looks at Dean. "Gabriel, Loki, messenger, archangel, pagan god: you and Sam knew him better than I did. Yet last night, all I could think was how Gabriel would react in the cabin, because the wards would assure he couldn't see you when you punched him. He'd summon Lucifer into the wards for weeks without stopping just for the sheer pleasure of doing it. He'd think of entirely new ways to annoy Lucifer without leaving the comfort of the camp and provide everyone with confections while we viewed the footage."

In the splash of weak moonlight, Dean sees the silvery track of tears. "Hey." Scooting closer, he wipes a thumb across Cas's cheek before he can think about what he's doing. "It's okay."

"But it wasn't him," Cas whispers. "I suppose I was the only one who thought--thought it might be. Because I wanted…it's not as if he had any reason to come out of hiding since then. It's different with angels, especially--why would he bother just for me? Why," he whispers, "did I even care?"

Dean's not sure what to say to that.

"Tell me about grief again," Cas demands, voice cracking. "Tell me how he could die years ago and only now do I feel his absence? I didn't know him, so tell me why--why now--of all times--why all I could think of is how badly I want my brother and wish for his return?" He sucks in a breath, looking at nothing. "In the church…. She died two years ago, but I hadn't seen her in millennia. I knew she was dead with the other gods, I've known for years, but why is it now--I want to remember what happened in the church, if I said goodbye to her, as I couldn't with him. Time heals nothing, you said, but you didn't tell me it could be years before I even felt the wound. How is that fair?"

"It's not," Dean says quietly.

"I prayed for him!" Cas snarls. "Saint Gabriel, Angel of the Incarnation, Messenger of God, I beseech thee, as you consoled our Savior in his agony and Mary in her sorrows and Joseph in his trials, console me for the loss of my Brother in your return. Saint Gabriel, Prince of Heaven and Scourge of Disbelievers, who clothed in your righteousness did so stupidly face Lucifer alone, as if that would work, and died by his hand and by his will, surely that was another trick, so in your wisdom return from wherever you fucked off to. Now would be acceptable, two years ago would have been better, but I've learned to take what I can get. Saint Gabriel, Strength of God, Defender of the Faithful, if this wasn't your idea of a terrible joke, I ask you especially for this favor: fuck you for leaving. Amen." He swallows, blue eyes wet. "Two useless prayers in the span of five days; it truly is a time of miracles. Tell me--tell me how this makes sense?"

"I don't know." The shittiest part of grief is experience means jack shit when it came to someone else's or even your own; it's brand new every goddamn time. "I never said it made sense."

"Is this human?" Cas asks bitterly. "This is what you call living; the constant awareness of your future as an inevitable string of losses, feeling each new absence in accumulation, knowing they will never again be filled? Unless you're fortunate enough to die first and simply be an absence for someone else? Tell me the attraction of mortality again: I think I've forgotten."

Dean sits back on the mattress, wondering uneasily how it is he's counseling an angel through an existential crisis about the meaning of life.

"Five days ago, I almost watched you die."

Yeah, he knew this was coming. "I didn't."

"You didn't," Cas concedes bitterly. "He did, and left me behind; you didn't, but you certainly tried. Tell me how I can heal from what didn't actually happen when I'm not sure if I ever will from what did? If time can't do the job, I'm open to suggestions on what might." The red-rimmed eyes narrow. "Dean, Righteous Man and Defender of Humanity, I beseech thee, five days ago you wanted me to put a bullet in your head, so I ask you especially for this favor: fuck you for even asking. Amen."

It's an effort not flinch. "You done yet?"

"You're still alive," he answers. "So I suppose that means no, I'm not. When will I be, Dean?"

There's no way to mistake what he's asking, but it's not like Dean really believed--he's not the right Dean, he always knew that. "Do you want to be?"

"I don’t know." After a moment, he sits up. "Alison, Teresa, and I will start at dawn. There's no reason for you to--"

"Get up, since you don't want me there, either." He really wants to take satisfaction in the fact Cas flinches, but he can't really feel anything right now. Pulling the blankets out from under him, he eases beneath them, rolling to face the wall, shutting his eyes like maybe he might actually sleep tonight. "Night."

He wonders what he should be feeling--anger, frustration, sympathy, something--but there's nothing but a hollow space, like something's been taken and he can't remember when.