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A Thousand Lights in Space

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--Day 145--

Staring at the bags by the door at two hours past dawn, even Dean can't explain what's bothering him. Amanda, not having a Cas-shaped alarm for dawn, is running late, which is giving him way too much time to have absolutely no idea what he's feeling (best guess: restless?) or why.

Cas, demonstrating his multitasking as well as his human skills, looks over the top of the open laptop--he's really wondering if Chitaqua needs to be part of the (sort of) Information Age, what's wrong with paper again?--to ask, "Do you not want to go because you feel your duty is to remain here or because you think I have some objections to you going that I'm concealing from you? Which," he adds in the spirit of honesty and open communication (Dean assumes), "you have reason to question."

Dean looks his 'yeah, and how'.

"I have no objections to you going," Cas says, staring into his eyes. "Does that help?"


"Then we'll start with duty and see if that provides enlightenment." Cas eases the laptop aside--proof of Serious Conversation these days like nothing else--and considers Dean across the width of the coffee table. "Your duty is be our leader. That isn't synonymous with constant residency in Chitaqua. In fact," he adds, "it would be counterproductive if you did so. As you told me once, they need to know you. Regular visits to Ichabod are to be encouraged. It doesn't show any lack of faith in Amanda's abilities as a commander."

"Which weirdly enough, not something that occurred to me until now. Thanks, Cas."

Cas doesn't roll his eyes, but he looks like maybe he wants to. "This is still very new, and Alison and Amanda are both reassured by your regular attention. In Amanda's case especially, since this is her first command and she assumes when you replace her, she'll be able to help the new commander adapt more quickly."

"You still haven't told her it's permanent?" Dean asks, dropping down on the other side of the couch and giving Cas a long look. "Why?"

"You're her commander," Cas answers annoyingly. "That would be more your responsibility than mine."

"Don't even try that one. You wanted her there--"

"You didn't object."

"She was my choice, but you got in before I could say anything." Cas's eyes narrow, which makes Dean's indecently early morning. "So since it was your appointment, your responsibility. You had a reason--you always do--so let's work on our communication skills. Why don't you want her to know yet?"

Cas make a face, but it's mostly at himself. "Right now all she worries about is making an excellent impression on the communities and training her students. She doesn't think she has to impress you--in fact, your check-ins are solidifying the impression that you're observing the general progress of our tenure there, not her performance as a commander specifically--so she simply does the job asked of her to the best of her abilities without worrying if she's doing it the way you want one of your lieutenants to do it. By the time we leave--"

"If," Dean says, just because he can.

"When," Cas says, giving him a sharp look, "she'll be used to the position, and so finding out its permanent won't lead to worrying if she's doing it the way you want her to, but instead confirm that the way she does it is correct."

Which was kind of what Dean was thinking, and probably the reason that Cas has been cagey about the subject before. Amanda has been out of training and on duty for over two years before he got here, and there's no way she didn't pick up how Dean liked to do things back then, and if she thought he was evaluating her, she might slip into that by sheer habit.

Which is why, he assumes, Cas wants him to tell her she was commanding Ichabod; if she thought she was only Cas's choice, then she'd assume Dean would replace her with his own when he decided who he wanted. Not bad for a former angel, Dean thinks fondly: manipulative as fuck, but using it for good.

"To return to the original subject," Cas says, obviously hoping Dean will do just that, "your visits now are necessary, and over time, should more of the people here accept our help, they'll set the pattern for interaction with them to assure them of our good intentions. And Amanda's students need to see you observe them," he adds more slowly. "They're only hers until training is complete, but they've been yours since they began training. They need to know the man who will be commanding them when they're done."

"You're good," Dean admits. "You thought about this."

"I have," Cas agrees in satisfaction. "Your duty is to go forth and be an example to others. Mine," looking at the laptop with calculating eyes, "is to make Access my bitch." It almost makes Dean feel bad for the programs that Cas will be bringing to their trembling knees. "And also to act as your proxy in Chitaqua, in case that wasn't obvious. Which is, if I remember correctly, the primary reason you asked me to do this."

Dean grimaces, thinking of Cas on the roof of the cabin, watching the world from behind Chitaqua's walls; a trap is a trap, no matter how it's baited. "I feel like I'm trapping you here."

"You aren't trapping me here. I assure you it's by my choice." The blue eyes flicker to the window, speculative. "The corruptive influence of power over a small population is addictive. I plan to institute a system of tribute soon. Preferably of coffee."

"Glad you're enjoying yourself." Still not satisfied, he considers again not going, even though actually, Cas just removed every sane (and admittable) reason he has to do just that, which leaves--fuck his life--feelings.

The Insert Winter Holiday You Celebrate Thing in the mess last night was more or less Dean's first real party at Chitaqua (no way in Hell he's counting the Burning of the Former Team Leaders Night), and it was pretty much what he expected. Experience with Lisa, and more recently in Ichabod, kicked in automatically on how you do parties with significant others that were surprisingly applicable to Chitaqua's version (something like a cross between a neighborhood barbecue and a work party without kids, more weapons, about the same number of hookups but the sex wasn't necessarily illicit, and no adultery happening anywhere, especially in his and Lisa's (or his and Cas's) bedroom. Christ, some people).

Better, even: he and Cas know everyone in Chitaqua, at no point did the inevitable 'so what do you do?' come up (much less be a loaded question with a multiple choice answer requiring careful navigation and a lot of lying), no one asked how they got together (see 'what do you do?' for reference on how that usually worked) and all the topics of conversation were shit he knew and were relevant to his life. Sure, he might have been missing a little history, but that just made it more interesting, since a.) Cas was a fucking wizard filling in the blanks without looking like that's what he was doing (with added sarcasm), b.) his tragic fever-related memory issues explained everything and hey, he'd almost forgotten about that (irony: they've met), leading to c.) he learned things he's pretty sure this Dean never knew about and d.) things this Dean wouldn't have been told about period. So there's that

(Yeah, he's that fucking petty, and he's okay with that.)

More importantly, he thinks that last night was the first time Cas realized he was a hunter, and not just in name or by the will of Dean goddamn Winchester, and what that meant in Chitaqua. Like everyone else in the room, the reason he started wasn't necessarily the reason he was still doing it, and like many of them (more than Dean would have thought), given the choice now, he'd still want to. If visiting Ichabod taught Dean nothing else, it's that the residents of Chitaqua, by avocation (and isolation, granted), have more in common with each other--including Cas--than pretty much anyone else on earth. And this group, for some of the same reasons, are exactly the right audience for someone whose conversational skills consists of weapons-grade sarcasm, brutal honesty, and utter bafflement with humans (that's everyone, dude), and whose store of relevant anecdotes include all of history. How everyone in this camp managed to miss it for this long is a mystery, but Dean's glad everyone's caught up on the obvious (and Jesus, Cas' mockery of Sparta was like--yeah, he wouldn't have called that about Leonidas, just saying).

Then came the other part.

Insert Winter Holiday You Celebrate Thing was a room in which everyone was eating everything in sight, getting drunk, singing (badly), hooking up between snacks and trading guitars (they have guitars?), Zoe was holding court as Love Guru Mark II surrounded by the goddamn groupie contingent and that moment was when he realized something else. He knows them as individuals now, sure, but sitting together like that (and a few noticeably high), the once-vague faceless memories of groups going to Cas's back in the day suddenly had names, faces, and he's their commander and he used to watch them go to Cas's for sex before patrol meetings. He may or may not (definitely did) see a few of them in medias fornication with him.

And hey, they weren't the only ones, by the way. Just in case the stunningly obvious was somehow missed here.

He was no longer at a fun party; he was at a fun party surrounded by Cas's (former) sex life. As Cas's official boyfriend, even. (While Phil and Matt looked depressed in a corner, like Phil had any fucking grounds, and yeah, that would be the moment he realized exactly what he was dealing with. Fuck Phil). In the infirmary, after Jeffrey shot him, Cas told him that he didn't think Dean would be okay with being commander of people he knew Cas was sleeping with, and it's not that he didn't agree (for vague reasons he felt no need to examine), it's that he figured (because optimism does this shit) that he'd deal. In retrospect, he's glad that was never put to the test, because that wouldn't have ended well even by accident, for anyone, and he's pretty sure then is nothing--and he does mean nothing--compared to what his reaction would be right now.

Beside the point, however (mostly): right now, he thinks the reason he doesn't want to go is because Cas isn't, and not just because he wants to hang out with Cas (though yeah, there's that). It's not that he doesn't understand Cas's reasons for staying, but he also slept alone on that mattress last night while Cas slept on the couch, which is what they've been doing (when not in Ichabod or hosting sweatshirt-throwing guests), so there's no reason for him to suspect that maybe--just maybe--Cas doesn't want to go for reasons meaning Dean himself. He's not paranoid like that.

Mostly, all he can think is why the fuck this went down in the bathroom where there was literally nothing not working against him (nudity, steam, reports, hickey, mirror, Cas singing, which didn't happen yet but will). Including Cas himself and that fucking ready-made plan to handle the tragic fallout of the Great Couch Groping Thing, and that right there is why Cas shouldn't be left alone to think, or at least doing it unsupervised.

(Absolutely true statement of fact as example: I assure you, even if I'd jerked you off last night, you'd be just as heterosexual today as you were before. Even the fucking truth is working against him.)

(Why didn't he just drop the sweatshirt on the floor? Throw it: what was that about? Drop it on the floor, how hard would that have been?)

Sighing, he gives up; he already packed for a couple of nights, Amanda swore Alison would have a lasagna night just for him, and they have to finalize details about their presence on New Year's. Cas would really like lasagna; he should get the recipe.

"Yeah, okay." Fixing Cas with a glare, he adds, "Next time, think you could rearrange your busy schedule to join me? If it wouldn't be too difficult or anything."

"I'll pencil it in as a possibility," Cas deadpans, but since he doesn't go back to his laptop, Dean assumes there's something else he's got on his mind. "There's another reason that, at least for the foreseeable future, I should remain here during your absences."

"Oh?" He hopes he's managing 'interested' and not 'holy shit, now there's a plan in place to spend less time around me' which--Christ, stop. That doesn't even make sense.

"We don't have a clear line of succession."

Dean takes a deep breath, trying to decide if he wants to actually hear this. "Cas--"

"Considering the events that occurred after Kansas City--that being an effective coup--it's clear that one needs to be established. We need at least three people who can take over should you be disabled in some way that requires more than temporary oversight of the camp. Just as importantly, if I'm unable to fulfill my duties--or killed--they can take my place."

"No one," Dean says flatly, "can do that."

Cas rolls his eyes this time, because he's like that. "I have potential candidates--"

"That part, I like. Let's hear 'em."

"Vera, Joseph, Amanda, Melanie, Alicia, and Kamal. Not necessarily in that order--"

"Dude, I know you; that's exactly the order you mean."

"That doesn't," Cas says stiffly, "mean it has to be yours. Amanda might be a better choice, but she's needed where she is, and Ichabod's too new, and she's our only instructor. Later--"

"Do they know?"

"Not yet," Cas answers, even more stiffly. "Your approval, in this case, is a requirement."

"I like it--one change, though." Leaning his head on his hand. "If I go down, my first choice is you."

It's comforting to know Cas can still miss the completely and totally obvious to everyone in the known world. Or Chitaqua and five trading partner communities, anyway.

"Yeah, I should have said something," Dean continues without any intention of being believed. "But I was worried about your performance--you know, wanting to be a good lieutenant and everything, so--"


"If I'm disabled or killed, you'll be the one who steps up, just like you did before, but at least this time you'll know about it," Dean says. "Two times now, Cas, it's been close. We can't risk what happened when Dean died happening again, you're right about that much. He took everyone who knew what to do when he went after Lucifer; we're not making that mistake this time."


"Okay, injured, fever, out of my mind, whatever," because it wasn't like talking about his own death and the end of the world was something he was interested in doing. "That's gonna happen again. Me not being here? It's happening now. We learned how to do this together--and we're still doing that--which is pretty convenient, come to think. We're gonna teach them everything we've learned, and we make sure they know what it is we do and what we don't."

Cas leaned back against the couch, blue eyes thoughtful. "We aren't anyone's private army."

"And that includes Chitaqua's leadership." He blows out a breath. "It's not just about Chitaqua anymore. Ichabod and the other towns are our responsibility; they don't have time for us to have a crisis of leadership, and they can't afford for us to have a change in policy. That goddamn fever…." It was just weirdly good luck, too, that everyone thought Dean was banging Cas then. Like, the stupidest good luck ever. "They know you're my second and they answer to you just like they do to me; all we're doing is making sure that everyone--and I mean everyone--knows you're also my successor."

"If I agree," Cas says, "can we end this depressing conversation? Or at least supplement it with alcohol and a soundtrack? Something in emo, perhaps?"

"Blues," Dean says firmly; boybands, fine, he can roll with it, but there are lines. "Almost done: if we go south--shut up," Cas shuts his mouth with a disgruntled look, "we need two people ready to take over in our absence, and I'd like a third for backup."


"And who won't coup us in our absence," Dean says seriously, but Cas's expression tells him he failed at keeping a straight face. "On the other hand: if she doesn't like who we leave, she might coup them, so….what about putting Kyle and Cynthia in charge? Give it two days and vive la revolution and the inevitable two casualties that result, but that happens in war."

"I feel as if perhaps my--incorrect--concerns regarding Cynthia when she was on James's team have influence you unduly." He wets his lips, and Dean watches the flicker of pink way too intently before catching himself just as Cas adds, "You were correct regarding my ambivalence--and distrust--of the other members of the camp due to the actions of a few."

"I'm glad to hear it," Dean tells him, bracing an elbow on the back of the couch. "Growing as a person, all that. Good job, Cas."

"Or not," Cas says with a bright, malicious smile. "At least as it applies to this room. As I was saying--"

"I don't like her," Dean states. "And I don't trust her."

He watches Cas debate how to phrase what he's pretty sure is coming next. "If it's because I don't--"

"That would be the reason, yeah." Cas makes a face. "Give me a reason I should."

"Other than the fact you shouldn't allow yourself to be influenced by…" And that look again. "Just because we don't get along should have no bearing on your relationship with her."

"I'd love to know why not." Cas straightens, and yeah. "Get up here."

Cas hesitates before joining him on the couch--the other side, but still--folding himself into the corner to look at Dean blankly.

"I won't put her--or anyone--in the field if I don't think I can trust them to watch each other's backs," he says, leaning his head on one hand. "I'm going on faith with most of 'em, yeah, but Cynthia already made one thing clear; she won't watch yours."

"You don't know that--"

"We both know that," Dean interrupts. "She set up her team leader to fail when she was on James' team; that alone would have had her kicked off the patrol teams for good, and she's lucky she didn't get a ten day ration pack and a twenty mile drive to anywhere but here. But I wouldn't have risked her on a team in the first place--much less put her on James'--if I'd known there was any chance at all she was one of the ones at your cabin that night. Cas, look at me." Reluctantly, Cas looks up, eyes unreadable. "If I ever find out she was there, the best she can hope for is that she gets a knife and twenty-four hours to get out of Kansas before I go hunting. And everyone in this camp will know exactly why."

Cas stills, searching his face for a long moment before sitting back. "You mean that."

"Yeah, I do." He doesn't need to say what they both know; Cynthia will survive exactly as long as it takes Amanda to find her, and that'll be less than twenty-four hours whether she's on this side of the border or not. Thing is, even that's the best case scenario; right now, he doesn't think he can shoot someone in cold blood two years after the fact for a crime they failed to commit, no matter how much he might want her dead, but six months ago, he never would have even thought to ask the question. "Joe," he says, deciding a return to the original subject is in order before he has to decide just how sure he is of his current answer. "Vera and Joe, Mel and Alicia as backup since yeah, we need Amanda at Ichabod. What do you think?"

To his relief, Cas goes with it. "They work well together, and between them, they can keep the patrol schedule stable and regular contact with the border and the communities we are protecting. Joseph is already our representative to the alliance, and all the mayors know him, and by the time we leave, they'll be familiar enough with Vera to be comfortable with the temporary change in leadership."

"Unless she coups us," Dean offers, and has the satisfaction of seeing Cas's faint smile. "We need to be here for Amanda to finish her first class and get them integrated--introduce them around, get them on the schedule--"

"Amanda gave me the list of recruits with a provisional evaluation of their potential," Cas interrupts, reaching for his laptop and tapping a few keys before turning it toward Dean. "Barring any unforeseen difficulties--"

"…is this the schedule for the next six months?" Dean asks blankly, squinting at the screen. "You got them in already?"

"They will have their adjustment period here before we assign some of them permanently to the camp we're building in Ichabod, per our agreement with Alison," Cas answers didactically. "Two of the current districts and those communities will be assigned as their routes, and we can begin, if you wish, to approach more of the communities. By then, Alison believes that our reputation will have spread enough they won't immediately hide from us or assume we're attempting to conquer them."

"I like starting on the least terrifying foot," Dean agrees, scanning the list. He recognizes some of the names from Amanda's class are already listed, awesome, but…. "Okay, wait, who is Person20? We're only getting--"

"I forgot to tell you," Cas interrupts so casually that he's immediately suspicious. "Amanda also reported that she has sufficient recruits to begin a second class when this one is done."

Startled, Dean looks at the patrol schedule again. "When? Why didn't she tell me?"

"I told her I would. Approval has been granted by Ichabod's council for us to recruit ten to a maximum of twenty of Ichabod's residents per class, provided that Chitaqua compensates for the town's loss of labor with a proportional increase in our own for the town," Cas answers placidly. "As that was reasonable and consummate with the original terms, I agreed and told Joe that would be among the terms when our residence in Ichabod is officially made permanent and we begin formation of our second base there."

Oh. "Okay, so about ten to twenty per class." Dean tries to remind himself that isn't much, that they need an army, but despite himself, excitement bubbles up, irrepressible. He'd been honest when he told Alison one made a difference; anything more is just icing. Forty to eighty in a year, though, is a hell of a lot of icing. Maybe get some other communities to think about joining up. Maybe…he cut himself off. "Sweet."

"Amanda also asked permission, pending the results of this class, to raise the number she and Mark could train in the next group," Cas adds, turning the laptop back around and tapping the touchpad. "I gave provisional approval, with the final decision when I've evaluated her first group of recruits."

"Why?" Dean thinks back to the people coming from the other towns and felt another frisson of excitement he tried desperately to tamp down. "So next class, how many does she want?"


Dean blinks. "Fifty?"

"Yes, fifty." Cas frowns at the laptop. "She sent a tentative list of those who had spoken to her already, but she anticipates there may be more as word of what we're doing in Ichabod spreads beyond those communities we are contracted to. Traders seem to be spreading the word."

Dean does the math; about two months, twenty more; three after that, they get fifty. Jesus, that's-- "Fifty people want to sign up for the war on evil?"

"No," Cas says, still frowning at the screen and ignoring Dean's surprise. "More than fifty requested consideration, but she felt fifty was the maximum number that she and Mark could handle at this time. Did you know the largest single attack on a town by a group of Croats was ten?"

"No." Scooting down the couch, he turns the laptop, trying to interpret the endless columns of data and Cas's personal code. "Cas--"

"None were ever accompanied by demons; those tended to be discrete, though equally destructive."

"Yeah, I bet." Dean scrolls right--that is a lot of columns--then goes back and to the top. "Person42? How--"

"I wasn't aware there was footage of the attack."

Crap, he forgot about that. "Yeah, that. Walter--"

"Cameras, attack vector, I heard." Something in Cas's voice gets his full attention. "After an attack, the towns' patrol leaders meet to discuss the details and plan for future attacks, and Manuel and Teresa asked Tony to accompany him to this one, as well as Amanda and two teams of her students who participated in the defense of the town. Despite the fact that Manuel had no history of lying, they didn't believe--the statistics."

"They showed them the footage." That's why Tony was there. "Cas, I didn't know--"

"They wouldn't have," Cas interrupts. "Except it was the only way to convince them--the largest single attack that they know of on a town consisted of ten Croats. Out of six hundred residents, three survived; that's the only reason anyone knows that town even existed."

Dean nods, licking his lips. "The town…."

"There's nothing left of it," Cas says. "It was less than twenty miles from the eastern Kansas border, and proximity to an uninfected state tends to get a very thorough response from the military, even if it's after the fact. However, that's beside the point." Dean raises his eyebrows; that sounds like one hell of a not point. "There were four hundred and thirteen Croat bodies recovered from Ichabod."

Dean checks his nod. "A lot, yeah, overkill."

"And four confirmed demon deaths." Cas takes a breath. "They didn't know demons could be killed." Dean assumes his expression conveys his interest and not wondering what the point is. "Fifty Croats is enough to quarantine a city; the spread of infection is so fast there are no survivors because we can't get to them before they're infected or dead. Fifty active Croats means ten times that number are infected already, and half of them are at stage two and infecting others without even knowing it."

"Ichabod had quarantine procedures, they knew what they were doing--"

"They did, which makes a difference," Cas says with a half-exasperated, half-fond smile. "They were able to implement best case scenario; Ichabod's patrol was able to concentrate on protecting the survivors and getting them to safety and then do a full and thorough sweep of all streets and the surrounding area as well as isolate those potentially infected immediately. Their procedures were flawless, but generally, implementing them requires there be time to leave the immediate fight for their lives and those around them to establish a perimeter inside which procedure could be followed."

"So we helped with that."

"The timeline Manuel gave to the rather stunned patrol leaders of the other towns shows a hard perimeter was established within one hour of the first--and very unexpected--attack on the north fields, which Amanda's students were instrumental in assisting them form and defend. Kamal's team began initial sweeps, allowing Ichabod's patrol to defend the survivors and get them to safety. The appearance of another group of Croats two hours after that technically broke the perimeter line, yes, but we were warned, and none of them survived their arrival at Second Street in any case."

"You and Amanda killed them all," Dean agrees, because yeah, he does have a copy of the footage and fuck the blizzard for electricity rationing, he's gotta see this.

"Two teams of students helped under our supervision," Cas says, and Dean makes a note to steal more blankets because he's watching that goddamn tape without heat or lights if he has to. Soon. "Five hours after the initial attack, all Croats were dead, the infected identified or in isolation, and the casualties totaled sixty-three, not including the human infiltrators, the majority of which occurred within the town square." There's the briefest hesitation. "You were responsible for the fact there were survivors at all."

Dean nods shortly; they really should return to the subject, which was….Cas's fucking spreadsheet, right. Picking up the laptop from the coffee table, he stares at it until a column finally resolves into a list of names. "Right, so--you said you're planning for a year?"

"Six months," Cas says beside him as Dean continues to scroll, frowning as he reaches the end: Person01, Person39, Person86, eighty six, he guesses they could get that many in the next year. "Dean--" Abruptly, Cas pushes his hand away, minimizing the spreadsheet.

"Hey, I was looking at--"

"This," Cas says, opening a new spreadsheet--how many does Cas have? Not a question he wants answered--and list of names that aren't PersonNumber. "Read it," Cas says, sitting back.

Glancing at Cas warily, he reaches for the touchpad and starts scrolling. And scrolling. And scrolling. "Uh--"

"The other towns are interested in--our method."

Dean removes his fingers from the touchpad, staring at the names. "Cas--"

"A town of one thousand individuals survived an attack of four hundred and thirteen Croats and six demons with only sixty-three casualties. And Chitaqua's leader, with only two guns and insufficient ammunition and still recovering from a fever that almost killed him less than three months before, stopped what would have been a wholesale slaughter of every living being in the daycare," Cas continues softly. "As well stopped a human sacrifice from being performed in the courtyard of Ichabod. Alone."

Distantly, he notices his hands are beginning to tremble. "How many?"

"Four hundred and thirty-eight individuals from the trade alliance approached Amanda and requested consideration to join Chitaqua before the blizzard." Dean jerks his gaze to Cas, who grins back. "They heard we were going to win this, and they want in."

--Day 146--

Alison confirmed the number ("So far, that is; snow's been slowing them down"), adding laconically that Kamal's team was helping Ichabod to get on fixing up the abandoned buildings for residency due to the influx of people from the other towns coming for basic and leaving (reluctantly) to tell everyone and their goddamn dog that there was a war to fight and a world to win, or something like that, because Mark apparently has completely unexpected powers of oratory, and being Mark, used them for evil.

"Inspiring," Alison said thoughtfully, glancing at Teresa. "I was almost ready to sign up for Dean Winchester's Army of Light myself."

"Tell me that's not a quote."

Teresa, goddamn her, held up a notepad. "I got the text here. Also, you're a candle in the wind."

Dean nodded blankly. "Give me a minute. I'm gonna kill Mark."

Parking the jeep, Dean sighs, aware that Kamal--who totally isn't his escort, he just needed something from his cabin--is looking at him and trying not to grin. "If you tell Cas--" he starts, knowing it's doomed to failure, but he's gotta try.

"Won't say a word. I have to get Chuck to print up a few copies of the speech first," Kamal answers, sliding out of the jeep before Dean can stop him. Waving his spiral notebook, he makes off as Dean stares out the windshield in appalled silence.

Eventually, he realizes he's got to get out of the jeep or risk freezing to death, which doesn't sound bad right now but Cas will find a way to resurrect him--impossible whatever--just to kill him again if he tries, so he slides out, tucking his keys in his pocket and carefully leaving the garage as fast as humanly possible in case there's something to hear. Sure, there's snow on the ground and it's below zero, but this is Chitaqua, and his militia is fearless and like sex, which means come snow, rain, or apocalypse, they will get their orgasm.

Tramping down the red and green decorated trail of lights toward the huddle of lit cabins, he feels something uncoiling in him, relaxing after the morning in Ichabod catching up on anything else he needed to know, checking in with Alison and Teresa about New Year's and leaving Amanda to arrange the details, and saying goodbye to everyone (and aware, suddenly, of how many unfamiliar eyes followed him around the training ground, people stopping in the middle of practice, appearing out of nowhere to cluster around the fence to stare at him as he started back across the field to his jeep with Kamal on his heels).

They heard we were going to win this, and they want in.

Amanda and Alison's matching smirks carried all the unspoken certainty in the world that his real reason for leaving a day earlier than planned was getting laid by his boyfriend, which nice thought, but the truth is much, much less sexy; he missed Cas and wanted to go home. The slowly growing anticipation followed him since he got up this morning, and even though it was late afternoon before he was able to leave, he didn't even consider waiting another day.

Dean's still thinking about that when he's up the porch steps and almost runs into the door, grinning as he impatiently pushes it open and is immediately bathed in a spill of warm yellow light. Going inside, he abruptly realizes he's got the attention of the two--two?--occupants of the couch, one of whom puts down her coffee cup and gets to her feet almost immediately.

"Hey, Dean," Vera says, grinning at him. "So, ready to pack for a trip south?"

Cas gets him coffee, apparently experiencing a brand new high when it comes to mood, that being really, really good, and Vera looks after him fondly before turning her attention back to Dean (curled up in the armchair across the coffee table and trying to look really excited about this totally unexpected turn of events, because he is, really) sipping from her cup and radiating more good will and contentment than Dean feels anyone living in an Apocalypse should ever be feeling. Which, he thinks, taking the cup from Cas and staring at the contents, is probably kind of unreasonable, and also, what the hell.

"Sorry for the delay," she says, giving Cas a grin as he joins her on the couch. "The blizzard hit us right before we got to Tennessee. We holed up in an abandoned house and waited it out." She sighs dramatically, leaning her head back on the armchair. "Slept almost half a day when we finally got here."

"Not almost," Cas corrects her, looking amused. "You said give you two hours for a full report. Fourteen hours later, you finally decided to give it."

"I had to shower," she half-protests with a laugh. "And eat something."

"You made me get you food."

"Maybe I needed more food," she shoots back. "Maybe I was surprised we have so much food. I didn't know you could cook, either. Which by the way, when did you learn to cook?"

"Practice," Dean says shortly, taking a mouthful of coffee at the way Cas and Vera look at him. Swallowing before he burns all the skin off his tongue and spreading the pain down his throat, he tries a smile. "It's good to see you."

That must have sounded convincing--and it's true, he thinks, so why wouldn't it be?--because she smiles back. "Thanks. Cas said you would be gone until tomorrow, but if you want my report now--"

"I'll get it tomorrow," Dean answers, taking another drink. "It's pretty late and it was a hell of a drive."

Vera shakes her head. "I mean, I was gonna make dinner for Cas, and I was gonna invite you. I'm a good cook. Now that we have food that can be good, anyway."

Later, Dean will have no idea how this happened.

"Long drive," he says, shaking his head and adding in a yawn for good measure and getting two sets of raised eyebrows for his trouble. "I'm gonna go to bed, so you two go have fun," which earns him Cas's undivided attention and Vera's eyes widening, oh God what, "and I'll sleep." Standing up, he starts toward the bedroom before remembering that it's a death zone of cold, but strangely enough, he's okay with that. Though, and now he notices this, the mattress is gone from the floor.

"Nate and Lee fixed the insulation problem in the bedroom," Cas offers to his back, which Dean responds to with a glance back and a thumbs-up. Right. The bedroom's okay; glad Cas got finally inspired to get that shit fixed. "Also, the grout in…in the bathtub, it was leaking, did you want to try and do it yourself again?"

Dean wonders if you can smile hard enough to sprain something. "No, it's fine. Great." It's not like Cas has a choice here; if Dean can't get the job done, outsourcing is where it's at to fulfill his--cabin needs, okay, stop. He really needs to get out of this room, oh look, bedroom door. "Sorry, would love to talk, but--seriously, long couple of days. Tomorrow okay?"

"All right," Cas starts.

"Good to have you back," Dean says to Vera before Cas can add anything, sliding in the door. "See you bright and early! Or you know, sometime this--year, next year, no rush."

"Night," Vera says, sounding confused, and Dean waves one more time before closing the door firmly behind him.

Castiel's always enjoyed watching the stars, glittering points of light in an endless sky, and never misses the rare nights that the overcast lightens enough to see them. Before he Fell, he never spent time simply observing them, and he sometimes wonders if before he was confined within the limits of this form, how much attention he paid to them.

Leaning back against the side of the cabin, Castiel plays with one of the joints that Melanie thoughtfully left pre-rolled for him and tries to put his thoughts in some kind of order.

"Mind some company?" Vera says from the steps of her small porch a few feet away. He tilts his head to look at her, the easy smile that means the offer is genuine; she won't be offended if he prefers solitude. At his nod, she comes down the steps, two bottles swinging from one hand and two extremely plaid blankets over one arm. "I figured I'd give you half an hour before I stopped pretending I didn't know you were sitting out here and you entered 'cry for help' territory."

"How did you--"

"You took that blankets from Amanda's bed," she says, looking down at the triple layer of wool folded up beneath him before spreading the blankets over him. "Threw it out the window while I was in the bathroom, right?"

He sighs as she pulls up a corner and ducks beneath, tucking in the end. "I won't ask how you know that."

"Since the answer is that you're really distracted, you don't need to," she answers, tucking closer against his side and drawing up her knees comfortably before offering him one of the bottles. "Last ones I got from Joe. What did Amanda do to get two bottles of that shit you call alcohol?"

"Dean named it Eldritch Horror," he offers, tapping the bottle against his knee. "I have no idea, but I assume she blackmailed Dean for them, and now I think I can guess how it became so popular. Find out what it was at the first opportunity."

"Since you stole her from me and sent her into exile, that may be a while." Taking a drink, she considers. "Eldritch Horror. I do remember tentacles the last time I had that."

"That was rope, and a valuable lesson in keeping a sharp object in range." She smirks in memory. "Excellent knots, by the way."

"I have skills," she says, bumping her shoulder against his companionably. "So what's up?"

Twisting off the top off the bottle, he takes a drink. "For centuries, the finest beers were created in monasteries. There were some that were less famous for their piety than their breweries."

Vera studies her bottle as if she's never seen it before. "Who invented beer, anyway? Adam?"

"Eve." Vera snickers. "No, truly. When she was with child, Adam worried she would injure herself tending their fields, and while their animals needed attention, that was not enough to fill the hours of the day."

"So she invented beer."

"Only after she invented the wheel, sliced bread, and the cure for the common cold." Vera laughs softly. "I see my veracity is in question."

"I would never doubt the word of an angel."

"I'm not actually sure regarding the origin of beer," Castiel admits, taking another drink. "I watched your houses become villages and your villages become towns and your towns grow into cities. I watched all of your greatest accomplishments as you spread across this world, and I watched all of your most horrific atrocities. I thought I understood the nature of humanity from my observations, yet somehow, I missed the invention of beer."

"I don't know," Vera says after a moment. "Building civilization and the creation of beer; they don't seem comparable."

"I don't think anyone who has ever drank a beer can truly believe that," he tells her. "At least, until they tasted wine."



"Tequila," Vera counters, then hesitates. "Maybe."

"I'm still debating its value in the greater scheme of creation when not in margarita form." She murmurs agreement, looking up at the sky when she takes her next drink, revealing the pure curve of her throat, dark skin gleaming faintly in the thin, chill light, locks of hair pulled up in a messy pony tail. When she's not on duty and she lets it down, they nearly reach her waist.

"How long does that take?" he says curiously. She turns her head, giving him an inquiring look. "Your hair."

"It used to take hours," she answers, lowering the bottle. "When--before, I'd go to my sister and she did it for me. After she got her license, she talked me into trying this because I was a tenderhead--" She grins at him, reaching up to touch her scalp. "Hated having my hair braided, hurt like hell and it took forever, so when I started college, I went for short and easy. But I liked the look and so I kept it. I didn't think I paid that much attention until…." Her gaze drops to her knees. "After, there was no one to do it, and I thought about just cutting it all off. I could rock a shaved head."

"You could."

"But--I just couldn't do it." Vera's gaze grows distant. "I sat down with the scissors, and then thought of how Merry did it when I watched her in the mirror and started there." She sighs. "My sister was a pro; she'd just bought her own place a few months before all this started. When someone asks, I teach them to do it like she did it, and it feels like something of her is still here. I remember how she'd part my hair and how she'd work on each lock and remind me about proper hair care while she trimmed the ends, and for a second, I'm still sitting in her salon after hours and just talking about anything and everything." She cocks her head, studying him for a moment. "I could teach you. Your hair's just long enough to pull it off."

"How would I look?" he asks, curious.

Her smirk widens. "Hilarious." Reaching up, she runs her fingers through his hair, and Castiel closes his eyes under the affectionate touch. "Okay, I gotta ask. My hair?"

"Life lived in quantum," he answers, thinking of Alison. "Infinity in its potential. You'll like Alison very much. We share meandering and confusing conversation when we have insomnia, which you've always had an inexplicable fondness for."

"How long was I gone anyway?" she says in mock-bewilderment.

"Too long," he answers honestly, surprising them both. Looking at her, he wonders why he didn't tell her this when she arrived. "I missed you."

Turning the bottle between her hands, she considers him before smiling slowly. "Okay, you're forgiven for kidnapping my roommate."

"Despite the plethora of potential options--who seem to number in the legion--she's between partners at this time," he says, turning back to study the walls of the cabin in front of them. "She might require company to talk about her feelings. You should consider visiting her and doing that. I'm sure she'd be grateful."

He can feel her fixed gaze. "Wow," she says finally, taking a drink. "Talk about feelings?"

"Human things," he explains. "You have feelings and they seem to cause--problems. Talking about them sometimes helps, though occasionally you're simply very confused and wonder how on earth you can feel things in multiples; it's exhausting. And contradictory."

Vera nods slowly. "The person feeling or the person listening?"

"How do you tell the difference?" he asks in bewilderment.

"Yeah, that's what I thought." One foot nudges his. "Drunk we can't do in this weather, but high we can. Light 'em up."

Relieved, he takes out his lighter, offering her the first drag when it's successfully lit before taking one for himself. "One is my current limit," he says after watching the thick, fragrant smoke curl upward before dissolving into the cold night air.


"My tolerance," he admits, passing it back to her. "Dean neither asks nor expects me to curtail any activity as long as it doesn't interfere with my duties and poses no risk to…what we're trying to do."

"The mission, the war, this camp," she agrees, smoke trickling from between her lips with every word. "Your life. He was pretty upset when we talked."

Castiel stills, joint halfway to his lips and gives her a narrow look. "You gave him the records you kept on me."

"Yeah, in case you needed medical--"

"You reviewed them with him in detail, or there's no possible way he would have jumped to that particular page I saw him reading with Alicia."

She snorts. "Cas, he pulled rank and ordered me to hand them over once I cleared him for limited duty and made me walk him through every goddamn procedure and why. Three hours of a Dean Winchester interrogation, I was giving up the bong I made in high school out of a gourd Mom grew in the garden for decoration and how I threw up the first time I took 'shrooms my sophomore year in college." She shakes her head, expression baffled. It was--how does he do that?"

"He made me admit I doubted my Father when I was still a member of the Host and visit a prostitute for sex I wasn't interested in having. As well as rebel, Fall, and become extremely interested in patrol schedules, mapmaking, spreadsheets, and functional architectural designs for the average militia camp." Castiel takes a long drag, almost wishing now he brought another one. "I should tell you one day about a very enlightening moment under a log during a rain of blood and various amphibians. It explains so much about humanity. And mortal life, for that matter."

"Or," she says, taking the joint back, "you could tell me what you're trying to avoid talking about feeling and sitting out here until I came out to make you?" She shrugs at his frown. "Just a thought."

"We could talk about Amanda's loneliness as well," he says venomously, finishing the bottle before he thinks better of it. "Should we flip a coin?"

"Second time you mentioned her in one conversation," she observes neutrally, eyes sharp. "That's a record."

He stares down at the joint between his fingers, tip burning brightly inches from his fingers.

"After you finished training her, you avoided her," Vera continues, a ripple of remembered anger in her voice. I mean, more than you did everyone you weren't fucking, which is saying something. It was pretty noticeable. She never said anything, but I always wondered about that."

He swallows. "I don't pretend there's any excuse for my actions--"

"I didn't ask for one," she interrupts.

"Your group--I didn't expect someone like her. Or like Mark, for that matter, but she--"

"Got your attention," Vera finishes for him, nodding. "Yeah, also noticeable. The ways of Castiel are like the ocean. Unfathomable."

The ocean, again. Blowing out the smoke more slowly, he passes her the joint. "I was one of Dean's first instructors for hunters. To do that, I had to be taught by as many hunters as possible, so I could pass on their accumulated knowledge."

"That explains a lot." Taking the last drag, she offers the glowing butt before putting it out when he shakes his head. "Heard some things at Gloria's. So this is that past that I'm on need to know only basis with."

"You didn't ask Gloria?" Or Amy, which is not something he wants confirmed if he can help it.

"If all I wanted was information, sure." She shrugs, playing with her empty bottle. "Since I wanted you to tell me, that would be no."

"Oh." He tries and fails to think of what to say to that. "Dean taught me first, but when we founded Alpha, another hunter there took charge of my continued instruction. She came from a family that had been hunters since before the birth of Christ." He tilts his head. "Even before the written word."

"Jesus." Vera is quiet for a few moments. "You knew the family?"

"I knew the first hunter of her line," he answers, remembering. "She was the only child of her parents. She was born to them late in their lives, and her mother couldn't carry another child to term. They feared for her when they died, what would become of her without brothers or male relatives to offer her protection. They also worried about her keeping watch over their flock of sheep at night, but it was unavoidable as her father grew weaker. One night she was there alone and a demon attacked."

"What happened?"

"She prayed." He feels himself smiling. "By a very loose interpretation of 'pray' while she was engaged in single combat with a demon armed with only a shepherd's crook and a strong sense of personal affront. She couldn't possibly win," he adds more quietly. "She also didn't particularly care."

"And you heard her."

He shrugs. "We had responded to others who called for our help, and the first hunters had already begun to spread throughout the world to protect humanity. There were enough to assure the skills would be passed to the generations that would follow, but--"

"You heard her."

"She prayed for me. It was impossible to ignore." Beside him, Vera goes still, then abruptly, breaks into peals of startled laughter. "I don't see why you find that amusing."

"You so do," she says on a gasp, forehead braced against her knees. Shaking herself, she straightens, chuckling more quietly. "Was that the first time it ever happened?"

"Yes. How did you--"

"The way you said it," she says, laughing again before adding, "The way you look now. I just--it was a surprise, huh?"

"Yes," he admits finally, ignoring Vera's muffled laughter. "Our names were known to many humans then, so how she knew it wasn't of any particular interest. Why she called for me, however--after I smited the demon and calmed and blessed the herd with superior wool--" he pauses for Vera to make a strangled sound, "--I asked her why she called me."

"And she said?"

"I was the only one of those whose names she could remember that hadn't within memory smited a person, city, or country in my Father's name." Vera leans forward to stare at him, eyes wide. "She wanted--keep in mind this was in a language no one actually speaks anymore, so my translation leaves something to be desired--to try for a messenger slightly less bloodthirsty in case they took offense at her request for distracting them from great works for something so small." He sighs, leaning back against the chilly side of the cabin. "I never realized what a terrible reputation the Host had on earth. I suppose it makes sense from the point of view of humanity; dispensing justice in our Father's name tends to be a situation in which smiting something is a given."

"Right." Vera sounds intrigued. "Except you."

"Oh, I smited on command," he answers, frowning at her widening smile. "Just not often, due to location. Humanity had yet to spread out and the population was extremely small. The garrisons that were assigned to a particular area handled any problems that might arise, and called in others if it was beyond them. The most popular were those with a great deal of potential activity and positions in those were highly sought. The garrison I was assigned to was less--active."

"You were in the boondocks."

"No, the boondocks were urban centers compared to where I was generally stationed." Vera's grin widens. "Her home fell within the responsibilities of my garrison, and so I answered her."

"You were bored."

"Angels have no concept of boredom," he corrects her. "I was occupied at all times with contemplating my Father's love, the beauty of earth and--"


"--the perfection of the amoeba, but a distress call took precedence, of course." He ignores her snicker. "She invited me to meet her parents, which was novel enough that I accepted, and I healed her father's arthritis and her mother's cataracts, and I asked her father that she be given into my care for a year and a day, to teach her to be a hunter, and for that time, their family would be protected and their livestock and crops cared for without need for her labor. He agreed."

Vera raises an eyebrow. "Did she?"

"Interestingly, that question is one I didn't think would be a problem," he answers, mouth quirking. "Eventually, she agreed, though it must be admitted, I had no idea being chosen by an angel for great work was a debatable point then. I should have remembered that," he adds thoughtfully. "It would have helped a great deal with Dean."

"And your garrison was okay with that?"

Castiel tips his head back, wondering how to explain. "What she said--about my Brethren on earth--was true, in a sense. History was being created, and those garrisons had responsibilities were far greater than mine. Great work was being done in my Father's name, and--"

"No time for a girl and her sheep." Vera cocks her head. "She wasn't important enough to make history."

"In this case, that was to her advantage," he answers. "When I requested permission of my garrison commander, I had already looked forward and back in time, and I was able to assure them that her life had no particular significance in my Father's plan; they couldn't see her at all." He tilts his head at Vera's sour look. "I knew they wouldn't deny me permission then. I was assigned to that garrison on the edges of humanity's reach because I was only foot soldier of the Host. They knew my existence had no particular significance, either, so I was in appropriately insignificant company."

Vera winces, looking away. "Ouch."

"I didn't mind, I assure you. So for a year and a day," he continues, "I trained her as my Brethren had trained the others who would become hunters, and when another hunter entered the edges of the territory assigned to my garrison, I brought him to her, and ordered him to teach her all that he knew. Unlike her," he adds, "he didn't argue my right to do so."

Vera snorts. "Scared him to death?"

"After Amieyl, it seemed wiser to be proactive," he agrees, looping an arm around his knees under the blanket and pulling them closer. "After the year was done, I offered to return him to wherever he wanted to go, but as Amieyl wished to stay with her parents, he did as well, and I blessed their union and left them to their work."

Vera bites her lip, obviously thinking as the silence stretches out between them before asking, "Did you ever see them again or was that not allowed?"

"All her life." He looks into the darkness. "But I only came to her four more times, each at her request. On the deaths of her parents, together, as they had requested of me when I offered them a gift for a year of their daughter's life; the birth of her first child, a daughter that she asked me to bless and to give her name; the death of her husband, to see him burned and his soul claimed by a reaper who would take him home to rest; and at her death, surrounded by her children and grandchildren and the first great-grandchild, to give that child my blessing and her name, so it would continue to be spoken by man after her death, and a promise that it always would be, until the end of Time. When the reapers came, I sent them away, and took her to rest in my Father's fields forever myself."

She leans against him, and he sees her surreptitiously wiping her eyes, giving him a glare when she sees him watching. "Don't even," she says flatly, sniffling audibly. "So this Amieyl was the ancestor of your instructor? Did you tell her? What'd she say?"

"I didn't tell her," he answers, shrugging at Vera's frown. "There was no reason to do so."

"You trained the first of her line and you didn't think that was important?"

"My purpose when we met was to learn everything I could to train hunters," he explains, feeling unsettled. "What I knew of her family was irrelevant."

"You don't think she'd want to know?" Castiel hesitates, not sure how to explain, and Vera's eyes narrow. "You were still an angel then. When you met your instructor."

"Yes," he answers with a sinking feeling. "It was the primary reason she agreed to train me. She could teach me much more quickly than a human because I could heal immediately and so she didn't have to be concerned with injury."

Vera hisses between her teeth. "I don't even want to think about what that means." Then, after a moment, she says, surprised, "Your training us--that came from her?"

"From her and Dean, as well as the other hunters who agreed to join Alpha," he answers. "Dean was the original architect of the training model, but she perfected it. Dean's training came from his father, not his mother, so he didn't have the advantage of generations of practice training hunters from early childhood. Before the Apocalypse started, Amy was already engaged in teaching the younger members of her family as well as her foster daughter, so she had very recent experience as well."

"Huh." Vera nods thoughtfully. "Did you like her?"

"It was--"

"--irrelevant, saw that coming." She looks at him speculatively. "Did she like you?"

"Not at all." She tilts her head. "We didn't interact very much when not in training, and she and Dean--disagreed often."

Her expression implies more information would be welcome.

"I was very different then," he starts, and like that, he remembers that morning in Alison's kitchen. "A thousand people."


I've counted ten sitting across from me so far this morning. For a moment, he can see Alison's mocking smile across the table. Know thyself, Castiel of Chitaqua. Know thyself, he told Dean in the bathroom, looking into the mirror he acquired to replace the one that he broke, when Dean asked him, what do you see?

Castiel thinks: actually, I don't know.

"I don't think I spoke to her other than for official business, and generally it was regarding her shortcomings in leadership, her lack of focus on the mission, her interactions with her subordinates, her questionable relationship with the leader of Alpha--"

"Elijah?" Vera interrupts, horror rippling through her voice; ah, yes, she's met them both now. "Her husband? You didn't."

"He wasn't her husband then," he agrees in resignation. "And her lack of faith in Dean's vision."

Vera covers her face. "Jesus Christ. So you fought a lot?"

What do you see?

"I didn't fight with her," he tells her, calm in despair, and Vera's head comes up, eyes widening. "I calmly and rationally explained how she was wrong and the steps she should take to correct herself before she damaged--perhaps permanently--our efforts to save the world."


"I was sincere," he adds, reaching for his half-empty bottle and finishing it in a single, icy swallow. "She thought I was uptight, judgmental, supercilious, condescending, presumptuous, arrogant, and near robotic in my emotional range."

Vera stares at him wordlessly.

"The last part is obviously inaccurate. I was an angel of the Lord; my wrath was to be feared."

Vera shuts her mouth with an almost audible click, hand coming up to gesture vaguely. "Oh God. Bet you had to do a lot of healing on the training field."

"I'm certain it was necessary in the interests of teaching me as quickly as possible," he mutters, remembering those weeks with an internal wince. "And assure I was motivated to improve, in which she succeeded beyond any and all expectations, including my own."

"I bet." Vera reaches for his arm, tugging it over her shoulders and huddling closer. "So--"

"Amanda is like her." Against his shoulder, he can feel her still. "With you, at least, I could excuse my attention as guilt--"


"--though my enjoyment of your company can't be so easily dismissed."

"Nice save," she says approvingly. "So Amanda was a reminder. What about now?"

"She's still a reminder," he answers slowly. "When I see her fight, I think of my instructor at Alpha, and the other hunters who passed their skills to me, as I did to her, as she does now for others." Of Dean, who taught him his first lessons in humanity by example before he taught him how to be a hunter and teach others.

This time, he doesn't fight the flash of pain at the memory of Kansas City and Dean's death, but the sharpness is blunted now, like touching a wound that's begun to close, flesh knitting together imperfect but slowly becoming whole, even if the scar remains. There are far worse fates than carrying the scar of Dean's death for the length of his life; there could have been nothing that needed to be healed. The memories might hurt, but the pain is worth having them at all.

It's not a test. Surviving is all you have to do to pass. Healing isn't a matter of time; it's learning how to want to. Glancing at Vera, he remembers what she said about her hair; so that's how you do it. "I wish I could have known your sister."

Vera reaches up, twisting a lock of hair between her fingers, and meets his eyes. "Always with me, every time I look in a mirror."

"I think I want to teach again."

"That's my boy." Dropping it, she shoves his knees down and pulls up the blanket, straddling his lap with a wide grin. "Let me be the first--"

"Vera, I don't want to disappoint you, but you weren't my first. If you want the exact number, however--"

"Asshole," she mutters as he cups her hips, then leans down to kiss him, warmly friendly, twisted locks of dark hair falling around them. Pulling back, she grins down at him. "Congratulations, Cas. You just passed Humanity 101. Now spread your legs."

He raises an eyebrow.

"It's cold, and you're warm," she says, balancing her weight on her knees and waiting for him to move before settling on the blanket between his legs, warm against his chest, and rearranging the blankets around them before tucking her head under his chin. "Jesus, much better, thanks. Believe it or not," she admits. "I kind of missed you, too."

"I don't understand why you--" He cuts himself off too late, but he remembers that conversation with Dean, when he'd wondered why she'd consider him a friend: "I'm betting she saw whatever it was with the two of you better than you did." "Thank you."

"It's easier to give up than keep fighting," she says quietly. He gave up before he met her in most ways; after he finished training her group, he willingly discarded what little that remained. "They say that's the hardest thing in the world. That--that's such bullshit, I don't know why anyone believes it. The hardest thing," she whispers, "is to give up, and then decide to try again." He stills, chest tight. "It's starting from less than zero; you got nothing you had before plus the memories of how you failed the first time. How the hell do you even start, much less want to?"

Castiel's eyes drift in the direction of the cabin, just out of sight. "It helps when someone makes you want to."

"Or someone shows you it can be done, if you're just willing to try. Which reminds me." Tilting her head back, she pushes her hair away to look into his eyes. "Thanks for doing that."

"Question," she asks later, sounding sleepy, and Castiel considers the possibility that sitting outside isn't entirely necessary, and notes that it's getting colder as the night deepens. "Are you fucking Dean?"

He blames the cannabis for the fact that he almost says, thanks to a sweatshirt, no. He's never done anything drunk that he wouldn't do sober, and Dean wouldn't be an exception to that in any sense; what he imagines in the privacy of the shower is between him and the water pressure, which depressingly enough, may at this point qualify as a regular sex partner if qualification is based on interaction.

"Joe said something," she continues. "I get the attraction of fucking with him and Amanda, don't get me wrong, so just saying, it worked. You were really convincing."

He supposes they were, yes. "No, I'm not," he decides after more thought than the question deserves; his tolerance really has suffered. "He isn't sexually interested in men."

"Fair enough." Vera's voice sounds doubtful, but before he can wonder why, she continues. "So you get sex has nothing to do with jealousy, right?"

Castiel glances toward the tiny, crushed bud of pot suspiciously, wondering if it was stronger than he assumed.

"He was jealous tonight," she says, twisting around to look at him seriously. "Humanity 201: Relationships, and class starts now. Which I'm guessing is what you've been trying to work out tonight, since you're sitting in the snow instead of having coffee with Dean on that goddamn porch." She looks curious. "You know everyone knows not to go anywhere near the cabin between six to seven and after ten these days unless it's by invitation, an emergency, or a direct order, right?" He blinks at her. "Dinner and porch time, respectively."

"No, I hadn't." He wonders if Dean is still awake, and if he might be agreeable to that tonight, then stops, reviewing their conversation thus far. "Human sexuality is ridiculously complex for something that you are biologically as well as psychologically designed to engage in for both its procreative potential as well as the pleasure it provides. While I understand that biological responses may not necessarily reflect the psychological--"

"Oh God," she groans, "Nate didn't--"

"No," he interrupts reassuringly. "Though case in point."

"The word you're looking for here is 'repressed as fuck'," she says, still wary. "Zack didn't--"

"Sean distracted him." He was watching for that, not even aware he was doing it, and he remembers now Sean catching his eye before lazily getting Zack's attention before anyone got to the stoned and regrettable hookup part of the evening. He can feel Vera looking at him, amusement and curiosity at war. "Zack and I are of similar build, provided you have a very active imagination, I suppose."

"Zack's like, five nine," she says, baffled. "How high was Sean?"

"Very." He considers. "It was also very dark."

"That would explain it."

"They aren't speaking any longer other than professionally," he hears himself say. "Nate and Zack. Not since Zack moved out."

She snorts. "Not a surprise."

That's what he thought, yes.

"Good for Zack," she says, then adds more softly, "Wish I could say the same for Nate, but not like anything's gonna help there."

He looks down at her in surprise. "Nate?"

She shifts restlessly, frowning into the distance. "Zack can get out of this; all he has to do is get away from Nate, and not saying that's easy, but Nate? Nate can't get away from himself."

"He doesn't know what he wants."

"Nate knows exactly what he wants," Vera corrects him, a ripple of sympathy in her voice. "He just hates himself for wanting it and hates himself even more for doing it. Sure, feel bad for Zack for having to put up with it and Nate making him miserable, can't help who you love, but the solution wasn't ever gonna be 'fuck him into being okay with being gay and be pissed at him when it doesn't work and tell everyone all about it'. That it took this long for Zack to catch up…." She shakes her head sharply. "So no, they're not gonna be friends after; you gotta want to be, and they were never friends in the first place."

Castiel hesitates. "That interpretation of their relationship isn't one I've heard."

"Everyone on the outside of something like that's gonna read it differently," she answers, mouth quirking. "Especially if you have a personal reason to be biased toward one of the two participants. The inside--who knows, not my business, it's theirs. Though I should stop by tomorrow; I'm not Nate's unwillingly preferred sex or gender and he might like some company that's not telling him he's never gonna do life right anywhere he goes, in detail."

He leans back against the cabin, absorbing that.

"You know," Vera says, tucking her head back under his chin with a sigh, "I'd love to know what you're thinking."

"Kyle and Alicia." She makes a horrified sound. "Also, we're building a new mess. I'll show you the hole tomorrow; it is superlative, in my experience with holes. Bring Nate with you; he can explain to both of us what it's for again, I'm still not clear on that part."

"Did you all shave your goatees before I got back?" she asks curiously. "Just checking. So, how close are you to climbing out of your own skin anyway?" She shrugs at his blank stare. "I've known you for two years, Cas. Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about."

Oh. "I'm starting to have a Pavlovian reaction to the sound of running water."

"This is progress," she observes. "First step is admitting you have a problem."

"It's not a problem. He's extremely attractive, I'm effectively celibate, and the cabin is very small," he answers shortly. "Of course I do. This can't possibly be surprising."

"So how convincing were you that night?" There's a highly ominous pause. "Were you convinced? Or was Dean?"

That would be the question: for himself, he was very convinced, and now hates sweatshirts when airborne. "Dean's always been honest. I certainly won't violate his trust or do anything that might make him uncomfortable."

"Right." She tilts her head. "You want to talk about it?"

"My ability to read humans is only rudimentary, so of course misinterpretation is almost guaranteed--"

"It's weird, how you're getting worse at lying."

"--but what circumstance could lead you to believe that Dean would be jealous the activities of someone he's living with and has no desire to have sex with?" he says viciously. "I'm assuming you speak from a position of greater experience."

Vera blows out a breath in annoyance, shifting her head to lean back against her shoulder. "Fuck you."

"If you're curious, snow has also been a useful solution to the problem."

He can feel her glare. "I’m not bothered at all that Amanda's having fun in Ichabod, because it's just sex, I get that, and it's not my business, I get that, too."

"Except it bothers you."

"Human 201," she agrees glumly. "We can control what we do about what we feel, but actually feeling it? Really not something we can do much about other than grit our teeth and not think about setting all her clothes on fire."

That sounds a great deal like something Dean once told him. "Amanda or her partners?"

"I'm not that picky." Shaking her head, she taps an impatient rhythm against his thigh. "It's so stupid to be mad that she wasn't here when I got back. Like she owes it to me or something. I'll get over it."

After a few minutes, Castiel observes, "I hate food, but Dean no longer complains about my cooking and now seems to look forward to meals."

"You learned. To cook. I mean, you're good at it."

"I'm good at whatever I do," he answers glumly. "Provided instruction, I can learn it. Once I realized that it was simple chemistry, I approached it as I would a batch of MDMA, with care and precision, and the results were unexceptional. Practice in any skill is essential for mastery. Dean's nutritional requirements provided appropriate motivation, and it is essential he finds meals pleasant to assure those are met."

"Have you thought about why you took the time to think up a logical, scientific excuse to feed Dean yet?"

He closes his eyes. "I was about to add that doesn't explain how very motivated I am to master something I don't actually enjoy, or begin to resent the probability that Dean would prefer someone else's culinary efforts to my own. Of course I know why, I just wish I didn't."

"We're really not drunk enough for this," Vera says depressingly. "Let's pretend we were, okay? Go home, and remind Dean that I saved his life. Maybe a couple of times." She twists around to look up at him wryly. "Still don't believe me? Did you ever hear the phrase, 'it takes one to know one'? Trust me, you have no idea how true it is."

Opening the door as quietly as he can, Castiel slips inside and stops short at the sight of Dean sprawled over the greater part of the couch, looking both tired and utterly, grimly determined to read--of all possible things--the previous Dean Winchester's journal, again. Still feeling unsettled, he forgets to close the door, and despite the blankets and the portable heater currently only a few feet from Dean's position, the noticeable drop in temperature gets his attention. Frowning, he pulls the blankets closer, the green eyes flickering up in annoyance and stopping short.

"Hey," he says blankly, then looks away, glancing down at the journal as if he's surprised by it before lowering it to his lap, finger marking the page. "You're home." He shuts his eyes briefly, looking pained, before continuing. "So, uh. Have a good time?"

"It was pleasant to share a meal with her," he answers carefully, watching as Dean sits up, shivering again, and belatedly closes the door. "The conversation was both interesting and--" He searches for an adequate word and fails. "Informative."

A tiny line forms between Dean's eyebrows. "Sounds fun?"

"If you can think of a reason to send Vera to Ichabod sometime soon, that would be useful," he says as Dean clears a space at the end of the couch and taking the offered spot. "It doesn't have to be convincing. She won't care enough to judge plausibility."

"Vera? Why…." He frowns, tapping the journal in his lap before his expression clears. "Really?"

"Vera and Amanda are very close and have lived together for most of their time here," he answers, wondering how much explanation Dean might require. The conversation with Vera had been enlightening in several ways, not least of which was the fact that she hadn't seemed to have realized that the only time Amanda became involved with anyone was when Vera was absent from the camp. There were very few secrets in Chitaqua, and after Luke's execution, Castiel made certain he knew them all, filing away gossip when it was irrelevant, but an angels' memory is flawless and he didn't forget. Even so, he might not have considered the possibility if the discussion with Vera hadn't brought to his attention that he was effectively doing the same thing, and for possibly the same reason. "Amanda missed her."

"First thing in the morning," Dean says promptly. "I'll think of something."

"I thought you might want to talk to her first."

"Why would I--" Dean stops short, closing his eyes with an expression Castiel can't interpret. "Yeah, about her trip south. She didn't, you know, happen to write reports or something?"

"She did," he answers, bewildered. "I can get them, of course, but I thought you'd prefer to question her yourself."

"Dude, she's a champ at reports." Dean abruptly looks away, focusing on the door. "You're right, I should talk to her." Still staring at the door, he adds, "Funny story, but I didn't believe you when you told me, but dude, you totally called this one. How the hell…."

"Dean?" Dean's gaze jerks to him, green eyes widening, before he looks down at the journal in his lap as if he's not sure what it is. "What are you reading?"

Dean flips it open to the page his finger was still marking, looking relieved. "Uh, right after you arrived in Chitaqua. Year One: Revenge of the Croats," he says, rolling his eyes. "Not that he used titles, but if he did, that would be it. All Croats, all the time. Seriously, what happened to variety in hunting your supernatural enemies?"

"There are elves later."

"Spoilers, dude." Closing the book, he sets it on the coffee table. "You know," there's a pause, almost indiscernible if he hadn't been paying attention, before Dean continues with, "you don't have a curfew just because I came back early."

It wasn't what he first meant to say, and Castiel almost wishes that Dean had already been in bed when he arrived; negotiating a conversation when Dean is attempting to approach a subject indirectly is not something to be risked with anything less than his full attention.

"I know," he says finally; when in doubt, he's found being literal is a perfectly valid method of defense until he understands what they're actually discussing.

"I mean, she just got back--what, this morning or something? So--"

"She arrived yesterday just before noon." For some reason this makes Dean go still. "Joe and I were finally able to make her cabin habitable this afternoon."

"You don't say." The flat statement is followed almost immediately with, "And Jeremy, he--"

"Joseph offered to let him continue to stay with him until James returns from patrol."

"Joe's great like that," Dean observes, sounding distracted. "Wow, guy does an overnight and--"

"I meant to ask," Castiel interrupts, hoping to return the conversation more stable ground, "why you returned early. I thought you were staying until tomorrow afternoon."

Dean looks up sharply. "Yeah. Sorry about that, I forgot--something."

"Why would you be sorry?"

"No reason, just--so what did Vera cook? Any good?"

"It wasn't burned," he says thoughtfully, "so I suppose it could have been."

To his relief, that seems to dissipate some of the inexplicable tension. "We gotta work on your thing against food."

Turning sideways on the couch, he leans an elbow against the back of the couch. "Have you eaten yet?"

"All the leftovers," Dean answers, grinning at him outright, and Castiel resigns himself to feeling a glow of pride. "So, maybe it's time to move you up to the chili and cheeseburger food groups. I think you can handle it."

"I think the lack of vegetables would be a problem, considering you are still subject to Vera's diet, and yes, I did ask." Dean scowls at him, but noticeably, doesn't offer to take up cooking for himself. Convenient, that: otherwise, he'd have to think of a reason for him not to. "However, if you're comfortable with my progress in the culinary arts, I'm willing to add more variety in what's offered."

"Variety. Dude, I know Bobby's entire range, and it's delicious, but variety wasn't his strong suit." After a moment of consideration, he nods, looking curious. "I gotta see what you come up with, though. Go for it."

"Your vote of confidence is appreciated," he answers dryly, aware he's now committed to a path of culinary experimentation with the most exacting critic in possibly the entire world. It's a worry, but not until dinner tomorrow, at least; surely Dean will accept sandwiches for lunch with minimal mockery. Distracted by the thought, he doesn't realize Dean's expression has changed into something very like determination.

"So there's something--." Castiel blinks, turning his full attention on Dean, who looks back, a hint of nervousness flashing through his eyes. "Vera being here."

Oh. "I should have sent someone to inform you," he realizes. "I apologize, but--

"Yeah, and that." Dean hesitates. "I mean, I get why you didn't, not a problem, but if you'd sent a message she was back---so now you know. It's just--"

"Dean," he interrupts, aware Dean is preparing another attempt and deciding anything is preferable to having to deal feeling inadequate in basic conversational skills in addition to everything else. "Any other night, I would pretend to be competent enough to follow your train of thought until I had enough context for that to be true, but I'm not entirely sure how long that will take, and while you may have the patience to wait, I don't. At this moment, I'm not entirely certain we're having the same conversation, or if we're even talking to each other."

To his mild surprise, Dean's focus shifts to him abruptly, green eyes searching. "Cas," he says in an entirely different voice, "you're shivering. Still."

"It is very cold outside," he answers distractedly; now that Dean's brought it to his attention, he's reminded he's now both cold and, thanks to the snow, slightly damp. "I forgot--"

"Forgot that--you know what, don’t answer that and get up." To his further surprise, it's an effort, and only Dean's startlingly improved reflexes stop him from stumbling into the coffee table. "How the fuck do you not notice…." He shakes his head, one socked foot shoving the coffee table away before pulling him inexorably toward the bedroom, expression grim. "You lived in Kansas for almost three years, Cas, and winter is winter. You know better than to--"

"I generally avoid going outside during inclement weather," he admits, stiffly taking off his coat, which Dean snatches away before he can remember where the coats are now supposed to be placed. "I know perfectly well--" He loses track of the thought when Dean rolls his eyes, giving him a push onto the edge of the mattress, and realizes apparently Dean considers his speed of progress inadequate and is currently engaged with frowning at his boots disapprovingly before starting to remove them. "Dean--"

"How the fuck long were you outside?" he asks flatly as he tosses the boots carelessly toward the wall. "When did you leave Vera's anyway?"

Actually, he's not sure. "An hour ago, I think."

Dean's head jerks up, but he seems to reconsider whatever he was going to say, standing up and pointing at the bathroom door grimly. "Shower, change clothes, and--"

"I can take care of myself," he snaps before he can think better of it, listening in resignation to the silence stretching out between them. "Dean--"

"--I'm gonna make coffee," Dean continues pleasantly, and Castiel listens to the muffled sound of his footsteps retreating toward the door with a sense of resignation. "Then we'll talk."

When he reluctantly emerges from the bathroom, Dean is sitting in the middle of the bed, paging through the stack of reports that Vera wrote, one for each day of her time in Georgia, and drinking a cup of coffee. Without looking up, Dean says, "I bet right now you feel much better and resent the fuck out of it."

"I wasn't in danger of hypothermia," he answers brittlely, refusing to acknowledge the implied thoughtfulness of finding clean, dry clothing waiting for him on the toilet. "I know--"

"It was about an hour, in case you're curious," Dean adds, frowning at something on the page. "Not really a surprise you didn't notice, since you were probably still pretty fucking stoned when you left Vera's tonight."

He stills, towel clenched forgotten between his fingers. "You went to Vera's."

"Yeah, that talk I have to have with her tomorrow, I thought I should tell her when to show up." Dean taps the stack of reports. "Though Jesus, she went above and beyond reporting. Gloria introduced her to grits, you know that?"

"No, and were you checking up on me?"

"Yeah, I was," Dean answers to his surprise, looking up as he tosses the reports onto the bed. "Why the hell would I care when she showed up? I wanted to send her to Ichabod tomorrow. Hell, why not tonight; dude, she wrote a report every fucking day…." Bewilderingly, he grins. "Noon. She's bringing lunch."

Castiel watches as Dean stacks up the reports again, and stretching toward the other side of the bed, summarily drop them on the floor before returning his attention to Castiel and waving a hand toward the bed.

"Sit down," he says easily, and it's so normal that he does, watching blankly as Dean leans far enough to retrieve another cup of coffee from the bedside table and passing it to him before saying conversationally, "So maybe I overreacted."

Castiel stares at the liquid for a few moments and sighs. "I do feel better," he admits reluctantly, taking a careful drink. "It was half a joint, and I wasn't stoned when I left. I needed to think, which admittedly, distracted me from realizing how long I was doing it."

"Right." He glances up warily, taking in Dean's neutral expression. "Maybe next time, think about just saying, I don't know, that you need some alone time or whatever and not risk potential death in the fucking snow to avoid hurting my feelings or whatever."

"More you would have noticed if I'd been climbing on the roof and become worried." Dean frowns briefly before his expression clears in belated understanding. "And there was the wind factor to consider as well."

"Space. I forgot about that." Dean nods slowly. "Anything you want to talk about? I mean, if you couldn't talk to Vera…."

"About what?"

Dean groans softly, finishing his cup and stretching to drop it carelessly on the bedside table, ignoring it roll onto its side dangerously close to the edge before dropping back onto the mattress, snickering up at the ceiling helplessly. Turning, Castiel tries to decide which one of them has apparently gone insane.

"By the way, she says that according to Joe, she's an excellent cook," Dean tells the ceiling. "Since she and Jeremy stayed with him last night. Which she spent mostly sleeping--yeah, just like she said earlier, would have helped if I'd been listening--and I don't know yet if it's embarrassing she knew to spell that out, but on the other hand, she probably didn't want to be thrown in a jeep for Ichabod with a map tonight, so not like she wasn't inspired." Dean turns his head to give Castiel a wry look. "How the hell did you know?"

Less chilled, more comfortable, and with coffee, the earlier conversation begins to resolve into something much less inexplicable; the only defense he has is that it's been a very strange night.

"You thought she'd stayed here before her cabin was habitable."

"Remember when you asked me if I could still be okay with having to give orders to people I knew you were fucking?" Dean asks, expression caught somewhere between amusement and annoyance. "So yeah, you were right, congratulations. I'm not."

Castiel almost smiles, but refrains. "Humans tend to react unpredictably to awkward situations. To be uncomfortable is not a surprise."

"That wouldn't be the word I'd choose, but we'll go with it." Dean folds his arms behind his head, eyes flickering to him ruefully, but there's something else there. "Why didn't you want to go to Ichabod with me?"

"I told you--" He makes a face, annoyed with himself. "When I told you I wouldn't accompany you to Ichabod, the reasons I gave you--might not have been entirely accurate," he says finally, taking just enough time to verify the space behind him is empty before joining Dean and thinking for no particular reason of Alison's spare room mattress. It was surprisingly comfortable and Dean mentioned that as well; perhaps they could trade for it. "What you will do will take you away, and that's why you need me here. So you can do that, knowing I'll keep Chitaqua safe. That much was true. However, no, there was no particularly pressing reason for me to stay this time. If Vera hadn't arrived, I would have had nothing to do but practice cheating Joseph out of his beer in poker."

"God, just imagining Joe's expression…." Dean snickers, shaking his head, then rolls lithely onto his side, propping his head up in one hand. "So you didn't want to come along because…."

"I thought it would be easier to get used to it if I started now," he admits with a sigh. "It was only two days--"

"One," Dean offers. "But who's counting?"

"Linear time is very definite in the speed of passage, at least provided a singularity or a black hole aren't involved, which is why I checked to see if the wards had unexpectedly opened a multiplanar passage somewhere causing time to bend unexpectedly. It didn't."

Dean nods, eyes briefly unfocusing in thought before grinning at him. "Felt like longer, huh?"

"Much." He blows out a breath, unreasonably annoyed. "Dean--"

"Cas, I'm about like, two seconds from firing you," he interrupts alarmingly. "So let me think a second to see if there's another option we could go with, because your boredom is fucking dangerous, and I mean, sure, you could go back to safely indulging in opening new vistas in sexual expression in a group setting or invent cold fusion with a shoelace and a ritual that calls for cats--"

"A shoelace and cats?"

"--maybe come up with a hilarious way to defeat Lucifer with five common things you find in the kitchen," Dean continues blithely, dropping with a bounce onto the mattress. "Except," he adds more quietly, "I need you to do what you're doing now, and no one here can do that but you."

"I could teach Vera and Joseph--"

"A lot of it, yeah," he agrees, still frowning. "Except how to know that how we fight this war may be as important as fighting it at all. Even if we win." He meets Cas's eyes soberly. "Maybe especially if we win. Lucifer or us: there's gotta be a difference, Cas. He'll just kill us to wipe out humanity; dude, we could wipe out humanity and still leave everyone alive and well, no sweat."

He swallows. "I don't regret what I've done."

"Neither do I." The green eyes meet his. "I don't want an entire world of people who learn how to do that. What about you?"

Without prompting, his mind offers up James's tragic pain at the state of the jeep, Mira's tendency toward hysterical giggling, Alicia's fear of doing wrong when she treated his bullet wound and yet doing so with grim assurance she didn't yet feel, Joseph's faith practiced as easily as he breathed, Vera locking herself in the bathroom during a brief period of quiet during the worst of Dean's fever, the shower not concealing the sound of her helpless sobbing before she came out, dry-eyed and determined, to try again; Kamal's easy competence and Amanda one night in Ichabod, looking at the empty training field and saying, you really think I can do this? and telling her from the moment I met you. All I had to do was teach you how to do it faster.

He didn't tell Vera this: Amieyl asked him incredulously why he wanted to teach her, a girl of no importance to prophecy, her destiny unwritten by a divine hand.

"It's not your destiny to change the world," he told her. "But what happens here, in this time, this place, that you can change. They don't matter to what will be, their lives and deaths are their own without greater purpose."

She stared up at him, brown eyes narrowing in the small, dark skinned face, and told him, "Is that what you think of humans, that we don't matter unless we're part of whatever plan's supposed to happen? Their lives matter. All their lives matter."

"They only matter to themselves, to those they love," he answered. "But you can choose for them to matter to you. If you do, that is reason enough for you to stop arguing with me and let me teach you how to save them."

She stopped, eyes wide. "You think that I can do that."

"I know you can. All I have to do is teach you how to do it well."

"No," he answers softly. "I don't."

"Good," Dean says lightly. "Remember that. I need you to do that, too, so you can remind me when I forget."

"In the meantime," he says slowly, "Joseph should be given more opportunity to practice his leadership skills in preparation for our trip south. Next time you go to Ichabod, I'll accompany you. If I'm not specifically needed here," he adds deliberately, "there is no reason not to."

Dean slowly begins to smile. "Now I wonder why I didn't think of that?"

Castiel squints up at him for a moment. "You're home early."

"Yep." Dean abruptly pushes himself up, collecting their empty cups as he gets to his feet. "We have anything to snack on? Jesus, for a goddamn convenience store--"

"I didn't expect you to return until tomorrow, and I don't particularly care what I eat," he answers, sitting up and watching Dean carefully, and sees the tiny smirk. "Yes, Joseph's casual appearance at six yesterday to invite me to dinner and insistence my absence would be a social solecism which would cause deep pain for everyone involved was extremely persuasive."

"I'm almost as proud of your social skills as your poker game," Dean tells him on his way to the door. "You want coffee?"

"I'm glad, in retrospect, I heeded his advice before I left last night and hid it," Castiel tells the window casually. "He made me also swear to tell no one about it."

Dean turns to look at him. "What?"

"I have no interest in food myself, so I have no idea if what he said was true," he continues thoughtfully. "I suppose I should ask you this; are humans truly prone to violence when exposed to chocolate?"

Dean snaps straight, eyes wide. "Where?"

"I don't remember." He tilts his head. "I suppose you'll have to find it."

To his mild surprise, Dean manages to restrain himself to only four bars of the confection that Joseph called brownies, and assured him that if he ever wanted to persuade Dean to do anything and sex didn't work, being able to make these would assure his immediate capitulation to whatever Castiel asked of him.

Watching in fascination, he thinks that perhaps Joseph had understated the case dramatically. Dean stares at the last half of the four he'd brought back with him with an expression that makes Castiel think, wistfully, of another shower, or another inadvisably long walk in the cold. Either would do.


"Who do I have to blackmail to get more of these?" Dean asks, not looking away from the plate. "Wait, can I enslave people? How do I do that?"

"It might be less morally questionable to simply ask me to make them," he says, and Dean's head snaps up. "When the ingredients are available, of course. I understand cocoa is a rare and valuable commodity, and not easily obtained. Ichabod's acquisition of it was apparently both expensive and difficult."

"Conquering Kansas," Dean says thoughtfully, glancing down at the plate before looking up at Castiel with a slow nod. "I can do that."

"Joseph didn't warn me megalomania was a potential side effect."

"Probably bucking for general in my army of conquest," Dean answers, reaching down to tear the brownie in half. "Remind me to tell him you got that job already, but maybe commander or something. Anyone know how that works in the military?"

Castiel fights the urge to smile at Dean's serious expression. "I'm not a general, Dean."

"No, not 'a' general," Dean corrects him absently, picking up one of the pieces. "My general. Try this."

Before Castiel can respond, a small square of brown pastry is hovering inches from his nose. "Dean--"

"You didn't even try it, did you?" Dean sighs noisily. "Okay, time to get you onboard with food. Baby steps," he adds soothingly at Castiel's alarm. "First thing, this? Is awesome. And you'll like it--you will--because unlike you, I paid attention to Gabriel's interpretation of the four food groups, and I'm gonna bet that kind of thing runs in the family." Meeting Castiel's eyes, he says with no attempt to pretend it's not an order, "Open your mouth and eat the fucking brownie, Cas."

For a moment, he's tempted to remind Dean how well he responds to ridiculous orders--or any order, really--then takes in Dean's adamant expression, and decides perhaps this particular hill isn't the one he truly wants to die on. Tentatively, he starts to reach for it, saying, "If you insist--" which is lost in a mouthful of pastry, since Dean apparently isn't willing to wait.

Dean's smile is blinding as he picks up the second one, holding it just out of reach as he meets Castiel's eyes.

"This time," he says gloatingly. "You gotta say please."

Castiel stares at it unblinkingly. "Please."

"…find out who can help Chuck handle it, I guess." Dean looks around the bedroom again, approving. "I forgot to say thanks, by the way."

"Nate came off duty the same day you left, and agreed to have it complete before you returned if he could take one patrol shift off." Castiel grimaces, aware of Dean's faint frown. "I would have told him no, but no one else has any experience with construction, and he knew it. James didn't question why I assigned Sidney to go with him after statewide patrol begins again, and Sidney was uncharacteristically pleasant when I told him and offered to replace anyone else who needed time off." The memory of that interview is still very odd. "It was extremely unsettling."

"He really wants off your shit list," Dean answers, skimming the last of the patrol reports from his absence before looking up. "He knew he had zero chance getting off mine, so you were pretty much his only hope." Dean taps his knee idly with a pencil that, historically, Castiel has never seen him use for any other purpose that to rhythmically tap on the closest available surface; memorably, in one instance, Castiel's foot. "Cas, Nate really didn't think you would give him the week off. He was negotiating. That was the opening offer."

Struck, Castiel reviews their conversation, focusing on Nate's incredulous expression. "Oh."

"We'll work on that," Dean says reassuringly, grinning at him. "However, your shitty negotiating skills worked out pretty well this time. We got about two months to get the new people somewhere to live, and I'm pretty sure winter's gonna stick around for a while."

"The length of the seasons hasn't changed," he answers absently, thinking. "Four of the cabins should only require minimal attention."

"Five." He blinks at Dean, who shrugs. "Dean's cabin's fine."

"Of course." He takes a breath, wondering what Dean can see on his face. "I'll see to that personally."

"I already did." Dean abruptly busies himself stacking up the remaining reports with far more attention than it requires. "Got Chuck to help me out, but it didn't take too long."

"The ceiling in--"

"Okay, that part took a while," he admits, frowning at the reports before picking them up and looking around as if wondering where to put them, then gives up and puts them back down. "I sanded it down. Slap some paint up there, it'll be fine."

He swallows. "When--"

"Hour here, afternoon there. You were busy doing shit, I was bored, and Vera said light exercise was fine. Sanding a ceiling was about as light as you can get; I was basically standing still."

"On a ladder."

"Might have sat down a couple of times, fine," Dean allows, rolling his eyes. "Chuck--hovered a lot. It was fine." After a long moment, he adds in a different voice, "I asked Chuck what usually happens when someone dies--who gets their stuff. I mean, weapons go back to the arsenal, but the other stuff--he said usually to their friends here, or everyone takes something, whatever they said they wanted, I guess. That right?"

"Yes," he answers; even to himself, his voice sounds strange. "Dean's--"

"So his would go to you," Dean interrupts. "Don't worry: I got Chuck to do the packing. Dude needed some exercise. I supervised."

Taking a careful breath, he tries again. "You can't think I'd contest--it's yours, of course."

"It's not." Dean sighs. "He's not me, and everything he had--trust me when I say this, he'd want you to have it. Nothing here's mine, and anyway, I don’t even want it. So you decide what you want to do with it, and until then, it's in your attic."

Castiel blinks, distracted from argument and finds himself staring up at the ceiling. "We have an attic?"

Dean makes a strangled sound; when Castiel looks at him, he visibly composes himself, though it seems to require an inordinate amount of effort.

"You didn't know you had an attic?"

"No," he says, returning his gaze to the ceiling in fascination. "It can't be very large."

"Not really, but maybe we can find something to do with it. Anyway," he says, returning to the subject with visible relief. "Nate can spend his week off checking out the cabins for five more we can get in shape. It's like, poetic justice," he adds, brightening. "For not breaking down for you the rules of negotiation. Awesome way to show his repentance for his sins."

"Great and small," Castiel agrees, thinking about what Dean said and deciding a correction is in order. "I don't have an attic. However, I'll take your word that we do, and yes, it would be far more convenient to use that to access the roof."

"Yeah," Dean says finally, "no idea what you were trying to say there."

"It's yours as well as mine, therefore the use of the first personal plural is more appropriate than the singular," he answers patiently. "Attic, cabin, this room, whatever--" he stops, frowning at Dean's blank expression. "I wasn't aware I needed to spell it out. I thought that was relatively clear, considering that you've lived here since the third day after your arrival."

Dean's face goes through a complicated and utterly inexplicable range of expressions. "Right. I knew that."

"That was less convincing than you might have assumed."

"That wasn't my best work," Dean replies. "Give me a minute."

"While you do that, I'll take the plate to the kitchen and return the reports to their box," Castiel says, picking up the plate before reaching for the stack and sliding to the edge of the bed. While the bedroom is noticeably warmer, the temperature of the rest of the cabin is definitely improved by whatever Nate did to make it keep out the cold.

When he returns, Dean's slumped against the headboard, eyes fixed on his upraised knees. "It's late," Castiel tells him reluctantly. "I should--"

"The couch," Dean says. "That's a good question, but I keep forgetting to ask. Cas, why are you still sleeping on the goddamn couch?"

The answer is so patently obvious that Castiel has no idea what to say to that.

"I get why you were," Dean continues, staring at his knees with an expression Castiel can't quite interpret. "Thing is, you don't have to. Not anymore, I mean. You could sleep in here. With me."

Castiel chooses the path of silence; it seems safest.

"Mattress sucks, but it's--"

"I could care less about the mattress," Cas interrupts, dropping onto the side of the bed; that may be an answer in itself, but plausible deniability is everyone's friend. "That would be the least of the attractions in this case."

Dean's eyes flicker up for a burning moment, then away. "Pillows are great. You got 'em for me, so you should know. It's cold--"

"Do you need someone to keep your bed warm, Dean?" he says as lightly as he can.

It's a mistake or possibly inspired; Dean looks at him and smiles slowly. "That," he says huskily, "would be it."

This, he thinks blankly, would be….would be….

"Come here."

Dean's still smiling when he kisses him, making a low, satisfied sound; it's familiar, one Dean often makes when he gets something that he wants, and different, because what Dean wants has never been him. Cupping his face, Castiel licks into his mouth, catching his breath as Dean pulls him closer, one hand knotting in the back of his t-shirt.

He hasn't made a mistake with a partner in years; mortal life is short, unpredictable, and for the most part unpleasant, but this--this almost made up for its shortcomings, and he learned everything he could as quickly as his partners' energy allowed. The greatest obstacle to success, as it turned out, was the easiest to remedy; if they wouldn't--or couldn't--tell him what they wanted, their bodies weren't loathe to do it for them and he paid attention. If there was contradiction, clarification was both enlightening and sometimes almost the best part; provided motivation, people would say a great deal, in all the detail he could ever want.

Absolutely nothing but two plus years of practice and bone-deep habit make it possible for him to think at this moment, enough to feel both the unmistakable response from Dean's body--stretched out beneath him, and taking a moment to just look at him is almost a mistake, but the view is incredible--and sense the flicker of something else entirely when he settles between his thighs, the brief moment Dean's fingers freeze beneath his shirt in their protracted skim down his back.

Pressing a final kiss to Dean's throat, he pulls back, settling himself--slightly less intimately if he's going to think and he wants Dean to relax--as Dean's eyes open, green hazy (not helping at all) before slowly clearing. "What?"

"How," Castiel asks sincerely, resting his head on one hand, "do you feel?"

Dean opens and closes his mouth helplessly. "You're kidding, right?"

"Not even a little."

Dean shifts his hips, and Castiel's unbelievably grateful he's not in a position at this second for that to do what it's obviously supposed to do, which is effectively end conversation. Dean alone is enough of a distraction; he can't do this by vote when Dean and his cock are both going to have the same answer.

"Cas, come on." Eyes narrowing, Dean stare up at him. "Look, if this is about--me--"

"It is very much about you," he agrees.

"Not drunk," Dean says clearly, and by his expression he can't believe they're having this conversation, which yes, he's amazed as well, but needs must, "not high, unlike some people were today, and--what's the problem?"

"You're--" --afraid, no, he's not that stupid; uncertain, too vague; worried, if he wants to be pinned to the bed and maybe he shouldn't follow that train of thought; uncomfortable, yes that would be both of them-- "--apprehensive."

English needs more words, he reflects depressingly; that one may be accurate, but on a guess, Dean doesn't care. "I'm. Not. Apprehensive. Just because he wasn't interested--"

"I never wanted him, so it wasn't something I thought about," Castiel interrupts and has the rare experience of seeing Dean look genuinely surprised, like he didn't summon that particular ghost himself, which has at least done the job that snow would usually do. Sometimes, anyway. "Though I'll be deeply surprised if you differ on a key point."

"I'm not Nate," Dean breathes, staring up at him, and of course he understands, even if Castiel didn't, not entirely. "I won't regret a thing."

"I know." Castiel hesitates, licking his lips, and seeing Dean's eyes follow the motion helps not at all and a great deal. Reaching back, he pushes Dean's right knee down, rolling onto his side and bringing Dean with him, kissing him quiet at the burgeoning protest and keeps doing it as Dean relaxes again, one leg loosely draped over his hip, comfortable and confirmation both.

However, there's something…something he needs to say first. Pulling back--and resisting the low growl at the motion--he swallows hard. "Yes."

"Good," Dean rasps, lips brushing against his and into another endless kiss before Castiel's able to pull away (and remember why he has to). "Then--"

"To your invitation. To share your bed," and he can think of about a dozen ways he could have phrased that less--words would be very useful here, he thinks when Dean smiles at him.

"Our bed," Dean corrects him, kissing him again, heel digging into the back of his thigh as his mouth grazes his jaw, tongue flickering against the grain of the stubble. Castiel compromises with himself, palming his ass and nudging Dean's head up for a hard kiss before pulling away, resting his forehead against Dean's. No visualization exercise in existence will help right now, but he pretends at some point his cock will simply get tired, though experience suggest that can take longer than basic biology should ever permit. Biology is ridiculous.

"I've never--" He swallows again, forcing himself to keep his eyes closed or he won't be able to do this. "I've never slept with anyone. Except you."

Dean's fingers check in their stroke through his hair, and he understands completely why Dean likes it so much.

"And I won't," he continues, easing back to look into Dean's eyes. "Just you. For the rest of my life."

The green eyes search his for a long moment before Dean says, very softly, "Good."

"I didn't know that," he says. "I'd like more time to get used to it. I'm--apprehensive as well."

It takes a few moments, but Dean's mouth quirks in understanding. "Maybe a little, yeah, fine. Happy?"

"Yes." He is, and a little nauseated, as well as turned on beyond belief, and possibly will be hard for the rest of his life. He knows intellectually he won't be, but it certainly doesn't feel that way at the moment. It's worth it, however; the rest of his life is looking at him from inches away and he's worth anything, anything at all.

Dean's eyes darken, and he leans forward before stopping, looking torn. "So making out, is that…?"

That isn't a rhetorical question, but it is a stupid one; he pulls Dean into another kiss and grins at the low chuckle reverberating through them both.