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The Game of God

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--Day 150--

Running down the dusty alley between the cabins, Dean darts onto the first sagging porch he sees, almost stumbling when a rotten board crumbles beneath his boot, and hits the door with his shoulder hard enough to feel it in his teeth.

Getting his balance, he pounds on the door. "Open up!" he shouts, trying to remember what time it is; it's night, thanks, he got that part, but how many hours since dusk, he can't remember. "We don't time for this, open the fucking door already! They're almost ready!"

Through no light squeezes through narrow, shattered window, cardboard and tape doing fuck-all to seal the cracks, he fucking doubts no one's home. "Come on!" he yells, rubbing a clean spot in the top corner and peering inside. The shapes of bodies are clear enough, frozen like rabbits in the shine of headlights, and it takes everything in him not to punch through the remains of the goddamn glass.

"Cowards," he spits, jumping off the edge of the porch and scanning each cabin on his way, dust kicked up with every step. They're all the same; lights out, all's silent on the western front, everyone's home, and no one's fucking sleeping tonight. Hiding like rats and hoping what they don't see and pretend didn't happen will buy them safety with two dead bodies come morning.

"Fuck all of you," he says, pulling his gun and starting up toward the cabin; he'll take care of this shit himself, one bullet at a time.

He's halfway there when the sound of gunfire shatters the quiet, and he breaks into a dead run, but he already knows he was too late again. Shadows rise from the bleak remains of shrubbery around the cabn, faceless bodies with mocking smiles, but they vanish before he can get a shot off, and he can't take the time anyway, because maybe, maybe--

He nearly falls on the steps, bursting through the beads in a headlong stumble and hits the floor on his knees, but the shock of pain's forgotten at the sight of Vera slumped face-down over the coffee table, hair dipped into an electric red puddle forming around what remains of her head; she was dead before she even realized she was shot.

"Cas." Getting to his feet, he searches the room frantically, looking for a blood trail or maybe he's going after them now, maybe this time he--

--this time, he's slumped against the wall, chest riddled with bullets and sightless eyes staring into Dean's; there's not even enough left for accusation--where were you, why weren't you here, why did you let them do this. Scrambling over the blood-streaked floor, Dean collapses into the warm pool of blood, reaching to touch skin already gone cold.

No one will need to repair the drywall tonight; just burn the goddamn cabin down and say it was an accident if Dean ever happens to fucking notice. Not like anyone will say it happened any other goddamn way.

"I'm sorry," Dean tells him hoarsely, watching his fingers leave bloody smears on skin the color of paper. "I didn't know, I swear. When I told you--I didn't know. Please, Cas, please…."

Cas doesn't answer; you can't get absolution when there's no one alive to give it.

He blinks up at the shadowed ceiling above him, sitting up and almost welcoming the hit of vertigo. Since the fever, waking up has a routine he follows as reflexively as he breathes, and he's never been more grateful for it than after nights like this. Taking a deep breath, he grounds himself in his body, feeling the weight of it, tracking each stuttered breath and beat of his heart until he can feel them begin to even out. The mattress shifts beneath him in a comforting barely audible squeal, blankets pooled in his lap, and he takes in the four walls of the room around him and the quiet night outside with a barely repressed sigh, almost able to pretend he can't still taste the ghosts of gunpowder and blood that don't exist.

An unexpected shift of the bed abruptly reminds him there's a new addition, and by the way, he's got about three seconds before.… "Dean?"

Make that two: it can be really inconvenient when your…Cas literally wakes up when you do, because spoils of war and magic, whatever. Great for fever-related nightmares and really wanting a glass of water at three am and can't be fucked to get it yourself (and you're attached to a heart monitor and an IV, also a problem), but not so much now, especially when the delay isn't 'time it takes to get up, come to the door, knock, wait three seconds (maybe), then come in' but 'roll over' and even that's optional.

Looking down at the sleepy blue eyes regarding him worriedly from behind a tangled mass of bangs, Dean revises it to 'inconvenient after dreams of double homicide but otherwise not so bad'.

"I'm fine," he says belatedly as Cas lazily pushes himself up on one elbow. One eyebrow raises in slow, semi-sarcastic query: one part, are you okay, two parts, really, what terribly unconvincing excuse will you use this time and by the way, I only pretended to believe you all those times in the past you woke up in a cold sweat and said it was indigestion, especially considering some of those times you were on IV or canned sodium- and fat-free chicken broth.

"Give me a minute." Cas's eyebrow achieves maximum altitude just as he shoves back the blankets and slides out of bed. He doesn't need to look back to know Cas is performing 'patience and concern in the face of Dean's ridiculous intractability' because this is Cas and that's exactly the words he'd use for that expression.

Flipping on the bathroom light, he takes care of important toilet business first before going to the sink to wash his hands and does his routine 'not looking up', 'don't be stupid, it's just fucking mirror', 'seriously, how long can you wash your hands in avoidance', 'fuck you I'm done', to stare into his own eyes grimly and pretend he's not surprised or relieved to see a person and not a grinning corpse every goddamn time, because he's over that bullshit.

Shaking himself--Christ, get the fuck over yourself already--he flips the light off and veers straight for the bedroom door. "Be right back."

Dean's most of the way through replacing the pipes underneath the kitchen sink by the yellow light of the portable bulb clamped just above his head before he finally gives up. Fighting down a sigh, he lifts his head to see Cas slumped on the floor a few feet away, leaning against the kitchen table with a blanket draped over his shoulders, socked feet, and bedhead like the end of the world (which in no way is a bad look for him), watching Dean work like he's trying and failing to imagine anything that could possibly be more boring.

Boring, maybe, but he's got a goal to have drinkable water come out of the faucets instead of having to either a.) boil it first or b.) go get refills from the mess. Camp wide water treatment is definitely on the agenda (it's like fifth on the List) but until then, the home version is going to have to suffice, and the first step is getting new pipes installed.

(He also has all their weapons clean, the storm door installed, and the weather-stripping on the rest of the cabin done. All that's left is to start the new addition and it's not like he wouldn't do it except he's not sure how. And they don't have any lumber, which Nate assured him is pretty key to the entire building things experience.)

Screwing the new tailpipe into place, he peers at Cas between his upraised knees. "Shitty dream, happy?"

"That's reassuring," Cas says blandly, chin resting on his folded arms. "I was worried that your bladder was trying to kill you and you awakened just in the nick of time to save your excretory system from annihilation. Which naturally led to home repair, as it's known to do."

He used to think sarcasm was all clever one-liners and irony with expertly timed delivery, but Cas introduced him to the joys of the surrealist narrative form. After some thought, he put that particular development down to a combination of 'exploring more variety in his efforts at being a dick', 'human life was just that goddamn boring he literally had nothing better to do', and 'three quarters of any given audience would have no idea what was happening and that's hilarious'.

"It was just--same old, same old," he says truthfully, and that's the hell of it. Since he got the details of what happened that night at Cas's cabin, it's joined the regular rotation with monotonous regularity. Even horror can becoming boring--he knows, ask him--but this one apparently saw that coming and likes to mix it up.

It always starts the same: running between cabins trying to get help to stop the team leaders, thinking at first they don't know before realizing they do, they all do, they knew before Cas and Vera did, but no one told them, no one told Dean, and they never would.

It's always too late by then; he starts toward the cabin, there's gunfire, and inside he finds them dead in all the ways you can from an endless round of bullets. Never once--even by accident--was Cas alive, was Vera alive, when he got there, so he could at least apologize and tell them goodbye.

"Could you hand me the--" The wrench is slapped into his left palm before he finishes the question. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." There's a pause, mostly for drama, Dean suspects, and is halfway through tightening the join when he gets confirmation. "So when you say 'same old, same old', does that refer to the concept of 'nightmare' in general, or as in the same one occurring during the last four nights?"

He grimaces and just avoids fucking up the new tailpipes. "Both."

Weirdly enough, his biggest issue at this moment isn't how very little he wants to talk about his less than restful nights as policy, because that policy has very little application when it comes to Cas. There's nothing he can tell Cas that would get a reaction stronger than 'not entirely expected' (he's tested this), because the job requirements of an angel of the Lord aren't exactly light on unthinkable acts of horror. (Cas's assessment of the similarities between angels and demons wasn't a surprise, but that didn't make it any less a shock to hear it.) There is a difference, though, and Dean thinks there's something deeply fucked up in that it wasn't the Host that illustrated that, but Cas while mortal on earth.

Cas doesn't regret executing Luke any more than agreeing to send Debra on patrol that day or killing the possessed members of Ichabod's patrol, and guilt doesn't even make an appearance (Cas's surprise at the very idea of it was pretty telling). Regret for Cas is in the necessity of the act, not the act itself, and even that much has very sharp limits.

On the surface it sounds simple (and even a little enviable, to be honest), but Chuck's reminder of the difference between angels and humans was spot-on. Dean knows enough about angels now to discard 'angels be robots' as explanation and is honest enough to admit it. If he was guessing (and he is), 'morals' and 'ethics' and even 'being good' are the human-approved, dumbed-down version of a vastly sophisticated (and kind of terrifying) concept of 'justice' in which 'vengeance' and 'mercy' are interchangeable, mandatory, and irrelevant at once. It's not that angels can't fuck up (let him count the ways, though it might take a while), but he'd be very surprised if the error rate was higher than 'zero' when it came to actions taken in the name of justice itself. (It's everything else they tend to fail at, and how.)

If he ever needed proof, it was watching Cas with Alison the first time they met, the easy way Cas went from surly to all the judgement in the world. When she opened her mind to him, he evaluated her, judging her against a standard that took an entire life lived into account, the disparity between intentions professed and the actions taken in their name. The road to Hell has never been paved with anything but lies, and the most dangerous are the ones you tell yourself to justify what you do.

(Dean gets this isn't a guarantee--Cas's judgment was based on Alison as she was and is, the future unknown territory, free fucking will in action--but the intersection of infinite being and mortal means Cas's personal feelings are both separate and not the kind of thing he bothers to hide. He might have tolerated Alison's existence (hostilely, probably with a lot of creepy staring and not just because that's fun), but no way would he have liked her if he'd sensed anything that didn't fit that standard. He sure as hell wouldn't have started teaching her how to use her abilities with what Dean's suspects is very un-Host-like enthusiasm.)

However--and he can't believe he's thinking this--it's one thing to talk to Cas the former angel about vague not-memories of doing time on (or with) the rack in all its bloody horror. Sure, it's unsettling as fuck when he stops to think about how reassuring it is that the person who both saw in him action and has listened to him describe some of the Pit's Greatest Hits (all his, by the way) is also of his own free will sleeping with him (literally and, soon, figuratively, too, please God), but that just means he doesn't think about it if he can help it. It's another thing entirely to explain how you spend your nights witnessing your partner's and his best friend's brutal assassination in various possible scenarios in vivid detail down to number and location of wounds and the exact color of the coagulating blood.

This is Relationships 101 shit (see, Sam, he's got the basics down fine), Chitaqua Edition: there are things you just don't dump on your significant other. There may be circumstances in which this kind of thing should be shared, but he can't think of any unless they run into a dreamwalker or something who can manifest dreams into reality, in which case yeah, a heads-up would probably be appreciated by all.

(And they'd have a lot more to worry about than the questionable contents of Dean's dream sequences at that point. There's fucking Phil's, for example (getting married to Cas in a church in June while miraculously pregnant with Nephilim triplets over Dean's dead body). And killing the dreamwalker, of course. (Whether Phil survives that shit's up in the air.))

Then there's the timing: it's not like it's a mystery to Dean why he's repeat-one on Massacre Night at Chitaqua (the Remix Edition). There's a giant party at Ichabod tonight and everyone's invited, in a town where Cas told an entire fucking room of people exactly what he was and therefore the world (define 'world' as 'people who live in Ichabod and so will definitely be there tonight', which is all he cares about right now). Because Dean told him people change, Alison thinks they're better than they think they are, history doesn't repeat ever, and it's not like groups of people haven't decided to dispose of the entire 'fear of the unknown' issue by attempted murder of the unknown in question before.

(And not like Cas is the first almost-victim of that shit, but hey, that's history and repeat ad-fucking-infinitum. He shouldn't have needed Vera that day to spell out exactly what she, Amanda, and Sean have dealt with in various forms all their lives and why she had zero reason to trust him on principle. That's survival.)

Even if Cas hadn't indulged in a fit of unexpected idealism on humanity's relative not-shittiness (and God, he'll never tell Cas how much he wishes he hadn't, because he's not that kind of dick), it's still a whole new world of people (define 'world' as 'everyone who will be coming to Ichabod tonight') meeting Cas, some for the very first time either at the party or at the Alliance meeting that will be his and Dean's first formal introduction as Chitaqua's leaders. Dean's memories of that dinner party at Alison's are both vivid and detailed, and the last couple of days have leveled that shit up to critical. While he buys not at all Cas's 'used to it and totally not a problem' bullshit, he for one will admit right now he's a.) not used to it, b.) never will be, and c.) it's a goddamn fucking problem.

He can just see the suggestion of a frown and waits for it; Cas doesn't know (or ever need to know, Christ) the exact nature of the content in question, but it's not like he can't do the math on timing himself. That part, he can't hide so why even try, but he's curious if Cas will come to the obvious conclusion or manage, against all odds, to think it couldn't possibly be about him. Because he can take care of himself, it doesn't bother him, it's not everyone, no one has expressed any verbal desire to kill him (recently), and also, reasons, not necessarily in that order because variety and because Cas.

Looking at him solemnly from behind tangled bangs, Cas tilts his head. "If someone hurts my feelings tonight, will you beat them up for me? If I ask, I should say."

Or he'll say that. "Dude, you don't have to ask," he objects, grinning up at the bottom of the sink before sharing it with Cas. "But I'll wait until you do, okay?"

Cas rolls his eyes, readjusting his slump for maximum comfort. "So noted."

"Anytime." He checks the P-traps again while he waits, but the silence continues beyond dramatic timing and is approaching--huh. "So that's it?"

"What?" Cas asks, managing to sound like he's about five seconds from expiring from sheer boredom.

"No speech telling me how it's fine, doesn't bother you, it's not all people, they get used to it, not a big deal, and you're really armed and don't need anyone to protect you?" Sliding the pliers between his teeth, he turns the light to check for anything he might have missed (like say, a pipe emptying onto the floor), and finds what may or may not be loose couplings around the new P-trap and retrieves the pliers. "Well?"

"Would it reassure you this time, unlike every other time I've explained this?"

"Never stopped you before." Because it's true. "Ever. About anything, actually, not just this." Then something else occurs to him as he verifies the couplings are secure. "Why aren't you telling me all about the dangers of sleep-deprivation or how delicate my health is and that you knew me getting fevers is just how I fuck with you when I'm bored?"

A glance at Cas shows him staring at the refrigerator like it said King Arthur was just a myth (which reminds him to check on Evan before they leave; no way he could have seen 'joke about Merlin' becoming 'Patrol's Half Hour Lecture on Why Malory Should Have Been Smited At Birth'). "Cas?"

"I forgot to mention there have been two new requests for changes in living arrangements today," Cas says suddenly. "All of them have already spoken to Joseph and agreed to the three month waiting period he recommends for those who wish to begin cohabitation with their significant others, but…."

"Logistics." It didn't take him long to work out why cabin assignments had to be handled officially and why Cas created an actual goddamn process to do it. "So that's why you were looking at your spreadsheet like it betrayed you before dinner."

Cas makes a face; yeah, even with three months warning, that's gonna be a lot of moving people around.

"That brings my total pending requests to four. Fortunately, the cabins we're repairing for the new recruits should be complete well before then, so I'll have more options."

"Kat and Andy still sulking?" he asks, hearing the tired thread in his own voice that has nothing to do with the late night. "They get the delay isn't to destroy their love here, right? We had reasons."

"I'm sure they do," Cas says with the same tired edge; even sarcasm doesn't work on them anymore. There's nothing about feeling like you're the generic evil villain against true love in their great romance that doesn't grate, and worse, Kat and Andy seem to legit believe it, no matter the existence of 'facts'. Christ: they need hobbies. He's gonna give them some real soon now.

"So who was added--wait, let me guess: one was Sid and Jane, right?" He grins in satisfaction at Cas's surprise. "They had the look at the party. What do you think?"

Cas raises an eyebrow, 'what on earth gives you the impression I would care': whatever.

"Professionally," Dean adds, because God help them if Cas has to actually admit--even to himself--he does actually maybe care just a tiny bit about their own goddamn people.

"Jane is an excellent influence, and Sidney benefits from her confidence and good sense," Cas says, then hesitates. "She says he's fun."

Dean almost drops the pliers. "What?"

"He's apparently funny," Cas continues, sounding baffled. "He plays guitar. And sings."


"He's very talented, it seems." Dean ponders how much weirder the world is now than it was five, six seconds ago. "While they're still in the preliminary stages of building a stable monogamous relationship, she feels that Sidney fulfills all the criteria for a permanent partner and expects that at their current rate of progress, they should be prepared for marriage within eight months."

He doesn't need to ask if Cas is quoting her; he is. "Huh."

"That was my reaction as well," Cas agrees. "Joseph confirmed she spoke to him regarding his feelings toward conducting a Christian wedding ceremony, and on his affirmation, requested Presbyterian or Episcopalian and gave him the necessary material for him to review."

"They're engaged?"

"Not for another four months." Right, of course not. Too…early? "They're currently saving their winnings from gambling night to purchase rings from one of our trade partners, since apparently simply taking them from an empty house or requesting James look for them on a supply run isn't as meaningful."

Dean wonders how this conversation got here, but he's committed now. "Do our trade partners make rings?"

"Jane would very much appreciate if we found out. Titanium alloy or cold iron preferred, thrice forged. I've been requested to provide the correct protective sigils for the engravings, since she feels they should be more than decorative and symbolic of their union."

"What'd Sidney say during all this?" Though he thinks he can guess.

"'What she said.' That's literally all he said, while staring at her like he worried she might change her mind."

Dean nods; at least that part's not--whatever the hell just happened. "And the other request…?" A horrible idea crosses his mind: if it's Alicia and Kyle….

"Melanie and Liz came to see me today," Cas says. "They'd like to request a change in living arrangements for themselves and their other two partners."

"They've only been serious about a month, right? That's fast." Though considering Lisa, he can't talk there. "You talk to Joe?"

"Joseph spoke to me first by their request. He's very pleased by this development," Cas says, adding, "We had coffee while you were playing--"


"--showing off your accuracy with a quarter of our standard arsenal on the practice field," Cas finishes in amusement. "Your accuracy was superior to everyone's, from what I understand. With either hand."

"I had this dick riding my ass every time we went to my range," Dean admits, grinning up at the sink. "It was get better or kill him, and I had to do the first to have any chance of pulling off the second. Impressed?" He glances at Cas, who shrugs, but he can tell he is, because hell yes he's that goddamn awesome. "So why'd they send Joe first?"

"Reassurance, I think. Joseph sees Melanie regularly and at their request has met with them all to offer them a neutral third-party when needed," Cas answers. "While it's possible they may change their minds in the next three months, he doubts it."

"Our camp counselor in action," Dean agrees. "What do you think?"

"The closer the bond between team members, the greater their chances of survival in any given encounter," he answers obliquely. "In my experience, at least. The original model for training hunters weighed compatibility between individual members of the team equal to if not more important than their individual level of skill. At Alpha, Amy encouraged matching family members or those in strong relationships as often as possible. She used to say--she used to say there was no hell quite like knowing if you'd been there yourself, you might have been able to save someone you cared about."

Yeah, he gets that. "Who'd she lose?"

"Her first husband, her only brother, and her best friend," he answers quietly. "Soon after Amy graduated college and began hunting, Danielle was possessed by a demon and embarked on a course of spree killing, motivation unknown but presumed to be 'fun' in East Texas. Donovan and Castor tracked her down themselves, not sure that Amy would have the objectivity required if Danielle needed to be killed, but the exorcism they tried to perform apparently failed, reasons unclear. Amy arrived in time to save Danielle's daughter before completing a successful exorcism."

Dean wonders if he wants to know. "Did Danielle survive?"

"She took Amy's gun and killed herself before Amy could stop her," he answers. "Danielle's parents, due to their age, agreed to Amy's request to adopt Catherine."

The hell of it is, even before the Apocalypse, he wouldn't have been surprised to hear that story from a hunter. "Yeah." He tries to think how to say this. "Okay, so--"

"You're wondering about the connection? Thank you, I thought it was just me," Cas says in relief. "Her explanation was--if you like someone and they're about to do something you know is stupid, you try to talk them out of it, but if you love them, you can also punch them in the face."

"Punch them in the face?"

"I assume she was being metaphorical," Cas offers to the air above the sink, like no one in this room has ever beaten up or knocked anyone else out for…reasons. "The point stands, however; it's preferable that team members be emotionally invested in each other." He brightens. "In this case, Melanie and her team also happen to be responsible for each other's orgasms, which can only be further motivation to survive any given encounter. I approve of that very much."

"Anything to raise the odds," Dean agrees after taking a moment to make sure his voice is steady. "Isn't Mel living in a one bedroom with Sarah and Kat? They're gonna need one of the cabins we're repairing. One of 'em has got to have at least two bedrooms."

"I don't think," Cas says slowly, like Dean missed this somehow, "that they are going to need separate bedrooms."

"No, they need one room per person so when they're fighting, everyone has somewhere to storm to," he argues, satisfied that coupling isn't going anywhere. "Doesn't have to be a bedroom, but there's gotta be space. Lifetime in motels, Cas: trust me on this one. Now," he adds casually, "let's get back to what's actually bothering you."

Cas sighs, shoulders slumping unhappily. "I talked to Jeremy this afternoon."

Without thinking, Dean starts to sit up and comes to an abrupt, teeth-jarring halt, head an inch from the bottom of the sink, newly installed pipes just level with his shoulder. Looking down, he takes in the hand on his chest that saved him from a humiliating home-repair related concussion and Cas crouching between his knees with an annoyed look. "Thanks."

"Lie back down before you break the pipes," Cas says irritably, flexing his fingers against Dean's t-shirt in unmistakable command. "Or break yourself, for that matter. Are you finished?"

Dean squints at the pipes dangerously close to his face. "Yeah, I think so."

"Good." A push puts him flat on his back, hands slide under his knees, and he's pulled out from under the sink in a single smooth movement. Blinking stupidly, he tries to convince himself that wasn't in any way hot, and neither is the sight of Cas kneeling between his legs. Superpowers aren't hot. It's the kitchen, for fuck's sake. This is plumbing. What the hell were they talking about again?

"Jeremy." He doesn't regret it at all when Cas retreats the half foot to the table to wrap himself up in his blanket or try to stop him because this is the fucking kitchen and...they're talking about Jeremy, right. Also, plumbing. Sitting up, he reaches back inside to flip the water valve before getting to his feet, looking for the stopper and setting it in the sink. "So that would be the important thing you and Vera needed to do this afternoon." He knew he recognized that vaguely squirrely thing Cas was doing after lunch.

"Vera told me that Jeremy wished to talk to me," Cas answers as Dean turns on the faucet. "Apparently, his ankle's been bothering him since they returned from Alpha and he wanted me to make sure it didn't inhibit his ability to throw his opponent through the nearest convenient wall."

Watching the sink fill, he reviews the last few days in the camp, which includes Jeremy, James, Mira, and Nate's impromptu game of tag (wait, no, it was tag no matter how Mira tried to make it sound nothing like what you do when a blizzard stops and cabin fever needs fixing, now). Just watching them was exhausting, and Jeremy showed no sign of a limp.

"So I'm guessing--call me crazy--that was just an excuse?" Turning off the water when the sink's three-quarters full, he takes a deep breath before pulling the drain and crouches to note in satisfaction the lack of water puddling under the sink or spraying from the pipes. Hell yeah he can do plumbing, and Joe's gonna be crying all the way to the refrigerator to get him that case of Joe Beer he just won.

"Of course."

"Why didn't he just come here if he wanted to talk to you?" Now that he's thinking about it, he can count the number of times on one hand that he's seen Jeremy other than in passing before he and Vera left for Alpha, and never outside of patrol meetings. Sure, that could be just luck of the draw, fever, recovery, the list is long, but on the other hand, no, it wasn't. Getting the caddy of homemade (campmade?) cleaning supplies, he sets them back inside with the stack of ragged but immaculate clean and sanitized clothes and sponges that Cas insists are the only appropriate material for cleaning any surface on which they make or eat food and closes the cabinet door before turning around, trying to look casual. "Because of me?"

"No, of course not. It's more a ritual," Cas explains, wrinkling his nose. "Generally, Jeremy would tell Vera that he felt some unspecified anxiety regarding his hunting skills that he felt I should be aware of, she would tell me, and I would arrange a meeting on the training field to evaluate the situation, usually late in the evening when it was guaranteed to be deserted."

He nods seriously; Christ, he'd give anything to know how the three of them managed to work that out without even once saying Jeremy needed attention, Cas needed to be clean and sober to give it, and privacy would be preferred. (By this he means how Vera worked it out.) Before they went to Alpha, Vera told him about the secret weapon Jeremy didn't even know he had to get Cas's undivided attention: so, one, it really does work and two, Cas really doesn't notice.

Dropping to the floor, he leans back against the sink door and stretches a leg absently, socked foot brushing Cas's thigh. "What would you do after you met him out there?"

"I'd verify there were no new injuries, ask about any problems with recent ones or check those still healing, assure there had been no unexpected problems during his last three shifts on watch or his most recent mission, and review him on the desired skillset," Cas answers, leaning his head on one hand. "I'm not conversant with small talk, and it seemed a waste of time when neither of us were at all interested in the weather."

"And he…."

"Answered each of my questions thoroughly, verified his continuing good health, asked me if teenagers were historically treated as if they were five years old simply because they didn't like canned lima beans and if they were always required to go to bed at an arbitrary time, described his last three times in combat in detail, and discussed Amanda's beauty and the impossibility of there being anyone like her in the world."

Which is pretty much what Dean would have expected (especially the Amanda part, because teenager).

Seeing his grin, Cas shrugs. "Vera said it was normal and healthy for an adolescent to entertain feelings of that nature and that his infatuation was comparable to a youthful crush on a celebrity. It combined a satisfactory lack of hope, as Amanda is a lesbian and almost two decades his senior, with a desire to please, so Amanda could by her responses instruct Jeremy on the appropriate way to treat women as well as any object of romantic interest. Amanda apparently enjoyed it a great deal, especially when it was her turn to do dishes and for additional help on laundry days."

Yeah, that's all true (especially the laundry thing), but also. "He was fifteen when he got here."

"And we lied about his actual age." Reaching down, he loops his fingers around Dean's ankle, thumb starting to circle absently around the hard knob of bone, and Dean firmly reminds himself to focus. "I have no objection to adolescents exploring their sexuality when they feel they're ready, but there was no one here of the appropriate age and experience level, and his emotional state did not in any way reassure Vera that he was capable of giving informed consent even if he'd shown interest. Vera consulted with Joseph as an objective third party and he agreed with her assessment. He meets with Jeremy regularly for joint activities not limited to marathon monopoly tournaments and instruction in the finer points of various games of chance so as to better evaluate Jeremy's state of mind in a non-threatening setting and assure no one will cheat him at poker."

God, he has got to get back to this one day (soon), but…. "So why did he want to see you today?"

Cas closes his eyes. "Sex."

Dean's suddenly aware of a completely rational need to find out who in this camp propositioned a seventeen year old kid so he can go and explain all the ways that's a shitty idea and what kind of goddamn person does that. It might take a while and require more than one weapon on hand, but that's fine, it's hours until dawn and he'll be back in time for breakfast.

"Actually, the finer points of the social interactions that eventually lead to sex," Cas corrects himself while Dean considers his strategy, which he regretfully sets aside for later (no way to tell if he'll need it, so better be prepared). "More specifically, the various strategies to open conversation with an attractive girl, though he's open to the possibility of attraction to an individual regardless of sex or gender and plans to explore his options thoroughly."

Dean stares at him blankly as he translates that twice, just to be sure he heard that right. "He asked you to teach him how to flirt?" Cas nods, looking pained. "You're kidding."

"I'm not."

"What--" He clears his throat hastily: to have been a fly on the fucking training field fence. "So, what did you tell him?"

"I've discovered," Cas says wisely, like someone having just figured out a universal truth, "that adolescents generally have no actual desire to hear adult opinions on any subject, even when they're the ones who requested advice. They also tend to flow between arbitrarily chosen subjects without warning. So I made appropriate noises of affirmation or negation when needed, and he was reassured, though of what, I'm still not entirely sure."

He starts to ask for more detail (verbatim, please) when context introduces itself on why a.) Jeremy would be interested in acquiring these kinds of skills right now, and b.) go to Cas to get them. "He's going to Ichabod tonight."

"He is," Cas agrees glumly, tipping his head back against the table leg to glare at the ceiling. "Where there will be a multitude of age and experience appropriate individuals for him to interact with, yes. From what I was able to ascertain, he's worried that no one will like him and he'll die a virgin who's never danced with anyone and will stand in the corner all night drinking water like a loser and be unable to show his face again anywhere ever and he might as well become a monk. Not in that order, I assume, but I didn't think asking for clarification would help."

O-kay, yeah. Here's the thing.

Dean is only vaguely conversant with how normal teenagers work, but these aren't normal teenagers. Jeremy and the kids living in Ichabod (and for that matter, probably every kid in the infected zone) are probably a lot closer to him in shared adolescent experiences (trauma, dead parents, rampant and justified paranoia, hunting demons, monsters everywhere, check your salt lines after you brush your teeth before going to bed, that kind of thing). He takes a minute to ponder how you just never know how useful a fucked-up childhood will be should you happen to end up in an alternate, Apocalyptic world and need to deal with teenagers.

So he knows that Jeremy is not in any way going to be standing alone against the wall like a loser, ever. Eighteen is the minimum age before limited assignment to patrol is permitted in Ichabod: daytime only, supervised, non-combat, their duties restricted to shadowing experienced patrol members, learning the procedures and responsibilities thoroughly. Despite the fact it's a dangerous fucking job (because of it), Dean didn't meet a single seventeen and below who didn't resent the fuck out of not being allowed to be out there kicking ass and he's including some five year olds with dangerous accuracy given wooden blocks and a target (him).

Jeremy's seventeen years old, physically fit, not hard to look at, and has (technically) been a regular, working member of Chitaqua since he was fifteen. In teenager, that means that he gets to go on adventures without adult supervision, fights monsters all the time, lives with a lot of very scary (hot) people, and gets lots and lots of weapons of his very own to use whenever he wants.

(And in no way will it be a drawback that Jeremy was personally trained by the same person who trained Amanda (who is in fact a celebrity in Ichabod and the sum total of the wet dreams of everyone--and he does mean everyone--who's hit puberty and up). The guy who happens to be--wait for it--a fucking former angel of the Lord and Chitaqua's second in command.)

Jeremy's not getting out of Ichabod with his virginity (any virginity whatsoever) intact without a lot of effort and maybe some hiding behind a lot of locked doors (a vault might work, but no promises there), and that's not gonna happen because Dean remembers seventeen, and it's pretty much defined as 'no reasonable offer refused, no really, please'.

How to put this. "So--not saying you and Vera and Joe aren't doing a great job, but--"

"You'd like to talk to him," Cas finishes for him, and okay, that was fast. "I was hoping you'd offer, but in case you didn't, he's riding with us to Ichabod in the morning. As I'm driving and it will take several hours, I assumed sheer monotony would allow nature to take its course."

Yeah, he walked right into that one. "Thanks, Cas."

"You're welcome," Cas answers with a faint smile, squeezing his ankle. Dean struggles for some kind of reaction to being blatantly manipulated that isn't 'kind of likes it' and fails miserably. "I've been trying to think of an appropriate way to encourage your interaction since he and Vera returned from Alpha, and today's conversation gave me opportunity and subject matter without undue effort or awkwardness in manufacturing a believable situation."

Encourage your interaction, that's…. "You want me to get to know him?"

"Yes." Like it's obvious and Dean's just being difficult for the fuck of it. "Your illness and then his absence from Chitaqua inhibited the development of your relationship, but now that you're well and he's in the camp, there's no reason for it not to progress."

This can't be what it sounds like. "Or start, even."

"That as well." Cas straightens, looking at him earnestly. "He's extremely intelligent, competent, has an excellent work ethic, and is very mature for his chronological age." Dean nods, watching in fascination as Cas does something a lot like bracing himself. "However, he's given to a certain amount of age-appropriate emotional instability," moody, Dean interprets, "and on occasion indulges in rather melodramatic periods of brooding over perceived wrongs," and sulks like it's his job, got it, "such as feeling he's being manipulated or unnecessarily restricted in his actions by adults. Which is a perfectly reasonable response," Cas adds, looking baffled. "Not to mention entertaining to observe, but Vera says it's very annoying and not to be tolerated and laughing doesn't help, and I wasn't sure if you would share her opinion."

"So he's a teenager."

"According to Vera, very much so." Cas searches his face hopefully, and Dean's chest inexplicably tightens at the realization that this actually is exactly what it sounds like. "I think you'll enjoy his company a great deal once you get to know him."

Christ. "I'm looking forward to it."

(He's not going to think about what he'll do if Jeremy doesn't like him. He's already committed to several hours in a confined space and what he's pretty sure is going to be a very weird conversation about flirting, sex, relationships, and different cultures' approaches to those three things, and what he doesn't need right now is more pressure.)

"However, I wasn't being untruthful regarding Vera and I needing to do something important," Cas says reluctantly, and Dean has all the warning he needs by the way Cas's fingers tighten around his ankle before absently stroking up beneath the frayed hem of his sweatpants. "After I talked to Jeremy, she asked me if perhaps Jeremy would be a good addition to Kamal's team in Ichabod."

And talk about a tactical exercise: not bad, Vera. Thinking about it, he thinks he can guess the reasons--kids his own age, nice place, good food, a town, the infected-zone equivalent of a normal life--and honestly, it's not a bad idea. Vera probably had 'em ready for deployment before Cas even got to drink the coffee she definitely had ready for this very special conversation.


"We both agreed it's a terrible idea that can only end in tragedy but we have yet to articulate a reason why," Cas answers in a rush, sounding frustrated. "We both tried, but Vera has only recently acquired several books on child psychology from Joseph, and while she's found some very promising material, she feels more research is required to confirm that our feelings on the subject are the obviously correct ones."

He swallows frantically: so not the time, but God. "Right."

"However, he's nine months from his eighteenth birthday, and so his choice should be the deciding factor," Cas adds resentfully, which on a guess is a quote from Joe and hey, so that's why Vera was glaring at Joe at the meeting this morning before Evan, Merlin, and thirty minutes of their lives they're never getting back (including learning Iceland was part of King Arthur's empire. Iceland). "Under the circumstances, I think it would be best for you to discover--if you can--what Jeremy would prefer after visiting Ichabod and has had sufficient time to consider his options. While ideally he will hate the town and all those within it, I don't think we can count on that."

Don't laugh, don't laugh, don't laugh. "Yeah, no problem."

Cas sighs, giving Dean a ghost of a scowl. "Are you finished with your insomnia-fueled home repair? It's cold and I don't think there's anything left for you to either repair or clean in the cabin."

"You know," Dean starts, "you don't have to keep me company every night."

"If I wanted to sleep alone, I'd still be on the couch," Cas answers, tugging the blanket up enough to stand without stepping on the trailing edge before extending a hand. "Since I'm not, it can be inferred I don't. As you're in here and therefore I'm awake, I might as well be awake where you are."

Logic, Cas-style. Taking his hand, he lets Cas pull him to his feet and follows him back into the dark bedroom, the thick rug James' team picked up during his totally just a cold a comfortable cushion against the freezing floor.

On a glance, nothing's really changed since the room's number of permanent occupants increased from one to two: same shitty mattress and repaired dresser and single worn end table and lamp, same weapon-filled closet-arsenal and AK-47 laundry box, and both their clothes have always been in here. Cas doesn't have things, even on the bare-minimum level that he and Sam did; no watch or keys on the bedside table, no weird keepsakes or pictures, no old receipts or spare change. Sure, some of that isn't applicable (for that matter, Dean's broken watch is still stuck in the closet somewhere); some of it is Cas's developing powers of organization (keys are hung on a hook by the door; books go in the utility-library; weapons in the closet-arsenal); but a lot probably has to do with Cas being an angel and learning people from Dean goddamn Winchester, life lived from a duffle bag packed in ten minutes or less before you're gone. And in Cas's case: a series of boxes, Encyclopedia Brittanica (volumes four, ten, sixteen, nineteen, and twenty-one), and an assortment of board games (not random, assumed stripping-friendly, Jesus Christ) in the utility-library-closet.

Cas's boots neatly pushed against the wall between the dresser and the bed, the nine-millimeter under the mattress at the head of the bed and knife tucked neatly between the pillow and the headboard (boot knife stays in his boot): those come standard. That's what Cas carries on his body from the moment he leaves the shower in the morning (sometimes noon and afternoon as well) until he goes to bed, that follow him wherever he sleeps: here, in Ichabod, probably in the goddamn field.

On a glance, nothing's really changed, but that's because this is Cas, and he's a goddamn freak.

The thick, heavy woolen socks Cas has worn every night since the temperature dropped appeared the very next day, green-grey wool peering out warily from the shadowy back corner when he opened the drawer of the bedside table. Emerging from the bathroom that night with freshly brushed teeth, he noted the appearance of two of the blankets from the couch folded discretely at the foot of the bed without commentary. The next morning, for no particular reason, Dean checked under the bed for dustbunnies (should anyone ask) and verified the presence of a single flat pillow set on top of two extra blankets pushed against the wall.

For four days, he watched in fascination as pencils, pens, jump drives, and paper reports materialized on the dresser in ones and twos before they vanished, replaced by the pencil box that holds all of Cas's immediate work-related needs and another for spare drives, both stacked on two sketchpads, a folder, and three notebook, one half-filled. The dresser was reorganized after the last laundry day two days ago--yeah, Cas does that for fun--but the vague division between his clothes and Cas's (which honestly was more theory than anything) is gone for good, replaced by military-neat rows of mutually-owned balled socks, quartered boxers, and boxer-briefs in the top drawer, folded long-sleeve shirts and jeans in the second and third, thermals and flannels in the fourth, sweaters in the bottom (for someone taught Cas to fold like they did serious time at Abercrombie and Finch, the poor bastards).

Most tellingly--and he does appreciate the significance--his own personal weapons were integrated into the closet-arsenal so smoothly even he was startled. Over the course of a day, one of the shelves was removed (when, no idea) almost immediately followed by two boxes vanishing into the ether (utility library?), some not at all random migration of Cas's weapons to the left onto mysteriously appearing pegs, and before dinner, Dean's materialized almost as if by magic, guns and knives slotting onto the pegs like they've always been there and he just didn't notice.

Finally--he was waiting for this--tonight, Cas shut down his laptop and casually tucked it under his arm and (casually) carried it into the bedroom to set it (casually) on the dresser by the pens and sketchbooks. Luckily, all that casualness gave Dean enough warning to pretend to be really into dental hygiene in the bathroom so Cas could enjoy himself surveying his new domain.

For the ways of Cas aren't always mysterious; sometimes, they're just Cas treating moving into their bedroom like he's conquering an undiscovered country, methodically and unobtrusively marking each piece of newly-claimed territory to avoid the attention of the natives before acquisition is complete and they realize they're under his benevolent rule. Dean would comment on the feelings of the natives in question (they know, they like it, what the hell?), but then Cas might notice what he's doing and stop, and he kind of want to see this through. Sure, this might end with waking up to Cas tattooing his true name on his ass for territorial purposes, but it's not like he didn't know what he was getting into here.

Casually scanning the room on his way to the bed for any further efforts at surreptitious colonization, he notes the subtle outline of two giant tackleboxes of mapmaking supplies that wandered out of the utility library earlier today to tuck themselves unobtrusively into the corner near the window. Fighting back a satisfied grin, he ushers Cas into bed before climbing in behind him, straightening the mess of sheets and blankets (and waiting for Cas to patiently spread the blanket he was using over the top) so as to conserve heat, which is actually pretty much eighty percent of what they do in bed.

Apparently the universe (Cas) has decided Dean has to live adolescence over again, and not even his own, but someone else's, someone who never got laid and only got limited feeling-up privileges when at least two layers of clothing were present (and sometimes, four). If there's any consolation in this, it's that Cas has to deal with it, too, but it's not much, since Cas seems unnaturally (read: what?) okay with all the sex neither of them are having. Which yeah, he was okay with not having it before, sure, but now they could be.

(At this rate the shower's gonna start talking about commitment, and he's also starting to kind of consider it a rival for Cas's affections. In no way does this affect how much he's jerking off (especially when he knows exactly when Cas was last in there doing the exact same fucking thing) but is making him resent water a little for existing.)

On the other hand, five hours past dusk until an hour before dawn is pretty much the only time he's guaranteed to get Cas to himself these days, and he's really starting to wonder about that. Sure, he's leader and everything, but it's kind of weird how much suddenly needs his (or Cas's) attention or how often someone drops by with a question that desperately needs an answer right now. They're all legit, too, which makes him suspicious: not one dumb question. Winning a game of craps against Cas would get better odds than that.

"I didn't realize I'd react like this to the possibility of Jeremy leaving Chitaqua for good," Cas says abruptly, bracing his head on one hand, dark hair in his eyes that for once he doesn't try and fail to fight into submission. "It helped that Vera told me that she didn't expect how she'd feel when Joseph suggested it, either, but it was still a very depressing conversation."

Dean doesn't laugh (this is serious, okay), but Jesus. News at two (AM, that is): Cas cares about people. Next up: Lucifer's a dick. "I bet."

"So under the circumstances, it would be very hypocritical for me to argue that you shouldn't be worried about me while we're in Ichabod tonight, because it has nothing to do with 'should', so argument doesn't help," Cas continues, and Dean loses the urge to laugh. "At least your concerns have a nominal basis in reality, while Vera's and mine are 'reasons, many of them, some quite terrible we're sure'."

He keeps his mouth determinedly shut in case he accidentally starts talking and fuck knows what'll come out, which may or may not include feelings (a lot of them, some he's not sure have names, in which case will require descriptions). He settles for nodding firmly.

"While I would prefer your enjoyment at the celebration tonight isn't hindered at all, much less by your concerns regarding me, as there's no reason for them--"

He makes the required protesting grunt when Cas pauses for it, because Sam told him relationships are all about compromise and he can do that.

"--they exist, and it's…" Cas stops to check his mental dictionary (English: all editions, ever). " when you traumatized the entire watch."

Okay…. "What?"

"You were upset," Cas explains, and Dean's eyes widen at how that is just--no. "Or as Matt put it, homicidal."

"Second one."

"I was trying to be tactful," Cas says, not knowing what 'tactful' means or even have a working understanding of the concept. "I told you later that it wasn't necessary--"

"You can take care of yourself, nothing to worry about," Dean drones.

"--but I didn't tell you that I liked it."

He shuts his mouth so fast he almost bites his tongue. "What?"

"I asked Matt and Amanda to give me a complete verbal report of the events that occurred that night in detail," Cas continues. "Multiple times, and asked for clarification on several key points more than once, simply to enjoy hearing it again. Your creativity regarding the consequences of such carelessness in the future is to be lauded; I understand at least one of them began to cry."

"Huh." That's kind of all he's got here (though it was definitely more than one).

"Amanda assured me that more than once she was very close to disarming you to avoid summary execution of all of the watch in the middle of the cabin," Cas adds, reaching up to push his hair out of his eyes, blue eyes glinting. "And thoroughly described each time she almost had to intervene while Matt assured me they were being one hundred percent accurate in all the particulars."

So Amanda and Matt are going to be really surprised when bottles of Eldritch Horror mysteriously appear in their cabins (or room at Alison's) sometime very, very soon.

"So." Dean frantically clears his throat at the husky sound of his own voice. "Want me to beat up anyone for you?"

Cas smiles slowly. "I might, yes."

Yeah, talking's done now. He tugs Cas down into a kiss, tasting the shape of his smile, and rolls him onto the mattress with a cheerful squeal of springs and breathing Cas's husky laugh.

Pulling back, he strokes back Cas's hair before leaning in again. "Just tell me who and when."

"….and check in at HQ once an hour," Dean continues, looking around the assembled faces of his brave (crazy) militia and fighting the urge to remind everyone about people skills: ie, interacting with people not Chitaquan. Though at this point, he's uncomfortably aware he's become hazy on that as well; Chitaqua Syndrome is definitely a thing. "Remember--"

"They may one day be allies, but they aren't and can't be friends," Joe drawls, the fucker. "We don't eat their steak and potatoes and hang with--wait, wrong speech?"

"You're mowing all of Chitaqua," he threatens. "Cas, write that down."

"Yes, sir," his loyal second-in-command says, leaning against a post beside him. "Joseph, mowing Chitaqua. When we have grass, that is. And less snow as well."

Dean doesn't even bother glaring. "Anyway--"

"Don't scare the natives," Christina says earnestly, and honest to God, you'd think being their leader would be good for say, respect, or at least faking it. "Question: is my confirmed kills awesome or scary? In case I want to hook up with a native, I mean."

"I was about to ask about that," Tara pipes up. "Protected sex, of course. I'm responsible, and the spread of STDs is a serious problem that we need to take seriously, here are the reasons--"

"Just wait until your next unexplained rash," Vera says from the front of the crowd.

Sighing, Dean gives up anyone taking anything seriously this early in the morning. Enthusiasm--such as it is--can't survive a fucking pre-dawn wake-up call, unless you're James, whose default setting is 'enthusiastic', or Alicia, who at the moment is standing apart from her team looking very awake in that way that implies not much sleep occurred beforehand and he really doesn't want to think about that too hard.

It was surprisingly easy to decide who was going to Ichabod, since not that many seemed all that enthusiastic about an overnight party in another town. On a guess, it's the 'not at Chitaqua' part that was the dealbreaker, because he just doesn't buy the two TV's and what looked like half a jeep of DVDs plus three days of extra leave were that much of an inducement to stay behind.

It's not like he wanted this to be a draw straws kind of thing, but come on; the teams were picked by seniority, but the two most senior, Sarah and Mel, both opted to stay behind, so they ended up with Kyle, Alicia, James, and Sean, plus Joe (as half his team's in Ichabod and Mike asked permission to stay with Sheila for their first New Year's while wearing the most hideous orange mittens Dean's ever seen: so it really is the thought that counts), Vera, and five people not on the patrol teams. Five.

On one hand, he gets it; it's not only that Chitaqua was pretty isolated for over two years, but their initial attempts at being friendly often ended with passive-aggressive or just plain aggressive hostility (read: bullets). On the other, it's a party with alcohol and what will definitely be a lot of potential indiscriminate sex with all new people, and drinking and sex are two of Chitaqua's top three collective hobbies.

Dean waves a hand. "Okay, everyone has a copy of their shifts on patrol, and a copy will be at our headquarters in Ichabod; any problems, report to whoever's on HQ duty, Cas, or me." Cas clears his throat as loudly as possible, "Or not me because I have no idea, I'm just your leader." Everyone laughs, but at least it's sympathetic; they all live and die on Cas's goddamn schedules, and Dean recently found out it's also password protected (he was just looking, okay). "Any questions? Never mind, don't care," he adds quickly when several people start looking excited about that. "We head out two hours after dawn. Dismissed. Except Vera and Joe."

Ignoring the disappointed sighs (yeah, that's what he thought), Dean goes back inside, retrieving his and Cas's empty cups on the way to the kitchen, and notes in relief Cas started a new pot before the meeting. "Anyone want coffee?"

"Please," Vera calls as Joe ambles into the kitchen with an innocent smile.

"Not you," Dean tells him, getting two more cups. "And fuck you, by the way. I was making a point with that."

"With my blood pressure, you mean," Joe retorts, rummaging through the silverware drawer for spoons before grabbing the sugar and creamer from the kitchen table. "Seeing myself marching across Kansas, sacking cities in your name--"

"That was Cas's idea."

"Could we really conquer Kansas in two weeks?" Joe asks, picking up one of the cups with his free hand.

"Probably," he admits, just managing to get the other three without burning himself in a feat of coordination he's pretty sure is goddamn impressive (and doesn't spill any on the way to the living room, either).

He waits for everyone to get comfortable (and Joe to take a drink) before saying, "Congratulations; you both just got promoted."

Vera freezes and Joe just manages to not spit out coffee, which is kind of disappointing, but his expression almost makes up for it. "What?" Vera asks while Joe manfully attempts to not look like he's choking.

"We'll be in Ichabod for at least five days to accommodate the Alliance meeting," Cas says. "During that time, as our teams will be taking regular shifts with Ichabod's patrol, someone needs to be authorized to act for Dean and I when we aren't available. Amanda and Kamal will also be assisting, but Amanda's students will take priority when instruction resumes."

"Like when we're sleeping," Dean says, relaxing back into the couch and bracing a foot on the coffee table. "Maybe seeing the sights, whatever."

Joe nods, wiping his mouth discreetly. "Yeah, I was going to mention that. You're also going to need it during the Alliance meeting; not all of it's open to the public, and I don't think they'd appreciate us interrupting. Not to mention just because it's supposed to be a three day meeting doesn't mean it won't be longer; this is their big one, and from what I understand, there's at least one or two towns who've made some noise in Alison's direction about joining up."

Dean didn't realize he could actually look forward to this any less than he already did: the more you know. "Great."

"Cas, you made a schedule for us yet?" Vera asks, like there could possibly be any doubt.

"Yes, but I'd prefer you and Joseph meet with Amanda and Kamal when you arrive in Ichabod before it's finalized," Cas says, opening his laptop (any goddamn excuse) and tapping impatiently before turning the screen. "Joseph, you've acted as de facto commander of Chitaqua several times, so you'll take the first shift tonight; Vera--"

"Watch and learn," she says, nodding. "Now, question: why me?"

"You have command experience from your time as a team leader," Cas answers. "Like Joseph, your team isn't taking patrol shifts--"

"I don't have a team."

"Technically, you do; Jeremy is still a member." Vera rolls her eyes. "Our choice is limited to those without teams on patrol who are also going to be present in Ichabod and have no other duties, who include Rachel, Gary--"

"Who's only going for sex with Laura," Joe interjects. "Seriously, they'll get a room and not leave it, probably until it's time to come home."

"--Evelyn and Natalie, who have never been on patrol or even out of this camp," Cas continues, "Jeremy--"

"Also going to get laid," Vera says with a sigh in her voice. "And seventeen."

"--and last but not least, Sidney."

Vera and Joe wince in unison, looking at Dean warily. He shrugs, taking another drink of coffee (Vera wasn't even here for that).

"So basically, not being Sydney was the deciding factor here," Vera says, nodding. "Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"The shift schedule for Ichabod is on here." Cas hands Joe and Vera each a jump drive (red). "It includes patrol's and on-call at headquarters, which are hourly shifts, and a tentative draft for command, which is currently split into four six-hour periods, with the morning shift beginning at seven AM to coordinate it with true dawn as best we can."

"Check it out," Dean says invitingly. "I get a whole six hours tomorrow. One to seven."

Vera leans forward, peering at the schedule that's ruining Dean's life. "Why's your name in grey?"

"Because," he says before Cas can answer, "I don't take enough days off and going to Ichabod doesn't count."

"I showed you my documentation on your daily schedule," Cas says dismissively. "This subject is closed. Vera, Joseph, you should both have time to review the Ichabod Schedule before we leave; copy it onto your hard drive and return these before we leave today. Please remember to save a copy with any changes you may have to your gamma drive in the appropriate folder and bring it with you to better coordinate with Amanda and Kamal. I'll expect a final copy before two PM, as the first team goes on patrol at four."

Vera looks at the jump drive with narrowed eyes, because Cas's first order of business once they'd eaten lunch and Vera reported on Alpha a few days ago was to introduce her to her laptop, and it went pretty much like Dean expected.

("Her name is Cecilia," Cas told her, setting it on her lap reverently. "I've updated it with all the programs you require, as well as a primer on how to use the template for patrol reports, a copy of the patrol schedule for the next six months, and a copy of the report database. Currently, your privileges are limited to 'user' until you've completed the required four hour computer literacy class to gain limited admin access; we'll arrange a time in the near future. There's an additional four hour course in how to use Microsoft Office and a six hour course on database theory; it's not mandatory, but it's strongly recommended you take it so to better understand the template system, the patrol spreadsheets, and the structure of the database as well as learn the rudiments of VBA and SQL. Chuck will be happy to arrange it; he's an excellent instructor."

"Spreadsheets," Vera echoed, looking at Dean helplessly. Like he could do anything here: come on.

"Please don't save any personal files to the hard drive; you'll be issued a jump drive for that. Speaking of, these are your five jump drives," Cas said, presenting them to her a lot like a cat does dead mice; like you're supposed to be happy about it. "Alpha is to be used for patrol reports only, beta for required updates and revisions to the patrol schedule and report database, which is updated every Sunday and you will need to acquire from me before dawn on Monday, gamma for any private documents, delta for regular backups of your system in addition to the automatic weekly backups, and epsilon for any intracamp data exchanges including pornography both visual and textual."

"They're color-coordinated," Dean told her as she stared at the neatly labeled rainbow of anal-retentive colors in her lap. "Except red: that's Cas's special color no one else can use."

"It's for read-only files issued by Chitaqua's commanders," Cas said stiffly. "Laptops are to be presented for inspection on a monthly basis, but there will be random checks as I see fit." Vera blinked at him. "It's all in the primer located in My Documents. When would you like to begin class?")

Vera hasn't started class but has (or so Dean's heard) tried to hack her laptop, which yeah, good luck there. Alison taught Cas all about encryption and how to make obnoxious pop-up windows appear with sarcastic messages when you forget to back up or try to change the wallpaper (soothing blue bubbles, to promote serenity or (this being Cas) fuck with everyone's head). Dean's starting to get nervous about the entire LAN thing in their future; he's not sure what Cas can do with a live, all-access pass to everyone's laptops, but Cas apparently does know (thanks, Alison) and is really looking forward to it. Like a lot.

Dean tries and fails to miss Vera's significant look as she and Joe excuse themselves to review the next few days of their lives in Excel, and sure, he could just sit here drinking coffee and ignore Vera waiting, but he does live in this camp with her, one, and two--fuck his life, Cas has his laptop open.

"Be right back," he says on the off-chance Cas is paying attention (he isn't), and sighing, grabs his coat and goes outside to see Vera sitting on the steps before Operation: Salt and Burn becomes reality (it's already a daily struggle). "So what--" and then gets a glimpse of her face.

Lowering himself down on the step, he frowns at her troubled expression. "Everything okay?" He hopes she didn't break Cecilia; nothing and no one can protect her from how Cas reacts to--how'd he put it?--'willful and depraved misuse of camp equipment' and one day he's sure, Amber will move on from that discussion.

"Yeah, I…." She blows out a breath, giving him a frown. "Why me?"

"Why you what?"

"Is it because I saved your life?" she asks. "Because that wasn't personal, okay? I'd do that for someone I hated."

Oh. "That puts you ahead of Darryl."

"There is that." She slumps, resting her elbows on her knees. "Dean--"

"Come on, supervising the militia in Ichabod for a few days isn't a reward for anything," he says reasonably. "More like a really subtle way to fuck with you, if you think about it."

"I wondered about that," she agrees. "Yet, I'm not convinced. If this is your very weird way of showing your gratitude, then I don't want it."

"It's not."

Her eyes narrow. "Then why?"

Christ, it's not even dawn. "It's complicated--"


"Wasn't finished," he says warningly, wishing he'd brought his coffee. "Look, for one, we don't have a lot of people to choose from here, if that helps. I'm pretty sure the only person qualified to run this camp is Cas. Half the time, I don't know what I'm doing."

Vera's suspicious expression softens into amusement. "You are so fishing."

"Whatever." He rolls her eyes at her faint grin. "Look, I trust you, and not just because of that. You did good at Alpha; shows leadership skills and diplomacy and shit."

She frowns, which he takes as a win. "Yeah, okay, but--"

"If me and Cas are going to Alpha," he starts, "we're gonna be gone for at least a few months at minimum, and while we'll technically be in regular contact, we're talking a week or two turnaround." She nods. "That means we need at least two people in command here who can keep things going; you and Joe are the best choice we have. Yeah, it helps you're not on patrol, since Amanda's kids are gonna be coming in and I need all the teams we have working with them and keeping up our schedule."

"Two." She cocks her head. "That's the part I was wondering about."

He knows Joe was wondering that, too, but he figured she'd be the one to actually ask. "You've had time to catch up on the gossip. If I--I don't know--decided to do something really stupid, you think anyone would argue or just go do it no matter how crazy?"

"I would, and so would Cas." She blinks, straightening. "Oh. What Joe said outside--"

"That was a quote, yeah." He blows out a breath. "It's habit, I get that, and it takes time. Me and Cas being gone: that might help speed up the learning curve. They'll obey you and Joe because I said so," that much he knows, "but maybe--just maybe--they'll start working on their thinking for themselves skills if someone shows 'em how it's done. Also," he adds casually, "lowers the risk of you couping the camp--"


"--which let's face it, is something you're kind of known for," he finishes serenely.

Vera opens and closes her mouth. "You--"

"Keep your friends close," he says wisely as he gets to his feet, "and your enemies closer. And people who can organize a camp-wide coup in under eight hours for someone else--who didn't even know about it--them you put in command." He grins down at her. "Anything else?"

Dean finishes packing, gets two cups of coffee, then gives up and surreptitiously closes the laptop while Cas is getting coffee (not like he didn't save already). "I take days off."

"You don't," Cas answers, dropping onto the couch beside him with only a faint frown at the to-be-burned laptop. "Just because you don't currently go on regular patrol or have shifts in the mess or garage doesn't mean you don't do work and a great deal of it. It's simply not physical, and admittedly also for the most part boring work."

Dean sinks back into his corner, because Cas may (may) have a point, and he might be (is) sulking about it.

"When Amanda's finished with her current class, I plan to select four of those coming to Chitaqua for further training," Cas says out of the blue. "By the time we return from Alpha, the class should be familiar with patrol and their duties in Chitaqua, and it will be natural I'll wish to evaluate them then. Your input will be needed both during the selection process and during their instruction."

"For what?" Then he catches what Cas just said and doesn't even try to stop the grin. "You're going to try the teaching thing again, huh?"

"They'll be advanced enough that the risk is minimal," Cas answers evasively, folding an arm on the back of the couch. "Amanda agrees, and for the most part, I'll be chiefly engaged in demonstration and supervise them while they practice against each other."

Grin widening, he nods agreement. "Cool. So what do you need me for?"

"Compatibility," Cas says. "While Chitaqua's hunters are more experienced, none of Amanda's class lacks experience, and several were regular patrol members in Ichabod before recruitment." He hesitates, looking at Dean intently. "So while I review them, you can observe and tell me which you would feel comfortable having on your team."

It takes Dean way too long to put that together. "My team."

"I'll be a member as well," Cas adds, of course unspoken. "We'll use the same formula as we do for new teams; in this case, it will be assumed to familiarize the new members with our--"

"My team." Just to make sure. "Like--to leave the camp and go on patrol and do shit? When there's shit to do, I mean."

"You'll be assigned at least once to all regular patrol routes," Cas agrees. "After that, I assume you'll wish for more individualized missions."

"Right." He needs to deal with this. "How long until Vera and Joe get back?"

"At least ten minutes if they return immediately, but no matter how often I explain--" Cas's voice cuts off as Dean takes his cup and sets it on the coffee table before pushing him back onto the couch. "Joseph procrastinates a great deal," he says hopefully, tugging Dean down with a grin. "Perhaps twenty."

"Good," he breathes, and feels the vibration of Cas's laughter against his lips.

Scooping Lily up from the floor where she's been waiting, arms raised in imperious command, Castiel sets her on the table, tapping her nose when her tiny faces screws up in a warning frown of disaster to come should her will be denied (being held: she's very demanding).

"A moment, Lily," he says seriously as he sits down again. "All children who behave with discretion receive brownies as a reward for appropriate behavior. You're very fortunate that I made several batches and Dean didn't find them all before we left Chitaqua. It wasn't easy to hide them."

Lily looks distinctly unimpressed, but Tony's observed that her intelligence is unusually high, especially considering her age, and he finds himself in full agreement.

"You get," Alison says in amusement from the side of the table, "that she's two and change, right?"

"She's a very precocious two." He smiles in satisfaction as Lily bursts into giggles when he pokes her stomach experimentally (Tony's suggestion, should she become displeased). "Her last physical exam?"

"Five days ago, and same as the other kids," Alison answers indulgently as he catches one wandering hand, tiny fingers locking around his thumb triumphantly. "Now, you ready?"

Angels are incapable of making mistakes, but the human mind is complex, and being subject to change itself--both at the demands of its own processes as well as environmental and those related to the children's development--he thought it prudent to check regularly over the next year. There's no danger, of course--at worst, he'd simply need to adjust the neural pathways that connected individual memories--but it's best to catch such things early to avoid any potential distress. Alison explained the process to all the parents very thoroughly, and he'd answered their questions this morning in the daycare's common room after they'd arrived in Ichabod.

"What's worst-case scenario?" Tony asked him as Dee climbed determinedly into Castiel's lap (proof of her excellent motor control and almost uncanny sense of balance; she needed very little assistance).

Settling Dee (and picking out a leaf from her among her braids), he shrugged. "At worst, the dissonance would be expressed during REM sleep. The memories no longer exist as such, but--do you remember all your dreams?" The parents as a group shook their heads. "You still have the memories, of course, but the brain was designed not to prioritize and save those in the same way as events you actually do and accomplish. When I unmade the symbol, I was able to erase it as well; it doesn't exist in their memories at all, and the space it took was removed from the linear chronology altogether, which the brain's inbuilt prioritization would interpret as the equivalent of 'dream' and not a terribly interesting or important one."

"I'm hearing a 'but'," Njoya remarked, one arm wrapped protectively around Jessica's shoulders and Ayuk, her and Eyong's second youngest, asleep in her lap.

"That's because there is one," he answered, adjusting his hold on Dee as she started to fall asleep against his chest (which looking around the room seemed common for those under six). "The human brain should ignore that space as it does anything in the general category of 'dream', subcategory 'boring'. However, it will--for its own ineffable reasons--sometimes recreate neural pathways despite its own inbuilt system of prioritization, much like it does with dreams you experienced years or even decades ago. I can't speculate on the contents of REM dreaming when that occurs, but as there's nothing to remember, I suspect imagination would create something to express the concept of 'nothing there'. Which could be anything, but considering the children's history, abandonment would be a valid interpretation: an empty home, an empty daycare, perhaps even the entire town abandoned."

Deepika nodded. "Nothing else?"

"No," he told her, aware Dee had started to drool against his shirt but unwilling to wake her from what seems like a very pleasant nap; Dean enjoys those, too. "Generally, this level of monitoring would be considered unnecessary to members of the Host, as there's no danger of damage to neural integrity and the human brain, especially with children, can adjust to almost anything. However…" He frowns, aware of the warm, comfortable weight of Dee on his lap, the soft, regular sound of her breathing. "They've been through a great deal in their lives already, and very little of it can be helped with other than support. This is not one of those things; what happened to them in the daycare and what they were forced to carry in their minds would have no benefit to their development and I see no reason for them to be forced to retain any part of it. Over the next year Alison and I will verify those memories continue to degrade appropriately so they won't be troubled by them either now or at any point in their lives. Threshold should be reached at a year; with very few exceptions, at that point the memories will have degraded to the point that for all intents and purposes they will cease to exist."

"I'm ready," he tells Alison, taking her hand and watching in fascination as Lily's mind opens for them. Doing this is very different now, but not because he's using a telepath as the medium or any lack in his inborn abilities; he still possesses the full range of an angel's skill without exception. He can still read and interpret the massive amount of data that makes up a human mind, and careful evaluation has verified there's been no change in his ability to alter, change, and erase individual engrams as needed without damage to neurological integrity.

It's different, however; for all his existence, human minds--while complex beyond imagining--were all very much the same with very few (and usually traumatic to the species) exceptions. He can't imagine now why he thought that; the set pattern of human thought and behavior is applicable only up to the point that it isn't (at all), careening off-course in baffling directions in defiance of instinct, logic, common sense, self-preservation and often, the confines of perceived reality. The Host understood (though he can state now, not very well) that the development of the human species depended on these fluctuations as they achieved sentience and full sapience and their brain development superseded primal instinct.

Perhaps, he reflects, observing the ordered chaos of a toddler's mind, they should have spent more time with children.

Ignoring the bright jumble of surface thought--even at this age, privacy is to be respected--he examines the changes he made in her memory, searching for any sign of rejection or dissonance and assuring no new pathways were formed in relation to them. Alison observes carefully; this kind of examination is beyond her skill but well within her potential, and at this stage, she learns most easily from watching him.

Once he's certain of Lily's neurological integrity, he repeats the process more slowly for Alison's benefit, watching as she absorbs what he shows her. At this point, 'why' is not necessarily important for her to know and might even be counterproductive. Like reflex training, the point now is for her to memorize the process itself, each step familiar in action if not reason; this method will assure perfect safety for the mind in question even if Alison should make a mistake, and at the early stages of learning, sheer uncertainty as to her own skill guarantees there will be mistakes. Understanding 'why' will come when the skill is brought into practice. In a month or two, when they repeat this with the children, he'll have her do the second check herself and simply observe.

Alison's alarm ripples across his consciousness as he finishes the demonstration. Sitting back, he lets go of Alison's hand and pulls free of Lily's clinging fingers before tickling the outraged look from her face.

"You did very well," he tells her (and Alison, who snorts), catching Lily easily before she tumbles from the table in pursuit of his thumb. "Derek will now give you your reward. Derek, if you would--"

"Got her," Derek answers cheerfully, already beside him. Plucking Lily from his lap--an offense apparently on par with dismemberment from her expression--he tosses her in the air before she can begin more vocal forms of protest before bracing her against his hip and taking her to the other side of the room, where the other children from the church are enjoying their afternoon snack. "Jessie, you're up."

Standing up to turn his chair, Castiel waits for Jessica to seat herself between him and Alison. As the eldest of the children from the church and now thirteen, she was well above the age of reason during the initial events, and with the addition of puberty, memory adjustment can sometimes have unexpected consequences. Looking into the clear grey eyes, he smiles reassuringly and is rewarded with a shy smile in return.

Unlike some of the younger children, her history is better known due to her age at the time of her rescue as well as the efforts and support of her adoptive parents. Eyong and Njoya, though already raising two children by birth, were among the first to offer homes for the children from the church, and unsurprisingly, were an excellent choice for a girl that, like them, had lost so much and so traumatically.

Like Mercedes and Antonio, Jessica's parents were migrant farmers on circuit in Kansas and were among those shot by soldiers stationed at the southern border of Kansas during the rush after the state was zoned. The Sisters of Mercy--having been warned about the possibility of Kansas being zoned--were patrolling the borders to offer sanctuary and help to those who couldn't cross and found her wandering near the deliberately oblivious checkpoint in shock and taken her back to the convent. For it is beneath the border patrol to shoot children (sometimes) but above reproach to simply watch a ten year old child in severe shock slowly succumb to potential dehydration and starvation for two long days within sight of her parents' decomposing bodies.

Eyong and Njoya worked tirelessly to help her recover, the result of which is a very healthy and happy young girl who is (according to Njoya) already fluent in three languages, including the native French of her parents, and is showing extraordinary potential for linguistic studies.

(Though it must be noted, in Ichabod, adequacy in at least two languages seems to be the rule with no exceptions. Even Alison--who by her own admission and his verification has no talent for secondary language acquisition whatsoever--has achieved near fluency in Spanish and Hindi, but in her case, the manifestation of her psychic abilities was the catalyst, and the results--unusual and not entirely under her control. Alison sometimes unknowingly has carried on an entire conversation in colloquial Nahuatl as spoken by Teresa's grandmother pulled wholesale from Teresa's memory, and Neeraja swears more than once Alison sounds exactly like her great-grandfather.)

During the meeting, to give him better context for their children's developing minds, the parents were extremely forthcoming regarding their individual personalities. To his surprise, it was fascinating; he had no idea how interesting humans could be before they reached maturity.

For example, Paul, Claudia's youngest son and Derek's brother, is already an accomplished tactician with above-average motor control, able to locate and steal pastries wherever they might hide them, and Barbara, Deepika reported with perfectly understandable pride, is already fluent in Telugu, her own mother tongue, and has a startling talent for mathematics far above what would be expected of any ten year old. Tony told him that Dee (barely five years old) is already reading and writing well above something known as 'grade level', knows all her colors on sight, can sing the alphabet song forward and backward (she demonstrated), and has far above-average accuracy when throwing blocks at persons who displease her, a habit that is not to be encouraged, of course, but he agrees with Tony that it shows extraordinary hand-eye coordination and obvious potential genius. (And excellent survival skills as well: small children, he's noted, are surprisingly dangerous in groups.)

They were also in agreement with him that Jeremy's hunting skills--learned at age fifteen--are extraordinary, which is a fact he never realized how much he wanted to share with others. He looks forward to speaking to them further; from what he understands, the daycare's mid-year examinations have yet to all be graded, but there's no doubt in anyone's minds (including his) that all the children passed far and above any possible expectations for their various ages.

"You understand what we'll be doing?" he asks Jessica. "Alison and I will be examining your mind for any potential problems related to the events that occurred at the daycare." He tries to remember if she'd looked uneasy at the earlier meeting. He doesn't think so, but he may have misinterpreted her surprising interest. "Your privacy will be respected, of course; all we'll be evaluating is your general memory functions in relation to recent events. You have no reason to be concerned, but if you have any questions before we begin, please don't hesitate to ask."

She shakes her head adamantly, but the silence is worrying.

"Are you certain?" Baffled, he watches the sudden spread of hot color across her cheeks as her eyes flicker down before looking at him again and nodding firmly. Even more inexplicably, Alison is smirking at him, though what that look is supposed to convey is beyond him. "Very well, give me your hand."

With reassuring alacrity, Jessica extends it, cheeks reddening further. Before he can ask, however, Alison shakes her head almost frantically, reaching across the table to close a hand around his wrist and informing him in a single laughing thought she'll explain when they're done.

As it turns out, that's not necessary; this, he supposes uncertainly, would be what Vera was trying to describe regarding teenagers, and Jessica is indeed one of them. Suppressing startlement, he examines her mind carefully, repeating the process for Alison's observation, and pauses for an infinitesimal moment to convey to Alison how very much he would have appreciated a warning before gently easing back and arranging his expression to impassivity.

"Thank you, Jessica," he says seriously, letting go of her hand and fighting down a smile at her faint disappointment. "You did very well."

As soon as Jessica joins the other children, Alison tips her head toward the door questioningly. Nodding, he follows her into the hall while the children are immersed in Derek's inspired decision to screen Toy Story 2, an intriguing Pixar movie that he promised to copy for Chitaqua.

Closing the door carefully behind them, Alison smirks up at him. "What?"

He glances back at the closed door. "You could have warned me."

"I can't figure out how you missed it," she answers as they start down the hall. "Blushing, stammering, and giggling whenever you look in her direction since you got here….might as well have drawn you a big glittery sign."

"A sign," he answers patiently, "would have been very welcome, yes."

"What did you expect?" she asks, laughter in her voice as they reach the staircase. "You're older--"

"Than Time."

"--tall, mysterious, fight demons, have superpowers, and kind of hot. For a guy anyway," Alison says as they descend the stairs. "And personally saved her and the town from Croatoans. Most importantly, you're not from here and part of a cool militia, so you're interesting. She's a teenage girl: it was kind of inevitable."

He glances down at her uncertainly. "Vera explained the concept of a 'crush' as it applies to adolescents. Provided the object is not a sleazy douchebag who takes advantage of their vulnerability and immaturity, it's a healthy and safe way for adolescents in early puberty to contemplate their developing sexual and romantic feelings." Alison raises her eyebrows as they turn on the landing. "It was in one of her books on child and adolescent development. She highlighted the appropriate passages for my edification."

"Jeremy, right." He nods. "Dean already grilled me about the teen party, yeah. Kid's first time around girls and boys his age?"

"He and Dean had a very thorough discussion of what is and is not appropriate behavior on the way here," he says. "I had no idea how many potential pitfalls there were in adolescent courtship behavior.

"You have no idea how much I wish I could have heard it live," she says sincerely as they reach the first floor and start toward the kitchen-slash-breakroom. "You should see when Dean takes a shift, and I don't mean just the teenagers."

"They have excellent taste," he says as they emerge into the thankfully-empty kitchen, smelling of coffee. "He's very attractive."


"I'll get it," he offers, noting her very slight limp and steering her toward the chair before she has the opportunity to become stubborn. The kitchen is exceedingly well-organized, he notes in satisfaction, finding the mugs to the left and taking down two before pouring them each a cup from the imposing coffee maker, far larger than any at Chitaqua and made entirely of metal.

"We haven't had time to talk since I was last here," he continues, returning to the table and setting a cup in front of Alison before seating himself across from her. "How are you doing?"

"Practicing your small talk?" she asks disbelievingly, reaching for the sugar.

"Sincere interest," he assures her as he adds cream to his own cup and waits impatiently for her to finish with the sugar. "That cast will be very uncomfortable tonight if you wish to dance, which I was told is a feature in large celebrations."

Alison frowns, spoon pausing mid-stir. "What cast?"

"The cast you'll be wearing in roughly one hour. After I take you to the infirmary to have your ankle examined by Vera and she tells Dolores that in her opinion she removed the last one far too early," he answers, taking the opportunity to retrieve the sugar. "Otherwise, the damage to your ankle will be permanent."

She sits back, eyes narrowing as she gazes at him over the rim of her cup.

"They're getting along very well," he adds, adding four spoonfuls of sugar and stirring thoroughly, verifying the color is correct before removing his spoon and taking an experimental sip. "Dolores is very excited to have a colleague with so much experience in treating the injuries of recalcitrant patients."

"Dean?" Alison asks with a ghost of her usual malice.

"Me, and if it's all the same to you, I'd like to avoid the infirmary today so as not to hear exactly what stories are being shared at the moment." He studies her critically, looking for signs of insomnia, but while there are signs of strain, they're all very much current. And her expression…. "You're listening for the new arrivals."

She grimaces. "Big party, lots of visitors."

Of course. "Teresa's wards will catch Croatoan and demons--along with anything else supernatural--but not those who might be hostile to Teresa should they know what she is."

"The Alliance knows her," she answers, taking a long drink and looking as if she might benefit from alcohol. "Individuals, though…not so much. At least, not more than 'person who comes and stares at the fields for fertility blah blah blah'."

He takes another sip. "Has it been a problem before?"

"No, but last year this time it was us, Harlin, Noak, and a few locals who weren’t scared of being killed on the way to the party," she retorts. "And a lot less people, period. Five towns--and one militia camp--plus exponential population growth, no monsters--at least, none attacking them--and free food and trade equals popularity. At least, more than last year."

He reviews his last glimpse of the official entry point on Third an hour and a half ago; there were people already arriving, though most Claudia classified as of the merchant persuasion, along with a startling amount of livestock. "I assume you now know it's not simply a matter of selective filtering."

"Yeah, thanks." She glares at him. "I can mostly tune out my people, but it takes a lot of concentration and did I mention I'm not good at that kind of thing?"

"You'll get better from practice." That doesn't help now, he knows. Leaning his elbows on the table, he tries to think. "You realize, of course, that those entering the town now are unlikely to be thinking at that exact moment about their homicidal tendencies toward witches in general and a detailed plan of how to kill them should one appear?"

"You're really not helping."

Which means she knows that. "And you realize that you have no natural right to invade the privacy of their minds to discover that lacking casus belli?" Alison's expression doesn't change, but he suspects she knows that as well. "As you start, so shall you go on. An argument could be made--and you could make it--that anyone who enters your town for any reason is a potential threat, but I think you can see why an exercise in advanced sophistry in this case would be a problem, especially for you."

"Because I'm too powerful?" she says bitterly.

"Power doesn't corrupt," he answers patiently. "People corrupt themselves, and the strength of the tool neither slows nor speeds its advance. You could be as psychically null as the most mundane of humans and neither mayor of Ichabod nor leader of the Alliance, and you would still be dangerous in Teresa's defense. Everyone is dangerous when it comes to those they care about; the only difference in this case is the scope, which yes, is worrying in a general way, but not more than anyone with an arsenal at their disposal and the ability to use it."

"Anything I need to worry about from Chitaqua? Breaks-ups, new relationships, incipient triangles ending in a blood-soaked showdown over ribs and chicken curry?" she asks curiously.

"Sean still feels threatened by Zack's previous relationship with Nate, and Kyle exists," he admits. "But neither have the temperament for mass murder without extreme duress, and I doubt that will be a problem tonight."

Alison frowns. "Nate's the resident evangelical who likes to pray the morning after for the sins he wants to regret doing the night before?" She waves a hand. "Amanda said something after getting a letter from Sean."

"I'm still reflecting on our past interactions--though in my experience, prayer can occur almost before one has a chance to enjoy the afterglow--to discover how it should be dealt with."

Alison lowers her cup. "He prayed to your Dad about sex with you?" He nods, wondering at her expression, and she sits back. "Holy shit, I thought I was bad with Clarissa's parents, and I had the excuse of being a freshman going through a thing where I used the word 'breeders' without irony." She shakes her head. "I was actually surprised we broke up after, too. What was I thinking?"

"I don't see--"

"Cas, Nate did the equivalent of calling your dad to tell him how terrible you and he are for having sex," she explains. "One--who calls your hook-up's parents after sex? No one. That does not happen. Two--your dad is God. If you're going to call--and again, this does not happen, but okay--and it's God, that's when you talk about…not sex ever, but….." She trails off, looking baffled. "I can't even unpack how much is wrong with that. It's everything."

"My Father and I don't have a relationship that can be mapped onto the human concept of parental," he argues, feeling uneasy and not sure why. "Or paternal, for that matter. It's complicated and unfathomable…." He pauses. "It does seem like strange behavior for a human, yes."

"Would you call up Dean's dad and tell him how you're banging his son and regret it because evil?"

He puts down his cup. "I can't imagine talking about Dean to John Winchester while armed. Ever. His mother, however….oh."

"Exactly." She shrugs. "Gonna say, Nate's issues are probably the kind that come in layers. There's internalized homophobia and then there's banging an ex-angel and denying reality with added calling God to complain about his kid--Jesus," she adds, struck. "I keep finding new things wrong with that every time I think it."

"You're avoiding the original subject," he points out, because she is and not from a profound desire to abandon this subject as quickly as possible. People use his Father's name during sex all the time. It's not…whatever this is.

She sighs. "Acting like everyone's after you, you may start believing it, yeah, Cas, I know." She huffs an annoyed breath, finishing her cup in a single rebellious swallow. "If it were Dean, you wouldn't be paranoid?"

"I am paranoid," he corrects her. "However, it's not a state of being I wish to cultivate, as like you, when I feel my partner's threatened, I can dispose of the suspects before they can do anything to stop me with depressingly few exceptions. Hence, I try to set a personal standard somewhat higher than 'vaguely suspicious' so as to avoid outright genocide of the human race."

Alison's eyebrows draw sharply together. "On behalf of the human race, thanks."

"You're welcome," he states, finishing his own cup and getting up. "More coffee?"

"Yes, and before you ask, no, there's no alcohol in the daycare, I checked." He doesn't sigh on his way to the pot, filling both their cups with truly excellent coffee from the most sublime coffee maker he's ever seen. It must hold at least twenty cups, and despite the period of time since the coffee was probably made, the flavor doesn't seem to have become stale at all. Surely James can find them one; he's very good at that.

"I'm not reading them all, just--getting a mood," she says, taking back her cup. "I like being sane, thanks, and listening to that many people thinking would end that for good."

Finishing his additions to his own cup--slightly more sugar and cream--he shrugs. "If you want me to tell you what limits are required for ethical use while still protecting Teresa or your town, I can, but it won't help."

"Don't become a monster," she says gloomily. "That's really all you got?"

He turns his cup between his hands and remembers the expression on Dean's face when he realized who'd drawn the Devil's trap on the ceiling of Dean's cabin.

"The worst sins," he says slowly, "are those you commit for which payment, when it comes due, will not be made by you. Be very sure what you do is worth what other people will pay for you, even if they do so freely and without regret."

Alison winces, looking away. "So sayeth Castiel of Chitaqua."

Her pensive expression makes him curious. "You can't possibly be pondering the nature of good and evil as it relates to strangers; this is more personal."

She straightens. "You think I don't care about strangers and their privacy?"

"No, or at least, not enough to consider your potential for being a monster, especially simply for examining them on the level of 'mood'," he retorts, raising an eyebrow at her scowl. "Personal, but not too personal, something you haven't done but may want to: please, stop me when I'm wrong, and I notice you haven't."

"Christ," she mutters, setting her half-empty cup back on the table with a muted thump. "You're gonna be here for a few days after the party, right? The big meeting and everything."

"Yes." They'll actually be staying two weeks, but Dean has decided for his own ineffable reasons that this would be an excellent opportunity to see how well Vera and Joseph work together. The plan, such as it is, is to tell them that they're in command of Chitaqua just before they leave for Chitaqua and then quickly wave goodbye. He's absolutely certain that will work very, very well, at least until he and Dean return to Chitaqua. "Why?"

"I think I need a consultation," she says, resting her head on one hand. "Kids."

"The ones left here by the human infiltrators." She nods grimly. "You're having problems with them?"

"This is more…theoretical. Or something, I don't know." She looks at him hopefully. "Day after the meeting good for you?"

He nods, curious. "Of course. Can you be more specific, at least?"

"Easier to show than tell, and I need them for that," she explains, drawing absent circles on the surface of the table. "Glen asked me for an evaluation last week, and between what happened to them and them grieving for their parents, it's a mess. I don't want to invade their privacy, but some of the older ones…."

"Glen is worried about them," he finishes for her. "They're hostile?"

"That's a word for it," she says wryly. "Pissed as hell, can't blame 'em for that. The oldest two….they're kids, I have to keep reminding myself of that. Way too much, Cas."

"Mood?" She nods, mouth tight. "What are you sensing?"

"If they were adults, a long drive with a ration pack anywhere but here," she answers, unconsciously echoing Dean when talking about Cynthia. "And instruction to patrol with pictures attached to give one warning if they see them again." She closes her eyes. "Thirteen and twelve, Cas, and I still have Glen and Serafina doing random checks to make sure they don't have--or haven't made--any weapons. They think I’m crazy. I think I’m crazy."

"Being here probably isn't helping."

"We've been talking to the other towns, but I don't want them to feel like we're throwing them out, either. If they go, it has to be because they want to, not because they think that they're not wanted. The last thing they need is more people treating them like they're disposable."

"Are they wanted here?" he asks, watching Alison carefully. "Before you answer, I have every confidence in your town's treatment of the children, but how you feel about them isn't under your control. You, of all people, must be aware of how much disparity there is between what is done and what is felt."

Alison considers her answer. "Yes and no, and that goes for both the adults and the kids, by the way. Especially with the younger ones--no one sane can hold a grudge there. I think they'll be okay, we're giving them all the time and attention they need. The older ones, though--I think it might be better, for them, not to live in the place their parents died, along with seeing--seeing the people responsible for their deaths."

"You mean Dean." While Dean's aware of his actions preceding his encounter with the demon in the courtyard (and for that matter, has read the reports), his memories aren't entirely clear either in content or chronology, and the ones involving the demon missing altogether. "Alison--"

"What was done in defense of the town is shared, Cas," she interrupts. "Dean avoiding the daycare isn't gonna change what happened. Which from your expression you didn't know about."

He hesitates. "He's currently at the headquarters you gave us for our time here, assuring everyone is aware of their responsibilities."

"And last time he was here, it was lack of time." Alison raises an eyebrow, not without sympathy. "Bet he believed it himself. You can tell him--when he's ready to listen, because no way will this not come up--that we're not making any decision without a lot of thought for all involved. If we send those kids to Harlin or Noak or Andale or Mount Hope, it'll be because it's best for them, and to people they know want them. Glenn and Serafina have been screening potential permanent guardians, and I checked them myself before we even got to the introduction phase."

"Have you had many volunteers?"

Alison's stern expression softens. "That's never been a problem; we like kids. We should have most of them placed by the end of next month if not earlier. The older ones, though…." She stares at the table, expression darkening. "I get it--I mean, making a deal with a demon, that part I get, but not using their kids like this. There were no guarantees of anything once they infected themselves with Croatoan, and best case scenario was their kids would survive and have to live with what they'd done in the same town their parents betrayed. What the hell is worth that?"

"That may be the only part of this that makes sense," he answers after a moment of though. "This town--by your own efforts--is known to take in children who need homes. It's the reason that they came to this town in the first place, because you'd taken in the children from the church. Their actions were execrable, but at least they could be certain that after they died, their children would be safe."

"Hoisted on our own petard, you mean."

"Being people," he replies, thinking of Dean. "You're very good at it."

She rolls her eyes, but the set look fades. "In the spirit of continuing as we began, then. I could use your help to figure out what to do about the older kids, give Glenn some insight on what they need. I don't want to be invasive, but I'm at the end of what I know that's not, and maybe you can give me some ideas of what to do next. If there is anything."

"Are they a threat?" Alison doesn't pretend either shock or surprise: a relief. "Just because they're children doesn't mean they're not dangerous, and adolescents combine emotional instability with poor impulse control. Their grief and anger are understandable and allowances made for that, but that doesn't mean steps shouldn't be taken if they are or will become a danger to themselves or others."

"What would you do?"

"Increase supervision, assure there's always a responsible adult with them that understands what to watch for, and don't let them leave the daycare or their current homes unaccompanied. I'd also consult with Naresh." He sees by Alison's expression that's exactly what she wants to do. "He handles the town's internal conflicts, and this would fall under his responsibilities, I assume."

"We call him 'sheriff'." She gives him a thoughtful look. "So, clarification: I'm reasonable or we're both crazy?"

"Which will reassure you enough to take the appropriate action?"

"Oh, I'm doing it either way."

"Then I'm not sure and don't care," he answers. "Speak to their caretakers regarding your concerns as well, though I can't see how they could be unaware of potential problems. I assume Glen and Serafina are closely supervising whoever they live with at this time?"

"They are," she says. "Which is probably the only reason Glen hasn't told me to fuck myself on top of thinking I'm crazy. He likes kids, but he's as worried as I am. Just not the same way."

"Good," he agrees, finishing his coffee reluctantly. "So--"

"Got any plans for the afternoon?"

"I should go assist Dean in terrifying our soldiers more," he admits. "But he enjoys it so much, I hate to interfere, and apparently uncontrolled laughter counts."

"Blow it off," she suggests, getting to her feet. "Come back to my place, we'll do our thing, then you can pick up the thing that you asked Amanda to find someone to fix for a present for someone--can't imagine who--and she asked me how to do that."

He straightens. "You found someone?"

"I know people," she says smugly. "Wanna see?"