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The Game of God

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--Day 150, continued--

"Now this," Dean says happily from his seat on top of the picnic table, "is a party."

Amanda, seated correctly on the bench beside Vera, cranes her neck to look at him, then at Castiel. "He's been very excited about this since Alison conveyed her invitation," he explains.

"What is wrong with you people?" Dean asks without heat, taking a drink and slapping Castiel on the knee, hand lingering for a few moments longer than strictly necessary. "You, my friend, need to loosen up."

As the music starts again from the battered stereo that someone had hooked to what appears to be a growing colony of mismatched speakers, Dean gives him a speculative look.


"Wanna dance?"

"No." For many reasons, not least of which is just looking at the constantly shifting crowd is causing possibly literal vertigo. Surveying the people currently leaping about to something nothing like a beat, the only question is when the first injury will occur, not if. Watching Mira steering James and Nate away from disaster as they twitch discordantly is stressful enough. "Absolutely not."

"Coward," Dean murmurs in his ear before bouncing up, reaching for a startled Amanda and pulling her to her feet. "Come on."

Amanda gives Castiel a comically alarmed look.

"Keep your hands above the waist," he tells her, causing a burst of laughter from the people on the tables surrounding them. Dean half-turns to grin at him before getting lost in the crowd, and Castiel shakes his head, finishing his cup and after a moment of thought, taking Dean's.

"How much has he had to drink anyway?" Vera mutters, settling down beside him as Sean and Zack tentatively join Dean and Amanda.

"Not very much," he answers. "He wishes to model appropriate behavior for our social activities. I think."

Vera snorts, finishing her cup with a grimace. "That won't last past getting some decent liquor. Which this isn't."

He looks at the less than inspiring contents of his own cup before taking a polite drink, as it's important to show community spirit and validate the efforts of people trying new things and not pour it upon the ground and demand to know what was used to create something that is not by any stretch of the imagination ale.

Turning his attention to the street dance in progress, he searches for Dean and Amanda in the growing crowd, the hard beat of the current musical selection pounding through the ground strongly enough for him to feel it vibrating the wood of the table. The constant movement makes it hard to keep Dean in view even when he finds him, vanishing behind laughing groups and between other couples dancing with something that might be rhythm (though usually isn't). Faintly, he sees Amanda looking surprised that Dean is a very good dancer--or perhaps, he reflects, at the pauses to bang his head to the beat--and fights down the urge to laugh.

The entire length of what had been Third Street has been appropriated for the celebration, the western end designated as the official entrance area, where new arrivals drop off their passengers before making their way around Ichabod to the adhoc parking just southeast of the northern fields.

It's odd; he walked the streets of Babylon at the height of her power, observed the rise of Damascus and Carthage, Athens and Memphis and Alexandria and Rome, Constantinople before its conquest and Istanbul after, Fes and Tokyo and Berbera and New York and Nairobi, Mumbai and Seoul and Jakarta and São Paulo and Baghdad; they were, are, will be again (would have been; no will be) centers of culture and knowledge and power, straddling the world entire. Yet he finds one single half-mile of asphalt populated with celebrants of the New Year almost overwhelming; they settle nowhere, constantly engaged in perpetual journeys from one side of the street to the other individually or worse, in groups, for no reason he can fathom and are apparently incapable of doing so at any volume lower than 'loud'.

Not that it isn't interesting, it is; observing their migration patterns from a safe distance, he only wonders why he didn't ever notice before. Yes, he was often on missions that required swift action, but on the other hand, he could also travel in time and rewind reality when needed if he missed something interesting; it's not as if it were difficult.


Glancing at Vera, he shakes himself; it seems he must be content with infinite knowledge rather than experience, which are absolutely nothing alike. "Yes?"

"Come on," she says, sliding off the bench and jerking her head toward one of the many providers of alcohol (as well as food) that now fill most of the easternmost block of Third (and probably Dean's primary motivation for choosing these seats). "Refill time."

Following her isn't easy when there are so many people carrying food and snacks to impede easy navigation, and she finally sighs, ducking under his arm, one hand on his hip for steering purposes.

"Don’t tell Dean," she says with a grin, the smells of cooking meat drifting toward them from what feels like every direction but seems to concentrate in two of the buildings on the northern side of the street and the alley behind them. Fortunately, when invitations are extended and accepted between the communities, it's traditional to provide supplies, which Amanda referred to as the most awesome version of a potluck she's ever see. Glancing up at him, Vera's grin widens, probably at his distraction. "Not a lot of parties since you Fell?"

"Other than my own?" he asks, unable to stop looking around, following one laughing group as more visualize at the end of the street, new arrivals hailed with shouts and wolf-whistles, and he's not actually sure the amount of space in this street should be enough to hold all of them. His reference points include two dinner parties in Ichabod and Insert Winter Celebration at Chitaqua, which give him very little to work in terms of experience. "Is this typical of a human celebration?"

She makes a see-saw gesture with one hand. "I grew up in a small town, so street dances on the Fourth and New Year were pretty common. Not to mention the annual chili cook-off. Oh, and every year Dad would take us to see Gramma and attend the annual Rattlesnake Show and Rodeo in Taylor." She sighs, looking nostalgic. "I always wanted to compete in the bagging competition."


"Rattlesnakes," she answers. "Just you, a bag, and every rattler you could want. Winner gets the most bagged."

Where to even start. "Historically, handling serpents has always been an honored caste in human cultures, but I can honestly state that historically, no culture that I can remember created a competitive sporting event devoted to putting venomous examples of such in bags. A creative form of execution, an obscure test of manhood, proof of divine favor, demonstration of magical influence over the animal kingdom, deeply unsettling sexual fetish, projectile weapon in marine warfare--"

Vera stops short. "What? Snakes as projectile weapons? How?"

"They placed snakes in pots and catapulted them to the opposing ship," he explains. "Effectively an early form of chemical warfare as well, but autonomous and rather unhappy about being confined to a pot."

"I didn't even know my nightmares were missing something," she muses. "That'd be it."

"Much different than putting them into bags as a competitive sport," he agrees, but the sarcasm seems to escape her as she shakes herself before pulling him into motion as they maneuver through the crowd.

Looking around again, he notes the stationary groups gathering between stalls or on blankets on the sidewalks where vendors have yet to colonize, but inexplicably also congregating in the middle of the street for no reason other than seemingly to assure the slowest possible progress for anyone trying to get to or from the vendors. How they can hear anything considering the sheer number of conversations being conducted, some very loudly, is a mystery.

"So all of this is normal human behavior when in large groups?"

"Oh yeah," Vera says, coming to a stop at the end of what he eventually realizes is an actual line of people for cups of a beverage contained in alarmingly anonymous brown earthenware containers displayed on several folding tables as well as underneath it. Seeing where his gaze is fixed, Vera snickers. "Cas, you and Joe both learned to make alcohol when we settled in Chitaqua. You think you're the only ones who figured out how to make do without commercial options?"

"No," he answers, watching a cup being filled with a cloudy grey liquid and handed to a person who inexplicably decides it should be drunk immediately. "However, I would like to know what they were making do with and why it's that color."

"No one's died yet," she says encouragingly. "So, we were talking about parties?"

"Before I Fell, my experience with human gatherings tended to be in bars and truck stops, which by nature were very specific in activity and reason for attendance."

"What about at Alpha or the other camps?" she asks, scanning the area around them. "First hunter boot camp full of traumatized people: that's what humans call party time."

He bites back the automatic answer that he had more important things to do than attend gatherings. His Grace was trickling away with every passing hour, and what he'd be left with afterward was a question with no known answer. It's both true and still not the answer to the question she's actually asking.

Before he can find a non-committal response, however, Vera abruptly pulls him to the right, past several waiting groups chatting with those manning another makeshift bar and toward the doorway of one of the buildings, where he sees Haruhi urgently gesturing to them before disappearing into the darkened interior.

"Vera," he says in confusion as she eagerly mounts the concrete sidewalk, "why are we--"

"Shh," she hisses, giving him a glare before pulling him inside and closing the door. The brief darkness is almost immediately broken by a small lamp creating a circle of warm yellow. "Thanks," Vera is saying, taking the lamp. "You two already know each other, right?"

"Yes," he agrees as Haruhi crouches to retrieve a canvas bag from the floor, the sound of tinkling from within clearly audible. "What are you--"

"Shh," Haruhi says, glaring up at him before taking the lamp back and handing the bag to Vera. Flipping it open, Vera smiles at the contents before closing the flap almost reverently and hefting it over one shoulder. "Six bottles," she confirms, crossing her arms. "Per my deal with Amanda. You want more, I'm willing to negotiate."

Smoothing her hand protectively over the bag, Vera cocks her head. "What'd she trade?"

"One case of Joe Beer and a quarter bottle of something that put me on my ass so fast I'm still seeing vapor trails," Haruhi admits, thin black eyebrows drawing together in thought. "I'm pretty sure she told me what it was called, but could have been talking to my shoes by that point. After class," she adds belated, giving Castiel a wary look. "Of course."

"He got us high during class," Vera says dryly. "Necessary combat skills."

Castiel ignores Haruhi's hopeful 'So what week do we do that again?'; he recognizes that particular reaction. "Eldritch Horror."

"That," Haruhi agrees, then blinks slowly. "You made that unholy nightmare and named it in honor of the Lovecraftian mythos. Of course you did. I thought that conversation was a hallucination."

"It probably was," he answers. "Dean actually named it." Watching her face, he decides this is very likely the beginnings of a negotiation and now understands why Dean insisted that they bring a portion of his limited supply. "You didn't enjoy it?"

"Didn't say that," Haruhi answers casually. "You got any more available for trade?"

He glances toward four bottles near the wall, one of which is a rare bottle of once commercially available and extremely expensive vodka. "It's possible." he considers Haruhi's carefully neutral expression. "What do you have in whiskey?"

She smiles up at him. "Let's find out."

The negotiations don't take long, and Vera volunteers to go to the jeep to obtain four of the bottles hidden beneath the false bottom of the jeep concealed by their weapons when Castiel demonstrated to her satisfaction that he understood the principles of bargaining (it does help to know one is doing it).

On their return with four bags, one of which Vera acquired from one of the other vendors with the promise of its safe return, Dean has not only returned to the table but is watching the dancers with a vague expression of displeasure while Amanda and Mark look tense. Dean's the first to see them, lowering his cup and studying them intently, green eyes unreadable.

"Hey!" Amanda says brightly, taking the opportunity to slide off the table with almost excessive eagerness, glancing at their bags before she and Vera exchange an indecipherable look that makes Vera bite her lip and look up at Castiel with something between amusement and worry before handing her bag to Amanda and taking one of Castiel's. "We were wondering where you disappeared to."

Dean finishes his cup and sets it on the table beside him before smiling at them, showing a surprising number of teeth. "So what have you two been up to?"

"Engaged in a very successful negotiation," Castiel answers in satisfaction, crossing to the table as Amanda, having finally investigated the bag Vera gave her, lets out a low whistle. Climbing up on the table, he proffers his remaining bag. "At least, I assume it was. Vera seemed to think so."

"Really." Dean's eyes flicker to Vera before looking down at the bag, and the unreadable expression melts into curiosity. Glancing at Castiel briefly, he flips back the canvas flap and stills, green eyes widening. "What--"

"Five whiskey, two premium and impossible to get anywhere vodka, three tequila, two of that moonshine that the guys from Bentley are dealing," Vera starts, setting her bag on the end of the table and opening it. "Uh, three rum, five bottles of black currant wine that woman from Mount Hope makes, one strawberry, and--" she pauses, cocking her head at the three ceramic jugs and shrugging. "No idea, but Cas talked to the guy and did a taste test and said they were okay."

"It is," he confirms as Dean reverently lifts out one of the six bottles of whiskey he'd acquired. "However, I wish I hadn't asked what he used to make it."

"Haruhi said it's better not to know," Vera agrees sympathetically, sliding onto the bench at Castiel's feet and efficiently sorts through their acquisitions. "Two bottles of Eldritch Horror in official trade to Ichabod, two under the table to her personally, two more in six months, and an agreement that should we decide to offer it as a trade item, Ichabod gets first option on our supply along with first option on Joe Beer. Cas explained that the process takes a while and the ingredients are hard to get, but he agreed that a limited number could be offered biannually."

Dean tears his gaze from the black label to Castiel, green eyes speculative. As Amanda distracts Vera's attention, he leans closer. "So you never told anyone how you made it?"

"Of course not," he murmurs, taking the bottle from Dean and waiting as he hastily retrieves his cup before continuing. "Experimentation was interesting, but once I'd achieved the desired result, replication was both tedious and extremely boring. Everyone assumed that the limited supply was due to the difficulty and length of time it required, and I felt no particular desire to correct them."

"Fallen angels these days." Shaking his head, he takes a drink, eyes closing in blissful appreciation, before cocking his head. "Why don't you want to dance with me?"

That--isn't the question he expected. "Why do you?"

Dean shrugs, taking another drink. "Good example."

"Of what?"

"Human experience," Dean says firmly. "Have you ever danced at a street dance? Or anywhere?"

"Pontus, for the entertainment of the court." Dean fumbles his cup. "My vessel was sent as part of a gift to the King from a local satrap in thanks for his assistance in deposing the former ruler," he explains, eyeing the dancers uncertainly. "It was nothing like this; we wore a great deal less and weren't allowed to reveal our faces, though our stomachs were perfectly acceptable. I'm still unclear on why."

Dean cocks his head. "You danced for the King of Pontus?"

"It wasn't lascivious," he answers defensively. "She was highly trained from childhood in her profession."

"Weirdly enough, not my first thought," Dean answers. "Why were you there?"

"I needed access to the harem and she was amenable to assisting me," he replies. "And we were speaking of your desire to dance."

"Because I do." Dean gazes at the dancers, brows knitting together thoughtfully, as if trying to view it as Castiel does, which he realizes is exactly what Dean's doing. "People, right? Too many of 'em?"

That would be it, yes. At this time, the generally low concentration of people in the street makes it easy to avoid undesired attention and undue proximity, but that will be impossible among the dancers if his observation of them so far is any indication. "I enjoy watching."

"What if it was just us out there?" Dean asks. "Someone yells 'demon on the dancefloor', clear it out, what do you think?"

"Perhaps we might wish to avoid mass panic? At least this early the day," he adds, inspired; yes, it's improbable Dean would resort to that, but then again, this is Dean. "The panicked fleeing might leave the food currently cooking unattended and it will burn."

"Point." Dean takes another drink, scowling. "I'll think of something."

Until this moment, Castiel really didn't have any desire to dance, and yet…. "Tell me what you come up with?"

Dean grins at him. "Oh, I will."

Mark and Leah are charged with the responsibility of caring for Chitaqua's private liquor supply, nodding obediently at Dean's order to protect it with their own lives if necessary. Looking pleased with the flagrant abuse of power, Dean's head snaps around as the smell of cooking meat strengthens, frowning at Amanda's reminder that it will be at least an hour before the time designated for dinner.

"It's a party," Dean says, scowling over the rim of his cup before soothing himself with a long drink. "What kind of party has a scheduled dinner time? Get it out there, first come first serve. Survival of the fittest."

"Kids eat first," Vera offers, straddling the bench with one arm casually draped over Amanda's lap. "Gonna fight them for dibs on the barbecue, fajitas, and samosas?"

Dean ignores her, taking another drink, long fingers having drifted to tapping an impatient rhythm on Castiel's knee. It's not exactly a new development--Dean is tactilely inclined and always has been--but since they arrived in Ichabod today, it's happened several times, and sometimes, Dean briefly forgets to tap at all. "Just saying."

"Two of the towns brought their meat still on the hoof or squacking," Mark says, leaning forward from his seat on Dean's other side. "They still got people working on--"

"Jesus," Dean breathes, covering his face. "Let's not get into the details of how a cow becomes a hamburger, okay?"

"You're a hunter," Vera says incredulously. "You have no problem describing exactly how to dismember a corpse for an easy salt and burn--"

"Not even the same thing."

"--while you're kneeling in the blood doing it," she finishes triumphantly, taking a drink as Amanda pats her shoulder, expression rigid though her cheeks are beginning to flush with the effort not to laugh. "But where your food comes from, that's where you draw the line?"

"I don't eat them," Dean answers defensively, and Amanda makes a sound like a squeezed kitten while Mark stares determinedly at the people dancing, the number having nearly doubled within the last half hour. "Fuck you and shut up. That's an order."

Vera grins maliciously as she opens her mouth to answer, but Castiel leaps boldly into the brief silence. From recent experience, he's learned Dean and Vera can keep this up for some time and while entertaining when focused on each other, there's no guarantee they won't turn on others (him). "Did Jeremy check in with you?"

"He's in the teen building until his shift in HQ with Natalie," Vera says reassuringly. Natalie's attendance was a surprise and not an unpleasant one; while not opposed to social situations, she's very shy, and far prefers bullet making as both avocation and hobby (and is very, very good at it). Turning a wry eye on Dean, she adds, "I warned her not to give him too hard a time if she had to go get him herself. Joelle's really got his attention."

"Warn her those kids started weekly training now that Manuel's got the help?" he asks. "Just saying, I heard one of 'em racked the fuck out of Hans last week."

Castiel tilts his head curiously. "You met Joelle?"

"I did. Seventeen, very polite, tops Jeremy by about half a head, so it's definitely love," she says, grinning. "She's from the Ivory Coast and speaks Baoulé, French, and English. I had no idea that worked on guys, too." Her mouth quirks. "Her mama's one of the chaperones. Don't need to know Baoulé to translate what Maimouna was saying to Joelle and Jeremy about dark corners, though she did make it to the chaperone's break room before she started laughing at least."

So no standing by the wall like a loser, then. "The other adolescents accepted him as part of their peer group?" Vera's books had warned about the psychological effects of rejection by social groups and it was worrying.

"They like him," Vera says reassuringly, exchanging an inexplicably amused look with Dean. "You should stop by later, say hi. Bet he'd love to introduce her."

"That," Dean says, nodding enthusiastically, "is a good idea. We'll do that."

It's a terrible idea--many people, confined space, Jeremy trying to make a good impression and his friends panicking on Castiel's advent won't help--but before he can articulate just how much, Joseph abruptly emerges into view, Kamal just behind him. In the harsh glare of the large outdoor lights that have been placed at regular intervals down the street and supplemented by a mismatched variety of lamps and strings of Christmas lights, both are flushed, coats unbuttoned, with a hint of drying sweat on their faces despite the early evening's just below freezing temperature.

"Whoa." Dean fills two of the cups and hands one to Joseph as he drops wearily on the bench at Dean's feet, passing the other to Kamal. "What the hell, fighting demons or toddlers?"

"Same thing," Amanda says sympathetically as Kamal hip checks Joseph over and sits down. "Hey, anyone seen Alison and Teresa?"

"Circulating and chatting up the masses. They'll be by after dinner," Joseph answers breathlessly, draining his cup in a single swallow. "Needed that," he says in relief. "My back…."

"You were breakdancing, weren't you?" Vera says mockingly, and Dean and Amanda burst into laughter, getting the attention of everyone around them. Or, he realizes, as Dean wipes his eyes and goes back to pouring, that attention is constant, and he's simply noticing it now. "Fuck, Joe, they're like, seventeen. You're forty. And a chaperone, for God's sake. Christ, Jeremy's never gonna forgive us for embarrassing him in front of all his new friends."

"And fuck you very much," Joseph answers, twisting around for a glare as well as a refill. "I took out a nest of goddamn vampires with nothing but a Bowie knife and a strong sense of righteousness; those kids got nothing."

"Oh, gotta hear this one," Dean says, patting Castiel's leg to get his attention, and he belatedly takes the offered drink, resigning himself to listening to this with a background rhythm as Dean begins to tap absently against his knee.

As Joseph starts an unlikely story of being alone in the wilderness of downtown Topeka at the very cusp of dusk, Castiel notes the attention of the tables closest to them as well as people drifting closer, some with a selection of mismatched chairs in tow while others simply settle on the asphalt or intact portions of the nearby sidewalks. Erratic bursts of laughter punctuate the description of an improbably attractive vampire (one of ten, all female of course), their leader (of unusually lavish proportions) propositioning him at the onset, and ending with a melodramatic battle punctuated by lightning and a minor earthquake.

As Joseph finishes, the round of applause and laughter almost drowns out Vera's exclaimed, "Oh you are so fucking lying--!" Dean's head drops against his shoulder, shaking to control his own laughter before straightening and taking a bracing drink.

"Hey," Amanda says with a sudden grin, "you remember when we were in training and Kamal--?"

"What? No!" Kamal says in alarm. "You promised--"

"All's fair in love and drunk confessions."

"You're not drunk," Kamal says accusingly.

"Prove it." She takes a bracing drink, she raises her voice effortlessly to accommodate the growing number of listeners. "So. Exercise our fifth week of training, and--okay, you gotta understand, Cas was like, one more person almost stabbing themselves from killing us himself to make it quick, since no way we were surviving an actual fight."

"You weren't that bad," he disagrees on cue (Amanda's stare is very effective, as is Dean's unnaturally sharp elbow). "I mean you, specifically. And Mark," he remembers when Mark looks up at him with raised eyebrows. "For the rest of you--yes, that was very true. I would have made it quick and painless. It was like a nightmare, and I had to be sober for all of it."

Vera twists around from her lean against Amanda's legs to glare up at him, but it's not as if it's untrue.

"We call it 'The Day of the Siren'," Amanda continues, grinning down at Vera before looking at Castiel expectantly. "Remember, Kamal volunteered, because you said his singing the night before had been exemplary--"

"Fuck my life," Kamal groans, slumping against Joseph's shaking shoulder. "Just, no."

"And impressively explicit as well as obscene," Castiel says, rolling the cup between his hands, aware Dean's tapping has paused again, thumb sketching absent circles on the inside of his knee. "I had no idea Nepalese folk music could be mistaken for a set of very detailed instructions on what to do, where, and for how long. I never asked: was that an offer or simply supposed to be informative?"

Dean shakes his head as Kamal groans again. "You forgot he could understand you."

"Oh yeah," Kamal tells Joseph's jacket, voice muffled. "Translated it for everyone, too. Thanks, Cas."

"It was nothing." Dean snickers, squeezing his knee and distracting Castiel's attention long enough that Amanda is well into the story of Kamal's terrible impression of a siren running bravely away from the other recruits while singing at the top of his lungs. Focusing again, Castiel's aware of the eager attention of those around them--the number of whom seem to be growing exponentially--and glances at Amanda, who is never oblivious to being surrounded, and wonders suddenly why she chose that particular story, and why Kamal's objections hadn't been entirely convincing. "….the next time," she finishes, "Cas was the siren, but he won't sing unless he's drunk, so we all hummed the refrain from Kamal's guide to oral sex."

"I hate you," Kamal says helplessly to the bursts of laughter, and grinning, Dean reaches down and pats him on the arm as Kamal retaliates with a story about Amanda's run-in with a disgruntled dryad and the very green consequences thereof.

From the corner of his eye, he sees Alicia and her team materialize in the shadows of one of the buildings to their left. None look particularly festive despite the fact this should be well after the end of their shift, and much more ominously, they are still fully and visibly armed.

Amanda follows his gaze, eyes widening, then looks at him, waiting for his nod before sliding smoothly off the table with a smile and murmured comment to Vera, who immediately begins another story, this time about Joseph and his tragic first encounter with bladed weapons. A few moment of quiet conversation, and Amanda turns around, expression telling him that this is something that needs to be handled and now.

Mark and Leah look at him, eyebrows raised, and he gives them a slight nod before turning his attention to Dean. "I'll be back in a moment." Unsurprisingly, Dean flickers a glance at Alicia's team in retreat as he takes a drink; yes, he assumed Dean saw them as well. "It shouldn't take long, but I may need something stronger when I get back."

Dean smiles pleasantly. "I can do that. Make it fast or I'll come and get you--barbecue will be done soon and dude, not to be missed."

"Hey kids," Amanda says brightly as she opens the door to the partially-repaired three story building that is serving as Chitaqua's headquarters tonight. "How's it going?"

James and Mira blink at her for a moment, James fumbling his cards face-up on the table, though it probably doesn't matter; from the pile of items on Mira's side of the table, whatever game they're playing, he's definitely going to lose. "Good?"

"Are you sure?" Amanda asks seriously, mouth twitching at James's worried expression while Mira closes her eyes, possibly in amazement at the sheer depth of earnestness that James possesses, like a well from which the water is endless. "We need HQ--go hit up Dean for vodka before we run out; he's by the dancing people. Mira, try to get him to dance; he's not bad."

Belatedly, he realizes they're looking at him for confirmation and nods. James immediately gathers the cards while Mira carefully puts her winnings away and retrieves their coats before vanishing out the door with laudable speed. As soon as they're gone, Alicia and her team come inside, Mark and Leah just behind them, and Amanda shuts and locks the door before joining Castiel.

Castiel leans back against the former poker table; he might as well be comfortable for this. "Report." A thump from overhead makes them all pause, but when it's not repeated, he focuses on Alicia again. "As I was saying."

"Kyle didn't show to relieve my team," Alicia answers, nervously folding her hands behind her back. "I sent Matt, but Kyle--"

"--said if Alicia wanted him, she could get him herself," Matt bursts out, pushing shaggy brown hair from his eyes, and immediately winces at Alicia's glare. "Sorry."

It was such a pleasant evening until now, he reflects morosely. "What about his team?"

"Not their fault." Alicia shifts her weight uncomfortably, frowning up at the ceiling at the sound of another thump, before sighing, waving at Matt. "Go ahead."

"He got in with some stoners from Andale earlier and won't leave," Matt says acidly. "That's why his team's sticking with him. He's been a dick pretty much all day and they're worried what he'll do if someone's not watching."

"Why would he…." Noting Alicia's averted eyes and faint flush, he just manages not to close his eyes in sheer disbelief. "Who's currently on patrol?"

"Manuel called up one of his teams to help," Alicia answers depressingly, because obviously, this is an excellent way to make a good impression. She tips her head toward the door before another thump jerks all their attention to the ceiling again. "Uh--do you want us take another shift?"

"No, go upstairs and disarm until your next duty shift. Also, find out what that is." As they make their way to the stairs, he turns to Mark and Leah. "Get Kyle and his team here in the next ten minutes, and provided they're still breathing, I won't be particular on how you do it."

"Got it," Leah says, turning toward the door before hesitating. "Uh, if Dean asks…."

"Don't let him see you so he can't," Castiel answers carefully and is rewarded by sighs of audible relief. "Also, find Sidney and bring him with you. I think he's with Tony and the engineers; apparently Tony and Sidney's mother share an alma mater and this is very exciting for reasons." Mark nods, exchanging a surprised look with Leah on their way to the door. As it closes behind them, he stares at Amanda's averted face. "Tell me it's not what I think it is."

"How high you were when the Kat-Kyle Deathmatch went down last year?" He winces; there weren't enough drugs in the world to block out that particularly hellish week, when he learned more about human relationships than he ever wanted to know. Hopping up on the other side of the table, she braces her hands against the unfinished surface, ignoring the thump above them. "Like that, but Alicia's not shy about using her lungs to the best of her abilities. Last night through early this morning, from what I heard, but no visible wounds on he who ran bravely away."

"How is Alicia?"

Amanda stiffens. "She's a pro, Cas. Not her fault Kyle's got issues--"

"Of course not," he interrupts impatiently. "I simply wanted to assure she wasn't upset unduly. Why didn't someone--"

"Tell you Kyle and Alicia broke up?" Amanda finishes incredulously. "Maybe because it's none of your goddamn business?"

"Yes, of course: the personal certainly has no effect on the professional, how foolish of me." Amanda blinks at him, startled, but before she can argue, he shakes his head, wondering if he should have let Dean handle this after all, even if it partially negates Castiel's entire purpose. "I have no desire to intrude on anyone's personal life, of course, but a warning would have been appreciated considering Kyle's general reaction to romantic disappointment."

"We have personal lives?" she asks wryly, blowing out a breath. "I only found out a few hours ago from Mira, who heard the entire nightmare go down next door. I didn't think about how that would play out here."

"I wouldn't have, either." Kyle's behavior isn't unknown to either of them, but that he'd feel the need to perform his tragic heartbreak here, of all places.... "Now we both know."

"You didn't notice anything this morning?" she asks. "Not like Alicia hides her feelings. Ever."

He tries to remember this morning other than in terms of sexual frustration when Joseph's maliciously rapid return of the jump drive interrupted a very satisfactory make-out session on the couch with an extremely enthusiastic Dean. It seems that Dean can easily be reconciled to early mornings provided sufficient motivation, and Castiel can easily be distracted by Dean breathing in his general vicinity.

"No." Forcing himself to think past Dean--it's becoming increasingly more difficult to even want to--he thinks about the gathering this morning of those coming to Ichabod. He was vaguely aware Alicia didn't seem enthusiastic, but he had other things (Dean) on his mind.

Kyle being punished (with what he suspects was a genuinely terrifying night in Alicia's cabin as well as the loss of Alicia's company, with permanent prejudice) is reasonable for whatever he did to upset her, true, but he can't quite reconcile the fact that he's being punished as well. He has to be the one to discipline Kyle for--of all things--being late for duty and refusing his orders to report for duty (and therefore technically avoiding 'being high while actively on duty', true, but that's no comfort at all).

"You're remembering yourself in his position, aren't you?"

Startled, he looks at Amanda. "Now I am, though granted, I abstained before and during missions," he admits, frowning at another thump followed by Andy's voice sounding--he's not sure what that is. "Which isn't in any way a standard that should be difficult to meet. And yet, here we are."

"Risa told us stories about the team leaders' meetings," she says conversationally; of course she did. He'd only be surprised if she didn't perform them for Vera and Amanda's amusement (and wishes he could have watched). "Forty-two synonyms for 'wrong' in descending order by number of syllables? She said she wasn't sure whether Dean was gonna kill you or himself."

He sighs. "It was less than that; Dean dismissed the meeting before I finished those with three syllables in English." And now he's supposed to pass judgment on Kyle for doing far less than he ever has and not be struck dead by the sheer hypocrisy of it. For not only shall you pay for your sins, he thinks resentfully, but other people's as well, and it's not as if Alicia's in any way reticent about sharing her expectations with her partners both thoroughly and at length to avoid any potential for misunderstanding. If stupidity isn't a sin, it should be.

The pensive silence (thumpless, at least) stretches to the point that he's almost relieved at the sound of Alicia and her team coming back down the stairs. Disarming is a relative term, of course; Manuel and Teresa's only restriction was the one that also held for Ichabod's teams, that no firearms or overly long bladed weapons be visible to upset civilians (so rifles and machetes were to be avoided).

Turning, he notes in approval that the only weapon visible is a knife (perfectly acceptable, since more than one person he saw on the streets today carried that much by habit), all of them having tucked their handguns into a shoulder holster that will be easily hidden by their coats. Despite recent events, a surprisingly number accepted this year's invitation, which Alison put down to being as much for the party (and food) as open curiosity regarding the people that helped Ichabod kill a thousand Croats in a single hour.

("And ten demons," Alison told him gleefully, almost bouncing in place at the kitchen table. "All with giant teeth and eight feet tall. Maybe breathing fire.")

Seeing them (or, he thinks uncomfortably, probably just him) watching, Alicia hesitates as she reaches the foot of the stairs, and he quickly looks back at the front door. From the corner of his eye, he sees Matt murmur something that makes her smile reluctantly before they cross back to him and Amanda. Andy, on the other hand, seems to be trying to hide behind Jody and looks suspiciously flushed; this being Andy, he thinks he can guess the origin of the thumping.

"Who was it?" he asks curiously.

Matt bites his lip. "Gary and Laura are having their extended reunion on the third floor now. Andy took care of it."

Castiel thankfully has no idea what on earth they're doing that could be making that much noise and rigidly controls the images that try to helpfully display themselves; why does the mind do that?

"Your sacrifice is appreciated," he tells Andy's haunted expression before focusing on Alicia. "Check in every hour with whoever is on duty here for any potential changes to the duty roster. Until your next shift, enjoy yourselves. There's barbecue, fajitas, and samosas, or so I've been told." He nods at Amanda before hopping up on the table; he might as well be comfortable for this. "Please get the door."

Looking inordinately cheerful, Amanda crosses the room and opens the door, nodding to Mark before stepping back and Mark shoves Kyle inside. Kyle's surprise is as obvious as his planned swaggering entrance is preempted by a most ungraceful stumble at the sight of Alicia. Before he can recover, Amanda efficiently strips him of his weapons, because Dean apparently took the incident with Sidney as some sort of lesson, and they should discuss this very soon.

Kyle doesn't seem to notice, however; his eyes never leave Alicia, following her progress with unnerving attention until she's escaped out the door. Finished, Amanda nods at Mark, waiting just beyond the threshold with Kyle's team and Sidney, and waits for them before closing and locking the door behind them. Joining Castiel, she leans against the edge of the table, crosses her arms, and looks at the assembled group sternly. So at least she's having fun, which makes one of them.

Standing alone in the middle of the room, Kyle visibly proceeds through several types of denial before almost reaching realization and making what looks like a deliberate effort to pretend he has no idea what's happening or why. "What's going on?"

Amanda was correct; he remembers quite well being in Kyle's position, with Dean looking at him with an expression that at the time he hadn't wanted to understand. The monologue that followed was tedious, but later--much later--what lingered was the frustration and disappointment so strong that the anger had almost been an afterthought. If that was supposed to be a lesson to be carried to the future--to this moment--he can't imagine what he's supposed to do with it or how to apply it.

He thinks: what would Dean do--I know this one; I’m disappointed, you're useless, why do you do this, what's wrong with you, why are you like this? What it lacked in originality it made up for in sincerity. It wouldn't still hurt to remember it if he hadn't known that Dean meant every word he said.

He doesn't like Kyle, and while Kyle doesn't hate him, it's only because they don't know each other well enough for the depth of feeling that would require. He trained Kyle, which means a surprising amount, but he trained Luke and the other team leaders as well, and he'd killed Luke without hesitation. Luke, however, was part of a group bent on assassination, while Kyle simply made a mistake under personal emotional duress and didn't choose his place or time very well (read: actively chose the worst possible time currently available).

To Dean, that might not have mattered; to this Dean, however, that distinction matters very much, and to his own surprise, it does to him as well.

"Kyle, you are removed from Chitaqua's patrol, effective immediately," he says, thinking of how the Dean Winchester he once served under would have handled this, how this Dean would, and finally, how he thinks he may want to. If he's wrong, it will be a useful learning experience, at least. "Christina," he says as he turns toward Kyle's former team, biting back his own amusement at her sudden jump and Henry and Rob's unconcealed apprehension, "the team is provisionally yours, as you've shown both competence and leadership skills, according to Kyle's admittedly short evaluations of his team members. After two weeks spent on local patrol, and with Dean's approval, it will be made permanent provided your performance is satisfactory."

She nods, looking startled, but he focuses on Sidney, who has--to quite literally everyone's surprise--improved immensely. Sheila's reports have been glowing, and while Sheila is generally a positive person who sees the good in all creatures (not brownies, of course), there was a short period of time when finding Sidney's body in a not necessarily empty oil barrel was a real possibility. He's also become a superlative shot with their entire arsenal, but with Jane tutoring him, he'd expect no less.

"Sidney, do you feel that you're ready to rejoin patrol?" he asks, genuinely curious. That everyone in Chitaqua can fight doesn't mean all of them necessarily have a natural inclination for it, or for the monotony of regular patrol, and under Dean, the camp's hierarchy doesn't give those on patrol a higher status than those who aren't. "Your progress with Jane and several other members of Chitaqua on the training field has been exemplary, and the team leaders who had you as a substitute for their regular members have spoken well of your performance. This is an open offer; if you don't wish to do so now, more teams will be created as our numbers increases, and experienced members will be needed then as well."

To his credit, Sidney considers it, possibly remembering a certain bridge and his failure then, and whether he wants to risk failure again this soon. "Yes," he says finally, looking surprised (at the offer, at himself, at how on earth this could possibly be happening at a party in Ichabod; yes, he knows the feeling). "I am."

"I'm appointing you to Christina's team tonight with the same restrictions: provided your performance is satisfactory after two weeks on local, the assignment is permanent. Christina, your duties begin tonight; please report to Manuel after you leave here. Afterward, check the schedule regularly for your duty shifts while in Ichabod in case there are further chnages." Christina and Sidney nod in unison. "You're dismissed."

"You can't do that," Kyle says belligerently, and in his peripheral vision, he sees Sidney wince, pained, as Christina and her team hurry out. "I want to talk to Dean."

"You can't seriously think this would go better if he was here," Castiel tells him blankly. Kyle's expression tells him that somewhere in the sane part of his mind, he actually knows that. "What did you think was going to happen? Dean's rules for those attending the celebration were extremely specific and almost mind-numbingly thorough. We need this agreement with the communities, and any deviation that could damage our relationship with them--I don't actually know what he'll do, and it's better for all of us that we don't find out. Especially you. Though I have to live with him, so my concern here is also personal."

"Like you never fucked off," Kyle mutters, and he has to give him points for courage, or at least obtuseness in the face of disaster. "What's the difference?"

"I've also participated in the wholesale destruction of entire countries, several major extinction events, and multiple acts of genocide both global and species-specific, including yours," he retorts and has the satisfaction of watching Kyle jerk in horror, though the sound Amanda makes seems suspiciously similar to a giggle. "What does that have to do with anything? I'll still look upon anyone engaging in serial murder on earth with great disapproval and act according to the tenets of justice and yet--somehow--reconcile the dissonance with very little effort. You joined Chitaqua of your own free will and remain by your own choice; it's not as if this is the first time anyone has mentioned the rights and responsibilities of continued membership. If it is, then the question must be asked: do you want to leave?"

Kyle stares at him; it's not a rhetorical question. "What? No! I--"

"Then like everyone else in Chitaqua, when you disobey your orders, you will be subject to discipline consummate with your offense." He leans back and crosses his arms, keeping his expression impassive no matter what utterly inappropriate (and thankfully nearly inaudible for human ears) noises that Amanda makes. "Your decision of course; I'll wait."

Not surprisingly, it doesn't take very long.

"So what's my assignment now?" Kyle asks dejectedly, swallowing hard before adding, "Shit duty with Cyn?"

The look on his face suggests wild dogs ripping him apart would be preferable, which is understandable. Cynthia's begun to consider everyone, even former friends and team members, enemies to be vanquished by the strength of her tongue and blandly inedible meals. The most recent incident--an argument with Brenda two days ago--unfortunately (for Cynthia) occurred when Dean was in the mess getting more sugar and led to a private discussion of some length between Dean and Cynthia in the new walk-in refrigerator.

Though the exact nature of the conversation is something of a question (the doors were depressingly thick, though Brenda did try), it resulted in Dean restricting Cynthia to her cabin when not on duty in waste maintenance under Dane's watchful (and unforgiving) eye with a surprisingly large supply of shovels for her personal use and no discernible improvement in her general mood.

(As an example of the complexity of human social structures in an isolated group, it was both unsettling in scope and rapid in progress. Cynthia's restriction (very unsurprisingly) led to a request from Jane to move in with Kim (granted), causing Kat and Andy's cohabitation dreams to be put on hold for cabin availability (very unhappy, loudly), which in itself would have been bad enough, but no. Sidney (along with Brian) were offended on their romantic partners' behalf (nearly as loudly), Alicia and Amber were offended on their roommate's (Brenda) behalf (very loudly indeed), and it continued from there like a virus composed of ill-will and spread by word of mouth that as of this morning infected almost everyone in the camp.

All due, he reflects incredulously, to an argument between two people over chicken (with or without peas) in the mess.)

He could have wanted Kyle dead and still not hated him that much.

"You violated the standard set for our behavior in Ichabod, and it seems fair to station you here in recompense. I'm assigning you to Amanda to help with her students and Kamal to help Ichabod's residents with the duties that losing twenty of their number have made difficult to fulfill in town. Amanda and Kamal's evaluation of your performance will be a deciding factor in whether you return to the patrol teams at all, much less as a team leader. Considering you were unexpectedly good at it, I'd prefer you assure they're satisfied. With the new recruits, we will need experienced patrol members as well as leaders, and you are both."

Looking surprised (and very relieved), Kyle nods.

"Dean will doubtless wish to speak to you tomorrow himself, so report to me no later than ten tomorrow morning so he has time for coffee and to think of what he'd like to tell you." Kyle's face drains of color, as if he belatedly realizes just how much worse this could have been (and for that matter, will be tomorrow morning). "I'll inform Robert to check with you before he returns to Chitaqua to pack whatever you need for your residency here and have it brought to you."

"Yes, sir," Kyle answers, unprompted, and looks vaguely horrified by the honorific. "Is there anything else?"

"Yes, there is. Mark, Leah," Castiel says, "please tell Dean I'll be along shortly. You may go."

He waits until the door is shut before looking at Kyle again, taking in the perfectly normal pupils and utter lack of swaying. "Please tell me you didn't do this to get Alicia's attention."

Kyle stills, eyes widening; yes, that's what he thought.

"I'd far prefer to think you exercised terrible judgment than deliberately ignored your duties tonight. The first is stupid but understandable; emotional distress can make people do foolish things, and combining that with alcohol and drugs can lead to poor decision making. The second, however, would display not only a very questionable taste for manipulation, but a deliberate choice to prioritize your personal life over your duty to the detriment of both."

Unsurprisingly, Kyle doesn't answer.

"I won't ask for details of what occurred last night or if anything occurred at all; that's a personal matter. However, if something did, and if you received a request from anyone that they be left alone, you should respect that request. Unfortunately, I lack confidence in your understanding of appropriate behavior."

Unfortunately, Kyle's expression confirms that lack of confidence is justified.

"The personal lives of Chitaqua's members don't interest me--other than for the entertainment value, of course--until and unless they intersect with their duties or established acceptable rules of behavior," he continues. "That Jane didn't file a formal complaint regarding your behavior after your separation doesn't mean it was generally acceptable. Chitaqua is small, there aren't that many places to go, and Jane didn't care; at this time, two of those things are most definitely not true. Ichabod is much larger, and there are many places for you to go."

"Cas--" Kyle starts, jaw set in misguided determination.

"Dean's rules regarding our behavior in Ichabod include the inadvisability of any of our members engaging in an altercation with each other, especially an altercation caused by one member reacting impulsively to being followed by another member despite her very clear request, if such a request was made," he says, watching Kyle's face for some indication he's paying attention or if he's being too subtle. "All participants will be disciplined, of course, but yours will be a second offense tonight. I don't know what discipline is required for a second offense--since first I'll have to make it up--but it will definitely include permanent exclusion from both regular patrol and watch as well as utter misery for the offending party for as long as it amuses me to watch their suffering. Please keep that in mind this evening." He nods toward the door. "Enjoy the party and I'll see you at ten at Alison's. You're dismissed."

There's a fraught moment where it looks as if Kyle might argue, but he nods shortly, stalking (much more soberly, at least) toward the door and not quite slamming it shut behind him.

"So," Amanda starts in the too-brief silence.

"Unofficially, tell Alicia we don't have any other people fit to be team leaders to replace her, so please make a formal complaint instead of beating Kyle to death if she sees him, yes," he agrees, closing his eyes. "As soon as possible, as I don't know how much of that Kyle actually understood and I have to be non-partisan and objective in meting discipline because justice is supposed to be blind, whatever that means."

"He understood," she says reassuringly. "In this case, ego's gonna win; he won't fuck up his only shot at getting back on patrol."

He glances at her curiously. "As current commander of our members stationed in Ichabod--"

"We need a better name."

"Think of one, then." He frowns at the closed door. "It's very strange to be the one to mete out discipline to others rather than endure it."

"You mean from Dean?"

"And the Host," he says, raising his eyebrows at her expression. "Rebellion wasn't my first or last offense, just the most dramatic. So how did I do tonight?"

"Seven, eight out of ten." She raises a hand in a see-saw gesture. "The speech was great, lots of food for guilt, which he's pretty susceptible to, believe it or not. You do good disappointment but hope for future improvement." She slants him an amused look. "Really familiar, now that I think about it. Not that my ass got called on the carpet like yours did to listen to Dean's version."

"In the Host, disobedience was punished with either re-education or immediate execution, generally the latter." Amanda's eyes widen. "They were amateurs compared to Dean, who would indulge in excessively long and extremely uncomfortable lectures that required a larger than usual amount of alcohol to dull. Not that it worked," either the dulling or the lectures, true, "but I remember which parts would considerably raise the risk of alcohol poisoning."

"Dean didn't bother with a speech with most of us," she says casually, glancing at her boots. "We fuck up, he skipped the sermon and went straight to the sacrifice." Shrugging, she eases up on the table beside him. "He's not like Luke or the other team leaders. Kyle, I mean. He's a dick, but not that kind of a dick." At his surprise, she makes a face. "I learned fast what to look for, believe me."

He supposes she did at that.

"When Risa took over Luke's team, she came to me and assured me that if I became aware of anything untoward before she did, she'd be insulted if I didn't solicit her assistance to remove all of the team leaders this time, and promised to return the favor. I wasn't even high at the time, and it's still the most surreal conversation I can ever remember having. She loathed me, but wouldn't leave until I had agreed."

"She didn't loathe you," Amanda protests, laughter in her voice. "She just hated your drug use, rampant alcoholism, promiscuity, hostility toward anyone in your line of sight, and your groupies waking everyone up during that death metal phase you went through."

"And my behavior toward Dean."

"Didn't help, at least on the days she didn't want to strangle him herself," Amanda agrees. "I moved in with her a couple of months after I got here, and she was the one that talked Vera into living with us." Legs swinging, she glances at the ceiling idly. "You got points for helping Vera out, you know. She didn't expect that, and it's pretty much why she went to talk to you when Dean asked her to take Luke's team."

Castiel glares at her profile. "I don't even need to ask who told her there was something to tell me."

Amanda rolls her eyes. "Like I was saying, good call with Kyle. He's good at his job--surprised all of us, trust me--and he's not completely stupid. He gets this is a reprieve because we don't have the numbers to afford to lose him; what he doesn't get is he's gonna pay out the ass for the privilege of being almost indispensable. Which is my job now." She smiles brightly, not without malice, then slides off the table. "Ready to get back before Dean comes after us? If we're lucky, dinner might be ready soon and distract him from asking for details."

He nods, following her to the door. As she opens it, he considers that conversation with Vera again. "Did I ever mention the first time I ever attempted to train a hunter?"

"No," she answers, throwing him a curious look as she shoves her hands into her pockets. "Before Chitaqua, you mean?"

"Amieyl's first weapon was a shepherd's crook."

"Whoa. So we're talking a while back." As they fall into step on their way down the street, she says, "Actually, thinking about it, that could do a lot of damage in the right hands."

"It could," he agrees. "If I'd been human the first time we met, it would have hurt a great deal."

Amanda lets out a startled peal of laughter, blue eyes dancing as she deliberately slows her pace, hopeful. "What happened after that?"

"It got better," he tells her, slowing his as well as he measures the distance to their table. "Eventually."

Despite not being hungry, the battle regarding meals was won a very long time ago, and Castiel doesn't argue being given a plate with a variety of substances to sample, some identifiable (barbecue, beef enchiladas, chicken curry, samosas), some new but not unpleasant (potato salad, lemon rice), some interesting (a spicy vegan dish made with rice and a multitude of vegetables that Sudha, Deepika, and Kishore prepared) and some--

"Are you sure this is food?"

"It's not that bad," Amanda says unconvincingly after sampling a very, very tiny portion. Castiel pokes warily at the quivering mound on his plate, staring in fascination at the chucks of unidentifiable substances trapped within like helpless geometrically shaped insects in amorphous lime-green amber.

"She's lying, it's that bad," Dean says, eyebrows raised in horrified curiosity when the quivering continues beyond anything nature should permit. "Jell-O salad, that's a thing? What the hell, is this is a fifties sitcom? This happens in real life?"

"I didn't know that, either," she answers, poking it again. "On TV, everyone always ate together, and everything looked really good and they seemed to like eating it."

"Probably fucking plastic shit," Dean tells her bitterly, looking like maybe he wants to stab it on principle but the unceasing motion is too disturbing to risk at this moment. "Okay, one, television lied--Jesus, do people really have ham at Christmas?"

"Don't go there," she warns. "Next year, Chitaqua's Insert Winter Holiday party's gonna have mistletoe, by the way. I've heard good thing about it."

"Like you don't get lucky pretty much always," Dean responds as he spears a large chunk of meat from his plate. "What's coming up next, holiday-wise?" he asks through a mouthful of barbecue, and Castiel wonders how on earth he can fit that much in his mouth and still chew.

Screwing up her face, she thinks. "Easter…."

"Valentine's Day," Vera interrupts brightly, looking up from her almost empty plate to smile maliciously at Dean. "As the only normal person in this group--"

Dean smiles at her, all teeth.

"--who had a normal childhood," she finishes, ignoring him, "traditionally, you're required to give someone chocolate and in return, they have to have sex with you. Television lied," she assures them sincerely. "That's really how normal people live."

"You're so full of shit," Amanda says, but there's an uncertain look on her face, like perhaps she also watched a great deal of the Lifetime Channel and remembers that as a feature of the culmination of several unnecessarily complicated relationships. He wonders if pornography is considered similar enough to real life to qualify as well; that was the plotline of at least two that he remembers, with chocolate paint and strawberry lube, which on consideration seems rather festive. "No way."

"She's lying," Dean assures her, taking a bite of shell-shaped pasta covered in an off-white substance and sprinkled with an inadequate amount of finely chopped vegetables, untyped. "She's just mixing up real life with the parties Cas used to have."

Castiel tears his attention from the intimidating mound of meat he's supposed to consume. "You were never there for those."

"Yeah, which is why I asked around," he says, scraping up the last of the potato salad and searching his empty plate discontentedly as if for a miraculous return of all the food. "It's not gossip if I do it. It's called keeping up with the news. Like a history book that talks and knows you control their lives."

"Our fearless leader," Vera says, raising her cup. "All hail Dean."

"He wants to conquer Kansas for cocoa," Castiel tells her.

"I'll throw whoever you want against the wall when the revolution comes for some of that," Amanda offers hopefully. "Wanna start tonight?"

Dean taps his fork against the edge of his plate. "Maybe later," he decides, then points his fork at Castiel's half-completed barbecue. "Eat."

Aware his reprieve has ended, he applies himself to methodically finishing his meal. He supposes this is revenge for how often Castiel made Dean finished his meals, though he was doing it to assure Dean wasn't at risk of starvation, while Dean seems to be doing it for the sheer pleasure of it. Dean watches him until he's finished--thankfully allowing the green quivering substance to remain, horrific and nightmare-inducing in its very existence--before sitting back with a satisfied sigh and finishing off his cup of Joe Beer.

For lack of anything else to do, Castiel sets his plate aside; it's still hours until midnight and while the earlier energy has diminished slightly for the consumption of food, he supposes this could be considered a refueling session. The number of people has increased dramatically, now almost reaching the end of the street in various clusters, and all the publicly accessible buildings are showing almost constant activity, people coming and going almost at random. He wonders what they're doing in there (sex, possibly, but surely other activities as well?).

Amanda looks around the crowded street. "Any idea on numbers here tonight?"

"No idea, but safe bet a lot," Dean answers, leaning an elbow on his knee. "Joe got the official population of Alliance towns at about eight thousand people, but could be as many as twenty thousand in this area. Manuel thinks about two or three thousand are here tonight so far, which considering Ichabod's about a thousand itself, not too shabby for a big party."

"Christ," Vera murmurs.

"Most of the ones in the Alliance who trained with us are here," Amanda offers. "Stopped by to say hi, met their families, their grannies, and their babies." Dean raises his eyebrows. "Fine, I made sure I was really visible when people started showing up. What? Some of them I want for Chitaqua. Gotta keep the lines of communication open."

"You wanted to see how they were doing and catch up with them," Dean tells her, smirking at her scowl. "And hang out at the afterparty. Poker or craps?"

"Poker at Dina's," she admits reluctantly. "Like girls night at the camp, but I haven't slept with any of them. Well, except Laylah, but she brought her girlfriend Katrina, so…."

"Is it some kind of superpower, you can track down and nail every bi and lesbian woman in any given space?" he demands, reaching back for one of their remaining bottles and pouring himself and Amanda a drink. "It's like--"

"Awesome after exactly seven people for over two goddamn years," she answers, taking a drink. "Seven people, Dean. And two of them were drunk-or-post-fight-only, which is fine, I do my part for morale and convincing them flexibility is a virtue, and trust me, I can be very convincing." Vera looks up at Amanda with narrowed eyes as she continues obliviously, "Also works on the didn't even know they were curious, in case you wanted to go cry for a while somewhere, I don't judge. Though God knows not like you're suffering." She leans back slightly to subject Castiel to an alarmingly slow once-over, frowning. "Just curious: female vessel this time around, why not?"

"What," Dean says clearly, "are you doing?"

"Heavily implying I'd be banging your boyfriend until one of us passed out if he'd been a woman," Amanda answers, looking at Dean with wide eyes. "Why?"

Dean stares at wordlessly, unaware Vera is subjecting Amanda to the same look.

"Under the circumstances, I really don't think you got anything to complain about. Stories," she explains, smiling at Castiel. "Gotta admit, I was getting worried at the sudden monogamy and clean living before Dean let us start visiting other people. You were pretty much the best source of gossip for years, and I mean, not like there was much else to do when we weren't fighting but sex or training, and training was already getting a little sketchy on slow days. Only you and Alicia thought combining those two things was a good idea. How'd that work anyway? You flipped a coin for who topped?"

Beside him, he can feel Dean shaking with the effort not to laugh, muttering something that sounds suspiciously like "Craps, actually."

"I didn't realize I provided such a useful source of entertainment."

"Now you know," Amanda says, taking another drink. "It was like a weird sex Wikipedia or something. The thing with the Bacchanals…."

"The what?" Dean exclaims far, far too enthusiastically. "How do you even do that without summoning Bacchus anyway? I thought there had to be--"

"Eldritch Horror, red wine, and half a hit of LSD," Amanda answers to his growing horror. "Wait, let me start at the beginning. There was this cult we ran across on the northern Kansas border trying to summon--"

"Alison," Castiel says in relief at the advent of Alison and Teresa, accompanied by Manuel and Mercedes, all of whom look surprised at his enthusiastic welcome. "It's wonderful to see you and I do mean that."

"We'll pick this up later," Dean promises Amanda quietly before turning his attention to the group, but for some reason, his smile flickers, green eyes narrowing dangerously. "Alison, get off your feet or Vera's gonna pick you up and carry you over here. You just got that goddamn cast off."

"I really will," Vera agrees, frowning critically at Alison's limp. "I told you minimal walking and the boots would be enough if you were careful while your ankle finishes healing. You wanna go to bed now? You know Dolores will back me up like, yesterday. We're tight."

Making a face, Alison sits down on the bench with visible relief, motioning Teresa to join Dean on the table, but not quite casually enough. Castiel watches thoughtfully as Manuel and then Mercedes join her, aware of the tension surrounding them. As Vera and Amanda engage Alison in conversation, he takes a sip of his drink and wonders why Manuel seems to be in a state resembling the moments before an unexpected attack.

"Too bad about the ankle," Dean is saying to Alison. "Can't even dance with your girlfriend. Lucky for you," he adds, putting his cup down, "I'm here for you." Turning to a visible startled Teresa, he asks with exaggerated courtesy, "Can I have this dance?"

"You can dance?" Teresa asks, looking even more startled. "Really?"

"Two weeks I was a ballroom dance instructor in Peoria," he assures her, which makes her blink warily as he nudges Mark out of the way and climbs down, extending a hand. "Ask Amanda. I can totally dance."

"You can headbang," she agrees as the current song ends, replaced by something slower that seems to require everyone to have a partner. "Can't be worse than that."

Visibly wary, Teresa takes Dean's hand, letting him lead her toward the current dancers, and with surprising ease the surrounding crowd parts for them. Craning his neck, he watches Dean lean closer to Teresa to murmur something before they move into the required form to begin.

"Jesus," Vera says, up on her knees, using one hand to balance herself on Amanda's thigh, "he actually knows how to dance." Looking mutinous, she glares at Amanda. "Fine, I'll make you brownies. Happy?"

"I did say he could headbang," Amanda answers serenely.

Scowl deepening, Vera turns her attention to Alison, whose hand is white-knuckled around her empty cup, and looks at Amanda. "Hey, we got any of that wine left?"

"Sure do," she answers immediately, leaning back to grab it. As Vera fills Alison's cup, murmuring something that results in Alison smiling tightly, he turns to see both Manuel and Mercedes watching the dancers as well with similar expressions and wonders if it would be politic to tell them that Dean, given someone to protect, doesn't need an army to be successful doing it. Certainly not in a crowd of civilians. "So--"

"James," Vera says suddenly, looking at the table next to them, where James, Mira, Nate, and Kamal are seated with several of Ichabod's residents. "Wanna dance?"

"Sure," he agrees in surprise, almost stumbling to his feet (which makes Mira hide a grin) and following her to the crowd, where Castiel notes in approval they take a position far enough from Dean that he doesn't notice them while still keeping him and Teresa in sight.

Amanda's elbow bumps his just as Mira manages to herd Nate toward the dancers while Kamal and Anthi snicker quietly over their cups. "Any way you can find out if this is pre-emptive or something definite?" she murmurs, jerking her chin at the back of Alison's head.

He spares her an incredulous look--subtlety is not his forte--but to his relief, Alison doesn't pretend she didn't hear them. "Just talk," she says very quietly, turning sideways on the bench with a sigh. "Teresa usually meets with the Alliance mayors and the ones who lead the field workers and they're fine with her, but the others--some of them are just curious, I guess, and with the all the new people around…it's just people wondering things, that's all." She looks at Castiel with a faint smile. "Mood says 'weirded out but not hostile'. I think."

As Dean turns Teresa in a tight circle, laughing, Castiel finds himself scanning the other dancers, the crowd, aware of the number and wondering how many are simply watching people dance and how many are watching Teresa and don't see the human she is, no different than they are, but the power she holds and what she might do with it. Even if all she's done with it is help.

"A member of Chitaqua is always available to watch Dean when I'm not with him," he tells Alison, hoping desperately that Dean never discovers that particular order exists. "If you and Manuel have no objections, it can be extended to Teresa for the remainder of the celebration."

Alison looks conflicted, though the 'yes, definitely' is obvious. "You don't have to--"

"We'd be doing the same to Cas," Amanda says with a grin, "but he's usually around Dean, so two birds and all. Would love to see anyone try to take him on, though. Once, an asshole assigned to the unit in Topeka thought jumping him would work with the element of surprise when we were called in to help out. He was very surprised on the ground with Cas looking at him in disappointment in like, one second. Hilarity."

Alison hesitates, but after exchanging a glance with Manuel nods agreement.

"I'll get James and Mira to pass the word when they get back," Amanda tells him before her eyes drifting back to the dancers as the music changes, mouth curving. "Huh."

Following her gaze, he sees Dean gesturing, and Teresa's shoulders slump in obvious defeat, one hand on his hip moving him so they exchange positions and raising her arm. Listening carefully, Castiel identifies the change in tempo to a waltz.

"I wish I'd brought Chuck's camera," Vera breathes as she and James return, taking Amanda's cup as they watch Teresa determinedly guide Dean into something not unlike a waltz performed by the very drunk (and with more legs than come standard, all left). "I would kill for a recording of this. Not that I'd be doing any better," she adds, finishing the cup. "Which is why I'm not out there."

"I can waltz," Amanda says abruptly, and then looks at her cupless hand regretfully. "Just--throwing that out there. No reason."

Vera looks at Amanda, head tilted curiously, and Castiel sips from his drink, filing this away as an example of human courtship rituals that television didn't lie about.

"And I could teach you," Amanda adds, sliding to the ground and nearly imitating James's earlier stumble in the process. "It's like--uh…."

"Master knife dance," he says encouragingly. "Alicia told me. Just slower, and with less blades and bodily harm."

"Right." Vera stands up warily. "Uh--"

"No, no dropkicking," Amanda says reassuringly, giving Castiel a glare before reaching for Vera's hand and pulling her toward the dancers. "No punching either, it's fine."

Castiel turns his attention back to Dean just as he stumbles and Teresa visibly gathers her patience to try again. "The poltergeist was exorcised before they began the waltz portion," he explains at Alison's wince before easing down from the table to the bench beside her. "How has your evening been thus far?"

Alison smirks at him over the rim of her cup. "Small talk?"

"In this case, combined with genuine interest in your answer."

"Not bad." She takes a drink, frowning thoughtfully. "I wondered how many would show after the recent attack, but human lesson: as pens are to swords, gossip based curiosity is to fear."

"Ten eight foot demons breathing fire leading a Croat army of thousands."

"And those that defeated them." She shakes her head. "Alliance would do the minimum for solidarity, and we usually get a few locals, but…."

"More than that." He nods, taking a drink as he looks up the crowded street. "I was wondering."

"Doesn't hurt to have part of the reason for that here live and in person," she says, smiling faintly. "As well as working patrol with us. Talked to three local mayors so far, definitely some interest in expanding our relationships with each other, being neighbors." Her smile widens. "Especially with our militia neighbor."

He expected as much. "They want to meet Dean."

"Oh yeah." She takes another drink. "I explained this is a party and we don't mix business with pleasure, but all voting members of the Alliance will be meeting after the new year and they're welcome to attend as our guests."

"Joseph spoke to you of his concerns regarding our status."

"I didn't need Joe to tell me that Chitaqua's services-to-the-highest-bidder would be first thought," she answers. "And I don't want anyone who thinks that's ever going to be on the table. Having you and Dean there will hopefully make that clear and filter out the idiots. Which happily," she adds, "the three I talked to weren't, and were very interested in what the Alliance might have to offer other than partnership with a militia who kills thousands of Croats in minutes and maybe a dragon. Though yeah, that helped."

Castiel starts to explain that currently the dragon population is far too low in Kansas to be any kind of threat when Manuel makes a pained sound. Following his gaze, he sees Dean looking extremely apologetic at a downward angle and Teresa covering her face. "How many--"

"Two couples," Mercedes says, pulling Manuel off the bench as Teresa drops her hands to stare at Dean in a way that suggests disarming her might be necessary very soon. Though how you disarm someone whose weapon is the earth itself is something of a question. "We'll try to keep Dean in one piece."

"Please do," he answers as Dean narrowly misses disaster with a second couple and Teresa, even at this distance, begins to project a sense of imminent homicide while Amanda guides Vera through a simple box step. "If at all possible."

One of the town's council comes to retrieve Alison and Teresa near the end of a deeply sentimental country song (involving infidelity and pick-up trucks, as most seem to do). A skinny greyish man, whose jerky hand gestures threaten anyone within a foot radius of him, indicated that imminent disaster was on the horizon, but Alison's resigned expression seems to imply that he was the type who became easily agitated, finishing her drink before carefully getting to her feet.

"Meeting at eight?" she asks Dean, who nods agreement as they leave, the scowl flickering into satisfaction at the sight of Leah casually following them at a discreet distance.

"Teresa said Alison was just tense," he says as Castiel fills his cup again. "Never really had this kind of crowd here before." As he drinks, he scans the crowd, and Castiel's aware that Dean's tapping has almost entirely ceased, hand resting comfortably on his knee without any sign of departure. "So how's it going with everyone anyway?"

"Friendly," Amanda states, still flushed from the waltz lesson with Vera (who gives him a warning look despite the fact he had no intention on commenting on such an surprising gap in her education). "Everything's fine, Dean. No problems."

"Except Kyle," he says pleasantly, eyes drifting to Castiel meaningfully. "Which still haven't heard much about, but later's fine." That this is a temporary reprieve he's aware, yes. "I wonder if the cake's out yet."

"There's cake?" Amanda says in interest, peering around as if expecting it to materialize on request. "Where'd you hear that?"

"Around," he answers vaguely, thumb now brushing absent arcs against the side of Castiel's knee. "We should check that out. Maybe see what else is going on. Cas?"

"Cake?" Dean squeezes his knee (hard), adding an incredulous stare. Oh. "Cake. Yes, of course." Aware of Vera and Amanda watching them in unconcealed amusement, he manages to follow Dean the easy two steps to the ground by sheer luck (and excellent reflexes). "I do like sugar."

As they make their way up the street, Dean's presence begins to elicit noticeable attention, voices dropping off and replaced by sudden whispers, a few pausing in surprise, which leads to others trying to find out what is slowing progress or push past them. While Dean scans the street for an opening, Castiel fights down growing apprehension at the sheer number of people around them.

A sudden surge in the crowd pushes one man toward him, and the compression of the people around them makes it impossible to dodge. Catching himself, the man looks up at Castiel, mouth opening for an apology before the brown eyes widen as shock replaces embarrassment. Jerking back, the man almost stumbles over his own feet, but the horrified gaze never falters, as if he's looking at something--some thing, that--

"What," the man starts, backing into another group, who turn to look at him in annoyance before following his gaze, and Castiel can feel their attention focus on him with an almost audible click. Looking around, he tries to find an opening in the press of people, but there's only more faces; expressions curious, thoughtful, annoyed, wondering what's happening, but as at Alison's first dinner party, it won't stay that way for long, not when they find the source.

Abruptly, a hand closes tightly over his arm just as Dean's shoulder presses against his, green eyes taking in the people around them with an unreadable expression.

"Let's get out of here." Reaching back, Dean takes his hand, lacing their fingers together firmly before pulling him to the right. "Time to improvise."

Before he can ask what that means--or at least to verify what the improvisation includes--Dean maneuvers them between two startled groups and onto the remains of the shattered sidewalk. Ducking behind a neat pile of rubble left from recent repairs and stacks of new bricks, they emerge into an empty alley, snugged between a building marked in blue paint as stable but in need of minor repairs and another marked in white as safe.

Leaning back against the brick of the white-marked building, Dean glances toward the empty mouth of the alley with an expression he can't quite interpret before looking at him and belatedly letting go of his hand. Castiel closes his empty hands carefully to try and keep the fading warmth a little longer. "You okay?"

"Other than disappointment due to the lack of baked goods?" he asks lightly, turning to examine the alley, the exit to Second Street sealed shut with a concrete wall, built early on to help defend the occupied streets. "Very much so."


"I almost miss humanity advancing beyond creating fortresses," he continues. "This was much easier when most urban centers were planned in advance to provide protection as well as habitation."

When he looks back at Dean, he finds himself the subject of intense scrutiny before he seems to make a decision, eyes flickering to the concrete wall and narrowing thoughtfully. "Infinite knowledge?"

"Actually, observation," he answers. "For most of my existence, I was part of a garrison and my purpose was to protect humanity; knowing both the theory as well as the practical methods humans used to defend themselves and their communities was part of that." He shrugs at Dean's faint smile. "It was interesting."

"I'll take your word for it." Dean glances at the mouth of the alley warily, the lights strung between the buildings and across the street as well as in stationary positions illuminating the passing groups on the other side of the rubble and brick, and retreats a little further into the shadows. "Dude, get over here before someone sees you."

"It's a party," he observes as he joins Dean, leaning a shoulder against the building and ignoring Dean's narrowed eyes. "Parties, from my understanding, generally involve interacting with others and are considered fun."

"Maybe I want a little peace and quiet, too," Dean argues, pushing off the building. "Variety and everything. By the way, what were you and Alison doing this afternoon?"

"I was reviewing her in--" Turning, he goes still when Dean takes a step toward him, suddenly, vividly aware of the brick wall against his back. "--things. That thing. That she does."

Dean nods as he takes another step closer, eyes fixing on his mouth. "You two were acting pretty sketchy when I showed up."

"Sketchy? I…." He forgets what he was saying as Dean braces a hand on the wall by his head. He'd idly wondered for years why Dean could find new partners so effortlessly, despite his reputation in the camp; inconstancy ignored and infidelity forgiven, doubts banished, common sense willingly discarded. The gulf between what humans say and do has always been vast, the contradiction baffling, but never more here. Love is ineffable, beyond comprehension of any except (perhaps) his Father, and Castiel loved Dean, but that never blinded him to the man Dean was or the exact measure of his value to him. "You're very attractive, and it's distracting."

The pale cheeks flush with hot color, smile almost hidden by the duck of his head, and Castiel swallows, palms pressed to the cold brick to stop himself from reaching out to touch him, track the heat with his fingers and then lips. "Jesus, Cas."

"You asked me once about my pick-up lines," he says breathlessly as Dean looks up, flushed and smiling--a private smile, meant for him alone--and it's no mystery at all now why Dean's partners would do anything to keep him. Every ridiculous, baffling action taken now makes sense; so does, he realizes with a sinking feeling, a great number of terrible sitcoms and movies, and very possibly two-thirds of the Lifetime channel. If he's not very careful, it's possible he'll start to find a great deal of abysmal poetry meaningful and relevant to his life. "I thought perhaps that was a hint to create some."

Glancing away, he stares resentfully at the tangle of hair that will not stay out of his face; missing scissors, whatever, it's not as if he doesn't own a plethora of knives. Annoyed, he starts to push it away. "I need to cut--"

Reaching out, Dean pushes his hand away, threading his fingers through the offending strands and tucking them behind his ear with an intent expression, as if there's nothing at this moment more important to do.

"Don't." Satisfied, Dean's fingers trail down his cheek, thumb following the line of faint stubble, running the pad against the grain, and Castiel remembers--for no reason whatsoever--that he forgot to shave again today, a new habit picked up for reasons (Dean) a few days ago. "It's a good look for you."

"Is it?" he asks vaguely as Dean's thumb traces the sensitive skin below his lower lip, tipping his head up at the suggestion of pressure, and has a glimpse of Dean's pleased grin before Dean kisses him.

It's no more than a steady, warm pressure, but when Dean pulls back, it takes in several long moments to breathe. Licking the lingering taste of him from his lips, he earns another kiss, longer, Dean's hand sliding to cushion his head from the cold brick. An appalled corner of his mind informs him that he's being very expertly seduced, and far worse, it's working very well.

"Been waiting for this all day," Dean murmurs, breath puffing against his chin as Dean presses a kiss just below the lower curve of his lip. "Can't get you to myself for a goddamn minute this last week. Except when we're too tired to do much."

Castiel starts to remind him they've had many, many minutes, but Dean's mouth skimming along the line of his jaw makes talking difficult. Now that he's mentioned it, however-- "We have had many visitors the last few days."

Dean snickers against his cheek before resting his forehead against Castiel's. "You just noticed?"

"I…" Removing the patina of Dean's presence from his memories (one that overwhelms any and all activities), he examines the last few days and wonders exactly how worried he should be that until now, he didn't notice the pattern. "Fifteen minutes."

"It felt like five," Dean complains, closing the last of the space between them. "Every goddamn time we were alone in the cabin." Chuckling softly, he brushes another kiss, achingly light, against his temple before meeting his eyes. "Fuck Joe, they're doing this on purpose and he's coordinating 'em. Revenge for that goddamn shirt."

There's really no other explanation for how often they abruptly have camp members showing up with important questions or in need of help whenever they're alone for more than a quarter of an hour. Four endless days of that has gone from the universe hating him (as if he needed proof) to sick irony to a strategic punishment for airborne shirts in the middle of the night. Their nights are uninterrupted, of course, but an extraordinarily busy day means Dean's far more tired than he will admit, and the recent nightmares are helping not at all.

He leans into the next lazy kiss, close-mouthed and gentle, trying not to follow when Dean pulls away again. "We used the time well."

"Had to hurry," Dean answers, sounding annoyed, and Castiel starts to ask for clarification when Dean cuts off both the first indrawn breath and the entire train of thought with another kiss, tongue brushing a stripe of heat against the seam of his lips, coaxing them open with a pleased sound that turns into something darker when Castiel tangles a hand in his hair to pull him closer.

Distantly, he's aware of Dean unzipping their coats, but the first brush of chill air is almost immediately replaced by the warmth of his body, palm curving over his hip and waist before sliding around his back and under his sweater to settle against the small of his back, only the thin barriers of a thermal shirt and t-shirt between the warm pressure of Dean's fingers and his skin.

The world narrows to the feel of Dean's mouth sliding over his jaw, the rough scratch of bare stubble that Dean seems to find fascinating, licking against the grain and smiling when Castiel's breath catches. Tipping Castiel's head back further, he mouths along his jaw before his lips settle below his ear, tongue warming the cool skin and making Castiel shiver. Mouthing his way back to his lips, Dean coaxes Castiel's tongue into his mouth, catching the tip sharply between his teeth before sucking it, slow and luxurious, as if they have all the time in the world, and if he could, Castiel would stop it altogether if it meant that Dean wouldn't ever have to.

Abruptly, Dean's head snaps up and toward the mouth of the alley; a moment later, Castiel hears a voice--he's almost sure that's Sean's--calling Dean's name. And far more horrifyingly, he's closer with each repetition.

"How the fuck--"

"They must have established a system giving each team a given area of territory on Third Street to watch and rotate who is assigned as lookout while the other three enjoy themselves," he says in resignation. "They likely signal each other when whenever we enter or leave a given territory, at which time the designated lookout activates their team--and any other members available--to set up a perimeter, within which they assure someone has us in line of sight at all times. On a guess, they saw us vanish from the crowd, sent a signal to the others, and they narrowed down our location by creating a--"

"Seriously?" Dean says incredulously. "You taught them to be professional stalkers?"

"I trained them to track and isolate demons, Hellhounds, and corporeal beings of any type," he answers defensively. "I taught them to track me."

"And goddamn Manuel issued 'em all walky-talkies," Dean groans, head dropping on Castiel's shoulder as Sean's voice drifts to them again, but it doesn't seem to be closer, which means their presence in this alley was already visually confirmed. "Amanda's helping Joe coordinate, I bet you anything; she knows every goddamn street."

He braces himself not to fight the inevitable moment Dean pulls away, watching the green eyes focus on the wall blocking the exit to Second speculatively. "They already have someone positioned on the other side to mock us for even trying. There's probably a point system involved, though what the prize is for winning…"

"I think I know," Dean says grimly. Before he can ask, Dean kisses him once, hard, then steps back, zipping up Castiel's coat reluctantly before seeing to his own. To his surprise, Dean reaches for his hand again, squeezing his fingers before tipping his head toward the mouth of the alley. "Gonna kill 'em. Later. So, cake?"

After threatening an unrepentant Sean--who desperately needed to tell them all was well at headquarters without any effort whatsoever in attempting to be believable--Dean frowns at Castiel's suggestion they see what other entertainment Ichabod is providing for its guests. He frowns even more when Castiel points out that apparently, his presence can quickly disperse crowds, which tells him the earlier incident hasn't been forgotten.

Dean's scowl confirms this as well. "Not funny."

"It's a learned response," he admits, eyes fixing on one of the brightly-lit buildings nearby. Taking nearly half a block in itself, it's façade was obviously manufactured to resemble that of the older buildings, and while the brickwork matches them in type, it's far newer. The sign is somewhat faded, but he thinks one of the words used to be 'Bank'. Remembering the journey to acquire better liquor with Vera, he considers the lack of attention. "As long as they don't notice me--individually, I mean--I doubt it'll be a problem."

Dean's set jaw doesn't indicate his amenability to this possibility.

"Dean, it's a celebration taking up a single street," he persists. "Unless you want me to remain at the picnic table all night, there's nowhere to go where there aren't people and many of them."

"Or," Dean says, dragging out the single syllable into at least three, "we could, I don't know, go back to Alison's, hang out there."

"You'll miss the celebration."

"Won't be missing a thing," he answers, stepping close enough that Castiel can feel the next words breathed against his cheek. "I can think of a lot of things to do. Got a list; wanna hear it?"

"I want," he says with an effort; he has a list, too, and they could compare, no, this is not the time, "to find out what humans do at parties, and my sampling size is currently insufficient, it being Chitaqua and here. So far, they eat, drink, dance, talk, wander about without any particular goal, and have sex in the walk-in refrigerators and freezers--"

"Still wondering how the hell anyone can fuck beside half a goddamn cow."

"I also find that questionable," he agrees. "As I was saying--"

"It was hanging right there," Dean persists, baffled. "Not like you could miss it."

"It's possible that was less a problem than an inducement," he admits, adding quickly, "Don't ask me how I know that, just take as a given that after thinking about it, my knowledge of at least two of the participants makes that less a surprise than…"

"Than what?"

"An unexpectedly literal escalation," he decides, and Dean closes his eyes. "Could we please not speak of this ever again? There's now a rule that no one can have sex in the mess and I've already had to re-evaluate certain--past interactions that now have an entirely new and very disturbing context. If you persist, however, I'll tell you every unsettling detail so as to get your opinion on the subject."

"Christ, done," Dean breathes, shaking himself. "So--"

"Celebrations and my limited experience with them," he says in relief. "Surely there's more to them, and I'd like to find out what."

Dean cocks his head disbelievingly. "Really."

"And in this case," he continues, less certain, "observation isn't sufficient for my purposes. Participation, you might say, is mandatory. To get the full--experience."

"On earth," Dean says seriously, "the word for that is 'living'."

"You've mentioned I should try that," he agrees, watching Dean fighting not to smile. "I thought--I'd like to do that. With you."

Dean ducks his head, and Castiel can just see the faint hint of color stain his cheeks. "You win. Where do we start?"

Castiel looks at the former bank thoughtfully. "What do you think they're doing in there?"

Fortunately, the numbers of those coming and going aren't excessive, for more than one reason: Dean stops short just inside the open double doors, eyes widening at the sight of what is very likely his definition of the promised land.

"Oh hell yes," he murmurs as they take in the large two-story room stretched before them, lit by a mixture of recently-repaired overheads as well as a variety of large lamps that, like the heat, run off one of Ichabod's emergency generators. "Good choice."

The back and right walls are lined with doorways--former offices, he assumes, from his experience with banks--so this must have been the lobby, though he can't tell where the tellers' area was located due to the number of people spread out across the tile floor, engaged in what appears to be every possible game of chance that can be played with a deck of cards or set of dice (among other, less familiar games). A plethora of former dining tables, folding tables, and battered coffee tables have been repurposed, though when necessary, a blanket on the floor seems to be an acceptable substitute. Dean's eyes flicker greedily over the various games, focusing in interest at the piles of goods that seem to be what are used at stakes. Among them, Castiel notes, following Dean's gaze, what appears to be a tin of cocoa.

"We still have ten bottles of Eldritch Horror in the jeep," Castiel reminds him, trying to decide what else they have that Dean could use and making a mental note to remember to bring trade goods when attending large gatherings of people in the future. "I'm sure several of those can be used to trade for sufficient items for you to use for your initial stake. And we have ammunition, of course." Manuel's recommendation, and a good one.

"This is still amateur hour," Dean decides after a few moments, pursing his lips. "I'll wait for the pros to show in a few hours."

With a visible effort, Dean navigates them between the tables, participants far too busy to notice their presence, and past the wide stairway, glancing into the offices for potential people to fleece in anticipatory satisfaction before stopping short as someone waves at them from the end of a short hallway.

"Anyi," he says in surprise, easily able to discern the location of her weapons concealed under her coat by the way she moves. "Patrol lead."

"I knew that," Dean murmurs, smiling as he starts toward her and saying, "Hey, what's--"

She puts a finger over her mouth, shaking her head and gesturing behind her, where the ajar door spills enough light to indicate activity within. Looking over their shoulders ostentatiously, she waits until they reach her before opening it fully and ushering them into a brightly lit room filled with what appears to be most of Ichabod's patrol (and some of Chitaqua's, for that matter).

"Secret hideout for patrol," she says, grinning up at them from beneath fringe of dark brown bangs. "So they don't get drunk in public and embarrass us."

"Good idea," Dean says approvingly as he surveys the room, grin widening at the sight of the table set up near the wall to the left, upon which are bottles and cups, with more stacked beneath and around it as well as stacks of crates and several people busily making and handing out drinks, one of them very familiar indeed. "Thanks."

"Have fun," she says on her way back out the door.

"Let's see what's on tap," Dean tells him, making for the table where Mark is mixing something intensely purple, raising an eyebrow when Mark looks up and starts in surprise. "Dude, secret club and you didn't invite us? What's that about?"

"I was going to, but Amanda said you two were busy doing important leader things in the nearest alley," Mark answers, smirking at them both. "Didn't want to interrupt. No matter what she offered if I would." He shakes his head as Dean's expression turns speculative. "Dean, whatever you're thinking, no. She's my commander!"

Dean scowls. "I'm your leader."

"Yeah, but she lives here, and so do I," Mark says nervously. "She knows where I sleep!"

Dean makes a face before accepting Mark's (flawless) logic. "Can I at least get something to drink?"

Mark sighs in relief. "Anything you want. What's your poison?"

"Surprise us," Dean advises him, nodding to Manuel, Hans, Matthew, and Antonio seated around a folding table nearby. As Mark mixes their drinks, Castiel takes in the room curiously, relieved to see so many familiar faces. Sean and his team seem to be engaged in poker with one of Ichabod's patrol teams (Sean doesn't need to cheat; they're all terrible); a few members of Ichabod's patrol are talking near one of the windows; and on a broken down couch a few feet away, drooling stuffing between patches of threadbare fabric, Amanda and Leah are seated, Amanda waving at them enthusiastically.

"Here," Dean says, handing him a cup of something of a very questionable lavender hue and taking a drink before Castiel can stop him. "Huh," he says, looking at the contents. "Not bad."

"Amanda is waving," he points out on the off-chance that Dean didn't notice.

"I bet she is," Dean says venomously, taking another drink before smiling widely and closing a hand around Castiel's upper arm. "Come on, let's say hi."

"What's up?" Leah chirps as they reach them, head resting on Amanda's shoulder and giving them a drowsy smile.

"Sit down," Amanda says invitingly, patting the cushion beside her, and as Dean nudges him forward, Castiel reluctantly removes his coat and carefully places it over the back of the couch. Having no excuse left not to do so, he gingerly sits down beside Amanda and sinks immediately with a discordant squeal of springs, Amanda sliding half into his lap and Leah slumping more comfortably against Amanda's ribs. Dean's unhidden satisfaction isn't particularly gratifying as he perches on the more solid arm, and Castiel wonders idly what the appropriate penalty for having a working grasp of physics as they apply to cushions should be.

"Amanda?" Dean asks after a moment, raising his eyebrows as Amanda makes herself comfortable against his side, throwing a leg across his thigh for balance while Leah scoots to a slightly more upright position. "Really?"

"And don't you wish you were me right now," she says smugly. "Cas, your gun's digging into my thigh."

Dean's outraged expression changes to annoyance as he helpfully moves the holster and shifts her leg a quarter of an inch to the right, settling back with another horrific whine of springs. Before Dean can say anything, however, Mark appears before them, handing Dean a small cup and cocking his head as he takes a drink, grinning at his expression.

"Christ," he mutters, passing it to Castiel, who regards the bright blue contents dubiously. "Sharing is caring, Cas."

"Not when applied to crimes against alcohol." Warily, he takes a drink; the sweetness almost hides the raw edges of the liquor. But not quite. Dean's mouth quirks as he passes it to Amanda, who swallows obediently and hides her cough against his shoulder. Leah just closes her eyes and shakes her head adamantly "I didn't realize paint thinner was alcoholic, however." At Mark's expectant expression, he adds, "Corn mash, eighty-five proof, less than five days old, and I assume the blue is the result of artificial blueberry syrup and not drain cleaner, though that part I can't guarantee."

Dean raises his eyebrows, but only remarks, "The more you know," as he takes back the cup, finishing it off with a grimace as Mark returns to the front. Glancing over at Amanda--currently engaged in conversation with Leah--Dean leans closer, murmuring in his ear, "So had a lot of trial runs before you got Eldritch Horror?"

"The eighth was the first time I successfully managed to create something not lethal," he says distractedly, trying not to shiver at the warmth of Dean's breath. "Ten more trials, however, achieved Eldritch Horror as you know it. Theodore was very knowledgeable regarding different distillation methods and grounded me thoroughly in the principles, but in practice--"


"A recruit: he didn't stay, but he…" Looking into the curious green eyes, for the first time in his existence he has an inexplicable desire to edit if at all possible. "…knew a great deal. About distillation methodology, as I said."

Dean's eyebrows tell him that didn't help.

"I don't remember anything else about him, really," he tries, and is rewarded with Dean biting his lip. "A very long time ago."

"Good save," Dean tells him approvingly as Mark appears with an earthenware cup and an eager expression. Glancing down at the contents, Dean whistles softly. "Holy shit, what the hell?" Sipping it warily, he shudders, letting Castiel see the contents but shaking his head when he tries to take the cup. "Trust me on this one. Kill it with fire. Or use it for adventures in arson."

Staring at the liquid sloshing within, Castiel agrees. "So that's--unsettlingly orange."

"I think he added orange juice," Amanda says, peering into the cup. "I mean, I think one of these tasted like oranges."

"There are oranges in Kansas?" he asks dubiously as Mark returns to the makeshift bar (hopefully to pour that upon unhallowed ground and cover with salt).

She grimaces. "Don't ask those kinds of questions, Cas. That way lies madness and your best friend teaching a line of people how to waltz and the line just keeps getting longer. What, no one took dance lessons or something?" She frowns uncertainly. "That wasn't the original subject, was it?"

"And now Vera's giving dance lessons to the masses?" Dean asks, taking a drink from the cup Mark gives him and nodding approvingly before passing it to Castiel. "This is bad why? Good public relations."

"What's the word for two things that apart are great but together destroy worlds? Peanut butter and jelly," Amanda answers desolately. "That's what's happening at the street dance right now. Vera and dancing: two things that are fucking amazing together and fuck milkshakes, that shit brings all the boys--and girls, fuck my life--to the yard."

"Sounds like she's having fun," Dean says maliciously. "And you're here why?"

"Self-preservation. She, Alicia, Mira, and Jody were rocking out to Britney Spears' Toxic, Alicia and Vera get touchy-feely when they're drinking, and I'm only human. Fuck pop: that shit destroys lives." Her eyes narrow. "I need something to kill."

"Oh, I can tell you what you need--"

"Dean," Castiel murmurs as Amanda focuses on Dean challengingly; while he doesn't necessarily object to watching them engage in healthy violence (and is adding that to his list), at the moment he's sitting between them. "Don't taunt your subordinates. Amanda, he's your leader, and if you attacked him, I'm technically required to discipline you."

"What's the discipline again?" she asks, never looking away from Dean.

Dean grins, all teeth. "Bring it on."

"Dean," Manuel says into the brief yet terrifying silence, getting Dean's attention. From the corner of his eye, Castiel sees Mark breathe a sigh of relief before coming up juggling several cups. "You got a second?"

"Yep." Taking a cup, he squeezes Castiel's shoulder while still looking at Amanda. "Pick this up later?"

"No," Castiel says before Amanda can answer. "You're not."

Dean and Amanda look at him with identical disappointed expressions before Dean wanders toward Manuel after taking one of the cups from Mark. "Spoilsport," Amanda mutters, waiting for Castiel to take his drink before reaching for her own. "Look at you: all grown up and giving everyone sensible advice like a responsible adult. Next thing you know, you'll be clean, sober, married, and going to bed at a decent hour every night…oh wait." Smiling in triumph, she shifts smoothly onto the cushion and turns toward Mark, who has seated himself on the other side of Leah.

Taking a drink--vodka, cranberry and pomegranate syrup, a classic--he looks around again, declining to expound on the various ways that Amanda is wrong, as that's obvious (what is a decent hour? One must have sufficient sleep to be productive, after all). Instead, he examines the room, noting the recent repair work done and wondering if Ichabod is anticipating more new residents after this celebration.

Slightly more than basic repairs were completed on this building, and like the one that Alison offered to Chitaqua for their use tonight, the work done was obviously quite recent. Many of the doorways, while no longer containing doors, have newer frames in some cases, while those with older ones have been fixed, hinges cleaned and ready for the addition of a door. Many of the walls have been recently patched, the windows cleared of broken glass when necessary and sealed with fresh squares of tarp, neatly taped to keep out the elements. Even the floors have been recently cleaned, and from the regular shapes of almost untouched tile scattered throughout the rooms he observed on their way here that appeared and disappeared under the multitude of feet, they've also been cleared in preparation for more than just today's celebration.

He suspects that some of the most recent work--specifically on the YMCA and the apartment buildings flanking it on Fifth Street--is an indicator that Alison's eventual goal is to locate the speculated permanent camp within the town itself instead of it being built separately. He also suspects that Dean has very much encouraged just that.

Taking another drink, he takes in the heavy door to their right that leads to the walk-in safe and finds himself considering the probable measurements; if Alison's not set on the potential Fifth Street location for Chitaqua's permanent residents here, it would be more than sufficient for a working armory. Or--considering Ichabod has engineers among the residents--perhaps the safe could be moved.

Tipping his head back, he considers the potential space here; the lobby's size would make controlled entrance difficult, not to mention the fact it limits available space on the second floor, but between it and the third floor, there might be sufficient space for some housing and administration needs. Meeting rooms would be very useful for both the individual patrol teams as well as general ones of the camp members. Splitting the lobby would be a possibility, or simply building a smaller room into which the front doors would open, with someone on duty at all times. Fortunately, a bank is built for security, so it would only be a matter of assuring warding is placed appropriately and maintenance of salt lines be adhered to.

Castiel considers adding a general mess as well, depending on the feasibility of Ichabod's power grid allowing maintenance of individual kitchens; it might be prudent to minimize their requirements of the power grid once they have a contingent in place so that Tony can verify how much power they can afford to use. The area in back of this building could easily be cleared and cultivated to reduce their demands on Ichabod's resources. While Ichabod's agreement will doubtless be to supply them here in return for labor, there's no reason that those living here shouldn't also contribute to the general food supply as well.

"You're doing it again." Startled, he looks at Dean, who drops on the arm of the couch and glances at the safe. "Armory, right?"


"Same look in the alley," he says, tucking a leg underneath him as he turns sideways, the better not to drown as the cushion audibly protests occupation. "It's contagious or something; I saw the safe when we came in and thought the same thing."

"You're considering stationing Chitaqua's hunters in the town itself." Dean shrugs but doesn't deny it, and thinking about it, he thinks he can guess the reason. "It would be complicated to make our camp here even a quarter as defensible as Chitaqua, and that's excluding our wards, which can't be recreated here. In the town itself would be safer, especially for those in training."

"Exactly." The flicker of frustration tells him Dean's been thinking about this for some time. "Look, I get mixing a militia and civilians is probably a recipe for disaster here--not like I know how the hell this works."

"It can be." Historically, it tends to be most prevalent in situations of occupation, however, not partnership. "That doesn't mean it can't be done well."

"Maybe," is all Dean says, finishing his cup. "Alison's one year plan is to start working on a permanent wall for Ichabod, but…."

"Size, materials, labor, time, and advanced understanding of structural engineering," he finishes, remembering Tony expounding on the subject. "Their work on repairing the buildings is giving them experience in the principles, but it's a very different thing to design a structure like a city wall and then bring it into reality, especially if it's supposed to be functional and not simply decorative."

Dean starts to answer, then frowns. "What time is it?"

"Twenty minutes until eight." From the corner of his eye, he sees Manuel excusing himself from the group around him and remembers. "The meeting."

"We better start toward Admin, get good seats. You ready?" Castiel takes Dean's extended hand gratefully as the cushions squeal a second hideously loud protest. Even more gratifyingly, Dean looks at Amanda, saying, "Yeah, you're coming, too."

Amanda's smug grin vanishes.

"Hurry up," he says, watching her fight free of the cushions with evident enjoyment. "Joe and Vera are meeting us there. It'll be fun."

The meeting, located on the second floor of Admin with a selection of Ichabod's leadership, begins with a summary of the evening's events, which consists of assurances that no one has died, suffered serious injury, alcohol poisoning, or drug related emergencies; that the available public sanitary facilities were still functioning; and that there have been minimal reports of physical altercations requiring intervention and as yet, no one had done anything requiring ejection from the festivities, though some are currently restricted in their movements until sobriety is achieved.

From the look on Dean's face--much like the one he feels on his own--as they listen to the droned grocery list of potential disasters as yet to occur, the logistics of hosting so many people is both terrifying and strangely mesmerizing. He's glad his memory is sufficient, as there's no paper or pen available to take notes.

"A few too intoxicated to know better," Naresh assures them crisply after a brief, harrowing description of his teams breaking up two fights and preventing several others, looking amused. Of medium height, dark hair cut ruthlessly short, the town's sheriff exudes resigned authority with the help of a slightly British accent that Alison told him for some reason makes Naresh always sound right no matter what he says ("Blame James Bond," she told him, shaking her head in confusion and then promising a movie marathon while they're in Ichabod so he can become acquainted with the delights of double-o-seven, whatever that means). "We sent them to think about their behavior in one of our old storage buildings on eastern Second while they regain sobriety." Eyes dancing, he looks over the silent members of Chitaqua in unconcealed amusement. "Not something you deal with in your camp, I suppose."

"Not really," Dean manages, attempting with laudable success to look as if this isn't as strange to him as it is to the rest of them. "Military camp, discipline--"

"Terrified of pissing you off or Cas looking really disappointed in us," Amanda offers up from her casual sprawl in her chair on the other side of the table, rolling her eyes at Dean's glare. "What, he never used it on you? It's…." she shudders as Vera and Joseph nod enthusiastic agreement.

"No, I've seen it," Dean says unexpectedly, turning to look at Castiel and apparently oblivious to the amused observation of Ichabod's council. "Dude, that's harsh."

"Threw it at us like a goddamn grenade when he came up with mowing the grass as incentive to perform our duties to his satisfaction," Joseph confirms. "Almost worse than the actual mowing."

"Mowing," Naresh says thoughtfully, sitting back in his chair. "Now that's an interesting thought. We do have a great deal of grass."

"It's surprisingly effective," he agrees cautiously as Dean grins at him before turning his attention to his contribution to the meeting. "All of Chitaqua's members are under orders to report to you or one of your subordinates on duty here should they witness anything that has the potential to be undesirable, intervening only if the situation seems to require immediate action. They've assured me that there have been very few causes of concern. However, the patrol leaders have stated that the number of people here has increased to the point of groups gathering very close to the patrol perimeter and feel they may need to expand it soon." Castiel hesitates, aware of Dean's attention. "I understand that the last few months have been almost entirely devoid of any threats to your safety--with one very obvious exception--but while we've confirmed the existence of the barrier, there's no certainty how long that protection will last, limited though it seems to be now."

Lanak, formerly a programmer from Cambodia and now responsible for the town's supplies, leans forward, brown eyes intent from beneath a fringe of short black hair. "But you still don't know who put this barrier up or why?"

"No," Dean answers. "But me, I'd feel pretty stupid if tonight's the night it ends with a blood-soaked bang."

"Lovely image, Dean, thanks," Alison says sourly. "Teresa, Manuel, should we move the line out more east and west?"

"Got an idea with that," Tony says from the other side of Claudia. "We've been working on Fourth and Fifth the last couple of months, which is working out really well since it looks like we're gonna need at least one of 'em tonight. I ordered my group to double check the markers on the safe buildings on my way here. Everything checks out, we'll go ahead and open Fourth, send half our impromptu bartenders and the vendors over there, and sit back to watch the migration."

"Open the street? Claudia?" Alison asks. "You did the organization for the party; that cause any problems?"

"I like it," she says, leaning her elbows on the table and nodding, looking uncannily like her son Derek for a moment as she grins at Alison. "Lanak, tell everyone what you told me."

"Those who have booths would appreciate it," Lanak says. "Business is doing very well, and they'd like room to put out more of their merchandise. We didn't plan for this many vendors to show up, so there's definitely a problem with space. We should encourage it," she adds, looking around the room. "To be mercenary for a moment, we're in an excellent position for general trade both among the local populations as well as statewide, and tonight may be our best opportunity to spread the word. The wards we use are extremely effective, the Alliance is well established, and it certainly doesn't hurt that Chitaqua's training camp is located here as well. I doubt our allies would object to encouraging our reputation as a center of trade for several towns: one stop shopping holds great appeal for everyone. Considering the point of origin of some of the celebrants tonight, stories about the variety of vendors here tonight should spread well."

Dean raises his eyebrows. "Not just local? Not bad."

"Surprising, to say the least." Alison glances at Manuel. "Where did that group you talked to earlier say they were from?"

Manuel hesitates for a long moment. "Waterville."

"Waterville," Dean echoes, straightening in his chair. "Waterville, as in--Jesus, that's…."

"Marshall county," Castiel finishes for him. "District 2, current population unknown, very wary of strangers."

"North," Dean states flatly. "Ten miles from the northern Kansas border."

Alison winces. "Yes, that's what my map said, too."

"Who shot at us," Dean continues, looking at Vera for support, as her team were the ones who fled before the hail of welcoming gunfire. "You're telling me one, your invitation made it to northern Kansas, and two, the people who think strangers are to be shot on sight wanna get down with people they've never met on the other side of the state because some traders told them all about it and hey, why not?"

"People are still showing up, mostly local, but some, not so much," Manuel confirms, glancing at Teresa. "We added a second team to the daycare, check-in every half-hour. They know what to watch for." Sitting back, he makes a face. "We--may have checked a few of the new arrivals out, didn't see any problems, so it's just a precaution."

"I checked them out," Alison says, rolling her eyes. "Just get a feel for them--in this kind of crowd, I couldn't risk more than that--and I didn't get bad intentions." Castiel nods agreement; she's made excellent progress, but the addition of so many unfamiliar minds in a discrete area means it's almost impossible to organize her mind sufficiently without being overwhelmed. "Hungry and thirsty and a little tired, yeah, but that's one hell of a drive. I got the feeling the traders they talked to got them curious about life beyond their town limits, and after almost five months of peace--relatively speaking--they figured it was worth the risk to find out."

Dean nods reluctantly. "Any idea how many people are here?"

"It's below six thousand, but probably not by much," Castiel offers, and the room abruptly goes silent, all eyes fixing on him.

"Uh, just from curiosity," Dean says finally, sounding strained, "how do you figure?"

"Third street is approximately one half mile long and twenty-four feet wide including sidewalks; with the seven buildings in use tonight, there's approximately ninety-seven thousand, one hundred and ten square feet of space, roughly seventy-seven thousand, six hundred and eighty-eight of it usable. If everyone stood shoulder to shoulder using all available space, or approximately four square feet per individual, roughly nineteen thousand, four hundred and twenty-two people could be accommodated, provided they didn't move except for very minimal breathing, best accomplished in shifts."

"You're fucking with me." Dean stares at him. "Nineteen thousand? People?"

"Nineteen thousand, four hundred, and twenty-two, roughly, and yes. That number is theoretical, not practical," he explains. "However, using that as the maximum possible number of people that could be accommodated--"

"Breathing in shifts," Alison interrupts. "Shifts. For breathing."

"Yes," he agrees impatiently before continuing. "As I was saying, using that and average personal space requirements--eight to ten feet square feet per person--and taking into consideration areas that would naturally be greater or less by design--such as the dancing area, which average roughly four to five square feet per person--and those that require more--for example, the area designated for dining, the vendor area, or the building housing games of chance, that require between sixteen and twenty-one square feet per person--it's relatively simple to calculate current practical number."

"Right," Tony says, nodding. "So what would that be?"

"Between seven thousand, seven hundred and sixty-nine and eight thousand people could be accommodated at this moment without undue problems," he answers. "When the average drops below six square feet, that causes involuntary stagnation, which generally leads to frequent outbreaks of seemingly unprovoked violence and mass panic in crowds." He thinks of the Woodstock documentary again, as well as his experience at concerts while on jobs. "Unless you're very high, of course, and excluding activities where being stationary is a feature, such as sporting events, movie theatres, or musical performances both outdoor and those that occur indoor and involve seats."

Alison nods blankly. "Yeah, none of that. Let's go back to the breathing in shifts thing--how does that work? Get someone with a megaphone or what?"

"I can't believe you're still hung up on that," Teresa says, frowning. "Or that I am too; how would that work?"

"I don't think it's ever been tried," he answers thoughtfully. "A bullhorn, or perhaps music over the loudspeakers, and sort everyone into groups by measure--"

"Back to the subject," Dean interrupts before Castiel can explain how to assign the groups. "Which was--what was the subject?"

"Lack of crowd stagnation," Castiel says, reluctantly abandoning his thoughts on how to use beat appropriately (as humans seem unclear on that). "And as I was saying, there's no indication of it; all the episodes of violence so far have been localized and involved external factors, and the areas most likely to have high concentrations of people not at rest show regular, constant motion and those accommodating people in leisure activities are not overcrowded. At most, six thousand people are currently within the perimeter of Third Street and its buildings, and from observation, I doubt it's more than five and a half thousand at this time." He remembers the daycare with an internal wince. "However, the number of children below age eleven at the daycare on Main Street--that is, those not participating in the adolescent celebrations--would raise that number by roughly two to three hundred--"

"So let's go with six thousand." Alison looks at the other members of Ichabod's leadership. "That's not much less than we have between all five in our trading partners, total."

"And they're still coming," Manuel reminds her in gloomy satisfaction. "Especially locals. I'm guessing those mayors you and Claudia talked to earlier sent word back home to come on by for dinner and beer. They're BYOB at least--bring your own beer," he explains with a grin at Castiel's mystified expression. "And food, of course."

Dean's eyes narrow at that, but Alison starts to smile, looking at Claudia. "They were serious."

"Yeah," Claudia answers, matching her smile. "This Alliance meeting should be pretty interesting."

Alison turns to Tony. "Fourth you got covered, but just in case, how long--"

"Like I said, I sent a group to check Fifth the same time I did Fourth," he answers easily. "Last survey showed no change in our original calls and we re-marked everything three months ago, but I'll go myself and double check. Thirty for Fourth, hour and a half for Fifth: that work?"

"For a miracle, not bad," Alison agrees. "By the way, do I want to know why Walter's not here lobbying for a bonfire?" She frowns. "Where is he, anyway? I haven't seen him since before dinner."

"Right, that." Tony shrugs, elaborately nonchalant. "I told Walter he could have his bonfire if he did it off eastern Fourth near the pump in that old shopping center. I'll check it on my way to Fifth."

"Bonfire?" Dean straights, looking around at the amused faces challengingly. "What? It's been a while since I was around one for fun."

"Should be up by the time we open the street if I know Walter," Tony tells him, then looks at Alison expectantly. "Anything else we need to cover?"

"No, that should be it," she answers. "Dean, Cas, Amanda, I'd like to meet again at three, see where we are."

"Yeah, I was thinking the same thing." Dean frowns distractedly. "You mind if I assign someone to come by for a check-in with whoever's on duty here? Once an hour, make sure everything's--happening, whatever."

"Works for me." Looking around, she nods. "Okay, we're done until three; remember to report to Admin hourly and that goes for your replacements when they go on duty. Tony, Naresh, Lanak: give me a few minutes before you go so I can update Admin's logs."

As they get up, Dean deliberately pauses, eyes flickering to Castiel as he starts toward the door in an unmistakable request to wait. Vera, Amanda, and Joseph seem to take this as a unspoken order, and by the time he and Dean emerge onto the sidewalk, they've already left the town square. Closing the door behind them, Castiel's almost overwhelmed by the sudden increase of noise from the preschool age children playing beneath the floodlights stationed at regular intervals around the town square.

The clean-up of the courtyard was completed only hours after they left Ichabod that day, but somehow, he can see the ghost of the symbol in the center of the square, the position of each body and pool of drying blood as clearly as the moment he first arrived that day. Despite himself, he finds himself staring on the spot ten feet from the western end of the daycare's porch and only four bloody steps from the dismembered remains of a demon's host, where Dean dropped to his knees and showed him the Croatoan bite on his arm, where he looked into Castiel's eyes and asked him to take his life, "Don't make this harder than it already is."

Neither of them knew the meaning of the word. I'd do it again, all of it. It was worth it. You are--


"--worth it," he hears himself breathe, blinking at Dean. "I apologize; my mind was wandering. It--does that now."

"Right," Dean drawls, shoving his hands in his pockets and tilting his head toward the eastern exit. "You wanna check out Fourth?"

Fourth street is almost unsettlingly quiet compared to Third, the few clumps of people scattered near the buildings making it seem even more empty than no people at all.

Dean looks around them as they start down the street. "Okay, this is spooky."

"Something tells me," he says finally after several eternal blocks of buildings, much like the ones on Third, "we aren't here simply to admire the architecture."

"Waterville," Dean states, and yes, that's what he thought.

"As Alison said, traders--"

"Waterville, Kansas, on the other side of the state and thinks bullets are a good way to say hi," Dean interrupts as if Castiel wasn't speaking. "Waterville, who shot at not one but two of our patrol teams--"

"There is no proof that they were the ones who attacked Sarah's team during the blizzard…." He doesn't believe that, either; while other towns in District 2 were ambivalent if not outright hostile, none of them were homicidal or followed them for miles still shooting at them. The location that Sarah's team was subject to an inexpert but enthusiastic attempted ambush was also suspiciously close to the place where Vera's team was able to finally make their escape months before. "Retracted."

"Thank you." Looking annoyed, Dean shakes his head. "So Waterville, winner of the 'hates outsiders' award forever, decides to show up in Ichabod--halfway across the state--because why not? Ichabod isn't even on the goddamn maps! At least, not under that name."

"The traders must have given them very good directions."

"So good it's like our Waterville neighbors have been here before." Dean sighs noisily. "How stupid would a demon have to be to attack Ichabod again?"

"Very stupid, as well as suicidal," he answers. "Which none of the ones who led the attack on Ichabod were, including the two that escaped. For that matter, even if they were to try, the odds of successfully acquiring all the children is very, very low, especially considering there are at least twice the usual number of children at the daycare tonight and the precautions being taken to assure their safety."

Manuel and Teresa went over Ichabod's procedure for the protection of the children be with them this afternoon. Besides the patrol teams being rotated hourly at the daycare (now increased to two), Glenn and Serafina, with the help of the children's parents and those from Ichabod taking a shift at the daycare, have assured that all fifteen children are within line of sight of an armed adult at all times. After several days of preparation to harvest her strength should it be needed, Teresa raised the wards for the daycare as well as Ichabod itself at dusk the evening before and won't lower them until after the meeting of the Alliance.

"I know." As a demonstration of Manuel and Teresa's experience in the art of defense, it was masterful, and there was very little he or Dean could contribute other than nods at key portions of the explanation and offer various possible scenarios from his and Dean's experience as hunters (in general, the Host's approach to defense was wholesale destruction of the enemy and all his works before they could attack: not useful in this case). "I can still think of ten ways to pull it off without even trying, and that's just the ones that end in failure and minimal casualties. Don't tell me you don't have a list."

"Only five so far," he admits. "All of which, however, would require far more knowledge of Ichabod's plans tonight--and ours, for that matter--than any demon could possibly have at this time."

"I'd be a lot happier if more of Ichabod's patrol didn't have their anti-possession sigils in permanent marker," Dean retorts, a sentiment that both Manuel and Teresa have expressed more than once. "Five towns, not a single tattoo gun between them."

"Or anyone who has the necessary artistic talent--and experience with a tattoo gun--to draw it without flaw," Castiel adds, though possession of a tattoo gun and sufficient ink would help with that problem a great deal. "I could draw it, but I'm not certain my maiden efforts with a tattoo gun--when one is found--will be accurate enough."

"I could do it--used to be able to, anyway," Dean says, looking at his right hand sourly. "I'd need practice. Everyone going on supply runs is under orders to check out tattoo places; once we have one, we may have to train people up to it. Bobby could do it blind."

"Bobby did mine," he hears himself say and shuts his mouth, wondering why he said that, considering its questionable relevancy to the current subject. "In any case…." He trails off, groping for what they were talking about. "What, specifically, are you worried about?"

"We still don't know how that one demon breached Ichabod's wards and got into Ichabod in the first place," Dean bursts out in frustration. "The other five might have come through with the Croats--Teresa can't tell what sets 'em off, though she's working on that--but one of 'em was in the square before the attack started. Even if one of the guys working with 'em carried it to Grant before the daycare's wards went up, that demon still had to cross Ichabod's first. How?"

"A demon blocked by salt at a door or a window can still crawl on the roof and potentially break through it to get inside, depending on the size of the building and if they choose the right part to climb."

"You'd think they'd try that more often than never," Dean remarks. "Can't get past a salt circle though. And now that we've stated the obvious…."

"They could go under it, provided they did so without disturbing the circle directly." Dean raises his eyebrows. "Yes, it would take a demon with a very sophisticated understanding of the natural limits of a salt line or circle as well as a great deal of digging, which is rare, but we're speaking in theory."

"I get it; there's always a way, it's just a matter of someone figuring it out," Dean agrees impatiently. "No one dug a hole under Ichabod's wards; got anything else?"

"Consider it as a thought exercise," he says. "How did Jeffrey--or those other six demons--get past the barrier around Kansas in the first place?" Dean opens his mouth, probably to state they don't know (obviously), then stops, eyes narrowing. "It's possible the barrier doesn't extend underground, though considering its purpose and our state of relative peace, I doubt whoever did it overlooked that or any airborne options."

"Parachuting demons," Dean muses. "I'm trying to imagine it and keep getting stuck at--all of it, actually. Even a helicopter: it's just not working."

"Most demons avoid air travel if possible," he says as neutrally as possible. "That's not the point. The barrier around Kansas is impressively powerful and extremely sophisticated, but it's still based on the principles of warding, specifically protective wards. While nothing is certain in this world--or any world, for that matter--it's probable that whatever method made it possible to cross the barrier was also utilized to cross Ichabod's wards."

"Six smart demons," Dean says slowly. "And one very stupid one."


"Who did it first, a month before the attack. Cas, you tell me; chances that Jeffrey's master and a group of six demons separately figured this out around the same time but no relation? Ballpark."

So that's blindingly obvious. "Lucifer spontaneously repenting."

"That's what I thought. Don't look like that; I missed it, too." Dean tilts his head toward the road and waits until Castiel falls into step beside him before continuing. "Six smart demons working together without someone bigger and scarier keeping them in line or from killing each other before the job's done? I'd almost buy that, but add in Jeffrey, that's too much coincidence. Which makes me wonder what the connection is between Jeffrey looking for you to tell you about his master wanting to be besties and the attack on Ichabod."

"Other than the fact I was at the church when the initial sacrifice was begun?" he replies. "If their master knew I was at the church, they'd assume I could tell them what the completed form of the circle looked like and possibly the names of the children involved, which would shorten the search for them considerably. There's no way their master could have known that I didn't even remember it then."

Dean raises his eyebrows. "And think you'd tell them?"

"Means to an end. With Dean dead, they may have assumed I'd agree that the needs of killing Lucifer to stop him would outweigh the needs of fifteen children to be alive." Dean's eyebrows climb higher. "And that I'd be amenable to that argument, which from a demon's perspective wouldn't be in question. Or from an angel's, for that matter," he admits, "which could be considered either a valid argument on relative versus absolute morality or an exercise in dramatic irony depending the company. It's not as if angels haven't slaughtered children for a presumed greater good." Dean adds amusement to incredulity. "Jeffery believe me when I said I was opening Purgatory to complete my conquest of earth! Obviously my reputation in Hell is somewhat different from that on Earth. Or at least in Chitaqua, and by that, I mean you."

"Thank you, Spock of Camp Chitaqua, we'll call that option one," Dean drawls after a significant (annoying) pause. "Or the more believable--and sane--option two: same master, two separate plans, both part of a much bigger plan with the probability there are more parts."

"I like option one more."

"Welcome to the club. I'd like this much better if Jeffrey's master actually thought 'Making a deal with Castiel, that's a plan that can't possibly fail' in conjunction with 'And I'll send Jeffrey to negotiate it'. You tell me where this breaks down, and that's even if we change the first part to 'Ask Castiel if he likes sugar in his coffee', you see where I'm going with this?"

"Jeffrey," he agrees glumly.

"Jeffrey. Assuming anything he said was true and he wasn't pulling half that crap out of his ass on the spot--Christ, was the plan 'annoy you saying random shit' until you hit critical mass and took him back to Chitaqua to torture him just on principle?"


"Gary," Dean repeats, nodding. "You got more for me?"

"He's not on the patrol teams and has spent most of the evening having sex with Laura in our headquarters when she's not on duty." Dean blinks at him. "They were making noise, Andy--never mind."

"Most of the time?"

"According to Lena, they paused to retrieve dinner," he explains. "But not to eat it."

Dean pinches the bridge of his nose. "Right. Reason the mess has a no-sex-especially-involving-meatloaf rule."

"He's not listed on the shift roster and of everyone from Chitaqua here tonight, he's had the least exposure to the celebrants, including those who live in Ichabod," he continues. "We could--"

"Send him to the daycare as a volunteer to watch all these new people--like from fucking Waterville--who are bringing in their kids, see who sticks around too long, alert us if there's trouble," Dean finishes for him, nodding. "Good call. Assume smart demon who's aware of the problem with patrol changing hourly, armed teachers, and paranoid everyone: we tell Manuel, Amanda, and Glenn, no one else. No check-ins, no attention, give him guidelines on when to act and what to do--"

"If in doubt, start the daycare on fire."

Dean stops short. "Not where I was going with this and what?"

"The third floor playroom on the northwest side is still a work in progress and has roof access." If he needed verification that Dean is avoiding the daycare, Dean's quickly-hidden surprise is all he'd need; to better protect the most vulnerable of the daycare's regular occupants, the third floor is being fully remodeled for the occupation of those age five and younger. "There's sufficient flammable material in the room that can be used to start a controlled fire on the roof. It will appear very impressive and give off a large amount of smoke."

Dean nods blankly.

"The smoke will be easily visible from the northern windows of the daycare within six minutes," he continues. "Gary can then notice it, call for an evacuation of the daycare, and once evacuation is underway--"

"--good fucking luck trying to find fifteen separate kids," Dean finishes for him, looking a cross between horrified and impressed. "Much less get anyone to listen to threats while running for their lives from the non-existent flames."

"It's a method that's guaranteed to get everyone's attention without fail," he agrees. "Which is the last thing anyone performing a human sacrifice would want."

"Wow." Dean stares at him. "I never thought I'd say this and mean it, but that's so crazy it actually will work."

"And retrieve one of the fifteen children if possible before starting the fire and take them to a safe location, preferably in Admin, perhaps a closet--"

"And we're back to what?" After a moment, Dean's shoulders slump from righteous indignation to resignation, and he closes his eyes, looking pained. "Guaranteeing they can't get one of them and slow 'em down if all else fails, fuck my life."

"You did specify we should assume this is a smart demon," he says, attempting 'apologetic' with no success whatsoever.

"Right." Dean sets his jaw, looking at him. "In case of emergency, tell him to commit arson with optional kidnapping; this is gonna go over really well."

"I don't think it counts if Manuel and Teresa approve."

"Yeah, I'm sure Alison will love that defense," he snorts. "Who's on duty at HQ right now?"

"Amanda, and Manuel is currently on duty for patrol while Teresa assists Alison in their social duties on behalf of Ichabod and the Alliance."

"Don't envy them that," Dean says sincerely. "Okay, Amanda can help us fill Gary in while one of us gets Manuel." They stare at each other before Dean sighs. "Rock, paper, scissors?"

He suppresses a shudder. "You get Manuel, and I'll retrieve Gary from the festivities on the third floor, which considering their predilection for condiments might involve barbecue sauce--" Dean steps forward, hand cupping his jaw and tilting his face up for a slow kiss, and he forgets what he was saying. Again.

"Thanks," Dean says breathlessly, fingers sliding down his cheek in a lingering caress before stepping back with visible reluctance, mouth curving in a pleased smile. "I owe you. Meet you at HQ in ten minutes."

He licks his lips, nodding blankly. "Yes."

After Manuel leaves with Gary (still somewhat sulky, though surely he's exhausted his current supply of bodily fluids by now and should for his own safety take a break), Dean sighs, hopping onto the table that Castiel is leaning against. "Anything else I should have thought of before now? Never too late to find out what else I missed."

Straddling a chair, Amanda rests her chin on her crossed arms over the back. "Waterville, Christ. Of all places. Didn't they call us whores of Satan or something?"

"Harlots," Castiel corrects her in amusement. "I was rather impressed at their use of somewhat archaic--and wildly inaccurate--terminology while indulging in inadvertent irony."

"Irony?" Dean asks.

"Harlots," he says. "Even if Lucifer didn't think sex was a grotesquerie outside of procreation--"

"Wait," Amanda interrupts, straightening. "Lucifer doesn't like sex?"

"It's one of his major objections to humanity's existence, though a still-distant third to being my Father's favorite and free will," he explains, shrugging at Amanda and Dean's incredulous expressions. "Not sex itself, but sex without purpose, which would in his view be anything not performed strictly in service to procreation. He doesn't approve of fun in general, not understanding what it is or why people want to have it, and literally anything that may in any way great or small decrease human misery is anathema, of course."

"I would not have called that one," Dean says in awe. "Wait, I thought angels--"

"No, among angels that particular objection to its existence is an anomaly," he says. "Speaking generally, few members of the Host given opportunity to engage in fornication with humans abstained from philosophical objections; in Creation, sexual intercourse for recreation was a very new innovation and many wanted to try it to better understand our Father's…." How to put this. "…plan and will."

"Angels wanted to fuck humans to get closer to God?" Amanda asks blankly.

"Benedictus qui venit," he agrees, and beside him, Dean starts to choke. "Dei gratia, of course."

"What did you just say?" she asks suspiciously, looking between them.

"Let's say it works better if you don't actually know Latin but are familiar with American sexual euphemisms," he replies. "As I was saying, fornication was a popular activity for the Host in times past, even among those who professed such activity was beneath an angel when not done for--research, I suppose. Those that abstained usually did so from lack of opportunity or particular interest--in vessels, biological imperatives are suppressed--though after the entire incident that produced Nephilim and war on earth and in Heaven, trauma was also a factor."

He receives twin nods.

"So as Lucifer would never pay for sex," he finishes in satisfaction, "'harlots' is inaccurate on concept. And implying we work for him is utterly ridiculous."

"Because we were talking about Waterville trying to kill us and the use of shitty terminology that's also inaccurate and you clarified just how much," Dean says after a long pause, nodding to himself. "Thanks, Cas."

"When did he start doing that?" Amanda demands. "He just used to mock us without telling us why."

"People skills," Castiel tells her. "Instead of mockery, I attempt to explain why someone is wrong and provide context. I understand that shows I'm interested and engaged during conversation and decreases the chances they'll interpret it as hostile."

Amanda's eyes narrow on Dean. "You."

"I had no idea how personally gratifying this method of communication could be," he adds thoughtfully.

"Orgasms make you healthier and less likely to beat the shit out of people," Dean says with a sigh. "That's why we don't go into heat or do some long fucking word--"


"Shut up," Dean interrupts, still looking at Amanda. "I don't know what that is and I like that. Can we talk about anything--and I do mean anything--that's not this? Ever again?"

"All in favor," Amanda says, and she and Dean both inexplicably raise their hands. "Motion passes, moving on. Waterville: where else? You think Manuel kept a list?"

"Why would he?" Castiel asks, disliking democracy a great deal. "Assuming those arriving aren't lying, of course."

"He's a hunter: curiosity and habit just in case it comes back to kill you," Dean answers, one foot kicking idly. "If I know Manuel, he remembers every town that patrol mentioned, how many, and exactly how sketchy they looked. He trained Ichabod's patrol; they're probably reporting exactly that after every shift. Why?"

"No reason," Amanda says, resting her head on one hand. "Just be a little suspicious if one person shows up from a random town for no reason to party down. Or one at a time, even."

"See what you can get by way of town name and numbers with 'em," Dean says. "Talk to whoever's on patrol, tell 'em to be casual about it, no pressure and coordinate with whoever's on duty at Admin for Ichabod's patrol. Anything jumps out, come get us, otherwise, we'll bring up it up at the meeting later. Just in case this is a really smart demon and has a better plan than failing at attempted ritual human sacrifice in the middle of a big party with Chitaqua in attendance."

"I agree," he says when Dean looks at him queryingly. "Alert whoever is stationed here to get that information from patrol after their shifts and report to--"

"Me," Amanda says, rolling her eyes. "You got discipline, I'll handle reports."

"And me?" Dean asks, crossing his arms. "I'm not just decorative here."

"Have fun," Amanda responds with a grin, getting to her feet. "And on that note, get out of here and do it. Check out the bonfire, get some snacks, make out anywhere you see a dark corner, not judging or anything--"

"You should try it sometime," Dean says with a smirk, and Amanda's eyes narrow dangerously. "Might help you relax, just saying."


"We should get to the bonfire," Dean says, reaching for Castiel's arm and tugging him unresistingly toward the door while Castiel calculates how quickly he'll need to move if Amanda uses that chair for evil (throwing it in Dean's mocking face, for example). Glancing back at Amanda (for Dean lacks even a rudimentary sense of self-preservation), he adds, "Have fun."