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The Game of God

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--Day 151, continued--

Still cursing, he breaks into a dead run, but he already knows he was too late again.

Shadows emerge from the bleak ruins of the buildings, faceless bodies with mocking smiles, but they vanish before he can get a shot off, and he can't take the time anyway, because maybe, maybe--

He nearly falls on the rotting steps, bursting through the beads in a headlong stumble and hits the floor on his knees, but the burst of pain's forgotten at the sight of a blood-stained street stretched out in front of him, the half circle of space around an unmoving body.

"No." It's Cas, sprawled on the asphalt with half his head gone; he's almost faster than a bullet, but only almost.

--where were you, why weren't you here, why did you let them do this--

"I'm sorry," Dean whispers, crawling through the blood to Cas's side and rolling him over, bloody head in his lap. Looking into what remains of his face, all he can see is the blank stare of bloodshot blue eyes. "I didn't know, when I told you…I didn't know! I wouldn't have let you…."

He trails off, searching for more words, but it's pointless; words don't do shit and they're lies anyway.

Doing something, though: that's different.

He looks around the street at the endless watching eyes of the crowd around them beneath the cheerful lights, wondering how this could happen. Cake, a party, make out with his goddamn boyfriend, show him the view from Sixth, give Cas an awesome night: that's all he wanted. Show him people were better if you just gave them a chance; he was wrong.

"I'll take care of it," Dean breathes; he will this time, like it should have been from the first. "I'm gonna invent something brand new for this, just for them. Promise."

He's just gotta find that knife.

Dean comes awake at the sound of Cas's voice, sounding muffled, saying, "Repeat that."

"Maybe thirteen thousand, give or take," someone responds, and after a moment, Dean recognizes Vera's voice. "At least, that's best guess, no way to be sure. Not like we can do a head count…." Her voice trails off. "Cas?"

Sitting up, Dean tries to clear his head enough to follow what's going on. Alison's spare room, yeah, Cas putting him to bed like a cranky three year old because, holy shit, he was tired, yeah. Cas seducing him with stories of foot washing through the ages and making out in bed and then….

"….thirteen thousand people, give or take, are within Ichabod?" That would be Cas. "You're certain?"

"According to the log, something like that." There's a pause. "Cas, it's a party after an almost five month hiatus on death by just existing," Vera says, sounding puzzled. "People do this. We get optimistic and get drunk to celebrate it. It's a thing."

Thirteen thousand people.

Dean shoves the covers off, the residual exhaustion vanishing under a hit of adrenaline as he swings his legs to the freezing wood floor and flips on the lamp.

"Hey," he says as clearly as he can toward the cracked door, and has the satisfaction of silence before Cas comes in, trailed by Vera. "Anyone want to catch me up?"

"I was about to wake you," Cas answers, sitting down beside him. "Vera, tell Dean what you told me."

"Get a chair." Dean waves toward the empty one by the wall. "What's going on?"

"Meeting wrapped up about ten minutes ago," Vera answers, seating herself gracefully and crossing her legs before looking between them. "There wasn't much to report, but Naresh said they were getting more problems, nothing serious, and pretty much what you'd expect in a group this size. Anyi and Hans have patrol until dawn, and she and I ordered a couple of the teams to help him out, keep the peace, whatever."

"Thirteen thousand," Dean says. "Let's get back to that. When'd you get that?"

"After the meeting," she answers in bewilderment. "Sent Joe to bed, checked in at HQ and Admin, me and Teresa exchanged info before she went to bed, and Anyi took over. Why?"

Dean pinches the bridge of his nose, trying to decide just how crazy he wants to look here, but it's not like Vera ever thought he was sane. "What'd Manuel and Teresa say?"

"Nothing. I mean, they have the same numbers we do, we've checked in every hour. Alison did her--reading mood thing, and didn't pick up anything dangerous, and wards are fine."

He's missing something here, he knows it. "What time is it now?"

"About twenty to four," Vera answers impatiently. "It was a short meeting. Dean, come on. What's wrong?"

He looks at Cas and wonders if he should be relieved that the vague slump has become a lot vaguer. "Cas? How long has it been since we left the party?"

"One hour and forty minutes," he answers, looking into the middle distance. "It couldn't have been more than ten thousand, including the visiting children."

"And ten thousand, that's normal for a party in the infected zone, right?" Vera and Cas's blank expressions tell him they don't know either, which doesn't help. He does some quick math: take Cas's ten and subtract from the current total, that's three thousand people, divide by one and two-thirds hours and…wait, that can't be right. "Vera, you're sure about those numbers?"

"Each team logged estimated numbers and locations after their shift in Cas's notebook starting after the eight o'clock meeting, along with anything that happened during their shift…." She trails off, looking between him and Cas. "What's going on?"

"How was the estimate calculated?" Cas asks Vera.

"Every group that arrived," she answers, frowning slightly. "One in ten otherwise, when we started getting more groups under ten. We played nice; people with kids get weird when someone armed starts asking them questions about where they came from, who knew? Amanda logged six thousand to start us off, and we did the math since."

"When did people start showing up today?" Dean asks Cas.

"An hour before dusk, not including merchants or vendors who arrived early for setup," Cas tell him quietly. "Dusk was at four thirty-eight."

"About thirteen hours ago." There we go. "So about thirteen thousand people now, seven thousand since eight, three thousand since we turned in at two thirty. Cas, math, what's wrong with this?"

"From three-thirty pm to eight o'clock pm yesterday, the average was roughly one thousand, three hundred per hour, but that number includes those vendors that arrived prior to three-thirty, some of those who brought supplies for the evening meal, and five hundred for Ichabod's residents, as some weren't able to attend the celebration or were under the age of three," Cas answers. "From eight o'clock until we left the celebration at approximately two, if my estimate is correct--and it is, within one hundred and sixteen people--the average would be six hundred and sixty-seven per hour," Cas answers. "From two o'clock AM until now, however, if the log is correct, the average for those two hours is two thousand and forty per hour."

Vera sits back. "That's one hell of a jump."

"What about all the kids in the daycare?" Dean asks. "Minus--"

"I calculated in a three hundred and fifty person exclusion to compensate for those who had their children with them most of the evening. If I'm off, it's by one hundred and fifty at best."

"Which wouldn't matter for the three thousand in the last two hours," Dean says grimly. "Am I crazy or is there something wrong with this math?"

"The logs could be off," Vera offers. "Teams changed every hour for Chitaqua and Ichabod; we could have had some double counting with four teams in rotation."

"There's that, yeah." Dean makes himself think logically and remember the daycare is, as yet, not on fire. "Okay, check the our log and Ichabod's, confirm the numbers with patrol if you can find 'em, see what you can get from Anyi, and oh, find Amanda. She was checking the logs every hour, she can tell us….crap, she's off-duty. Where the fuck did she say she was going to be tonight? Dina's, right?"

"She's still around, I think," Vera says, frowning, though Dean thinks that might be at the mention of Dina's name. "She took over HQ while I was at the meeting and told me before I left that she'd hang with me until dawn. Since Joe said I nailed the sitting around doing nothing thing we call 'leadership'."

Dean thinks it's pretty goddamn restrained of him not to comment on that. Yet, anyway. "Funny. So where is she now?"

"Said she wanted to check on something and would be back." Vera gets to her feet. "Want me to send her over when she gets back?"

"Yeah, thanks." Sighing, he waits for the door to close before dropping back on the bed with a sigh and wonders vaguely if it's if he can say he mixed up 'paranoia' and 'being really tired'. It could happen to anyone.

As Cas gets up with a silent shift of springs (they've gotta get this mattress), Dean raises his head and realizes he's wearing a t-shirt (specifically, Beastie Boys) with a sense of foreboding, like maybe he doesn't want to think about why he's surprised by that. Though he could swear…. "Cas?"


Pushing himself upright, Dean confirms sweatpants, t-shirt, and socks, standard nightwear for the (not very) active hunter that he packed himself yesterday morning and tries desperately to leave it there. It's just, he doesn't remember actually putting on--

Oh God, please let this be a fever (sheep?) or inexplicable amnesia (brain damage?) and not-- "Did I fall asleep?"

"Yes," Cas says absently, not even pausing in his rummage through their bag. "That can be assumed since you also woke up. Why?"

Leave it there, that's fine, it's not like it's-- "Were we--did I fall asleep on you?"

"'Under me' would be more accurate," Cas corrects him, like that's in any way relevant except for the part where that actually happened. Searching his memory in growing horror, Dean confirms that is exactly where he was before he--fell asleep. "You were difficult to awaken--"

Drop the shirt; go back to Alison's; leave it alone: so simple, and yet here he is.

"--so I retrieved your t-shirt and socks, as the temperature has dropped," Cas is saying in case Dean is in any way thinking that he may escape this with something other than total fucking humiliation (thanks, Cas). Turning on the balls of his feet, Cas looks at him quizzically, like this is--is pretty much anything but what it actually is. "Dean?"

What this is: he fell asleep in medias foreplay (under Cas), who then couldn't wake him up so dressed him for bed (he was under Cas) and the only thing that could make this okay is if he's also dying (and even that's a stretch).

"If you're curious," Cas offers after a moment, "it's not mandatory but definitely 'highly recommended'. Falling asleep," he explains, apparently under the impression that Dean can process anything. "I don't have to, but I do very much want to."

Dean remembers a time about--oh, two hours ago, give or take--where this was actually something he cared about. A simpler time, when his greatest worry was mindfucking his boyfriend into falling asleep because magic; he misses that.


"I fell asleep." Dropping back, he stares up at the ceiling, going through a mental list of possible causes--curse, geas, compulsion, demons (somehow?), sudden, inexplicable fever (any sheep around?), witches (okay, not witches, fine), evil magical something (maybe?), too-comfortable mattress--and reluctantly lets them all go; time to deal. "I. Fell. Asleep."

"You were very tired," he hears Cas say like that's a sane explanation or something as the mattress dips to his right. "Don't worry; I didn't take it personally."

Opening his eyes, Dean searches Cas's face and fails to find the lie in the amused curve of his mouth. "Dude, I don't know how that happened."

"I expected as much." Pulling up a knee, Cas shrugs like this is common knowledge or something: Dean falls asleep during sex, nothing to worry about, happens all the time. Which--has this happened before? Has he been missing sex all this time because he's falling asleep and Cas just hasn't gotten around to telling him? "You had a very long day."

Dean's never had to carry on what passes for a normal conversation with Cas while experiencing utter humiliation: like falling asleep during sex, that's new (he hopes). It seems to be a theme. "And you're…." He doesn't know what goes there, but maybe Cas will figure it out.

"It's fine," he says dismissively, starting to add something before he looks down at the mattress between them and goes still.

Dean waits, but nothing; glancing down at the quilt beneath his hand, he wonders fatalistically if Cas is about to add an interest in quilting to his list of things to do. No lie, they could use one, but maybe--just a suggestion--Cas could maybe not forget he's talking to him and contemplate advanced sewing shit later. "Cas?"

Cas's head snaps up, looking surprised. "Yes--oh." He shrugs. "There will be other opportunities to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh, of course. Delayed gratification is only gratification multiplied."

Really. "And you're all about delaying gratification?"

"I could be," Cas counters. "Why not?"

While waiting for relief to set in, Dean can't help but notice that Cas showed more (unsettlingly) genuine emotion parting from his goddamn laptop than he is for Dean falling asleep under him (God, that actually happened) during what was definitely going to be something ending in orgasms for all. He's glad Cas isn't pissed--though he wouldn't blame him--and understands that Dean's cursed (metaphorically, fine), but a little disappointment wouldn't be out of place here.

Or--this being Cas--take that shit as a challenge, say something like Vera may be some time, perhaps we should pick up where we left off? at which time Dean would say Hell yes but this time, he's not taking any chances, the door's gonna be locked and he's going to be naked. And Cas'll say Excellent idea, would you like to-- and Dean will say Yes. Now take off your fucking pants already and let's get this show on the road.

What Cas says is, "Do you wish to go back to sleep until Vera returns with the logs?" And means it. While--staring at the goddamn mattress, okay, fine. Then he licks his lips, looking at Dean with an expression he can't quite read. "I'll wake you up, of course."

"Nah, I'm good," he says, scrambling to his feet and Cas frowns. "Bathroom, be right back."

Dean actually does need to use the facilities for their actual intended purpose (he just isn't sure how he feels about jerking off in a shower he's not semi-committed to, and he's hazy on that being okay for guests to do, anyway), and does his mirror routine as he washes his hands. Paranoid, he reminds himself hopefully, staring at what he thinks is a perfectly normal face in the mirror before realizing in horror what he's doing and stops.

Paranoid: that's the reason he's mentally reviewing every conversation he's had with Cas since the Bathroom Thing because Cas can lie with the absolute truth and there's gotta be something he's missed to explain why Guy Who Schedules Daily Orgies (plural, as in more than one a day) and between times might nail someone against a goddamn cabin wall in view of the camp (who were outside and also maybe invisible) is more enthusiastic about his laptop and giving extensive hand massages than….

Paranoid: that thing you do where you're acting goddamn crazy for no (maybe some?) real reason (he hopes).

In the spirit of not being crazy, he rinses off the soap and reaches to turn off the faucet before he stops short, rapidly cooling water running over his hands as he takes in the reddish marks circling his wrists. Swallowing, he fumbles the water off and turns his hand, tracing the shape of Cas's fingers in his skin and pressing into the darkening smudge at the side of his right wrist from Cas's thumb, breath catching at the brief flare of pain. So that's what Cas was looking at

He only hesitates a second before tugging up the t-shirt and staring at the neat line of purple marching from beneath the edge of his sweatpants to just below his collarbone.

Even he can't work out how that fits into paranoid theory of Dean Is Less Attractive Than Spreadsheets and Massage Therapy; that might be because it's a stupid goddamn theory and he's acting crazy.

Dropping the soft cotton, he goes back out the door and down the hall, pushing open the half-open door. "Cas--" he starts and stops short at the sight of Amanda, looking worried and way too goddam armed and Cas reading--something. What's she doing here?

"I was at HQ when Vera showed up," she says, smiling briefly, but something in her expression makes him still. "Got a few things."

Right, that. Giving up (there will be opportunities, per Cas), he crosses to the bed, pointing tiredly at the chair. "Sit down. So, whatcha got?"

"Short version: if the logs are off, it's not by much," Amanda finishes, perched on the empty chair and looking between them as Cas scans the log for any discrepancies as well as what they got from Anyi. Dean really wonders about her; where the fuck does she get the energy? It's just past four in the goddamn morning, and she was instructing her kids until noon yesterday before giving them the rest of the day off. "I verified every hour with HQ and Admin, and if there are mistakes, everyone's making the same ones."

"What was the sampling?" Cas asks, paging through the log and probably committing every number and misspelled word to memory.

"You're lucky you got us in the habit of reports," she answers wryly. "I took notes myself every time I checked in at HQ and debriefed the teams." Pulling out a notebook with a smug flourish, she hands it to Cas when he holds out a hand. "Sampling average got sketchy, so I had to do some guessing from what I read and saw at the entrance point, so let's go with that. I gave them 6000 for eight, and first estimate at 9:00 was about 6800 by eyeball for Ichabod and 6600 for Chitaqua, so I went with 6700. This is where it gets interesting; sampling was about one and ten for Ichabod and Chitaqua both, them with three teams, us with one. Nine to ten: 7500; ten to eleven, 8400; eleven to twelve, 9200; twelve to one, 9400, no real surprises; survey says some out of towners, but a lot of locals within forty miles of Ichabod or Harlin. I checked with Alison, and apparently at least seven local towns as of now have approached her about the big meeting."

Despite himself, Dean grins. "Mayors sent home to tell 'em to check it out?"

"Free food in the infected zone?" Amanda snorts. "I'd need a confirmed Lucifer sighting near the curry to stop me coming, just saying." She looks at Cas. "What do you think?"

"I'm not familiar enough with human celebrations--in or outside the infected zone--but Joseph said the local population is at least twenty thousand in this area," he answers slowly. "And that is only an estimate from towns who allowed him access. The upper limit could be closer to sixty thousand from the number of towns we confirmed are occupied in central Kansas."

"So far so good, right?" She nods, smile fading. "One to two, same deal, about 200 came in so up to 9600. The notes in the log, though--"

"Traffic," Cas says, and Amanda nods. "That's noted from some of those at earlier times."

"Which makes sense; there's only one road into Ichabod and four feeders that are drivable, and those mayors sent for their people around six; if all of them hit those roads, we got our first infected zone traffic jam since the run to the border when we were zoned," she answers. "Then at three, I took over HQ while Vera was at the meeting and took the reports: Chitaqua's numbers were normal and so were two of Ichabod's teams, but one was called by those guarding the barrier across Main Street, caught a pretty large group wandering up from the south acting like maybe they didn't want to be seen."

"Parking lot's north," Dean says with a frown. "For that matter, everyone does drop off at the Third Street entrance. What they say? Got lost?"

"They said the north lot was full and someone--no names of course--directed them to a spot south of town, where most of Chitaqua and the early vendors parked, in case this is relevant. Which might be true, but Anyi was surprised to hear about it and we sent out someone to ask every team who was on duty tonight about that."

"So how many people are logged as of three o'clock?" Cas asks.

"Including what turned out to be two separate groups coming from the south, one wandering innocently down Baltimore, some terribly lost people on Sixth, and what was logged at the entrance point on Third?" Amanda sits back. "Survey says around eleven thousand, two hundred."

"Sixteen hundred people showed up? Between two and three?" Dean asks blankly.

"No, it's definitely more than that. When I left HQ, I gave orders to the team on duty with patrol to do a flat headcount, and Anyi gave the order for Ichabod as well. Eighteen hundred more were added when Vera got back from the meeting, and yeah, she already explained I should have been a little clearer what was going on before I left."

Dean starts to ask why she wasn't and then shakes his head, annoyed with himself. "You weren't sure?"

"I thought…" She trails off uncomfortably

"…you were being paranoid," Dean finishes for her with a sigh. "Join the club. So what were you doing just now?"

"Making sure," she answers shortly. "On my way, I talked to Han's team at the entrance point, them being better at the 'people' thing. They said something--" She hesitates. "They said the newer arrivals were way too excited about getting here, despite missing midnight toasts and everything."


"They thought 'relieved' might also be a valid interpretation." She shifts restlessly in her chair. "They're bringing their kids."

"Not like there's always daycare when you want to party--" Dean starts.

"Grandma, grandpa, great-aunt Sue could watch 'em," she answers. "Except apparently they brought them, too. And creepy Cousin Fred no one likes but family, see where I'm going with this?"

Cas looks up. "Extended families."

"Exactly." She makes a face. "Look, I got curious, and since I was technically off duty…."

"Were you toilet-papering someone's house?" Dean asks curiously, biting back a grin at Amanda's glare. "Look, whatever you did--"

"It's more what I want to do now, but I think you need to see it first in case I’m--I don't know." Something in her voice makes Cas straighten and sets off every alarm that a lifetime of hunting's installed screaming in his head. "So I checked out the new south parking lot. We both did some weird hunts, so--you ever been to Disney World?"

"On a hunt? Once, yeah." He makes a note to ask her later which freaky popular animal-shaped poltergeist she got stuck with. He really thought he was used to that kind of shit, but nothing in his life prepared him for chasing down a homicidal Mickey fucking Mouse while Sam questioned his entire childhood and life choices beside him. "Why?"

"Ever make it to the parking lot?"

"Give us five minutes," Cas says into the ominous silence. "We'll meet you outside."

"Jeep's right outside," she says, getting to her feet. "I'll be there."

It takes Dean a couple of seconds to take in what he's seeing, and it's not the fact it's after four in the morning, a few degrees below freezing, and dark as all hell. He's not sure it's a relief or not that Cas has been dead silent since they got here, and Amanda, standing on his left, radiates how much she wishes this was just a matter of normal person versus hunter paranoia.

It could be, Dean admits to himself, except for the part it's not paranoia at all.

"Holy shit." Starting ten feet from them and stretching into the darkness just south of Ichabod is what looks like every car in the world crushed together in an endless black and grey mass that seems like it goes on forever. Could be because it's night and human vision sucks. "So how far--"

"I don't know," Cas says flatly. "The curve of the earth is interfering."

Jesus fucking Christ.

"Anyi said the road into the northeast parking field is packed for a quarter mile," Amanda says softly. "She has no idea when, but they checked the engines and they weren't warm, though in this weather, that might not mean much."

He should have checked earlier, except Jesus, why would they check the parking lot for fuck's sake. He's a hunter, not a goddamn parking attendant. Searching the endless, endless rows, his mind keeps getting overwhelmed by the sheer number.

"Can you count how many…don't answer that," he says quickly, almost feeling Cas about to tell him, because his math tricks are like that. "Give me a minute. Everyone parked here that couldn't get to the north lot?"

"No, this is--overflow, maybe, I'm not sure," Amanda answers slowly, and wait, what?


"Yeah, uh--" She stops short, taking a deep breath before continuing. "When I saw this, I went off-road to see how far down the road to the training field it was blocked, which is all the way, including three deep beside the road. I couldn't get any closer, but the training field's surrounded on all sides for at least a quarter mile." She looks at Dean. "Dean, when me and Vera came here to get the Eldritch Horror from your jeep, it was just us and the vendors, and the road from the training field was fine. Good thing I was lazy and parked on Syracuse--you know, in case the vendors needed things moved."

"So the training field was first," Dean says slowly, and Amanda nods. "Two miles from Ichabod. Then our mystery parking attendant decided hey, let's get closer? How did no one at the Third Street entrance point or perimeter see anyone going south?"

"Because they didn't use the main road into Ichabod," Cas answers distractedly, eyes unfocusing as he looks into the distance. "Just before the hill on the road that leads into Ichabod, there's a road--"

"You mean the old cattle trail thing?" Dean asks blankly. "That's not a road."

"It's dirt," Amanda confirms. "It's surrounded in brush; you can barely see it when it's not covered in snow. How the hell did they even see it? If it wasn't on Cas's maps, I wouldn't even have remembered it was there."

"Was?" Amanda raises an eyebrow. "Don't tell me--it's blocked?"

"Only other road into Ichabod--if dirt counts, and today, it does--and it's blocked straight back to the tree line, which is as far as I could see from the jeep," Amanda says, looking at Cas, who nods distractedly. "On a guess--can't confirm since I haven't seen it yet--it's full of abandoned vehicles when no one could get into here anymore."

Dean stares at the field of cars as far as (his eyes) can see. "North lot, the training field, here…."

"Assume three to four a vehicle--and that's conservative--"

"We're at way over thirteen thousand," Dean says grimly, looking between Amanda and Cas. "So where are they?"

"All three streets south of Baltimore are either burned out or barely stable, that's why Tony red-lined everything. Seventh and Sixth are mostly red-lined, but if all you want is a roof and someplace no one would have any reason to look inside…."

"But why?" He stares at the ruins of fields west of Ichabod covered in cars like snow, and realizes something else. "Disney World--huge parking lot, yeah, I remember seeing it when we caught Mickey making for Epcot--don't they have spaces to park in?"

"Ever think about what those yellow and white lines mean?"

He licks his lips. "I am now."

"Yeah, we just do it because that's what you do when you see a parking lot; you park between the lines. It's not like it's instinct or anything--" she breaks off, and Dean realizes she's genuinely unnerved. "Don't think about it, just glad to get a good one and hope when you leave it's not a bitch to get out."

"No one's getting out of that." There may be walking room between, but not much. "Including us."

"I don't think anyone's supposed to," Cas says softly, and that's exactly what Dean was thinking.

"So, talking to the new arrivals hasn't told us much, but I was thinking--maybe it's just we don't know the right questions so we can tell what they're lying about." Turning away, Amanda opens the back of the jeep and pulls out a backpack and slides it over her shoulder, tilting her head toward the mass of vehicles. "You up to some breaking and entering?" She pats the bag. "I keep my kit handy. For emergencies."

Despite himself, he grins at her, thinking of the trunk of the Impala. "Turn around and let me get the flashlights. Cas--"

"Bobby gave me a bottle of whiskey when I graduated to armored vehicles," he says, taking the flashlight Dean offers. "You offered a prostitute, gender unimportant."

Amanda bursts into laughter. "That doesn't surprise me."

"I'm like that," he agrees, surveying the parking lot, pick out his sampling. "We'll start with warm engines and work backward. I think I know what you were thinking. Let's find out if we're both right."

Six cars later, Dean's confirmed that there's walking space, but just barely. Currently, most of it is taken up with the contents of the trunk and backseat of an ancient station wagon, so rusty that he's not convinced there's any paint left. Sitting in the driver's seat with the door open, he watches Cas casually open a bulging suitcase, flashlight between his teeth, before he sits back on his heels as the pile of clothes erupting from inside in a froth of cotton, wool, and denim that he controls with one hand resting effortlessly on top. Just beyond him, Amanda's checking the spread of camp equipment found in the trunk, and Dean reflects these people seem to be really well prepared for people going to a party.

"Used last night," she confirms, shaking her head at the hastily-rolled tent before, unable to help herself, repacking it correctly in the case that'd they'd found on the back floorboard. "Five sleeping bags, all recently used, and two kerosene lamps, linen's still damp. Luggage?"

"Very fast packing," Cas confirms, sorting through the mess into definitive layers of t-shirts and underwear and socks, like entire drawers were dumped wholesale into the suitcase before it was zipped closed. Finishing up, Cas carefully eases it all inside again--in the original layers even, because Cas--shutting it one-handed before efficiently zipping it closed. "What about the gas?"

Dean's already half-done with a quick and dirty hotwire and lets the stutter of the engine be his answer. Straightening, he points his flashlight at the manual gauges and finding the gas, like four of the last five, stuck on empty.

"Got another winner," he says, pulling the wires and letting it sputter itself out as he sits back in his seat, looking at the baggies of dried fruit and vegetables, beef jerky, cheese, and stale bread that he'd recovered from the backseat: homemade camping supplies, if you were the kind that went camping during an Apocalypse in the infected zone and decided to go to a party on the way home. "Plates?"

"Sharon Springs," Amanda says as she and Cas reload the trunk. "District One, western border. Four west so far."

Resting an arm on the steering wheel as he surveys the field of cars before them. "Just me, or is anyone else seeing a pattern here other than surprisingly high representation for the western border of Kansas?"

"Precautions for long trips," she offers.

"One way trips," Cas says, leaning against a hideous orange Nova. "Gasoline supplies to the infected zone--outside deals with the border guard, of course--are very strictly rationed. A community's requisition is barely enough for local use and most of that, according to the Alliance, is used for farming. Individual use…." He shakes his head. "I assume that wouldn't be common."

Yeah, Dean was wondering about that. Getting up, he shuts the door. "Okay, one more. Cas, it's your pick this time."

"Five rows west, three north," he decides, and with a sigh, Dean heaves himself out of the station wagon. "Something in green, perhaps."

Dean gets out of the way when Cas picks a nightmarish lime-green SUV, letting Amanda and Cas pursue the manual labor portion of the strip-search. He's gotta admit, this recovering thing isn't half-bad as an excuse, mostly because Amanda takes the huge overstuffed suitcase from Cas with barely a twitch and he just can't deal with that right now.

As Cas and Amanda go through the trunk, Dean searches the front seat, finding what he's come to think of as standard rations--home dried fruit and meat, bags of nuts, slightly stale bread, chunks of semi-green cheese, plastic bottles with worn-off labels almost empty of water--then goes under the seats and in the glove compartment. It's so rote that he almost misses the crinkle when he sits back in the driver's seat, and looking down, he turns the flashlight on the space between the seats and sees a corner of paper.

Pulling it out carefully, he squints at the shitty Xerox quality, shaking it out of folds done so many times they're worn into the paper, and spreads it out on the wheel before turning the flashlight on it. The quality is just as crappy as he thought, but the dark shapes are familiar enough that he doesn't need much.

"Cas." As Cas appears beside him, he hands him the paper. "Recognize it?"

Crouching, he takes Dean's flashlight, eyes tracking down the paper and the blue eyes widen. "It's one of our maps."

"That's what I thought." God knows he's watched Cas drawing freehand maps at the kitchen table way too many mornings not to recognize his work on a glance, every line committed to memory. Looking over Cas's shoulder, memory makes it easier to differentiate the lighter shades of black, tracing out the lines of the roads almost impossible to see without knowing where they are from an undifferentiated pixelated grey background. Skimming down, he turns the flashlight on a darker blob and the more recent addition of a circle around it, obscuring the original name, but it's not like the location's a mystery: Ichabod.

Cas's eyes narrow. "Amanda, come here."

"What'd you find?" she says, but her voice cuts off as she joins them, dropping down to stare at the map. "How--Cas, I didn't give this to anyone."

"Where is it?"

"The same place I keep everything; in my trunk under salt, and I check my salt lines when I leave and come back," she answers, surprise melting into confusion. "I haven't even taken it out since we got here."

"It was probably a guess, as you're the commander here," Cas answers absently, tilting his head to give the map a dissatisfied look. "It must have been one of the visitors when you and Mark started training Ichabod's residents, and probably someone not part of the five communities we negotiated with. There's no reason otherwise."

Dean looks between them, wondering why Cas looks amused. "You wanna catch me up? How'd they get her map?"

"The more important question, in this case, is why they'd bother breaking and entering--and risking the salt lines--for something that's currently nailed to Alison's office wall and copies given to the residents on demand. That holds true for all the Alliance towns."

"You think they wanted the patrol districts?" she asks, frowning.

"Those are on the Alliance maps, too, not just Amanda's," Dean points out, wondering what he's missing. "So why--oh. They think hers has--what--secret information we didn't share with everyone else? Do we have secret information? Do I know it?"

"I'd like to know it, too." Amanda frowns, head tipping sideways. "Nothing's on here you couldn't get from the local library--except the patrol routes--and these people don't strike me as the kind to need that."

"They would if they were trying to avoid attention if they knew what to look for and where," Dean says. "Especially if they were on the road more than one night."

Amanda's frown deepens. "Patrol would have reported that."

"Exactly. Guess they didn't figure on the blizzard, or me taking everyone off-duty." He tries to think. "And the library doesn't have the most anal mapmaker in history telling everyone to report potholes, either, much less which roads still count as 'roads' including counting--on a guess--that goddamn cattle trail. Because five thousand colors of map pencils and pens, why not color the roads based on quality."

Cas gives him a narrow look but doesn't deny it. "You can't even see the colors on this copy."

"Yeah, but you can see that cattle trail. Check it out--they marked it in just in case. Along with how to get here." Reaching down, Dean traces the thicker darkness--Christ, they must have gone blind using this--that appears on the four roads that converge on the single working road that goes into Ichabod. "This is our original, right?"

"I haven't finished with the new version from Kamal's updates during his tenure here," Cas answers, frowning. "So yes."

That's what he was hoping he'd say. "Okay, new plan," he says, nudging Cas's ankle to get him moving. Getting out, he tries to decide if he needs more confirmation or just wants it. Why not both? "Amanda, I need two teams over here to keep searching, see how many cars have these maps. How fast can you get them?"

"Let me talk to Vera first, but twenty minutes at most," she answers, pushing a loose tendril of hair off her forehead. "Sean and James should be available. They'll have to find 'em in here," she says, "but our jeeps should all have kits."

"If they don't," Cas says pleasantly, taking the backpack from Amanda, "Sheila and Frederick will be explaining the reason why to me personally when we return to Chitaqua."

"Get them out here and tell them what we're looking for," he says, holding up the map. "One team here, one for the training field. They got two hours to hit as many cars as they can and tell em to get license plates, registration, and anything else they find that might tell us something. When you're done, meet us at the north parking lot." Dean starts to dismiss her when he remembers something else. "Alicia's team--what are they doing right now?"

Amanda frowns, thinking. "Should be coming off perimeter, I think."

"Bring them with you. Also, check out the entrance point and eyeball me a headcount."

"Got it. Take my jeep, you got a longer way to go. I think there's a truck on Sycamore I can hotwire."

Tossing him the keys, she starts to wind her way between the cars back to town, and Dean sighs, tossing them to Cas. "You have the magic night vision, fine. You drive."

"Thank you," Cas answers. "Why do we need Alicia's team?"

Dean pauses, looking at the brush and trees that Ichabod's allowed to grow wild. (He doesn't need to wonder how much Teresa had to do with assuring the convenient placement and fast growth of random vegetation.) Another defense against being found, making Ichabod despite its position on a hill invisible from any of the roads for miles--and the roads invisible to Ichabod as well. Single or barely double fucking county roads that are--on a guess--now filled with all the cars that can fit.

Cas follows his gaze, and he can see the moment he gets it. "If the roads are filled, there's no way to leave Ichabod unless on foot, even if we had access to our vehicles."

"You were right." Shoving his hands in his pockets, Dean watches his own breath freezing white in front of them. "No one's supposed to leave."

The original parking lot, in contrast, is pretty much what you'd expect of a parking lot (in a field, that is). At least at the start.

Using Seventh (Dean waves frantically out the window at the startled patrol from Icahbod as they pass), they go a couple of miles through the slowly-disappearing ruins of the eastern part of town before reaching the open pastureland northeast of Ichabod and midpoint of the roped-off parking lot. Staring there, it's easy for Dean to track the change: neat rows with plenty of space between for easy access that slowly deteriorates as they work their way north toward the lot's entrance point.

Not a lot of single cars or trucks at first: a few minivans, vans, SUVs, and Winnebagos, all maximized for space and (probably) gas efficiency, but mostly lines of buses, from the yellow of school buses to a couple of serious Greyhounds, some mid-size charters, and--holy shit, a goddamn Megabus, two stories of glory that he and Cas both explore immediately (for work related and not checking out a two story bus purposes; that's just a perk). Definitely all local: gas is between three quarters and half a tank, the interior and exterior well-maintained--for value of that in the infected zone, which is pretty goddamn impressive now that he thinks about what they have to work with--seats patched and repaired, broken windows neatly taped over, cargo areas empty, but from the sight of a few stray bags and boxes he can guess which ones are also used for trade. Just peering in the windows of some confirms the obvious: the lack of luggage is a pretty good indicator that these are from the Alliance or local communities, coming by in groups for the party and drinking away the old year before drinking in the new without wasting community-owned gas.

There's no way to be sure about order of arrival, but it's not exactly hard to guess; the broken rope two thirds of the way from the midpoint to the north road entrance, the sudden number of cars and trucks--and vans and minibuses and Winnebagos, though less of 'em--start looking way too well-packed and invisible parking lines vanish into chaos. Not to mention shittier the farther he goes: shattered windshields and passenger windows permanently down or gone, and some he wouldn't have guessed could run at all from a glance at the nightmare beneath the hood. Like maybe a few weeks (days) ago they'd been rusting their way to oblivion before some frantic work to get them going if a glance at one engine with an ad-hoc repair job is anything to go by.

Surprise, surprise, those are the ones without a single drop of gas left in the tank.

Ignoring the growing headache forming behind his eyes--he doesn't have time for that shit right now--Dean walks the length of a broken down school bus, yellow paint cracked and flaking and the contrast between this one and the local versions is almost painful. Cracked, missing windows, paper and even clothing taped hastily over where the glass is missing altogether, metal floors rusted almost straight through (and making him very careful where he steps), cracked vinyl seats drooling yellowed stuffing when they aren't missing altogether between badly-packed bags, clothes, sleeping bags, and blankets scattered in drifts over the floor in the back, the occasional empty baby bottle that makes his throat tight. A glance at the front told him that heat wasn't an option, and no way would those windows have held back much of the cold. Looking at the piles of clothing and blankets in the place of missing seats, he tries not to wonder how long they were on the road when it was still snowing three days ago.

Making his way back to the front, he drops heavily in the driver's seat, reaching to unfold the worn paper taped left of the dashboard to reveal the familiar grey-black landscape and those same goddamn lines following those four roads; shitty copies of those maps Cas had carefully drawn for Amanda and the mayors when they'd first come here. Pulling it free, he stuffs it in his pocket and wipes the toner residue from his fingers onto his jeans and tries to focus on now.

"Dean," Cas says from the open door, and Dean looks at him. Same coat, same jeans, same boots, same slouch, armed to the teeth, and he remembers when seeing this was brand new, watching incredulously as Cas took on eight demons in Kansas City holding a gun in one hand and a knife in the other with the casual focus of a hunter, like he did this shit every goddamn day, and as it turns out, that's exactly what he did. Sparring with Amanda, the thing with Jeffrey, the footage from the attack on Ichabod that Dean finally got to watch, he's gotten used to it, but it hits him again now. He's not looking at an angel of the Lord, righteous rage who dispenses justice with a sword; he's looking at a hunter whose learned the hard way how his body can be as much a weapon as any gun, and to use it just as effortlessly as he'd learned to breathe.

Dean closes his eyes at his own (inevitable) reaction: fuck biology, this isn't the time.

"How's the north road?" he asks, though he's pretty sure from Cas's expression he can guess.

"Vehicles are blocking it and are parked as far as I can see down the road on the north edge of town," he answers. "They may also be in the northern fields as well, though I doubt it."

"Great." Dean gets to his feet and starts for the stairs. The wave of vertigo doesn't surprise him--he does actually get Vera was right about him taking it easy and he's running on less than seven hours in the last forty-eight at best, and that's after three previous nights of post-midnight home repair--but the fact he finds himself on his own feet and leaning against the engine instead of face first on the ground does.

Head clearing, he grins at Cas, who's watching him worriedly from only a few inches away, one arm around his waist, and thinks of what else Cas could do with those kinds of reflexes. "That was kind of hot."

Cas's eyes widen, and he blames vertigo and fucking biology; this is not the goddamn time.

"Start over," he states firmly, clapping Cas on the shoulder. "Thanks."

"How are you feeling?" Cas asks as he reluctantly steps back, not even pretending he'll believe anything Dean says.

"Fine," he lies, not moving from his lean against the engine. After several long seconds, the ground slams back into place under his feet, vision clearing into a view of a snowy night in the middle of a de facto parking lot. "Just tired, okay?"

Cas nods, but the worried frown deepening.

"Promise." Over Cas's shoulder, he can just make out the approach of several figures, which means that he really doesn't have time for this. "Want to check my temperature?"

"Yes." Cold fingers press against his forehead, and Dean waits, not enjoying this at all, really. (What the fuck is wrong with him? Cas is just touching his forehead. Cas is touching him. Fuck biology so fucking much.) "One hundred point three two."

"That's nothing," he scoffs; hallucinations aren't even on the table until one-oh-four, come on.

"I doubt it's anything to concern us unduly," Cas says reluctantly. "But cold can depress the immune system and increase susceptibility to viral infection and sleep deprivation doesn't help. You should return to bed."

"As soon as we're done," he promises, jerking his head toward the group now making their way through the cars toward him. "Cas, come on. We got shit to do."

Reluctantly, he steps back, one hand lingering on Dean's shoulder until Dean proves he can stay upright with a couple of steps. Before he can say anything, however, Amanda trots ahead, and from the expression on her face, she saw enough.

"Hey," she says, scanning him in a glance and mouth tightening; looking between her and Cas, Dean fights down another grin at the identical expressions of suppressed worry and annoyance, noting her hand twitching like maybe she wants to check his temperature, too. "Dean--"

"Fine, just tired, shit to do," he mutters before turning toward Alicia and her team. To his relief, they seem to have missed the drama that is his fucking shitty health. "First, what was the Third Street entrance point like?"

"Over fifty that I could see," she says. "And a lot I couldn't, since the lights aren't that big. They said it's over three hundred and counting."

He nods, not surprised. "Alicia, you got three hours: check all four roads that feed into the one coming into Ichabod and as far as you can get on those in that time. You'll probably have to do it on foot, so be careful. Report what you see as soon as you get back. Any questions?" Alicia shakes her head firmly. "Good. Give me a minute with Amanda and she'll drive you as far as she can, which on a guess won't be far."

Alicia nods, gesturing to her team as they go. Dean tries not to resent their easy jog when he feels like sitting down and never getting up again, but it's really goddamn hard. Amanda steps closer to the bus as Dean lets himself lean back against the engine again, face carefully expressionless until Alicia's out of sight.

"Dean, maybe you should--" she struggles for a minute. "Get some rest, okay? We can report to you and Cas at Alison's just as easily where it's warm. With blankets," she adds, in a moment of inspiration. "And coffee."

"Coffee would be nice." He takes a deep breath and almost regrets it at the razor-edge of cold air trying to freeze his lungs; oddly enough, though, that helps. "We got to get the rest of Chitaqua down here."

"If the roads are…." Amanda's expression abruptly clears as she starts to grin. "Kamal's updates to Cas's maps since we got here. Those weren't on those Xeroxes. That's why you asked if those copies were from the original"

"Got it in one," he agrees. "You tell me, how much did he get done and can we use any of it?"

"Every farm road, private road, and goddamn animal trail for fifteen miles," she confirms. "Nothing but an SUV could make most of them unless you walk 'em, though. We can use my jeep, but--"

"What about a motorcycle?" Cas asks unexpectedly. "Manuel told me that they sometimes use them on patrol, but only rarely due to gas restrictions."

She nods slowly. "Yeah, Manual showed me where they are. I can drive one, but not off-road, gonna admit that now. Which most of the drive is gonna be, one way or another."

"Leah and Mark are both competent drivers: in Leah's case, her juvenile record indicates she prefers challenging terrain and likes to win." Cas glances at him for confirmation and he nods firmly, making a note to ask Leah about that one day. "We can siphon gas from our jeeps if necessary. Tell Vera to speak to Claudia and Anyi while you get Kamal's updated map and find Mark and Leah and bring them to us at Alison's."

Amanda nods, eyes darting to Dean. "How much should Vera tell them?"

Good question: an answer would be even better. From Cas's expression, he's not getting any help there. "Everything," he decides; there's no point in having allies if they don't actually treat them like it, and hey, might as well spread out the work. "And emphasize we may be just paranoid."

"Got it." Watching her jog into the darkness, blonde ponytail bouncing behind her, he reminds himself he doesn't actually hate her. "That attack on Ichabod."

Cas nods, waiting.

"You said they didn't recognize you at first." He takes a deep breath. "The one in the daycare--I don't think he recognized me.

"They were good," he continues, breathing easier at Cas's continued lack of interest in Dean's very shitty memory of that day. "It's not like they're new at this, so how the hell could they not recognize at least one of us on sight?"

"Demon memory isn't any better than human," Cas answers. "And the time differentiation between earth and Hell doesn't help. At minimum, the last time Dean and I would have been seen by any of them--other than Jeffrey, of course--was in Kansas City, which would have been at least one hundred and sixty years in Hell. Those that survived would have been the ones who confirmed Dean's death. If no one in the daycare used your name…." He shrugs. "The demon was probably too focused on performing the ritual to notice the resemblance."

"The resemblance?" Belatedly, he remembers the skeletal face grinning at him from mirror and then scowls, revising that to the latest version. So he doesn't look dead anymore: big improvement, yeah, but doesn't mean much. "Yeah, I guess I look pretty different now."

Cas's serious expression cracks as he rolls his eyes. "Not that different, no, but you're different people; there's a difference in body language and how you carry yourself. Along with the lingering effects of the fever, there's enough of a physical alteration, most especially in weight, that someone who didn't know you well and relied on identification on a glance--while distracted--would make a mistake." Dean fights down the warmth from that; if Cas is lying, he really doesn't want to know. "More importantly, these are demons, not humans. Dean Winchester is supposed to be dead, and my Brother would have spread that knowledge through Hell within moments of leaving this plane, which Jeffrey confirmed."

"What are you gonna believe," Dean says deliberately, "what Lucy said or your own eyes?"

"What do you think?" Cas pauses, blue eyes distant. "You said something earlier--two plans, part of a bigger plan with more parts to come…."

"I’m really starting to hate people quoting me."

"Be less interesting, less disturbingly accurate, or avoid baiting your soldiers," Cas answers with the ghost of a grin. "We still have no idea where the people who were infected came from."

"Demons probably grabbed an entire town or something," he answers impatiently. "No one left alive to report, though might be a question to ask some of Ichabod's out-of-area visitors, now that you mention it."

"Not an entire town," Cas says slowly, frowning. "At least…."


Cas shakes his head. "I'm not sure. I need to check with Manuel on the casualty reports."

Okay, then. "So the people coming in….chances they're carrying Croat?" Cas raises an eyebrow. "Just spitballing here, come on. Chances?"

"I doubt it," Cas answers slowly. "Teresa's certain that the wards react to infection at an hour or when it hits threshold for the body in question, which would match my ability to sense it. Alison would have picked up guilt when she toured the ward lines checking the new arrivals. Not impossible, but….many brought their children and elderly parents with them. They wouldn't risk their lives."

"Didn't stop the people at the daycare," Dean says bitterly, and Cas seems about to say something before he simply nods. "So other than mass Croat infection, what fun things can you do with a lot of people in a given space? Just me, or is this starting to feel less like a big party and more like bait for an unthinkable kind of trap?"

Cas's eyebrows jump. "Assuming a successful sacrificial circle could even be drawn around wards created by an acolyte of the earth…."

Despite himself, he grins at the incredulity in Cas's voice as he trails off suggestively. "This is really new? Cut me some slack here: worst case scenario."

"Not that," Cas answers positively. "This is Teresa's domain and to get a circle without flaw--especially one with two rings--they'd be drawing it directly into the earth, not asphalt or cement or even a floor; the earth would notice that and therefore so would she. Further, even uncharacteristically proactive and determined demons with greater than average artistic skills would find it a challenge to draw an unbroken circle in six feet of snow around this entire town, which would require a perimeter of at least fifty miles over hills to avoid most of the major obstructions in the landscape and honestly, I'm not sure the landscape itself could support it." Dean makes a face; that's a hell of a lot of miles. "People have been driving in, apparently by the thousands--" They both wince at the reminder. "In any case, while not outside the realm of possibility, it simply has far too many variables beyond their control to make the risk worth it even with the potential payoff, which I remind you still isn't guaranteed, as the full sacrifice has never been accomplished on earth. And that doesn't include the weather and the very high chance of snow in the next three days."

Dean thinks of the demons choosing that church and kind of has to agree. "Demons aren't gamblers."

Cas roll his eyes. "This is Russian roulette with an unknown number of guns and all of them loaded. They couldn't pull this off even by accident, Dean, not under these conditions."


"That doesn't mean it's not a trap," Cas says. "However, that requires there be bait."

"Exactly." Sitting back, Dean meets Cas's eyes. "So what's the bait: the party, or the people? And for what? Or who?"

As they start back toward their jeep--which is getting steadily farther away every time Dean looks--he tries to think of anything he's missed here besides every fucking thing while he still can. The Dean Winchester of this world would have figured this out when he got to Ichabod; he'd know, not guess but know what the hell was going on by now; he lived this world's history that he's only listened to and has barely begun to learn, much less understand.

Dean stumbles to a stop and realizes something he should have known from the first: I can't do this.


"What the hell am I doing?" he asks, staring at the distant lights of the town. "I'm about to call Chitaqua to war and we don't even know what we're supposed to be fighting or if there's anything we can fight. If I'm wrong--"

"Then it will certainly be an excellent solution to boredom," Cas interrupts musingly. "After they arrive, we'll direct them to the alcohol while we sleep and threaten to kill anyone who disturbs us before tomorrow evening."

Dean turns to look at him incredulously. "So you have an answer to everything?"

"When in doubt, make something up," Cas says, one corner of his mouth quirking upward. "It works surprisingly well."

"And if I'm not wrong?" Dean forces his numb lips to shape the words. "I missed--Christ, I don't even know how much I missed yet! When Chitaqua gets here, they'll expect me to tell them what to do--fuck, Manuel and Teresa think I know what I'm doing!"


"He'd know what he was doing," Dean breathes, making himself say it. "I’m not him, Cas. I can't do this."

For what feels like years, Cas doesn't say anything; only the faint puffs of frost tell Dean he's still breathing, still and silent, and no matter how much he tries, he can't figure out what Cas is thinking right now. Disappointed, yeah, and Dean would tell him he brought it on himself, but when Cas said that he could win this that day, he'd let Cas believe it because somehow--somehow, he'd started to believe it himself.

"You're not him," Cas says finally, so quietly that if there was even a breath of wind, Dean never wouldn't have heard it. "I would have followed him anywhere he led. It was my purpose--he was my purpose; I couldn't imagine doing anything else."

It's gotta be the cold; suddenly, Dean can't seem to get a breath that doesn't feel like the slice of a knife in his guts, digging deeper with every moment that passes.

"I don't know how you could have expected anything else," Cas continues, still quiet but voice ripping with something else. "I was an angel forever--literally--and habit can be very hard to break and there was no reason to even try. What happened was impossible; how was I supposed to imagine you?"

Dean stills, breath caught in his throat. "What?"

"If I had…." Cas closes his eyes, wetting his lips before he looks at Dean again. "Two years, four months, twenty-two days--it's nothing, no time at all, a drop in eternity, but it would have been enough. I would have made it enough, so I would be ready for you."

"Cas." It's barely a whisper.

"Two years is nothing," Cas repeats, taking a step toward him. "I could have done it, I could have made myself ready, but I didn't. So now is all I have, and it'll have to be enough. I Fell to fight, because this world's worth fighting for, for Dean, because he was my purpose, because that was what I was supposed to do, but you…I'll follow you anywhere, everywhere, wherever you might want to go, because I want to." Cas swallows before meeting Dean's eyes. "Do you remember when you asked me to help you in Dean's cabin that day?"

He nods blankly.

"I've been ordered, manipulated, blackmailed, compelled, forced, tortured, but you….." Cas licks his lips, looking uncertain. "You were the first to simply ask. As if I even had the right to the question."

"You do," he answers, knee-jerk. "Always."

"You asked me that day why I said yes, why I agreed to help you," Cas continues quietly. "Now you know."

Dean frantically searches for something--anything--to say to that, but when Cas starts to smile, what comes out of his mouth is, "You think this is funny?"

"It's not a log in Virginia, no," he concedes--wait,what?--smile widening. "Then again, the lack of toads descending at terminal velocity is definitely a plus."

Dean stares at him helplessly. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

"You don't see the humor," Cas observes intelligently. "I suggest you try. Of course you can do this; you're doing it right now. And I'm going to help."

"Doing what?" he shouts, utterly unnerved by Cas's smirk, like it's all he can do to control his pre-death hilarity. "I don't know what I'm doing!"

"Welcome to humanity," Cas answers, unimpressed. "I've only been mortal for two years, but that, I managed to figure out; what's your excuse?"

He shuts his mouth on the automatic answer; it might be the non-existent fever or something, but Cas may actually been right. "So…."

"I think we should consider delaying a pre-emptive declaration of defeat, yes. At least until we have some idea of what it is that's supposed to defeat us."

"Right." Crossing the remaining steps between them, Dean tilts Cas's face up and kisses him, tasting the shape of the smug smile before drawing back, chest tight and hoping to God this isn't some stealth feverless hallucination. "Good plan."

Cas tilts his head to rest his forehead against Dean's. "You've been an excellent teacher."

Dean takes a deep breath and nods; a thousand miles to go, and he'll have to walk every one of them before he gets to sleep. "Let's get back to Alison's."

Dean forces himself to stay upright when Cas eases him down on the edge of the bed and divests him of his coat and sweater before removing his boots and socks without attached storytime (which he kind of regrets). The house is quiet around them, the mattress inviting him to lie down beneath the warmth of the blankets, and he's so fucking tired; he can't imagine wanting anything but sleep.

First, though, maybe it's time he finally woke up.

"I can do this." The shape of the words in his mouth is too new to be anything but awkward; it's been over four months since he said yes, and it's not much, nothing at all, and even if he'd known from the first where he'd be going, he wouldn't have been ready for this. All he has now, and it'll have to be enough.

"You can," Cas agrees without hesitation, and Dean blinks as Cas takes his boots to the chair and then looks down to see his own socked feet. "However, right now, rest isn't optional but mandatory. There's no guarantee there will be time later, and unlike me, you need it now."

"I know. You can handle it, no problem." Looking up, he sees Cas kneeling motionless on the floor, and revises that; he has Cas, and it's not 'him' that is gonna do this, it's them. "I'm gonna be out in about five minutes, so let's make this fast. Ready?"

"Yes." Cas sits back on his heels, the picture of obedience in repose. "What are your orders, Dean?"

"First, get off your knees," Dean says roughly. "You kneel to no one and nothing, Cas. You Fell for the right to make your own choices, and no one can take that from you."

Cas's mouth twitches before he eases to his feet and takes the space on the bed that Dean pats invitingly. "Anything else?"

"We find out what it is, fight it, and we win," Dean replies, bracing his hands on the edge of the bed until the moment of dizziness passes; he doesn't got a lot of time here, so better get this show on the road. "Let's start with getting Chitaqua down here and go from there."

He jerks awake, aware of--being shaken? "Dean?"

"Yeah," he says, blinking around the room for a moment before sitting up. Before he can figure out what's wrong--wasn't he just in the in their cabin?--the bed dips as Cas sits down. "Open your mouth."

He starts to ask why before something hard and bitter is melting on his tongue and a glass presses insistently against his lips. It's swallow or choke to death, and it's kind of obvious which choice he's gonna make here. Falling back on the bed, he stares up at the ceiling, still trying to organize his thoughts into something that makes sense--and maybe work out how to use words while he's at it--when he hears Cas say, "…didn't think to bring my entire supply, and it might be some time until they bring the rest, so this will have to do. Though honestly, I don't recommend intravenous amphetamines unless combat is imminent."

Blinking, Dean turns his head to see Cas sitting on the edge of the bed, watching him intently and speaking words he should probably know. The water helped; he can actually move his tongue now. "What?"

"Ten minutes," he says cryptically, getting to his feet. "I'll see if the coffee's ready."

Dean thinks about protesting, but Cas is already out the door, footsteps vanishing into the distance, and finally, his mind catches up and helpfully reels off exactly what's going on right now.

When Cas returns carrying the entire goddamn pot, two cups, a glass bottle of real cream (because Ichabod has real cows), and sugar, Dean's sitting up in bed, the first hard chemical rush clearing out the last of the cobwebs as Cas pours two cups: Ichabod, something's happening and they don't know what, his life, and in other news, he may just have lost any moral high ground he had left on the war on drugs as of right now.

"What and how long?" Dean asks, taking the cup; might as well start at the top.

"Thirty milligrams of D-amphetamine mixed salts," Cas tells him, sitting on the edge of the bed and taking a sip from his own cup. "You've taken that amount before without ill effect and I observed the results carefully each time. It should be sufficient for the next three to four hours. If needed, we'll repeat then."

Dean licks his lips and makes a face at the dry, gummy feel of his own tongue.

"Dry mouth is a common side effect," Cas adds as Dean finishes his cup and hands it to Cas for a refill. "It will be another ten to fifteen minutes before it reaches full strength. The temperature has been dropping since dawn and there's a very good chance of another snowstorm by tomorrow night according to Tony. Vera has requested in her capacity as Chitaqua's chief medic that to lower the risk of illness, you're to remain indoors with sufficient heat as much as possible."

At least she's being realistic. "Okay." Finishing the second cup, Dean waits for his refill. "What time is it?"

"A quarter after eleven." Cas raises an eyebrow. "You needed the rest and there was nothing to do in any case but wait. Until now, that is."

"All right," he says grudgingly, crossing his legs beneath the blankets. "Catch me up on what I missed."

Cas gives him a summary through a short breakfast of dry toast, a shower, and getting dressed in the middle of the bedroom.

"Leah and Mark will give Chitaqua the order to mobilize everyone but Chuck and three members of his choice to stay behind," Cas says as Dean pulls a heavy thermal over his t-shirt. "Chuck will close Chitaqua to everyone until you or I personally order the gates opened again."

Picking up the long sleeve shirt--not as warm as a sweater but less bulk, just in case--Dean waits long enough to jerk it over his head before snorting. "I like the part where you assume we'll survive this. Whatever this is."

"One of us," Cas corrects him, seated cross-legged at the foot of the bed. "I'm feeling ambitious, however; I'm assuming all of us will survive."

"You do that a lot these days," he observes, grabbing his boots and sitting on the nearby chair. After the first, sudden chemical rush, he doesn't think he feels any different than usual: better than usual, actually. Vera wasn't kidding about how long it would take him to get back to where he'd been before the fever, and the constant, low-grade fatigue has become so much a feature of his life that he only notices it now in its absence. Looking at Cas, he thinks now he gets it; to feel normal, maybe it was worth the price he has to pay get it, the risks involved in keeping it.

Glancing outside at the sickly, pre-snow grey, he sighs: snowstorm tomorrow. Of course there is: he'll assume an earthquake and a few tornados just in case so he can be pleasantly surprised by something, since that's probably the only way he'll get one that's not shitty. "So back to Alicia: all four roads coming into Ichabod's road are traffic hell?"

"Yes," Cas answers, giving the window a narrow look. "Worse, the road into Ichabod is now entirely blocked, including three deep on either side of the road, as some ran out of gas waiting, or possibly became impatient and abandoned their vehicles. Tony's road crews cleared all vehicles to an eighth of a mile as of an hour ago, but their progress is slow."

"That goddamn hill," Dean says, nodding. "The four roads emptying into that one: how bad?"

"Alicia says as far as the eye can see from the point they meet the road into Ichabod," Cas confirms. "Some are also coming in on foot now who report they've been walking for two to five hours."

"Jesus." Dropping his boots on the floor, Dean grunts his way getting the first one on, only vaguely aware of Cas getting up to grab a bag from the other side of the bed. "Entrance point?"

"Over seven hundred as of thirty minutes ago," Cas answers as he spreads out what looks like most of their combined arsenal. "All the Ichabod patrol teams and anyone who's served on patrol has been called up on perimeter duty while Naresh has his subordinates and volunteers sweeping the non-occupied streets for those who entered the town secretly."

"Ichabod's council must be going crazy."

"They are, and are meeting within the next hour, which Chitaqua will probably be expected to attend," Cas says, making an already crappy day just that much shittier. "Alison will send us word; at the moment, they're still trying to assess the situation."

Pulling on his second boot, he skims Cas's choices as he lays them on the bed--appropriate for the leader of Chitaqua and his second starting their day (at noon) that may or may not end in a bloodbath by dusk in a civilian town, he assumes (not like Miss Manners is around to make the call)--he almost misses why this is out now until Cas picks up his (much more dangerous) belt. Shaking his head, he stands up and almost trips over his mostly-on right boot. "Oh hell no."

Cas tilts his head in reminder of his job title and how he should try and at least look the part.

"Fine," he says ungraciously, reaching for the belt as he stamps his feet the final quarter inch into his boot, but Cas just holds it out of reach. He considers lunging for it and tries to decide if it would be more embarrassing to fight over that goddamn belt like a pair of five year olds or do it knowing he can't do anything here but lose. "Seriously? I can arm myself."

"You can," Cas agrees, sliding the belt between his hands, and Dean can't look away from the slow stretch of leather. "I'd just prefer to do it."

Okay, then. "Sure," he manages. "Knock yourself out."

Cas smiles at him, snapping the belt before stepping closer, and Dean watches as he slides a finger through the belt loop on Dean's jeans before threading the belt through it. "Turn around," he says, meeting Dean's eyes. "Slowly."

Dean does exactly as he's told, feeling every goddamn inch of that belt before he's facing Cas again as he buckles it in place. "Do you want to carry right or left?"

"Left," Dean answers breathlessly, and Cas settles the long sheathe against his right hip. Retrieving a long knife, Cas flips it idly--holy shit, really?--before slowly sliding it into place, tilting his head at Dean's expression as he gets out the shorter steel blade, and slips it into another sheathe.

"Stand still." He stays perfectly still as Cas reaches around him, tugging the layers of sweater, shirt, and t-shirt before cool fingers slide down the bared skin at the small of his back until he reaches the edge of his jeans and attaching the sheathe carefully. "Is that comfortable?" Cas murmurs in his ear, like Dean even knows what the fuck that question means.

Though he does know the answer. "Yeah."

"Good." When he pulls back, Dean gets a glimpse of a satisfied smile before Cas abruptly drops to his knees in front of him and Dean's mind stutters to a dead stop. "Now spread your legs."

Dean obeys without question; if Cas told him to stab himself in the face, he would have done that, too.

"Thank you." Cas smiles up at him in blue-eyed innocence as one hand coming to rest on his inner thigh just above the knee. It takes Dean several long moments of staring to recognize he's holding a thigh holster, straps dangling suggestively.

"I noticed you generally prefer your second gun at your back," he says conversationally, like this is a conversation and not brutally effective foreplay. "However, we haven't practiced your reach back with your right when you can't feel two of your fingers and not at all with your left, so I decided to take some liberties with your usual choices, if you'll indulge me. Shoulder holster for secondary, thigh for primary: with your permission, of course."

He looks up at Dean attentively, and it occurs to him that Cas actually wants an answer to--indulging him. "Yeah, I'm okay with that."

It's a mistake and he doesn't care. "Excellent." He watches as Cas slowly positions it on his thigh before buckling each strap into place, and it occurs to him that this kind of skillset is the kind you get from practice and a lot of it. He remembers the way Cas smiled when he said some of his partners didn't disarm even for sex and wonders at what point that went from theoretically hot to trying to work out when he can request that. Like the first time they actually get around to having sex, and what's wrong with now? They're both armed.

"I requested all of Chitaqua's soldiers be released from duty for the next hour and a half so we can meet with them," Cas is saying and Dean nods along, trying to work out logistics--drop into Cas's lap? Get him onto the bed somehow?--when he's interrupted by a knock on the door by someone who's gonna die like in five seconds.

"That would be Vera," Cas says, buckling the last strap into place and standing up to survey the remaining weapons thoughtfully. "We'd better hurry this along."

"Yeah," Dean answers intelligently, watching Cas pick up the shoulder holster and imagines what he could do with that thing: bed or floor, bed or floor or wall, he's not all that picky and killing people can be for later. "I'm okay with that."

Cas meant meeting with his soldiers, right.

The sudden attention as they enter Chitaqua's HQ stops Dean short just inside the door, faces turned toward him in relief and curiosity as they all get to their feet (why?). At some point, his brave soldiers raided the ruins of the suburbs, so a plethora of mismatched chairs, couches, and tables have been added to the room, Cas's map of Kansas' existing highway system, a map of Ichabod, another with Ichabod's various patrol routes, and one with an overview of those of the Alliance are hung on the wall, and already paper is colonizing every surface, as well as--fuck his life, laptops. Because Ichabod was founded by programmers and it may be the end of the world but that's no reason to abandon the digital age.

And everyone…is still standing.

"As you were," Cas says from behind him, shutting the door (and cutting off escape) before giving him a push forward as everyone takes their seats with expectant looks. Dean realizes the table with the most paper is probably their destination, it being the where all the new furniture is facing (and location of all the maps). Joe, perched on the arm of the couch closest to the table, looks at him soberly, but the brown eyes dance like maybe he's enjoying Dean's blank stare a little too much.

Rolling his eyes, Dean manages to reach the table--once belonging to a fairly classy dining room if he knows his hardwoods--and picks up the top piece of paper from one of the stacks. A report: of course it is. Turning around, he watches incredulously as his entire population of soldiers take out notebooks. A glance at Cas's satisfied smirk as he drops in the chair to the right of the table is enough to make him fight back a smile.

"All right," he says, leaning back against the table and trying to look like their leader (ie, what he actually is) as Vera takes her seat between Joe and Amanda. "Cas and Vera briefed me, but I'd like more detail. Amanda, you're up."

Amanda's smirk is there and gone as she gets to her feet.

"Ichabod's and Chitaqua's patrol established a soft perimeter from Syracuse to Fourth Street as of two hours ago and should have Fifth in the hour when Naresh's teams finish sweeping. Alison's at Admin with Claudia, Tony, and Manuel getting the panicked council together. Alison called an emergency meeting, should start in about--oh five minutes," she reports.

"Who's running patrol right now?"

"Teresa, while Manuel's at the meeting," she answers. "She's checking the wards and seeing if we can make that soft perimeter a hard line and finish sweeping potentially collapsing buildings for outliers. Spoiler: we're gonna be formally asked by Ichabod, one Alliance member to another, to help out, either on patrol or help with the influx of people coming in."

"I already unofficially said yes," Cas adds, and Dean turns slightly to see him leaning back in his chair, one boot braced on the edge of the table and reading through the stack of reports at light speed. He looks up, pushing his hair out of his eyes to give Dean the most solemn look in history. "Alison seemed stressed."

"You think?" Dean turns his attention back to Amanda. "Update Vera and Joe on what they needs to know after we're done; they're gonna be Chitaqua's official liaisons to Ichabod and the Alliance for the rest of whatever this is."

"I am?" Vera asks in bewilderment on top of Joe's, "We are?"

"Yep, have fun with that. Anything else?" Amanda shakes her head, and he doesn't miss the relief on her face; she never struck him as someone interested in politics, and on a guess, dealing with this is gonna include that. "Who's next?"

"Alicia," Amanda says cheerfully, sitting down, and Dean watches Alicia bounce to her feet, practically crackling with energy; it's exhausting just looking at her and it's not like she got any sleep last night.

"My team and James' just finished all semi-roads on Kamal's map up to five miles," she reports, almost vibrating in place. "All clear on the northern, eastern, and western front, but that's only because they don't go far and sometimes are made of snowy dirt. I also checked in with Walter, and the road into Ichabod is pretty much all dead cars, all the time, all the way to the four roads that feed into it and several miles up those. They're clearing them off the road, but it's slow going, especially since the side of the roads were apparently a-okay for parking for some people."

Dean lets out a breath. "So we're at foot traffic only."

"Only way to travel, I say, but only when you don't have a choice and are wearing sensible shoes," Alicia agrees. "Anyi ordered Ichabod's patrol to headcount like we are, and the estimate is about three to three-fifty an hour are coming in, and we can be sure of that because half of Ichabod's doing perimeter. Nothing coming from the northeast, east, or south anymore, but I checked our maps; north and east are all wildlife all the time, and it'd be twenty miles plus over terra incognita to get here from the south due to roads being terrible or sometimes replaced by very long, very deep holes in the ground unless you happen to have Kamal's maps and can see through snow, which I'd like that superpower like a lot. Pretty much the only way in is from the west and those four roads unless you're SUV or maybe dirtbikes and all off-road, all the time."

"And those are a fifteen mile and counting traffic jam," he says. "That's a hell of a walk."

"The ones coming in now aren't in great shape," Alicia continues, expression darkening "Dolores is opening a second infirmary for the ones that need treatment on Third, since that's the official and only entry point. Mostly frostburn and exhaustion, nothing too serious yet."

"It's still early." Rubbing his eyes, he tries to think. "Where are they being housed anyway? Third?"

Alicia's serious expression cracks, just a little. "Not as long as anyone has floor space to offer. Alison didn't even need to ask; we got residents waiting inside the wards for patrol to clear everyone who crosses over to take 'em home for breakfast and some sleep. Alison ordered a general mess to be opened on eastern Third in an old restaurant." Her eyes flicker to Cas briefly. "They have three commercial ranges that can handle seven different temperature settings at the same time, eight ovens, and four industrial coffee makers the likes of which cannot be described but witnessed. In case that's relevant, for I want to be thorough and so toured it myself for official purposes."

Dean doesn't even need to look to know Cas is making a mental note to check out Ichabod's mess like soon.

"Tony's got city services getting more of the buildings on Third through Fifth opened up and ready for temporary residency," she continues. "Everything marked white is priority--safe, just needs some drywall or curtains or whatever--but he's sent a group to check everything not marked red, since all those are at least structurally sound and won't collapse on top of anyone. He says should be open for business by tomorrow."

"He thinks he can do that in a day or two?"

"As sure as snow's coming tomorrow night," she answers soberly. "Can't make the weather stay away from the people, so better idea: get the people out of the weather before it gets here. They don't know if they can get the grid up to Fifth for full heat, but four walls and a roof, that he can do. Volunteers are collecting extra coats, sleeping bags, tents, blankets, you name it right now."

"Dean," Nate says unexpectedly from three rows back, sandwiched between Mira and James, "requesting--uh, permission to speak?"

"Oh God," Dean says blankly. "Go ahead, and--for the record, just talk. I'll tell you to shut up."

"Right." Nate takes a deep breath. "I'd like to help Tony and his crew with getting the buildings habitable."

He notes that James is trying very hard not to grin and nudging Nate with his knee hard enough to almost push the guy off balance. "So you know a little more than drywalling and hole-digging and drafting?"

Nate makes an effort to sink into his chair, but Mira does something Dean can't quite see that makes him straighten so fast he guesses it must have hurt a lot. "A little, yeah."

"Dude, Tony's gonna want to know a little more than that," Dean lies through his teeth; this is maybe the most words he's ever heard Nate speak in a group greater than (maybe) Zack and fine, he's curious how the least likely candidate for construction skills he's ever seen picked those up.

"I was on a crew that repaired buildings for a few years," Nate answers warily. "My first--only job, I guess, after I moved to San Jose. I learned a lot."

"He worked on the Winchester Mystery House!" James bursts out excitedly, and Nate closes his eyes, flushing. Elbowing Nate in the ribs (Dean winces on Nate's behalf), he adds, "Dude, tell them! He saw things…."

Cas slowly lowers the reports. "Winchester House in San Jose, California? That house?"

Nate stares at Cas before a nudge from James gets his head moving in a jerky nod.

"What is 'few' in years?"

There's a fraught moment where no one's sure when Nate will realize this will take words. "Four. I think."

Cas's eyebrows jump in what Dean thinks is 'utter shock'. "Cas?" he asks, because this is fun and all but information would be helpful. "What? It's a crazy maybe-haunted house."

"It's not a house," Cas says. "Winchester House was constructed specifically to create conditions favorable for a localized spatial anomaly, which would facilitate the creation of a dimensional rift." Dean looks his 'what'. "The designer opened spacetime through several dimensions like someone with the equivalent of a pair of dull scissors cutting several layers of very thick fabric." Scissors? "Fortunately, he became lost during an inspection--eaten, I assume--"

"Winchester Mystery House eats people?" Dean asks in horror; that was not on the website.

"I wouldn't say 'eaten'," Nate offers uncertainly. "Some of them are still there, kind of. Sometimes more of them than there was before."

"I know," Cas admits, pained. "But there really isn't a word that applies unless you--reverse defecation, perhaps--"

"Eaten," Dean interrupts when Nate looks dangerously close to nodding, and he wants to go back and kick himself for even asking. "It eats people, cool."

"Just ones it doesn't like," Nate says reassuringly.

"And even for a willing agent of the Old Ones, the designer was very unpleasant," Cas confirms. "In any case, his very timely consumption meant that Winchester House was never completed, but as happens when one indulges in mystical cosmic horror without knowing what you're doing, Winchester House developed sentience and one assumes sapience as well. Which is fortunate in this case; currently, it acts as a living--for several contradictory values of 'living'--seal over the dimensional tear and substantially lowers the risk of several dimensions pouring into each other in an uncontrolled manner and destroying a significant portion of spacetime."

Everyone nods, Dean included; yeah, no one wants…spacetime destroyed, Christ.

Cas looks at Nate curiously. "I've been meaning to ask someone who's worked on the various attempts at restoration; how can you repair buildings that aren't buildings and even when they are don't have any relation to this universe's physics or even know what physics is? Two thirds of it doesn't even exist in this universe, and the rest tends to…drift."

"You keep trying when it's here, and when it's not, wait for it to get back to try again," Nate explains diffidently. "And someone asks where you've been for the last three days after a couple of hours priming a room for a fresh paint job, you roll with it. It happens, you deal. Mostly, no one notices."

"Nate, when you said 'four years, I think', what does that mean?" Dean asks before he can stop himself or remember what they should be talking about here.

Nate makes a face and looks at Cas hopefully, who makes holy shit the same goddamn face. "The laws of nature and physics are immutable, but Winchester House doesn't know what those are or care because--in a sense--it can't and still exist and ignorance is bliss and a beautifully intact dimension. In those circumstances, even humans with a very good sense of time tend to--lapse. Nate could have easily spent several hundred years painting a wall if the wall was careful not to be obvious about expanding and he was sufficiently distracted."

"Distracted for a hundred years by painting?"

"I'd take breaks," Nate says uncertainly. "Go for a walk, check out the other rooms. It liked showing me around, and there was a lot to show. You'd be surprised how much."

"I wouldn't," Cas says, underlining how much this conversation went somewhere Dean's not sure anyone saw coming at any point in their lives. "How many floors did you discover?"

Nate thinks for a minute. "Maybe sixteen, but could be twenty or thirty. Parallel stairs make things weird and they'd go backward sometimes. It got easier when I explained numbers to it; it didn't know about organizing things like that, thought it was pretty cool."

"He never got lost," Mira says, punctuating that with adamant nodding. "Never. Always got exactly where he wanted to go."

Nate wrinkles his nose. "As long as I was clear about that, yeah. One day, though, went in the front door straight into the attic. My fault: I was distracted by top floor being…sort of half not there, and it was distracted by--something, not sure. It brought it back when I--uh." His eyes unfocus. "There were these giant windows, even the ceiling was windows, and outside it was…."


He shakes himself. "Then we were back in the room I was painting before and--it was really upset. I never worked out what was up with that. I think it didn't like me so close to the windows or something, never did explain."

"It must have liked you," Cas says into the silence, voice soft.

"It thought it was made wrong," Nate says, staring at the back of the chair in front of him and Dean notes Zack staring at Nate from a few feet away with an expression you'd have to be blind to miss. "There was nothing wrong with it. It--it just needed a few repairs, and it's not like it was hard to do them once it showed me how to see them. Once a room was fixed, it stayed put, and it really liked that, didn't have to--you know, chase them down anymore." He starts to smile, and Dean tries to remember if Nate's ever looked quite that happy before.

"The rooms stayed when you were done fixing them?" Cas says curiously.

"Yeah," Nate confirms, and Dean gets the feeling this conversation could use something, like--something. "Then tourists could come in and talk about how cool and weird it was and it loved hearing that."

Cas tilts his head. "It liked being a house."

"It's really into it, yeah," Nate agrees. "We had a lot of fun."

So qualifications: can fix cosmic entities who like to be houses.

"Talk to Dennis after we're done," Dean says, adding when James opens his mouth and Mira looks like she wants to, "Yeah, until your next shift on perimeter duty you can go, too. That goes for everyone," he adds, raising his voice. "If you got time, see if anyone in Ichabod needs some help. The should have somewhere for volunteers to go soon."

Satisfied by the nods, he looks at Alicia again. "Question--we got anything else on why people are coming here or is everyone still claiming big party?"

"Not many in any shape to talk," Alicia says. "A little here and there about some trader telling them something about something, but everyone's got a different story. A lot of them are barely on their feet. Priority is getting everyone warmed up and fed."


"Whatever it is, it's not literally chasing them down, if that helps. Five members of Ichabod's patrol were sent out at dawn--gotta learn to ride a motorcycle, can we add that to hunter curriculum?--and they got about thirty miles out and nothing. They all know what to look for, and Manuel and Teresa reviewed them before they left."

"So far so good." Alicia bites her lip, shifting in place. "What?"

"A few of those coming in--they said some things, might explain why no one wants to talk." She takes a deep breath, bracing herself. "Anyi's worried this might be the military coming back for sloppy seconds."

"Son of a bitch," Joe snarls, falling back in his seat on the couch. Startled, Dean glances at Cas, who doesn't seem surprised. "If they're driving people out of their homes…"

"Worse if they aren't," James says, looking worried, and Dean wonders what he's missing.

"Where are the presumed military coming from?" Cas asks.

"Pick a direction," she answers, crossing her arms. "North, South, East, West, Heaven, Hell--not that I judge--you name it. Just one of the stories going around, but gotta say, I prefer my monsters not carry bazookas."

"East is the only border that has a strong military presence due to Missouri being uninfected," Cas says, still frowning. "We're bordered on three sides by zoned states; the civilian border guards are considered sufficient between the zones. There's no reason for the military to be crossing from those zones, and if they'd come from the east, Checkpoint Three would have warned us."

"Larry would have," Joe confirms. "The bonus we'd give for that would pay off his Mercedes."

"Germany's exporting again?" Vera asks, eyebrows raised in surprise.

"Nope, so you can guess what a late model--as in, less than three years old--anything goes for these days."

"We do pay very well," Cas says neutrally, and Dean sees them exchange a speaking look that reminds Dean that Cas has been questioning Joe about the last few years of transactions, though he's not clear on what Cas is looking for (and is pretty sure Cas doesn't either). "Even excluding the venality of the border guards, it's very doubtful this is due to military action. At least, authorized military action."

Well, at least they didn't have time to be relieved.

"Just for the record," Dean starts. "New Year's Day or the days after, anything…?"

"New Year's Day as practiced now is a human construction and it varies by the society that created it," he answers, making a slight adjustment in the angle of his slump. "It has no particular meaning other than ceremonial and only to humans."

Yeah, couldn't be that (possibly horrifyingly) easy. "Okay, anybody else?"

"I'll oversee patrol while you meet with the town council and set up the perimeter shift schedule," Cas says lazily, setting down the finished reports and wrinkling his nose at Dean's surprise. "If I'm correct, they will request your presence fairly soon to get our official agreement to help Ichabod."

Oh God. "But--"

"Joseph and Vera will accompany you," Cas adds. "Amanda, Kamal, your assistance with patrol would be welcome, if you don't have any duties in Ichabod at this time."

"I suspended class so they could help out with the influx," Amanda says, and Kamal nods.

"Amanda, you're with Cas today," Dean says, looking around the room. "Anything else?" There's general shaking heads, so he takes that as no. "Dismissed. Joe, Vera, Amanda, Kamal, stick around. We got a few things to go over."

"Mind if we get some coffee?" Amanda says plaintively as everyone leaves. "Check out the new mess maybe?"

"Get me some as well," Cas says immediately.

"Me, too." Dean waits until the room is empty before turning to Cas. "What was that about the military?"

Cas makes a face. "We don't have any proof, so this is more--educated speculation, if you will."

"Fine, what's the 'educated speculation' then?"

"The initial efforts at zoning were--not entirely about creating zones. At least, Dean didn't think so and Joseph's interaction with the border guards has led him to the same conclusion. Kansas was the third of the first three infected states and the second in the Midwest, which they might have considered--acceptable casualties."

"Acceptable as in letting everyone inside 'em die of Croat?" Not a surprise: that would explain why the zones have existed for two goddamn years and counting.

"Not exactly, though that would probably have been the official verdict." Cas wets his lips before looking at Dean. "We think the zones were supposed to be short term isolation procedures set in place to enable full-scale eradication of the threat without inconvenient oversight."

Dean starts to nod before it hits him. "Getting rid of Croat by killing everyone inside the zones? Whether they were infected or not?"

"Yes." Cas hesitates "The cities were impossible to control without full scale bombing--which as you know was recently attempted as well--but at the time, that didn't seem to be an option. Instead, a perimeter was established around the major cities that held well enough to avoid contagion spreading, at least for long enough for their purposes."

"Which would be…."

"Mid-size cities--those large enough to host a threat but small enough to be less interesting to the media--would have been targeted first. I'm fairly certain that Ichabod's predecessor--whatever it was named then--was among those selected for first strike to eliminate even the potential for infection spreading."

"They killed everyone in them." Suddenly, Cas's maps make a lot more sense: the destroyed roads.

"Dean thought--and Joseph agrees--that the eventual plan was to eliminate the population and blame the cities for the spread of infection and subsequent deaths as long as they were standing," Cas says. "Once everyone in the zone was dead, the cities could be declared unsalvageable and destroyed without anyone wondering at the death toll or protesting the destruction."

"So Waterville…."

"Might have had an actual reason to fire on people in military-looking vehicles, yes," Cas answers. "Though considering the distance between them and any mid-size city, the state of interstate communication, and the fact this wasn't exactly advertised, I tend to err on the side of them being simply homicidal."

"So why didn't they finish trying to break records in mass murder of civilians?" Dean asks bitterly.

"They didn't have time," Cas answers, mouth quirking. "A month after Kansas was zoned, North and South Dakota as well as Tennessee were confirmed to have active Croatoan epidemics in progress and had to be zoned within a few weeks of each other, and there was far too much attention on the Midwest. With only three states, it might have been possible to avoid questions--or rather, once the threat was eliminated, no one would particularly care--but a six state massacre would have been impossible to hide, especially with two of those states in the South. Not to mention the number of personnel required, and not entirely surprisingly--though from what I understand, this was something of a shock to those involved in the original plan--the vast majority of the armed forces isn't comfortable with firing on civilians, including children, on domestic soil."

Dean takes a deep breath; none of this should surprise him, but somehow, it still does. "Why didn't you say anything before?"

"For one, there wasn't evidence, simply--guesses," Cas answers. "For another, most of the information has only just come into our hands or been able to confirm. Joseph's only recently been authorized to get more information on the state of the world, and he naturally concluded that would include whatever might relate to the infected zone." Read: Dean the former didn't give a shit and never followed up, got it. "His relationship with the supervisor of Checkpoint Three has allowed him much more unsupervised access to their computer systems and time to use it, as well as some amount of interaction with other members of the border staff."

Dean starts to nod, but Cas's expression tells him that's not all. "And?"

"I forgot." At Dean's disbelieving stare, Cas rolls his eyes. "I mean, that you didn't know it. That you couldn't know."

"Because Dean knew?" he says as neutrally as possible. They're two different people, Cas said, that's how he sees them, and…he doesn't know where he was going with that but he thinks he needs to stop.

"That would make sense," Cas answers wryly. "No, not that. It's…you're doing very well, I suppose. Even I sometimes forget you haven't been here all along."

"Oh." He hopes the sudden heat coming from his face is a fever. He's okay with that. "So--wait, you think Ichabod was one of those towns they destroyed?"

"When I toured Ichabod, I noticed the destruction was confined to the eastern side of town; that was newer construction, almost entirely new neighborhoods, while downtown was mostly commercial," Cas confirms. "A simple Croatoan epidemic wouldn't have been so selective and there is also the fact Croats tend to be uninterested in explosives. Ana verified there are signs that they were used in the east side of town and thinks the reason any of the east side of town is still standing is that, somehow, some must have failed."

Dean takes a deep breath. "Were the houses that were still standing ever checked?"

"Alison verified they did soon after they got the lights on," he answers. "In the intact homes, bodies were found, sometimes still in their beds, and while decomposition makes it impossible to verify cause of death, bullet holes were present in the walls."

"Hiding the massacre," Dean says softly. "What do you want to bet there wasn't a case of Croat here at all before they started firing?"

"I wouldn't bet against it," Cas answers soberly. "One of the reasons that Ichabod probably didn't get any attention from the units stationed in Wichita is that they might not have known it ever existed. The units we were acquainted with were assigned here after our arrival, and if they weren't told….."

"Mass murder plan failed, so cover your ass and send in people who don't know what happened," Dean says flatly, now understanding why Alison wouldn't tell him the town's name before they renamed it. "No charges were found downtown?"

"No. Ana's checked twice and taught two of Ichabod's residents as well so they could help," he answers. "Either they planned to come back and finish later and were stopped by the zoning of North and South Dakota--which is possible--or…."

"Or what? Someone removed the charges?"

The door abruptly opens, followed by cheerful voice, and Dean sighs, pretending he doesn't see the relieved look on Cas's face and files it away for later as well.

"Took you long enough," he says (after Amanda gives him his coffee). "All right, let's get started. Cas, you got the shift schedule…" Cas boots the laptop and Dean notes the red drive already plugged in because of course it is. "Stupid question. All right, let's figure out how to do this."