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The Game of God

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--Day 152, continued--

In what was once a suburb of the town that became Ichabod, Castiel finishes his work and steps back to wait. Unsurprisingly, his wait is minimal.

When the demon appears, wearing the body of an attractive twenty-five year old woman in the least practical dress possible for a Kansas winter, her "So how can I help you…", overly sultry and obviously not sufficiently practiced, cuts off when she sees him. "Castiel?"

Bemused, he watches a Crossroads demon stumble over her own six inch heels and almost fall into a drift of snow, wondering idly if Hell has the equivalent of a 'FBI's Most Wanted' posted in the Pit with his name and picture of his human form on it. This reaction is becoming far too common.

"Good afternoon," he says as she straightens. The damp hem of her dress dries instantly, but the carefully seductive expression is apparently irretrievable, wide brown eyes flashing to black in an endless succession that could very possibly induce nausea if viewed for too long. Very new, he thinks, tilting his head as he studies the blackened ruin of her true face behind the flushed skin of this body's cheeks when she faces him, and goes still as their eyes meet.

They stare at each other for several long moments before she finally straightens her shoulders and lifts her chin. "Here to make a deal?"

"Run along, pet," another voice says as Crowley joins her, giving her a smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes. "We'll discuss how one deals with Fallen angels at a more convenient time."

As he reaches for her arm, she jerks back just beyond his reach before spinning to face him, and this time, the towering heels are no impediment at all. Demons can move far more quickly than humans, but she's far too new to have learned how to use a human body again, and this is her first since her own. One delicate fist snaps out in a blur of speed, and while Crowley has sufficient time to move, it doesn't help; she makes contact where he appears again, where she aimed in the first place.

Castiel thinks, throat tight: so something new can happen in Hell after all.

Crowley staggers but recovers quickly, and before Castiel even realizes what he's doing, he's standing between them.

"No." To his surprise, Ruby's knife is already in his hand. "I'm having a terrible day and very little time to waste before it gets much worse. You can discipline your subordinates another time."

Of everything he's ever done, however questionable, this very may well top the list: standing between the King of the Crossroad and one of his demons holding a weapon with every intention of using it. Dean's reminder was startlingly timely. The choices he makes may be his own, but the consequences will always be shared, and this a truly terrible choice. Yet, he can't bring himself to move.

Crowley cocks his head, looking at him in mild interest. "You think I won't kill you, Castiel? Or did you forget that inconvenient mortality of yours?"

Behind him, he hears her low growl, the sound raising the hair on the back of his neck. He doesn't wonder anymore how a human could ever rise from the rack, knowing what they become. The obscenity of believing there's anything like a choice has never been more clear than in the demon behind him that was once a hunter.

"I know I'll kill you," he answers. "Here or in Hell: at this moment, I'm not particular on the location."

"Very well," Crowley says after a slightly too-long pause, sounding bored. "She's released without penalty. This time. I'm certain it won't be the last." He smiles, all teeth, as she emerges warily, eyes fixed on Crowley with something between a demon's obedience and a hunter deciding the best place to plant a knife. He waves a hand. "You may go."

She flinches, skirt fluttering around her legs, but she doesn't move, staring at him with black-filmed eyes. Crowley's smile flickers. "Go. Now."

Castiel doesn't need to look to know she's gone; Crowley stares at the space she occupied for a long moment before turning his attention to Castiel, expression smoothed into practiced amusement.

"This is a surprise," he says, tilting his head. "Whatever can I do for you, Castiel?"

"I want to make a deal."

"Oh." Crowley's smile widens. "You have no idea how pleased I am to hear you say that."

Dean nearly drops the box in surprise, blinking at nothing.

"Dean?" he hears Christina ask worriedly as he drops it on the desk, all attention turned inward. It takes him no time at all to find it; that tiny sliver of Cas is there, but pulled thin and lengthening, like an unspooling thread.

Ignoring Christina, he concentrates as it grows longer, thinner, the desire to grab it and jerk it back nearly unbearable; the only thing that's stopping him is he doesn't know what that means or how to do it.

With an almost physical jolt, it stops; Dean takes one breath, then another, but it doesn't unspool further. Relieved, he relaxes, wondering what that sound is and abruptly realizes he's looking at Christina, who's snapping her fingers frantically in his face. "What?"

"I'm only agreeing to this," Crowley tells him, sinking into the plush comfort of an elegant mahogany chair on the other side of an unusually large fireplace, "because while your bloody Brother put whatever passes for your soul off limits, he can't do anything about lesser trades, and I'm very curious what you think you have to offer."

Seated in an identically comfortable chair, Castiel studies the elegantly appointed room with disfavor. The gold-flecked cream of the walls, rich glow of hardwood floors, and casual scattering of elaborately woven rugs between each piece of gleaming furniture aren't offensive in themselves and yet the urge to destroy all in his sight is nearly overwhelming . Tilting his head back, he eyes the graceful sweep of the chandelier above them before gazing into depths of the wide granite fireplace, focusing more cheerfully on the number of burning logs as the faint strains of an invisible cello haunts the room like the most depressingly mundane ghost in all of history. He can't think of anything that could improve this room as much as setting it on fire and salting the still-smoldering remains.

Salt first, he decides finally, turning his attention back to Crowley, then burn. Dean seemed to like the barbecue that was served at the celebration, and there's no time like the present to learn how to make it.

"That's interesting." Pride, he reflects, can be an extremely inconvenient character trait, especially when it seems to trump both logic and even simple expedience. "When did he do that?"

"Right before he started a sixty-six years and counting sulk." Crowley raises a hand and a glass of wine materializes, the color the exact shade of blood the moment before coagulation. Fire might help that, too, he thinks idly. "He kills Dean Winchester but fails to claim his soul for Hell, or yours for that matter; anyone else might ask about his sense of proportion. Me, I'm betting it'll be another few decades before he allows himself to take consolation in the fact he won the Apocalypse and rules both Hell and Earth."

"He's never dealt well with disappointment."

Crowley inclines his head. "Can I get you anything? Wine, cheese, a decent meal?" He wrinkles his nose, giving Castiel a lingering once over with something unsettlingly like appreciation. "Really, Castiel, didn't anyone explain how to care for a human body properly?"

"They tried." He thinks of Dean with an almost physical pang of longing. "Only recently, however, did it occur to me to listen."

"Only you." Raising the glass in a mocking toast, Crowley take a drink. "So before we get any further; what, exactly, is it that you're offering?"

"What you're going to tell everyone when we're done," he answers. "That I summoned you at the Crossroads and offered to make a deal. All of Hell being aware that you succeeded where Lucifer failed should be sufficient to offer in trade."

Crowley snorts. "While admittedly a lovely thought, what use would that be to me? You're not that important, Castiel."

"To the King of the Crossroad demons and heir to Lilith? That's possibly true," he admits. "Unless you don't plan to resign your position immediately, of course."

Crowley's eyes narrow. "Excuse me?"

"My mistake," Castiel answers pleasantly, settling more comfortably into the rich brocade. "So there's no need to revisit how less than ten minutes ago, I watched a demon who has never known a human body other than her own use the first one she acquired after rising from the rack in a successful attack on you. Excellent, you're aware of the problem."

Crowley expression darkens. "One time--"

"One punch in a body not her own after rising from the rack after twenty-five years on it," he elaborates. "I can count. Though that wouldn't be a problem if you could control her. Which you can't."

"I can control her," he answers shortly, but once again, that flicker, there and gone. "She'll learn. They all will."

"That's what they said about Dean Winchester, and I don't need to remind you how precarious Alistair's control was becoming before I claimed his soul." Crowley's expression darkens. "When I decided to deal with you, I thought all I had to offer was a very useful way to sow dissent among my erstwhile Brothers and with any luck increase their misery in my existence. Apparently, I have a great deal more and didn't know it."

"Exactly what is it that you're offering again?" Castiel tilts his head, fascinated by the slowly spreading web of cracks in Crowley's glass from the pressure of his fingers. "So far, this interview is rather mundane, so if you'll get to the point…."

"She rose as a demon and is bound to you," he says. "But if you think I don't know the value of that particular soul in Hell, you must be stupider than you seem to think I am. There is no possible way my Brothers could have missed it, which means they don't even know she exists here yet. You're hiding her, and I'd ask why, but as it's for someone else, that question is best left to them."

"Who do you think--"

"Her master. You weren't the one who broke her on the rack, and she belongs to whoever did. Her obedience isn't by right of ownership but fear alone, and not much of that. If anyone else saw what I did today, they'd know it as well."

The glass shatters, spilling wine over Crowley's hand and staining the starched white perfection of his shirt.

"I'd ask why you were willing to take her when she would never be yours, much less conceal her within the Crossroads, but I don't actually care. What concerns me is what price I can put on the information that there's dissension in the ranks of the Crossroads and what exactly it is that's sowing it so well. Off the top of my head, I can think of five demons and two of my Brethren who would allow me to name my own price for the opportunity to destroy you. All of them," he adds maliciously, "would also appreciate the cachet inherent in succeeding with the last member of the Host on earth, which you have yet to do."

Crowley doesn't answer, which for the moment is satisfaction enough.

"I think that it may be time to discuss the terms of my silence," he adds. "I'd like some coffee first, however. Four cream, four sugar, and do you have available something called 'Kona'?"

"Are you sure?" Christina asks worriedly, following him as he retrieves his coffee cup and finishes the (cold) contents in a gulp.

"I'm fine--stop that!" he says, outraged when one hand lands on his forehead as she looks at him intently. "What the hell?"

"No fever," she says, evading his attempt to slap her hand away and holding up three fingers. "How many--"

"Don't even," he warns. "What was that about?"

"Standing there like you had a, I don't know, stroke or something!" she answers hotly, crossing her arms. "What was I supposed to think?"

"Do stroke victims usually stand around?"

"No idea," she answers, glaring at him. "This is you; you do stuff like this."

Blinking at her, he wonders if maybe he is having a stroke or something. "What?"

"Weird two week fever from a brownie bite," she answers reasonably, cocking her head to peer at him before nodding and turning back to yet another box of maps. "Who does that? You."

Dean sputters for a minute as she serenely finishes stacking it with the others. "You can't hold that against me forever."

"I converted to three religions those two weeks," she answers grimly as he retrieves the last box from the Volunteer Services and sets it with the others. "One we made up."

He leans a hip against the desk. "What's it about?"

"I was really drunk," she admits. "But I'm Carrier of the Thing, and before you ask, I don't know what that is either." Catching sight of his face as she tightens the dark red pony tail at the base of her neck, she asks, "What?"

"Calculating the probability of Chitaqua housing the top one percent of the weirdest people in the world." She rolls her eyes. "Hey, I gotta do something, stick around and make sure no one gets into trouble or slip in the shower on the third floor?"

She nods. "Where you going?"

"Just over to…." He stops himself at the attentive look on her face. "I can go wherever I want."

"You can," she agrees, nodding.

"Exactly. Just over to Admin, in case anyone needs me---someone's going to follow me, aren't they?" She nods again. "No."

"Yes, sir."

He almost leaves it there but-- "I'm serious. You want what happened to Sean to be you?"

"I like my team," she says unanswerably, raising three fingers together with a solemn look. "I'm not following you. Scout's honor."

Every so often, Dean has to admit (to himself) that his militia can outthink him; this isn't one of those times. "You're not going to follow me?"

"No," she answers promptly.

"Then who is?"

"I don't know." Christina has the grace to flush. "None of us know, Dean. So we can't tell you when you ask."

Dean pinches the bridge of his nose. "Fine. If I see 'em…."

"They'll be subtle," she promises. "Have fun!"

"Whatever," Dean mutters, going out the door of the Situation Room and stepping onto a colorful mosaic floor in an enormous white room scattered with massive Corinthian columns reaching toward a ceiling so distant it might as well be the sky, dotted with endless tiny bursts of lights like the outlines of constellations.

He stops short, blowing out an annoyed breath: this goddamn building. "I knew it."

"It was a surprise when we finally got through, believe me," Crowley says, enjoying his third glass of wine and apparently unaffected by the less than ideal beginning of their (what could be loosely defined as) contractual relationship. "Be set on fire at the border or a bloody migraine of a backlash when summoned: it was awful."

Sipping the coffee from a surprisingly large mug, Castiel reflects wistfully on peanut butter cups and Kona coffee; it's a terrible idea to develop a taste for things there's little possibility he'll be able to acquire again.

"So you want me to believe all this is a coincidence?"

"Obviously not, since it's not true." Finishing the glass, he regards Castiel in barely hidden amusement.. "I was beginning to worry we'd fall behind schedule. More than we already are, in any case. Would you like more coffee?"

Castiel reminds himself that not only is patience a virtue, he's usually very good at exercising it. "Let's start at the beginning, then: who created the barrier and how?"

"Don't know," Crowley answers airily. "Next?"

He's enjoying this, Castiel realizes; much more unsettling is the fact that he's enjoying it as well. Their first meeting--or rather, Dean's, as Castiel can't pretend he was participating in more than in being in the same room--gave him little idea of Crowley in more than generalities and a sense of vaguely hostile amusement. Crowley is extraordinarily pleasant for a demon, as well as charming. He supposes the latter would be a job requirement; the former, however, generally isn't a feature of any demon he's ever met.

"If the barrier has been such an inconvenience, why was it created in the first place?"

"It should be obvious enough, I think," Crowley answers, pausing to refill his glass, this time in a showy stream of wine from mid-air. Sipping it, he nods to himself before returning his attention to Castiel. "You do realize all this posturing was pointless? We're on the same side in this."

"That much I guessed. What I'd like to know is why."

"The Apocalypse's still in progress, Castiel, but only as long as Dean Winchester walks the earth. This time around, like to keep it that way."

He stills, cup forgotten in one hand. "Dean Winchester died by Lucifer's hand five months ago."

"Convenient, that," he agrees, studying his glass critically. "No other way to get the upgrade to one who could actually win."

A few minutes of looking around tell him two things: one, this is a really goddamn big room, and two, if there's a door, he can't find it.

He gives up trying to reach the far walls after only a few tries; no matter how long he walks, it's pretty obvious he's never gonna get there, time to move on. Coming back to where he started (the only wall that doesn't make a break for it, which he assumes means something), he watches in surprise as black lines begin to appear on the starkly white stone, curving into shapes before his eyes, brilliant color following in long streaks, and stepping back, he watches five pictures form one by one, scenes torn from mythology and brought vividly to life.

Demeter in her tattered grey cloak, hood thrown back to reveal hair the color of ripe wheat, face drawn in lines of suffering as she walks through snowy, winter-barren fields after her daughter Persephone was stolen by Hades; Clytemnestra weeping over Iphigenia's body while Agamemnon stands over them, holding a sword still dripping with their daughter's blood; Hecuba of Troy kneeling before the half-open cask that holds the dismembered remains of her son, slain by the King of Thrace when Troy fell; Medea in Corinth, dry-eyed and rigid, her children clinging to her skirts as Jason abandons her for marriage to the daughter and heir of the King; and finally, one he doesn't recognize at all.

It's a room, white-plastered walls decorated with simple, stylized frescos, but a longer look reveals the inspiration of an artist in each line, the completed designs slowly baked into the plaster itself, and that implies the kind of wealth you build over generations. What furniture he can see follows; sharply angled, high-backed chairs, low sofas cushioned with unforgiving horsehair, simple tables of citrus wood, a single, unadorned urn of water surrounded by rare Alexandrian glass goblets. An older woman in a simple black woolen dress and palla, thick black hair streaked heavily with white pulled into a severe bun, is seated, rigidly erect, in a chair, while a man with matted grey hair and wearing dirt and blood streaked armor, kilt edged with dried mud, waits on one knee, red-plumed helmet tucked in the crook of his arm, head bowed.

Despite her age--she's gotta be pushing sixty at least, Dean thinks--it's impossible to think of her as old; the dark olive, fine-boned face is ageless, but the dark eyes are what strike him, still and expressionless, but it's an illusion, hiding something beneath he can't quite define.

Seated to her left is a middle aged woman, dark brown hair set in a softer series of rolls and face more square, but the dark lashed brown eyes marks her as the woman's daughter, and so does the impassive expression. To the right are two younger women, a thirtysomething brunette, darkly pretty, and a delicate twenty-something blonde, spectacularly beautiful despite red-rimmed blue eyes sunk in bruised shadows as she clutches a baby against her chest.

"…domina, they threw his body to Father Tiber," the man rasps, exhaustion written into every line of his body. "We searched, but they--"

He cuts himself off as the blonde woman begins to wail over the child in her arms. Another woman appears, head bowed submissively, waiting for the older woman's nod before going to take the child and bearing it away.

The older woman nods. "Tell me the rest."

"Opimius offered a rich reward to whoever brought him Gaius Sempronius's head," he says, looking from red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes. "Domina, you must begin preparations immediately; his property is forfeit and goes to State auction, and--"

"Where will we go?" the sobbing woman wails, and the older woman turns to look at her, expression impassive as the brunette wraps a comforting arm around her shoulders. "What will we do, left without succor--my husband dead and disgraced, his body defiled, his shade lost…." The words trail into helpless sobs.

"See to Licinia, Claudia," the older woman says tonelessly, and Claudia eases Licinia to her feet, catching her when she staggers, skirts akimbo. Turning to her daughter, she inclines her head in unmistakable command. "Please assist her, Sempronia."

Sempronia rises to her feet, inclining her head before assisting Claudia to steady Licinia as they leave the room. As Licinia's wails fade into silence, she looks at the man again, gesturing toward the couch. "Rise and be seated."

A man with a tray materializes from nowhere, waiting for the woman's nod before going to the man as he gets unsteadily to his feet. He waves away the plate but takes the contents of the goblet at a gulp before dropping onto the edge of the couch, and a sharp gesture sends the man with the tray away.

The man on the couch glances toward the doorway that the younger women used. "She is a weak reed to support you in your time of need, Cornelia. You would do well to return her to her father's hand."

"It is her nature," Cornelia answers. "What blame can be attached to her when she is as she was born? She pleased my son--" Her voice checks for a moment before the iron control returns. "And so she pleases me. She has nothing else of him but their child; should I take that from her, too?"

"Mother and child both, and Claudia Pulchera as well. It might be safer," he says deliberately. "For you."

The dark eyes leave the door to fix on him. "How long until the Senate summons the courage to send a messenger to inform us of its decision?"

"Not long," he answers grimly.

"Then there is no time to waste," she says. "I will need you to arrange escort for me to Rome."

"Cornelia," he says quietly. "Gaius's property is forfeit, as is Licinia Crassa's dowry and the property of all those who followed your son--"

"Licinia is my responsibility," she answers flatly. "As Sempronia is my daughter, so are she and Claudia, and she is mother of the only living heir of the Gracchi. I won't abandon them." Her mouth tightens infinitesimally. "My agents will be informed to attend when the property of my son's friends goes to State auction. The dependents of those that suffered in his service must be cared for. I'll see to that first--"

"Do you not understand?" the man interrupts, getting to his feet. "Three thousand died without trial, their descendants proscribed, and Opimius builds a temple on the Concord in honor of his brave slaughter; no one is safe!"

"Does Rome make war on women?" Cornelia asks, and Dean winces from the edge in her voice.

"Rome is war, domina," he answers bluntly. "Opimius grows swollen with pride and power, more by the day; thus far, your name has not been added to the lists, but I would not trust in the Senate's mercy. The daughter of Africanus might be overlooked, but not the mother of the Gracchi. The sister perhaps, but the wives and children of Tiberius and Gaius, never."

She doesn't answer for a moment, eyes distant. "The villa at Misenum is mine; I will send them there." He looks startled. "My father was no fool, Publius; my dowry is in my hand for the length of my life and passes to my s--my heirs only at my will upon my death. My husband provided for me to the limits of the lex Voconia, and whatever you may think, Gaius knew the danger of what he embarked upon. He transferred what property he could to me for the sake of his daughter. The State cannot take what it has no right to claim."

He raises a wry eyebrow. "I don't think they care."

"Then they must be reminded," she answers. "That is why I must go."

"Cornelia." Reaching for her hand and he meets the icy gaze without flinching. "The Senate means to teach the People their place; they want no reminders of your sons to remain. The Gracchi are done; there are none who will speak for them."

"There is me." She pulls her hand away and rising to her feet, and the man looks startled; despite the several inch difference in their heights, she seems taller. "And I am not done. Sempronia can oversee the move to Misenum in my absence. Arrange the escort; we leave at dawn." She shakes her head, and the man closes his eyes, nodding. "Now leave me and take your rest as you will. Inform my household that I will not be disturbed."

After a moment, he bows, boots echoing on the mosaic floor as he vanishes out the door. For a long time, Cornelia doesn't move, as expressionless as a statue before slowly, she takes two steps and sinks to the floor as if her legs refused to carry her further, palla sliding from her shoulders and dark skirts pooling around her. One arm pressed tight against her belly, she doubles over, one hand snapping out to brace herself against the floor, and Dean has a single, searing glimpse of her face. Cornelia is silent, but it fills the room, barely broken by the almost inaudible, drowning gasps for breath, grief indistinguishable from physical pain.

Starting toward her, he stops short, fingers touching cool stone; it's only a picture again, a woman's private agony like an insect trapped in amber, on display for any to see. It's obscene.

"Mater took me to her tomb when I was eight years old," a voice says, and Dean turns to see a woman standing beside him. Despite the light brown hair and smaller build, the dark olive complexion and dark, black-lashed eyes are Cornelia's. Almost as if in deliberate contrast, however, her hair is elaborately arranged, diamond drops hanging from her ears and decorate the heavy gold necklace, bracelets, and rings that sparkle on her fingers. Even the floor-length gown is a more elaborate version of Cornelia's, the long sleeves split from shoulder to wrist and held together with a series of tiny diamond clasps, but the color is like a photo negative in blinding white. "Cornelians aren't burned; alone among Rome's families, their bodies are left intact after death."

Dean opens his mouth and closes it. "Not the question I even knew existed to ask."

"She was the embodiment of what every Roman woman should be," the woman continues, eyes fixed on the fresco. "She bore twelve children, but only three survived to adulthood, and one alone outlived her, and on her husband's death refused all suitors for her hand. Her virtues were numerous: patience, strength, endurance, chastity, fidelity, self-sacrifice, fecundity…the list goes on. She was all of them, some they created wholesale just for her. The ideal Roman wife and mother. Women left offering at her tomb all the time, hoping to gain her virtue by proxy, I suppose." She looks at him, eyes dancing. "I hated her on concept."

Despite himself, Dean bursts into laughter.

"I made up my mind then and there that all she was I would never be," she continues, the ghost of laughter in her voice. "Mater often wondered if she'd birthed a changeling, and I can't in fairness blame her."

Turning away from the fresco, she frowns, and when he follows her gaze, he sees the walls are lined with scenes, Cornelia in each and every one: from a chubby, sexless infant in arms to a too-solemn girl debating a stunned-looking tutor while an elderly man who resembles her looks on in pride; an adolescent in shades of pink formally offering her hand to a middle aged man in a whitened toga who smiles on her with a pleasure not paternal at all; a young woman instructing her eldest son and daughter, a babe asleep in a cradle nearby; white-faced and impassive in unrelieved black receiving callers at the death of her husband. Not pretty, no: tall and angular, her features are too irregular, but he doubts anyone who met her ever saw anything but the wide brown eyes, sharp intelligence and warm humor both.

"The past is part of us, though, no help for it," the woman beside him says softly, and Dean turns to look at her. "And it doesn't necessarily have to be our own." Tilting her head, she peers up at him for a moment before extending a small hand. "This is how you do it now, right?"

Rolling his eyes, he takes it and raises his eyebrows; despite the soft, uncallused skin and manicured nails, her grip is firm. "Dean Winchester, and let me guess--I don't get a name from you?"

"I only have the one right now," she says apologetically as she withdraws her hand. "It's complicated, but--"

"Names have power," he says causally and notes her surprise in satisfaction. "Answer to the wrong one--" Crap, Cas didn't actually tell him what happened then. "Bad shit happens."

"If you're not careful, you could end up as someone else entirely," she says seriously, which he assumes is indeed bad shit from her expression. "True names are even worse; to know the name is to have claim to that which acknowledges it as their own. Seems small," she admits. "One person, a ten, a hundred who know your name and thus claim you in it, that's nothing. But thousands? Millions? Billions? Each one with an idea of their own of who you are; it's hard to keep your own when you could be any or all of them."

Dean frantically reviews what she said to see if he missed something (like the part that made sense); he didn't. "What?"

"Well, aren't we an idea to ourselves?" she asks reasonably. "What we think we are? It's hard to see someone else's idea of us and not wonder if they're right."

"A better idea?" He can almost hear Alison's voice: people are so much better than they think they are. People are people, and sometimes they're goddamn idiots about it. "Worse."

"Worse," she agrees, blowing out an annoyed breath. "Also, if they don't know your name--"

"They can't find you."

She looks at him sharply, and for a moment, he sees something in the brown eyes; a glimpse of golden light falling over the banks of a wide river, a half-completed boat the size of a yacht being built by dozens of hazy figures, others drawing up in lines at the shores, kilted and armored in silver steel, eyes fixed on something across the river he can't quite see through an uneasy mist

"Or even know you exist," she agrees, staring up at him intently and he's jerked back into the present. "You're much taller than I expected."

Right. "Okay?"

"Just impressed," she explains. "That's rare in my experience."

Impressed: sure, it's for his height, but it's not like it happens enough (read: ever) that he won't take what he can get. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," she says with a mischievous smile before looking around the room, taking in the pictures spreading across the walls. "It's here somewhere, but where...."

"What?" he asks, trying to make out the subject of each, but the pictures are blurred, as if seen through thick glass, impossible to resolve.

"If I knew that," the woman answers wryly, "this would be much easier. My time is limited, and she lived a very long life."

Every time he looks, there are more pictures, though the walls don't get any bigger or the pictures smaller. Yeah, this might take a while. "You need help?" After several long moments of silence, he looks at her and sees her staring at him, head tilted. "What?"

"You mean that," she states, mouth twitching. "I apologize; I suppose you really do have to experience it to believe it."

In the back of his mind, Dean's vaguely aware something weird is going on, but he can't get over how many pictures there are and they're not stopping yet, fitting themselves between others in some logic that's beyond him. This could take forever, literally. "Yeah, of course I mean it."

"I may take you up on that," she says, grinning at him before pointing out a door against the opposite wall between two of the pictures. That wasn't there before. "You can use that one. And don't forget your coat; you dropped it by the front desk earlier and they hung it up for you."

"Thanks," he answers, but hesitates as he reaches for the handle, eyeing the pictures. "You're sure?"

"Yes," she says, smiling at him, and he opens the door into the empty front room--lobby? Do militias have lobbies?

At the front desk, Jeremy (still looking bored) tries to straighten in a semblance of attention. "Dean. You need anything?"

"I’m good," he assures him, starting toward the front door before stopping short and turning back around. "Hey, where'd they hang up my coat?"

Crowley pauses to take in his expression before taking a sip.

"Don't take it so personally," he continues in mocking sympathy. "Yes, your charge, all of that, but he couldn't do it and proved it by dying before he could get the job done even with the Colt. The new version had to be protected somehow when he arrived, at least until you could get him up to snuff."

This must be what humans mean when they speak of living their worst nightmare.

"Not that I have any intention of speaking out of school," he hears Crowley say over the roar in his ears. "Ask me what you like: all I know is yours. It certainly took you long enough to figure it out."

It takes two tries for Castiel to manage to speak. "How was he brought here?"

"That, I don't know. Double blind contract, you see. Wouldn't know who or how even if I wanted to." His smile widens. "What? Humans and angels made a mess of the Apocalypse; someone had to step up. We were all that was left to get the job done."

"Demons made a contract to stop Lucifer?"

"So I assume, but there's no way to find out who else signed even if I wanted to. Need to know information only, and the only thing I need to know is my part."

"A double blind contract," Castiel says slowly. "You don't know who you signed with, who holds it now, who else signed, or even what would be asked of you in the terms until they need to be fulfilled, and you're restricted from even trying to find out or remember if you do?"

"Bit more complicated than that," Crowley demurs. "But in essence, yes. I do my part, everyone does theirs--whoever and whatever that might be--and the contract is satisfied once Lucifer is caged or dead while Dean Winchester is still alive and well on planet Earth."

And he once thought that he and Dean made terrible contracts. "And you signed it?"

"Of course, considering the alternative." Crowley frowns in his half-empty glass before returning his attention to Castiel, sullen red flickering in his eyes. "I think you can guess why."

He can; even claiming the Throne of Hell wouldn't justify this risk. "Lucifer wants to purge Hell as well as Earth."

"Just so. Not that your Brothers are terribly enthusiastic about the idea, but all of them together can't equal him, even if they were capable of thinking of rebellion. Angels," he adds, making a moue of distaste, and to his surprise, Castiel finds himself echoing it. "What can do you? Besides, they know he won't kill every angel left in Creation; at least one of them will have to survive to keep him company, you know. Prostrate themselves beholding his glory, whatever melodramatic archangels go in for these days." His expression darkens. "Bad enough that: Hell is vast and Lucifer's grasp of its geography is weak at best; we know how to survive in places there even an archangel would hesitate to tread. Reality, though: that's a different story altogether. Unmaking all of Creation: no one wants that. Except apparently the only one who can pull that off."

"That…" Castiel belatedly gulps the remainder of his coffee before setting the cup aside. "That happened after Dean arrived here again."

"Confirmation that I made the right decision, then." Crossing his legs, one foot balancing neatly on his knee, he shrugs. "The terms are unusual, I grant you, but double blind has its advantages. What I don't know--what I can't know--can't be told, now can it? That goes for everyone who signed."

"Except whoever holds the contract," he answers incredulously. "I assume they know there's a penalty for breaking it, but--"

"You would make a terrible Crossroads demon," Crowley observes. "Though at this moment, you make a much worse angel, former or not. This is contract, Castiel; making the terms isn't something you trust to any but a professional, and it doesn't come more professional than the Crossroads. I'm not sure what offends me more; the very idea you'd think I'd sign with an amateur, or I'd sign without knowing all the terms first, no matter what the contract specified I would remember afterward."

He should have guessed. "You wrote the terms."

"I'm the King of the Crossroads. I wouldn't sign anything I didn't write myself." He sighs noisily, resting his head on one hand. "I'm not new at this. The contract is fulfilled only when Lucifer is caged or dead while Dean Winchester is still alive and well on earth; there's no limit on how long it takes for that to happen."

"You're all bound to this contract indefinitely?" Death, in this case, wouldn't necessarily be a dealbreaker, and the sheer number of definitions 'dead' can encompass is staggering enough; that this might encompass all of them is--he supposes 'unusual' would usually go here, but he's not sure there's a word for this.

"Didn't put in a clause for that," Crowley says thoughtfully. "Perhaps I forgot."

Castiel stares at him, at a loss for words.

"End of reality, that might break it," he continues, turning his glass and watching the wine gleam, the flickering light of the chandelier picking out hints of ruby and vermilion with each rotation. "Certainly nothing less. This is our last chance, Castiel. This gets done, I made sure of it. I don't need to remember the terms to know how I wrote it."

Against his own better judgment, he's unwillingly impressed. He doubts anyone--even Crowley--could write an unbreakable contract, but it might be far, far easier to fulfill the terms--and more pleasant--than attempting to find a way out of it. Assuming anyone was so foolish as to actually desire the continuance of Lucifer's ascension and guarantee of their own (probably horrific, even by the standards of Hell) death.

"I assume regaining the memory of who you wrote it for as well as the unexpunged details of the contract were part of the terms."

Crowley grins at him, pleased. "In big, bold letters, even. I must admit, Apocalypse and end of all things aside, finding out the whole is very high on my list of reasons I'm hoping it works out. Nothing like this has ever been attempted before in all time, and trust me on this one, I'd know." He gives Castiel sidelong glance. "For that matter, so would you."

"No," he confirms obediently, and Crowley stretches in his chair, satisfied as an overly indulged cat. "It's new." There seems to be a lot of that going around.

"That it is." Crowley waves a hand. "Anything else?"

"You said that Dean's presence here--alive at the time of Lucifer's caging or death--is one of the terms. Does that mean he'll be sent home when the contract is fulfilled?"

"Homesick, is he?" Crowley makes a tut-tut sound--Castiel hadn't realized that was a real thing that people, or demons, did--before taking another lazy drink. "I couldn't tell you. Whoever brought him here may know that part of the terms, along with how they managed it at all."

"That does lead to the question of who has that kind of power." Crowley nods agreeably. "Since, unless I miss my guess, no one does, and that's just to start. Provided whoever arranged this didn't somehow get Lucifer to sign the contract as well, which strangely enough, isn't the least likely possibility at the moment."

"Not impossible," Crowley allows. "Wouldn't put it past him to do it in a fit of spite against--who knows what could have offended him this time, spacetime itself? I can't tell you, though. Anything else?"

"The Church where a group of demons introduced a new kind of human sacrifice two and a half years ago?"

Crowley blinks, looking genuinely confused. "No, nothing there."

"Six of yours were trying to finish it in Ichabod two weeks ago with the help of several human helpers."

"Ah, yes, I do remember something about that. Only two reported back, however." Crowley peers at him, smiling with unmistakable approval. "I wasn't particularly surprised when I found out the reason: Castiel his very self and a tiny band of freedom fighters show up just in time to fight six demons and a small army of Croatoans and leave nothing alive when they leave. Not that I'd expect anything less from Chitaqua; they were trained by you, after all."

"I killed only two; another member of Chitaqua killed one as well," Castiel says evenly. "Dean took care of the last one himself."

Crowley starts to answer before hesitating, frowning at him. "Say again?"

"Dean killed one of them," Castiel says. "Along with greater than ten Croats in a confined space filled with terribly vulnerable children."

Crowley straightens. "He was there?"

"He was there," Castiel confirms. "Dean Winchester, the only person who can stop the Apocalypse and imported here for that specific purpose, was the only armed adult available to protect a daycare of children, among them the ones your demon wanted, and did I mention there were Croats?" He pauses for a moment of bitter satisfaction as the color drains from Crowley's face. "Dean assured me that the demon didn't recognize him, and that was on the edge of possible only when we thought it wasn't part of a plan that requires he remain alive."

"Then I owe you both thanks for disposing of them for me," Crowley says softly, eyes flickering red before he makes a visible effort to relax. "If it helps, I disposed of the other two when they returned, of course. Castiel, you must understand that certain precautions must be taken. My demons are bound to me, but they aren't under contract. I couldn't risk sending anyone to earth who might recognize him, not after all the trouble we took to keep Kansas incommunicado."

"One recognized me, however. Oddly enough, it wasn't my name but visual confirmation on seeing my face."

"Fallen angel?" Crowley snorts into his glass. "Between your Brothers pouting over you remaining behind--and in a human form at that--and your dramatics over the last few years, you are something of a popular topic of conversation."

"My name, Crowley." He deliberately didn't consider this, but it's possible. "Are my Brothers trying to unmake my name?"

"Yes, several times over the last two years," he answers. "It's failed, every time faster than the time before, if that tells you anything; it doesn't me, but it is amusing to see their utter bafflement. Hell is the only place that will even pretend to respond to their efforts now, and as I said, it doesn't take. I don't see the point myself; they can't erase you from any plane of existence at this late date, and they don't even have the Host to formally disavow you." He shakes his head at the folly of angels, which Castiel (much relieved) can't help but agree. "Why didn't they, by the way? Surely on their way out the door they could have taken the time to do so."

"So I'm a source of gossip in Hell?"

"It's not as if there's much in Hell that's new." Crowley grins at him conspiratorially. "I must admit, I always liked you for the effect you have on your Brothers It's rare to see them so upset, and you do it with so little effort."

"I live to provide them irritation." Castiel catches himself before he joins in Crowley's low laugh, recalling himself to the subject. "How long do you think Dean's presence can be hidden here?"

"It should have ended with the barrier falling, but it seems an extension is needed," Crowley answers. "What have you been about anyway--you've had almost five months with him. You may hate everything, but Dean Winchester--any of them--that gets your attention. You'd burn the world to keep him safe just on principle, and the only safety for him here is to be ready for this, and apparently, he's not. We can only do so much; take some responsibility for your charge, Castiel."

Castiel's amusement fades. Not prophecy, fate, or the Host's greatest efforts, could make Dean do what he didn't want to do; it seems the art of manipulation truly is best practiced by demons after all.

Also, someone is watching them, and doing a not entirely inadequate job at it. That bears panic at a more convenient time. "What makes you think he's not ready?"

"Not the one who made that decision," Crowley answers, sitting back. "Again--"

"You don't know." He's already very tired of that answer. "You know what's happening in Ichabod now, I assume."

"Lucifer's sulk has to end sometime, or so I assume," Crowley says. "Eventually, he's going to come back to complete his conquest and realize the reset button has been pressed on the Apocalypse. The barrier is the only way to hide Dean's existence as well as protect him until he can protect himself."

"At the cost of two thousand human lives."

"More than that, but it'd be cheap at ten times the price," Crowley tells him. "You are--or were--an angel, Castiel; don't pretend a horror you don't feel. You've killed more for far less reason."

"So you're aware of what is being used to accomplish it?"

"I haven't seen it myself, if that is what you're asking," Crowley answers, and that flicker again: it must chafe to have such limits placed on his knowledge. "Quite new, I understand."

"You were human once--"

Crowley's eyes narrow. "Careful, Castiel."

"I don't expect you to sympathize with your former species, so I'll put this in terms that you'll understand. I saw the whole of it. I remember it. And I can read it. There's no limit on how many can be used in a single sacrifice."

"So I understand," Crowley agrees with fading hostility. "The design seems to prize quantity over quality."

"It was designed to that purpose. The only limitation is practical: the size." Crowley's expression remains unchanged, but even from his chair, Castiel can see him swallow. "A town? A state? A country, perhaps, might be difficult, but considering the amount of power that can be gained, there's no reason not to try. Drawn once and closed, it's done; all that's left to do is kill those who entered it before was closed. Humanity and Lucifer have been engaged in competition for humanity's destruction for eons; I don't think adding demons as another competitor will increase their chances for survival."

"You make it sound more tempting with every word," Crowley remarks, amusement returning. "What's to stop me from using it myself?"

"Other than the continuance of humanity is how you acquired that body you wear, not to mention an endless supply of future minions? As well as the entire point of being a Crossroad demon?" Crowley looks ostentatiously unconvinced. "Should my Brothers discover it, they'll purge Hell themselves to assure it's never used again, especially since they can't use it--yes, that part surprised me as well--but it occurs to me that there's a more personally gratifying option."

"You do like personal gratification, or so I've heard," Crowley murmurs. "Made something of a lifestyle of it."

"'I withhold my heart not from any joy'," he quotes. "With the potential of so much power at stake, you'll all be far too busy killing each other to get it or stop someone else from using it to ever get around to doing anything with it and purge yourselves. In which case, the wisest course is to offer it to every demon I know, make popcorn, and see which one comes first."

"You 'pop' popcorn," Crowley corrects him absently. Castiel files that away for future reference; knowledge is never wasted, after all. "You think that's possible?"

"It's not simply possible; it's inevitable," he answers. "You're King of the Crossroads; temptation isn't a mystery to you. Which you know perfectly well, so I have no idea why you're baiting me on what you worked out as soon as you found out about its existence. It's as much a threat to you as to my Brothers. Especially," he adds deliberately, "to whoever might sit on the Throne of Hell once Lucifer is defeated."

"I was merely exploring hypotheticals," Crowley admits, raising his eyebrows in tacit acknowledgement. "You do realize I can't do anything about it being used to remake the barrier? That it's happening is all I know."

"When your contract is fulfilled, you'll know both who held it and who signed it as well as the terms," he replies. "Give me the names of those involved in this aspect and I'll do the rest. Provided I survive that long, of course. And we win."

"Of course," Crowley agrees smoothly. "If I had information like that, there'd be a price."

Sometimes, it feels like he's been propositioned by everyone and everything but a genuine Crossroads demon (he doesn't think anything so far counts today, as he's fairly certain that Crowley's been desperate to tell someone about his brilliance, even if he can't remember it). Now would be an excellent time to add to his collection. Especially the King: it's a pity he can't ever tell Dean about it. From Dean's cryptic comments before they parted today, he has the feeling Dean wouldn't understand.

Not that he's stupid enough to actually make contract, of course, but no reason not to at least enjoy the experience. "What would be your terms?"

Crowley makes an effort to look thoughtful, as if he's considering anything but the most obvious option. "You, true form, soul, whole and entire. Payable in fulfillment of winning the Apocalypse, of course. Lucifer's ban won't be enforceable from the Cage, even should he survive, and I'll sit on the Throne of Hell, so it will be my choice whether it should be enforced."

"You're that confident you'll ascend to the Throne?"

"Yes, and I hope you appreciate the honor being bestowed upon you."

"To be tortured for eternity by the King of Hell himself," Castiel muses. "However will I bear the anticipation?"

"Please, like I'd go through this much trouble simply for fodder for the rack." He raises his eyebrows suggestively. "Being in Hell would be an advantage in this case; that's where you'll probably find every name on the contract. Agree now, and I'll throw in this: I'll help you to do it whether or not I'm sitting on the Throne by that time."

Castiel opens his mouth to ask if he could also be supplied with regular shipments of coffee when he realizes that his mind is droning a quiet negation, has been, hardly even a feeling but now growing stronger. When he tries again, it abruptly spikes in intensity, like the low hum of electrical wires, pushing against his skull insistently as if to tell him how to answer because there's not another one.

"Castiel?" Crowley asks, voice muffled beneath the slowly growing negation; with a start, Castiel tries to think of negation's opposite and utterly, utterly fails.

"I can't."

"You can't?" Crowley looks as surprised as he feels. "You mean you won't."

Actually, no; he can't, not even in mockery. That's--new.

"Could we delay this conversation for another time?" He examines the limitations; the verbal delay causes a dark, unhappy buzzing he can feel vibrating against the back of his ears, but the pressure eases incrementally. "Otherwise, the answer is no."

It stops, gone as if he'd imagined the entire thing. "No, not at this time."

"You might want to….." Crowley looks down at his glass, swirling the contents before starting to raise it and stopping, abruptly setting it on the table beside him. Legs crossed, he turns his attention back to Castiel with a serious expression on his face. "You're in the contract."

Knocking on the door perfunctorily, Dean pokes his head inside Alison's office. "Hey, you…have someone in here." And it would be Lourdes, of course. Noak's mayor and probably not his biggest fan at the moment.

"How observant of you," Alison says, rolling her eyes. "Come in, Dean, and close the door. In theory, I'm unavailable and I'd like to keep it that way."

He really wants to say no, but he's not gonna flee before the Alliance mayors. "Lourdes," he says, nodding and trying not to blink at the long, dark yellow sweater, intricately embroidered, and brown skirt nearly reaching the floor, cut up one side to reveal elegant boots without even water stains. Tall and thin, dark skin flawless, hair in a complicated knot of braids at the back of her neck, she looks like she's about to go to a really nice party and not an Alliance meeting in a room that's missing key parts of its (okay, hideous) tile floor. A party for supermodels or something: who looks that good naturally? "How's it going?"

"Good, thank you," she says, adding just enough ice to remind him she's just being polite.

"Does the meeting have a dress code or something?" he asks before he thinks better of it and gets twin glares when actually, he was being serious (mostly). "Just saying, should I tell Vera and Joe….you look nice."

Alison shuts her eyes with a pained look, and wow, he didn't realize Lourdes could be less impressed with him, but look at that. "Thank you." Her voice softens in genuine concern as she asks, "How is Castiel? Has he recovered from the events yesterday?"

"Good." Dean tries not to wince. "He's okay, thanks. I'll tell him you asked."

She nods, turning toward Alison and smiling. "I'll see you at the meeting."

"Tell Claudia to go ahead and start without me," Alison says, and they exchange a look he really hates before Lourdes passes him on her way out, closing the door with a deliberate finality like she's washing her hands of him. Or he could be reading into it.

Pushing back from the desk, Alison sighs, eyeing him. "Tell me you weren't trying to be charming."

"Shut up." Dropping into the chair across the desk, he rubs his face tiredly. "They all hate me, don't they?"

"I’m sure they'll cut you some slack for the entire 'boyfriend attacked in the mess' thing," she says encouragingly. In contrast to Lourdes' careless elegance, Alison has her hair bundled up with a pencil stuck through it and has added a worn, hideously green plaid flannel on top of the even more hideous red one she wore earlier today, which argues she's maybe colorblind because even Dean knows that's not recommended as a winter look for anyone, ever. With the glasses--which have been bent at least a couple of times since he first met her and now stay on her face by the grace of God (and he means that; there's no other explanation)--the Executive Secretary to the Apocalypse is out in full force today. "When the memory of the meeting's faded a little."

"Like you wouldn't have thrown a fit if it were Teresa," he says sullenly, knowing he sounds six years old and not caring.

"Which is why they'll let it go," she says, raising an eyebrow. "Lourdes' sister Wendy is a witch and her husband is doing his apprenticeship with her, and she and I aren't the only people in that meeting who had personal reason to not like it. Just saying, you're scary."

"I'm not."

She rolls her eyes before focusing on him abruptly. "Where's Cas?"

Yeah, that's what he thought. "You stalking him?" She raises her eyebrows. "You know what I mean!"

"I’m a psychic," she says succinctly, leaning her chin on one hand. "When he's in town, I can't avoid knowing about it, whether I'm blocking everyone or not. He's special like that."

Right, and he gets that (mostly). "But not like this." Then, because he can be fair, "This about the mess?"

"That didn't help." Scowling, she leans back in her chair, regarding him over the width of the desk, and Dean fails to maintain even fake hostility in the face of her genuine worry. Cas wasn't wrong about Dean's biases here (though Cyn isn't what he'd call case in point; she's got issues and a team leader for an ex, for fuck's sake), but he can think of much worse ways to judge people than how they treat Cas, and he doesn't mean just not having the five percent reaction (with new and improved homicidal tendencies attached). "That shouldn't have happened, Dean."


"But if it had to," she continues relentlessly, "I should have known about it when it happened, not after the fact. What's the point of being a psychic if I can't even tell when my friends are being mobbed by crazy people?"

She's kind of got him there. "He's checking the cow trails or something for Chitaqua," Dean tells her and sees her relax. "In case they're stuck in the snow or being chased by cows, no idea." Alison winces. "Seriously?"

"You ever been chased by a cow?" He shakes his head. "Don't mock it until you're jumping fences trying to get back to the jeep at an Olympic-qualifying time."

He wouldn't have stopped the laughter even if he could have (which he couldn't), which is why he's bent over and gasping breathlessly under Alison's helpless glare. With an effort, he manages to straighten, but luckily (Alison looks really unhappy with him) the door opens abruptly before she finishes opening her mouth.

"Alison?" Tony says hopefully, glancing at Dean briefly and not commenting (though his mouth twitches). "You have a minute?"

Alison, he's pretty sure, is counting to ten. "Sure," she says, as Tony closes the door, her expression smoothing into surprise as he takes the chair beside Dean. "What's up? Got the thing with the plant--doing its thing?"

"Yes," Tony says, tossing a folder on the desk and resting his ankle on the knee of his other leg as he sits back. "Mostly."

Alison checks her paging through the folder (with a blank look). "What? Not enough power?"

"Power isn't a problem," he assures her. "That plant was meant to run the entire county with change to spare; it's old, but it's solid. The problem is…." He visibly pauses, probably realizing the limits of his audience. "Okay put it this way: power plants are delicate flowers and too much power is as much a problem as too little, especially when it comes to load."

"How much or little everyone is using at any given time," Alison says confidently but he doesn't miss her watching Tony and trying not to look relieved when he nods. "Because--it...the amount has to stay stable and not--jump up and down or something?"

Tony thinks about it. "Close enough. We got Third through Fifth up okay because I had time to test it and adjust for the load, but that was supposed to be temporary. No way can I just bring up Sixth, Seventh, and Baltimore and hope for the best; best in this case is blowing out every fuse we got. For that matter, we're having one hell of a time keeping it up with the current load distribution; it's not gonna last much longer."

"Right," Alison says, and it's only the way she stills that he can tell she's bracing herself, already mentally trying to work out how to fit (much) greater than twenty thousand people on possibly three streets. "So--"

"I have crews getting ready now," Tony says. "I'm going to bring the grid down."

Alison straightens so fast Dean's back aches, but that also may be because he did the same thing. "What?"

"When it's down, I'm going to have crews repairing the connections to the grid from Sixth, Seventh, and Baltimore and check and recheck all the rest," he continues, clasping his hands over his flannel-covered belly. Despite the serious expression, Dean gets the feeling he's kind of enjoying this. "This is where you come in; I need you to get the generators to the priority areas and hooked up, then give the order to have everyone unplug everything and keep it unplugged until I bring the grid back up."

Alison's eyes fix on a point in the middle distance. "All nine streets?"

"Every goddamn building that isn't marked red," he confirms. "We don't have time to go out and cut each building out individually, so the only ones we're going to do are the ones we know can't be used and can't even risk going in to check for leftover lamps or someone's two year old cellphone still stuck in the wall. For the rest--every room has to be checked, basement to attic and make sure the central heat or whatever is turned off. We'll throw the breakers on every building not in use, but we can't count on that working across the board."

"Or we risk blowing out the grid," Alison says, focusing on Tony. "I remember that speech."

"It'll take about an hour to bring it all the way down," Tony says. "We'll reboot the system and watch the dials as we bring it up street by street. That way, something blows, it won't take out the entire grid and we can fix it and start over. Best case scenario, from down to up, four hours."

"Worst case?"

Tony makes a face. "Neither Walter nor I were full time electrical engineers in a past life, and everything we know we learned on the job. We did a lot of workarounds to bring it up and keep it up, and some of them I still don't know why they work, only that they do. So--"

"I mean, are we going to blow up?" she clarifies. "Giant Ichabod-shaped fireball, anything like that?"

Tony cocks his head, thinking carefully. "May blow out the grid and live the rest of our short lives like our cavepeople ancestors, but no. Ichabod definitely won't blow up."

"Oh, thank God," she says, falling back in her chair. "No problem then. How long do you need before you start?"

"The storm's hitting at midnight, but it'll still take a couple of hours to get too shitty to work," he says, getting to his feet. "Ten is the latest I want to risk, and earlier is better. I gotta get back: still got a lot of prep to finish up. You need me, or…?"

"We'll be ready," Alison says, smiling at him. "Pick up a couple of meals from the mess for you and Walter before you go in case you get stuck out there, okay? And get a walky-talky from the patrol office."

"Just give me a mind-poke if you're worried," Tony advises her, circling the desk and squeezing her shoulder before starting for the door. "See you later, Dean."

"Yeah," he says belatedly, but the door's already closing. Turning toward Alison, he sees her looking into the middle distance again, customary frown in place. "Alison?"

After a long moment, she seems to drag herself back into the room, blinking at him slowly. "Have you ever," she starts, "had a terrible idea, and the more you thought about it, the worse it was, but--"

"Just makes you want to do it more," Dean finishes for her, sighing. "Yep."

"I want to dissolve the perimeter line; let everyone inside who can pass the wards. We can't control it much longer, may as well start what's going to happen anyway on our own terms."

Dean jerks himself upright: holy shit. "What?"

"And call in the patrols," she continues, warming to theme. "All of them. Put everyone to finishing relay setup, get the generators to the infirmary, the daycare, the mess, and--oh, the old YMCA on Fifth that Amanda's been working on, that'll work, it's huge. We can use that as a warming station. Seal up the buildings as best we can; not a lot are weatherproofed, but four hours should be fine--let's say six, lying for a good cause never hurt anyone, avoid panic if Tony and Walter are delayed."

"You'll be unprotected," Dean says, even knowing she knows that. The barrier is coming down, fuck knows what's waiting for just that; if there was ever a time to double or triple the people on perimeter, this would be the time.

"Not much they can do in a blizzard anyway," she answers practically. "Abominable snowman wants attention, he's gonna have to wait in line. I need to--fuck my life, that goddamn meeting--"

"Started what, twenty minutes ago? I was going to ask if you were going," he lies (at least the asking her part), which earns him the ghost of a glare, but he can't really get over how terrible this idea is--God, so terrible--but he likes it. Even better, it might just work. "Tell Claudia to handle it; you can tell her what they need to do so she can tell them, save some time."

"Right." She gets to her feet, scowling at nothing, and he swallows back the comment she's not careful, her face is gonna freeze like that. "Dean--crap, I didn't even ask what you needed. Can it wait?"

"No," he answers and her face falls. "What are your orders?"

Alison's expression dissolves into bewilderment. "What?"

"I got some free time," he drawls at her baffled expression. "What do you want me to do? Anytime you're ready."

"You." He widens his eyes and nods exaggeratedly; sure, it's an emergency, but sarcasm is an all-occasion kind of thing. "Happen to have any ideas?"

"Not yet," he admits, getting to his feet as she retrieves her coat; the idea right now is make sure Alison isn't wandering around town alone with everyone else too far away to help if anything goes wrong. "I'll get some, though. Anytime now."

"You're with me," she says, rolling her eyes as on her way to the door. "First stop: Volunteer Services to warn them what's gonna hit them when the perimeter line is dissolved, then city services for the generators, then patrol. Try and keep up."

Dean snorts, grabbing his coat from the back of his chair. "No problem."

"Me." Crowley nods shortly. "By name?"

"True name, all your known names," Castiel stills, and Crowley smiles in satisfaction, "ranks, positions within the hierarchy--interesting reading there--and the whole confirmed by bloody sigil therefore true." He looks at Castiel with something not unlike admiration. "Took considerable time to get through it all, and even I didn't know most of it, and that's the parts I could read. You've been very busy for an angel from the ranks, Castiel; your work ethic is to be lauded, though obviously, your Brothers didn't appreciate it." He tilts his head, eyes boring into Castiel. "Do you even know how many times the Host--"

"When I Fell, my memory became mine by natural right," he interrupts. "No one else in existence should know more than I did before that moment, however, and I certainly didn't sign it!"

For a horrified moment, he thinks of the church. Even at his least optimistic (and most drunk, stoned, or high) he doesn't think he'd sign a double-blind contract with anyone in Hell and erase his own memory with divine or demonic assistance as part of the terms. Before he can begin to panic, he remembers what Crowley said: the barrier had to be replaced because they'd expected Dean to be ready and he apparently failed to meet their expectations. Never in his entire existence has he been so grateful for his own incompetence; surely if he was contracted for this, he would have done a better job of it. For that matter, if they wanted someone competent, he certainly wouldn't have been anyone's first choice.

"No, nothing like that. It was someone covering all their bases very thoroughly when it comes to you." Crowley hesitates, looking uncharacteristically indecisive before he settles himself, brown eyes meeting his. "You were put up in auction."

"Auction?" Of all the things he'd expected to hear--and that's a very long list--that wasn't anywhere on it. "In Hell?"

"Come one, come all," he confirms. "Place your bids, take your chances, pick up your brand new soul or equivalent on the way out. Or the guarantee of getting it, in any case."

"Not that I object any more than anyone faced with eternal suffering, but…." He searches Crowley's face for a sign of deceit. "Lucifer's proclamation would be enforced by Hell itself."

"Serendipitously enough, it happened before Lucifer set the ban. Auction is contract; can't change that after the fact."

"How unbelievably fortunate that was," he answers blankly. "There's also the small matter that I'm still alive and also not in Hell. Even souls bought in contract don't go to auction until payment comes due."

"Irregular, I'll grant you," Crowley admits. "Perfectly legal, however; it's been done before, if you remember."

"When Dean made contract, I remember." He never truly believed there was any other possibility for him once his mortal life was ended; oblivion was a pleasant fantasy, but it was only that. Falling meant damnation without hope of forgiveness, even if it were possible for him to regret it, and he long ago accepted that his existence would never be anything but suffering until the end of time in the bowels of Hell at the hands of his former Brothers. He's not certain demons are an improvement, but at least his suffering will offer endless variety in how it's inflicted.

Speaking of that, "How were my Brothers brought to agree…." Crowley looks dramatically remorseful. "They didn't know. How?"

"It wasn't a terribly inspiring lot up for grabs at the time," he explains, reaching for his wine glass again and tilting it toward him encouragingly. Glancing at the table beside him, Castiel sees his mug has been refilled and picks it up to take a long drink; it's a pity he can't risk asking for something stronger. "I suppose they didn't feel like showing up that day. Odd, that."

"Serendipitous indeed." While he has no desire to spend infinity in unspeakable agony on the rack instead of being the prime entertainment for his Brothers' lack of imagination, there's a certain sense of satisfaction in his Brothers discovering that demons had been able to claim him before they could. Pride can be so inconvenient: force him to submit, torture him, even destroy him, all quite in order, kept in the family and far from the vermin of Hell they believe they rule; allow a Brother, even Fallen, to be claimed and tortured on the rack before the eyes of common demons, never. If they were capable of apoplexy, it would occur en masse; he almost wishes he could see their faces when they find out. "They won't like that."

"Once it's done, too late, so sorry, here's a lovely door for you to see yourself out." Crowley matches Castiel's smile. "Your Brothers can stamp their feet all they want; if they wanted you, they should have been there to claim you." He takes a long drink, looking pleased with himself. "As I said, irregular but quite legal. Payment not due until arrival, of course. Try not to die anytime soon, Castiel. You are a very expensive pet."

And he thought this couldn't get more surreal. "You."

Crowley smiles, spreading his arms wide. "Me."

"No one's ever broken an angel on the rack of Hell."

"No one's ever put one on the rack to try. It'd be interesting to see what would rise, wouldn't it?" Crowley chuckles softly, as if he's hearing Castiel's screams already. "Besides, do you even qualify as an angel anymore?"

"Fascinating as that question is, it doesn't matter. When my Brothers discover I'm in Hell, they'll take the necessary steps to claim me, which would be, in case you've forgotten, killing you and possibly purge Crossroads altogether."

Crowley scowls. "I know that, thank you very much. Wouldn't be enjoyable for either of us--well, you less than me, of course."

"I can think of several ways to help with that," he offers politely. "Would you like a list? Alphabetical or categorical?"

Crowley's expression sours further. "I can already see this will be lovely. Don't fancy you as my only company, either, but I suppose that's still better than none at all."

"Your only--" Crowley slumps further, eyes fixed despondently on the wall behind him. "What was the price?"

"Going rate for one Fallen angel, slightly used, very mortal? Crossroads, whole and entire. The bidding was ridiculous; once in an infinity opportunity, no one wanted to miss it. Except your Brothers, of course: pity, that." Crowley's expression sours further when Castiel bursts into laughter. "Highest price on a single soul--or what passes for that where you're concerned--since Dean Winchester went on the block, and that cost Alistair everything but the Pit itself."

"I almost wish I could've been there," he answers honestly. "Did you leave with your pants or did--"

"I'm going to invent all new ways to use the rack just for you," Crowley interrupts venomously, finishing his glass in a gulp. "Stuff those wings of yours and hang them on my wall."

"I'm flattered, of course. If you find them, do tell me where they were. I've wondered about that myself."

"This is why Alistair died without an heir, you know," Crowley continues morosely, finishing off his glass in a single gulp. "Should have known better: all that effort he put into Dean and he couldn't even keep him after. Don't let it go to your head. It was in the contract. Had to win it, any way I could."

"You don't know why?"

"Not even a hint." The red-glazed eyes focus on him, and Castiel stills, amusement fading. "Must be a reason I agreed to it, however," he continues cryptically. "The rack's only a tool; there are other ways, and I know them all. Depends on how long I get to keep you."

Carefully, Castiel sets the mug aside before he drops it, hands dropping to the arms of the chair to hide the tremor; suddenly, this starts to make sense. "You're buying me for someone else."

"Buyer has first claim to service," he says almost absently, focus intensifying; it feels like oil slicking every inch of his skin. "I get that much, before and after the rack--"

"There won't be an after."

"--but no touching allowed. I'm not even allowed to try." His expression darkens, mouth curving in a bitter smile. "No better way to show me my place, I suppose. The only reason I was given the job was that I was the only one who could afford to outbid every demon in Hell."

"If you give your claim to someone else before my Brothers find out…" He trails off, startled at the impulse.

Crowley raises an eyebrow. "They'll kill me for the presumption of claiming you at all. They'll have to hurry, though; when I step down, most of Hell will be after me, and they'll have my own former demons helping them find me." Shaking himself, he straightens, reaching for his now-full glass and taking a drink. "I might need to call on your service then. If it wouldn't be too much trouble."

He doesn't point out it won't be optional, and not just because he'll be bound to Crowley. It won't be new to be hunted; in Heaven and on earth, there's no reason it shouldn't continue in Hell. All he needs is Limbo and Purgatory to have a complete set.

"Why did you sign it?" Crowley doesn't answer. "I understand wishing to avoid a purge of Hell and earth, but not when it's probable you won't survive to enjoy it."

"Tell me something I don't know!" he snaps before taking a breath, expression smoothing over. Straightening in his seat, the urbane smile returns. "However, I did write the contract before I signed it. I apparently knew what I was doing when I did it."

"You're sure you're the only one that decided the terms?"

Crowley's smile changes, curving into something more genuine as he relaxes into his chair. "You're worried about me? Really?"

"Since I'm apparently intimately involved in your fate after my death, all things are possible." Crowley tips his head in acknowledgement. Reaching for his own cup, he stops himself, startled to realize he almost forgot why he was here in the first place. "About the barrier--"

"We're on that again?" Crowley complains. "Have another cup. What do you think of the coffee?"

"I'd like a pound or two if you have it. Later," he says firmly as Crowley opens his mouth to offer terms. "How long--"

"Why does it matter? Now that you know, you can take the proper precautions. Chitaqua's wards are well-nigh unbreakable--how did you do that, anyway? As a demon, I take offense at their existence, of course, but the entertainment value of Lucifer's reaction pays for all."

"We're in Ichabod," he answers, bewildered. "I--"

"I meant to ask about that," Crowley interrupts. "What are you doing there now? I'd get home, no time to waste."

Castiel stares at him in growing alarm. "We can't leave."

"Of course you can. Get in your little SUV, use this new invention they call 'roads'…."

"We can't leave," he snaps. "Can't, unable to do so, incapable without the power of teleportation or flight, neither of which I have access to at this time. The roads are impassable due to the probability that the entire state of Kansas is heading to Ichabod as we speak."

Crowley stills. "What?"

"Those coming to Ichabod outnumber us by several orders of magnitude, so every road in is filled, and while the recent blizzard makes extended foot travel questionable, they're certainly trying." Finally, Crowley seems to understand. "Even if the roads were passable, our vehicles…" He pauses, trying to remember how Amanda put it. "Disney World. The parking lot, but without the colored lines…."

"Bloody Hell, I've seen it." It's the worst possible time to wonder what the King of Crossroad demons was doing at Disney World--many crossroads, yes, but under a great deal of regularly repaired asphalt and cement, not to mention people--but he just stops himself from asking. To his bewilderment, however, Crowley's alarm begins to subside. "That's unexpected."

"You didn't know?"

Crowley raises his eyebrows. "Of course not. That wasn't in the terms."

"You can't even remember them," he counters, aware of a slowly growing chill. "How would you know--"

"I'd know; that would be the point of having a contract at all." Crowley relaxes back into his chair, but Castiel doesn't miss the flicker of uncertainty. "This isn't my doing, Castiel."

"We think the human infiltrators in Ichabod were responsible for the influx," he says carefully. "You expect me to believe their actions in Ichabod on behalf of the Crossroads is unrelated to this?"

"No, but that doesn't make it true," Crowley answers. "The circle was untested; confirming its existence and that it was functional was the only goal. Despite what you may think--or I, for that matter--humans can, on occasion, fulfill their own desires with the application of a sufficient work ethic--"

"I have endless faith in human ingenuity, but at their current level of technology, reality states failure is a given when it involves personally delivering thousands of maps throughout the state of Kansas in a three day timeframe." Crowley raises his eyebrows. "Occam's razor. I see no reason to assume a second group of demons was creeping around Kansas when yours were creeping there already."

"Creeping? Really, Castiel." Taking a drink from his glass, Crowley sighs. "Do you have any idea why your infiltrators, as you call them, would send everyone to Ichabod?"

"The barrier is falling," he starts. "I'm assuming telling them about that was how your demons convinced them to make contract in the first place."

"The backlash might be unpleasant, but certainly not dangerous in itself," Crowley says meditatively. "At least, not yet. So why would they--"

"The same reason the contract they made specified their children remain in Ichabod," he answers, watching Crowley carefully. "Did it never occur to whoever made the barrier that its existence would practically guarantee unwanted attention--"

"Why does it matter?" Looking put-upon, Crowley sighs. "Castiel, and I do deeply hate saying this, so consider this proof of my sincerity: you, of all people, shouldn't have a problem getting back to Dean in Chitaqua and the safety of the wards."

Castiel thinks: why am I enjoying this? And this part most of all. "Dean's in Ichabod."

From the expressions on the members of both Ichabod's and Chitaqua's patrols--with the sole exception of Anthi, running the entrance point and perimeter while Manuel and Teresa work on the getting the relay up--not one of them expected the perpetually busy, vaguely harassed mayor of Ichabod best known for her ability to look disapproving and annoyed over the rim of her glasses to transform from Executive Secretary of the Apocalypse to--well, this. With a pencil still holding up her hair, and as of this moment doing a shitty job of it.

Dean never made the mistake of underestimating her, but even he's vaguely surprised as she raps out crisp orders with the unthinking authority of someone who literally can't imagine anyone would even think to disobey. It works, too (a couple of his team leaders emerge from their daze as Alison finishes to look at him, but he cocks his head and they meekly concede with a nod).

"Manuel said they just passed the first feeder but one of the snowplows is down, no idea why," Alison says as they start to the infirmary while patrol prepares for breaking the perimeter line, members going among the waiting crowd to shout instruction on where to go and what to do and hope everyone listens.

"Gas?" he asks, trying not to look like he's struggling to keep up, but Jesus she can set a pace.

"If it were gas," she says, not at all patiently, "they'd know why it stopped." Her eyes narrow thoughtfully. "They think maybe the second feeder before midnight, but the other two--"

"Who do I have out there right now?" he asks.

"Kamal and Sean."

Awesome. "Tell Kamal to send Sean to the third and fourth feeders, have him set two team members at each one, and tell anyone coming in about the relay. Help the people get there if they can," he adds, remembering Alicia talking about adhoc sleds for those not walking through fuck knows how high drifts. Including kids.

"They're loading up everyone on the first buses while setting up the roadblock and stopping point. Uh--" Her eyes narrow. "Kamal says Sean's on his way to the other roads, and he's got his own team in position at Point A."

"Tell him good job," Dean says. "And if he--somehow--loses Kyle in the snow, don't worry about it."

Alison's mouth twitches. "He said thanks," she says. "Though not for which part of that."

"Hopefully both."

Once they reach the infirmary--a set of two square buildings now, three floors each--they walk into controlled bedlam; to his startled eyes, patients are everywhere, everyone is in motion, and no one seems to have a goal other than keep moving. Even Alison comes to a stop, forehead creasing, and Dean subtly extends an arm if she needs the support.

"Fine," she says shortly, squeezing her eyes closed before taking a deep breath. "Selective filtering," she explains. "Not as easy as it sounds."

"I don't even know what that is," Dean assures her. "And I know it's not easy."

"Alison!" Dolores emerges from the chaos with a smile, which Dean assumes means either a.) this is normal or b.) she's crazy. "I got four people unplugging all unnecessary equipment now to take pressure off the generators when we switch."

"You need both buildings?" Alison asks, falling into step with her as Dean trails behind, looking at the sheets draped by various methods to give at least the illusion of privacy, injuries ranging from cut fingers to something requiring a lot of gauze, a supine patient, and a unsettlingly large needle.

"I could use another one," Dolores admits as they go through a door into much more controlled and therefore dangerous chaos; a glance around tells him they're in the ER. "We're okay for water, but I'd like some more blankets sent over. Hold up," she says, already jogging toward one of the beds, where a too-still woman is holding the hand of a little girl, barely five at Dean's guess, Karl holding a clipboard that he hands to Dolores with relief. Searching the room, every bed is full, and on a guess, they need more beds.

"Alison, tell Vera--no, tell Amanda to tell Vera to get over here," he says, not sure how Vera might react to Alison taking the direct approach. "Joe can listen to them debating whatever the fuck they're doing. Can you find out where Alicia--"

A roar to their right gets both their attention, and Dean shoves Alison behind him as a beefy guy with a hastily bandaged head wound lurches to his feet, blood seeping through the gauze and down his cheek, face sickly pale and obviously delirious. He has just enough time to work out his strategy--seriously, the guy's fucking huge, almost as wide as he is tall--before Alicia casually wanders by him with a needle and an expectant expression, stopping a couple of feet away from the guy and tipping her head back to look up at the enraged face.

"You really shouldn't be up," she says clearly, and Dean has no time to even shout a warning before one massive fist shoots out. It would have been pointless even if he had; Alicia is crouching on the floor, unruffled as she takes a moment to decide on her target before shoving the needle directly into his thigh. "Anyone bigger than me want to help catch him?" she calls out, dodging one half-hearted kick as his eyes roll back in his head and catching him under the arms with a grunt. Over the guy's head, she sees Dean and grins. "Hey, Dean. What's up?"

It occurs to him he is, actually, bigger than her, or at least he's here, and hastily crosses the room to help. Between the two of them, they manage to get the groggy guy onto a gurney, where Alicia frowns as he starts to struggle, weaker, yeah, but also a lot less coordinated. "Maimouna's still getting--dammit. Dean, give me your hand?"

Blinking, he does, and belatedly braces himself when she uses it to guide her momentum on a quick jump onto the gurney, straddling his chest without putting any pressure on his ribs, knees pinning his arms just above the elbow. Placing one hand on his forehead, she firmly eases it back onto the thin mattress and frowns down at the man severely.

"You need to stop doing that," she states. "You're delirious. Terrible for thinking: don't do that. Or move, for that matter. No way to stitch you up otherwise, am I right?"

The man groans, though whether that's in agreement or just on principle, no idea. Dean feels Alison come up behind him. "So she's--always like this?"

"Yep." He feels like he should do something, but what, no idea. Dolores appears on the other side of the bed, taking out a penlight to checks the man's pupils, mouth tightening grimly at whatever's going on.

"Go ahead," Dolores says finally.

"Awesome. I need the next room or vaguely clear space," Alicia says, then brightens. "Here's fine, actually; this works. Matt!"

Dean and Alison both turn to see Matt, wearing a bright pink scrub top (oh God, don't laugh), appear with a stainless steel medical tray and looking worried. "Got everything you wanted. I think."

"I really don't think we--need to be here," Alison says queasily when Matt comes close enough to see the holy shit that's a big goddamn needle. "Dolores," she says hopefully. "Send someone to Lanak; you requisition anything you need, and I do mean anything. Generators should be here in the next forty minutes; tell them what you want is my order, if they argue, yell for me, I'll be listening. I'll just--" She cuts off, and Dean turns around to see her staring at nothing before she abruptly starts to go back the way they came. Nodding at concerned Dolores, Dean has to jog to keep up, catching her just as she emerges onto the street and turning toward the west end of the street.

The not-distant-enough churning darkness of the coming storm seems to consume the entire western sky, but that's not what Alison's looking at it: it's people crowding the end of the street, a mass of barely controlled chaos, held on the fragile leash of the patrol members guiding them to Volunteer Services for those waiting with the list of safe buildings.

"Perimeter's dissolved," Alison says. "That was--different."

"What did that feel like?"

"Happy," she says softly, starting to smile. "That they're going to survive tonight." Straightening, she shakes herself. "And my job is to make sure they do."

Dean grins. "Lead the way."

Crowley stiffens. "Say again?"

"We are in Ichabod, first person plural, please pay attention," he answers impatiently. "Dean called in everyone remaining in Chitaqua this morning in the very distant hope they can somehow get to us." Crowley's blank expression doesn't change. "An entire state showing up for a New Year's party is somewhat noticeable and we assumed the worst. We aren't leaving Ichabod. We wouldn't even if we could, not now."

Crowley's mouth works silently for several long, deeply appreciated moments. "You need to leave." Something in his voice makes Castiel still. "Immediately if not sooner--"

"Why?" He searches Crowley's face. "What's waiting so eagerly to get inside the barrier?"

Crowley shakes his head sharply, focusing on him in what seems to be utter horror. "Dean is there? Now? You let him out of Chitaqua? Why would you do that?"

"And half of Chitaqua's hunters, at least until the rest arrive."

"How could this happen?"

"Yes, you seem to have planned for every contingency except Dean being himself." Crowley looks at him incredulously. "Dean Winchester, sold his soul to Hell for his brother, very dramatic, but considering his career up to then, not what one might call unprecedented behavior. The barrier is going to fall, Ichabod is filling with desperate people, and he's a hunter; he's going to try and save them. All of them."

"You're letting him?" Crowley begins to flush with rage. "You have to get him--get both of you out of there! He's our last, our only chance--"

"What exactly do you think I can do?"

"Knock him out and carry him back to Chitaqua if you have to!" Crowley snarls. "Just get out of there--"

"I thought I'd help him instead." Crowley's mouth snaps closed. "Save the world one overrun town a time. Apparently, we're starting here."

"What are you doing, Castiel?" Crowley asks softly, looking at him as if he's never seen him before. "Or I suppose the question is, what's he done to you?"

"His orders are that we fight. I obey my leader."

"You…." Crowley closes his eyes briefly, smoothing his expression, a smirk curving up one corner of his mouth when he looks at him again. "Look at you. Castiel of the Host, angel of the Lord, the little rebel who Fell rather than kneel in obedience once you discovered how to stand on your own pathetic excuse for feet. The Host, Lucifer, God himself, Dean bloody Winchester Mark One….not even a dent. This Dean must be something else; five months with him, you're on your knees like you never left."

Castiel tilts his head, waiting in silence until Crowley's smirk fades. "We don't have time for this. Tell me how long it will take the barrier to fall. Minutes, seconds, weeks, perhaps--"

"It began at dusk yesterday. How long, I can't be sure, but certainly no more than a week." Dropping back in his chair, Crowley glares at him. "Don't get too excited. As it weakens, more will be able to cross the border and survive, at least for a little while."

It's far better than the worst case scenario, but that doesn't make it good. "So we have at least a few days before they survive long enough to do any damage?"

"Possibly more, now that I think about it." Crowley's eyes film over briefly, fingers tapping on the arm of his chair in thought. "You say all of the state is coming to Ichabod now? Since that's where they're coming as well, that will slow them down quite a bit. Instant gratification is always preferable."

Castiel swallows.

"Whoever made terms certainly did think of everything." His expression clears briefly, reluctant amusement chasing itself across his face. "Surely you see it. Survival of the fittest, as it were; those that arrive in time are protected by the lives of those that fail. Or, if you like, the more people that arrive, the fewer remain to distract attention from Ichabod. Elegant, really. I'm impressed."

"You would be."

Crowley flashes him a brief smile. "I'm looking forward to meeting them, whoever they are. That kind of potential is certainly worth the price I'll pay to get them." His expression darkens, and Castiel files that information away for worry at a more opportune time. "Won't help, though. Castiel, I don't think you understand--"

"That the barrier didn't just keep Kansas safe from what's usually here, but attracted the attention of everything else?" he asks rhetorically, and Crowley scowls. "A mystical barrier around an entire state: yes, that does tend to get everyone's attention. How my Brother missed it--"

"Please," Crowley says, rolling his eyes. "He can't see it. And yes, before you ask: same very ancient and very forgotten sigils used in the protections. He wouldn't even know it was there unless he tried to cross it."

Castiel stares at him for a moment. "The creator of the circle also created the barrier?"

"Again," Crowley starts.

"You don't know." He makes himself focus. "Do you know if they're still alive?"

"I don't," Crowley concedes. "However, if it's any consolation, I doubt it. Someone with that kind of talent either gains power enough to protect themselves very quickly or is used and eliminated."

He tilts his head, startled. "You disapprove?"

"If they belonged to someone other than me, not at all," Crowley answers, raising his eyebrows. "Fear is powerful, Castiel, but it grows stale with time and Hell has that in excess; to depend on that alone is foolish. I didn't become King of the Crossroads by being a fool."

"You gained it in Lilith's bed."

Crowley smiles, a flash, here and gone. "As I said, fear grows stale. A demon who rose from the rack with that kind of potential still within them isn't a resource to be discarded with impunity. If they were mine, the carrot is as important as the stick when the goal is to assure loyalty."

He starts to mention what just happened at the crossroads and then stops, staring at Crowley's slow smile in belated understanding. "Just so," Crowley says, pleased. "I do like you, Castiel."

"The barrier," Castiel says, setting that revelation aside. "Other than its properties in repelling almost anything not human--or brownie--what else was it designed to do?"

"What do you mean?"

He's not actually sure. He doesn't think anyone at the meeting earlier understood the implications of that lost time in the mess: at least, not entirely. Even a brief search of his memory has yielded little, he'd need decades to find the break, but--for a moment, he sees a woman dressed as a hunter, a sevenday per year on the earth…. "Do the Misborn still hunt the Five Rivers in my Brother's name?"

Crowley seems not to understand before he's treated to the first and only time he's ever seen a demon pale. "Why would you ask--"

"You don't know," he interrupts. "That's what's waiting outside the barrier."

Crowley stares at him. "There are no gods on earth for them to hunt."

"They may prefer the flavor of gods, but in their absence, anything would be preferable to their sheer lack of other fare, and terrorizing the dead is no substitute," he answers, thinking of Alison, then Teresa and Wendy and any other practitioners who may be in Ichabod. Not their preferred fare, no, but better than nothing and far more attractive than mere mortal lives.

Crowley doesn't argue the point, sitting back in his chair without any effort to conceal his discomfort. "Their attention span is capricious at best. You have a reason to think something may have elicited their interest here?"

"Other than the barrier itself?" He thinks of Nate for a moment; with their attention fixed here due to Alison, there's no possible way they'll miss him, and if he's right about what happened at Winchester House…. Teresa's wards might help, but in their current position and form, that might not be enough. "How long until the barrier is restored?"

"Oh, now you're wondering what's taking so long to get that sacrifice finished? Interesting." Crowley smiles at him. "Mortal body, but those angelic sensibilities are still in working order, I see. Expedience in the name of purpose; since that's Dean Winchester for you, I wouldn't be surprised if you offered to slaughter them yourself if they take too long about it. Even a demon can't hope to match how much practice you've had attaining a high body count with nothing but your sword."

"I've done it before," he answers evenly. "But it was always clean."

"Ah, got you." Crowley takes a sip of his wine, smacking his lips obnoxiously. "Well, no worries there; no time for fun, they're on the clock. It took weeks to build the first one, and all they have is the time before the barrier collapses entirely to raise the power. When the old one finally breaks, they use the backlash to hold it up, but that won't last long; they have to power it by the next dawn or it's gone for good."


"Please." Crowley rolls his eyes. "No idea at all. Feel better? Now you can be honest when you say that there was no way for you to save them. No one will think to ask if you really wanted to."

He takes a deep breath. "After it's over. Can you find out where?"

"Possibly. Why?"

"The bodies." Crowley blinks at him in confusion. "They need to be identified, if possible, then burned with salt. Ichabod will doubtless be our priority when this is over, but--"

"You're still going to try and fight?" Crowley slowly rises to his feet. "None of you will survive this, much less win."

"Then we'll save as many as we can until then."

"If Dean dies--and you, in case it hasn't occurred to you how fucked he'll be without you here--it won't matter. We're all dead anyway."

"It will matter," he says, "to those who would have died and won't, because we stayed."

Crowley stares at him, eyes unreadable.

"You'd make a terrible angel and a worse human," he says deliberately. "He's my charge, and mortality does encourage making contingency plans to protect him in the event of my death. He will survive. All of Chitaqua will follow him--even if all of them don't survive, I contacted people who can help them. If he doesn't go there within a certain period, one of them knows to come here to find him."

"And not a one of them know who he really is," Crowley says softly, and Castiel just controls the flinch. "World he doesn't know, war he's being forced to fight, people who think he's someone else--not to mention what will happen the first time he sees Lucifer riding his brother; that reunion will be something to see. Right before Lucifer kills him. Second verse, same as the first: Castiel walks away and Dean Winchester dies, tell me if you've heard this one before."

Castiel bites down on his tongue hard enough to taste blood. "I didn't bring him here--"

"True," Crowley agrees, stepping closer. "You're just condemning him to survive here--if he even can--all on his own. You can do better than that."

"Do you think there's anything I wouldn't do…." He doesn't have time for this. "I need to return."

"Yes, so you can try surviving despite the certainty of failure." Crowley studies him intently. "How are you feeling, Castiel?"

"Impatient to return," he answers warily as Crowley takes another step closer. "If you would--"

"You liked the coffee?" Crowley shrugs at his blank expression. "It's very good coffee. My own special blend."

"I thought it was Kona."

"That pathetic little hamlet soon to be filled with dead bodies from the sacrifice--I can get the name for you. Problem is, I can't get through the barrier once it goes up."

Surprised, he wonders why he didn't think of that. "I could…." He eyes Crowley, watching him only inches away. "What are the terms?"

"Easy ones: we'll get to that. I can't get into Kansas, but I can bring you to me." He smiles faintly at Castiel's expression. "Here and back again, no strings attached. One month from today, first crossroad outside Chitaqua. Draw your true name in your own blood on the box before you bury it; I'll find you."


"Easy as anything," he murmurs, and suddenly, long fingers are trailing down the side of his face, thumb stroking at the corner of his mouth. "Terms are you let me do this so I can. Human bodies have their advantages; from what I've heard, this is your favorite thing about them."

This isn't what Castiel expected when it came to propositioning. "You want to fuck me for the name of a town?" he asks incredulously.

"No time, though lovely thought. We'll come back to that at a more convenient time." Castiel feels a wall against his back without any clear memory of having moved and Crowley smiles up at him. "It seems in some way your body works just fine, Castiel."

"My sheets can elicit the same reaction," he answers when Crowley's thigh presses against his cock, aware of something wrong when he can't make himself shove him away. "Sexual organs respond to stimulus with neither judgment nor taste, and generally lack standards."

Crowley wrinkles his nose with a moue of manufactured hurt. "You wound me."

"You bore me," he says, painfully aware of the spreading lethargy, a faint prickle beneath his skin that feels vaguely familiar. "Either name the terms, or--"

"Just close your eyes," he says, breath brushing across Castiel's skin, "and remember you'd do anything for Dean Winchester."

Crowley's lips touch his, a brief moment of dry warmth, the feather light touch against his cheek trailing to his jaw. "Human bodies are very nice," he breathes against his mouth. "Humans, though, they're fragile: break so easily, so limited in what you can do with them. Have to be careful, don't you? Not to hurt them." Crowley's tongue flickers across his lower lip in a flare of wet heat before abruptly, his wrists are pinned against the wall. Startled, he sucks in a breath at the unforgiving grip, the fingers biting into his skin, grinding flesh and bone together, and as if from a distance, he hears the sound of his own quickened breathing, but he can't gather his thoughts enough to decide how to react. "Not to scare them to death when realize what they're really taking to bed."

Everything seems to be slowing down too much, the prickle become firmer, almost painful. "What are you doing?"

"Believe it or not," Crowley murmurs, "I'm trying to help." The distracting brush of lips shatters his attention and Crowley's wet tongue slides eagerly into his mouth.

Hell is purpose incarnate; death and destruction, war without end, bloodshed without limit, all for pleasure in pain; Crowley tastes like every death he dealt in Hell, pleasure and satisfaction, the endless hunger for more, starving for it and knowing it will never be enough, either time or prey.

"That's it," Crowley whispers cryptically, fingers curving possessively around the back of his neck, short nails digging furrows into his skin. "Human bodies, yes please, but better without the human in them. Can't hurt me--unless you want to, of course." Sharp teeth rake brutally across his lower lip, bruising the tender skin; when Crowley draws back, he smiles with blood flecked lips before he slowly licks them clean. "I like that sort of thing."

Crowley groans, low and pleased, as Castiel wraps a hand around his throat, feeling him swallow hard against his palm. Coaxing, he draws back, forcing Crowley to follow, slick tongue frantically sliding along the seam of his lips before Castiel bites down brutally in a welter of fresh blood.

Crowley growls, throat vibrating against his palm, and Castiel jerks back, almost staggering. "What…" Tightening his hold on Crowley's throat, he focuses at the sight of his own hand: the invisible branded lines on the back meant to capture Grace pulse sluggishly in throbs of dull pain. Swallowing, he has time to see Crowley's anticipatory smile before a white hot spark flashes through him, nerves screaming awake that he didn't even realize his body had.

Jerking back, he staggers helplessly again the back of the chair he was sitting in earlier, dazed, trying to catch his breath as another throb of pain shoots through him: those aren't nerves and that's not his body. Not his human one, anyway.

"Now that's impressive."

Head snapping up, he sees Crowley inexplicably on the other side of the room, surrounded by crumbling plaster as he reaches up to absently wipe at the fresh blood drying on his mouth and smeared across his cheeks, eyes entirely red. Licking his lips, he strokes his fingers down his throat, and Castiel sees in horror the faint red of a light sunburn in the shape of his hand, already fading to nothing. "What…." Another flash of pain crashes through him, and dropping to the floor, he abruptly recognizes this: Jeffrey, the blood-smeared bullet.

"It's all there," Crowley says hoarsely, sounding satisfied as he pushes off the wall in a rain of broken plaster. "Wasn't sure how much was left after the Host clipped your wings. They did an excellent job so far as that goes: cut the wires, took the gas away, made a bit of a mess there, really. Engine, though, that's just fine. Short-sighted of them, wasn't it?"

Castiel wipes shaking fingers across his mouth, not surprised to see them stained with blood before he doubles over, another shock of pain rippling through him as his stomach empties itself on the floor. Squeezing his eyes open, he stares at it in horror, trying to concentrate enough to calculate the difference--by an order of magnitude--between blood smeared on a single bullet and ingestion of at least a quarter cup and expelling not nearly enough of it.

"They shoved you in a new model, whole and entire," he hears over the roar in his ears. "Suppose they thought that would do the trick." Through watering eyes, Castiel looks up to see Crowley watching him with clinical interest. "They were wrong about that. Just needed to hook up the new connectors and fuel up."

"This will." He spits, but it doesn't disperse sour taste growing on his tongue. How long did it take him to be affected by Jeffrey? Longer, he would have thought, but at the moment, he can't be sure. "Kill me." Or worse, it won't; if last time was any indication of the progress, it could be weeks intensifying before it starts to ease off. Maybe months, depending on how much he retained in his system. That's a very long time to be without full control of himself, and Alicia held his hand as if….

"Doubtful," Crowley says thoughtfully. "I would give you more, but I'm not sure how much you can contain these days."

"I can't." The black spots dancing on his peripheral vision threaten to consume it entirely. Taking a shuddering breath, Castiel forces himself to focus and abruptly, his full range of sight snaps on, everything slamming into him at once before he desperately shoves it closed. Panting into the stiff brocade, he fights down panic; there's no way to know what will happen if he loses control now. "I'm not Sam Winchester," he grates out. "I can't contain this." His true form is repulsed, pain rippling through him like being gutted alive, over and over and over without hope of end; his human body, unlike Sam's, wasn't exposed in early childhood; between the two….

"Not for long, no," Crowley agrees critically. "But 'long' is relative; it will take a very long time for your body to burn it out, Castiel. Far simpler--and less agonizing--to simply use it for its intended purpose."

Castiel shakes his head, trying to make sense of the words, but the flare of pain almost knocks him unconscious. And Crowley won't stop talking.

"Obviously you haven't considered the benefits," Crowley continues in a gruesomely cheerful voice. "Let me explain while you finish up. Unlike Sam Winchester, you can use it the way a human--or even a demon--can't. Same engine: just different type of fuel."

Castiel clings to consciousness until the agony lessens enough to remember how to speak. "Why…."

"That town won't survive when the barrier breaks, Castiel."

Castiel stares up at him, uncomprehending, feeling razors slice into every nerve at once, forcing them alight, and the pain vanishes all at once. Gasping, he shuts his eyes, aware of a pulsing that seems to squirm beneath every inch of skin, darkly eager, impatience for release.

"Better?" Crowley asks as Castiel shakily pushes himself back on his heels, unbalanced by the endless pulsing. "Now, Castiel, it's time to face reality. It generally has little to do with faith or hope in the face of impossible odds. Miracles went the way of the dodo bird, and I was never fond of them anyway." His voice softens unexpectedly. "We've got to make this work, all of it; it won't happen otherwise. He's our last chance, the only one we have left. Everyone must do their part, and that includes you. Like wealth, there are few problems that can't be solved with the application of sufficient power. You have it; now use it to get you both out of this mess.

"For what it's worth," Crowley says soberly, "if there were another way, I would have taken it. I do like you, Castiel. Always have."

Castiel opens his eyes. "Do you?"

Dean instructs a group of volunteers who are running Plug Duty (Jesus, seriously), Laura among them, reciting Alison's instructions exactly and adding firm looks every so often, which seems to help.

"…anything goes wrong," he finishes sternly to his audience. "We blow up."

"Oh God," a voice says in horror.

"Whole town. So get it right," he continues. "Any questions? Dismissed."

Turning around, he sees Alison behind him, the group she was talking to already gone, and trying to look disapproving. "Blow up? Really?"

"Like you weren't heavily implying it," he scoffs, eyes flickering to the west and the disappearing bus as another group of people makes for the entrance point, volunteers now given the job of herding rather than stopping with promises of shelter, blankets, and food. "Anything from the other towns?"

"Three so far," she says, eyes unfocusing for a minute. "Lanak is having the time of her life organizing everyone, and Mercedes just reported they're bringing in what they culled while she finishes securing shelter for the animals."

"They'll be okay?"

"We got three people staying out there with them," she says, looking amused at Dean's horror. "Dean, gonna tell you now, we could all die, but whoever gets stable duty is gonna be fine; they probably fought for it. Those barns may smell, but a stable of horses and barn of dairy cows is a lot of body heat."

"And the rest?"

"Pigs and poultry are fine, they're always protected. Predators," she says, mouth turning down. "Sheep and cows in the winter fields--I'm told they'll be okay by people who deal with them daily, so gonna trust they know what they're talking about." She looks at him. "Did you know a single cow can make a thousand burgers?"

Huh. "That's a lot of burgers."

"I know." Shaking her head, she starts toward Admin then turns around. "Dean?"

Dean opens his mouth to answer but the words won't form, so he gives up, shaking his head before starting down the road to the eastern side of the ward line.

"Dean?" he hears Alison say, and feels those ripples pass him again before she's beside him. "Dean, where are you going?"

"Something's wrong," he hears himself say and would be unbelievably glad he can still talk but-- "I gotta get to him."

"Cas, got it," she says, and he realizes that he's jogging when she huffs a breath. "Thank God you agreed running from danger should be my priority. Anytime you're ready, by the way."

Dean wants to ask who she's talking to--it's definitely not him--when Amanda's in front of him, and the only reason he doesn't knock her out of the way is she shoves him right on his ass. Now he knows why he didn't see who was following him since he left headquarters.

"Dean, what's going on with Cas?" Amanda says, and then stops short, eyes wide when he pulls his knife.

"I'm going to the ward line," he says, climbing to his feet, buoyed by the flood of unfocused anger; he can use that. "Over your dead body or not, it's all the same to me. So what's it gonna be?"

It's not even a thought; the flash of violent rage coalesces abruptly into intent before he realizes what he's doing. The release is as shocking as it is satisfying; Crowley slams back into the wall and through two inches of plaster before hitting the solid stone behind it with a breathless gasp and the sound of cracking bones.


"Don't talk." Crowley's head slams back into the stone with a thick, muffled sound and Castiel wraps an invisible hand around his throat. "Are you fully aware of how much damage can be done to that body before its unusable, even by you?" He tightens his hold and feels cartilage breaking. "I am."

Climbing to his feet, an icy clarity sweeps through him as he watches Crowley's pathetic struggles. Possibilities fill his mind, impossible to stop and impossible to even remember to want to try. He observed the work of the most expert master of the rack ever to walk the Pit, and there's so much now he wants to try.

He's watched her with Cas, knows every weakness and the fact she doesn't have many and most are related to dealing with someone faster and stronger than a human.

"I gotta get to him before…" Something, but that anger running under his skin tells him something's very wrong, and standing around here won't fix it. Getting there and killing whatever caused it: that'll fix it. "Well?"

"I get it," she says, arms out at her sides, deceptively helpless; he's not stupid enough to believe it. "I'm going with you."

"Fine," he says, watching her carefully as he passes before breaking into a dead run. Cas, he thinks as hard as he can: stop. Come here. Now. "Try to keep up."

With unexpected strength, Crowley escapes before he can decide, crumpling to the ground in a pile of plaster and dust. "I wouldn't, Castiel," Crowley says, smiling up at him with blood-stained teeth. "You have a job to do right now, don't you? No time to waste."

Like that, Castiel jerks himself under control, and the low throbbing turns sullen, pushing impatiently, testing; powdering every bone in his body--stop--every stray thought is a danger--stop--every emotion--stop--but something in his head is shouting, has been shouting, and he can't understand what it is, why--

Cas! Stop!

Dean. He'll never forgive him for this.

Come here.


He slams Crowley back into the wall again before he can stop himself. "I'll strip your skin from your body by inches and hang your rotting carcass on the wall if you say another word." Looking at Crowley, he realizes how badly he wants him to speak, so he can do it. He wants to do it anyway, if he doesn't. Just because he can.

Now. The shouting abruptly becomes a headache, stabbing into the back of his mind.

When he opens his eyes, he's crouching just outside Ichabod's wards, watching as horrified confirmation flickers sluggishly to life in flashes of warning, buzzing gold inches from his fingertips. Looking down, he realizes he's in a blackened crater still smoldering sullenly, surrounded in bags of coffee, and in the distance is a figure, running toward him. Dean.

"No," he breathes, and vanishes.

A quarter of the street has been reduced to nearly uniform rubble when Castiel feels the shift in his mind of someone approaching, breaking his unyielding concentration in turning rock and wood and glass into uniform chunks of destruction and shape them into miniature mountain ranges. A human shouldn't be able to come this close--no one should want to--but only one person could break his focus, and he doesn't need to turn his head to see Dean only a few feet away, searching the street.

"Come on, Cas," Dean says with surreally normal irritation. "I know you're here, so don't make me walk on top of you to prove it."

With a thought, Castiel alters perception of the street to include Dean. "You shouldn't be here."

"You didn't want me here, you would have already done your vanishing act again," Dean replies, careful to hug the wall of the former convenience store Castiel is sitting against and avoiding anything that might be in his line of sight. "Not like you haven't been jumping all over this goddamn town. Alison's pissed."

Dean's thoughts are a tempting jumble as he approaches, beckoning, but after hours of teaching himself to ignore him, it's only a small effort to not read him now. It takes slightly longer to remember why he shouldn't do that or even want to, and he's glad he assumed there would eventually be a delay and planned accordingly. He turns his attention back to the rubble, closing his eyes again; he doesn't have to use human sight to see what he's doing anymore, and it's almost stopped bothering him.

A warm body drops beside him, coat brushing his arm. "So. How's it going?"

"How did you find me?"

Dean's incredulity is almost soothing. "How do you think?"

Castiel doesn't answer, aware of the faint, insistent (somewhat unhappy) throb in his arm finally fading. Compared to the very effective goad of physical agony if he stops his wholesale destruction of all within his line of sight, it's almost nothing, but somehow, it penetrated even that, a constant reminder. He should have broken the binding the moment he realized--but he didn't.

"Clearing out some of the condemned buildings for Tony?" Dean asks curiously, looking at the half-demolished street.

Castiel nods shortly, carefully piling the next mound of debris; he supposes this is an example of Dean easing into a subject. "Even destruction can be turned to useful purpose. It--accepts that, apparently." Dealing with unending agony is far harder when it's so easy to make it stop: use it. To block the pain, to destroy buildings, to kill vast numbers of humans by sheer accident, which it most certainly would like him to do.

Anthropomorphizing power is ridiculous, but it's soothing to think of it frustrated with being limited to destroying inanimate objects rather than glorying in rending living human flesh from bone.

"Yeah, good idea," Dean says, and he can only hope it wasn't in response to that thought; protecting Dean from exposure to his thoughts is difficult when he's this close.

Trying to ignore the too-quiet man beside him, he finishes shaping the rubble with care, aware of the warning spikes along his nerves, sullen in its displeasure. He can't contain it, so there are only two methods of getting rid of it; let it slowly burn itself out of his system (and hope it doesn't damage him in the process considering the quantity) with a great deal of pain, or use it. And it doesn't approve of any use that isn't destructive and would far prefer taking life.

There's only so much to destroy, however, and it still shifts hungrily beneath his skin like maggots squirming, testing his control every moment. Grace was far more passive; it was content to wait for him to decide what to do with it. This tries to give him ideas in case he shouldn't think of any himself. If only that were true.

It desperately wants to give him ideas of what could be done to the human body beside him, as it did when any human wandered within range of him. This time, however, his will is supplemented by something else: negation that precludes even considering the question in it's entirely, unbreakable and unbendable, absolute. Gravity is less powerful than that; it stills in the face of that, slinking away like a dog with its tail between its legs, chastened and accepting the chastisement as just.

He sucks in a breath. The heir to the Pit brooked no rivals in his time there and dealt with them without delay, and Hell's memory is very long; that would explain what happened with Crowley when he wanted to make a deal. "That was you."

"So something went wrong," Dean says conversationally, possibly genuinely oblivious. Even with his eyes closed, he can see Dean pulling his legs in, resting an arm over his knees. Glancing down at the bare, blackened ground below them, Dean measures the blast radius around them, eyebrows raised in curiosity. "Everything's going great," he says, and Castiel is (somewhat) unwillingly subjected to a rapid slide show of the afternoon and early evening's events, for Dean learned a great deal while showing him all the kinds of pie he'd ever consumed that day. "Teresa's a little freaked out to keep losing connection to the earth and couldn't figure out where or how. I told her not to worry about it."

"It doesn't like me very much right now." That's an understatement, but it still obeyed him when he told it to be silent, however grudgingly; he's not sure what to make of that other than there's absolutely nothing about this that isn't obscene.

"Huh." Dean lets out a breath, noting the lack of frost with approval and taking off his jacket to tuck underneath him before sitting down again. "Nice report, by the way, on what Crowley told you about the timeline on the barrier; never got one like that. Lacking in detail, though, like any. That really all you talked about?"

Without meaning to, Castiel shatters the foundation of the building off-center too early; a surge of power holds it in place, an explosion that would greedily take out the entire street at once held in check just in time with a nauseating shock of pain. Demons did something similar with their host bodies, all and any damage suspended until they left them; it's interesting to use an obscene method for practical purpose. Redirecting the force, it goes upward in an impressive arc of debris before settling back into a safe mound of debris.

"Dean." He concentrates on the mechanics of shaping the debris into the correct shape. "I don't expect forgiveness for this, but--"

"You can't expect forgiveness when there's nothing to forgive. You didn't do anything wrong." Castiel wouldn't believe him, but the sense of negation changes into humming affirmation, colored in determination and bedrock certainty. "Except that you've been hiding from me since you got back and dude, we gotta work on our communication skills if reading my mind wasn't enough… Christ."

"Don't be facetious."

"Don't be stupid." Dean's voice sharpens. "We're in this together, and that means everything. Look at me."

"No." He's not sure who he's sparing; Dean seeing his eyes, or himself seeing Dean's reaction when he does. "You should leave. You have responsibilities--"

"What do you think I've been doing?" Dean asks, a smile in his voice. "Got everything sorted out, and Chitaqua's commander officially went off duty thirty minutes ago."

The sheer inanity of that response gives him pause.

"If you snap me back to headquarters and I have to walk all the way back here, I'll kick your ass." He can feel Dean looking at him. "Cas, whatever Crowley did to you--"

"I didn't say no. That satisfied consent."

"Demons have a lower standard than the Host," Dean murmurs, bitterly amused. "That's an actual surprise to know. Though since the Host likes torture as much as demons, might have just been perk to get to do the fun stuff to get the yes in the name of righteousness." There's another silence. "How long until that shit kills you?"

"It won't." To his relief, Dean understands immediately, sucking in a breath. "As long as I--use it--it's not a problem." The problem is, it's not Grace; it's angry and greedy and hungry; never more than now has the reality of the similarities between angels and demons been so clear. Purpose twisted, but still purpose, and it's purpose is gleeful destruction, joy in death, everything the Host is and had been on earth without the leash of their Father's will.

"How long will it take to get rid of it?"

"Longer than I can remain conscious without overdose if this is all that I do with it." He takes a breath, forming more of the debris into the proper shape. "Once there is nothing else to destroy, I'm not sure what to do with it after that."

"What'd he want you to do with it?"

"If I know demons, the most practical solution would be to clear all the roads from here to Chitaqua," he answers flatly. "And possibly teleport everyone that could fit behind Chitaqua's wards directly there. The remainder could be used to kill anything I might find if I took a drive around the state, since I doubt I could pass Chitaqua's wards like this."

"They're your wards."

"They're my wards, and if I'm a danger, they will respond to that. I never assumed I couldn't be used against Dean or Chitaqua."

"Right." Dean sets his jaw. "That why you're keeping your distance from Teresa's."

He's not sure he'd stay on this side of sanity if he actually felt them respond to him as a demon, and he's far too close already to risk slipping here. Not when thought equals action, and he has the power to make almost anything happen. His thoughts unregulated are a danger to everyone around him, and it wants to obey them so badly.

"And what are you gonna do after?" Dean demands. "Scream in agony for a few weeks while I watch?"

Stung, he jerks around to look at Dean before he can stop himself. "You think that's something I'm looking forward to? The other option is I lose control entirely and kill everyone…."

"You're not," Dean states, "gonna go on a rampage, come on." Before he realizes Dean's intent, he reaches out, thumb sliding down his temple and stopping at the corner of his eye, smile widening. "Blue, in case you're curious. Not even a shadow. I figured that's why you wouldn't look at me, but since you're not actually containing it now, didn't make sense it would be affecting your body."

"That's the least of my worries." Dean raises an eyebrow in polite refutation of the obvious. "It already affected--changed me. Or haven't you been paying attention?"

"It's putting you in a shitty mood," Dean replies. "Don't blame you, but you gotta stop worrying you're going to become someone else entirely and start thinking about what we're going to do about this."

He swallows. "'We.'"

"We," Dean confirms, voice softening. "Now you know when I said everything, I meant it. We'll figure this out, okay?"

He nods, mostly because he's not sure how to argue the point.

"So--you're destroying some useless buildings to keep this in check until we get a plan together," Dean says, 'obviously' unspoken but crystal clear. "Good call. Time for a plan."

He'd like one of those, yes. "Do you happen to have one in mind?"

"Not sure," Dean answers softly, thumb still pressed against his skin. That Dean is touching him at all now is a shock; letting him do it is unforgiveable, but stopping him is unthinkable. "Hey, question while I’m thinking--can you tell if anything's plugged in? Nothing on generator power, though: just, uh, everywhere else?"

Castiel blinks, but Dean's mind helpfully confirms he's being literal, and obediently, he checks the town, and takes care of a few problems in that line.

"Thanks," Dean says. "So the sacrifice--any way we can track it down, location, something?"

He thought of that, of course, and even tried to search the future, but the results had been--confusing and horrifying by turn. Possibility, he remembers; nothing is written yet, not anymore, so anything can happen.

"No, not yet. Assuming whoever is doing it as a modicum of intelligence--which I'm assuming they do--they've warded themselves against detection as well as the backlash from the barrier falling. Depending on how intelligent whoever doing this is, they'll wait until the last minute to start killing those marked for sacrifice."

"What does that have to do with the--oh, the wards can't block anyone finding out what they're doing?"

"Usually yes, but in this case, it's a matter of scale. Crowley said it would take more than two thousand lives." Considering Crowley's regard for human life, 'more' probably means the number is at least double that. "A blood sacrifice isn't easy to hide when working with far less; once they close the circle, they won't be able to hide it for long. The moment it's detectable, Ichabod wouldn't be nearly as attractive to some of the creatures crossing the border as an active human sacrifice in progress," he explains. "One horrific benefit of this is that the deaths will need to be accomplished as quickly as possible."

"I don't even know what to think of that." Dean taps idly on one knee, like this is simply another problem to be dealt with and not an obscenity crawling inside someone he once considered a friend. "What about--"

"Why are you doing this?"

Dean pauses, tipping his head back against the building. "For some reason, I'm pretty sure that's not the question you want to ask. No reason to think that, except I was almost to the wards on my way to the crossroads to kill Crowley before Amanda stopped me."

"How would you have--"

"Found you? I would have," Dean states, which he interprets as 'no idea whatsoever'. "Jesus, she's good; I almost didn't get her gun, but she had me on the ground fast enough that it didn't matter. Remind me never to believe a goddamn word she says, by the way. Go with me, my ass."

"I have to find out how you do that," he says in surprise before forcing himself to return to the subject. "Dean--"

"Then again, when I told her the problem, she was pretty much onboard with the killing Crowley plan until I--you got back." Dean rubs the heel of his boot into the ground thoughtfully. "Look, don't be pissed, but--we made a deal, I had to or she would have probably locked me up in headquarters or something. Before you say anything--she's one street away now, and I'm pretty sure she's pissed enough right now at me for getting away from her this time without keeping us both invisible and she finds out later we were right in front of her."

He looks away.

"And she's gonna find out," Dean adds honestly. "Come on, Cas."

When she reaches the street, Castiel alters perception enough to include her but exclude all others, on the off-chance that more humans will for reasons unknown wander this direction. What's wrong with them; it's baffling.

Amanda stops short, and Castiel doesn't have to look to be aware of her relief. "I’m going to fucking kill you," she says to show her affection. "Both of you."

Dean displays his suicidal tendencies. "What took you so long? Get lost or something?"

Castiel stiffens, but it's too late to stop her, pointless to alter perception, and a truly terrible idea to snap her back to their headquarters. Oblivious, she jogs toward them, staying as close to the buildings behind them as Dean did. The crawling under his skin strengthens--humans are prey at the best of times--but he slams down on it before it accomplish more than a half-hostile snarl, waiting out the retaliatory pain grimly as he methodically destroys the foundation of a former bakery as slowly as possible.

Coming to a stop, she looks between them, expression worried and relieved at once. "Everything okay?"

"Awesome," Dean tells her sunnily. "You know, except the existential shit. We're gonna need more time. Make sure everyone stays inside the wards from Baltimore to Fifth; we don't need civilians wandering around. Patrol stays south of Fifth period, but tell them to be ready to get themselves and anyone nearby behind the wards, too, fast. This can't cross them, so that's probably the safest place anyway. We may have to move fast, so be ready, okay?"

"For what?"

Dean blows out a breath. "Let's go with anything."

"Got it." Keeping her attention on Dean, she raises an eyebrow. "Alison is gonna want an explanation, by the way."

He makes a face. "Tell Alison we'll explain later."

"From Cas," she corrects him, and Castiel stiffens involuntarily. "Something about what will happen next time Cas deliberately goes outside her range to talk to demons alone, I didn't get it all. Half of it wasn't even verbal."

"That," Dean says, brightening, "is a good idea; tell her we're making a list. Joe holding down the fort?"

She nods distractedly, eyes darting to Castiel and back to Dean before she takes a deep breath, and stepping sideways, drops into a crouch to stare at Castiel.

"Look at me." She waits, easily indicating she'll wait for as long as it takes, and sighing, he looks at her. "Next time you go deal with demons, you don't go alone. I wouldn't have let you past the wards if I'd know what the fuck you were planning to do. You even try…." She makes a face. "You told us the reason we trained in teams was because hunters always worked alone before and that wasn't enough anymore, not to fight a war. That includes you."

Castiel searches her face. "How on earth do you think you could have stopped me?"

"Break your ankle," she answers in surprise, and from his side comes a suspicious huff of laughter. "Left, where you broke your foot and cracked the bone. It'd be clean break, don't worry: no mobility problems later, but healing will be a bitch." Straightening, she glances at Dean. "Anything else?"

Dean shakes his head. "Tell Joe and Vera they're in charge forever?" She makes a dissenting noise. "Fine, until morning. Check in at midnight with me at Alison's, otherwise keep on keeping on."

"Got it." She grins with a playful salute before jogging back toward the end of the street. Castiel watches her a moment too long as she disappears from sight, and he feels himself lose control of the destruction, vicious satisfaction rushing through him as it anticipates the crater it will leave of Ichabod.

"No." Dean's left hand clamps down on his wrist, green eyes fixing on the imminent explosion before his right hand fists, and it compresses the moment before manifesting in something not unlike a nuclear explosion. For Dean, it's effortless, exerting his will with the unthinking expectation of obedience, and that's exactly what he gets; the debris, crumbles into fist-size rocks, the released energy contained and dissipated. "Don't fight it, Cas. It doesn't have the right to fight you, so stop giving it ideas."

The massive pressure he's been fighting eases as Dean methodically breaks the debris down further. "How--"

"Show it who's boss." He makes it look like nothing, shaping the chaotic power to his will. "You accept it--"

He swallows back nausea. "No."

"--and then you own it. Like this." The rocks crumble into pebbles before their eyes, arranging themselves neatly into a pile identical to those that Castiel created. All at once, the pressure vanishes, cowering away at the edges of his awareness, restless but passive. It still wants to be used, but it doesn't fight; it can't, obedient to Dean's will on its limitations, its use only at his pleasure. "There we go. Better?"

Castiel nods, drawing in a breath, and beside him, he feels Dean lean back against the building with a sigh, but the hand wrapped around his wrist doesn't loosen.

"I don't even remember how that felt then," Dean breathes into the silence, voice rough. "But I missed it anyway, all this time. How's that work? Like not being able to fly?"

He doesn't trust himself to answer, or pretend that Dean needs an answer at all.

"Deep breath, Cas," he adds in a more normal voice, resting his right arm on his upraised knees. "We got a few minutes before we need to work out what we're gonna do with this when we run out of Ichabod to destroy."

We. "Dean--"

"I'm not going anywhere," Dean says conversationally. "And neither are you. You can do this."

"You don't understand--"

"I don't care. You are gonna do this," Dean corrects himself, fingers tightening brutally around his wrist. "Got it?"

He closes his eyes. "Every time I use it, the memories of how it was extracted are mine, everything that was done to a human's eternal soul on the rack. As if I were the one who--"

"I know."

Of course he does. "How am I supposed to live with that?"

"You'll find out by doing it," Dean answers bluntly. "Just like I did."

He still doesn't understand. "How do I--live with how you'll…" He stops at the break in his voice and tries again. "How am I supposed to live with what you'll see every time you look at me?"

Dean is silent, and a glance shows him surveying the destruction before them with the critical eye of someone who knows what it is and is evaluating the quality. Slowly, it dawns on him; Dean would have turned that same gaze on another demon administering punishment on the rack. Not would have: once upon a time, he did just that, Alistair's most accomplished pupil instructing others in their craft, studying their work, searching for flaws in extracting every moment of pain in administration as well as the whole.

"It'll be fine," Dean tells him, a ripple of something unfamiliar in his voice. "Nowhere else I want to be."

He doesn't have time to interpret that as the pressure returns, increasing incrementally with every moment that passes, testing. Dean's lack of response making it bolder, creeping closer to his consciousness

Dean's hand tightens painfully on his wrist. "Control it, Cas. Now."

Revulsion spirals through him, but he makes himself do it and has the horrified satisfaction of feeling it scramble backward, hovering watchfully. He focuses on shopping center to the east and feels it leap eagerly to obey, taking it apart to the foundation and sewer system beneath it almost effortlessly (a screaming soul on the rack slowly dismembered by inches by his own hands).

"That's it," Dean murmurs approvingly. "Keep going, let me think; what else...." He pauses. "I mean to ask--why is it warm over here?"

"I was cold," he answers flatly. "It responded by raising the temperature in my immediate vicinity before I realized what it was doing. Personal comfort seems to be a perfectly valid use."

"And melted the snow," Dean says, nodding. "So why isn't the ground wet?"

"Because I didn't want to sit in a puddle of water, why--"

"Kansas is cold, and you personally aren't comfortable with it and would prefer it not be wet," Dean interrupts. "That should work, right?"

Castiel freezes a dematerializing neighborhood block four miles from their current location. "What?"

"The storm," he says. "Can you do anything about it?"

Startled, Castiel studies it, instinctively finding the natural formation of it and then the parts that have changed it from a pleasant snowy day--albeit very snowy indeed and for greater than one day--to a monster that still grows. "I can stop it."

"Good, then--"

"But only for a day," he continues, examining it carefully and finding nothing to improve his projection. "Maybe two, but I doubt it. Creation is out of balance, as I told you, or it couldn't have formed this quickly even with the backlash feeding it. And the backlash from the barrier will only grow worse until it falls. Before you ask, I can't dissolve it; even if I still had Grace, this would be beyond me."

"Right, that part I guessed." Dean is silent for a moment. "So what about a parlor trick?"

"A--" Castiel looks at Dean, who doesn't bother to hide the smug grin. "Oh."

"Don't dam the river," he says, grin widening. "Just make it go around one small part with a bubble whatever. The part with the people, by the way."

"I assumed as much." Castiel turns his attention back to the storm, thinking: a nice snowy series of days, as it was meant to be. "Like a strainer."

"Okay," Dean concedes after a moment. "So not as bad?"

"Yes, but only for six hours at most. That part is too far advanced, but after that--not bad at all, just very snowy. And cold, of course." For some reason, his mind now turns its attention to the barrier itself. He can't fix that, and while he can--perhaps--stop the things coming through with the power he has, not for long and not very much. And if he's right about what waits outside the barrier….

"Misborn?" Dean says, and Castiel belatedly realizes Dean is getting very good at this. "The thing outside the barrier Alicia was talking about?"

"Possibly," he prevaricates.

"What are they?" Dean persists. "I've never heard of anything--they have another name?"

"No--at least, I doubt it, but perhaps I simply don't remember it yet--and at another time, I'll explain why, but for now…."

"Can Teresa's wards keep them out?"

"I don't know." He tries to concentrate on the storm, but once again, his mind returns to the barrier. He can't possibly construct one of those around Ichabod--even if he knew how--so why….


"Teresa can't lock the wards around Ichabod," he hears himself say. "That's why she only did it to the daycare. Do you know why? It's not because she didn't want to."

"Uh, no," Dean answers slowly. "Now that we've established that obvious fact…."

"An enclosed space," he says. "It has actual walls--or buildings, in any case--and wards with a permanently defined perimeter always work better…that might work. At least better than what she has to do now."

Through his mind runs thousands of years of human architecture, the advances of defense and offense--and a bar in which all of the water was transmuted to the most ridiculously expensive and finest wine in all the world.

"Cas, catch me up," Dean says. "What are you thinking?"

Hunters have been denied all but the most essential tools of their trade in their defense of humanity, left to discover what they could on their own. Like the sigils that defend them from gods and angels, however, the goal was never for humanity to learn all that they could, as was their right from the moment of their birth, to let them become whatever they could be by their own will; it was, is, was always supposed to be a way to limit them in their options, retard their progress, assure that when war came on earth and their Father's plan came to completion--

"--we can't defend ourselves," Castiel breathes, seeing the pattern of history before him that as an angel he could have seen but never thought to look. "Not anymore."


Visualizing Ichabod as it is, he superimposes a dozen different possibilities, adjusting it to his exact specifications and slowly expanding it in the correct proportions: there. Fixing it into place in his mind, he takes in the whole and the individual parts for any flaw.

"We need something new," he says, creating an invisible boundary around Ichabod from one street south of Baltimore to Seventh Street and another a quarter mile outside what was once this town's original city limits, snapping everything living between those boundaries into the inner circle, and making it impermeable, leaving a wide space ranging from fifty feet to three miles between the inner and outer circles.

"Cas?" Dean starts. "What are you--"

"Alison," he says, effortlessly finding her still-searching mind; doing it himself would be too dangerous even if he was still an angel. "I need you to do something: form in your mind the concept of 'stop'." Her acknowledgment is almost instantaneous. "You have it? On my word, think it to your entire current range." He takes a breath, making sure everything is ready. "Now."

"Jesus," Dean breathes, unaffected but startled by whatever he can sense through Castiel. "Did she just--"

"They'll be fine, just very surprised," he says dismissively, concentrating on the image in his mind; what he thinks he can make reality. The ground obligingly opens up in neat ten foot deep trench he widens to fifteen feet within the space between the two barriers, vanishing the earth for later use. "I could very much use a rib right now. But needs must: it must be something new, then."

Protecting all organic matter within the space between the two circles, Castiel shatters the quantum bonds of everything within into an undifferentiated mass , coalescing and holding it when it tries to escape: the structures he's already destroyed, asphalt, concrete foundations, a plethora of vehicles, all the remaining buildings marked red, he disrupts the very structure of matter to the very beginning, when Creation first began and nothing became something. The release of destructive energy he harvests quickly; it will take more than what Crowley forced on him to do this, but if one is to imagine, it should be done right.

"Holy shit!" Dean exclaims, startled. "Can you see this?"

"I can see all things." It's been millennia since anyone, even an angel, released power like this on earth, and never of this origin or for this purpose. It's appropriate, however; created of human suffering and human pain and human fear, it's fit that its use will be to prevent just that. "Though the visual spectrum is low on my priority list at the moment. What does it look like?"

Dean's voice is very soft. "Amazing."

He examines the idea again, looking for flaws, before building the entirety of human progress in his mind in a timeline, removes interference by the Host and various human-created gaps in their development, and sets the limits of technological advancement as it is now; if they can't reproduce it themselves, it's of limited future use. That doesn't narrow it down nearly as much as he worried it would, but abundance has its own disadvantages. Scrolling through the elements, he returns to the most basic.

"Graphene: let's start there." He builds the first possibility for the first test, then the next and the next, chaining and dissolving the bonds over and over, thousands of combinations tested in the blink of an eye until a stable form finally manifests, perfectly compliant with physics and human progress both. The properties are correct, verified in solid, liquid, plasmic, and gaseous forms, melting and boiling point: excellent.

Carefully holding all in check, he visualizes what this will create, assuring form and function are satisfied, then takes everything he dissolved and builds the compound atom by atom, shaping it and setting it in place at the bottom of the trench and rising above the earth around them.

"That should work," he murmurs, aware of Dean's shocked silence beside him. "Can you see it yet? How does it look?"

There's the sound of sudden laughter, and belatedly, Castiel realizes that it's Dean, as throughout Ichabod thousands of people abruptly emerge from the mental shock of a powerful psychic to look at it as well. He wishes it wasn't so dangerous to read their minds; he would like to know what they think of it.

He's not sure how long it takes (it's forever in here), but Dean's presence is constant; if he could, he'd shove him out and away, block him, make him leave. He doesn't want to, or Dean doesn't; he can't quite tell the difference anymore, and he doesn't actually care.

Weather is a problem, and not just because Castiel is no longer an angel. Creation is unbalanced, and the dramatic changes in weather and natural disasters are only symptoms of the fundamental problem; the Apocalypse set in motion chaos that Creation cannot entirely compensate for. The backlash strengthening it isn't the only problem; any interference now will set in motion a chain of events that he couldn't predict even if he could still see all that is and will be.

Setting Ichabod at center, he slowly builds not a dam but a bubble; instead of stopping it, it simply encourages it to slide passed it. It won't stop it all, of course, but enough to remove the greatest danger and a great deal of the lesser dangers involved in temperature, wind, and excessive snow.

He saved it for last, part of his mind carefully working out the logistics depending on how much power he'll have at his disposal. The entire state no, but that was never a possibility, but there's sufficient for a radius of thirty miles from Ichabod's newly-created city limits, which will easily encompass the farthest checkpoint and most of the well-packed roads. A final check shows-- "They haven't reached the third road."

"Yeah, engine went out or something," Dean agrees, sounding startlingly normal. "Almost forgot--can you clear the rest?"

"I already did," he answers, removing all the snow in a thirty mile radius as well; the coming days will replace it, of course, but for at least a little while it will be a much easier walk. Excellent idea: unnumbered people will more easily arrive at Ichabod and among them others who may be under some compulsion and on seeing him might desire his death.

Dean squeezes his wrist, which is grounding, but not enough.

Humans do this all the time; it may be the defining characteristic of the species. Right now, he doesn't have to endure their fear and dislike as the price he pays for being allowed among them, that they don't hesitate to betray even after payment's rendered; they can't find him now. It would be so easy right now, perhaps even kind: the barrier is falling, and they'll be hunted soon, perhaps even now, but a thought and he could--

"Get this done," Dean says softly.

Finish his work, yes: setting the thirty mile radius, he pours all that's left into it, and abruptly emerges back into the street, aware of Dean's hands on his shoulders and wondering what's wrong.

Looking at Dean in bewilderment, he has just enough time to wonder what that expression means before he's abruptly vomiting and the rush of pain is almost enough to nearly make him black out. He forgot about that, and Dean doesn't know….anything.

"Dean--" he manages, spitting out bile and trying to hold on to consciousness; how could he have forgotten? "He knows about you."

"Crowley?" He thinks he nods. "Fine, whatever, we'll deal with that later--Cas? What's going on with you?"

Yes, that. "Alicia."

"Alicia?" Vaguely, he realizes Dean's supporting him, hands gentle in contrast to the frantic anger and fear in his voice. "What about her--"

"Jeffrey," he gasps, hoping that's enough because he can't do anything now but scream.