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The Game of God

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--Day 154--

Climbing out of bed at dawn, Dean draws a soothing hand down Cas's back, annoyed by the knocking at the door. "Be right back."

Cas's eyes slit open to confirm he will be, yeah, and better be fast. Got it, thanks. Grinning, Dean ruffles his hair and takes a moment to watch Cas stretch like a cat beneath the blankets before getting to his feet and padding to the door; his only regret is he's not armed and next time, he's gonna be.

When he opens it, Matt's and Jody's worried faces drain away the annoyance. "Everything okay?"


Like that, Dean feels Cas wake up all at once, sitting up in the bed behind him. "Come in," he says in resignation, shutting the door behind them and flipping on the lights as Cas slides to the edge of the bed. Sitting down beside him, he motions them to the two chairs. "What's up?"

Sitting awkwardly, they exchange nervous looks before Matt takes a deep breath. "She was fine last night, working with Naresh and everything, went to bed at an Alicia-reasonable hour...."

"Before midnight," Cas supplies, nodding.

"Woke up a couple of hour ago for a bathroom break, couldn't find her," Matt says, glancing at Jody, who nods worried agreement. "She checked out with Evelyn, but no one's seen her since. We just got back from Admin, and we're not sure what to do. Normally, it's Alicia, not a problem, but here...."

Dean thinks if anyone would know, it's her team. "You think this is about Micah?"

Beside him, Cas stills, and son of a bitch, he forgot about that. "Micah's here?"

"Yeah, I--sorry, meant to tell you about that last night." Dean tries to decide if Cas's reaction is a good indicator or not of presence at cabin death night match (winner: Cas and Vera). "Carol, and--Barney and the other guy, can't remember his name." Christ, he's getting worse at being himself, not better. Because fever, he reminds himself firmly.

"Did you check what she took with her?" Cas asks, and Matt and Jody nod.

"All she brought," Matt says. "Thought maybe she wanted to clean them--you know she's running low on that oil she likes, thought maybe she went to Lanak to see if they had any and trade. No go there, either. We thought maybe the training field, but wanted to check in first--"

"I'll go," Cas says, and Dean carefully doesn't react to that. "If anyone asks, she's on assignment for me."

Matt and Jody nod, looking relieved. "Go have breakfast," Dean tells them. "When do you go on duty?"

"Checkpoint Four at noon," Matt says, standing up. "Naresh wanted her here this morning to help with the rest of the questioning."

"Tell Evelyn you're all unavailable for duty today," Cas says, and both make faces.

"Actually, go to Admin and tell Alison you're assigned to help her out," Dean says. "She's got a bad habit of wandering around Ichabod alone, makes me nervous."

Matt's mouth twitches. "She gonna go for that?"

"Be subtle," Dean advises. "Keep her in line of sight, not kidding: she's like a goddamn rat, any cover will do, and everyone--and I do mean everyone--will want to talk, so keep a clear line for her to the nearest door."

"You all had basic escort training for civilians," Cas tells them. "Consider this bringing it into practice."

Matt looks at them doubtfully (they've met her). "Even the picking her up and carrying her out of danger part?"

"I'm sure that won't be necessary," Cas says, not truthfully at all (this is Alison, come on).

"She's supposed to be inspecting the buildings this morning," Dean tells them soothingly (again, they've met her). "Check in around noon in case anything comes up. Dismissed."

As soon as they're gone, Dean turns to look at Cas. "Sorry, I forgot."

"I’m strangely less surprised than I should be," Cas admits, and Dean takes him in, slumped and loose-limbed, hair a mess, and fights back the now-automatic reach for him. Three days, he thinks depressingly, and he's already a junkie looking for his next Cas-shaped fix.

Seemingly oblivious (he's not), Cas slides out of bed, going to their bags. "This shouldn't take long. Is there any chance of breakfast when I get back?"

Dean brightens (see: junkie. Christ, is this sad shit or what?). "You got it."

As soon as Cas is gone, Dean considers getting dressed (not feeling it), but takes the time to grab a gun and a holster, strapping them on before he picks up the tray from last night. Going to the bedroom door, he elbows it open and goes out and into a really goddamn white room. Again

Dean sets down the tray with a clatter. "This goddamn building."

With a sigh, he surveys what feels like miles of mosaic floor, walls as distant as another country, the massive pillars holding up a ceiling with the depth and darkness of space scattered with countless points of light. Looking from ceiling to the floor again, he studies the complex mosaic; there's a pattern, he thinks, but there's no way to get perspective, unless he can somehow get up on one of those loggias decorating the right wall at half a dozen different heights from only feet from the floor to somewhere around the closest star, all glaring white stone and intricately carved balustrades. Frowning, he tries to remember if they were there before; last time, he was kind of distracted by the never-ending room, so who the hell knows.

Walking toward the closest wall on the left, he watches the pictures form: Demeter in dark grey gown and tunic, wheat-blonde hair threaded with streaks of grey, in the home of the gods on Mount Olympus before the twelve thrones, shoulders slumped as Zeus turns away from her appeal, the other gods ignoring her altogether; Clytemnestra in mourning black, standing before her husband's throne, face twisted in grief and hatred and anger as Agamemnon looks over her head in stoic refusal with his court unseeing, uncaring of her pain; Hecuba in exile from fallen Troy, kneeling in an echoingly empty temple, prayers unheard, offering unaccepted, the acolytes pretending she's not even there; Medea in Hera's temple, blonde hair in disarray, demanding that she fulfill the promise of Jason's devotion and dismissed without interest, her letters to her friends and family unopened and unanswered; and the last; Cornelia in a stark white tabilium, plain plastered walls pocketed with pigeonholes for books, seated at a simple citrus wood desk with Publius lounging on the other side.

The stark, unrelieved black of her dress and palla are of a different, more elaborate style, more suitable for a Roman noblewoman in urban Rome, and the white ribbons thicker as they wind through her intricately bound hair, but he can't see any other difference. Painfully erect in the plain Attic chair, expression impassive, she sets down the scroll she was reading to look at Publius.

"Sempronia does well?" Publius asks, wearing the white tunic with the thin purple border of a knight and the whitened toga of citizenship, grey hair barbered short, every inch a member of Rome's First Class.

"She enjoys country life," she answers, then gestures toward the desk, where another scroll lies, loosely furled. "Claudia says my granddaughter grows plumper by the day; my cooks spoil them dreadfully."

Publius nods. "And Licinia?"

Cornelia's expression doesn't change, but the faint tightness around her eyes increases. "She mourns, Publius, as a wife should for a beloved husband."

"Between us," Publius says softly, "discard pretense. How does she?"

"The Senate forbade us to mourn his death," she answers brittlely. "What can be expected when she's denied the most basic entitlements of widowhood, to wearing mourning, to grieve the year we're given for our loss? Small, petty men act thus."

"Frightened men."

"You defend them?"

Publius raises an eyebrow. "I was Gaius Sempronius's, as I was Tiberius Sempronius's, and your husband's before that. You, of all people, ask me that question?"

Cornelia frowns faintly before inclining her head. "I ask forgiveness. My temper grows short and will only grow more so."

Reaching across the desk, Publius catches the edge of a scroll, ink barely sanded, turning it to skim the neat columns, then looks at her. "They won't see you?"

"My friends are unavailable," she answers, voice heavy with irony. "Claudia's family is out of Rome. Licinia's father is indisposed. The--"

"Crassus needs a knife between the ribs," Publius interrupts casually, eyes on Cornelia. "I withdraw my objections to Licinia's presence in your household; having met the gentleman in question, any fate is preferable to returning to her paterfamilias."

"I'd sooner lie with a black dog than permit her to step foot in that household." Publius's mouth twitches at the dry response. "She's passed her twenty-third year, and with her husband's death, she is in sur uris, in no hand but her own; that much, she is spared."

"He hasn't attempted to claim her?"

"No," she answers coolly. "He fears the stain of the Gracchi touching him further. Crassus was ever one to prize his skin above his ethics, such as they are."

"You do him a disservice," Publius protests gently. "His ethics are 'what makes him money', and money he prizes above all things."

The tightness eases. "I stand corrected." She looks at the letter for a long moment. "Sempronia finds it--difficult to care for her."

"She grows worse, then."

"She neither eats nor sleeps," Cornelia says tonelessly. "She refuses to dress or care for herself, and no matter how many watchers Sempronia places upon her, she escapes to wander the grounds looking for the Tiber so she can search for Gaius's body."

Publius closes his eyes.

"The physician ordered her force-fed and plied with syrup of poppies," she continues, eyes distant. "Claudia can offer her no surcease, nor can her child. She asks…" Cornelia's voice breaks briefly before steadying herself. "She says at her death that she wants no coin for Charon's barge, so she may join Gaius among the lost shades wandering the shores. Claudia--she will not say it, but that has long been her wish as well, so she may be with Tiberius."

"I'm sorry," Publius says softly. "The burdens you bear are greater than anything that should be asked of you."

"They are my daughters," Cornelia answers, meeting his eyes. "They are not a burden."

He nods, glancing at the small pile of scrolls on the edge of the desk, sealed with wax bearing the mark of the gens Cornelia, their recipients among the most powerful families in Rome. "You have work for me?"

She glances at them and shakes her head. "Not today."

Publius hesitates, then removes a small scroll from the sinus of his toga, encased in solid steel. Meeting Cornelia's eyes, he leans forward to set it on the desk between them, half-lidded eyes watchful as she picks it up, manicured nails clicking on the metal surface.

"Should my services be required," he tells her. "You might find that useful."

Cornelia stares at it, rolling it against her palm, but at the knock at the door, she closes her hand around it, dropping it into a drawer of the desk. "Come."

Two women enter, making an obedience: one older than Cornelia in immaculate grey, hair entirely white, but as erect as a much younger woman, and an adolescent girl, tall and painfully thin with gangly limbs, black hair shorn well above her shoulders, wearing a too-short dress that bares her bony ankles, feet stuffed into slightly too-small sandals. She also looks terrified, looking frantically around the room despite her bent head.

"Domina," the older woman says, and Dean sees her faint, nearly indiscernible limp; so, for that matter, does Cornelia, eyes narrowing. "I--"

"Did I not instruct you to keep to your bed until the physician arrived?" The woman scowls. "Cardixa, surely at this late date I do not need to tell you the fate of those who disobey?"

"I forget, domina," Cardixa answers, widening her eyes in simulated innocence, "did you not free me on your beloved husband's death? At my age, the mind wanders."

The girl looks more frightened, but Cornelia barely keeps her severe expression, mouth twitching, and Publius grins outright.

"As I was saying," Cardixa continues after a significant pause, "as I must take to my bed by my mistress's order, this is one of the new girls to act in my place. Her skills include--"

"Care of the elderly and infirm?" Cornelia smiles at the girl, who shrinks under the level gaze. "Come, child, let me see you."

Giving Cardixa a frightened look (and Publius one of utter terror), the girl slowly crosses to the desk, head bowed before she lifts it tentatively, revealing wide, almond-shaped eyes so dark they look black. "Domina," the girl whispers in heavily accented Latin.

"Don't look so," Cornelia says solemnly in Attic Greek, and the girl's eyes widen. "This is Rome, child. Here, a man may be sold into slavery, be freed by his master after twenty years' service and receive the citizenship, marry, father a daughter of unusual beauty, and then give her in marriage to his former master, an eighty year old senator who was praetor, consul, and censor in his time, and incontinent on both ends, his mouth by far the greater offender. I assure you, nothing so terrible will happen to you in my household."

"Lia!" Cardixa gasps as Publius, red-faced, fights not to laugh, and the girl looks around her, caught between terror and wondering if they've all gone crazy. "That marriage was an elevation far above Salonia's merits! And she the daughter of his own freedman, no less!"

"Godhood would not be compensation enough for marriage to Marcus Porcius Cato," Cornelia answers with a theatrical shiver, but there's a coolness in her eyes that tells Dean that Cato was not a buddy of hers. "At least he had the decency to die when their son was five and leave her and his children by her well provided for and assured her son would be admitted the Senate in his time. I liked Salonia very well," she adds reflectively, and Cardixa's expression turns to horror. "Intelligent, highly educated, and extremely cultured, with far sweeter a nature than Cato could possibly deserve: an ideal Roman wife and mother. I cannot fault Cato on the quality of his wife or the education of his dependents, both servile and free, just his treatment of them." Turning back to the girl, she says. "What part of the coast are you from? From your accent, I assume western Greece. Fishing village?"

"Piracy, you mean," Publius murmurs in Latin and receives a quelling glance from Cornelia.

"Yes, domina," the girl whispers, her Greek is slower, vowels drawled unlike Cornelia's sharper accent.

"Your name?"

The girl hesitates, bracing herself. "Whatever you wish, domina."

"That your mother gave you at your birth," Cornelia clarifies, adopting the girl's dialect effortlessly. "And your age, if you know it."

"Sappho, domina," the girl answers, in a burst of confidence. "I have twelve summers since I was enslaved, and my age was set at four."

"An excellent name. Sappho was Greece's greatest poet. I studied her work in my girlhood and read her often to relax. I have copies of her work with me if you wish to acquaint yourself with her." Cornelia nods at Cardixa. "Cardixa, go to bed and wait for the physician to see to your ankle. I can complete the interview without your supervision, I promise."

Cardixa opens her mouth to argue when Publius, chuckling quietly, gets to his feet. "I'll see her to her cubicle on my way out," he says. "And return for the evening meal, should I be invited."

"You need a wife," Cardixa states, taking his arm reluctantly. "Or at least a decent cook."

"I agree," Cornelia says in amusement, and Publius snorts. "However, it is to my benefit he has neither, for otherwise I would not enjoy his company so often; ignore her, Publius, your bachelorhood is to be admired and I look forward to your presence tonight. How does Titus Annius, by the by?"

"Plebian aedile this year," Publius says with a slow smile. "He's begun his career very late, but he does so with vigor. He canvasses for funds for his projects constantly, so I see him little."

"For shame," Cornelia says with a smirk. "Such a close friend and you are miserly with your wealth?"

"He wishes his work not to be a drain on the purse of his friends," Publius says in mock-resignation.

"How un-Roman of him: is that not what friends are for? Now that I think on the subject, I've felt a great deal of interest in public works recently. If he'd be pleased to entertain an old woman," Publius and Cardixa snort in unison, "I would very much enjoy his company and hear his ideas at dinner tonight."

"I can speak for us both and assure his presence," Publius says, smile widening.

"I look forward to it. Tell my household I'm not to be disturbed, please."

Bowing, Publius leads Cardixa to the door as she varies between giving the girl warning glances and Cornelia annoyed ones. After the door shuts, Cornelia gestures to the empty chair on the other side of the desk, which Sappho, looking surprised, tentatively takes.

"Cardixa has been with me since my childhood, when my father felt I required someone who could be companion as well as maid; her bark is in excess of her bite, which she reserves for me, of course," Cornelia says, neatly clearing the area before her before resting her folded arms on the desk. "She is of the Germanic tribes--the Marsi, if I remember correctly--and was captured when my father intervened when her tribe attacked one allied with Rome. He kept his entitlement as general instead of selling them in Rome, and she was educated with me and my elder sister. She was freed with all those who came with me to my marriage, as is traditional among the great families of Rome, at my husband's death, as were my father's slaves on his death. She continues with me now at a truly ridiculous salary, but what can one do? One must pay fair wage for a Roman citizen of her education and skill, and I certainly could not hope to find better."

"Yes, domina," the girl says, straightening in her chair, and Dean wonders suddenly what that has to be like--not just to be a slave, but to live as one, future always uncertain, changing on the whim of a master (or mistress), fate not and never their own.

He finds out.

"Now that that is settled," Cornelia says with a friendly smile. "Tell me of your history and leave nothing out. You need not fear for my refined ears; the daughter of Africanus was not sheltered and pretended ignorance of reality is to be despised."

Slowly, but with growing confidence, Sappho tells of her village (a haven for pirates, Publius was dead-on) where she was among the women and children sold into slavery after their menfolk were flogged and decapitated for piracy. She was sold twice; once as a page and errand girl for a Grania of Puteoli, ("Merchant family," Cornelia says, nodding. "Very rich mushrooms, but a Granius ship does not sink. It wouldn't dare."), newly-wed wife of a young, wealthy merchant newly acquired of the citizenship, very ambitious, and a total dick (Dean's opinion: Cornelia looks neutral but not like he's not used to people (Cas) who look like that and what it means).

Sappho gained the husband's attention when she reached puberty and regularly was required to serve her increasingly-jealous mistress during the day and her master at night in his bed, a duty spoken of so flatly it was both obviously expected of her lot in life and a horror beyond that, which really makes him wonder about that guy and where he could find him. Eventually, Grania's jealousy won, and Sappho was sold again as a maidservant to another wealthy family of Latin squires, where her duties were to entertain and care for the elderly--and very beloved--wife, and her expression clears.

Here she speaks of Maria's good nature and kindness, her master's warmth and gentleness, for their children were grown and grandchildren nearly so, and she was treated as both valued servant and daughter. She was instructed in how to play several instruments and to sing for her mistress's entertainment and distract her when she was in pain, and how to weave fabric and sew, as both were far beyond her mistress's abilities. She cared for her body, assisted her in her daily baths, assisted her to dress and redress should her garments become soiled, supervised the laundering of her clothing, and saw that her meals were prepared correctly to tempt her growingly indifferent appetite.

("I was right," Cornelia says in satisfaction, which makes Sappho look briefly frightened before she relaxes and smiles back tentatively. "Your credentials for the care of the elderly and infirm are excellent indeed." Dean just wishes he could consult her about getting Cas to eat; if she can get an ailing ninety-something woman to finish a meal, Cas will be three times a day in a week, no problem.)

The death of Maria plunged the household into mourning, and the elderly paterfamilias, a Marcus Tullius, sold all his household slaves in town to retire to his country estate. The business that purchased her--one that specialized in the sale of skilled domestic slaves--was small but not stupid; her master's glowing recommendation of her care of his wife and list of her skills sent her to Rome's market, one of the largest in the world. There, her price would be set far higher, for her age and skills would assure attention from Rome's richest families, all of whom had at least one--and probably several--testy elderly members in need of a young, strong slave to entertain and care for them (and unspoken: stop driving everyone else crazy, but Cornelia's very attentive expression and lurking smirk tells him yeah, that's pretty much it).

"Are you literate?" Cornelia asks when Sappho is finished, and looking shocked, Sappho shakes her head. "We'll attend to that first, then. Your Latin is good enough for the country, but in Rome, it will mark you as a bumpkin and we can't have that, can we?" Sappho shakes her head. "We'll need to improve your Greek as well, but both can be assisted with diligent practice and close attention to listening to those around you." Sappho nods again, looking like she wants to say something, and Cornelia tilts her head. "Child, I cannot read your mind; speak and be easy."


"If your first household had been wise, they would have seen to it themselves and assured themselves a high profit when they sold you," Cornelia says coolly. "Poor Maria of course hadn't the strength to attend to it, though I commend her for teaching you such domestic skills as would prove useful to your future. All who own slaves should so know their most basic duties to their dependents."

Cornelia straightens, and Dean stills, caught by those vivid eyes as something inside her lights up; he couldn't look away if he tried. "My father was Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, who was one of Rome's greatest generals and earned the cognomen Africanus for his work. He alone defeated the great general Hannibal in battle, ended the war, and brought Carthage to its knees in Rome's name. However, Carthage was not razed, nor its people enslaved, nor Hannibal executed; my father accepted Hannibal's surrender and set Hannibal over Carthage in honor to rule it in Rome's name and its people remained free. Do you know why?"

Dean finds himself shaking his head along Sappho.

"He made a great and bitter enemy into a loyal friend of Rome, set him in honor over a hostile, defeated city to make it great again in Rome's image, offered Roman citizenship to its greatest citizens, and thus spread our influence through Africa both within our province and beyond, all for Rome's greater glory. Now, the African province is as Roman as any born to Rome and its people ours. All is done for Rome, child; from birth to death, we belong to her, and all we are and do is in her service and for her greater glory. Now you are part of it; Cornelii slaves are properly cared for, properly educated, properly paid for their work, properly freed after their service is complete, and given the Roman citizenship; they are as Roman as those born to it. In them, and in their Roman children and grandchildren, our influence spreads, and Rome made greater still. We model for all the world the greatness of Rome in all we do, and what we do is always for her greater glory."

"Yes, domina," Sappho answers breathlessly, straightening in her chair. Dean can't blame her; he feels vaguely inspired himself, like maybe he should be...spreading Rome's greatness? Somehow? "I will do my best."

"I don't doubt it. Did Cardixa explain your duties?" Sappho nods eagerly. "I was afraid of that; we'll discuss them later. For now…." Cornelia pushes her chair back, eyeing the pile of unsent letters, then shakes her head. "Attire yourself for a walk…." She tilts her head again, taking in Sappho's clothing and looks pained. "We are of a height or close enough. Go to my sleep cubicle and open the trunk decorated with brass tacks at the foot of the bed; there, you should be able to find something that fits you better. Also, see if any footwear within suitable for walking is a better fit. Also find two cloaks, plain, if possible; I don't wish for attention today. I'll speak to the steward later today and have a seamstress arrive tomorrow in the third hour to see to appropriate clothing for you while we're in Rome. Go."

"Yes, domina," Sappho says, getting to her feet. "You do not wish for a litter?"

"I am not so decrepit as that," Cornelia says wryly. "Yet, anyway. Also, if possible, avoid attention."

Sappho hesitates. "Of--who, domina?"

"Everyone," Cornelia answers. "In case Publius should inquire of my activities today, this shall be our secret."

Sappho grins, perfectly at ease now. "Yes, domina. Would, perhaps, you like the steward first to be distracted from his stationary position near the door for a few minutes?"

"I would," Cornelia says with a slow smile, eyes warm. "I'll await you outside."

"I never had that," a female voice says, and Dean glances at the woman beside him. This time, she's in saffron, brief folds of sleeves revealing delicate, olive skinned arms, earrings, necklace, and bracelets of intricately worked gold set with carnelians, light brown hair in elaborate coils. She tilts her head, staring Cornelia as she puts away her unsent letters as well as those from her daughter and daughter in law and starts toward the door. "Not like she did, I mean. Patrician Cornelia, daughter of Africanus, one of the oldest and richest families in Rome, mother a patrician Aemilia Paulla--and no one, Head Count to the oldest patrician families, didn't feel she knew them by name. She probably did," she admits sourly. "Her father and both her sons were the same."

"Not a snob?"

"When you're a Cornelia and can trace your family back to the one of the original tribes of Rome and descent from at least one god," she answers wryly, "pretty much everything is beneath you, including snobbery. You heard her?"

Dean nods, still vibrating a little with the intensity of those few words: for her greater glory. Like he should find a sword and go conquer something in Rome's name: what the hell?

"Her sons were like that; put them on the rostra and they could light up a crowd or bring it to heel with just their voices. One voice can be more dangerous than any army in the world, Dean; use yours right, and you're an army all by yourself. You should think about it."

Dean jerks his gaze from the picture of the tabilium. "What? Me?"

"I said," she answers clearly, "think about it."

Starting toward another picture, she pauses in interest, and joining her, Dean sees a neat cobbled street winding through hills in an obviously upper-class neighborhood, large, well-spaced mansions surrounding a burned out rectangle where he assumes a house once stood.

Cornelia and Sappho in dark cloaks both stand across the street looking at it as the occasional figure passes them unseeing, uninterested in an elderly woman and her adolescent companion.

"Domina?" Sappho asks after a long moment, eyes darting from Cornelia's set face, color drained away leaving it a sickly yellow, to the arm tight across her stomach; her grief is months old and still just as fresh as the day she was told her last living son was dead. Bracing herself, Sappho touches Cornelia's shoulder. "Are you unwell? Should I call for a litter?"

"No!" The word is flat, but speaking seems to help; drawing a deep breath, Cornelia smiles reassuringly at Sappho. "No. I needed to see it myself. Indulge a foolish old woman in her maudlin impulses for a few moments longer."

Sappho nods uncertainly, eyes darting toward the burned ground, then back to Cornelia, expression intent. "Your--son's, domina?" Cornelia nods shortly. "Gaius Sempronius Gracchus was a very great man."

"He was," Cornelia says quietly, face impassive again, pain locked away, unwilling to allow it public display. After a moment, she shakes herself, starting to turn back the way they came, then abruptly choosing another direction entirely, her brisk step making Sappho jog to catch up. "Come along, Sappho, don't dawdle."

"Yes, domina," Sappho answers breathlessly, and Dean reflects age whatever, Cornelia can move. "May I--ask where--we are going?"

"The Forum Romanum," Cornelia answers, and beside him, Dean feels his companion still. "I would see the last place my son was alive in Rome."

"That," Dean's companion says blankly, "I never heard about."

"What?" Dean asks as she looks around at the other pictures almost frantically. "What's the big deal?"

"The Forum?" she answers incredulously. "Women of the First Class don't walk the Forum, especially her, they--just, they didn't do that, ever. Where is…." She looks around then up at the loggia and points at one of the lower ones, maybe twelve feet up. "We can watch from up there."

"Watch what?"

"I don't know," she answers distractedly, starting toward an arched doorway on the opposite wall, the stone around it worked in symbols he doesn't recognize, a set of winding marble stairs within. "Don't you want to find out?"

Hell yes. "Lead the way."

The training field, sans cars, is exactly as he remembers it; it's strangely soothing. Following the fence, Castiel reaches the temporary storage building that was added during his first visit as a makeshift salle for more specialized, intensive practice (and rainy days, at least until the YMCA is completed). Opening the side door, he eases inside and shuts it silently behind him, watching Alicia retrieve her knives from the padded practice wall and take them to their case and retrieve two others: four inch and eight inch hardened steel, hilts wrapped in hardened leather shaped to her hand.

Despite the cold outside, the room is well-insulated, and Alicia's stripped down to a sweat-stained tank top and faded pink sweatpants, each leg decorated with Tiger Pride! in flaking white-glitter print. Ankle sheathes over a pair of socks to protect her feet from the cold of the smooth concrete floor hold her boot knives, and she also wears a belt in which she sheathes the shorter blade. Even in practice, she works with the full weight of her weapons on her body whether they're in use or not.

Padding back to the center of the room, she adjusts the thin straps that criss-cross her arms from just above the wristbands that protect the vulnerable wrists to halfway up to her shoulder, metal flashing against her inner arms: her throwing knives, two on each side. A flex of her wrist in one way and they slide into her hand, tip resting between two fingers, ready to throw. She adapted the straps to hold them from broken holsters and belts at Chitaqua, cutting and sewing the pieces together herself. He can see the places on her arms raw from rubbing, the fit not perfect, and the leather itself is showing wear; they need to speak to a leatherworker very soon.

Here, her scars are on display, proof of her education in the tools of her craft and her expertise in their use: long, thick ridges and finer pink lines decorate her forearms above the wristbands, some fading just above the elbow, others thin barely-there slices; a thick, heavy line reaches from mid-arm to over her shoulder and almost lost her the use of her left arm; the round neck of the tank top reveals three more, two almost faded.

Those still unseen: one across her left breast in a failed strike for the heart, gouging and leaving a long depression in the flesh; one on her upper abdomen across the ribs, barely enough to notice; eight serious and a dozen minor on her back and thighs, and the deep, wide scar across her belly stretching hip to hip, scar tissue thick but pliable; she'd nearly been gutted alive. Darryl (relatively clean, for once), worked methodically for almost an entire day and night to repair the bladder and damaged uterine wall before sepsis could take hold or she bled out. She burned with fever for a week; he remembers that, and remembers she was in the field the minute she could walk, practicing a new movement to protect her belly from monsters with long claws.

He remembers best, however, what she said, crouched in the dirt, one hand holding her bleeding abdomen closed, the other still gripping her blood-soaked knife, and staring at a very dead monster: "I won."

Taking a deep breath, she stretches up onto the balls of her feet, sliding inside herself for an endless moment before setting her heels and starting the opening movements of the child-dance, so old that was its only name, when wise parents gave their four year olds wooden practice blade and began to teach them the survival skills they'd need to reach their majority.

It's difficult to get wrong--excluding Joseph, Vera, and Andy, of course--but Alicia makes it look as if she'd been born to it, performing each move with the ease of a dancer, moving to the second dance in rotation, then the third, working her way through thirteen dances before the master dances and then returning to the first. Each revolution is faster--Alicia dances to an internal beat, double, triple, quadruple, three-four, four-four, eight-sixteenth, she switches between them--and at the fourth repetition at full speed, moves into the introductory master without a single misstep, and he watches, breathless, as she comes to life.

Five dances encompass the master series, each radically different; close combat with an opponent no more than inches away; one that enters and exits and feints; one where the heavily muscled legs flash out between each thrust and parry, punches high and low, requiring a switch from hand to hand of her one knife; one for an invisible opponent a foot shorter than she is; and one for one a foot taller; the sixth is her own, however, built in pieces from the other five and never the same twice, flashing between them like she's never known the meaning of standing still.

In a single turn, the second knife flashes out, and the child's dance again, thirteen dances to reach masters, five plus one to complete it, and then the final one he built with her those long ago days when it was near midnight and why not. She does it last, when strength and reflexes have been strained, body pushed to the edge of its limits; everything in it is everything she knows, a test of nothing but pure skill, bone-deep training and repetition until she could do it in her sleep. It's when she has nothing left to give, she told him once; when she can't breathe and can't think and only wants to lie down and has to stand back up and fight.

If the dead can observe the living (he's come to believe they do, more than the Host suspected), the hundred adepts of this craft watch her now, tracing every movement of her body, every thrust of the knives, every kick, the drop of the knife for a punch and the roll to get it back, invisible enemies on all sides and none can ever see her back. She's almost a blur now, and he feels the second her perception of time starts to change, when the laws of the universe bend around her will as she reaches the controlled frenzy of the final movements, flipping the knife over her wrist as he taught her long ago before the final thrust. She has no peer in this, her chosen weapon (except, perhaps, him), and she proved it on the thing that tried and failed to take her life.

She finishes in a crouch, head up, eyes distant, perfect stillness balanced on the ball of one foot; her invisible enemies are all very, very dead, and he and a hundred dead adepts exult in her success, for they, like him, never consider the possibility she might fail.

He never understood this; the most mediocre of his first class of students, and she's the only one he's ever taught who feels the blade like he does, and that much long after her training should have been complete. Watching her is like watching his Brethren in Heaven, the Host at war: the corporeal form makes no difference at all. In retrospect, it's no surprise at all the first time Alicia was in his bed was after she performed this dance for him, proving she had no peer. The only surprise is he didn't invite her himself; he's very glad she saw to that.

"How'd I do?" she asks, shifting to the floor cross-legged and looking up at him and tossing the knife gleefully, wiping the sweat carelessly from her face and checking the tightly braided hair. "Still got it, I think."

"You need something more difficult," he says, joining her and motioning for her to show him her left arm. She works both equally, of course, but her left had to be trained up and receives special attention. Running his fingers over the well-developed muscles of her forearm, then the muscular upper arm, he checks the scars she treated as he treated Dean's to keep them pliable, returning to the strong wrists, and obediently, she turns them, flexing so he can see she's kept up even the most tedious parts of her skill. "Excellent: you realize you can't ignore Amanda's requests for you to demonstrate for her students at the end of training forever?"

She sighs. "I already told her I would."


"She did the eyes," Alicia explains, shaking her head in bafflement. "Can kill you before you blink, but big blue eyes and it's like you're murdering all the puppies ever if you say no, am I right?"

"I live with Dean," he explains. "Inoculation to lesser forms of his version helps with everyone but him."

"I forgot about that," she agrees, struck. "Can make you believe pretty much anything when he looks like that, even stuff you know is a total lie. Never gave back my emerald green satin thong, either." He tilts his head as she grins brightly. "He can keep it and you're welcome."

"I have a very nice silver-inlaid titanium composite, twelve inches and double sided," he says. "Remind me to get it for you when we get home; it would fit admirably with your reach. Perhaps two of them."

Leaning back on one arm, she nods seriously. "I am a beam of sunlight, bringing joy in so many forms, and the universe rewards those who do such good; who saw that coming? You have any idea what Amanda wants me to do?"

"It will only be a demonstration to the intermediate level," he says, indicating she extend her other arm. "Five students show some natural affinity with the blade, and she noticed Rosario has a definite preference but isn't showing skill consummate with that. I'd like you to evaluate her personally. On a guess, it's her age that's interfering; she's one of the four oldest and probably assumes she won't improve beyond some arbitrary limit since the younger recruits are adapting faster."

"CD player," Alicia decides, looking thoughtful. "Or a computer would be better. I'll teach her to dance on beat and speed it up slowly when she performs. Never know what hit her."

That is a very good idea; Amanda was right about Alicia being a natural instructor in her particular field. "When we get back to Chitaqua, I'd like you to start working with Dean."

Alicia's eyebrows jump. "Gun person crossing over? Interesting."

"Gun person? Turn around," he adds. "I want to look at your back. You did have Vera check it recently?"

She groans, turning in place and pulling the tank top over her head with a sigh before reaching back and undoing the clasp of her bra, letting it slide down her arms. "She wasn't here, and there hasn't been time. Also, didn't know she was a nurse for a while, in case you forgot."

"I know, it was a rhetorical question. Straighten," he says, laying a palm against her spine between her shoulder blades over the thick scar and feeling the shift of muscle carefully for any unfortunate pull. This one was--of all of them--the most worrisome, that she came to him (surprisingly not high, but then, it was very early in the day) to check Darryl's stitches for any possibility of limiting her reach. All that could be done--much like with Dean--was work it carefully and regularly while it was still pliable and treat any splits in the skin immediately. Of course, neither of them objected to mixing business with pleasure, so very enjoyable as well. "Arms in all five positions, one by one; what is a gun person?"

"Type," she explains, stretching her hands high above her head, elbows very straight and hands automatically fisting, something he's seen her do enough to realize it's reflexive, subconscious. "Like cat people, dog people, and those between and those neither. It's like the Kinsey scale of weaponry, see what I mean?"

"I do," he agrees. "I was told I'm a three."

"You got it," she agrees, stretching her arms in front of her--elbows straight, hands fisted, where does she get that--curving her shoulders in at his touch before pulling them back in a liquid flex. "You get hardliners on either side of course: Dean is very gun person." She cocks her head, frowning as she stretches her arms to the side, then as far back as she can, tilting her head back to look at him. "Should have remembered that before I slept with him: good for one-offs, but long term never happens. I don't like guns."

He raises his eyebrows and nods, and her hands drop to her side as she turns around, following his gaze to her chest--fully healed, no damage to the muscle beneath--and then abdomen; she stretches, throwing the scarring into even more relief, and twists as he watches, showing its flexibility.

"Good as new," she tells him, patting the mass of thick, heavy ridges affectionately, vividly dark against her skin. She always smiles when she sees them: proof of survival, a battle well-fought, and a victory claimed by her own skill. "Lots of stretching, good for so many things."

"We should all be so devoted," he agrees. "Turn around and I'll fasten the clasp."

"Thanks," she says sincerely, sliding her bra back on and turning around, then pulling the tank top back on as she faces him. "So Dean--how far have you gotten him? On a guess, he never picked it up before?"

"No, he never cared for it," Castiel says as she stretches out a leg and flattens herself over it, hand loosely clasping her foot. "If nothing else, I thought it would be a good way to exercise his right arm with something lighter than a gun and more interesting than a series of balls. However, he's progressed surprisingly well. You may have a sparring partner other than Amanda and myself, provided his reflexes improve consummate with his skill."

"There aren't any signs of those slowing down if his performance on the range last week is any indication," she says. "Surprised me: has he gotten both hotter and better? Not fair. Also, Mark. Other reason I agreed: Mark needs a reminder of appropriate knife etiquette, including remembering where they all are." Tilting her head, she considers something. "That makes sense, now that I think about it."

He raises an eyebrow for elaboration on the subject of the second statement.

"Dean and knives. That fits." She stretches over her other leg, turning her cheek against her knee to peer at him thoughtfully. "No problems with his reach from either side?"

"None," he answers, and turning her face, she touches her nose to her knee before straightening, bracing her hands on the floor before spreading her legs to their full extension, frowning before slowly turning her legs until her knees are facing the ceiling and flexing her feet from pointe. He can do that, but his expression isn't never that serene; Kamal is a hard taskmaster even in his absence. "Doesn't that hurt?"

"A little," she agrees, bracing a hand behind her and bouncing enthusiastically before turning to face her right leg and flattening herself over it. "It's fine; I just haven't worked out much, but Mira and I were talking, and thought we'd get a group together. Hard to motivate yourself without seeing other people suffering with you, am I right?"

"That's universal, yes."

"I knew it. We'll expect you there, then; seeing your suffering will be super motivating." Repeating with her left, she sighs, returning to cross-legged and leaning her chin one her hand. He frowns, tracing the leather straps on her arms; far too many buckles, but she did her best with the material available. "I was thinking elastic," she says, following his thoughts effortlessly as well as his gaze. "Ichabod has some, but I'm still thinking on how to protect the joins."

"There's a leatherworker in Ichabod from one of the Alliance or local towns."

She makes a face. "I forgot to bring trade goods."

"Go see them--Claudia should know where they are--and decide what you want," he answers. "Then tell Amanda; apparently, she's good at that kind of thing." He shrugs at her doubtful expression. "These are the tools of your craft; Chitaqua is obligated to provide those to you."

She nods seriously. "I did not know that."

"I just decided," he answers, and she grins at him. "Also, see what looks appropriate for a gauntlet for Dean. You know what to look for probably better than I do."

"I love shopping," she says, looking down at the throwing knife that slid into her palm with a twist of her wrist and threading it between her fingers, razor edges somehow never brushing her skin. "You ever think about what Beanie's like?"

Castiel stills, feeling the phantom pain of a bullet two inches from his spine. "Not until now."

The loggia, wide and deep, meant for a nobleman's home to accommodate dozens of visitors to admire the view, does give them a much better look at what's going on. Looking down, Dean sees the crowd filling the massive open space where Rome's men did their public business. Across from them, a man in a white toga and tunic with the broad purple stripe of a senator stands on the rostra outside the Comitium that houses the Curia Hostilia, the meeting place of Rome's senators, energetically holding forth to a small group of interested men. From here, he can't hear what he's saying, but--

"One of the this year's tribunes of the plebs," she tells him, looking scornful as the man raises an arm in awkward oratorical flourish; even Dean winces seeing that. "Not an inspiring lot to be sure, but he surpasses all in mediocrity."

She leans her elbows on the stone balustrade, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. "Up in front of the rostra--those are Forum frequenters," she says, pointing at the group of toga-clad men paying close attention, nodding or shaking their head almost as if on command. "Professional listeners, usually lower end of the First Class and high end of the Second. Not wealthy enough to run for office, but they do love politics; then again, in Rome, everyone does. Near them, to the right, the boys wearing the bulla of childhood and purple-bordered tunics, and the depressed man who looks like he wishes he'd chosen a different career? Future senators, still in school: they're here with their pedagogue to listen and learn. In this case, 'what not to do when one stands on the rostra'."

"They aren't paying attention," Dean observes, watching as three scuffle just beyond the unseeing eyes of the pedagogue (who is gesturing frantically at a vendor carrying flasks of what on a guess isn't water).

"They're boys," she answers in amusement. "They'd rather be on the Campus Martius learning the art of soldiering. Who wouldn't? The rest.…" She gestures toward the crowd. "What do you see?"

"A lot of people."

She rolls her eyes. "Look more closely."

Dean gives her a skeptical look before turning his attention to the Forum again. On first glance, the flagstoned Forum is a sea of white. White togas with tunics bare of stripe, male citizens, many with the thin purple stripe of a knight, and some with the wider one of a senator; the plain, coarse tunics of day laborers and serviceable ones of vendors of watered wine and bread rolls stuffed with sausage, eager freedman and harried male slaves running errands, the occasional glimpse of the iron and bronze armor and kilt of a soldier or bodyguard or even gladiators, hired for exhibition matches at someone's party or maybe funeral games.

Looking closer, he picks out more; by the strip of shops that make up the Tabernae Novia to the right of the Comitium, Italian businessmen in sober dark tunics negotiate with Roman small business owners and Greek merchants wearing chlamys; nearby, Jewish scribes in their traditional dress and long curls linger in discussion with an Alexandrian scholar of definite Macedonian ancestry and Athenian and Asian Greek philosophers; wealthy Byzantine bankers meet with Roman knight-plutocrats and Rhodian merchant-princes; Numidian and Carthaginian noblemen in brightly colored, embroidered shirts and wrap skirts mix with Bithynian and Pontic ambassadors in elaborate wig-beards and jeweled robes; even an Ethiopian prince is wandering among the crowd, tall and imposing in Tyrian purple surrounded by his entourage and bodyguard, surveying the busy Forum with probably the same expression Dean can feel on his own face at the sheer mass and variety of humanity standing elbow to elbow, dozens of languages competing for every ear that can hear them

Women, too, and now that he's looking, there's a lot: physicians and small business owners in their plain, serviceable work dresses in fawn and brown; musicians with instruments tucked under their arms dressed in brilliant blues and greens; busy flower and food and drink merchants with their carts; a Vestal Virgin in unrelieved white wearing the seven tiered wool crown of her calling accompanied by a middle age carpenter with her rucksack of tools, and the cluster of women in flame-colored togas near the portico of the temple dedicated to Venus Erycina, whose profession he can guess by the number of men crowded around them.

"Merchants, professionals, business owners, students, noblemen, knights, bankers, freedman, slaves, foreign nationals in residence, princes, tourists, and prostitutes," she tells him. "Some doing business, some sightseeing, some just with nothing better to do but listen. Rome, in other words. You should see it during the ludi Romani, the two week festival and games at the end of summer. Everyone--and I do mean everyone--came to Rome for those."

"Christ," he mutters; he's probably been in every major city in the US, but he's never seen anything like this. Not just the numbers: the sheer variety going about their business.

"Center of the world," she says wryly. "And we were just getting started." Her eyes go back to the man on the rostra, throwing an arm skyward in a gesture calculated to inspire second-hand embarrassment to anyone watching; seriously, what the hell?

"Can you hear what he's saying?"

"I don't need to," she answers. "Speaking against the Gracchi, Gaius Sempronius in specific."

Dean braces his elbows on the stone, wincing as the guy throws out both arms in what looks unsettlingly like an attempt to bear hug empty air; the pedagogue closes his eyes with a shudder and empties the flask in a single swallow. "If he's dead, why bother?"

"Rome is a Republic," she answers. "It answers to the People, which means every citizen. It's also an oligarchy, ruled by the upper First Class, the senatorial families."


"It helped to belong to one of the great patrician or plebian families," she agrees. "But this is Rome, Dean: money, and a lot of it, and your income decided everything. Money could buy you anything, including aristocracy; run for the tribunate of the plebs to get in the Senate, buy the electorate all the way up the cursus honorium--and maybe do something, but not required--get the praetorship and a rich province to loot, and buy the consulship. Congratulations: you're an aristocrat, your family is ennobled for all of time, and you get to sit in an ivory curule chair wherever you go for the rest of your life." She looks at him. "Everyone did it; Rome admires both money and knowing when to use it."


"Better than magic. Best protection in the world, too, especially when you didn't have anything and anyone else." She turns her attention back to the crowd. "Every class in Rome but the upper First loved Tiberius and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus without exception. They elected Gaius to his second tribunate of the plebs when he wasn't even standing for election." She looks at him, smile lurking in her eyes. "Roman citizenship comes with a full franchise--for men, of course--but their votes rarely mattered in tribal assembly unless they belonged to the first seventeen tribes, and the Head Count's least of all; their voices went unheard. Gaius, like Tiberius, was a Roman nobleman, and his voice would always be heard; he made his voice theirs. And the People," she adds, looking at the street, "are vast."

Huh. "He was dangerous."

"He is dangerous," she corrects him. "Even dead. Three thousand citizens were denied their right to trial by their peers and executed by the consul Opimius's order with the blessing of the Senate; no one doesn't feel the chill of that, including other senators. The People are tinder, Dean; all that's needed is a spark, and they'll burn Rome in Gaius Sempronius's name." Her eyes harden. "And there are three thousand reasons no one will be that spark."

Over to the far right, Dean sees two black clad figures emerge from the Sacra Via, Sappho looking intimidated and Cornelia…no expression at all. Nearby, half a dozen women in the flame-colored togas, eyes lined with stibilium, cymbals chiming gently, plying their trade among a small crowd of interested looking men.

"Domina," Sappho says nervously, hovering close to Cornelia, half protecting, half in need of protection and eyeing the bustling crowd in alarm, "are you certain about this?"

"No," Cornelia answers with a faint, wry smile, eyes bleak with the grief she won't show anywhere else. "But why not? What else can they take from me?" She straightens her shoulders grimly. "I'm a Cornelia; if my father could face Hannibal in Africa without fear, I can walk the Forum of Rome."

"Hannibal was only one person, domina," Sappho mutters, eyes darting at sudden movements like she's watching for assassins or small children. "And your father had an army."

"True," Cornelia says, the bleakness fading as she looks at Sappho. "But I have you, and you can be my army. Are you ready?"

Sappho copies Cornelia, straightening her shoulders, murmuring "Army," under her breath as she matches Cornelia's pace.

As they enter the Forum just southeast of the Tabernae Novia, one of the men turns away from the women in annoyance and nearly runs into Cornelia and Sappho. What he says Dean can't hear (though expression says it's not the kind of thing you say in public); Cornelia ignores it, but Sappho stiffens in sudden outrage.

"Watch your tongue!" Sappho snaps, blocking Cornelia with her body and glaring down at the man from a good two inches difference in their height. "You speak of Cornelia Africana, fellator! Her father conquered Africa in Rome's name!"

"Ouch," the woman beside Dean giggles, and he sees Cornelia is barely maintaining her impassivity, one corner of her mouth twitching against all she can do to control it. "Cocksucker. I like her."

"I do, too," he agrees, watching the man's eyes widen as he looks from Sappho to Cornelia, recognition flaring to life like a lit match.

"Domina," the man says in a hushed voice in the common Latin of the lower classes, making an obeisance and backing away and inevitably knocking into one of the men still negotiating with one of the prostitutes. "My apologies, domina. I didn't see you."

The other man breaks off in annoyance, looking first at the man, then follows his gaze and goes still. "Domina," he says reverently, drifting closer, and behind him, the prostitutes and the other men gather, fascinated.

Cornelia inclines her head with a small smile, warmly personal, and the man swallows, dazed by the focus of those brilliant eyes. "Peace, Quirites. No offense meant or taken."

He nods, almost bowing, glaring at the first man before returning his gaze to Cornelia like a lodestone pulled north. "We mourns Gracchus still, domina. Rome is less when the Gracchi don't walk the Forum."

"I thank you," she answers, nodding at them, then looking at Sappho. "Have a pleasant day, gentleman. Come, child. Let's finish our walk."

"She's going to do it," Dean hears his companion murmur, voice nearly blank from shock. "I don't believe it."

Dean sees the men and women surge closer as Cornelia sets a slow, measured pace, hands reaching only to touch her cloak as it passes, while two men abruptly start into the crowd, others scattering toward the shops and down the streets leading away from the Forum. "What's going on?"

"I'm not sure," she says, voice hushed. "But I think a Gracchi will walk the Forum again this day."

Almost two years ago, Alicia came to his cabin and said, "A guy just passed the border with thirteen babies, and Erica won't do shit, says it's not our job to chase down every problem. I'm going to go get those kids and kill him; are you in?"

He was dead sober when he answered: "Yes."

"Me either," Alicia answers, sounding surprised. "Well, up until a couple of weeks ago." No need at all to guess what she's referring to. "Now--now it's all I can think about. She was pretty, right?" She looks at him earnestly, eyes bright with unshed tears. "You saw it? Prettiest baby: they usually look like Winston Churchill, but Beanie, she was something else, you know?"

He does remember: tightly curled black hair in six thick puffs, large brown eyes, dusky skin still darkening to what he suspected would be a rich brown, plump and warm and soft--he remember that, too, the solid weight of her in his arms. There'd still been pink ribbons surrounding the base of three puffs, and the tiny pink dress she wore was soiled but hand-sewn with obvious love and growing skill, tiny hand-embroidered pink and blue flowers decorating the neck and the hem. She wasn't one of those possibly sold by a desperate family to a human as amoral as any monster. Experience told him they'd died trying to protect her; the soiling on her dress wasn't dirt, but old blood mixed with new.

"Very pretty," he agrees, throat inexplicably tight.

Alicia crooned to her, taking her in her arms with a tremulous smile before checking her over with an EMT's expertise. After, she bundled her into a carseat they found in the man's van that she strapped into the back seat of their jeep and covered her with a blanket, promising to return soon. She returned to him with both cases that contained her collection of knives, opening them as they both turned to look at the bloody, sobbing man in the remains of that circle that held the dead bodies of all the babies but the last, the one they saved.

Alicia picked up the first knife. He said, "No."

"He deserves to die for this," she told him tonelessly, eyes flat as they fixed on the man and she started to smile. "Baby, it won't be fast, and you're gonna count the cuts for me as long as you got your tongue. How high can you count, anyway? Can't wait to find out."

"No," he said again, looking at the man and smiling as well. "I have a better idea."

"She went--I mean, I never asked...." Alicia's voice thickens as she trails to a stop.

"She went to an excellent family," he answers: the one and only time Vera reported to him directly with something that would never be written in any report. "There was no one better. They love her as their own." He pauses for a long moment. "I can find out more. And if you wish, arrange an introduction." He doubts the parents will object to that no matter what else may happen.

She takes a deep, shuddering breath. "I don't know." Swallowing, she closes her eyes. "Did you ever tell Dean...."

"I told no one," he answers. "Including Vera. It's not and will never be mine to tell."

"All this time--I'm not sorry." She wipes her eyes, smiling at him. "You thought I might be, didn't you?"

The justice meted out by the Host is equal to the crime and the mind that conceived it. He didn't need to read the man's mind to gain the measure of its obscenity, and his crime spoke for itself. But humans--with rare exceptions--don't and can't understand it for what it is; they see the brutality or the mercy and not the balance. In all his existence, he's met five who could; one was Dean, and the last two in Chitaqua: Amanda, with a hunter's sensibilities and inborn understanding of that balance, and Alicia, who like Dean, also understood that vengeance and mercy are simply two of unnumbered facets of justice.

They dug three holes in an empty yard, near a fence looped with vines that Alicia said would bloom with roses come spring, and filled them from the splintered remains of the houses nearby, salting them and adding an accelerant stored in the jeep before wrapping each tiny body in sheets they found in one of the few intact houses. Alicia recited a prayer for the dead, voice clear and steady, before they placed four tiny bodies in each hole and burned the bodies to ash. It was almost dawn when they covered the blackened remains with salt and fresh earth and left them to their rest. They didn't think to bring a camera, but he could recite their appearance, clothing, and probable age from memory and he suspects Alicia could as well.

After, they turned their attention to the man bound in the back of their jeep. His only regret even then was he failed to finish his obscene work.

Within the altered circle, he dug a new hole six feet deep, and Alicia secured the man within it before climbing out again. Picking up the cup holding the remains of his blood, she waited for Castiel to speak the final words before pouring it over his face.

"Castiel and Alicia," she said, picking up the shovel as Castiel took out his gun, aiming for the man's heart. "You won't forget that, either. You're going to be screaming our names a thousand years after you forget you own."

She sat in the backseat on the drive back to Chitaqua, the baby she called Beanie (for reasons unclear but related to a nineties phenomenon that involved small dolls in some way) in her arms; he drove very carefully, for he was aware it was very dangerous for a child to be unsecured in a moving vehicle. She soothed the child when she began to fuss, feeding her the milk he stole from the substandard border station on the Nebraska-Kansas border with very poor security, told her she was pretty and her mother must have loved her very much and how she would grow up somewhere safe with people who would love her as her mother had. She didn't ask him where he was sending Beanie, only that it be safe and she would be loved as she deserved; he didn't tell her that with Beanie went a note that described what happened that night, and though they had no way to find out Beanie's name or that of her mother, the name she now bore was that of the woman who saved her life.

"No," he replies, meeting her eyes and seeing his own satisfaction written within: vengeance and mercy are often one in the same. "I didn't."

Alicia is an excellent name for such a pretty child who lost so much and still survived; he could think of none better, to honor the woman who saved her life and would have been her mother if she could.

Whispering precedes Cornelia, the crowd opening before her like magic, men nudging their neighbors as they gravitate closer, bowing, whispers of "Cornelia," and "Mother of the Gracchi", sometimes simply "Gracchi". Behind her, more appear simply to follow in her wake, coming from the side streets, pushing through merely to see her, men and even women from their shops and homes; by the time she's a third of the way across the Forum, the crowd has almost doubled, and those gathered by the rostra are being nudged, peering over the heads behind them curiously; even the poor pedagogue almost looks interested as his charges struggle to see what's going on.

"Gracchi," spreads through the crowd like ripples from a rock dropped in a pond. The man on the rostra continues to speak, oblivious to the lack of attention as more and more turn to see Cornelia, tall and imposing and approachable all at once, continue her slow progress, offering a small smile, a nod, a word to those around her, accepting from the flower vendor a small bouquet with a murmured thanks that leaves the woman dazzled; the dark eyes meet those of everyone around her without fear. Hands reach out to touch her cloak, the trail of her skirt, bowing as she passes them.

"Was she always that tall?" Dean asks blankly.

His companion waves a baffled hand. "I was just thinking the same thing."

"Gracchi," becomes a low, almost subliminal chant, spreading through the people until even the guy at the rostra notices something's going on, scowling as he searches the crowd and mouth dropping open when he sees Cornelia, Sappho a dark-cloaked shadow at her side.

"Gracchi," shudders through the massive crowd as more and more pour into the Forum, filling it to bursting, and Dean's pretty sure the guy's about to pass out, nearly losing his grip on the scroll before looking around anxiously, a nod sending a man running into the Comitium. For backup, on a guess.

"Gracchi,": louder now, the Forum filled to overflowing, and Dean sees more men join the first on the rostra, pristine togas and wearing the purple-bordered tunics of senators of Rome.

"Gracchi,": loud enough to shake Rome, and in the thousands on thousands of voices Dean hears love, unhealed grief, rage, these people who loved the Gracchi brothers who loved them in their turn and denied the right to mourn, to grieve. "Gracchi. Gracchi. Gracchi. Gracchi."

Cornelia's expression flicker as the temple of Concord comes into view, built on the slaughter of her son, his followers, and three thousand men without trial. Raising her chin, she focuses on the cluster of senators gathering on the rostra, dark eyes lit from within with a hatred as deep and raw as her grief, and even from here, Dean can feel the hostility of the crowd growing by leaps and bounds.

"Gracchi," fills the Forum now, and not one of those men on the rostra don't get they're looking at a living, breathing spark. "Gracchi. Gracchi. Gracchi. Gracchi."

"Tinder," Dean breathes. "Meet flint."

"Pace, Quirites," Cornelia says, voice pitched to slice effortlessly through the chanting, a stiletto aimed at the men on the rostra. Small men, Cornelia called them; frightened men, Publius told her; they're both, frozen by those dark eyes where Rome burns for a thousand years at her word.

"People of Rome, I am widow of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and daughter of Publius Cornelius Scipio, called Africanus for his defeat of Hannibal and conquest of Carthage in Rome's name," she says clearly, capturing the crowd with the power of her voice, the shifts of her body that draws all attention to her as Sappho drifts back to give her space. Everything that guy on the rostra failed at she nails like she was born to it, and Dean sees the pedagogue shoving the kids up on something before climbing up himself to watch, flask abandoned.. "You see before you a mother without her sons; a woman alone, for mine is a house of women, without father, husband, brothers, or sons between us. Do you pity me, People of Rome, when you see me walk alone this day? Do you pity me, People of Rome, having borne twelve children, I am left with only one to comfort me in my old age? Do you pity me, People of Rome, that all I have of my sons is one granddaughter to dote upon at the end of my years? Do you pity me, People of Rome, when you see the rostra empty of my fine sons, where they spoke your will and in your name?

"Do not pity me, People of Rome; I do not pity myself, for I am honored above all other women. The sons I bore, like my father and theirs, did honor to Rome with their service to her, in her name, and for her greater glory. Do not pity me, People of Rome; I do not pity myself, for I am honored to have raised such sons to give to Rome. It was only just that they died as they lived, like their father and mine, in her service, in her name, and for her greater glory. Do not pity me, People of Rome; I cannot pity myself, I am to be envied above all women, to be known as mother of such sons. As their mother, called Cornelia Africana, daughter of Africanus and mother of the Gracchi, I request the People of Rome join me not in mourning for the loss of my only sons, but in celebration of their lives and their work for the People, all for Rome: in her service, in her name, and always for her greater glory." Cornelia lifts her chin, and every senator up there probably thinks she's looking right at them, and raises her voice, each word spaced for emphasis. "Long. Live. Rome."

"Holy shit," Dean whispers.

The Forum is silent, still, held in the echo of those last words. She holds them there for an endless moment before the eyes of half the Senate, showing them her power without fear; her father took out Hannibal with an army, but she took Rome from those small, frightened men today with no other army than herself.

Then she lets them go with a smile, like a breath of wind, leaving the Forum shocked, dazed, breathless, awed. His companion was right; a Gracchi did walk the Forum again this day, and like her sons before her, she fucking owned it.

Turning her attention back to those around her, Cornelia accepts an outstretched hand to help her over a rough patch of the cobblestones. Smiling into the man's eyes, she nods her thanks and continues on her path with Sappho in attendance, the man looking after her as if seeing an impossible vision.

Just short of the stunned Forum watchers and silent rostra, she gently veers her direction toward the Vicus Jugarius, ignoring the temple to Concord like a leaking sewage pipe spilling foulness onto the street. Her attention is on the masses around her, nodding to every awed greeting, and Dean bets not one person in this crowd today isn't sure she looked directly at them, won't tell their grandchildren about when Cornelia Africana walked the Forum and owned the center of the world.

As Cornelia passes the temple of Saturn Aerarium and State Treasury, Dean glimpses the people lining the street as far as the eye can see as the Forum's crowd continues at her heels. On a guess, public business isn't happening today.

"Domina," Sappho whispers, eyes huge as she almost hugs Cornelia's side, "I don't think we can keep this a secret from Publius."

"I suspect not." Reaching for Sappho's arm, Cornelia never changes her pace or her smile, but Dean hears her add, voice soft, "I think my daughters and granddaughter would benefit from a change of air. Rome's is excellent this time of year."

The room fades back in, endless walls lined with pictures again, and Dean follows his companion down the stairs in thoughtful silence, emerging back on the colorful mosaic floor.

"That happened," she says incredulously. "They said she might have spoken unwisely more than once," okay, that's one way to put it, "but....actually, Great-aunt Sempronia's companion said she wouldn't be surprised if I did the same thing. I wonder if she knew about it?"

He glances at her annoyed expression and fights back a laugh. "Ideal Roman wife and mother."

"Looks like some things breed true after all," she answers, a sudden smile lighting her face. "She was amazing, wasn't she?"

"Yeah," he agrees, remembering that moment where it felt like she looked right at him; she had him, too, and he wasn't even--technically--there (he thinks). He looks at his companion, who's frowning at the nearest pictures. "Still can't find it?"

"Not yet," she answers, frown deepening. "Getting closer though: that helped. What I wouldn't give for some omnipotence or even an accurate history book. Or a relatively accurate oracle." She looks at him curiously. "Do you still have those?"

Oracle, yeah, that's…. "Clairvoyants," he says in relief. "Yeah, we do. Well, one here, anyway. Not really--good at it, though."

She sighs: yeah, exactly, welcome to his life.

"You sure you don't need some help?" he asks; Cas is probably still with Alicia and it's not like breakfast is going anywhere. If they even have breakfast; they gotta be close to running out of food, and fuck if he'll take anything from those coming in or the kids at the daycare.

"Not yet," she says after considering for a few minutes. "Besides, you have work to do."

"Call me if you need me, okay?" She tilts her head, giving him that look from the last time, mouth curving in a faint smile. "Really."

"I know," she agrees, smile growing. "Thanks. Wait, one more thing." He nods, waiitng. "The future is unwritten now, and it must remain so, if this is to work. Knowing that--doesn't help."

Okay? "What's going to work?"

"Everything," she says vaguely. "There are rules, and I don't know all the reasons for them, but I've learned enough to know they should not be broken. That doesn't mean that they can't be bent, and should be if needed." Turning to face him, she makes a face, taking a deep breath. "Let's see how much I can."

He nods encouragingly: why not?

"You will hear someone say, 'Dean, put it down'," she says slowly, carefully, and looks relieved. "When you hear it, open your hand."

Right. "Okay, and--what?"

She meets his eyes. "Stand up." Then she grins, relaxing. "Don't forget your tray, by the way. Over there, by the door."

Looking around, Dean sees the tray by a heavy wooden door set in another arched doorway. "Liking the not-oracle thing, huh?"

"Gotta admit, beating the system is always a rush," she tells him, nodding enthusiastically. "I'll see you soon."

She turns back to the frescos, and Dean walks over to pick up the tray before setting his shoulder against the wooden door and walks into the sparsely-populated mess (in the building they're not keeping) and toward the kitchen, following the smell of coffee.

They don't bother locking up (the salle has no lock, for one), Alicia bundled into her coat and boots and jeans, backpack thrown over her shoulder as they go to the jeep.

"You walked the entire way?" he asks, opening the passenger door for her as Vera taught him to do for people carrying items when he isn't, whether they need it or not.

"I needed to think," she says with a shrug, and Castiel thinks about that on his way to the driver's side. Easing inside, he glances at her; it occurs to him in all their acquaintance, he never realized her expression--quicksilver in changes of mood--has never once been unguarded, never caught with face and tone not matching her perceived mood. He waits until they're on their way back before asking, "Where's Micah?"

"Sixth Street, Building Eight, Room 316," she answers, looking at him with clear blue eyes. "Idiots two are with him and six other single guys, bachelor area I guess. I bet he hates that; he always liked his space. Carol's still in the infirmary, first floor off the operating room where they can keep her under observation. No word on her leg yet; I checked her chart, and if she stays stable, Vera's going to need to do surgery today." Alicia shakes her, mouth tight. "Bit right through the femur, splintered it to hell and back. Even if Vera can save it...."

"Relevant, I'll give you that," he says. "And genuinely of interest to me, well done. Micah."

She sighs, head tipping back against the headrest as Ichabod proper comes into view. "It's been a while. I don't want to hang out or anything, but--gotta admit, I'm curious if he's still got that limp."

He files that away. "Dean took your team off the duty roster today. Before you argue, they're on duty watching Alison, and I'd like you to work with Naresh today to see if you can find out what is causing--whatever this is."

She settles back, nodding. "Actually, I have a theory, and that will help. Can you meet me in the infirmary after noon? We're releasing Haruhi and the others from the mess--God knows we need the space--and--okay, don't kill the messenger--she may not be clear on how pissed you are, so reassure her maybe?" He glares at her across the seats. "For her own good, I remind you. To save her life and everything."

That much is true. "Granted," he says grudgingly.

As they pull up in front of HQ, he opens the door for her (twice), entering the almost empty lobby where Rachel's on desk duty and Kyle is lurking very unsubtly (even for him) at the top of the stairs in what he probably thinks is out of view. Then he is out of view and very probably running for his room at considerable speed.

Alicia doesn't look up but her mouth quirks. "You know, he explained to me a week ago how fancy knife dances don't prep you for real fighting?"

Half-way to the stairs, Castiel comes to a dead stop, and turning around, Alicia grins at him, eyes dancing. "But...." He has no idea what goes there.

"There is always a type for whom sex is a transformative experience," she explains, nodding sincerely. "Of their partner, you know what I mean? Orgasm or two, go to sleep, wake up, and find out you are a delicate and kind of stupid flower. Didn't let him top after that, obviously. I was trying to be nice, but we all make mistakes, am I right?" She sighs, looking bewildered. "Also, squeamish. Didn't see that coming."

Castiel correctly interprets that as Kyle showing (after that, possibly justifiable) terror when Alicia brought up the subject of recreational knife use. "Is he bothering you?"

"No," she answers promptly. "I won't deny he really, really wants to, though, but no." Tilting her head toward the stairs, he nods and falls into step beside her. "He's not a bad guy, just...."

He gives her to half-way up the stairs before asking, "You were saying?"

"I'm working on it," she assures him as they reach the second floor, blissfully empty of people unable to bother Alicia no matter how hard they might try. "Hey, you think Dean would like working with Matt? So he won't feel inadequate or anything? Matt's getting better, but let's say it's gonna take some work."

Castiel thinks many things and says none of them. "You're teaching Matt?" he asks politely as they start down the hall that has both his and Dean's room as well as that of Alicia's team. "I had no idea he was interested."

"He's a neither/nor; good with a gun, not great with a knife but me, I think that's just lack of practice," she explains, smiling suddenly and pausing to lean against the wall. "We started a month ago. It's weird; before he was on my team, I barely knew him, but in the field, it's like he can read my mind, exactly where I want him to be, never missed a step after the first week. I sent him to the library last night for some encyclopedias, and he found what I needed and also one all about knife fighting--the name is The Complete Book of Knife Fighting."

What would Dean do, he thinks desperately, fighting down laughter. "You don't say."

She rolls her eyes. "If it were sex, trust me, he didn't need to get me books and play with knives to get my attention; he's hot and from what I understand, flexible and all around fun, you know what I mean?" She cocks her head. "Though yeah, those would both help. I asked a while back, and no go, so we played Monopoly and he won twice. Now we do weekly board game nights, every Thursday we're in Chitaqua. It's fun."

Castiel fails to remember a time anyone refused an offer from Alicia; in theory, it must have happened, but everyone at Chitaqua is sane (mostly). "That's unexpected."

"Yeah, surprised me, too," she agrees as they start down the hall again. "But what can you do? Answer: triple word score his ass, for Scrabble is totally my game."

"How's your chess game?" he asks curiously, and is remarkably unsurprised by her answer.

"Only Matt will play with me anymore," she says sadly. "Even when I handed over my bishops to help them out, I'd always win."

Dean is armed with coffee, breakfast, and a determined expression when he returns to the room to find Cas already in residence, reading at a glance through reports fast enough that it looks like he's just flipping through the pages. Good, he's caught up.

"Good morning," he says brightly, ignoring Cas's eyes narrow at the sight of food--a necessity for living, mortal beings everywhere and fuck Crowley backward for this, too, Cas was making great progress--before taking in the fact that the bed is almost kind of made and feeling a spurt of pride at Cas's valiant attempt at baseline human behavior. "Alicia okay?"

Cas hesitates before saying, "I'm not sure."

Setting the tray on the bed, Dean waits for Cas to give up and get a tortilla already, which he does, so score for determination. "She mention Micah?"

"No. I mean, yes, but only in regard to his location, his roommates, her lack of interest in hanging out with him, and if I'd seen him and if he still had a limp." Spreading it with butter, he folds it in half and takes a bite, frowning at nothing. "I forgot to ask Dolores where Alicia was assigned when she was in Ichabod after the attack."

Dean lowers his tortilla. "I'm thinking those are related, somehow."

"I’m not sure about that, either," Cas responds. "I'm trying to remember if I saw Micah when he left Chitaqua and if he indeed have a limp."

Dean turns that over in his mind and comes up with 'knives, Alicia carries many of them'. "How bad a breakup was this? Is that why he left the camp?"

"For the latter, that was the general assumption from what I understand. The former, however, is the other thing that I can't remember," he says, finishing the tortilla and taking a second, spreading it out on the tray before loading it with potato-onion-pepper thing, chorizo, and cheese (that Dean grated himself, thank you).

Dean finishes his first tortilla in thoughtful silence and copies Cas for his second. "Sean's team really doesn't like him." He takes a bite and swallows, watching Cas's face. "Did the team leaders?"

"He was on Erica's team with Alicia and Heath." Cas finishes the breakfast burrito, frowning as he automatically makes another. "Briefly, that is, about three weeks: Alicia was injured on a mission and he took her place while she was recovering. The other permanent member was Felix."


"Three days after the event you very obviously are thinking of, Alicia returned to the team and Micah returned to--whatever he was doing. I know what you're asking, and no, I didn't see him."

His Cas-to-English (or Cas-tone-to-English) is getting goddamn amazing. "You think he might have been?" Which brings up another question. "What happened to the bullets in your wall?"

"We removed them," he answers, frowning as he takes half that thing in a single bite: next they're working on is not choking to death. "Everyone used their standard weapons. An expert could link them to individual guns, yes, but obviously that wasn't an option even if an expert was available."

"Thousand dollar question, Cas, no takebacks, from your gut: you think he was there?"

Cas finishes the taco and reaches for the coffee. "Micah was--and probably still is--a coward."

"Don't have to be brave to pick up a gun and join a mob," Dean answers flatly, rolling them each one last breakfast taco from the remains on the plate and nudging one toward Cas, who picks it up immediately. "Okay, let's do this a different way: was Heath?"

Cas takes a defiant bite and chews slowly before there's nothing left for his teeth to do. "Yes."


"Yes," Cas says before finishing--holy shit two thirds of a breakfast taco--in a single, challenging bite, like he's just asking for a visit from Heimlich Maneuver (which sure, Dean knows, but seriously?). "Anything else?"

"And Felix and Heath...."

"Dead well before Kansas City."

Sitting back, Dean finishes his breakfast in small bites (example, he's setting it) and tries to make sense of this. "So check me here: Erica is on Crossroads near Ichabod, and Micah, Carol and--whatever their names are--"

"Barney," Cas tells him with the sympathetic tone of someone relating a fatal and lingering disease is in your immediate future, "and Stephen."

"Idiots two," Dean decides. "And also, how much of an asshole did I look in front of Sean's team and Alicia not knowing their names?"

"That wouldn't be a deciding factor," Cas admits. "I knew them both, trained them both, and have a perfect memory, and it's an effort to remember more than 'shapes that followed Micah around'."

"Anyway, five former members of Chitaqua showing up, one as a demon, all within a day of each other, while we're here--and why the hell did Crowley have her doing duty on earth?" This has been bothering him. "I mean, even if she was his, he wouldn't let her out of Hell this soon."

Cas takes a drink of coffee, eyes distant. "The carrot and the stick."

Okay, sure. "Anytime you're ready."

"Something he told me about his method," Cas responds. "He let me protect her from discipline--"

"What?" Dean asks, hissing as hot coffee splashes over his hand. Setting it down hastily, he glares at Cas. "You did what?"

"It's not important--"

"Cas, right at this moment, that is the single most important thing you've ever said," Dean interrupts, wiping his hand with a napkin. "Why--"

"I told you why."

And just like that, last night floods back, and Dean remembers actually, they have had breakfast now and it's probably--no guarantee here (if he's lucky)--time they talked.

"In any case," Cas continues, and Dean is not at all okay with the change of subject but hey, it's rude to interrupt or....something, "carrot and stick, he's giving her neither."

"She's not afraid of him?" Dean would love to see that because no other way would he believe it, and even then....

"She's afraid of him," Cas says slowly. "But not enough. And he doesn't seem to care."

When they're done, Dean stacks everything together on the table and quickly gets dressed, trying not to side-eye Cas on the bed, reading through reports.

"If you have something you wish to say," Cas says, not looking up, "it would be much easier for you to do it. I can't--at the moment--read your mind, though I've noted that does change unexpectedly, so if you wish to wait--"

"Christ." Buttoning on the flannel over thermal and t-shirt, Dean circles around the bed and tries to think of what to say. Cas's sudden attention doesn't help, either. "I'm sorry. I was out of line last night. That had nothing to do with--anything. It was me."

Cas's expression doesn't change for a moment, then he pushes back the reports--good sign? Bad sign?--and sighs, leaning back against the pillows. "You're two different people," he says. "It's impossible to compare you in any meaningful way, and also ridiculous."

"I know." He does know; this isn't about Cas. "You--that was me that put you on the rack, not him."

"As you explained, several times, dreams don't mean anything. Also--"

"Cas, we both know that was me, come on!" Dean interrupts, dropping onto the foot of the bed. "And it wouldn't be better if it were him!" For so many very wrong reasons: what the hell is wrong with him?

"I apologize for my subconscious offending your sensibilities," Cas bites out, and Dean knew this was going to happen, it couldn't not. He can't explain this in any way that doesn't sound crazy, or--something. "If I ever have another dream, I'll be certain to take that into consideration."

"Again, not you," Dean says, fighting down the burst of anger that Cas doesn't deserve. "It's me. The entire thing, that was my fault."

"Dean, you don't control my dreams." Cas's set expression fades, incredulity creeping in. "You think you....control my one and only experience with dreaming?"

Okay when he says it like that.... "Yes."

Cas blinks slowly, tilting his head. "You're serious."

"God." Getting to his feet, Dean starts to pace. "You are not getting this."

"Dean, if you--in some way--have transmitted your desire to have me on my knees to my subconscious, you needn't worry," Cas assures him, and Dean spins around. "I perform on request."

Dean fails at words. What the hell do you say to that?

"I can prostrate myself as well in one hundred and thirty-five different ways," he adds in the spirit of what Dean assumes is education is never wasted. "I've never objected to role playing, in case that need saying."

"You wanna play Master of the Pit and his pet angel?" He just said that. Out loud.

Cas rolls his eyes. "I'm never a pet. You gave me your name and that means I also shared your power as well as your authority and could act in your name. And did so, quite gruesomely." He looks terrifyingly struck. "As in Chitaqua, so it shall be in the Pit, I suppose."

Dean starts to answer, then does some find/replace: performance art torture equals map-making and art maps, giant torture device for angels equals new mess, terrified lieutenants everywhere, and there's a really good chance he may have built Cas his very own torture room in place of a library. "Holy shit," he says, dropping back onto the bed. "It was."

"I was never allowed to hold any high rank in the Host," Cas muses. "For various reasons that may actually be infinite--I'd need more time to search my memory--it was never permitted and I never felt any form of ambition, of course. It does say something that I had only to fall to Earth and wait two and a quarter years to reach the position of second in command of Chitaqua and less than two months more to become your consort as well, in fact rather than speculation, that is." Dean makes a strangled sound, though what, no idea, "Now I dream of being second in command of the Pit and consort of its Master contemplating--with what I suspect are very good odds of success--conquering Hell itself. Power corrupts indeed. By the next dream, perhaps I will have usurped you and have you kneeling before me on the throne of Hell."

Cas is looking right at him, so no way he could miss it; he'd be worried about that, but important brain function is suspended indefinitely and he's pretty sure all the blood in his body just relocated to more southern (dick-related) climates.

"Perhaps," Cas continues in a voice invented specifically for Dean's pornographic fantasies, past, present, and future, "I woke too early. Perhaps after exhibitionism performed before my Brother--which I have no objection to should the opportunity arise on earth--I would have fucked the Master of the Pit before all his realm over his very throne."

He's not fifteen fucking years old and is not--is not--coming in his pants from listening to Cas relating...that, but his cock is disagreeing with him, and experience tells him who's gonna win this one.

Cas's mouth twitches as he settles back against the pillows in satisfaction and fuck Dean's life very much, even that's hot. "A pity we'll never know."

Breathing works, check. "Fuck you."

"It took your mind off the ridiculous notion you are--whatever that was," Cas points out, which is actually true; his mind is pretty much nowhere near there, whatever it was. "In retrospect after a good night's sleep--for which I thank you--it's easy to place this in perspective. With the exception of--"

"The beginning, yeah." Five acts and an intermission: seriously, if that was just the start, what the hell happened next? Why does he want to know?

"Not the stabbing you part," Cas says dismissively, and seriously, what the fuck is wrong with his cock? "It wasn't that upsetting." Something crosses Cas's face then, there and gone. "That frame, however...."

"What about it?" He sees Cas frown and remembers Cas isn't a fan of personal space and Dean's not sure he remembers what that is anymore; also, they're having sex. Crawling down the bed, he drops down beside Cas. "What, you said you imagined it when you were stoned."

"In Kansas City," he says slowly, eyes fixed on some point in the middle distance, "Lucifer asked me if I wanted to know why he spared my life. Then he told me--he told me the only question was how long it would be before I hated myself more than I hated him."

Dean nods, shifting closer so their shoulders touch.

"I hate him," Cas says with a simplicity both understatement and devastatingly accurate because of it. "I can't imagine anything--even myself--that I could hate more. I thought that what he meant--however ridiculous--was that I'd join him out of sheer self-hatred. Then I thought--this being Lucifer and past master of obvious and terrible metaphor--that he meant becoming him." Cas turns to look at him. "He was wrong."

"Well, yeah--"

"I wouldn't hate myself for becoming him," Cas says, and Dean shuts his mouth. "If it meant that I could put him on that rack for all of Time, and he begins to make payment for the infinite number of his crimes, I wouldn't hate myself: every death, every life ruined or destroyed, every tear shed in grief or pain, every drop of blood, every damned soul, each paid back tenfold, and earth would be safe, never again fear him." He trails off, looking away. "I don't want to be him, but it feels almost selfish not to find a way to do it anyway. I wonder--I wonder if the reason I don't is more selfish still; that I don't want to do it alone."

Dean maps the entire morning from the moment Cas woke up to now, adding in Alicia (very distracting) and their entire conversation and comes to a depressing conclusion; even if you take all the precautions in the world not to leave Cas alone with his thoughts to overthink shit, he'll fit it in between other things, somehow. And here they are: calmly and rationally discussing how Cas's first ever dream could have been a not entirely out of the realm of possibility, much more pleasant option to becoming Lucifer fantasy.

And who'd he pick for his partner in crime and kinky Pit shit (and lots and lots of recreational torture) out of all the world (living and dead)? Dean.

Christ: he's not just an asshole but a really stupid one.

(Also, Cas thinks he could conquer Hell. All he can think is that Lisa wasn't sure he knew how to do dishes after inviting him to move in. She was mostly wrong, but for the record, cast iron is a bitch to get clean, come on.)

"He's an angel, and so was I, and in this much, we're the same. That," Cas says into the silence, voice so quiet it's barely a breath, "is something I would do."

Dean makes an executive decision. "Grab your coat," he says, sliding off the bed an finding his boots on the first try. "We're getting out of here."

To avoid the incoming people--not to mention that even from Alison's, Dean can hear enough to tell him they're in the middle of gate-hanging, which seems to be going about as well as expected by the level of profanity--Dean gets to drive by sheer how-to and gumption (and stealing the keys from Cas).

Driving out toward the east of town, Dean makes a sharp right on something that may have been a road (anything's possible), stopping short and putting the jeep in park before pocketing the keys.

"Out," he says, and Cas frowns, looking startled, then climbing out and stopping short.

Suppressing the smile, Dean joins him on the other side of the jeep as above them, the sky sparks in all the colors of the rainbow.

A few feet away from the wall, Cas comes to a halt, staring at it with the same expression Dean felt on his own face when he saw it. The blue eyes travel over it, and all over again, that shock, like he's seeing it for the first time all over again.

"How many could you have sent to Chitaqua the other night?" Dean asks.

"Ten thousand, perhaps eleven," he answers distractedly. "The lack of shelter may have been a problem, so I suppose I could have sent some buildings as well. Inorganic matter takes less power and far less than living beings."

"Definitely safe in Chitaqua's wards, right?"

Cas blinks, looking at him. "Yes."

"And instead--you picked not definitely saving anyone but maybe saving everyone or at least most of 'em. Why?"

"Is this a life lesson?" Cas asks suspiciously.

"Yeah, it is," he answers. "Look at the wall and check out the sky and tell me again you could sell anything--even yourself--to stop Lucifer for sure and fuck the rest."

"What else--"

"Cas, the world is over, it's just a matter of time," he answers, looking at the gleaming stretch of wall that fuck his life does in fact glitter and worse, he kind of likes it. "Best case scenario, the infected zone--here, all of the world--are gonna be killed to stop Croat; that's gonna happen. Second to worst case--you say I don't have to worry about the stone age and supermammoths, but that's not exactly reassuring on electricity, heat, the internet, disease, and running water for one and all."

"And worst?"

"Texas was just how it started, they would write in history books, but there'll be no one alive to write them." Dean shakes his head, eyes on the wall. "This is you, Cas, this is us, this is what we do. We can't save everyone, but we're gonna damn well try, and we won't sacrifice anyone to do it. Everyone deserves a chance, and that's our job; to give it to them."

Cas gives him a sidelong glance. "Is that enough?"

"No," Dean admits. "But that's why we're recruiting. More people helps."

A message from Manuel is waiting for them at headquarters: to meet on the wall for reasons unclear but important.

"I need to see Vera first," Castiel tells Dean, which makes him frown. "I need to inquire about Carol's status and--I would like to tell her thank you for her help."

"Right," Dean says, groaning. "I'm dead. She was at the infirmary last night, and she's going to hold it against me I didn't send a message to tell her you woke up and were fine, I know it."

"I'm sure she's aware--"

"Won't matter," Dean interrupts grimly. "Meet me on the wall when you're done?"

"I will," he promises, watching Dean start toward the west--and the gate--before making his way to the infirmary, watchful for civilians.

It's crowded--a problem--but Dolores on her way down the stairs sees him, tired face lighting in a smile. "Cas," she says, gesturing for him to follow her. "Feeling better?"

"I am," he answers politely; it's true, after all. "Is Vera available or is she working?"

"On break," Dolores says, looking around the busy ER. "We're about to start on Carol's leg in about an hour, and she needs the time."

"What's the prognosis?"

Dolores sighs as she leads him to a door on the far left. "It's still stable, no sign of infection, but her leg lost blood flow for a while, which is the biggest problem. Honestly, I'd have amputated already, but Vera thinks--hopes--she'll be able to keep it, at least. She read half the night, so she'd know. If it fails--well, we'll be watching, since we'll have to amputate fast to avoid gangrene." Opening the door, she says, "Left, first door on the right. I'm glad you came; she could really use a friend right now."

"Thank you," he answers, and follows her instructions exactly, knocking politely before carefully opening the door. "Vera?"

She's slumped on a chair, elbows resting on her knees and head hanging down tiredly. Looking up, she frowns, and he can see the faint traces of tears, hastily hidden. "Cas," she says with an attempt at a smile. "You look good and Dean is dead."

"He worried about that." Closing the door, he crosses the short distance between them and crouches before her. "Thank you for what you did."

"Anytime." Smiling more naturally, she straightens. "Everything okay?"

"I was about to ask you the same question." He catches her eyes when she tries to avoid him. "Dolores told me you would be working on Carol's leg today."

She nods tightly. "It's a risk, I know, but I gotta try. If I'm wrong--we should be able to amputate in time."

"How much?"

"Barely enough for a stump," Vera answers steadily. "It nicked the femoral artery and crushed the femur; they did their best, kept her alive, no fault to her friends there. They packed it in snow, that helped, but--I don't know. Best case scenario is she doesn't lose the leg and the paralysis is limited. She may walk again, no guarantees, but if this works, it's going to be all or nothing."

He nods, watching her face. "What else?"

Vera swallows, closing her eyes. "Sudha isn't progressing on time. Not a big deal--she's fine, baby's fine, checking regularly, it happens all the time--but...I don't know, something bothered me, so I did an ultrasound to double check. Dolores can't read them as well as I can--never had to and fuck knows it took me a minute to make sense of what I was seeing--so she didn't know. Sudha's uterus is--tilted, that's the best way I can describe it and that's just what I was sure of, and I'm pretty sure it's malformed in the bargain. Honest to God, I have no idea how she even got pregnant in the first place, much less carried it to term."

Castiel doesn't let his expression change. "Did you ask her--about that?"

"Kind of, didn't want to scare her," Vera answers flatly. "She said her pregnancy was a surprise, yeah; her gyn told her she couldn't conceive and that's about it. Which no surprise: gyns can be dicks when it comes to details. She didn't even realize she was pregnant until about--"

"Five months ago."

"Yeah," Vera says slowly. "That sounds about right."

"Could you do another caesarian?"

"I already would have if--that's the other problem. The placenta's fine and exactly where it should be, but her uterus isn't, so it's blocking where I'd do the incision, and even if I go in there--Cas, to get the baby out, I'd have to gut her on the table and that's assuming I could get her baby out alive. Best case scenario if I go in, I probably don't kill her immediately but probably kill her baby. This isn't an either/or; if I thought she'd survive, I'll do my best for her and put the baby in God's hands, but--I'm not a surgeon, Cas. She'd need someone who had twenty years doing this in the operating room or she'll bleed out on the table."

He nods slowly. "Is she in pain?"

"Nope, small favors and everything." Vera blows out a breath. "I need to tell her what's going on, but Cas--she's so happy. She and Rabin have the name and the baby room all done and she'll die on that table without a second thought if it means her baby lives. I wouldn't like it, but I'd do it for her, but--I can't even give odds on that. Less than fifty is best guess with someone trained to do it, and Cas, I've done this once two days ago: I will kill it without a miracle, that's just fact."

"How long can you wait?"

Vera blinks at him, frowning. "She's fine right now Baby goes into distress, or something happens with her, that could happen at any moment, but if it were anyone else, I'd say primapara and just watch until her body was ready to go."

"It will be," he answers. "When the time comes, she'll deliver safely. She will need help, but provided she receives it, both she and the child will survive and be well, I promise."

Vera starts to say something, then licks her lips. "I'm going to ask you a very stupid question."

"The answer is yes, to infertile couples only who would have no children otherwise," he answers distractedly. "The mother always survives. There has never been an exception and there cannot be."


"Except the Host left the earth, and if she carried one of my Brethren, I would have known when we met." He gets to his feet. "Don't tell her anything, no matter how much time passes, and let her do as she will: her comfort and contentment are of paramount importance. If something upsets her, remove it; if someone upsets her, shoot them."

Vera's eyes widen. "Okay, but--I bet we can avoid that."

"Whatever works. I suspect it won't be more than two more days, but any sign she's starting labor, any at all, I must know and be in attendance."

"Cas," Vera says quietly, looking up at him, "what is she carrying?"

"Her and Rabin's child," he answers. "And a miracle. I need to meet Dean on the wall. Keep me informed of Carol's condition as well as Sudha's."

"I will," Vera says, slowly standing up. "Cas--tell me you're sure."

"I'm sure," he answers; he almost wishes that he weren't. "If you need a miracle, that is what we shall be. Or do, as it were."

Dean lowers the binoculars. "Thirty miles? You're sure?"

"I sent a team out in each direction when I checked against the logs from all the patrols and what the people they brought in were reporting," Manuel confirms grimly, eyes drawn back to the horizon. "Double blind: I didn't tell them why, just told them they'd know when to come back. Thirty miles, almost to the inch."

"What'd they see?"

Manuel makes a face. "Not the kind of thing they could see, you know?" He does, yeah. "They're all experienced and I trust their instincts. Nothing in sight, but Dean, there was something watching them."

"Something that didn't go after them." Manuel nods, mouth a tight, worried line as Dean hands him back the binoculars. "And no one's been attacked once they get to the thirty. Anything around Ichabod--cemetery, holy ground, a--I don't know, anything before now?"

"Nothing that seemed to bother anything that attacked us before," Manuel answers. "Anyi's going through patrol records now, but I've been in charge of defense almost since I got here, and I reviewed them with Amanda when she was assigned here. Anything like that, I would have noticed if Teresa didn't."

Thirty miles: it sounds familiar, and not just because of Cas's weather-magic-thing. "Cas should be here in a minute. Send someone for Alison and Teresa." He belatedly remembers Alison's been walking Ichabod and is almost but not quite working on fucking up her just fixed ankle, but survey says she really doesn't care. "Tell Alison's I'll carry her up myself if she wants."

Manuel snorts before murmuring something to Hans, a tall blond German national who could pass for a goddamn Viking, no axe required. Big, silent, and honestly way more intimidating than Dean wants to admit, he used to be a music executive in Hamburg and, according to everyone, can sing the entire Celine Dion back catalogue in key when he's drunk 'cause that's how he rolls. That they have group sing-a-longs in Ichabod where this fact was discovered is almost normal in comparison; not like there's anything on TV.

Watching Hans make his way to one of their temporary ladders, Dean asks, "Where's Tony, anyway? I haven't seen him today."

"Organized a crew to find better ladders," Manuel responds, resting an elbow on the outer edge of the wall. "We found some construction grade ones, heavy steel used at building sites, but they were too big for regular use, and a bitch to drag out for anything lower than four stories. Second choice is the fire trucks, but they're pretty messed up." He makes a moue of dissatisfaction. "Gotta get something soon; those aluminum ladders we're using now will blow away in a mild wind. When this is over, Tony was making noises about building stairs."

"And towers," Dean offers, trying not to sound wistful. He gets this would normally be in geek territory, but come the fuck on; who the hell doesn't want their own fortress? Really stupid people, that's who. "Hey, Bert's trying to get your attention. Or having a seizure."

They watch Bert's gyrations, face flushed bright red with excitement (exertion?), before Manuel sighs, pushing off the ledge. "He's really excited about being assigned to wall duty. Thinks they should have badges. Be right back."

Looking down, Dean watches as more teams coming in with the latest refugees, kids in any arms that can carry them, Ichabod's and refugee volunteers accompanied by patrol teams from some of the other towns as well as Chitaqua and Ichabod's trade partners. He knowsC Claudia's keeping a rough count she won't share ("Above twenty thousand," she tells them, her expression telling them that's all they're getting), recording names, family, time of arrival, and origin, and he also knows which towns are marked for special handling: ones whose members include former hunters from Chitaqua (four so far, who knows who will show up next), ones Teresa and Manuel left under threat of a fucking witchcraft trial, ones who rejected the original settlers of Ichabod, ones that said 'hi' with the barrel of a gun and goodbye with a bullet. Saving lives doesn't mean you gotta be stupid when you do it, and Dean has no problem at all with keeping those most likely to kill their rescuers (or burn them for witchcraft, God, that's actually a thing) together in an easily watched part of Sixth Street.

At the sudden flurry of restrained commotion, Dean turns his head, fighting back a smile as Cas steadies himself on the wide walkway. Looking around with a vaguely surprised expression, like he's still working out what part of his history of the world's fortresses this part came from, he makes his way past the scattered members of the watch and patrol sublimely unaware of the attention he gets as Guy Who Creates Walls From Scrap (And Destroys Buildings to Make the Scrap in Question), waves of whispers preceding him like a rock dropped in a still lake. From the corner of his eye, he sees Manuel bite his lip against a grin, a pleasant reminder that Manuel was raised by a witch who could move the earth (literally), along with having one as his sister. Fallen angels probably don't register too high on the weirdo-meter after that kind of childhood.

"Thirty miles, nothing comes past that," Dean tells him. "Wondering why: any ideas?"

Without opening his mouth (probably incipient laughter, Dean suspects), Manuel hands over the binoculars, which Cas takes with an absent nod and catching himself, adding the most serious "Thank you" in the world. Because sometimes Cas slips and forgets he pretends not to know about good manners.

Dean watches his face carefully, but this is Cas, and an existence as an angel has its perks; they could be faced with a hoard right at the gate screaming for their blood and various internal organs, and Cas would probably regard them with the same blank expression he has now. While shooting the fuck out of them, even.

"That's unusual," he says finally, handing Manuel back the binoculars, expertise in understatement unchanged as well. "Your teams verified it?"

"Feeling," Manuel says succinctly. "Still jumpy when they got back."

Cas nods, not needing anything else; one of the less talked about advantages of having an ex-angel around is Cas treats human instincts like holy writ. "It's not that they can't be wrong. It's just generally, when it comes to the supernatural, they're not. And leashed to experience, being wrong is the rare exception, not the rule." Especially with hunters, and the patrol teams going out definitely qualify. You do that long enough, you learn how to listen; those that don't tend not to survive long.

"Teresa or Alison? Or us?" Dean asks, leaning against the outer rim and trying to decide if there's some kind of obvious plan he's missing here that this might be useful for. Nothing's coming up, but hope springs eternal and everything. "Cas, are they organizing out there? Do they do that?"

"For your second question, I hope not, but evidence suggests something is keeping them restrained," Cas answers, tilting his head to survey the stretch of cars and hints of nearly-bare land before them. "By now, the barrier has weakened enough that the strongest would survive long enough to at least start attacking those still on the roads. Yet so far, only Hellhounds, which can also be summoned."

"The Misborn," Manuel says, looking at Dean, who nods. "Could they be--doing something?"

"They can't pass the barrier yet," he explains. "Or believe they can't--if they can think, which has yet to be established--but it comes to the same thing. They won't cross until at best, a day before the barrier falls."

Dean frowns: will. "You said maybe--"

"That was before I was aware they may have another motivation to be here." Before Dean can ask, he shakes his head. "I think I know a way to at least slow them down or--provided they're stupid, which is very possibly considering this was Lucifer's breeding program--distract them with the equivalent of something very shiny, at least for a short period of time. I'll need Teresa's help. I assume she didn't lock the town wards yet, due to being watched carefully."

Manuel makes a face. "Pretty much, yeah."

"How bad an idea is that?" Dean asks; good isn't even on the table from Manuel's expression.

"If nothing attacks us, it's a bad idea we didn't need; if something does....I'm her brother, and I'll give her everything I have, but she won't risk killing me and will cut me out if she can. Alison--I don't think she can cut her out, but Alison isn't sworn to the earth herself and wasn't born to it. So--not long. A day, maybe, if we're under direct attack."

"Neeraja can't be of help?"

He grimaces. "A little, yeah, but she hasn't offered herself to the earth yet, and Teresa got her to swear on everything she could think of she won't; it's too soon. Neither of them have told Sudha about this; she would do it while in labor if that's how it had to happen."

Cas's expression flickers. "A wise decision. I can distract Teresa for a little while this evening; she'll need to make some adjustments to the wards after dusk, and that should take some time. And she'll be tired, I promise you."

"Thanks," Manuel says sincerely. "So, back to one of ways we'll die?"

"Which one?" Cas asks.

"All of them," Dean says, trying to put everything into a shape that makes sense, a shape in which a plan might surface. Any plan, even a shitty one, is still an improvement over what they have now, which is none at all with additional talking about the fact they don't: not better. "So many ways to die, so little time. Also, the thirty mile line that for no reason exists--wait, Cas, your weather thing....?

"No, it has no effect on this plane except where it touches the storm," Cas says, not stopping to ask if they need that explained because why bother? "Thirty miles was the limit on who received the maps, however; everyone inside the thirty mile limit didn't receive one of the maps telling them to come to Ichabod."

"That's why it sounded familiar." Tells them nothing, but good to know. "Tell me you've seen something like this before," he adds, because it can't hurt to check.

"I'm sure I have, but as a footsoldier, I was one of those called to the battlefield as it began, not to evaluate it beforehand or offer my opinion," Cas answers, a thread of irritation in his voice. "Strategy, such as it was, Michael reserved to himself and the other archangels. Generally, 'kill everything' could be considered a literal interpretation of our orders before we stepped on the field. Well, after the speech, of course."

"Speech?" Manuel asks in interest. "Michael gave inspirational speeches?"

"No, not really." Cas leans both elbows on the outer rim of the wall. "Technically speaking, inspiration was unnecessary. Our response to being graced with our Father's orders should always be ecstatic--"

"Ecstatic?" Dean echoes. "Really?"

"--and of course, righteousness, justice, and wrath were great motivators as well," Cas continues, ignoring him. "Michael was never what one might call original in his material, so it was always the same speech, but he did enjoy giving it."

Manuel stares at him in fascination. "What was it about?"

"Fortunately, neither of you have the necessary context to understand it even if it were possible to relate it verbatim," he answers. "However, a very, very loose interpretation would be 'glory'."

Dean waits, but Cas just stands there, staring pensively at their invisible doom beyond the horizon. Exchanging a helpless look with Manuel he tries for clarification. "Glory?"

Cas nods. "Glory."

"Of--what?" Dean asks, wondering if he's missing something. "Your Father, war, righteousness, rainbows--"


"Which one?"

"Glory by definition. All its definitions, in all times, for all things. Glory as concept, goal, and existence as understood by its nature--"

"I have no idea what you just said," Dean interrupts. "Glory has a nature?"

"Glorious," he confirms, beginning to look haunted. "In all its definitions, meanings, and nature, in all times, for all things."

"How long did it take?" Manuel asks in morbid curiosity.

"Due to the lack of linear time," Cas answers glumly, "'forever' would not be inaccurate."

"You're not gonna do that, Dean, right?" Manuel asks worriedly, like maybe exposure to an angel has made Dean insane.

"No, of course not--wait." He glares at Manuel. "Me do what?"

"Give a speech appropriate to inspiring the masses who will be fighting evil very soon," Cas answers, sounding bored, his attention on the pattern of squares on his wall, poking them curiously. "Please make it interesting, at very least, to distract us from potential annihilation."

"You should leave off the annihilation part, too," Manuel offers to Dean's mute horror, and poker face or not, Dean can tell he's laughing at him. Behind them is another wave of new whispers, and Manuel half-turns and grins. Following his gaze, Dean sees Teresa, Alison on her arm, and Matt, Jody, and Andy trailing behind them with the blank expressions that Dean associates with chasing a limping psychic around Ichabod and throwing herself into crowds of strange people like it ain't no thing. He feels sorry for them, yeah, but if he could do it, they can; there are three of them, after all.

"Hey," Manuel says, stepping forward to kiss Teresa and take Alison's arm, her limp noticeably stronger, which Dean assumes is the result of brute-force stubbornness in the face of multiple city streets, every stair in her line of sight, and ladders. "You okay?"

"Fine, thanks," she says, offering him a strained smile before turning her glare on Dean. "Thanks for the escort."

"No problem," he says, and Matt's expression crumples, and okay, fine. "You get a new team this afternoon. Keep 'em on their toes."

"How much does patrol owe you?" Manuel asks and Alison divides her glare very effectively between them. "Firstborn of everyone, what?"

"Dude, the only reward we need is knowing we did good," Dean answers, smiling at Alison's hate-filled eyes. "So sorry I can't hear you thinking: I bet it's 'thank you, Dean'."


"How are we going to die?" Teresa interrupts hopefully. "Scale of one to ten on bad news: one, our chances of dying fast are lower than expected to ten, this is the afterlife and we're stuck here."

Oh God, he never thought of that. "Cas--"

"This isn't a particularly mediocre afterlife," Cas assures them, and he's not the only one who breathes out in relief. "I'll prove it. Dean, whistle."

He is in a place where he does, no question asked: how he got here, who can say?

"Whistling requires corporeal form, oxygen, and lungs with which to breathe, though not--as you can tell--the ability to carry a tune." Dean is going to whistle morning and night from now on. "I don't know why, but neither in Heaven nor in Hell can anyone whistle."

"That is so weird it must be true," Teresa says slowly, forehead creasing. "I like whistling."

"Then I suggest you get your fill of it on earth," Cas tells her. "Also, what is the traditional range a bruja blanca claims as her territory?"

"Twenty-four kilometers, traditionally, but more a suggestion than anything," she says in surprise, joining him at the rim. Manuel hands her the binoculars as he explains what the teams found, nodding with the same calm expression Cas used, one that Dean's beginning to associate with imminent doom. "I'm strong enough to claim twice as much since...." She looks at Manuel, then at Cas. "Thirty miles. Same limit as those maps."

"What can you do with--territory?" Dean asks.

"Claim my right to the earth's assistance and receive power consummate within that area," she answers, frowning, then looks at the battlements speculatively. "I should do that, now that I think about it."

"So you're restricted to thirty miles to get power from the earth?" Dean wouldn't have called that; even he can tell how strong she is.

Teresa makes a see-saw gesture with one hand. "I can influence more, but let's say I better have very good reasons to try. If they're not, that's a breach of my agreement with the earth, and I think you can guess the penalty for a first offense. Hint: there's no first for that kind of offense."

Dean winces as Cas asks, "Did the human infiltrators know you were a bruja blanca?"

"They knew I was co-leader of patrol and helped with the wards, but no one was more specific. They'd only been here for a few weeks, and I doubt they even guessed I was a witch, much less my title and calling. Or that it meant anything, for that matter."

"Could any of them have been exposed to one of you before?" Cas asks.

"We're generally pretty stationary near the border and in Mexico--which is why Dean didn't even know about us until he was clued in--but me and Manuel hunted on both sides of the Mexican-American border and on the migrant circuit. It's possible, but in that way it's possible I could turn green for no particular reason."

Looking at the ground outside, the volunteer groups who waited near the ward line to check those passing into the town, Dean considers the sheer lack of sparks when humans cross and hopes he survives to see the alterations she made to make that work. "Okay, quick question: I know the basics on the wards; anything else I should know? Like why the wards are on the wall and the ward line is--out there."

"Benefits of a stationary and permanent place to put them," she says in satisfaction. "The wall is my permanent anchor now; the line is where I set it, within certain limits. It's at the very edge of that range, fifty feet; plenty of time that if something crosses, I can pull it back to the walls themselves and we'll be warned and maybe even ready to fight when it gets to us."

"Not bad."

"It's one of the reasons I use these wards," she says mildly, joining him and folding her arms over the rim to look down. "I thought about using something else, but with these--I wanted something that would stay up and Sudha and Neer could control even now without making the offering."

"Simple, easy to use--"

"And work on a curve," she says, raising her eyebrows at him. "One of the advantages of using these is they equalize to whatever breaches them: with great power and great intelligence comes great migraines and great confusion--or the equivalent thereof."

"Spiderman fan?" She nods ruefully; he can see why. "That's why it doesn't work too well on Croats, yeah; no mind to work with. Or trolls."

"Very few, thank whatever may be listening; they're like freaking vacuums," she agrees fervently. "Anything with corporeal form--has one, they don't have to be using it when they cross--should be caught, but anything truly incorporeal may be a problem, since without a form the wards don't have much to attack. However, that's the wards active response to a threat; the passive response will still light up where they cross like fireworks no matter what crosses them, so we have to watch. There are other options we can use later if we need to, but these don't take much power, so any of us can keep them up for a while."

"Teresa, I have some additions I'd like to make to the wards to assist with the Misborn," Cas tells her. "We'll begin after dusk, at your leisure."

Before she can respond, Dean hears Alicia call his name from the ladder. Looking over, he notes she's also waving with a lot of enthusiasm. "What?" he calls.

"Headquarters wants you," she says and vanishes back down like--okay, what?

"Go," Manuel says in amusement, giving Matt, Jody, and Andy a sympathetic look. "We'll keep track of Alison until the next team comes, promise."

"Oh God--" Alison starts.

"Thanks," Dean says happily, and gets Cas's arm, shoving him by Alison and Teresa and following as fast as he can with the other three right behind him. "By the way," he asks as they reach the ladder; Alicia's nowhere in sight. "What are you calling the wall stuff anyway? You decide yet?"

"I've been thinking about that and I may have an idea," Cas tells him as he starts his descent. "Tell me what you think and be honest."

"I'll do that," Dean agrees. "So what is it?"

"Fuck that!" Dean yells as they enter Chitaqua's headquarters, spinning around to stare at Cas as he jerks off his jacket and ignoring the sudden stop in conversation in the crowded lobby. "You're not calling it Deanium!"

Cas serenely removes his own coat, looking not at all surprised when one of Amanda's recruits--Hector, he thinks absently, okay, he got them all on sight now, awesome--takes it and then Dean's. "I don't see why you're objecting--"

"How about Casteele?" Dean says viciously, aware someone's thrust a cup of coffee into his hand--a glance gives him Mel, grinning so widely it looks like her face is about to split in half--and he takes a frustrated drink, wondering why Cas is suddenly looking around in surprise. "Dude, you're not naming your wall stuff after me. It's weird."

"Dean--" Cas starts, but Dean's already done with this argument. His retort is cut off by a bloodcurdling shriek, like a banshee attacked by a werewolf-demon and everyone's gonna lose. He's already reaching for a weapon and salt when he looks up and sees Kat: okay, that could be her.

"Andy!" Kat shrieks from above them as Andy looks up at her longingly from just below, very Romeo and Juliet and there's a harrowing moment Dean just knows that she's considering jumping into his arms. Instead, she darts for the staircase, clattering on every goddamn step like she's wearing tap shoes or something, and runs at Andy like a field of daisies is involved before falling into his arms and they make out like it's going out of style.

Honest to God, that actually just happened. "What movie are they in?"

"I saw this exact scene--though not in this building, of course--on the Lifetime Channel," Cas says, tilting his head and probably wondering--a lot like Dean is--if they are ever going to stop to breathe. "I don't remember which movie--"

"All of them," Alicia says, tilting her head in startling imitation of Cas. "Sometimes it's a kitchen, sometimes some stairs, sometimes a battlefield with tanks firing, but it's all of them."

Sid, on the other hand, is walking like a normal person--though kind of fast, yeah, but can't fault him for that--toward Jane, who smiles at him, bag sliding halfway down her arm. Reaching out, Sid takes it from her, saying something that makes her smile widen as she takes his hand. To Dean's utter shock, Sid actually blushes: will wonders never cease.

"Their movie, that I'd watch," Alicia says positively. "Bet it wins Oscars--oh, that's so adorable, Sid is so blushing. Where's a camera when you need one?"

It belatedly occurs to Dean that he's seen Mel, Kat, and Jane, three people who as far as he knows weren't here but in Chitaqua. Turning around, he takes in the actually pretty damn crowded lobby: Mel, leaning back against David's shoulder, Liz and Dan beside her, all grinning at him; Lee stoically ready for action with Brian and Evan, a still-smiling Jane joining them again; Sarah, expressionlessly ready for action with Drew and Phil (Kat--yeah, still occupied over there); Damiel smiling like a lot and Frank, Penn, and Zoe, and the rest of....Chitaqua. Yeah, and there's Leah and Mark, okay. Chitaqua's here.

Chitaqua's here.

"You're here," he blurts out. Christ, Cas and Manuel want him to make a speech?

"Just arrived," Mel drawls. "Heard something about lots of people, monsters, crappy odds in this little town in the middle of Kansas. Dean, you didn't have to add the last: you had me at people and monsters. The odds were just icing."

"What did you bring?" Cas asks, and this right here is why Dean will never let Cas resign, ever. There's got to be a binding thing for that; he'll ask Teresa, see what she thinks.

"Cleared the armory and the temp buildings, stopped in at Kansas City at the places Joe hadn't cleared and grabbed everything there, too. Also, grabbed everything from your cabin--and bathroom. For reasons."

"Bless you," Cas says sincerely, which means that Cas now has all his drugs (and weapons, that, too).

"So where are--they're outside the door, aren't they?" Yeah, he walked right by jeeps of weapons, fuck his life. Cas too, he realizes, brightening; he'll never admit it, but knowing is enough.

"Yep," Damiel says and Dean notes Kat and Andy are still not breathing and show no signs of remembering how respiration works. "Leah and Mike briefed us, and everyone here's been catching us up. Tony and the cute one--Walter? Must arrange time for a long chat, he seeing anyone?--got our extra generators we took from the garage, figured they might be useful instead of rusting, and they said they could fix them, no problem. We brought everything we had in the mess Chuck didn't need, figured why risk it going to waste? Alonzo took it--seriously, we get to keep him, right? Please?"

"He's ours, yeah," Dean agrees a little blankly. "Do with him what you will, but be kind. Uh, who stayed with Chuck?"

"Cyn, Amber, and Ron," Lee says neutrally and Dean absolutely wishes he'd been more specific: he doesn't like Cyn here, but he hates her with Chuck. "His choice. We talked to Gretch and Ron before we left, covered a few what-if's."

"Good." Thinking would be good here, too. Something--anything. "Got your room assignments, checked out the building that no, we're not keeping?"

"Oh, we're keeping it," Amanda says cheerfully, standing where Alicia was and now isn't--where did she go?--and grinning at him. "Dean? You forgot something."

Yeah, he figured out that part, thanks. 'What', that he's still working on.

"Dean," Sarah says, deadpan being a lifestyle choice for her, "what are your orders?"

That would be it. "Okay, first, need to introduce you to Ichabod's patrol leaders and the mayor--"

"They should be here momentarily," Cas says blandly. "I told Alicia to run and fetch them, and she's very fast."

There we go: anticipation of his orders, he likes that. "Get a feel for the town, check out the roads coming in--how did you get in, anyway?"

"County roads, dirt roads, cow trails, and fields, and a lot of them," Mel states. "Also, east gate is almost up; they said to tell Tony and we did."

Before he can think of something to say, Alicia comes back in, flushed and smug, and Manuel, Teresa, and Alison behind her, all stopping short as they take in the lobby and the balcony of the first floor. They look impressed and fuck yeah, finally.

"Left to right," Dean says with a smile. "Manuel and Teresa, co-commanders of Ichabod's patrol and currently commanders of the united patrol of everyone who shows up; you answer to them like you would to me or Cas. Last but not least: Alison, mayor of Ichabod and leader of the Alliance; we all answer to her." The three in question nod, and God, this was so worth waiting for. "Alison, Teresa, Manuel, they'll introduce themselves individually, but this is Chitaqua."

"Nice to meet you," Mel says brightly. "Like the wall, by the way."

"Thank Cas for that; I just look at it and feel really smug," Alison answers, eyes traveling around what is, he admits, a fucking impressively armed crowd. All they need is a few bazookas, but really, no reason to gild the goddamn awesome lily here. Then Alison smiles. "Welcome to Ichabod, and thank you. Our odds look a hell of a lot better."

"Odds don't matter," Mel says easily. "We don't know how to lose."

"She's right," Alicia agrees, nodding. "It's weird, am I right? That's the one thing Cas didn't think we needed to learn. Not like he'd learn about it from Dean, so what can you do?"

"Situation Room in five minutes, we start the full briefing, bring extra chairs," Dean says, feeling himself smiling so hard it actually hurts and deciding to be magnanimous and send someone over to Andy and Kat before they die. And tell them about the meeting. And there's Kyle right there: awesome. "Alison, Teresa, Manuel, if I could get one of you--"

"You can have us all," Alison answers, and he's caught by that smile when she turns it on him, hazel eyes bright. "I wouldn't miss this for the world."