The original cover art from back when I first posted it under my old name. I keep telling myself I'm going to re-draw this one of these days.
*** An X File ***
"You are FBI, right?" Sherry asked warily.
They'd gotten through the first hour of the meeting without her questioning their credentials and then Sam had started talking about Arcadian demons and X files.
"We're more what you call outside contractors," Dean hedged. "But we are definitely working with the FBI's files on this."
"That was a TV show," she said.
"Yeah." Dean smiled. It worked on most women. "The funny thing is--"
"On FOX," she added. For some reason that made it sound worse.
"The FBI does keep files on supernatural, occult, and unexplained phenomenon," Sam explained.
"Primarily on the cults and crazies who believe in that sort of thing," Dean added quickly. "And the FBI isn't known for creativity, hence 'X' file."
He kicked Sam in the ankle and the kid finally seemed to understand that he needed to dial it down a notch. "If your sister and her husband were killed by a cult that believed in demons or sorcery," Sam said, "it would help us to know more about those beliefs."
"I saw that episode," she said, still looking very unconvinced. "That's the one where Mulder and Scully pretended to be married in the suburbs. The ad kind of made you think that they might actually get together, but they didn't."
"Don't you hate that?" Dean shook his head in sympathy. "They always lead you on like that and then it never happens."
"The point--" Sam began.
"But it was just an episode of a TV show," she insisted. "No one would start a cult based on an episode of a TV show."
"Ma'am," Dean deadpanned. "You don't even want to see our files on Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Sam huffed faintly. "And just to be clear, belief in demons and the occult predates popular culture's interest in them. Many books and movies and even television programs are based on folklore dating back thousands of years."
Okay, credit to the kid for pulling her back in, because she was taking them seriously again.
"Suzanne never told me about the church, just that there was one. It only struck me odd because she'd never been religious. Suzi'd never shown any interest in living in the suburbs either. When Mark first said he'd been transferred out to the middle of nowhere she was upset, but when she actually got to Thorncraft she just loved everything about the place. That's all she talked about. The bake sales and the music in the park and the gardening. My baby sister, gardening! I never would have imagined Suzi gardening, but she sent pictures! It was like suburbia was her cult. She never talked about believing anything though. They lived there almost two years and there was never a hint of anything wrong. I visited for Thanksgiving one year and it was like a Norman Rockwell painting had come to life, you know. It was perfect."
Sherry rubbed her arms as if she'd gotten cold. "And then she called to ask if they could stay with me. She said they couldn't stay in Thorncraft any longer because it cost too much. I didn't understand, because she'd bragged before about how much more affordable Thorncraft was than New York had been. And that's when she told me they'd kill her if she explained."
"And you're sure that wasn't just a figure of speech?" Sam asked.
"She said they'd kill her. The Mad Hatters would kill her. And I could hear Mark in the background, telling her to hurry, telling her that unless she had changed her mind, they had to go now." Sherry waved her hands in the air helplessly as her eyes welled up. "And the next call was from the police telling me they were dead, burned."
"We've read the police report," Dean said gently. "You don't need to describe that."
Mark and Suzanne Jefferson had gotten roughly three miles out of Thorncraft when their car had burst into flames. They hadn't hit anything. There was no sign of a mechanical malfunction. According to witnesses and security camera footage, the inside of the car just filled with flames. Lit from within, but seemingly undamaged without, the vehicle drifted to the side of the road where it gradually came to rest. Before emergency crews could respond, the fire engulfed the entire car. When they finally put the fire out, there was nothing left but metal and bone.
Sherry took a deep breath. "When I got the letter from the homeowners association about the house, I kind of freaked. I started asking around. It sounds a little crazy now, but when you're posting things on the Internet at two o'clock in the morning, it almost makes sense to be asking if anyone knows anything about homeowners association cults." She laughed nervously.
Sam smiled. That tended to work on the women Dean's smile hadn't worked on. "It was a smart thing to do," Sam reassured her. "That's how we found you."
Dean read the letter again. It said Homeowners Association Thorncraft and a clipart picture of a hat was pasted to the left of the acronym. It was "cute" in a forced way that wasn't at all.
HAT expressed condolences for her loss and, in the very next sentence, HAT told her that she had ninety days to comply with HAT occupancy rules. The property could not be left vacant. She could not herself move into the house without meeting HAT residency guidelines, which included, among other things, being married. She couldn't even sell the house to anyone who didn't also meet HAT guidelines. Exactly ninety days after her sister's death, the property would revert back to HAT itself and they would pay her fair compensation for it.
"It would be easiest to just let them take the house," Sherry said. "Their offer is more than fair given the current market. But--Mad Hatters? What else could she have meant?"
"There's only one way to know for sure," Dean said.
Sam shook his head. "I met with the head of the homeowners association yesterday. They won't let me buy the house from Sherry. Mr. Jones was firm. Married couples only. Preferably newlyweds."
Sometimes the kid had no imagination. "You just walked in there and offered to buy the house?"
"Yeah. And they were adamant. It's in the contract Mark and Suzanne signed. The property cannot be sold to singles."
"Is that legal?"
"I don't think single men are a protected group for fair housing."
"And since you walked right in and introduced yourself, we can't pass you off as Sherry's fiancé. Nice going."
"Oh, no. I don't care how cute you are. That is not happening." Sherry shook her head vehemently. "I am not moving into that house. You are the professional FBI contractors. Send in your own Mulder and Scully. I will sell the house to whomever you tell me to, but that's it. That's as involved as I get."
***Smart Lady, Slow Brother ***
"That was a smart lady," Dean said. "She complicated things for us, seeing as how it would have been a lot easier if she and I could have just shown up as a couple, what with her already knowing her way around the place, but a smart lady."
"What do we do now?"
"Sherry won't move in there, so the only option is to pose as an outside buyer."
"I tried that."
"Without a cover story."
"Who are you going to get to play your wife? All the women we know are either dead or evil."
"Or the ever popular dead and evil," Dean agreed.
"And Sherry's right. We can't endanger someone who isn't a trained hunter."
"You really can't see how easy the solution to this is, can you?" Dean asked.
The kid looked confused. How did he ever get into college? The "smart one" could be as dense as a rock sometimes.
"The solution is right in front of you. Think," Dean said. "I need to pretend to be a married man to buy a house in suburbia. I don't have a woman. What do I do?"
Sometimes you just had to literally spell it out for the kid.
"L. I. E. Lie. I am going to lie."
*** No Lie ***
"You're lying," the woman from HAT said. "Mr. Emerson, I know when people are lying to me."
"It's Mary-Jane's special talent," Mr. Jones added.
And Dean knew when he was talking to a crazy freak job. That was his special talent. But she'd immediately called him out on his "new" car (it was a rental) and his reason for being late (he hadn't been caught behind an accident). She'd nodded when he'd claimed he wanted to move to Thorncraft due to business (which was true in a sense). And now she clearly knew he'd given a false name.
Sherry was fidgeting with an empty coffee cup and she kept turning to stare out the window. In a completely dickhead move, the HAT people had suggested they meet at the Denny's a few miles from Thorncraft, which turned out to be just down the road from the spot where the Jeffersons' car had gone supernova. Dean recognized the area from the surveillance footage that Sammy hacked. He'd hoped Sherry wouldn't know, but, as they passed the turnoff for Route 17, she gasped and pointed to a blackened ring of grass off the side of the road.
You couldn't actually see it from the Denny's, but she kept turning and looking anyway. If he didn't bring this meeting to a quick end, she was going to lose it.
He didn't know how the HAT lady was doing it, but he was smart enough to know that he needed to switch tactics fast.
"I'm sorry, Mr. & Mrs. Jones. I should not have lied to you."
Mr. Jones shook his head. "Good heavens. I'd have to be quite the cradle robber for this to be Mrs. Jones. Mary-Jane is my daughter, Mr. Emerson."
It didn't make her any less creepy. Dean smiled at him. "I'm going to be straight with you. My real name is Dean Winchester. Sherry mentioned that you were pretty strict on who you let join the association and I really want to be able to buy this house and I, well, I have something of a colorful past. I guess I got overeager and wanted to make a better impression." He waved at the luxury car parked outside. "I assure you though, Mr. Jones, Miss Jones, my youthful high spirits do not reflect on my current ability to be an upstanding homeowner."
"A colorful past?" she asked. "No laws were broken, I trust."
"Laws may have technically been broken, but nothing--" Dean frantically tried to think of a word that wouldn't cross the line into total bullshit. "--nothing ill-intentioned."
"Are we talking about college boy shenanigans?" Mr. Jones asked.
Among other things. "Yes."
Mary-Jane squinted at him, so he added, "I never attended college myself, but I definitely visited a sorority house or two in my day."
"Nothing more serious? No violence?" Mr. Jones asked.
Thinking very carefully, Dean answered slowly, "I would never willingly harm a living human being except in defense of myself or others."
Mr. Jones glanced at his daughter who gave a slight nod.
"Of course," she said, "we have to meet your wife before the association will give final approval to your application."
"That could be a slight problem. You see, my wife is--" He had a great story planned involving a sick grandfather and a busy career as a jet-setting travel writer. "--not here and I'm not exactly sure when I can arrange--"
His phone rang. Beautiful timing. He should have planned ahead and thought to ask Sam to call at a prearranged time as an escape route, but he'd accept a coincidental call from Castiel just as well.
"Hey, Cas, how are you doing, sweetie?"
Castiel hesitated only briefly. "I'm fine. I'm calling because Sam said--"
"Oh, I know you're very busy, honey. And I know you're sorry you can't be here, but I understand. No need to apologize."
Mary-Jane was watching him and frowning. Dean realized this was going to be very tricky.
"Is that your wife?" Mr. Jones asked, brightening. "Her name is Cassie? Tell Cassie I can arrange a special meeting on a Saturday if her work schedule is too demanding."
"Cassie, love? Are you free on Saturday?" Dean asked, feeling cornered. He'd have to come up with something else before Saturday, but right now he just needed to get out of here.
"Do you need me now?" Castiel asked.
"No, no, Cas, honey, I do not need you to drop everything now. Please do not trouble yourself." Crap! That's the only thing that could make this mess worse. A woman who could tell when you're lying and an angel who couldn't keep his mouth shut.
"Does Cassie need the address of the Denny's?" Mr. Jones asked helpfully.
"What's going on?" Castiel asked.
The Joneses startled. They hadn't heard Castiel walk up behind them. Dean knew they hadn't heard it because it didn't happen. Castiel was just there. He had to stop doing that. It was just good luck that Sherry had been staring out the window again.
The Joneses turned and looked behind them at the man in the trench coat who was only just now pulling the cellphone away from his ear.
"I'm sorry. Who are you?" Mary-Jane asked.
"My name is Castiel."
"You're Cassie?" Mr. Jones asked.
Dean thought up a great lie on the spot. Castiel was Cassie's brother and of course it didn't matter because Mary-Jane would know he was lying and that turned out not to matter either because Castiel would have blown it anyway.
"Castiel," he corrected her. "Dean, you sounded very strange on the phone. What's going on?"
Dean sighed and shook his head. He really, really wished the world appreciated how much effort he put into protecting it. He threw his hands up melodramatically. "Aw, you ruined the surprise!"
"I was going to wait until I knew for sure I had the house before I said anything." He aimed an aw-shucks grin at the Joneses. "Now you see why I was nervous about telling the truth on the application. I really don't want to have to drag the Fair Housing Act into this."
He jumped up and pulled Castiel into a tight hug and whispered into his ear, "Play along or I swear I will tear you into thousands of tiny little pieces and feed you to a hamster."
He stepped back and dropped to one knee. "Castiel, will you marry me?"
The entire Denny's was watching. It was all up to Castiel now and Castiel had the combined acting talent of a class of second graders, only half of whom had even attempted to learn their lines and one of whom was about to pee himself.
"I don't know what to say," Castiel said woodenly. "This is all very sudden."
"Say 'yes'" Dean said with a smile that was mainly grimace and threat.
The most important thing now was making sure that Castiel did not say anything else so Dean stood up and planted a wet sloppy kiss on him. For once, Castiel took the hint because he kissed back quite convincingly.
*** Making It Official ***
"Tell me what happened again?" Sam asked. He was laughing so hard his face was red.
"I've told you three times already."
"And it gets funnier every time."
"When you met with Mr. Jones before," Dean asked, ignoring him, "are you sure he didn't have any truth mojo going on? Because if everyone in Thorncraft can tell when you're lying, we are totally screwed."
Sam shrugged. "I gave him a fake name. Told him I made a lot of money as an investment banker. Plus the usual white lies exchanged as pleasantries. He might have known I was lying, but he didn't let on or seem suspicious if he did." Sam gave up on him and turned back to Castiel. "He actually got down on one knee?"
"I kind of made a veiled threat about discrimination. We might actually have a shot at this. No one wants to drag lawyers into things if they don't have to."
"This isn't going to work," Castiel said. "Even if this woman is the only one there who can see through lies, I don't improvise very well."
"We noticed," Sam and Dean both said. Dean found this fact especially annoying given the fact that every other angel he'd met lied like a champ.
"Look," Dean said. "We just have to get approved. Once I'm in, Cas can skedaddle and I'll tell everyone he's busy."
"And he actually kissed you?" Sam asked Castiel.
Castiel nodded again.
"Was there tongue?"
"So we just need to figure out how to get through the final approval meeting next week," Dean said loudly, making a point of stepping between Sam and Castiel. "I talked to Mary-Jane Jones on the phone to arrange everything and the good news is that she does not seem to be able to do her lie detector act if she's not face-to-face. I also told her Cas is timid around new people and doesn't talk very much."
Dean glowered meaningfully at Castiel, but he wasn't convinced he got it so he repeated it plainly. "You do not talk unless you have to, got it?"
"It's just a six-person board apparently, so we don't have to face a full association member vote," Dean said. "Six people. Cas doesn't talk. How hard can this be?"
"And when someone asks you and Cas about your wedding plans?"
"If we're lucky, they won't."
Sam rolled his eyes at him. "Dean, you proposed to him in front of them. They expect the two of you to be married by the time you move in. Engaged couples talk about their impending weddings. Even shy ones."
"What's your color scheme? What kind of cake? How many bridesmaids? What's the venue? Where are you going for your honeymoon? Have you hired a band for the reception yet?"
"You are making this way too complicated," Dean said.
"Weddings are complicated," Sam said. "Who's doing the flowers? Do you have the invitations yet? Have you--"
"No!" Dean interrupted. "People make weddings complicated. Weddings do not need to be complicated. You know how they used to do this? You take a running leap over a fire. Done. One symbolic act to make it official and done. You do not need ice sculptures and champagne to finalize a marriage."
"Like it or not--" Sam began.
"No. Here. We'll take care of this now." Dean stomped out of their hotel room and several minutes later he came back carrying several packages of Twinkies. He was followed by a very confused motel maid.
"You have mess?" she asked. "I clean?"
He set the Twinkies down on top of the television. "The cake," he announced, "was a sponge cake with a special cream filling."
"The wedding was a small private affair attended only by family and our very good friend--" He glanced at the maid's name tag. "--Olga."
"Olga. Yes. I clean. You have mess? I clean."
"The actual ceremony--" He tried to take the broom from Olga, but she held on firmly.
"I clean. You show mess. I clean."
He gently pulled the handle from her fingers and motioned for her to sit on the end of the bed next to Sam. "It's okay. You have a seat there. We just need to borrow this for a moment."
"The actual ceremony," Dean said, "was a very traditional one."
Dean put the broom on the floor at Castiel's feet.
"You want to jump over a broom?" Castiel asked.
"Simple and traditional," Dean said. "Come on. Hop."
Dean hopped over the broom. Castiel just stood there and stared at it.
"Come on," Dean repeated. "Hop."
Dean hopped again. Castiel continued to stare at the broom.
"It's either this or I start a bonfire in the parking lot. This is really the least painful option. Hop."
Dean began hopping back and forth over the broom. When logic and reason don't seem to be working, sometimes enthusiasm and repetition will get the job done. He glanced back at Sam and Olga for encouragement. "Hey. Hey, now. No YouTube videos! Sammy."
Sam put his hand over Olga's cell phone. She seemed mildly disappointed that she'd lost her proof of how fucking crazy her job could get some days, but she was still giggling. Sam was grinning ear-to-ear.
"There! Done!" Dean said.
"Doesn't count," Sam said.
"How does that not count? We both jumped over the broom. You are both our witnesses."
"You have to jump together. If I'm going to be the official witness, I have to witness simultaneous hopping. I did not witness simultaneous hopping. Olga, did you witness simultaneous hopping?"
"Hop again!" Olga said clapping. There was no telling if she had a clue what was going on, but Dean figured that if he cleaned toilets for a living, he'd probably be up for any diversion too.
"Fine." Dean grabbed Castiel's hand. "Together."
"Now you have to kiss," Sam said.
Dean grabbed a Twinkie and threw it at Sam's head. "Eat your damned wedding cake."
"Dean, let me be the first to say," Sam said, still grinning, "that you are going to regret this."
"He's very literal you know. And, Cas," Sam said, "welcome to the family. I have a feeling you're going to regret this even more."
Dean handed the broom back to Olga and sent her out the door with a Twinkie.
*** end of chapter one ***