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A Pandemic Romance

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January 2021

The commentators on TV were arguing about whether the pandemic was in its second or third wave. “You want to know which wave?” Dean asked bitterly. He waved at the screen and said, “Buh-bye,” and nobody on the screen argued with him, as he mashed the off button on the remote.

He sat, feeling bored and sour and forgotten by the world, and looked out over the road. He’d spent the day wrestling with canvasses and playing with his ‘special project’ and getting some art ready to ship, but he felt too disconnected to even greet the courier, Garth, properly, and it didn’t help to know that it was the COVID blues he was feeling.

The view was pretty, anyway.

Something moving caught his eye. Under the almost-full moon, the trees with their burden of snow were shining, and a man was walking steadily down the road, arms swinging a little; he was making good time. Sometimes he slowed down to step over a rut that one of the few vehicles, mostly delivery vans, had made while trundling down the rural road.

The county had been good about keeping the snow off; you’d never know about global warming from how goddamned cold and snowy it had been in Maine all winter, Dean thought, as he watched the man walk.

He was so lonely, he almost jumped into his boots and coat to hunt the guy down, just to talk to him, and he took his eyes off the window long enough to go stand in the front hall and try to work his courage up. Imagining how the conversation would go struck the idea from his mind. ‘Hey, I’m going to run after you, because I am completely apeshit from my third round  of isolation, and I’d talk to a tag team of the Zodiac Killer and Jim Jones for a break from the boredom,’ uh, no.

He has to live around here. Wonder where?

You couldn’t even make conversation with Garth today.


Cas did not relish gawking like a child into the man’s window, but he did it anyway. The huge TV screen flooded the darkened front room with a steady blue glow. He recognized a bit of a logo; the man was watching a public television show. Cas turned his attention back to where he was walking. It was probably about the pandemic. Everything was about the pandemic. He kept walking, and suddenly he could feel the man’s eyes on him, not hostile, but curious.

It would have been nice to have a conversation with someone who watched public television. Cas could feel his social skills, which had never been all that great, rusting into an orange stain from disuse. He could imagine how that conversation would go. ‘I have the world’s least savvy people skills although I usually manage to be civil but I feel like I’ll die if I don’t talk to anyone.” Manly! and so effective, Cas thought. He’ll chase me off the property brandishing a gun and firing a warning shot for good measure, was his sad projection of how that would go.

He had a fifteen minute walk, from the saltbox cottage the public television man lived in, to his own place; the ‘family cottage’, which was a stupid thing to call a ten-room house on a private pond almost large enough to call a lake. It was where he’d been supposed to spend fourteen days in isolation after his last business trip. Apart from walks, he didn’t leave the house. To his mother’s satisfaction, since it meant the company wasn’t paying extra, he was taking the two weeks as vacation; they still owed him four and a half months, but he only seemed to get vacation time from them if he burst into flames while asking for it; or whenever it was most convenient to his mother, which was never.

As lonely as he was, the idea of going back to Boston and taking up his yoke at the family business didn’t merely feel like a bad idea; he was so disheartened by his greedy, lying, selfish family that every day he woke up and bleakly asked himself if today was the day to phone his mother and say, “I quit.”

But he was the biggest coward who ever lived, he thought, and that would never happen.

What he would do, where he would live, and how he’d try to put his life together after ‘firing’ his family was a complete blank. He had grimly continued to do as he was told for almost a decade longer than he wanted to, and his family had kept none of their promises about him being allowed to return to university full-time or even to take art classes at night.

“But after ten years of service, you said I could!” Cas said, wishing he didn’t sound like a whiny teenager.

His mother’s cold blue eyes ranged over him, a thousand criticisms lurking in their depths like sharks. “Surely you must see?” she asked, with the exaggerated gentleness that hinted that she thought poor Cas might have suddenly turned feeble-minded, “The pandemic changed everything! If we aren’t ‘all hands on deck’ we may lose everything our family has fought to build over generations. Think - Castiel - think!”

He was thinking. And he didn’t like what he was thinking, not one bit.

Castiel walked twice a day. He didn’t normally walk at night but the moonlight the night before had been so pretty he thought he’d do it for a break from routine. There were ATV tracks carved through the woods in all directions - often he’d scowled at the roar and whine of the hyperactive four-stroke engines blasting by the house - but they did make decent walkways through the snow.

In the morning, without thinking about it, he took one of the tracks where it passed the back fence of ‘public television man’, and once again, Cas stood and looked at the house. Whether he was hoping for a glimpse of him or was just admiring how he’d removed every flake of snow from the deck, stairs, railings and walkway, so the deck seemed ink black against the stark white snow, he couldn’t say, and then the man appeared on the deck in what looked like a superhero costume. Cas realized it was pjs with a Spiderman suit design.

They gazed at each other for a moment. Cas waved, but didn’t feel comfortable with calling out to him. The man waved back, and then continued on with what he was doing, which was taking compost out to the compost barrel.

Cas viewed this with something close to resentment. The man was eco-friendly and watched public television. Probably the only person for twenty miles or more that I could have a decent conversation with, and I’m too cowardly to speak with him. He felt cold as he walked home, even though his coat and hat and gloves were warm enough. At least he waved back, Cas thought, trying to stay upbeat.

Great, Dean thought. He was polite enough to wave but one look at my spider-suit and he thinks I’m a whack job or a man-baby.

The well-worn pyjamas came from his brother, from back when they were still talking. Thinking about Sammy made Dean want to think about anything else, so Dean decided to keep track of when the man in the snow walked by. He usually came by around 9:30 in the morning, and again before dusk, around 4:00.

Dean laboriously shovelled the snow all the way down to the back gate, where the man sometimes walked along the ATV track which bored teenagers had carved out, just on the other side of the fence, and then went back inside to make hot cocoa. As the man walked by, Dean put his medical mask on and called, “Would you like some cocoa?” and set it on a fence post.

The man stopped abruptly, seemingly shocked. He shuffled his feet and said, “Um, that sounds wonderful.”

“I was super careful with the hand washing, etcetera,” Dean said helpfully, and then kicked himself mentally for sounding fussy. They stood at least four or five yards apart.

He’d put it in a travel mug with a lid, and the man pushed his mask down over his neck and started to drink.

“This is wonderful,” the man said. “You made this from scratch,” he added. “What’s the spice? I can taste cinnamon, but there’s something else…”

“Cardamom,” Dean said. He seemed shy and embarrassed, so Cas looked away.

“Absolutely delicious,” the man said. “And delightfully unexpected,” he added. “Also, thanks for leaving the marshmallows out.”

“For best marshmallow results, toasting them over a campfire and burning your mouth with them is recommended,” Dean said, and the man’s eyes crinkled and he emitted a small chuckle. Dean smiled and drank his own cocoa. “You can drink it on the deck, if you’d prefer to sit down,” Dean said.

“I wouldn’t want to intrude,” the man said.

“Well, I’m not comfortable with you coming in the house, although being that inhospitable is just about killing me. I can turn the propane heater on, too, if you like.”

There was a pause while the man considered it. He took another sip from the travel cup, and said, “That’d be nice, actually,” he said, and without crowding Dean, followed him up the stairs and watched him turn on the patio heater.

“It really cranks out the BTU’s,” Dean said. They sat about ten feet apart, on a bench that ran around the deck. “Dean,” Dean said, putting his hand up to his chest.

“Cas,” Cas said, doing likewise. “Very nice to meet you.” He sipped his cocoa, which was still piping hot and smelling deliciously like liquid comfort, and Dean took another sip of his.

Cas made a small, social smile. “It’s dreamlike, actually meeting someone and talking to them. Apart from delivery drivers and the woman at the airline ticket counter I haven’t had a real, live conversation with anyone in a week.”

“Me neither,” Dean said. “I didn’t think I was the world’s most sociable person but it’s just been brutal since this last lockdown.”

“Yeah,” Cas said sympathetically. “Well, you’ve been a good neighbour. I don’t imagine you need a cup of sugar, but do you eat baked goods?”

Dean’s grin was very engaging, Cas thought, hotly wishing they could ditch the masks on a permanent basis. “I sure do,” Dean said. “I am particularly fond of … ” and here he paused dramatically, “ …pie.”

“Ah, pie,” Cas said, agreeably. “I was thinking more along the lines of pecan streusel muffins,” he added.

“Oh lord,” Dean said. His head tilted like a puppet’s, and he briefly appeared to go to a happy place. His head straightened and he said with a grin, “That sounds frickin’ amazing. Believe me, anything you make I will gladly, and probably rudely, get around.”

Cas chuckled. “I may ask for video.”

Dean made a very funny face, and Cas laughed aloud.

“So,” Cas said, in what he hoped was a smooth transition. He took another sip of cocoa. He didn’t normally drink cocoa, but this was perfect, not too sweet, and rich and foamy. “What are the three most important things a total stranger should know about you?”

“I love Led Zeppelin, I hate Donald Trump with everything that’s in me, and my only allergy is cats,” Dean said promptly.

“Well,” Cas said, “I loathe my family in a very lazy way, I am terrified by horror movies, and my only allergy is my job.”

“Good benefits?” Dean said sympathetically.

“Amazing benefits,” Cas said. He tried not to sound bitchy and it nearly killed him. Like a free apartment? Those kind of amazing benefits. He couldn’t maintain the illusion that they were a perfect family, when they weren’t even here; it was too high a price to pay. “But I have to work with my family, and they are…”

“Jerks?” Dean supplied.

“Callous, bigoted, greedy, grasping, status-conscious, hypercritical, narcissistic, teetering on alcoholism, jerks,” Cas said. He finished his cocoa with a rather loud slurp, for emphasis, and put his mask back on. His family would have taken turns to slap him at the dinner table for making such an unseemly racket, and that was partly why he did it. Dean didn’t register it, as far as Cas could tell. It was like heaven not to have every little thing criticized to death.

“Man, they sound like trouble. And you work with them?”

“I’m the acting CFO.”


Once again Cas thought of the verbal knocks he’d take, discussing family business outside the inner circle. “Mother would kill me for saying so, but Michael’s in rehab. Again.”

“For booze, I take it?”

Cas opened an emotional vein and the bitterness poured out in his tone. “Booze and benzos.”

“Yeesh,” Dean interjected.

Cas continued, “I can’t believe he hasn’t accidentally overdosed already. I’m the ‘sensible’ one, but I don’t press flesh and fluff customers the way Michael does,” at which Dean snickered aloud, and it was pleasant to have a witticism acknowledged for a change, especially an off-color one, and especially one at Michael’s expense. He felt for his brother’s addiction, but not for the swinish behaviour that had led Michael there, and he felt nothing but disgust for the pathetic, pandering dregs of humanity who passed for Michael’s friends, whether or not he was using.

“Mm,” Dean said. “Who’s minding the store if you’re both out?”

“I’m going back to Boston in a few days,” Cas sighed. He banged the travel mug onto the bench harder than he intended to.

Dean didn’t seem to notice. “Why’d you end up here?”

“Because I had to go into quarantine. I decided not to tell them where, although they know, of course. They track my phone,” he said. He wasn’t supposed to tell people outside the family that; oddly, after Dean’s tacit encouragement of his complaints, he felt like perhaps he’d stop being complicit in their lies just to see how it felt.

“Where’s ‘where’?” Dean asked, pointedly.

Cas waved in the general direction of home. “I’m camping out at that faux Frank Lloyd Wright monstrosity on Little Kennebago Lake.”

There was a pause. Dean said, “I always thought that was a real classy-looking ‘summer residence’. My stepdad brought us up here for the summer for a couple of years. When there was no one there, my brother and I would swim in the lake. Got chased off by a caretaker once.”

Cas nodded. “It’s more like a pond, really. I’m glad someone got some use out of it; I went there twice the entire time I was growing up. You’d think it would have been the perfect spot to let kids run wild over the summer, but that’s not really something my parents would ever let me do, since that’s messy, inconvenient and not at all a high status activity. And really, a ‘summer residence’ like that? It’s for people who go to the country to drink, and nearly drown themselves and other people in boating accidents in two feet of water, while boasting about how boring it is to lie and cheat and get plastic surgery all day.”

“You really don’t like your family,” Dean commented.

“Maybe I’d like yours better. What are they like?”

Dean’s face lit up. “My brother is the smartest, hardest working and tallest man I know. His hair has won awards, too.” He struck a pose and pretended to flip his extremely short hair back.

Cas found himself grinning again. “That part I doubt. So you really do like him.”

“He’s doing a virtual internship right now - and he’s getting paid. It’s amazing, the stuff you can do over the internet.”

Cas thought about asking Dean what he did for a living, but got caught up in Dean boasting about his brother instead. The boasting went on for a long time. The awards, the citations, the full ride; Sam carried Narcan and had saved two lives already. He was a hero, an advocate, someone to be proud of. And Dean had practically raised him by himself.

Cas couldn’t imagine how different - and how much better - his life would have been if he’d had one person to advocate for him like Dean. It was something to think about, as he smiled and nodded at Dean’s litany of all things Sam.

“You must feel so fortunate,” Cas said.

There was a shift in the mood of the conversation. “Well, I would, if I ever saw him,” Dean said. “It may be a while before I see him again,” he said. He fidgeted so he wasn’t looking directly at Cas any more.

“God,” Cas said. “I can’t imagine feeling that way about any of my brothers. I have a cousin I can tolerate, almost.”

Dean waved a hand. “They sound like dicks!”

Cas said under his breath, “They are.”

Dean said, “Don’t go back! How much of it can you do over the internet?”

“Most of it. Probably all of it,” Cas said. “But if they can’t complain about my choice in ties and tell me I’m a loser because I haven’t married and had kids yet, how would they spend their days?”

“Sounds like for your own mental health you should stay away from them,” Dean said, “But you probably have your reasons for going back. Is there a special someone, perhaps?”

Cas was a little taken aback. “Um, no. I haven’t dated in years. Anyone I truly like? – gets eaten alive by my relatives, and after they get used for a chew toy, my date bitches me out for not defending them, because - I’ll admit it - I’m terrified of my mother. Anyone my family tells me would be perfect for me? - by which I mean a rail-thin doctor or Fox political commentator with rich parents - is out of my league by virtue of her brains and accomplishments, or she’s a repellent, status-conscious harpy who makes Ivanka look like just plain folks.”

“Gross,” Dean said. Then he added, deadpan, “Hard to imagine someone being out of your league.”

“Ha!” Cas said, genuinely amused. “You just met me! Anyway, a few years back, I proposed to a woman, who was witty and kind, but broke, and my mother scared her off.”

“Fuck you say!” Dean said in startlement. Cas was so warmed by his support it felt almost weird. “How’d she do that?”

“Told her I had some kind of minor genetic problem.” That wasn’t really what happened, but close enough.

“Holy shit,” Dean said. “Seriously, Cas?”

“You don’t have to tell me. I know that they’re toxic,” he said, stretching out the last two syllables so he sounded like he was singing along with Britney Spears.

Dean shot up his eyebrows and grinned at the pop culture reference.

“So now you know how big a coward I am. I know what’s going on, but I choose not to act.”

“Well, mebbe you’re scared,” Dean said.

“Scared?” Cas said. He laughed. He almost lost it for a second. “I’m scared out of my wits.”

“And they know it,” Dean said.

“Yeah.”  He realized that he was monopolizing the conversation and said, “This is a very civilized set-up for winter socializing during a pandemic.”

“Does this mean that you’ll be back?” Cas had to admit that the hopeful expression on Dean’s face was a definite confidence booster.

“I owe you a debt of muffins, I believe,” Cas said. “I should finish up my walk and get right on that.”

“Don’t book it on my account,” Dean said, and once again Cas felt a little thrill that he was somewhere he was wanted.  It made a nice change.

“It will be rude to deny you social contact after that magnificent hot cocoa,” Cas said agreeably. “But if you’ll excuse me, I now have a neighborly task to engage in, to fight my quarantine blues. I’ll be back with fresh-baked muffins.”

“All while you’re playing hooky from work,” Dean said.

“They know where I am,” Cas said dismissively. “They’ll leave me alone as long as I’m in quarantine, but the second the two weeks are up there’ll probably be a limo out front with the driver tapping his watch.”

“Gross,” Dean said. “Try to have as much fun as you can while you’re gone. Maybe the limo’ll get stuck in the snow.”

Cas laughed aloud. “This is the closest I’ve had to fun in what feels like months.”

“I thought my life sucked,” Dean said. “I obviously had no clue.”

Cas said, “My life is only worse than other people’s because I don’t have myself together enough to do anything about it, and I know it.”

“Well, maybe think about that while you’re here,” Dean said with encouragement in his voice.

“There’s just one little problem,” Cas said. “I have no idea what I’d do if I left the family business.” He stood. “It’s been delightful, but I am going to take my angst elsewhere and make muffins.”

“Pie,” Dean said.

“Muffins,” Cas said.

“Okay, pie then,” Dean said, as if it was agreed.

“Muffins. See you anon,” Cas said, and walked home, feeling more cheerful than he had in ages.

He could hear Dean whistling something that he recognized but could not identify as he walked away.

He had the ingredients, but he wanted to take the muffins over around supper time. Cas told himself that he was not trying to wangle a dinner invitation. “Nope, nosirree!” he chirped aloud as he locked the front door. He’d put as many muffins as he could in the beer cooler, and walked quite a bit faster than usual, so they’d still be warm when he got there.

“Damn, you’re early,” Dean called as he walked up. Cas was startled, as he didn’t remember arranging a time. “I’ll get going on supper,” and he disappeared into the house and brought out two bowls of food, steaming in a very appetizing way.

“Chili con carne with cheese and wheat toast,” Dean said.

“Great news, I’m starving,” Cas said. He held his package in front of Dean’s nose, except that they were socially distanced, and said, “Muffins.”

“I guessed…. not pie shaped.”

“I hope you can contain your disappointment.”

Dean made a little face, but didn’t push it. “Hot non-alcoholic cider, or beer?”

“Oh, hot cider, please.”

Dean went back into the house for the rest of their supper. Silence, except for eating sounds, and the metallic tick-tick-tick of the propane heater as it warmed, descended.

“What kind of meat is in the chili?” Cas said.

“Aw, shit, I forgot to ask. It’s ground pork, half and half with ground chuck,” Dean said.

“Not a problem. I can eat pretty much anything,” Cas said. “It’s very good. The cider’s a perfect foil for it.”

“I wasn’t trying to be schmancy,” Dean said.

“It’s absolutely delicious and once again, my palate is sophisticated enough to detect an ingredient that’s not quite standard for chili, but not sophisticated enough to identify it.”

“More cumin, and a little bit of turmeric.”


“Yeah, don’t drop any on yourself, it stains even worse than regular chili.”

“I shall do my best to comply.”

Cas ate the entire bowl before it got completely cold, and put it down with a sigh of contentment.

“That was fantastic.”

“Glad you enjoyed it,” Dean said. “And now, dessert.” He popped open the muffins. “Still warm?” he said in an amusing cartoon voice. “I’ma cut one of you outta the herd and EAT YOU! Haw haw haw!”

Dean had barbarous table manners, but the enthusiasm was charming. “Siss iss fucken fantassic,” Dean said, for a second looking remarkably like a squirrel with his cheeks packed.

“Slow down, Dean, all of them are for you,” Cas said. He’d never met anyone who made him laugh so much.

“Arnchu gon’ haf one?”

“Dean, slow down.”


“I don’t generally eat sweets with meals - I’ll be having mine with coffee in the morning,” Cas said.

“Do you want to come over for coffee sometime this week?” Dean asked instantly. “I think that may have been the best muffin I ever ate,” he added, with welcome clarity, now that he’d finished chewing.

“You’re asking me to get up and walk here before I’ve had coffee?” Cas said, trying to match Dean’s funny voice. The flash of Dean’s returning smile warmed him as much as the chili. He returned to the subject of Dean’s muffin. “Its excellence must be an exaggeration, given that it wasn’t in your mouth long enough for you to taste it.”

Dean narrowed his eyes. “Are you nagging me?”

“Just channelling my mother for a second there, sorry.” He moved his voice into its highest register and began to recite silly doggerel.

“Sit up straight, Castiel,

don’t be late Castiel,

sit with dignity in your chair,

not like a pignity or a bear,

neatly cut and chew your food,

don’t tell me you’re in a mood,

now please smile and hold the door,

don’t put schoolbooks on the floor,

wipe your feet upon the mat,

no, you may not have a cat,

do exactly what you’re told,

until dead –– or grey and old.”

“Your mom said all that?” Dean said in disbelief.

“No, cousin Gabe, he made that rhyme for me when I was ten. He was fourteen. He’s the least horrendous of my family; he’s certainly the only one I have any time for.”

“I’d probably like him.”

“Probably… until he pulled a prank on you.”

“Depends on the prank,” Dean said. “I can take a joke.”

“Me, not so much, unfortunately,” Cas said. “I have the reputation of being the ‘sensitive plant’ in the family. Um… Did you move your TV?”

He’d noticed it as he walked up, that the sixty inch screen was now inches from the picture window facing out over the deck.

“Yeah,” Dean said, “And I put two of the speakers outside. Wanna watch a movie?”

Cas began to laugh. He was about to say, ‘Dinner and a show, is this a date?’, but something about the controlled intensity Dean had put into the question made him hesitate.

“You don’t have to stay, it’s just a suggestion,” Dean said tightly.

Cas thought, He’s as lonely as I am. This is not a date, don’t be dense. “Of course, if I get to choose the movie,” he replied. Dean sprang up, grabbed bowls and mugs to take back inside. “Awl be bock,” he said, à la Schwarzenegger. Then he opened the door again. “Want popcorn?”

“No, but I’ll take seconds on a hot cider, if I may,” Cas said.

“Coming up,” Dean said.

He brought the cider out with a card catalogue box. Dean scrupulously maintained social distancing the whole while.

“What’s this.”

“It’s all my movies.”

“You own so many movies that you have a card catalogue for them?” Cas asked.

“Well, yeah,” Dean said. “I don’t even remember what-all I’ve got sometimes, and this helps people who are looking for something. Blue cards for comedies, pink cards for rom-coms, white for action movies, buff for documentaries about rock bands, green for the sci-fi, orange for horror - ”

Cas interrupted. “Green in honor of Kirk’s girlfriends, I take it.”

There was that little slash of a grin again. It was addictive. “How did you guess? Anyway, yellow for dramas - ”

Cas interrupted again, “This is a sea of green and blue,” he complained. “And what if I want to watch a documentary that isn’t about a rock band?”

“If I Leave Here Tomorrow comes very close to being the perfect documentary, and the fact that it’s about a rock band is secondary to its cultural importance,” Dean said, with total intensity and conviction. Cas just looked at him. Dean cleared his throat and continued, “Having said that, there are other kinds of documentaries in there, but it’s easier to say, ‘rock’ is what the category is about.”

“Fine,” Cas said. He loathed people who dithered, so he said, after pulling out a buff card at random, “Searching for Sugar Man,” which was already on the list of ‘good movies he hadn’t gotten around to watching, yet’. Dean got everything set up and sat down on the bench at least eight feet away. “I can pause it any time if you want,” Dean said.

They were about halfway through the movie when Cas began to fidget.

“You bored?”

“No, not at all, but I have two mugs of cider trapped inside me and they’re anxious to escape,” Cas said. Dean made a noise that might have been a smothered laugh. “I won’t come inside, so I’ll be gone about half - “

“Take a piss in the yard,” Dean shrugged.

“I - I don’t -“ Cas stammered.

“Think fondly of your mother while you siphon the trouser snake,” Dean said.

After Cas stopped laughing - and Dean started laughing at him laughing, because it wasn’t that funny a joke - he said, “Do you have any particular preference as to where?”

“Not really, just not against the house.”

“I’m not a barbarian,” Cas said.

“My name’s spelled D E A N, if you need something to do.”

Cas wanted to laugh again, but by now he was now scared to. He went around the side of the house and picked a nice looking pine tree to fertilize. He thought of how he could prank Dean, and came back up the stairs saying, with a grave face and an honest air, “I could only manage ‘D E A’,” and Dean said, “No, you didn’t!” with such flat disbelief that it was all Cas could do not to laugh again.

Cas said, “The D was easy, but the E and A were a lot trickier. I pride myself on my, er, handwriting.”

Dean fell for it and went to look. He took a little longer than expected, so he was probably taking a leak, too. When he returned, ‘annoyed’ and ‘amused’ were now perfectly mingled in his expression, and Cas laughed even harder than when he’d been told to think of his mother.

“Damn, you’re easy to entertain,” Dean grumped.

“You fell for something that had all the subtlety of a boarding school jape, you ass,” Cas said, hardly intelligible thanks to his giggles. He knew he sounded like a schoolgirl so he straightened up. “And you advertised yourself as able to take a joke. Just like I advertised myself as not as good at taking a joke as you probably are.”

Dean gave him a stare that he didn’t enjoy. “So you’ve got a thin skin?”

Cas opened his mouth and spoke without thinking too hard about it first. “I don’t want to think so. But I’ve been bullied all my life. I’m no longer angry at my bullies, I just want to be brave enough to get them off me. Okay, yes, actually, I probably am more sensitive to mockery and criticism than I should be for a grown man.”

They finished the movie.

“That was an amazing story,” Cas said. “Truly, stranger than fiction.”

“It’s really dark out,” Dean said. It was overcast and smelled like snow again.

“I have a headlamp in my pocket, and an extra battery pack,” Cas said. “I’m pretty used to the trail by now.”

“Coffee tomorrow?”

“I’ll be by about ten,” Cas said. “See you later,” and he headed home.

“Don’t have a big breakfast!” Dean called after him.

When he got home, Cas unlocked the side door and looked up, directly into the security camera. A plan slowly took shape in his mind.

The rye was only sixty dollars a bottle, but it had won awards, and his brother Michael was a fan, which was why Cas went to the cellarette (an imposing Ethan Allen piece with carved panelling all over it, and once again Cas was struck by how much money his family spent on things they never used) and stuck the bottle, in its presentation box, into his briefcase. If the security camera was recording it, he didn’t really care how the theft would be interpreted, especially since he had the right to consume anything in the house if he felt like it.

He wasn’t going to drink it, but there was no reason that Dean couldn’t enjoy it. Dean had let slip that he was out of Jack Daniels and refused to pay 30 percent more than retail plus a tip to get it delivered.

“So if I’m bitchier than usual it’s because I’m out of the good stuff and down to a beer a day,” Dean said.

“Can’t have that,” Cas said, and changed the subject. Growing up surrounded by functioning alcoholics had left him with a distaste for hard liquor, but if Dean would appreciate it, he’d take it to him with pleasure; if he was inconveniencing Michael or his mother in the process, that was just a bonus.

“Jesus, Cas,” Dean said when he left the box on the bench between them. “It’s not even ten in the morning.”

“I’ll keep emptying the liquor cabinet for you… they’ll figure I suddenly started drinking in quarantine.” Cas shrugged.

“That is a project I can definitely assist with. So, no chance of me getting to see the inside of the house?”

Cas sighed. “I told you, they keep track of me. There are security cameras everywhere. If they never see your face, it’s better for you, believe me.”

“So it’s not because you’re classier than me,” Dean said.

What? “I want to keep you out of my family’s drama to the extent I can,” Cas said. “As for me being classier than you, you’re the one offering hospitality, which by any sensible understanding of the word makes you classier than I am.”

“Wish I could let you inside,” Dean said.

“We’re in lockdown and we both understand the science. I’d rather have a friend like you than not,” Cas said, and he meant every word of it. It seemed to get through to Dean; his face softened and he repressed a smile.

“I promise I won’t drink it all at once,” Dean said.

“Don’t let me stop you. I come from a family that doesn’t know the meaning of self-restraint,” Cas said. “I ended up with all of it.”

“Not too much of it,” Dean said. “Hope you’re hungry, I made a shit-pile of breakfast.”

“Bring it on,” Cas said. “Although, really? A shit-pile?”

“Technically, no,” Dean said, fake-glaring at him. “But is it going to stop you from eating it?”

“No,” Cas said, trying and failing to hide a grin.

A full stack of blueberry pancakes, untold slices of bacon, two sausages and two fried eggs later, Cas carried his maple-syrup-coated plate back to the door, and collected more coffee from Dean’s carafe. Dean had finished his own breakfast much faster.

“Excellent,” Cas said, leaning back against the railing, coffee mug dwarfed by his thick gloves.

“Glad you liked it,” Dean said. He seemed subdued.

“Something wrong?”

“Not really, I just hate what’s happening in the world right now; that inauguration just about killed me, I drank so much to ‘celebrate’. Also, I’d really rather hang out here and shoot the shit, but I had an extremely lucrative last minute project come in, so I’ll be crazy-busy until tomorrow morning.”

Cas put his hands up to his face like Deadpool. In his thick winter gloves he probably looked like an idiot. Dean snorted. Cas said, with exaggerated horror, “Oh my god, I will have to cook my own dinner. Fortunately I’m well stocked with every kind of frozen food, so I imagine I’ll survive. Speaking of surviving, do you want me to chip in for food?”

“Nah,” Dean said. “I have designs on that rye, at some point - that bottle more than covers things. So, er, uh, you don’t have to go home…”

“But I can’t stay here,” Cas said sympathetically. “Have fun with your project! Make good choices! See you tomorrow!” and Dean gave him the finger, which he transformed with a flick of his hand into a ‘finger-gun’; Cas smiled and started the short trudge home.

He felt chilled when he returned, so he had a shower. If he calmed his nerves with a little self-love, thinking of Dean the entire time, cataloguing his many, many charms, including that one incredibly kissable spot on his jawline, and that one little glimpse of nipple poking a delicious little bump into his t-shirt through a gap in his down vest, well, no one was hurt in the production of that fantasy.

Dean saying something about a project kept Cas away for most of the next day. He didn’t want to be a pest. When he walked over to Dean’s house around four p.m., Cas learned to his astonishment that Dean had a karaoke machine set up. He even had two microphones. He told Cas to sing for his supper.

Cas associated karaoke with his ‘cousin’ Gabe, along with the consumption of enough alcohol to float a sunken barge. Instead of the trays of shooters which would have accompanied such an evening, he was given a succession of warm non-alcoholic drinks and encouraged to fill the field behind Dean’s house with the rousing sounds of Britney Spears’ ’Toxic’, which, Dean assured him, was ‘a banger in any decade, and besides, you brought it up first.’ Dean stayed inside, working on supper.

At first it was hard to sing; he kept laughing. Then Dean fixed it so it was actually in a key he could work with, and he committed to truly making a fool of himself to entertain Dean, acknowledging that there wasn’t much he wouldn’t do to accomplish that goal.

“Your karaoke library is immense!” Cas muttered. “Have you been preparing for a pandemic?”

“What?” Dean yelled through the sliding door. He slid it open. “I saw your lips move.”

“I asked, ‘Have you been preparing for a pandemic?’” Cas said.

Dean shrugged.

Cas kept up the teasing. “Pink… do you have her entire discography, or just all of it that you could find? Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money!?”

“I’m freelance, I felt that song like getting hit in the head with rebar.”

“That seems a little over the top. And so much Zeppelin! I can’t screech like Robert Plant.”

Dean flushed and compressed his lips. “Robert Plant’s a god.”

“Ah, but would he be a god if no-one worshipped him?” Cas asked. He was thinking about his own family. “Could he have achieved godhood, lacking Jimmy Page?”

“Both good questions. Now shut up and sing something and quit pissing on my musical taste as hard as you did on that tree.”

“’Twas but a gentle stream, no more, I swear,” Cas said in mock Shakespearean English, holding up his hands in protest.

“There was piss everywhere,” Dean said. “All over that pristine snow.”

“When you were finished, sure,” Cas said. “I am a very neat person by nature,” he added, with what he hoped was a virtuous smile.

“Sing! It’s turkey burritos if you do, and the bum’s rush if you don’t,” Dean said threateningly, and slid the door shut.

It took Cas a moment to stop laughing, and then he sang some ZZ Top, and some Pink, ‘leeeeearn to love agaaaaain…’ He could hear Dean laughing through the door from time to time.

The burritos were amazing. “The filling was from a cooking swap I did with some other locals,” Dean said. “It’s a couple of months old so I wanted to move it into rotation. Everything else is fresh from my grocery delivery.”

“A cooking swap.”

“Yeah…” Dean said. “Makes a really nice break, but you got to trust them to be the kind of people who don’t clean their nails and cough while they’re cooking, if you know what I mean.”

Cas shuddered.

“Sorry,” Dean said.

“You’re kind of gross,” Cas, deliberately making his voice whiny.

“I said I was sorry. I know, you told me you’re oversensitive.”

“We should change the subject. How did your work go?” Cas asked.

“It went,” Dean shrugged. “It’s fifty-five hundred bucks once I ship it, so if it’s any consolation, it was definitely worth not talking to you for a day.”

“Wow, you must be fantastic at what you do.”

“You never asked me how I make a living,” Dean said.

Cas made a face. “Mama thought it was gauche to ask people their occupation. ‘If they’re one of us, we already know what they do; if they’re not, we’re just embarrassing them with the difference in our social standing.’”

Dean whistled, and his follow-up sound effect was a distant explosion.

“Indeed,” Cas said.

Dean laughed and laughed and said, “You have the flattest delivery of anybody I ever met who wasn’t a professional comedian.”

“You know a lot of professional comedians?” Cas asked, as flatly as he could without cracking up.

“Not professionals,” Dean said.

Dean had finished eating, and masked up again. He got a slow, evil smile under his mask. Cas could tell from the eye crinkles. “Want to play a memory game?”

“Okay…” Cas said.

“If we’re going to do a memorization skills test, I’m gonna whup your ass. I’m going to whup it red and rosy.”

“Where do I sign up,” Cas said with zero inflection, even as his pulse raced.

There was a little pause, while Dean apparently recalibrated.

“Just for clarification,” Dean said, and there was another pause, during which Dean stared at him over his mask like Cas was meant to receive a telepathic message, “Are you signing up for a memory game? Or, uh, spanking? because while I’m sure to enjoy it, I have to figure out how to actually do it safely, first, before I can even sign myself up for that.”

“The former, I guess,” Cas said. “As I infer from your comments, social distancing and spanking seem like a poor mix of activities.”

“You see my problem, then,” Dean said with quite fake relief. “Memorization it is.”

They played memory games for a couple of hours. Part of this involved running like an idiot through Dean’s yard, ‘It’s active learning, Cas!’, and at one point they had paused for a snow angel contest. Dean won, but he cheated, or so Cas kept saying to him. It was all harmless fun, and with each moment Cas felt himself relaxing, unwinding, coming more fully into tune with himself.

For all Cas knew, Dean was running an underground drug lab from his house. Fifty-five hundred bucks was a lot of money to a guy with no car and beer budget tastes. He certainly was smart enough to do it. But it didn’t feel right. He made something, he’d said so, but Cas was willing to bet that what he made was beautiful, and rare, and celebratory, because that was the kind of person Dean was. It was crass to ask; Dean would tell him when he was ready, especially if, as Cas suspected, he was somehow ashamed of what he did.

He woke up the next morning, sore in one shin from where he’d tripped over something in the snow, and said aloud, softly, under the covers, just to see what it felt like in his mouth, “I’m in love with a man named Dean.”

The idea of his mother saying, “You don’t even know his last name?” in total horror, made him laugh hysterically, and the way the wild sound rang in the otherwise empty rooms of his family’s wretched ‘cottage’ made him feel like he needed to get up and get the hell outside.

Walking in the cold air made him much hungrier than he was normally, and he thought of Dean now, every time he was hungry. So, he thought wryly, any time you have an appetite of any kind, you think of Dean.

It was fun to be living such a great cliché. He walked to Dean’s house. He couldn’t whistle like Dean, but he could sing, and his voice fell onto the snow and the trees and was absorbed into silence. Once, his voice hit a certain note and a branch twitched itself free from its snow like a snoozing dog startled into wakefulness. Cas didn’t know for sure that he’d made it happen, but it made him feel the secretive, sensitive happiness he had so rarely felt as a child, the idea that something wonderful was waiting around the next corner.

Whatever was waiting was not a book, and not any of the ‘high art and culture’ stuff his poor non-entity of a father dragged him to - the only ballet he was ever allowed to attend was “The Nutcracker”. Everything they ‘consumed’ was always pummelled to aesthetic death by repetition. The childlike, uncritical happiness he felt right now was never part of the inane and claustrophobic social events his mother’s alcoholism necessitated, and since Cas was unfailingly polite to women and generally deferential to men, Naomi didn’t have to listen to her friends complain about him afterward. Unlike, for example, Michael, who’d managed to dodge sex crimes charges on three continents, or so Michael himself had boasted, with corroboration from Gabe. Cas got dragged out to parties to be his mother’s wing-dude (or so Gabe snickered) more than the other three siblings combined.

It was making him giddy, not having the chorus of criticism in his life right now, being with someone fun, and funny, and friendly, and able to joke about spanking without making it weird and awkward and a test of dominance.

Naomi wasn’t here. Zach the Hack, her consort, and only tangentially Cas’s father, wasn’t here either. He was half a head taller than Naomi, but it was no advantage to him, the poor guy, Cas thought. He was still angry for his father never standing up for him; not once, that he could ever remember. No-one he’d ever met had put someone else’s needs above his own with such dour consistency; Zach was a ‘Naomi ride-or-die’ kind of guy. Having grown up in genteel impoverishment, from a well-regarded and still respectable family, he’d attached himself to Naomi with the total commitment of an anglerfish male to his immense and permanent glued bride, and given her a houseful of boys, all delivered healthy and on time, showing that Zach wasn’t alone in showing grim determination to make things either perfect or, at minimum, acceptable ‘for our set’.

In another five minutes he’d see Dean. Cas had been told that he could be very hard to read, but it seemed to him that this love? Crush? Whatever? This feeling that made the inside of his chest fizzle and his face hurt from smiling? It had to be pretty obvious. If it wasn’t obvious, no harm done. If it was?

He considered it. If it was, Dean was either favorably inclined or too kind to want to untangle the crossed wires. So any way Cas looked at it, the wisest action was to be honest in his behaviour, but to say nothing about how he felt.

He was just a few minutes away from Dean’s house. The days of his quarantine dragged when he wasn’t with Dean, and flew by like a bird skimming treetops when he was. He felt like a different person; wittier, more relaxed, more sophisticated, at least until Dean said something risqué again and he felt himself redden.

It was true that Dean was a bit of a tease; without his family or business associates to keep him in check, Cas wondered if Dean was enjoying the word play as much as he did. He was almost running through the snow, now.

Cas realized he was panting, so he stood by the back gate for a while to catch his breath. He was brushing snow off the tops of his boots when he heard the now achingly familiar sound as the back door slid open, and he looked up. When he arrived, several arm’s reaches away, Dean said jokingly, “Hafta think twice about comin’ in?” and Cas stifled a laugh and the urge to yell, ‘Hell no!’

“I was out of breath,” Cas said. “I was composing myself.”

“What’d’ja do, run here? I’m flattered.”

“I was singing, just in case I needed to warm up for more karaoke,” Cas said. It was the truth with a lie attached, something his family specialized in. He compared himself to Dean’s utter transparency (or so it seemed) and he didn’t like himself afterward.

“Ya can’t fool me, you ran all the way here because you can’t keep away from my cooking.”

“I can cook!” Cas said.

Dean scoffed like a pro. “So you say, but all I got so far was those muffins.”

“Dean, I have to haul anything I bring you fifteen minutes through the woods, so forgive me if I’ve neglected to bring you a soup, some apples, a salad, a chateaubriand with seasonal vegetables and a small dessert.”

“Sounds good,” Dean said. “I’ll loan you a sled. You can skip the béarnaise if that’ll speed things up.”

He was going to be ‘like that’ and Cas loved it. “It’s not really chateaubriand without it,” Cas said, agreeing against his will.

“I won’t say no to roast beef.”

“Are you serious?”

“Are you going to make me roast beef or not?” Dean said.

“Why are we talking about roast beef at breakfast?” Cas said, hands splayed in curiosity.

“I think about food all the time,” Dean said. “It’s always been there for me, if you know what I mean.”

“How do you stay in shape?”

“I said I think about food all the time, not that I eat all the time,” Dean said. “I grew up as a poverty-stricken vagrant. Feeling hungry feels normal to me. Skipping a meal so someone else can eat feels normal to me. Stuffing my face like a bottomless pit feels normal to me. You comin’ up for coffee? I’m freezin’ my balls off, here.”

A few minutes later, the propane heater was on, Dean had gotten into his fur-trimmed Storm King parka, quite possibly the most campily butch garment Cas had ever seen, although he was too smart to give his thoughts any airtime, and they were sitting as close as they dared on the bench, coffees in hand. Dean sprang to his feet and said, “The sled!” and hared off to a garden shed, dragging back a kid’s wooden sled with a tow bar handle. “Here ya go! Now you can deliver a proper meal.”

“I didn’t say I’d cook a meal.”

“Fine, then bring something over I can reheat,” Dean said, sounding disappointed.

“Where’d the sled come from?” Cas said, desperately wanting to change the subject.

Dean got a sour expression on his face and said, “Long story. The kid who used to own this is out of my life now.”

Cas said, “What put that sadness on your face?”

Dean frowned even harder for a second, and then answered the question. “I thought I was going to get to be a dad,” Dean said. “But I was wrong.” He kicked some snow.

“Is - is the child okay?” Cas asked.

Dean looked at him, and gave a tight smile. “Yeah,” he said. “But not here,” he added. “Obviously.” There was a sigh accompanying this, and then he tapped the sled with his boot. “You have no excuse! Now you can cook me a meal and drag it over here as a thank-you for - ”

“The turkey burritos, the chili con carne, the capers-and-bacon mac and cheese, the pancakes, the jugs of coffee, the kegs of beer,” Cas said, ticking them off on his fingers.

“Well, yeah,” Dean said, grinning, pleased that Cas remembered so many of his culinary efforts.

“Okay,” Cas said, shrugging. “It’ll make it easier to empty out of the liquor cabinet, too.”

“Awesome,” Dean said.

“I’m sorry being a dad didn’t work out.”

“I wasn’t the right person for the job,” Dean said. It seemed to come out harsher than he meant. He made a little sound as if he couldn’t believe he’d just said that, and added, sheepishly, “Well, his mom didn’t think so. I had different ideas on that subject, and maybe Ben did too; I’ll never know since his mom hustled him out of my life pretty fast. And no, it wasn’t because I was perving on him, I loved him like a decent stepdad is s’posed to.”

“I don’t know you well, but I have no trouble believing that,” Cas said. “Do you still have a picture of him?”

“Yeah. But I’m going to miss all the Little League and soccer and Boy Scouts stuff, and I, uh, I don’t really want to talk about it.”

Cas realized Dean was maybe tearing up, so he followed the directive to change the subject and said, “I have received a phone call.”

“I’ll alert the media.”

“Mother wants to know what I’m doing about something boring and routine back at the office since I’m the acting CFO, and I said that my assistant was capable of doing everything I did and nothing required a signature until after I’m supposed to get back. She said that was an unacceptable answer and I’m supposed to meet with her in a video call and explain myself to her and Michael, who’s just out of rehab.”

“I thought he was the CFO when you weren’t doing it?” Dean asked, confused.

“Well, yes, but he’s a time-wasting blowhard and wants to blame me for stuff that happened six months ago, when he wasn’t in rehab, and in fact was completely in charge of everything. Normally Mother doesn’t let him get away with it for so long, but she just loves that boy of hers.”

“You’re her son, too,” Dean said, still a little confused.

“You can see why being the rented mule of the organization might not suit me anymore,” Cas said, with all the snottiness he could put into it.

“I bet you didn’t tell her that.”

“I absolutely didn’t tell her that. I told her something else that she didn’t want to hear. I told her that Michael had exactly the same professional designation that I do (except, of course, that I got mine legitimately and he got his because someone else sat his exams for him, or so Gabe tells me) and he can look after it himself, if he really cares about his Mother and the firm, because I unfortunately am still in quarantine.”

“Dude,” Dean said appreciatively.

“Mother then wanted to know where I spend my days since the ‘alarm system’ is showing that I’m leaving the house for hours at a time.”

“Yeah –  you know, you warned me she’d pull the old ‘surveillance state’ crap on you and I didn’t quite believe you,” Dean said.

“Dean, you won’t believe anything I tell you about my mother until you meet her, and I’m going to do everything in my power to prevent that.”

Dean scowled at him. “Ashamed of me?

Cas frowned back at him. “What the hell? Of her, totally! Why would I be ashamed of you? I like being here!”

“Well, that’s a relief. You want your breakfast leftovers now?”

“Yes, please,” and Dean hauled out eggs and cheese and pancakes and crunchy potatoes. It was possibly one of the most calorific things he’d ever eaten, and then Dean handed him a raspberry yogurt smoothie that was so good he could feel his eyes cross a little as he sucked on the straw. There was a little click and Cas realized, embarrassed, that Dean had taken a photo of him on his phone.

“Let me see,” Cas demanded.

Dean gave him a peek at the photo, setting it down on the bench and backing away. Cas thought he looked happy, which was okay, but brain-damaged, which was not, and said, voice quiet, “I really would appreciate it if you didn’t keep that photo.”

Dean put the phone away in his jacket pocket. “I shall cherish it always,” he said loftily.

“‘Cause I look like a fool?” Cas said, squinting at him.

“‘Cause ya look happy,” Dean said. “When I first met you it was like you’d forgotten how to laugh.”

“I knew how, I just had no occasion to,” Cas said.

“You always talk so fancy,” Dean said, grinning. “‘I simply had no occasion to!’” he said in the world’s worst fake British accent. “Am I going to get your phone number before you go back to Boston so I can continue to bug you?”

Cas froze. If he said no, Dean would think Cas meant to ditch him the second he was out of sight; if he said yes, Dean would be in Cas’s phone contacts and that wouldn’t work in Cas’s little seed of a scheme at all. So he said, while Dean looked taken aback, “When I’m out of quarantine. I’ll give you my number when I’m out of quarantine.”

“Count me confused. What do those two things have to do with each other?”

“They don’t, not really, I just don’t want my family finding out about you. I haven’t had a friend I made on my own since, well, since that woman I told you about.”

“The one you nearly asked to marry you.”

“I did ask her to marry me,” Cas said. He held his breath for a moment, and tossed the dice. “My mother told her I was gay.”

Dean’s face was an incredible, pliant tableau of mixed emotions.

Confusion fought its way to the top. “What in the actual fuck,” he managed after a few seconds. “Well, are ya?” he asked.

Dean didn’t sound like he cared much one way or the other. “Yeah. So she uh, vamoosed, but not for the reasons you might think.”

Dean was trying to put the picture together and having trouble. “You were actually going to marry a woman even though you’re gay.”

“Dean, I’m like most other regular people in that I want to be a parent.”

“Like me.”

“She’s a lesbian. We were going to be each other’s beards, have kids, keep everything low key. It’s shitty. I really like her as a person. But she didn’t want Naomi guessing what was really going on, so she acted outraged and ….”

“Vamoosed,” Dean said. “I fuckin’ hate your mom, no offence.”

“I don’t have the luxury of taking offence,” Cas said. “And Charlie came out and got married a year ago, so everyone figured out what I’d been doing and now they want me to marry a young Republican man from a good family and adopt an orphan - a white orphan, please - from Eastern Europe.”

“Holy shit. Kinda backed yourself into a corner.”

“I have to get away from them,” Cas said gloomily. “Or that’ll be the last happy picture of me anyone ever takes of me,” he added, waving at the phone in Dean’s pocket.

“You’re not suicidal, are you?” Dean said.

There was a pause. “Bless you for asking,” Cas said as sincerely as he could manage. “But no. How about you? Any suicidal ideation to report?”

Dean froze and was silent for so long, Cas began to worry very hard. Then Dean heaved a huge sigh and said, “No, not recently.”


“After the accident, and Sam trying to punch me and accidentally breaking Ruby’s jaw when she jumped in between the two of us, and the two of them getting divorced and both blaming me, yeah. I lost damned near everything that day. It still blows my mind how fast it all went wrong.”

“Back up, back up!” Cas said. “What accident?”

“You’ll notice I don’t have a car,” Dean said.

Cas made a non-committal sound.

“I had an Impala, that I got from my dad, a ’67 stock Impala, absolutely cherry. My bro met his wife in rehab - apparently it happens all the fuckin’ time even though every inpatient clinic has rules about it - and after they got out they lived together for a while, and once they’d been sober together for a year they got married.”

“Go on,” Cas breathed.

“Ruby started using again about six months after they got married. Personally I think it was because Sam asked her when she was hoping to have babies and she got scared, and her sponsor relapsed, which was incredibly shitty luck, and then Ruby relapsed. She blamed me and Sam, because, although we’re not close at the moment, we were really close growing up because -“

“You didn’t have a very stable childhood,” Cas supplied.

“Fuck, no, we did not,” Dean said, coughing out a laugh of disbelief and emphasis. The smile faded and he sighed.

“She got high, borrowed-slash-stole the Impala, totalled it, survived without a scratch, called Sam, who called me, and I lost it, and Sam ended up punching her by accident because he wanted me to not punch her, which I nearly did because I was that fuckin’ mad, and I don’t hit women, thank you. He nearly lost everything because for about two seconds Ruby tried to get the cops to bust Sammy for DV, but I stepped in and … let’s just say I had a really bad couple of months, and I left Kansas to hole up here in my sorta stepdad family friend Bobby’s house for the pandemic. I have my groceries delivered, and I lived like a fuckin’ hermit until you showed up. Ha! the first time I saw you walking down the road I almost chased after you, but I figured you’d think I was a slasher and book it.”

“I stood looking in your window and thinking that if you were watching public television you were probably the only person for miles I could have a conversation with.”

They smiled at each other for a second. Then Cas felt his smile falter. “So you’re not pissed off I’m gay.”


“Sorry I didn’t tell you earlier,” Cas said apologetically.

“People come out when they want or when they need to, it’s good you felt comfortable enough to tell me. Now, are you heading back home, or would you like to go shooting?”


“Bang bang? I got two pistols and a rifle, enough ammo to keep the zombies busy for a while, and a nice little out of the way place about fifteen minutes from here to go shooting in.”

“I … I’ve never fired a gun,” Cas said. “I refused to go hunting when I was twelve and I never got asked again.”

“It’s just target shooting, no baby animals – or grown ones, either – shall be harmed.”

“What…” Cas said, and paused.

“What, what?” Dean encouraged.

“What is the legal status of the guns?”

“I’m the registered owner of two of them and I’m borrowing Bobby’s rifle; the paperwork’s here.”

“Okay. That might be fun!”

What it was, Cas decided, was weird. And cold; he could not load and fire with his gloves on. Dean was disgusted to learn that his over-sensitive new friend was possibly one of the most deadly target shooters he’d ever met, right out of the box. Cas was just glad they had two sets of noise cancelling headphones; guns are loud, as he remarked in a whiny voice, while his proficiency grew with every shot. Dean appeared to be frowning a lot.

Dean trained Cas rigorously on the rules of the gun range, ran him through loading the magazine, safety and security, and every tip he could think of.

At the end of the morning Dean said, “You should have your own gun.”

“You want to give a depressed man a gun?”

“Quit yanking my chain. You should have one, because you’re good at this,” Dean said dismissively. Then he doubled back. “Are you depressed?”

Cas came within a second of saying, ‘When I’m not with you? Totally!’ but managed to control himself. “Not at the moment, and not to the point of suicide. I just don’t think, given how I feel about my family, that I’m a wise person to encourage to buy a gun.”

“I can’t imagine you raising your hand in anger to anyone who wasn’t actively trying to kill ya,” Dean said.

“I’ll take that as a compliment, and thank you so much for the lesson. I’m truly sorry that I’m a better shot that you.” He tried to make his voice unruffled. It was fun to be good enough at something to be able to tease Dean about it, even if it was the last thing he expected.

“You’re not a better shot than me,” Dean said.

Cas stared at him, and then at the paper targets, and said absolutely nothing.

“Okay, maybe you are,” Dean said.

“My mother wanted to know why I’m out of the house so much; now I can tell her I’m training for the zombie apocalypse.”

Dean chuckled. “That’s the spirit. So you’re headed home?”

“I’ll help carry everything back to your place,” Cas said. Guns and ammo are heavy, and guns are loud… I must seem like an effete poser. “The watchers in the walls need to see me or they get anxious.”

“How can you live this way?” Dean asked.

It seemed like a harsh question, but Cas tried to give an inoffensive response. “I don’t know, one foot in front of the other, I guess,” Cas said. “They don’t watch me at home, but they do have a camera on my door.”

“Jesus. You aren’t happy, you should make a change,” Dean said, his tone a little more constructive now.

Cas spoke the truth, and tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “Once I’ve gone to the effort of being a better person than the rest of my family, I don’t really have enough energy to manage anything else.”

Dean looked at him for a second, and said, “Can you get the other bag?” and strode off back toward the house. His coat, unfortunately, covered his ass, but his muscular legs made decent viewing.

Cas easily kept up, maintaining proper social distancing. When they got back to Dean’s place, he was about to put the weapon-bag down on the bench and excuse himself, since Dean didn’t seem to be talking to him for some reason, when Dean said, abruptly, “Staying for lunch?”

Cas could feel himself blinking. “I - uh, are you angry with me for some reason?”

“I just asked you to stay for lunch, why would I be angry with you?”

“You - I guess I assume you’re angry with me for not making things clear to my family.”

Dean picked up the other bag and said, as he reached the sliding door, “Nah. I’m just projecting.”

“How so?”

“I’m not doing all that great with my own family these days.”

“You mean Sam, right?”

Cas couldn’t read his face, with the mask on, and couldn’t read his tone. Was Dean embarrassed, ashamed, irritated? He couldn’t tell.

“Yeah. I guess I’m a little preoccupied.”

Cas said, “Did anything in particular happen?”

Dean sighed. “Yeah, he called, said he’ll visit me.”

“That’s good news! I thought you said you were, well, estranged,” Cas trailed off. “But he wants to come stay with you?”

“He said he’d visit. Sounds like he’s going to say his piece and bail,” Dean said.

Cas then said something very stupid. It totally tipped his hand, and he cringed, thinking about it afterward, at the same time wondering if not saying it would have changed things. “Do you want me to be here when he visits?”

“What? No. God, no. I mean, I dunno if it would help. ‘Hey, this is my friend Cas, and he’s my emotional support human today’.” The self-deprecation was clear.

“I think, ‘Hey, this is my friend Cas,’ would work,” Cas said, recovering. It seemed that Dean had managed to completely skate over how Cas envisioned himself hanging around. And he’d said the words ‘my friend’, and that was enough to get a little bonfire going in Cas’s chest.

“Yeah, probably.” Dean’s eyes narrowed and although Cas couldn’t tell for sure, he looked speculative. “I thought you were going back to Boston?”

“Busted,” Cas said lightly. Dean wasn’t stupid. “I’m hoping something will happen and I don’t have to go home.”

“You could always get exposed to coronavirus on accident and have to go back into quarantine.”

“No, thank you,” Cas said.

“You sure about that?” Dean said. He closed the distance between them in three quick steps and pulled Cas’ mask down, and then his own.

Cas felt the words, “Oh God,” escape from his mouth, and then Dean, embodying a thousand daydreams poured into one life-changing motion, kissed him.

Instinct forced him to clutch at Dean until his common sense took over.

“Dean,” he said, against Dean’s mouth. He pulled back, just far enough to be drowning in Dean’s eyes. To be this close to him was a body-encompassing thrill; to look into his eyes almost overwhelming. He saw the condensation from his own breath dance around Dean’s face and thought it was the most wondrous thing he’d ever seen.

But Dean had broken the social distancing rules with extreme prejudice, and he had to be called on it.

“Dean,” he said, a little more conviction in his voice. “Now we’re stuck here for the next fourteen days!”

“It’s a shame, isn’t it?” Dean murmured against his cheek. “I thought you were volunteering when you said you’d hang around to meet my brother.”

“You immediately refused my help!” Cas said. It hurt to back away, but he did.

“Maybe I did. Fuck this noise, c’mon inside and we’ll talk about it like civilized adults,” Dean said encouragingly.

“You honestly believe that by kissing me you can force me to stay another fourteen days.”

“Stay with me, even,” Dean said, even more encouragingly. He pulled in close, and kissed Cas again, a warm, even, promising, no-tongue smoocher of a kiss.  Cas trembled in Dean’s arms and made what tried to be a moan and came out more like a whimper. Dean seemed to respond to that whimper. “Damn. You’re so hot! is everyone in Boston blind?”

“I’m not very – “ Cas started and was interrupted yet again.

“Aware how hot you are? apparently not,” Dean said. He saw the expression on Cas’ face and realized something was not working.

“I have to leave,” Cas choked out. “I’ll talk to you later,” and he fled like a high-schooler embarrassed after being taunted in the cafeteria by bullies.

“Cas! Cas, what the hell, man? – hey, look, I’m sorry.”

Dean’s urgent calls after him were soon swallowed up by the snow. He didn’t follow Cas, he wasn’t dressed for it. Cas shoved the tears off his face as he walked with the back of his glove.

He cried after he got ‘home’ for a while. He cried because he’d responded like he was starving for affection, before he’d shoved Dean away; he cried because the odds were excellent that Dean merely wanted a fling before his family finally dragged him back to Boston and he succumbed to their bullshit. He cried because even if Dean decided he was loveable and worthy of a relationship, Cas’s family would kill any prospects they had the first time they met Dean, and they ganged up and backed him into a corner about politics, or basically any inflammatory subject. He cried because Dean was the sweetest man he’d ever met and he was probably just going to end up using Dean to get away from his family. And he cried because having run away like an emotional fool, he now had to go back and face the music. He’d pack his clothes, throw his phone into a glass of water, and slog back to Dean’s place with all of his stuff.

Dean’s face was a study. He looked a little mad and a little scared. “Okay, fine. You brought luggage. I saw you through the blind, so quit pretending you didn’t show up here hoping to stay.”

“Actually, I was going to wait here for an Uber rather than at my place, because I ditched my phone,” Cas said miserably. This was his cover story and it kind of sucked, now that he had to play it through in real life.

“You didn’t want to stay here,” Dean said suddenly stiffening and shifting away. He moved away gently so that he could take all of Cas in, and the mobility was gone from his face.

“That wasn’t the plan,” Cas said. He sounded sad to his own ears. Originally, it hadn’t been. He did want to stay but he couldn’t look too eager, or Dean would just drag him off to the bedroom, or so it felt from that kiss. Being fed every day for a week was courtship of a sort, but Cas wanted something a little more, and he was willing to prevaricate to get it, a little. He blurted, “I’m attracted to you and I didn’t want to go back to Boston, but the plan was to get to the airport and take the first available flight somewhere else and hide from my family until I found a job and rented an apartment in another city.”


“When they come looking for me, I’m a sitting duck here–– I mean; if you’re serious, that I can stay here.”

“Yeah, I am. You seem sure they’ll come looking for you. Can’t you tell them a story that will keep them away?”

Cas’s mind was whirling. “Well, maybe not try to hide it?”

“What do you mean? And before I get sidetracked again, I have more than one motive for wanting you here.”

Cas stared at him. “More than one? You mean, I assume, you have another motive besides fucking me.”

Dean was starting to look upset, “You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Dean said. His voice dropped into an unduly sexy register. “…that I find you attractive too.”

“I think I figured that out, what with you pulling my mask off and kissing me,” Cas said with annoyance. “I just wasn’t expecting it. We’ve been so careful about social distancing.”

“I made some assumptions,” Dean said.

“So did I. I don’t mind that,” Cas said. “You’re right; let’s sit inside.”

“Finally,” Dean said.

“I want to get away from my family,” Cas said, once he was sitting on Dean’s sofa. “What were you hoping would happen?”

Dean opened his mouth and closed it. “I’ll put on some coffee,” he said.

“What do you want?” Cas called after him.

“It’s stupid and embarrassing but I hoped you’d see the humour in it,” Dean said. “My brother’s worried about me, so I was kinda hoping you’d pretend to be my boyfriend.”

“You - I - “ Cas said, and then fell silent.

“Something tells me that you’re not finding this amusing,” Dean said.

“Should I?” Cas said, with slow anger. “You want me to lie to your brother, as if that’s a good thing.”

“Not lie, exactly.” Dean said. “It’s more like an exaggeration.”

“When’s he coming?” Cas said into the tense silence.

“The day after tomorrow – he’s supposed to be here the day after tomorrow,” Dean said.

“And after I’ve pretended to be your boyfriend for the duration of his visit, I’m supposed to leave and find somewhere else to quarantine?”

“What? no! Look, we don’t even have to have sex if that’s -“ and that was when Dean realized he’d really screwed up.

“I would hope,” Cas said after a pause, “That not sexually assaulting me would be a minimum standard with respect to your hospitality, but now I am led to wonder.”

Dean looked pained and regretful. “I really screwed up. I would like you to stay. Of course I’m not going to sexually assault you - again, since I kissed you without consent.”

“Well, the first time you did,” Cas said without thinking, and after a short and anxious pause, they both started to laugh.

“Honest to God,” Dean said, after he stopped laughing, “I don’t know which of us is a bigger dope, but at least we’re talking.”

“Yes,” Cas said. He sighed. “So what do I need to know to be a convincing boyfriend?”

“You’ll do it?” Dean said, apparently thrilled. “Great. Just, I don’t know, be openly affectionate once in a while.”

Cas tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. “How affectionate?”

“Mm, no tongue in public,” Dean said.

“I’m okay with that as a basic rule of public etiquette with respect to coupledom,” Cas said drily. “Anything else.”

“Well, even if you’re not, you have to be okay with what I do for a living, ‘cause it’ll be the first thing Sam asks you when I’m not in the room.”

“Okay, I guess I have to ask. How do you make a living, Dean?”

“I make monumental homoerotic paintings.”

There was a little pause.

“You are such a clown, Dean,” Cas said painfully. “I could have sworn I just heard you say you make monumental homoerotic paintings.”

“Well, little ones too, even water-colors, but yeah, I make large paintings of dudes, sometimes multiple dudes, having lots and lots of sex.”

There was a much longer pause. Dean appeared to be holding his breath.

“Are you going to show me your studio – or is this like Bluebeard’s Den?”

“Naw, of course you can see them. I just figured you’d bounce.”

Cas laughed. It was a smidge hysterical, but it was a laugh. “No.”

Just as Cas had foreseen, Dean’s art was life-affirming and joyful and ‘horny on blast’, as the kids say. He looked at the completed pieces - there were only about half a dozen of the major canvasses that Dean had kept for himself; everything else was much smaller, in charcoal, or pencil, or bright slashes of acrylic paint.

“Wow,” Cas breathed. “No, I’m not going to have a problem with this. And now I know how you can charge so much as an independent artist. This one in particular is museum quality, but they’re all good.”

Dean’s eyes were a little wet, but his voice was clear. “Glad I have the Cas seal of approval,” he said.

“You don’t need my approval, you’re a fantastic artist anyway,” Cas said calmly. “Now that that is out of the way…”

“He’s going to ask you why you like me,” Dean said painfully. “Aside from the sex we’re not having,” he added.

“It’s the best sex I never had,” Cas said soulfully. He made sheep’s eyes at Dean.

“Damn, don’t say it like that,” Dean said.

Cas got up, sauntered to where Dean had flopped in a comfy chair in his studio, leaned over and said, “May I?”

Dean’s eyes were practically crossed as he tried to scan Cas’s face, so close to his. “Uh, sure,” he stammered, and Cas kissed him, briefly but passionately. Dean looked very surprised, almost scared, for just a second, and then he recovered himself and said, not very suavely, “Wanna fuck?”

“You mean, now? Are you expecting anyone?”

Dean looked at his watch. “FedEx doesn’t come by until later, most days.” He sprang to his feet and held out his hand, which was warm and smooth and powerful.

They had most of two days alone before Sam turned up. Meanwhile, Dean proved to be skilled, versatile and considerate. Once he knew that Cas wanted explicit consent, on demand, he didn’t mess up. Cas might have looked relaxed on the outside – fucking Dean did that to him – but the inside was turmoil and not a small amount of self-torture.

No matter how loving Dean was, how deft that tongue, how strong those arms, Cas quailed at the idea of presenting him to his family. Dean didn’t deserve to endure such rudeness. Cas felt safe - turning that feeling of safety around on Dean was unconscionable.

At the same time the concept of a future without Dean was so terrifying that when Dean got mad Cas wanted to make nice as fast as possible, and sometimes that made Dean even madder.

Whatever was going on with Dean - and his own ability to understand how he could be so many kinds of people, all at the same time - it also made him the completely wonderful functioning adult he happened to be. At the same time he seemed to be a large kid, with certain very un-kid-like skillsets.

They’d been done and wiped down for half an hour, but Cas was disinclined in the extreme to get up.

Dean was a rumble on the other side of his arm. “You haven’t asked me if I’m going to draw you.”

“I’m sure I’ll be ass up, so I’m not too worried anyone will recognize me,” Cas said, trying to sound sophisticated. “Of course you can draw me.”

There was a little exhalation. Dean said, even more softly. “May I draw you sucking me off and looking up at me? Anyone who knows you well will totally know that it’s you.”

“I have no idea the circumstances under which my brothers, or anyone else I know, will be looking at it, since you won’t be selling it,” Cas predicted. “I mean, unless they break in here to gawk at us fucking under a picture of me sucking you off.”

“You’ve just given me an idea,” Dean said dreamily.

“Oh boy,” Cas said. Dean was going to wander off, do a quick sketch so he didn’t lose the idea, and then come back to bed.

“I’ll get started on dinner,” Cas said.

“You cook?” Dean said in the same dreamy voice. Cas had already established that, the night before. Dean was already tying himself into his smock, and his momentarily satisfied dick made a lovely bump in the middle of it.

It was an image of contentment he’d take to his grave. “Yeah,” Cas said. “I cook.”

“Oh yes you do,” Dean said in that same distracted, bone-meltingly sexy voice, and floated off into the studio.

In forty-five minutes Cas got to press pause in dinner preparations; he was going slow, so as not to rush Dean, and also he’d been in a sex coma earlier in the day and he wanted to stay in that particular emotional zone. He found the one bottle of red wine Dean, or from the dust, Bobby, had stashed in the house, and opened it. It was as mellow as his current mood – until he thought about his mother.

“Jesus,” Cas said involuntarily. She was an evil spirit haunting him. She was living rent-free in his head. What the hell would it take to evict her?

“You called me, my child?” Dean said, with exaggerated solemnity. His voice shifted into a teasing laugh. “You can’t lie to me Cas, I know what a fuckin’ cork sounds like.”

“This is wonderful wine. Do you drink red wine?”

“Nah, that’s Bobby’s tipple. Do me a favor and replace it, he’ll be pissed if he thinks he’s got it and it’s not there.”

“I’d make a note on my phone but as I mentioned I left it in a glass of water back at the cottage,” Cas said.

Dean wrote, ‘Cass replace Bobby’s wine you bum,’ on the fridge. It was very fancy; it had curlicues.

“One ’S’. And Dean? When’s Bobby coming back?”

Dean put the marker down and sighed. “It’s another one of the great unknowns in my life. He followed a woman to New Zealand and, now that he’s living in one of the few countries on earth that had its shit together with the pandemic, he ain’t comin’ back anytime soon. And he’s seventy. Seventy! I can’t believe the man who was a father to me is so fucking old. I mean, he might not come back just because he’s old, not just because he’s well-situated. And now that we have vaccination protests and riots, can you believe riots about vaccinations? what is this, the eighteenth fucking century? who the hell knows when the pandemic will be stopped here. Cas, I’m just so depressed about it all, but here’s me still able to make a living selling giant dirty postcards to rich gay collectors and fantasizing ‘bout my boyfriend while he cooks me dinner and everything’s cool in my corner of the world. It’s just fucked.”

Cas didn’t interrupt, and didn’t offer solutions. He kept his voice as uninflected as he could as he responded. “So you’ll have to move in a year or two. That gives you time to plan.”

Dean said, his voice almost desperate, “I was hoping Sammy wants me back in his life; I’d go where he is, if that was the case.”

“Or if that doesn’t work out, you could come with me,” Cas said. “After all, I cook,” he added.

“Back to Boston?” Dean asked, a little confused, but not rejecting the idea.

“Only if I can’t find another job somewhere else,” Cas said, shuddering. “I’d prefer somewhere in the Northeast, but –“

“Not Kansas,” Dean said. “Hot as balls, n’people are fucking hateful to gays.”


“Someplace sunnier. I need blue skies or my mood gets… well, not great.”


“Skwim?” Dean asked. “That’s the name of a place?”

“Well, it’s the sunniest place in western Washington. I found out about it doing research about, you know, running away from home. You can work anywhere there’s door to door express delivery and a decent studio, so all I need to do is find a job that pays well enough. It’s a small place though, not the big city.”

Dean pulled a face. “I figured that out when I’d never heard of it before. And I’m okay with that, as long as it doesn’t rain all the time,” Dean said, looking for the positive. Then he said, “Are we talking about moving in together when we’ve only known each other – “

“For three minutes?” Cas said.

“Come and see the sketch,” Dean said, changing the subject yet again.

The sketch was on 10x13 paper. Below one of his own paintings, Dean was getting a blow job from Cas while two shadowy figures with ill-intent strode through the door, one with arm outstretched, palm out. Cas looked starry-eyed and ecstatic, even in charcoal, and Dean looked like he was about to come.

“Those are my relatives, busting in on us? Oh, that is rich. I love it. I also note you’ve made us both look like we’re in our mid-twenties, so thanks for that.” Dean grinned.

“Artist’s choice! I was going to make one of them a woman, but I thought that was over the top, not to mention it would be harder to sell if I did need the cash.”

“Your street smarts are a continued rebuke to me,” Cas said.

“Not trying to rebuke you,” Dean frowned.

“No, I meant that I can feel my ignorance and lack of ability to understand what it’s like to grow up poor, and it troubles me.”

“It was all about the car,” Dean said finally. “And now Baby’s gone, I feel like I got no home left on this earth. I mean, I love the studio here, but I’ve been so lonely, until you showed up.”

“Maybe you’ll find a home that suits you better than a car,” Cas said.

“Most of the time,” Dean said with just a tiny, self-critical eye roll, “I don’t really feel like I deserve one. I keep thinking I’ll be forced out of here - that’s why that idea came to me so fast.”

“But you know that’s not true, Bobby wouldn’t do that, not if he’s the man you’ve described to me.”

“No,” Dean said after a while.

“You have to call him anyway,” Cas said.

Dean frowned. “Why?”

“Because you’ve got a roommate, and a landlord has the right to know who’s living in his house. So when you talk to him about that, ask him about when he’s coming home.”

“Shit,” Dean said. “What the hell time is it in New Zealand, would he even be up?”

Cas looked at the bedside clock. “Wait two hours and call, and then you can get that worry off your mind and worry about something else instead.”

Dean pulled Cas into his arms, and said, into his neck, “Thanks. You’re really doing me a solid, being here.”

“Glad to hear it. Now, come and eat.”

Dean seemed subdued during the meal, which was unlike him.

“Not to your taste?” Cas asked, pointing at the meal, which was chops, oven-baked yam fries and a salad.

“What?” Dean asked, genuinely surprised. “What? no, it’s wonderful, it’s just, I got a lot to think about, and I’m really worried about Sam’s visit.”

Cas did his best to distract him after supper - his very sexy best. They managed to get the leftovers put away before Dean jerked off all over him, and then Cas jerked off on Dean in the shower.

The phone call with Bobby happened out of earshot. Cas couldn’t argue with the results. Dean came back up the stairs with a great big smile, to where Cas was sitting up in bed, reading.

He checked in the doorway, as if he wasn’t expecting what he was seeing, and said, his smile returning, “Bobby’s all good. He told me he’s already left the house to me in his will and he’s not coming back here; he’s working on citizenship down there.” Cas made a sound of pure relief. “So, yeah, the house is basically mine. He told me where all the papers are and I can talk to a lawyer about getting the title transferred in the morning.”

“And so the issue of me as a roommate never even came up,” Cas said. It stung a little.

“What? No, I told him about you.”

But what did you say, Dean? Am I your lover, your friend, your boyfriend?

Dean seemed to realize how uneasy Cas was, and came forward to sit on the bed next to him. “I told him you were my special friend and I didn’t know where things were going with you, but I had hopes.”

“You told Bobby that,” Cas said.

“What are you going to tell your family about me?” Dean said. His voice was almost shy.

“As little as possible,” Cas said, with feeling, “But I can probably tell them that I’m having a tempestuous affair with a brilliant bisexual artist, with no pedigree and a GED, who rails me like a total beast, just to get the whole family screaming in horror and disbelief.”

Dean was laughing and rolling his eyes. “Tempestuous affair? Is that what you want to call it? We haven’t even had a proper fight yet!”

“Just don’t lock me out of the house,” Cas sighed. “I hate it when that happens. Used to happen all the time when my parents were out of town.”

“You still had a better childhood than I did,” Dean said.

“I’m not denying it, but it was totally hateful, in its own way. I have trust issues.”

“Yeah,” Dean said, “Don’t we all.”

The day Sam was supposed to show up, Dean was outside shovelling - again - and he came back into the house and yelled for Cas.

“God, Dean,” Cas said quietly as he poked his head out the door, “Don’t ever yell like that unless you’re spouting blood from an artery.” It was something Gabe used to say.

“Shut up, shut up!” Dean yelled. He made the universal ‘volume down, shush’ gesture.

“Goddamnit!” Dean said. After a pause, during which there was nothing to hear, Dean looked down the road and said, “I must be having an auditory hallucination, I could swear I heard the fuckin’ Impala!”

“Well, perhaps you hear AN Impala, but not yours,” Cas said diplomatically, and he was about to go back inside when he heard it too. He watched in wonder as a shiny black car, rumbling, came down the road and pulled into the driveway.

Cas said, “I’ll let you two have a moment,” and pulled the front door closed. If Sam had gone to the trouble of reviving Dean’s car - a car that he had more pictures of than of his father and mother combined - this was going to be a reconciliation, not a goodbye. Cas pictured it. Dean would move to where Sam was and say, “It’s been fun,” and Cas would be back at square one, but dealing with a broken heart, as well as unemployment, this time.

Cas put the coffee on and waited in the living room.

Sam was tall, with keen hazel eyes and a firm grip to his gloved handshake. Even behind a mask, he was almost as good-looking as Dean, which was no surprise, but he saw no similarity, apart from the frankness of their regard.

“Good to meet you, Cas.”

“Thank you for bringing the Impala to Dean,” Cas said.

Sam seemed surprised. Cas was surprised, too, when Dean molded himself to his side and put an arm around his shoulders. He could feel the heat in his face, around his eyes, and assumed he was blushing.

He took a breath and tried to be welcoming, seeing as how Dean was saying with his body language that Cas was now ‘his human’. It was thrilling and terrifying and also strangely mundane. “There’ll be coffee shortly. Can I get you anything else in the meantime? No, you two talk.”

They didn’t talk. The two of them stared at each other, each unwilling to go first. Cas read the room, made a small inward sigh, and said, “I’ll be upstairs so you can catch up.”

The ice was broken, somehow. They began to talk quietly. After about five minutes, the two of them laughed. Cas smiled fondly, and went back to his book about the wonder and puzzle of natural camouflage.

Dean came upstairs after about half an hour and demanded a hug, which turned into a very long, serious kiss. “You’re snuggly all of a sudden,” Cas said, suspicious.

“I can’t thank you enough,” Dean said.

Here it comes. The brush off. Cas couldn’t help himself. He exhaled hard, though his nose, bracing himself for whatever Dean would say.

“Thank you for helping me keep my head glued on.”

“Everything okay?” Cas asked, voice tight.

“Yeah. Ruby and Sam reconciled, apparently, which was, I dunno, unexpected, and the two of them paid to get Baby fixed, and Sam’s all solemn and - and apologetic, and ‘nothing was my fault, it was a bad situation’.”

“It was. So… are you still going with Sam?”

“I’m not really comfortable with Ruby. I’m not really comfortable with Ruby being the voice of reason in all this after all the shit we went through,” Dean said. “I mean, I never really liked her all that much, but she just spent a year paying my car off after going cold turkey, so I have to give her all the credit in the world for trying to make things right. To answer your question, no. Sam … Sam says we can’t go back to the way things were before, but maybe things can get better from here, and I’m okay with that.”

Dean sniffed. “He wants to know what my intentions are toward you.”

“Dean, are you crying?”

“I was. What will you tell him?”

“What do you want me to tell him?”

There was a tiny noise, maybe a sob. “He says you’re obviously in love with me.”

Cas grunted and stroked Dean’s back. “Obviously?”

“He says you know what’s important to me, and you care about it, and that’s love.”

Cas smiled. “Sam really is kind of a sweetheart, isn’t he.”

Dean’s voice, despite the catch in it, was droll. “Don’t worry, he can be a total bastard too, ’specially if he thinks you cheated him, or hurt someone who’s helpless.”

“You have a terrible habit of not answering a direct question,” Cas said. “What do you want me to say to Sam?”

“I don’t feel right about telling you to lie to him any more. Tell him the truth, whatever it is, whatever you feel comfortable with,” Dean said.

“Oh, I don’t think that’s wise,” Cas said.

There was a long pause. Dean untangled himself and said, “I fucked up again, didn’t I? You’re going to tell him I asked you to pretend to be my boyfriend and he’s going to think I’m a loser.”

“No,” Cas said.

“You’re planning on leaving. I get it, I’m - I’ll be okay with that. I’m a fling, you’ve got places to be.”

“Dean, you’re not a fling.”

“Okay, friends with benefits.”

“Dean, please don’t push me out the door before I’m ready.” He put his arms around Dean and pulled him onto his shoulder and kissed his forehead.

Dean said against his mouth, “You’re so classy, and I’m a schmuck with paint under my nails.”

“That a man so kind and sexy would fish for compliments is totally outrageous,” Cas said. “I’m not leaving you.”

“Hey, Dean!” Sam yelled up the stairs, “You expecting anyone else?”

Cas winced as Dean hollered back. “No!”

“Some dickish-looking guy in a white Prius just pulled up.” Sam sounded concerned.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Cas said blankly. “How did they find me so fast?”

“Let’s not panic,” Dean said.

“Are any of the guns loaded?”

“What? No! I don’t keep a loaded gun around, that’s crazy talk… what, you think we’ll need it?”

“I wouldn’t discount it,” Cas said. “I’ll wait up here until I know who it is.”

Dean bombed down the stairs, put on one of the fresh masks that he kept in the hall, and opened the front door.

“I’m Dean Winchester, who the hell are you?”

Gabe was standing at the bottom of the stairs. He wasn’t wearing a mask. “Name’s Gabe. Is Castiel here?”

“No,” Dean said, and shut the door.

“Dean,” Sam said softly, “What’s going on?”

“It’s okay, Dean,” Cas said, coming down the stairs.

Gabe banged on the door again and yelled through it. “Castiella, your coach awaits!”

Dean wrenched the door open again and bellowed, “DO NOT CALL HIM THAT.”

“So he’s here,” Gabe said, brushing by him.

“Take your fucking boots off asshole, you’re now in quarantine,” Dean growled.

Gabe made a scoffing noise.

“Gabe,” Cas said dully as Gabe side-eyed Dean and shucked his boots.

“I’m not putting on a mask, I won’t be here long enough.”

Sam gestured furiously. “Get the hell out if you won’t wear a mask, this is my brother’s house. There’s a clean packaged mask right the fuck there, put it on.”

Gabe, scowling at Sam the entire time, noisily ripped open the packaging and ostentatiously let it drop to the floor. He put on the mask as if he knew how, and continued to address Cas, “Yeah, dude, you got a GPS tracker in your briefcase, and your carry-on,” Gabe said. “The only reason I’m here is because I got on the road faster than the PI your mom sent - the one supposed to convey you in cigar-stinking comfort back to Boston.”

“Dean?” Sam asked again.

“So let’s take care of the trackers and get you out of here,” Gabe said.

“Dean, could you find the GPS trackers in my bags and immerse them in water while I talk to Gabe?” Cas asked. He didn’t look at Dean as he spoke, but after, just a brief glance.

Gabe looked around the room. He appeared to be almost amused. “That’s not a great idea, Cassie Boy. What? You aren’t coming with me?”

“No,” Cas said painfully.

“Why, Cassie, did you find a boyfriend? or two? Score!” There was a lascivious tongue-swipe to go with a question like this, usually; thank god for masks, Cas thought.

“I’m not sharing him with anyone,” Dean said heavily.   

“Dean, will you marry me?”

“What?” the other three men asked, at various intonations and volumes.

Dean recovered first. “Uh, Cas,” Dean said. “I’m going to go kill that GPS shit and maybe we can talk about that, uh, later. Sam, ya wanna… while these two… do whatever?”

“If it means I’m going to find out what the fuck is going on, sure,” Sam said, not seeming to care much who heard him.

“What in Christ’s name just happened,” Gabe demanded as Sam and Dean reached the upstairs landing.

“Gabe, I’m not going back. I can’t. I’ve had a very small taste of what life’s like when people aren’t mean and hateful all the time, plus sex so dreamy anything I say will sound like boasting.” He gave a thin smile at Gabe’s snort of jaded disbelief. “No, I’m not going home. And I will marry Dean, if he’ll have me, and live with him if he’ll let me. I’m not ever going to find someone who makes me feel better about myself, and I’m long past done with people being shitty to me.”

Dean closed his bedroom door behind them and started looking for the GPS trackers.

“Did Cas just ask you to marry him?”

“Guess so,” Dean said, sounding dazed. He visibly shook himself out of his surprise.

“Is that what you want? You hardly know him.”

“I think he was probably joking to freak Gabe out,” Dean said.

Sam, and those puppy-dog peepers of his. Not fair, bro. “I mean… Dean, he sounded pretty serious to me.”

Time to sound calm and casual. “He is a serious dude, most of the time. I mean, I was joking about not wanting to share him and he comes back with a marriage proposal. I really like him, but I’m not sure he gets my sense of humor,” Dean said, as flatly as if he wasn’t whirling on the inside. “Here’s one.” It was in the lining of the briefcase.  He felt around the other bag’s interior pockets and found another one. “Shit, his family’s nuts,” Dean said as he took out his utility knife and got the tracker out of the lining, trying not to trash the luggage.

“That’s probably what triggered that proposal,” Sam said, looking toward the door and making a sound of disbelief. “He must be desperate to get away from them.”

“He’s not a teenager any more, but he’s acting like one. And he’s more than desperate, being okay with a marriage of convenience after knowing me two weeks and then wanting to move to the driest part of Washington State, like there is such a thing.” Dean snorted. “I mean, I’ll ask him about it, but I don’t think I’m expecting him to be serious. And in public? So tacky. If he really understood me, he’d never have done anything like that.”

“Don’t put the trackers in the sink yet,” Sam said, as Dean moved down the hall to the bathroom.

Dean checked. “What, is your onboard legal genius sniffing a payday?”

“I’m a contract lawyer in training; I’d like to know what Cas’s terms and conditions of employment are, if he has any. If surveillance is specifically noted, I mean.”

“Mm,” Dean said. “Maybe you can help him.”

Cas looked at his cousin and tried to marshal his thoughts. “So what you’re telling me is that if I don’t sign this ‘retroactive’ NDA before I go back to Boston, they’ll sell my apartment and throw my stuff into the street?”

“Play nice, Castiella, because Naomi won’t.”

“When has she ever?” Cas said with complete bitterness.

“Never,” Gabe said. “That I know about, anyway.”

“You can’t make an NDA retroactive!” Sam called over the railing of the upstairs landing.

“Quit eavesdropping and get down here,” Gabe called back up. “You a lawyer?”

“In embryo,” Cas muttered.

“Ew! A baby lawyer! Am I s’poseta to say they’re cute when they’re young?” Gabe responded, watching him thud down the stairs. Sam was scowling so hard that he briefly looked like his eyebrows were going to smash into his cheekbones.

“I’d love it if you took a cue not to say anything,” Cas said through his teeth, and then put the NDA in Sam’s hands. He thanked Cas with a flashing glance and sat in the love seat in the living room to read it.

He flipped through it fast. When he got to the signature page, he tapped it a few times thoughtfully, then consulted his phone for a couple of minutes and slowly smiled. “Somebody who thinks they’re a lawyer drafted this. It looks good, but it’s bullshit. In Massachusetts you can make an NDA retroactive with the addition of two clauses about when the contract is deemed to have started and when it was signed. Those clauses aren’t present. It’s unenforceable, and what’s more, it’s pure intimidation, as far as I can see.”

“Christ,” Gabe said blankly. “Naomi made me sign one.”

“Well, it’s not enforceable; ask yourself why they’d do something like this.”

“Something’s going on with the company,” Cas said. He realized that his parents knew much more than they were letting on, that they were perhaps expecting lawsuits among senior officers and board members … or perhaps something nefarious or stupid that Michael had dragged them into was the problem.

Cas and Gabe looked at each other. Both of them knew that Michael had been friends - ‘fly to the private island’ friends - with Jeffrey Epstein. Cas hadn’t slept at all, the night he’d found out. Gabe was too smart to let his true feelings be known. He seemed like the kind of guy who didn’t give a shit, and he didn’t want his parents to know any different.

“Mikey’s done something even stupider than normal,” Gabe muttered.

“Got caught doing something evil and stupid, most likely. That seems to have triggered the mother-bear instincts in Naomi,” Cas said. “Let’s go outside.”

“No way. I wanna get to know the in-laws better.”

Cas was feeling very cranky and didn’t bother hiding it. “Really? Perhaps you can tell them how you’re not really my distant cousin, you’re actually my half-brother from Mother’s high school indiscretion.”

Gabe’s superior manner vanished. He raised his voice. “You aren’t supposed to know about that! Who told you?”

Cas sighed. “Speak quietly or leave. Michael got completely trashed last Christmas and told me, after he had a huge fight with Mother,” Cas said.

“This asshole’s your brother?” Dean asked, appalled.

Cas and Gabe both looked at Dean as if they’d forgotten anyone else was there. Gabe recovered first. “I’ll be brothers to you both, soon enough, once you two chuckleheads tie the knot,” Gabe said, the smirk sliding back into his voice.

“I was overhasty,” Cas said.

“Good thing I enjoy a challenge,” Dean said. “So I take it you’ve had second thoughts about marrying me?”

Once again Sam and Gabe felt very left out of the conversation. “That I asked – no regrets. How I asked, well, you have to forgive me for that now, we can’t let something like this fester.”

“You’re kidding me,” Sam and Gabe said simultaneously as Dean pulled Cas in for a kiss. Then they looked at each other as Gabe, after popping his lips, said, “Jinx.”

Sam had to look away. “Unbelievable.”

“If they weren’t enjoying themselves so much I’d swear they’re putting us on,” Gabe said seriously, doing anything but look away.

Sam’s face was a picture. “If you know he’s your brother, it’s a little incestuous, don’t you think?”

You are a fucking spoilsport,” Gabe said. “S’there any coffee?”

Their conversation paused as they watched Cas and Dean go up the stairs, hand in hand.

“I – ” Sam said, searching for a response to this that wouldn’t make the situation worse. He was a people pleaser, so he turned the full force of his candid hazel eyes toward Gabe, who had shifted into the kitchen, and said, “If I understand your situation correctly, you’ve been bullied into signing an unenforceable contract.”

Gabe got down two cups. “How ya take it?”


“Good, makes less of a mess when you inevitably spill it,” Gabe said. Confirming Sam’s statement, he said, “Yeah, pretty much. So you’re going to be a lawyer?”

Sam’s tranquil eyes continued to hold Gabe’s.“If I get a pardon. I’ll be an uncredentialed legal consultant-slash-fixer until my expungement comes through. The firm I’m working for has a three-part role in mind for me, and looking at contracts is just one of the skill-sets I’ll be using.”

“You committed a felony,” Gabe said.

“Yes,” Sam said.

“Some felonies are worse that others,” Gabe observed, setting the coffees down on coasters. He sat on the armchair, at right angles to Sam.

“I’d agree. Fortunately, my situation is as settled as it’s going to be for the duration of this conversation, and I can turn my attention to your problem.”

Gabe made a little coughing laugh, sounding like, ‘Ho!’ “An’ exactly how would ya characterize that?” Gabe asked bleakly.

Sam spread his hands for a second and then dropped them. “The company is terrified that you will find a reason to testify against one of the company officers in a criminal or civil suit.”

“Yeah, that’s kinda how it looked to me,” Gabe said.

“So what you need to do is work out what outcome you want, and then work backward from that.”

“Two seconds ago I was an asshole – now you want to help me.” The disbelief was obvious.

“You’re still an asshole,” Sam said calmly, his expression behind his mask relaxed. “But unless you want to be listening to our brothers having sex we should probably find something useful to distract ourselves with.”

As if on cue, there was a yelp, swiftly smothered, from upstairs.

They both winced; recovering, Gabe said, “What would you advise? I mean, apart from the two of us sticking our fingers in our ears and going ‘la la la la la!’?”

Sam leaned forward. “Well, I would hire a lawyer; not me, obviously,” at which Gabe snorted, “As I’m not a lawyer, yet; and I’d  ensure my family did not know that I’d hired one.”

Gabe looked sour over his mask. “I could do that. No problem! I’ve had a long apprenticeship at being a lying sneak.”

Sam was curious. “So how do you get around this whole ‘your family spies on you’ thing?”

Gabe’s eyes crinkled into a smirk. “Well for that, you need the lying part of sneaky.”

“No doubt,” Sam said.

“I told them that some of the scumbags I deal with when I’m cleaning up Michael’s messes can tell when there’s spyware on someone’s phone, so I need to not have spyware on my phone. Or my scumbag associates do super cute things like stick my phone in a Faraday cage and drive it across town and tell me to pick it up later.”

“And they fell for that.”

“That actually happened to me! I thought those sons-a-bitches were going to fucking kill me! I almost shit my pants in terror, and I don’t mind admitting it. So — no! it was not a question of ‘falling for it’. But they ‘acquiesced to my request,’ after I gave them a list of all the people I wouldn’t be able to deal with in future if they didn’t give me a spyware-free phone.”

“That couldn’t have made you popular,” Sam said.

“Not really. I get to do scum work for scum people while interacting with yet more scum people and so when the one pure, kind, innocent person that I know who happens to be family is in trouble, it’s nice to actually be on the side of the good guys.”

There was a pause.

Gabe tried to be extra casual. “So, what was your felony.”

Sam sent the conversational ball back over the net. “I’ll discuss it after it’s expunged.”

“I can look it up, anyway, it’s a matter of public record.”

Sam crinkled his eyes. Was it amusement or disgust? Only he knew.

“Do you have any advice for me in this situation?” Gabe asked, changing tactics.

“I told you to get a lawyer,” Sam said. “That’s the extent of my ethical obligation to you in terms of advice – seeing as how you were perfectly willing to kidnap your brother for money from your mother.”

Gabe started low and venomous and finished with a shout. “Fuck you! I don’t want to hand Cassie over to our cast-iron bitch of a mom, I want him to stay where he’s getting listened to, and laid. It’s not a hard choice to make. Not at all. What galls me is that you’re probably going to end up being my brother-in-law and instead of welcoming me to the family you’ve got a flagpole up your ass about ethics. Screw ethics, your B-I-L is in shit (again, but this time for the right reasons), so DO SOMETHING.”

Dean’s voice came over the railing. “What in the entire fuck is going on down there? Everything okay, Sam?”

“Gabe wants free legal advice,” Sam called back up.

“I got fifteen hundred bucks on me,” Gabe whispered. “Maybe you can win it off me playing poker.”

Sam blinked and looked thoughtful. “There’s a pool table in the basement.”

“You’re serious,” Gabe said. “You’re sure you wouldn’t rather play poker?”

Dean was nothing if not persistent. “I asked if things are okay, you’re kinda cramping our style, here, guys.”

“Go back to whoever you were doing, ya dingaling,” Gabe yelled. “We need to get another floor further away from you.” Without a word, Gabe and Sam fled downstairs and took the pool cues down from the rack.

Sam produced a coin and tossed it for the first turn; he won.

“We should make it interesting, like you said,” Sam remarked. “Fifty bucks a game?”

Gabe was a sound pool player, but Sam was better; by the time Dean thumped down the stairs wondering where they’d gone, he’d pried a hundred and fifty bucks away from Gabe.

As he handed over the money after the first game, Gabe said, “Where the hell did you learn to play pool?”

“I learned to play as a teen,” Sam said. “My skills got a revival in rehab.”

“You’re a drug addict,” Gabe said.

“You’re not?” Sam asked pointedly.

“What’s your drug of choice?”

“I do like painkillers,” Sam admitted. He watched Gabe’s first shot dispassionately. “My apologies if I’ve said something triggering.”

“I like drinking,” Gabe said. “I’ve dried out twice and I think it took this time.”

“Let’s hope so. One of my counsellors called it, ‘a poison stronger than love,’ and I’ve learned to agree with him,” Sam said. “I wish I could be like Dean sometimes. He had even more reasons that I did to become an addict, but apart from binge drinking in his twenties, he never turned into a drunk.”

“That’s good,” Gabe muttered. “Everyone else in our family is — except our boy upstairs. Cassie never found a trend he couldn’t buck.”

“Does Cas enjoy you calling him Cassie?” Sam asked.

Gabe paused in his shot. “Are you going to bug me about it?”

“You said he’s the least objectionable member of your family; why give him a nickname he hates?”

“So, sheer skill at the old pool hall and psychological warfare,” Gabe said without answering the question, and sank his next shot.

“It doesn’t matter how you struggle or what you say,” Sam said, rubbing his thumb over the end of his pool cue. “I’m going to mop the floor with you.” A raffish eye crinkle accompanied this assertion, which Gabe chose to take the wrong way.

“Oh, how I wish you meant that,” Gabe said, and sank his next shot.

It was a close contest, but in the end, Sam’s misspent youth trumped Gabe’s misspent adulthood and he won three more games.

Sam put the bills in his wallet with a satisfied air, and said, “I guess I could advise one of the in-laws for a reduced fee.”

“You are a rapacious asshole,” Gabe said.

“Coming from you - a fixer for a bunch of Panama Papers style real-estate flippers and Trump-crazy high-end fraudsters - I am going to take that as high praise,” Sam said.

“If I ‘rescue’ Cassie, I’m pooched too!” Gabe responded, angry, but also despairing. “Michael’s already threatened to have me taken out!”

Sam frowned.

“I don’t want to end up floating face down in Boston Harbor, or tied to a tree in these woods, any more than I wanted to come here in the first place,” Gabe added. He said, “Hopefully the Fuck Twins have finished their business, I need a drink.” He went back upstairs.

Just as Sam was joining him, Gabe’s phone pinged.

“Jesus!” he wailed. Even louder, he yelled up the stairs, “Cassie, Crowley’s about five minutes out!”

“How do you know?” Sam asked.

“I put a tracker on his car,” Gabe said. He said, in a gritty voice, unlike how he’d previously spoken, “He’s armed. Fortunately, so am I.”

Gabe went to his car and got his Glock and two mags from the trunk; he was astonished, upon his return, to find his little Cassie in a beat-up bathrobe, smelling like a rent boy and sitting at the kitchen table, loading a .38 under Dean’s watchful eye. Given their state of undress the tableau should have been comical; it was anything but. Sam was silent, but his face made his opinion clear.

“Jeez, Cassie,” Gabe said. “Never figured you’d butch up so hard. I suppose this is your doing.” He lifted his chin to Dean.

Dean pulled a face. “He’s a natural. Never saw anyone take to shooting that fast.”

Gabe said, “I’ll deal with Crowley. There’s no reason for the three of you to have anything to do with this.”

Sam said, “Why don’t we talk to him first?”

“He’s here to kidnap Cassie, and to kill me,” Gabe growled.

“Fine, I’ll go wait outside for him,” Sam said. “He’s got no beef with me.”

Dean shouted, “You will not!” and Sam, looking at him with a tiny smirk, answered, “You can’t stop me. Relax. Nothing bad will happen.”

He pulled his boots on. After a few minutes, they heard a quiet engine close in on the house, and fall silent. Sam closed the door behind him.

“Crowley,” Sam called.

There was a brief and plainly stupefied pause.

“You have me at a disadvantage,” came a languid English accent. Crowley himself was not visible over the snowbank at the side of the road.

“Sam Winchester,” Sam called. “I’m walking out to you.”

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t. Might we sit down inside?”

“Who’s ‘we’?” Sam asked.

“I’m alone,” Crowley said.

He appeared at the end of the driveway. Sam could see both of his hands and he did not appear to be armed, so he relaxed and said, “Before you come inside, I have to warn you that all three of the people inside are armed and at least one of them is under the impression you’re here to kill him.”

“I can see Gabe’s car,” Crowley said. He was frowning. “I have no intention of harming anyone here. Is that Cassie of ours packing heat? I want to see that, although I fear he’ll treat it as if he were Jerry Lewis, doing a bit.”

Sam had no intention of repeating Dean’s comment on Cas’s skill. It was best if Crowley knew nothing.

“Three armed men. Well, now. It’s a good thing I left the gun in the car.”

“I’m going to search you.”

“I look forward to it,” Crowley said drily.

Sam helped himself to Crowley’s phone and checked for messages.

There were four visible. They were all from an unlisted sender, and they all said. “Report immediately.” Sam returned the phone. The only other thing Crowley had on him, besides his wallet, was a 32 gig thumb drive and two sim cards, and an envelope that seemed to have documents in it.

“So you’re not here to kill Gabe,” Sam guessed.

Crowley smiled. It did not make him look more pleasant or less dangerous.

“What’s your interest in all this?”

“My brother lives in this house,” Sam replied.

Crowley seemed thoughtful “And Cassie took refuge here. Interesting. I never found him all that enterprising; always the dutiful son, never a hurtful word, never colored outside the lines — well? Are you letting me in or did you want another reason to fondle me?”

Sam scowled and they entered together.

“What ho, Gabe!” Crowley said.

“Get fucked, Crowley,” Gabe responded.

“I bring glad news,” Crowley said, “So I hope that you’ll amend that less-than-welcoming greeting.”

Gabe’s voice was flat. “What glad news is that?”

“Your brother Michael is being sued in civil court for raping and otherwise abusing a fourteen year old girl who was solicited for him by — a certain British heiress,” Crowley said.

“In what possible universe,” Cas said, speaking for Dean and Sam as well, “Could that be glad news?”

“For one thing,” Crowley said, his expression one of distaste, “It made me reconsider the wisdom of taking Michael’s shilling, henceforth, or that of your mother. Everyone associated with this court case is going to be dragged through the mud, made to testify or encouraged to be an informant. I’d like to be comfortably retired, in a locale not subject to extradition, prior to any more of this coming to light.”

Dean looked at Crowley like he was something to be scraped off a shoe. “You and Gabe? Not our problem. You can do what you like. Cas isn’t going anywhere.”

“Ah, but Michael has rewritten history so it looks like Cas authorized all of his expenditures,” Crowley said. “If the suit is allowed to proceed, Cas will be ruined too, and the family will expel him if he testifies for the plaintiff.”

Cas said, heavily, “I don’t care. I’d rather work as a barista than burn another calorie propping up Michael’s empire of corruption and child rape.”

“How wonderful for you,” Crowley murmured, “To be so unconcerned with the opinion of the world and the necessity of earning a living.”

“Where were you thinking of retiring?” Gabe asked suddenly.

“Nowhere I’d share with you,” Crowley said. “Certainly not in North America. I was supposed to take both of you back to Boston, zip-tied and unconscious in the trunk if necessary, but I was thinking perhaps a different tactic might work better for all of us… except your family, of course.”

“You obviously have something in mind,” Sam said.

“I was thinking of a rearrangement of assets,” Crowley said. He looked at Cas. “Mumsy hasn’t revoked your access to the corporate safe deposit boxes.”

“I want to remove myself from my family, not rob them,” Cas said, disgusted.

“What’s in the boxes?” Dean asked.

Cas was able to detail it. “Two hundred k in cash, four sets of expensive jewellery for Naomi’s parties, two and a half million dollars in diamonds, about a million each in emeralds and sapphires, blackmail documents for a number of senior Boston officials including the mayor and the chief of police, and passports under false names for the family members.”

The faces around the table spoke of surprise, mistrust, and greed. Dean shrugged. “Well, if they have the brains God gave a goat, they’ve cleaned all that out already.”

Crowley pursed his lips and shook his head. “I’ve got eyes on the bank. I suspect Naomi and Michael have been too busy with FBI visits, drunken recriminations, keeping up appearances and shredding documents to care, and since Castiel is the one with the key, I suggest that we drive down there tomorrow, empty the box, split the proceeds and go our separate ways.”

“It’s still theft and I’m the one who would be charged,” Cas said.

“If you return blackmail material to the chief of police you’re less likely to be charged,” Crowley said helpfully. “I’d be happy to be the go-between; he and I have unfinished business anyway,” he added.

“A scumbag’s scumbag,” Sam remarked to Dean. “Giving blackmail material back to a municipal police chief is not going to keep the feds out of it. I would recommend against taking any of this man’s advice.”

“Who in Christ’s name are you? I mean, besides somebody’s brother?” Crowley asked with irritation.

“I’m a fixer, like you,” Sam said. “The big difference being that I stay on what is technically considered to be the right side of the law.”

“I’ve got the key,” Cas said suddenly. “The key to the deposit box.”

Everyone looked at him.

“Mother yelled at me, the one time I didn’t have it on me and she wanted to get some jewellery for a gala. Then I forgot to take it off the key ring when I went into quarantine.”

“I thought you might,” Crowley said with satisfaction. “Might I encourage you to give it to Gabe?”

Gabe said, “Wait a minute. You’re not seriously telling me to waltz into the bank and clean out the safety deposit box?”

“Safe deposit box,” Cas corrected. It was a pet peeve of his; people always got it wrong.

Dean laughed in disbelief. “Not only does he want you to do all the work, he wants you to split it with him!” He chuckled again, shaking his head.

Crowley reached into his immaculate suit coat and pulled out two passports.

One was for Cas; the other for Gabe. They were both from the most recent set of passport pictures they’d had taken, but the names were wildly wrong.

“I took the liberty of establishing my bona fides prior to starting negotiations. I’ve invested fifty grand of my own money in your passports, so that if you do clean the bank out you can immediately leave, new identities intact. I would like some return on my investment, of course.”

“Gabe?” Cas asked.

Gabe handed his passport back to Crowley. “As much as I’d love to see Naomi’s face afterward, I don’t believe for two seconds you’d spend fifty k on me without having the outcome locked down. I’ve got a different ending planned.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” Cas said. He tossed the passport back to Crowley, who smoothly caught it and put it away.

Gabe said, in a different tone of voice than he’d used before, “I’m planning on testifying.”

“You’re a lunatic,” Crowley said, after a brief pause.

Cas said, “Me too. I’ll testify.” He was glaring at Crowley.

Dean said, “Cas, no!”

“Your innocent little face and testimony is not going to prevent you from serving five-to-ten in a federal prison,” Crowley said to Cas. Turning his pouched gaze to Gabe, he said, “And as for you, you may die there.”

Gabe was cheerfully contemptuous. “So you’ll drop a dime if we don’t help you. You want us to go get the money and the baubles for ya, after which you’ll disappear, and we get to go to jail. You know what? I’m sure you’ve got your own bug-out bag with cash and passports….  off ya hop, ya Limey prick. Beat it,” Gabe said.

Crowley was obviously preparing a cutting remark when Sam said, softly but urgently, “There’s another car pulling up.”

“Great!” Gabe said. “How much ammo do we have? This is probably Mikey’s idea.”

It was not. Crowley was at the curtain and he said, “Bloody hell!” in a disconcerted voice.

“How many?” Gabe barked.

“Just the one,” Crowley said bitterly, and dropped the curtain. “Let me answer the door.”

“Who is it?” Dean said. “It’s my damned house, maybe I don’t want you to answer the door.”

“My stepmother,” Crowley said. “Who’s actually younger than I am.”

They all looked at each other. “So much is explained,” Gabe said. “How the fuck did she find us?”

“I imagine her pet goon had something to do with that. I swept for surveillance before I left Boston; I have to assume that she found me the same old-fashioned way I found you; by tailing you.”

Gabe said, “How would she even know about me if you didn’t tell her?”

“So she’s an evil stepmother,” Dean said, working it out.

“She’s leaving her driver at the car, but don’t count him out, he’s had SAS training,” Crowley said. Cas closed his eyes and shook his head.

“Gentlemen,” she called as she came in. She had a Scottish accent and was wearing a black dress with Swarovski crystals sewn into the cap sleeves and in a vine pattern down its length. She put her coat on a peg in the front hall, ignoring her son’s efforts to hang it for her.

“Put a fucking mask on,” Dean said.

“I’m Rowena McLeod,” she said, ignoring him. She noticed the ammo. “Weaponry?” she frowned, her accent broadening as she saw Cas with a gun at the table. “Put it away, boys, there’ll be no need for any such nonsense.”

Cas said, voice deep, “I’ll be the judge of that.”

She laughed, a tinkly laugh of genuine amusement.

“I can appreciate the effort you’ve gone to… Fergus, I wish you’d answered your phone. Now, what is it that all of you want out of this gravely distasteful situation.”

“My brother, in jail,” Gabe snapped.

Crowley said, as if stunned, “You’ve been eavesdropping on me?”

Cas shook his head. “Michael’s only going to jail if Naomi’s convinced it’s the only way to save the firm.”

Gabe said, “Mommy dearest doesn’t give a shit about the firm, compared to her precious Michael.”

“Oh no, I think you have it backwards; once she saw the Epstein tapes starring her son, she was only too happy to hand him over to the authorities.”

“What?” Cas said blankly.

What?” Crowley said, much louder. “You got your hands on them ?- only the FBI saw those.”

With balletic grace, Rowena settled on the couch. “Not all of them. He was a small fish, and his kompromat was in another location when Epstein was arrested. I obtained a copy because I wanted to encourage Naomi to shower me in gold -” at which point Gabe snorted and said, “Ya mean blackmail the fuck out of her,” at which point Rowena cast him a chiding glance. She continued, “But she turned the tables on me, clever woman, and walked everything over to the FBI. She doesn’t want to hurt either of you, she just wants to get you back in town so she can control your whereabouts and any attendant spin, when the news breaks. I believe she wants to show a united front, the family condemning his behaviour and all that. She’ll need you more, not less.”

Crowley spoke as if he was having trouble with his breathing. “You might have mentioned this to me - any of this.”

“You might have returned my calls, my dear; I don’t text details of a criminal conspiracy, you know that’s Villainess 101,” Rowena said with a cloying sweetness that covered the razor sharpness of her annoyance. “If you look at your phone you’ll see you have many missed calls from me in the last 24 hours.”

“No,” Sam said, speaking at last. “Dean, are you sure you want to have anything to do with these people?”

“No… they’re human trash,” Dean growled, collecting a hate stare from Crowley, and an amused scoff from Gabe.

“I can condemn my brother’s behaviour from any location on Earth,” Cas said coldly. “I don’t see the need to go back to Boston now or - indeed - ever. But if it makes you feel better, Gabe, I’ll keep my mouth shut about it all. Now… would you please, please, all leave.”

And they did. Gabe got the safe deposit key, and he and Crowley started arguing the instant they were standing in the snow outside. Sam yelled, “Shut up and leave for God’s sake!” and, grumbling, they got in their cars and finally left.

Dean said, “Is everyone in your family an asshole except for you?”

Cas said, “More or less.”

Sam stayed for another couple of days. Cas and Dean Zoomed with Ruby; Dean and Ruby more or less straightened out their very tangled shit.

She asked to speak to Sam privately, and Dean muttered, “Oh great, she’s probably knocked up,” and about thirty seconds later Sam yelled like he’d been stabbed and Dean said, “What’d’I tell ya?” when Sam immediately shouted, “You’re going to be uncles!”

As the civil and criminal suits began to be filed, life was very unpleasant for the Novak clan, but Cas, insulated in his little nest with Dean, didn’t care. He started looking for a job in Maine, and very slowly got used to the idea that he was a person who could be happy.

March 2021

“Dean,” Cas said. “We got a postcard in the mail today.”

“Who would be sending us a postcard?”

“I think… Crowley? I recognize his handwriting.”

“What’s he got to say?”

Cas looked at the postcard. “It’s from Andorra… I don’t think they have an extradition treaty with the US. ‘Having a lovely time, so happy to be out of the depressing US of A. Weather excellent. You missed an opportunity. Your friend, C’”

“Ffff!” Dean said rudely. “Our friend, my ass.”

“Speaking of your ass,” Cas purred, and ran his hands over said same ass. “It’s still delicious.”

“Mmm,” Dean said against his mouth. “Anytime, baby.”

April 2021

“I’m getting the title transferred for the house, finally,” Dean said. “Do you want to be on it too?”

Cas didn’t answer in words.

June 2021

“We’re uncles!” Dean yelled at Cas when he got home from work. Dean was hungover the next morning, and Cas was too, but not as much. Laurelei Mary Winchester was tiny and perfect and Dean wanted pictures every time he spoke with Sam.

July 2021

Cas had a bad day. There were problems at work and one of his best workers had hysterics and needed calming after a terrible interaction with a customer; the beater car he’d purchased (because Dean refused to drive Baby in the winter) blew a radiator and he had to get it towed to a garage and Uber home; and his mother decided to live rent free in his head the entire time, as often happened when he felt like a failure. She scolded and chided and complained and corrected and was very, very disappointed with him.

He was an hour and half late coming home and didn’t even say hello to Dean or start supper or jump in the shower. He merely took his shoes off and went to bed.

Dean heard him come in, but as often happened he was busy with a canvas and didn’t come to check in with him right away. When he finally realized Cas was home and lying in bed crying he went downstairs and called his brother and asked for his advice. Sam was taken aback.

“What do you think you should do?”

“What if it’s me he’s upset about?”

“Why don’t you ask him?” Sam asked in a tone of voice indicating he thought Dean’s cheese had slid off the ol’ cracker.

“I don’t want to make it worse.”

“So you ignoring him isn’t worse than asking him what’s wrong?”

“Jeez, Sammy,” Dean said.

“Go comfort your partner,” Sam commanded and, hangdog and fearing the worst, Dean went into the bedroom and said, “Hey Cas, I didn’t hear you come in.”

Cas sounded soggy.


“Can I come to bed?” Dean asked gently.

“If you like,” Cas said.

“Do you want to talk about it,” Dean said, when they were settled.

“Not really,” Cas said.

“Did I do something wrong?” Dean asked.

“What? No, Dean, I - it’s got nothing to do with you,” Cas said.

“But you came in upset and you didn’t come get me, so I have to wonder,” Dean said. “I was thinking things were good between us,” he added.

For some reason this made Cas sob. He turned around and put his face on Dean’s chest. Dean squeezed him.

Quietly, Cas said, “You told me not to let my mother live rent free in my head.”

Dean huffed a brittle laugh. “Did she move back in?”

“It’s really bad right now. I had a terrible day and all of a sudden she’s telling me I’m a failure, you’re bored with me, I can’t even keep a car running -”

“What?” Dean said.

“The car broke down and I had to get it towed. That’s one of the reasons I’m late.”

“You didn’t call me,” Dean said slowly.

“You said you’d be busy today, that you had a big commission.”

Dean sighed. “I’m not more important than you are.”

“When you’ve got a five thousand dollar commission, I think your time’s more important than mine.”

“Nope, nope, nope,” Dean said.

“I’m trying to be rational,” Cas said, and started crying again.

“Aw, sweetheart,” Dean said, and squeezed Cas gently. “Even if I said no, you could still ask. You just didn’t want to hear me say no, right?”

“Not really,” Cas said, and hiccupped.

“I love you,” Dean said casually.

Cas gasped. Then he said, “You’ve never said it.”

“I didn’t think I had to, but it’s true, and no, you don’t have to say it back if you don’t feel like it.”

“Oh Dean! Now I’m crying because I’m happy.”

“It’s okay. You can cry for any reason you like, or no reason at all. Everybody is sad or in a bad mood or frustrated sometimes.” With the air of a man sharing a deep dark secret, he said, “I cry myself from time to time. I just haven’t had a reason to, since you moved in with me.”

“Is that a compliment?” Cas managed.

“It is,” Dean said. He kissed Cas’s hair.

“You know I love you too,” Cas murmured. “I love how bright and warm you are, how just thinking about you makes me feel like I’m sitting in front of a fire. I love how energetic and exuberant and creative you are, how kind and smart and funny.”

“My head’s blowin’ up like a balloon,” Dean said. “I’ll get stuck in the doorway. An’ I love you because you spend a lot of time thinking about what will make me happy, and you do. You’re a miracle to me. Now, are you making supper, or am I, or are we saying, 'fuck it!' and getting pizza?”

“Pizza,” Cas said. He nibbled on Dean’s neck, and it was more than a few minutes before Dean could get to his phone.

There was a text from Sam. “Everything ok?”

“It’s all love and pizza here,” Dean texted back.

And it was.