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No Kingdom to Come

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Dean ambushes Sam as soon as he emerges from his room. “There has to be something we can do,” he says, trying to keep his voice steady.

Sam snorts, pushing past Dean to head to the kitchen. “What we can do is stay home. Take a break. Pretend like we’re on vacation.”

“Dude,” Dean says. “This isn’t vacation and you know it.”

Quarantine had felt like vacation at first, had even felt like fun. He had seen it as a mandated break from hunting, a few weeks off where he could catch up on all the things he never seemed to have time for. He had spent day after day reading, watching TV, puttering around checking things off his list at a leisurely pace.

And then one day he woke up and realized he’d done everything he wanted to do. He stood in the middle of the library, struck with the sudden realization that if this is a vacation, it’s one where he has to wear a mask whenever he goes out to get groceries—curbside pickup only, Sam insists—where he has to stay six feet away from everyone else, where they don’t get to visit Jody or Donna or literally any of their very few friends who are still alive, where there’s nothing to hunt and nowhere to go.

What he felt—what he still feels, even now—it’s not the fear he sometimes feels on a hunt, it’s not the dread of thinking something has gone wrong or the terror of knowing someone you love has been hurt. He's familiar with that kind of panic, that sharp, sudden burst in the middle of his chest that fades as quickly as it appears. What he's feeling now is quieter than that. This feeling goes down slow, sticks to his ribs. It’s not so much a presence as an absence—whatever is left behind when there isn’t another job to do.

Dean ticks things off on his fingers as he talks at Sam’s back, trying to keep pace with him as he power walks down the hall. “I can’t spend another day binge-watching TV. I’ve read everything I wanted to read. I finished all the repairs I’d been meaning to make to the Impala, and she’s looking good as new, if not better. I’ve gone on as many drives to nowhere as I can stand. I’ve cooked so much that the fridge and freezer are both full and shit’s gonna start going bad before we can eat it. I don’t even want to think about what kind of stereotype I’ve become now that I’ve got a sourdough starter going. I’ve cleaned this place of every speck of dust that’s been here since the fifties. I need something else to do.”

“You could come with me on a run.”

Dean can hear the goddamn smirk in his voice, and for a second, he resents Sam for handling this better than he is, for transitioning so easily into this new normal. He doesn’t know why he’s having such a hard time with this, why he can’t just find something else to do. He knows, logically, that there are things he could find to occupy his time. But he doesn’t want to do any of those things. Before, when they were always off on some hunt, always working on some world-saving gambit or the other, free time was a luxury. He always felt like he had to make the most of it, like he had to cram as much activity as possible into his downtime. There was always only enough time to get themselves patched up and fed and caught up on sleep, and the TV, the books, the cleaning and car detailing—those were luxuries he got to indulge in when he was lucky.

But now? Now, he has so much time and so little to do to fill it, no more obligation of the job, nowhere to be, no one to save other than the people Sam tells him they’re helping by staying away from them. It doesn’t feel fun, when your free time isn’t a reward for a job well done, when there isn’t anything to contrast it with. It just feels like a chore, to have to try to find something new to watch or make or do. A certain restlessness plagues him, as though whatever he’s currently doing isn’t quite right, as though no matter what he’s doing, he’s wasting his time, he should be doing something else.

“I’m being serious here. I need a hunt.”

Sam sighs as he turns and steps down into the kitchen. “Like I said. Not possible. Nothing has changed.”

“Sam,” he says, pleading. “C’mon.”

“We’ve been over this,” Sam says, grabbing ice from the freezer, back turned. “This is serious, and we’re going to take it seriously.”

“I get it, okay, the—the—social distancing or whatever, the masks, but we can’t just stay cooped up in here forever. I’m dying here.”

Sam turns his head just enough that Dean can see him roll his eyes. “We can’t exactly hunt without getting up close and personal, Dean. And that’s pretty much the number one thing the CDC says to avoid.”

“If the CDC knew about what we do for a living,” Dean argues, “they would tell people to avoid that, too.”

Sam chooses not to dignify that with a response as he fills his water bottle at the sink. “Look, it’s not like there’s anything for us to do anyway, all right? I’m barely getting any updates from my Google alerts, and every time I do, it turns out to be a false alarm. There isn’t anything for us to handle.”

Dean is incredulous. “Are you saying monsters are taking this seriously?”

“I don’t know why you’re so surprised,” Sam says. “They’re nothing if not survivors.”

“I guess.”

“And anyway, some of them were around the last time this happened.”

“Last time?”

“1918,” Sam says. “Spanish flu.”

“Christ,” Dean says. “You’d think we’d have figured this shit out by now.”

Sam twists the lid shut, turns to face Dean fully. He snorts. “You mean like hunters have ‘figured out’ the monster problem?” He brushes past Dean, claps a hand on his shoulder. “We just have to wait this out. It’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

“Sam has to be wrong,” Dean mutters to himself, sitting down in front of his laptop and starting his usual searches. There has to be something out there for them to do, CDC recommendations be damned. He’ll take anything, no matter how many disgusting fluids might be involved.

But there’s nothing, or at least nothing he can find. It turns out it’s hard to find the specific type of death you’re looking for when death after death dominates the news.

Eventually, he winds up on the CDC website, staring at a color-coded map of the United States. Kansas sits square in the middle, a sunflower yellow nestled amongst the rest of the states, nearly all of them the same shade or darker.

He leans in to get a closer look, startling and backing away from the screen at the sound of approaching footsteps.

“Hey,” he says, perking up a little, “want some break...fast.” He trails off, heart sinking, as he realizes what’s about to happen: Cas is going to disappear up onto the roof for hours on end, leaving Dean down here alone. Again.

Cas gestures with his watering can, confirming Dean’s suspicions. He’d started his garden on the roof near the beginning of quarantine, and now he’s up there all the time doing who knows what. It seems like every other day he spends what seems like an eternity painstakingly trekking his watering can up and down the stairs over and over to make sure his plants don’t die up there, exposed as they are to the sun and heat of a Kansas summer.

“I’ll just grab something to take with me,” Cas says, setting his can in the sink and turning on the water as he goes to rummage in the fridge, considering the many containers and plastic bags that Dean has filled with all manner of baked goods.

“Yeah, of course,” Dean says, and there must be something of his disappointment in his voice, because Cas turns from the fridge with a bag of scones in hand, frowning over at him.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m great,” he says. “I was thinking of uh, trying out a new recipe. Figure you’ll work up an appetite lugging that thing around, and Sam’s going to be practically feral after spending half the damn day running around outside, so.”

Cas smiles. “That sounds great.” He turns back to the fridge, debating for another moment before swapping the scones for a bag of muffins. Satisfied, he shuts off the water, grabbing the can and leaving the way he came.

Dean opens a new browser tab, sighing. He forces himself to focus on following through on his lie, goes through recipe after recipe trying to find one that will be tedious enough to keep him occupied for a few hours but that won’t require him to make an unnecessary trip to the store to pick up more ingredients. He settles on a clean-out-the-pantry type stew that requires a truly absurd amount of prep—peeling and cubing squash, chopping vegetables, mincing spices. He’s just putting on the finishing touches when Cas makes his way back down from the roof.

“Good timing,” Dean says, turning to get him a glass of ice water.

Cas accepts it gratefully, and as he gulps it down, Dean considers him. He’s brought some of the outdoors into the kitchen with him—the smell of it clings to him, rich and earthy. A drip of sweat makes its way out from under his hair, down around his ear, his neck, under his shirt.

“Dean?” Cas says, setting his glass down on the counter.

Dean clears his throat. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“How much of your grace is left?”

Cas frowns, looks him up and down, starts to reach towards him. “Why? Are you hurt?”

“No, no. I just—”

“Smells great,” Sam says, bounding down into the kitchen. Cas pulls his hand back.

“Unlike someone I know,” Dean says. He wipes his hands on a dish towel and chucks it at Sam’s head. He catches it in midair, laughing. “You’re just lucky I’m nice enough to let you eat before you shower.”

Dean relishes it, though—every second of the meal spent next to them, every bit of conversation they have over their food. All too soon, they’re done eating, the leftovers packaged away and Tetrised into the fridge, the dishes washed. Dean is the last to leave the kitchen, grabbing his laptop and heading for his room.

The map is there waiting for him, one big warm-toned warning.

Now that he has a moment to really look, he notices the text. There on the left, in a grim summary, are the total cases, and, below that, the total deaths. The number is already well over a hundred thousand.

“That can’t be right,” he says to himself, but another quick search confirms that it is—if anything, it’s a conservative estimate, and it’s only going to keep going up.

All he can think is that there should be something he can do. But there’s nothing here he can fight, no monster he can kill, no demon he can exorcise. All he can do is wait. All those deaths, and there’s nothing he can do to stop them.

It occurs to Dean, somewhere in the ten years between breakfast and lunch, that there is something else he could be doing, one other go-to that wouldn’t require breaking any CDC rules, depending on how willing he is to break his own.

He’s not completely oblivious, though he’s pretended to be for a long time, has found that easier than trying to square up to whatever it is that exists between him and Cas and demand answers. He’s seen the way Cas looks at him sometimes, has felt the charge in the air. It’s the same way he’s looked at plenty of people in bars, in roadside diners, at truck stops scattered around the country. The same sort of energy. He knows what it means. If he wanted to blow off some steam, he doesn’t think Cas would say no.

Something’s always stopped him before. He tries to remember, now, what all his reasons were for keeping Cas at arm’s length. Maybe he was worried it would get in the way of the job, would be a distraction, all that easy access to such a simple, satisfying comfort. Or maybe he was just worried about screwing things up like he always does.

But really, he reasons, given the current situation, how much more screwed up could things possibly get?

Which is why he winds up standing in Cas’ doorway in the middle of the afternoon, hands shoved into his pockets, telling himself this is a logical course of action.

“We should fuck,” Dean says.

Cas looks up from where he sits on his bed, hair still damp from the shower, frowning as he places a finger on the page of his book to mark where he left off.

There are a million things Cas could say here; Dean has rehearsed them. After lunch, his restlessness had given way to a vague panic, a dread that matched his every step and crept along with him from room to room. Eventually, he had returned to his bedroom and spent the rest of the afternoon pacing back and forth, playing out all the possible scenarios. When Cas asks him Why? or Are you being serious? or when he sighs and says, in that way he has, Dean, he knows exactly what he’s going to do. He’s going to shrug casually, like he isn’t invested in the answer, like he isn’t desperate for an outlet, and say, Why not? He’s going to raise an eyebrow and say, What, are you not interested? He’s going to crowd into Cas’ personal space, he’s going to shove himself right up in there and whisper Cas against his ear.

Instead, Cas says, carefully, “Okay.”

“Cool,” Dean says, thrown off balance. The feeling that’s been hounding him shifts—the panic is still there, but there’s something else beside it, an excited kind of terror that manages to feel like an improvement. “See you tonight?”

“See you tonight,” Cas says, seeming puzzled more than anything.

Cas had seemed confused or maybe hesitant, earlier, but when he opens his door that evening, all of Dean’s lingering worry disappears. As soon as Dean kisses him, Cas’ hands are everywhere, his mouth is everywhere. He’s breathing hard as he undoes Dean’s pants, pushes them down, all of it so smooth it seems almost practiced.

Dean imagines Cas doing some rehearsing of his own, planning what to do so carefully that by the time it came to enact it the execution was easy, and grins. He slides Cas’ shirt up and over his shoulders, starts undoing his pants as he walks him backwards towards his bed, pushes him onto it and pulls his jeans off, then his socks one after the other. He covers Cas’ body with his own, enjoying the thrill of the contact, tries and fails to calculate how long it’s been since he did anything like this—was it four months ago? Forty years?

Dean presses a kiss against Cas’ neck, breathes him in. The sweat and soil is gone, scrubbed clean and replaced with the smell of the same 2-in-1 shampoo and body wash that Sam makes fun of him for using.

It almost makes him forget about all the thoughts that are still rattling around in his brain, knocking things loose. They feel quieter, at least, forced to compete with the warmth of Cas’ body and his own arousal for his attention.

“Sam said this happened before,” he says, pressing his lips to Cas’ jaw, the corner of his mouth.

Cas looks at him, looks down at where their bodies are pressed together. “This?”

“A pandemic,” Dean says. The words feel distant, unrelated to him, almost as though someone else is speaking. It feels safe to let them out here, like they won’t be able to hurt him as long as he’s focused on something else, the feel of Cas’ skin under his fingertips, of his erection against Dean’s hip. He wonders if maybe in releasing all his garbage thoughts into the world, they’ll finally stop lingering around him like a million belligerent little ghosts. “Spanish flu? 1918?”

“Oh,” Cas says absently, running one hand along the back of Dean’s head, letting it rest against his neck. “Yes.”

Cas pulls him in for another kiss and Dean lets him; he slips a few fingers under the waistband of Cas’ boxers, teasing, grinning against his cheek as he gasps a little at the barest graze of Dean’s fingers against his dick. “He said some of the monsters were alive back then. That they remember, and that’s why they’re taking this one so seriously.”

“Hm,” Cas says, more breathy sigh than an actual response.

“You think he’s right?” He gives up his teasing and pulls Cas’ boxers off, slips out of his own, squirming a little under the intensity of Cas’ gazer. “I mean, monsters know about hunters and that doesn’t seem to stop them. You think they’re more scared of this than of us?” He leans back in, gets a hand around Cas’ dick, has only a moment to worry about forgetting his lube before Cas shifts his hips, pushing harder into Dean’s hand, urging him to go faster.

“If you had been there—” Cas says, cutting off with a gasp.

Dean presses his own erection against Cas’ leg, resisting the urge to slide against him. “Was it really that bad?”

“It was bad,” Cas says, fingers digging into Dean’s shoulders, arching against him.

Cas shudders as he comes, holding onto Dean even tighter, gasps open-mouthed as Dean presses his lips to the side of his neck. He’s quiet, after, his breathing slowing, until in one swift motion he gets an arm around Dean’s waist and flips him over onto the bed, starts stroking him slow and easy.

Dean almost leaves it at that, lets the sound of Cas’ hand against his skin and his own ragged breathing fill the room, lets the thrill of the fact that this is finally happening after years of beating around the bush make him shiver. For a few glorious seconds as he comes, he forgets what they were even talking about.

But he wants to know—wants a final answer so he can let this go, once and for all. “What was it like?”

Cas cups Dean’s cheek in his free hand, runs a thumb thoughtfully over his skin and looks at him in a way he doesn’t understand. Quietly, he says, “A lot of prayers went unanswered.”

Dean had fallen asleep quickly and easily, limbs pleasantly heavy, but when he wakes the next morning, the same old feeling is back, that nagging uneasiness.

He lies in bed and stares at the ceiling, the long stretch of the day ahead of him seeming too daunting to trek through. It takes him a long time to work up the motivation to get up and throw on the first clothes he can find that pass the smell test—the first couple shirts still carry some of the dust from his wandering in the bunker’s less used rooms.

He pauses, an idea occurring to him.

He decides to sacrifice another couple pieces of his clothing to the grime and heads down to the lower levels, opening one door after another until he finds what he’s looking for: There, on a bottom shelf in the corner, is a stack of board games.

He pulls them out one by one, dusts them off with his forearm. There are a few he doesn’t recognize—Hex seems ironically named, given the distinctly witchy context in which people in his line of work are used to hearing the word, but upon further investigation it seems mostly like Math Homework: The Game,, so he sets it aside. So Long Sucker has a fun name, but he looks at the long list of rules and instructions and decides he’s not in a mood to learn something new. Learn something old? Whatever.

Sorry! he discards for the pang in his chest he feels when he looks at it, and chess and checkers for their two-player limitations. He’s not letting either Sam or Cas get out of this.

When all is said and done, he winds up with Risk, Candy Land, Scrabble, and Monopoly. He tucks them under his arm and heads back upstairs, pleased to find Cas and Sam sitting together in the library. He holds up his spoils and says, hopefully, “Game night?”

Cas brightens immediately and says, just as hopefully, “Popcorn?”

And then it’s settled. Dean spends way longer than necessary preparing, makes them a whole array of snacks—popcorn with three different homemade seasonings, two different kinds of dip, a whole variety of crudités.

Sam and Cas may just be humoring him with the games, pretending to have fun as Cas eviscerates them at Scrabble, as Dean gloats about his luck at Candy Land, as Sam gives a Ted Talk about the evils of capitalism even as he buys up more and more property in Monopoly, but Dean will take what he can get. He absorbs Sam and Cas’ compliments like it’s anything even close to enough human interaction, like it’s the same as someone thanking him for saving them from the clutches of a ghost or ghoul or vamp. They’re not saving any lives, but a few more hours are spoken for, which is something.

In the light from his lamp, Dean notices Cas has tan lines from his time on the roof. He traces a finger along the edge of darker skin that ends just below Cas’ neck, examines the borders the sun has burned onto him, this small proof that time is still passing, that things are still changing.

It’s a gentler reminder than the ever-growing numbers on the CDC map, the reality that exists outside the bunker walls, the mounting failure for which Dean can’t possibly take credit but for which he still somehow feels responsible.

“You ever think,” Dean says, resting his hand against Cas’ chest, “that nothing we do”—his breath stutters at the slide of Cas’ lube-slick hand along his dick—“that nothing we’ve ever done has really mattered?”

The movement of Cas’ hand slows. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve been looking at that tracker the CDC has,” Dean says, closing his eyes. He can picture it perfectly, as though all that bright red and orange has been burned into his retinas. “That color-coded one that shows you the cases and the deaths by state. And it’s so many people, Cas, even just here in the US. So many people have died.”

“There’s nothing you can do about COVID, Dean,” Cas murmurs. “You can’t save everyone. It was true before and it’s just as true now.”

“Yeah,” Dean says, “I know. That’s what I’m saying. You know I’d never really thought about it before, all the mundane shit people die of? But the CDC keeps track of it—don’t stop.” Cas obliges, works his fingers along Dean’s length, flicks one across the head. “You know the other year more than fifty thousand people died from the flu? And more than twice that from strokes, more than triple from accidents.” Cas grazes his free hand along Dean’s side, runs his thumb over Dean’s nipple, and for a second, he loses his train of thought. “And then—and then, when you get up into stuff like cancer and heart disease, the numbers are so big you can barely even conceive of it. More than half a million people each.”

“I know,” Cas says, so quietly Dean can barely hear him over the sound of his own breathing.

“All those people, and we’ve just accepted it. It’s become normal. We’ve become so desensitized we don’t even think about it. That’s going to happen with COVID, too—hell, it’s already happening.” He bucks against Cas’ hand, digs his fingertips into his chest. “Deaths from monsters, against all that? The people we save on our usual hunts, they barely amount to anything. We’ve helped, what, hundreds of people? Maybe thousands, now that we’re pushing four decades?”

He tries to do the calculations, see how a lifetime of innocent people saved stacks up against the carnage of the past few months—can’t quite manage it, not with the way Cas is stroking him, is breathing damply against his collarbone. But he can picture it like he’s making his own map, can see the tiny, inconsequential specks of life crowded out by the ever-growing spots marking all the COVID epicenters.

“It’s just a drop in the bucket. A fraction of a fraction. Nationally, globally? It doesn’t even register. Each of those wins was so hard won, and every day thousands of deaths come so easily.” This is what his life’s work amounts to—a difference so small it’s statistically insignificant. “We were never doing anything other than trying to hold a tide of blood back with our hands.”

Dean opens his eyes to find Cas looking at him, brow furrowed in thought even as he continues to jerk Dean off. Eventually, he says, “We saved the world. More than once.”

“Saved it for what?” Dean asks, meeting his gaze as if in challenge. “For this? To watch it die slowly, if not this time, then another. There’s always another hunt, always another apocalypse. And that’s all this is, another apocalypse, just one that we can’t stop. Why do we fucking bother?”

This time, Cas does stop. He props himself on one elbow to get a better look at Dean. “You don’t think every life we save matters? You’ve seen the survivors when we work cases, you’ve experienced their grief firsthand. Everyone has someone who matters to them as much as—as much as Sam does to you. You don’t think they’d give anything to keep that person alive? You don’t think they’d bring them back from death if they could?”

Dean snorts. “I’m sure they would. And then that would just be another problem. Even more people being in the know just means even more people getting themselves killed making deals.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Cas says.

“I know.” Dean rolls onto his back, drags a hand over his face. The lack of heat and friction, the loss of Cas’ body flush with his own, has his thoughts rising to the surface in their place, an unwanted, unwelcome replacement. “You know what’s the most fucked up about this whole thing, though? You’d think with all this happening, you could say, here it is, here’s proof God is gone. But knowing God? I don’t even know if that’s true.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” Cas says.

“Nothing,” Dean says. He reaches for Cas, pulls him on top of him and kisses him, hands framing his face. And then he pushes on Cas’ shoulder, urges him to slide down the bed and take Dean’s dick in his mouth instead, and Cas lets himself be moved.

Dean wakes with something weighing him down, a heaviness that can’t be explained solely by Cas’ arm slung across his chest.

He slips carefully out of bed, careful not to wake Cas up, stops by the kitchen to get a pot of coffee going before he goes through the motions of brushing his teeth, taking a shower, putting on some clean clothes. It’s mid-morning by the time he makes it into the kitchen. He stands in front of the open fridge, switches to rummaging through the cabinets, sighs as he returns to the fridge and pulls out a carton of eggs.

He’s just pulled out a bowl when behind him, Cas says, “Making us breakfast?”

Dean pauses with an egg held in midair. He had resigned himself to scrambled eggs and toast, so he does some quick recalculations. “Yeah,” he says, tapping the egg lightly on the counter. “Omelettes sound good?”

“Sounds great,” Cas says, shuffling over to park himself at the kitchen table. He yawns loudly, and Dean tries not to think about all the simulations he’s seen about how particles travel around a room, fill up a space, germs settling on goddamn everything.

He pauses, leaving the eggs momentarily unfinished, and grabs a mug from the cabinet, pours Cas a cup of coffee. When he sets it on the table in front of him, he brightens immediately, looking up and thanking him so earnestly that Dean wants to scoff, wants to say, Chill, it’s just a cup of coffee. “Yeah, no problem,” he says, scratching a hand along the back of his neck, turning to return to the eggs.

Cas has perked up a little by the time he’s done making the omelettes, revived by the caffeine. Dean hands him a plate and sits down with his own food, waiting to start until Cas has taken his first bite, smiled around it in satisfaction.

“So,” Dean says, shoving some omelette into his mouth, pretending not to notice the way Cas rolls his eyes as he talks with his mouth full, “any exciting plans for today?”

“I was going to head up to the roof,” Cas says.

Dean is surprised at how quickly his mood reverts to its pre-omelet state. He forces a smile, nudging Cas’ foot under the table. “Working on that sexy farmer’s tan, huh?”

Cas rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling, which takes some of the edge off it. “It’s nice to be outside,” he says. “While I have the chance. I imagine being up there will be a lot less pleasant as quarantine drags on.”

Dean stops with a forkful of food halfway to his mouth. “Wait, don’t tell me you think this is going to last into the winter?”

“I think it will last long past that.”

It already feels like he’s been trapped in the bunker for a decade—the thought of doubling down is, to put it generously, mildly horrifying.

Cas looks down at his plate, poking at his food. “Is it really so bad, the thought of staying here a while longer?”

Something in Cas’ tone gives him pause, stops him from saying his first thought, which was somewhere in the vicinity of Yeah, it’s a fucking awful thought, actually. His poor quarantine-addled brain is still trying to figure out what exactly Cas meant when Sam appears in the doorway.

“Oh, hey,” he says, pausing halfway down the steps. “Sorry, am I interrupting?”

“Nah, we’re just about done,” Dean says, shoveling down his last few bites of omelet as Sam and Cas exchange their good mornings.

“Can I get one of those?” Sam asks hopefully as Dean rises from the table. “I’ll trade you cleanup duty for it.”

“All right, all right, no need for the puppy-dog eyes.” Sam settles in at the table as Dean pulls the eggs back out of the fridge, offering only a grunted Later as Cas heads off to his garden.

Sam leaves him to his thoughts as he cooks, but as soon as he sets his plate in front of him, Sam says, “So, you and Cas, huh?”

Dean scowls reflexively, points a finger at Sam and says, “Don’t you fucking dare.”

He’s expecting something, some admonishment, an Are you sure this is a good idea, maybe even an interrogation. If Sam tells him this can’t end well, Dean is going to agree with him. If Sam asks him, right now, what the fuck he thinks he’s doing, Dean will tell him, quite honestly, that he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know why he’s subjecting Cas to morbid conversation, why he’s asking him for the casual, desperate sex that’s always occupied the space where he imagines some more complicated kind of intimacy might exist if he were someone normal. Maybe he’s using him as an outlet for his shitty thoughts and restless energy because he knows Cas can take it, because not once in all the time they’ve known each other has Cas ever shied away from something Dean has done, no matter how awful. Or maybe he’s just doing whatever the hell he wants because quarantine feels like a time out of time, a skippable filler episode, a temporary detour from the path of his life. He knows, objectively, that isn’t true, but he can’t seem to get himself to hold onto the thought long enough for it to make a difference.

Sam breaks into a big, shit-eating, terribly sincere grin. “I’m happy for you.”

The cheerfulness with which Sam says it throws him, makes his head spin. There’s a part of him that wants to protest, that wants to tell Sam he’s really misunderstanding what’s going on here, that his expression is completely inappropriate for the situation. Sam should be looking at him with disapproval or disgust, not with whatever this is—this fond, teasing glee.

Before he can stop himself, he blurts out, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Sam rolls his eyes, as if to say, Oh, please.

“What?”

“You’re lucky Cas puts up with you,” Sam says, digging into his omelet. “You’re so full of shit.”

“Whatever,” Dean says. He starts to leave, having fulfilled his end of their agreement, but as he does so, the movement of his body stirs the air and he catches a whiff of something familiar—a cloying chemical smell he associates with long, lonely days spent at shitty motel pools. He pauses with a hand on the door frame, turning back to Sam. “Hey,” he says, “do you have some extra sunscreen?”

He knocks on Cas’ open door, and as he looks up from his laptop, he says, “Hey, catch.” He lobs the bottle of sunscreen to Cas underhand, grinning as he catches it midair, looking almost bored by the fact that Dean aimed a projectile directly at his face.

Dean had resolved not to make a big deal of it, not to interrogate him about whether he’s human enough now that he needs to be concerned about becoming part of a six-digit number on a website some idiot obsesses over. By way of explanation, he says, “Figured you could use that, if you’re gonna keep spending that much time in the sun.”

Cas considers it for a moment, turning the bottle over in his hands, scanning the tiny text printed on the back. He looks up at Dean, scanning him the same way. For a moment, he feels like he did before—open and exposed, perpetually wary of Cas’ ability to read his thoughts and call him out on them. But all he says is, “Not a fan of the farmer’s tan after all, then?”

“I plead the fifth,” Dean says, holding his hands up defensively. “Anyway, it just seems like a good idea is all.”

Cas smiles, apparently satisfied with that explanation. “I’ll use it. Thank you.”

“Sure thing,” Dean says. He pats his hand against the door, opens his mouth to say Good night—

“Did you want to come in?” Cas asks.

In response, Dean steps inside, closes the door behind himself.

Dean has known Cas as a full angel and a near-god, as a stranger with no memories and a friend with too many, has seen him angry and self-righteous and penitent, but he likes this version the best, this one who sets aside his computer and pulls Dean down onto his bed, who kisses him as he undresses him, who retrieves some lube from the side table and presses his fingers into Dean one after the other, this one who could die from any number of causes, mundane or otherwise.

“Do you remember,” Dean says, as Cas fucks into him, “when you said resurrection was a punishment? That it was worse every time?”

“Yes,” Cas says, panting against Dean’s neck.

Dean shudders beneath him, muscles straining—he’s not as flexible as he used to be, his legs protesting against the angle at which they’ve been bent to allow Cas to look him in the eye as he thrusts into him. Or, Christ, maybe it’s just that something has happened that he once never would have considered possible—he’s gotten old. “Do you think you were right?”

“No,” Cas says, pushing himself up onto his palms, looking Dean in the face. “Do you?”

He’s puzzled for a second, Cas turning the question back on him, but he supposes he can answer with some authority, after all.

For a long time, he hadn’t had to think about it. Growing up, there had always been an understanding between him and Sam, an unspoken acknowledgement they’d shared since the time they were first old enough to understand what it was their dad did when he left them behind. When you live this life—or at least the life they lived before any of them knew about God or the apocalypse or any of that, back when they were just a couple of hunters—you know that one day, you’re going to die bloody. They’ve lived difficult, complicated, exhausting lives, but back then, at least they got to believe that in death there could be, if not peace, at least a certain finality.

He’s died a lot of times since then—if it were a competition between him and Cas, he wouldn’t be able to say who was winning without sitting down and tallying up their lives. It’s enough that they’ve started to blur together.

But you never forget your first.

“Do you know, when the demon offered me a year in exchange for Sam’s life—” He digs his fingers into Cas’ hips, pulls him forward, closer, faster. “Do you know how I felt?”

Cas shakes his head.

“Guess.”

“Scared?” Cas ventures. “Angry?”

“Relieved,” Dean says. “I was relieved. Everything was such a goddamn struggle all the time. Christ, it still is. I didn’t want another five years of that, another ten. I didn’t want a lifetime. I just wanted it to be over. But”—he throws his hands up, returns them to Cas’ hips—“it didn’t matter, anyway.”

“What do you mean?”

Dean snorts. “If the past couple decades have taught me anything, it’s that no matter how many times I die, something’s always going to bring me back.” He shifts, searching for a better angle, lets out a breathy sigh as the next slide of Cas’ dick hits just right. “I just have to wait to get some fucked up kind of lucky, I guess. For the universe to be done with me and finally just let me go. Not that that will change much. There isn’t any peace to be found after death, I know that now. There’s just more of the same.”

“You”—Cas dips his head, breathing hard, and clenches his fingers in the sheets—“you didn’t answer the question.”

“I did,” Dean says. “Better, worse, here or in whatever version of the afterlife I deserve, it doesn’t matter. People are going to keep suffering and dying anyway. Myself included.”

Cas lifts his head, looking down at him with concern, which Dean thinks is probably fair. “What are you saying?”

“I dunno,” Dean says. He moves his hands from Cas’ hips, slides them under Cas’ own, lacing their fingers together. “Forget it.”

He looks on every level of the fridge, behind every piece of tupperware, in every produce drawer.

“God dammit,” he says to himself. He was sure he ordered everything he needed, went over his list meticulously—but of course he’s missing just the one ingredient.

It would be a whole ordeal to get it now. Even if the food weren’t already half cooked, he’d have to drive all the way to the store, and even then, he can’t do curbside pickup unless he hits the thirty dollar threshold. Problem is, he just did his weekly run yesterday and he doesn’t want to buy stuff for the sake of buying it, feels exhausted by the prospect of going to the effort of picking out that many things they don’t really need. He feels what he knows is an irrational despair over something so small, and then he has an idea.

He trudges his way up flight after flight of stairs, at last opening the door to the roof. For a long, stunned moment he just stands there, taking it all in.

He had understood, in some indistinct sort of way, that Cas was growing stuff up here. After all, even if Cas hadn’t mentioned it—which he had, repeatedly—he had seen him trekking across the bunker more than once with a cardboard tray in his arms stacked full of pots of various colors and sizes. If it wasn’t that, it was a truly outrageous amount of potting soil, or dozens of plastic bags filled with who knows what.

It’s really quite the array, now that he’s seeing it all in one place. Cas has managed to grow a whole mess of plants, flowers and herbs and succulents growing in pots of all shapes and sizes, somehow beautiful in their disarray. Or maybe they’re perfectly organized; who’s Dean to say? He’s not the one who’s spent the last few months working away up here.

He can pick out a few things he recognizes, but mostly his eyes catch on all the colors—there are flowers in the reds and yellows and purples he always loved seeing when they managed to drive through the Texas hill country at just the right time of year, others in a shade of orange so bright he wouldn’t have thought it possible, more with delicate little white-pink splashes of blossoms. It’s amazing, really, all this life sprung up out of nothing but time and Cas’ care.

Cas is nestled in the middle of them all, bent over a plant with his watering can at his side. Dean gets caught up watching him, the careful way he moves from pot to pot, kneeling every now and then to get a closer look, the way he sticks his fingers in the dirt and dusts them off on his jeans.

He wonders, suddenly, why he hadn’t come up sooner, is maybe even a little embarrassed that this is what it took to get him here. It’s a bit of a trek up through the power plant, sure, but it’s not like he hasn’t had the time. Maybe it’s just that he’s gotten so used to Cas disappearing, of surviving off whatever meager updates he felt like giving whenever he felt like giving them, that it simply didn’t occur to Dean to seek him out. Or maybe that’s just him making excuses.

He moves from the entryway, letting the door swing shut behind him, and Cas startles a little, turns.

“Dean,” he says, eyebrows raised in surprise, breaking into a smile.

“Hey,” Dean says. “Got any oregano?”

Cas’ smile widens.

Dean has seen enough people come back to life at this point that he has a pretty good idea of what it’s supposed to look like. It’s a story whose beats he knows, and the better you know something, the more you notice the deviations.

He pulls Cas down the hall by his hand, drags him into his room and closes the door, shoves him against it. As he undoes the button on Cas’ pants, he says, “When you pulled me from hell, why did you put me back in the ground?”

Dean is careful to keep his focus on unzipping Cas’ jeans, pushing them down around his hips. It’s an unnecessary precaution; in his periphery, he can see Cas looking up and away, at some point over Dean’s shoulder. He looks uncomfortable. He says, “How much of it do you remember?”

Dean shrugs. “Enough. Too much.”

“Do you remember me?”

“No.” He slides one hand to the back of Cas’ neck and the other into his boxers and around his dick. “Just the things that came before.”

Cas gasps at the first slide of Dean’s fingers, closes his eyes and presses his palms against the door. “You fought me the whole way,” he says, swallowing hard. “You didn’t want to come. You wanted to stay.”

Dean’s hand stutters, just for a moment. “So?” He picks up speed and Cas groans, tilts his head back.

“I could have put you anywhere. My orders were broad enough to allow me my choice. So I put you back in your grave.”

Dean kisses his neck, grazes his teeth against his skin. “Why?”

Cas reaches up, wedges his arms between them and takes Dean’s face in his hands, looks from one of his eyes to the other, frowning. “Because I wanted to see what you did. You could have done nothing, and you would have suffocated in minutes. You would have been right back where you fought so hard to stay. I wanted to see if you would fight for something different.”

Dean doesn’t know what to say to that. He kisses Cas instead, so eagerly their teeth knock together at first. It’s only when he pulls back that he realizes Cas has been kissing him with his eyes open.

Cas is contemplating him, is looking at him so sadly, sadder than anyone should have a right to look with their dick in Dean’s hand.

He slides down until he’s on the floor and blows Cas instead. His knees will hate him for it, but at least he won’t have to look Cas in the eye.

Dean will admit to being mildly impressed at the ease with which everything, barring himself, seems to have adapted to what they’re apparently calling, according to Sam and his air quotes, “the new normal.” He puts in an order on the Lowe’s website, and not an hour later, he gets a notification telling him it’s ready for curbside pickup. It isn’t even noon by the time he finds himself lugging a watering can up to the roof and asking Cas, “Need a hand?”

“Need” is, of course, a strong word. He doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, feels like he’s helping in the same way a five-year-old trying to learn to do the dishes is “helping.” Cas doesn’t seem to mind, though; he’s patient as he shows Dean how to stick his finger in the soil of some plants to see if they need watering, how to feel the leaves of others.

Their conversation peters out once the explanations are done, so it’s quiet as they settle into their work—but it’s a comfortable sort of quiet, one that reminds Dean of the warm silence that always waited for him after a successful hunt, when he was driving back along a dark, empty road with his brother in the passenger seat and an ex-angel asleep in the backseat.

And he is definitely ex-angel now. Between trips downstairs for more water, as he’s gently poking at the plants, Dean really looks at him, here in the unfiltered light. There are a million little giveaways, things that would be unremarkable for anyone else but are extraordinary for Cas: his skin growing ever more tanned in spite of the sunscreen, the holes in the knees of his jeans, the muscles in his arms straining as he lifts a heavy pot, the sweat sticking his shirt to his chest, his hair hanging down over his forehead, getting into his eyes. Cas breathes and eats, he gets dirty and has to shower and do laundry just like so many billions of others. Dean has woken up next to him enough times now, watched him yawn over enough cups of coffee. He knows what it means.

“See something you like?” Cas says, smirking down at him.

“Yeah, yeah, don’t let it go to your head,” Dean says, rolling his eyes. He braces his hands on his knees as he stands, then reaches his arms into the air, stretching. “You really spend hours each day doing this? My back is already killing me.”

“Well, no,” Cas says. “If I watered them that often, I’d kill them. But I like to come up here and read, or listen to music, or sometimes just sit and think.”

Dean can picture it, Cas sitting up here, leaning against the doorway, looking out over his garden. Or lying on his back on the warm concrete, nestled between the pots and planters, looking up at the clouds.

“Could be cool to bring a couple of chairs up here,” Dean says. “If you wouldn’t mind some more company every now and then.”

Cas smiles at him again—or maybe he hadn’t stopped in the first place. “I wouldn’t mind.”

There’s dirt under their fingernails, on the knees of their jeans, smeared in a streak along Cas’ forehead. Dean teases him about it as they make their way to the bathroom together, makes a show of licking his thumb and trying to rub at it, laughing as Cas dodges away from him.

Dean kisses Cas in the middle of the bathroom as the water warms up, tugs his shirt up and over his head.

“Are you sure?” Cas asks, even as he undoes Dean’s pants. “It’s the middle of the day.”

“So?”

“What about Sam?”

Who cares, Dean thinks, because if Sam’s judgment was all that was stopping him, they would have been doing this a long time ago. “He’s been down in the archives since breakfast,” Dean says, sliding Cas’ jeans down over his hips. “He’s not gonna trek all the way to this specific bathroom if he needs to take a piss.”

“Your logic is sound,” Cas says, deadpan, and Dean snorts.

They slip out of the rest of their clothes, and Dean kisses Cas the three steps into the shower, pausing only to reach up and wash the dirt off Cas’ face for good.

“Never figured I’d be one for growing plants, but that was nice.”

“It was,” Cas says. “It is. It’s peaceful.”

Dean kisses him under the spray, the hot water washing away the rest of the sweat and dirt and sunscreen, until he can feel Cas’ erection pressing against his bare leg. Cas is warm from the sun and shower both, his dick hot and heavy in Dean’s hand as he jerks them both off at the same time.

Cas breathes Dean’s name as he comes, breathy and human in a way that sends a shiver down Dean’s spine, that has him tipping over the edge soon after.

Dean leans against Cas, head resting on his shoulder, letting the water rinse them clean once again. “So,” he says, almost as an afterthought, “I know hell, and purgatory, and heaven. I know there isn’t any rest to be found in any of those. But was it peaceful there, in the empty?”

“I don’t know,” Cas says, fingertips trailing up and down along Dean’s back. “It might have been, if I had let it.”

“If you’d let it?”

“I fought it,” Cas says, pressing a kiss to a spot between Dean’s neck and shoulder, at the point where his own tan lines are sure to be forming. “I didn’t want to rest. I wanted to live.”

“So, I’ve been thinking,” Dean says, setting up the folding chairs, settling the little cooler between them, “that it could be fun to start planning meals around whatever herbs and veggies you’ve got ready.”

Cas tilts his face up to look at Dean, squinting against the late afternoon light. “I’d like that,” he says, with such obvious pleasure that Dean feels something in his chest lurch towards him. “We can do the reverse, too—I can grow things you need.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. It might be too late in the year for some things, but I can always try.”

Dean wanders around behind him as he tends to his plants, tries to spy things he recognizes. “I read that you can grow green onions from scraps,” he says, as Cas plucks some shriveled leaves from his sage. “Seems pretty easy. If you could get that going, we’d probably never have to buy them again.”

“I can certainly manage that,” Cas says. “What else?”

Dean quizzes him on what he has, taking mental notes as Cas points out one plant after another, making plans—there’s rosemary for roast potatoes and dill for potato salad, basil for pesto, cilantro for tacos. He examines them one by one, breathing in the smells, feeling the various leaves, enjoying the different textures, everything from smooth and waxy to so soft and delicate he’s surprised he can even feel anything through his callouses. He’s smiling down at the oregano, growing wild beyond the edges of its pot, living its best life despite the culling Cas had done for the sake of saving Dean’s recipe, when Cas appears next to him and presses a quick kiss to the edge of his jaw.

“What was that for?” he asks, warmth spreading across his cheek and up to the tips of his ears.

Cas just shrugs, smiling, and points out the tiny trees growing in one corner. “Those will bear lemons and limes, eventually.”

“Really? Those little things?”

“Mmm,” Cas says. “These miniature varieties are popular now so people can grow them in pots indoors, even in colder climates. But yes, they do produce regular-sized fruit. It’ll take a while, though. Maybe a couple years.”

“Something to look forward to,” Dean says, and Cas nods his agreement. “And, hey, you’ve got some mint growing, right? Maybe I’ll figure out how to make my own alcohol and in a year’s time we can have some truly homemade mojitos, celebrate the first harvest.”

“I would like that,” Cas says, offering Dean another small smile before returning to his pruning.

Dean returns to the chairs, opting to take a seat and stay out of Cas’ way, alternating between watching Cas work and fiddling around on his phone until Cas is ready to join him.

The sun is just starting to dip behind the horizon as Cas pockets his shears and takes a seat. Dean pulls a couple beers out of the cooler, and they sit in companionable silence as the light fades.

It really is nice being up here, Dean thinks. It makes him forget for a while that over a hundred thousand people are gone for good, that this pandemic has no clear end in sight, that someday he and Cas and Sam are all going to be dead and buried or burned, they’ll be in the empty and he won’t fight it and none of this will have meant anything at all.

Dean is warm and drifting, comfortable in the post-orgasm haze as Cas gets up and goes to the sink, as he wipes them clean. Cas is quiet through it all, until he’s settled back into Dean’s bed, pulled the covers over them and turned off the lights.

“Can I ask you something?” he says.

“‘Course,” Dean says.

“Why have we been having these conversations?” he asks. “Why have we been doing...all this? What are we doing here, Dean?”

It seems like a stupid question to Dean, in his barely-awake state. “We’re quarantined, remember?”

“You know that’s not what I mean. What is this?”

But Dean has already drifted the rest of the way off to sleep, and if he manages to mumble a response as he did, he doesn’t remember it in the morning.

Dean is surprised to wake and find Cas already gone, up early for what surely must be the first time in his life. He throws on some clothes and goes immediately to the roof, and sure enough, there Cas is, tending his plants. Dean shivers a little in the morning air, shocked not so much at the cold but by the fact that summer has shifted into fall without him noticing.

Cas looks up as the door clangs shut, something passing over his face for a moment before his expression shifts into a smile and he waves. “Good morning,” he says, so casually that it leaves Dean wondering if he imagined it, that look Cas had worn in the momentary silence. Maybe he’s still shaking off sleep, he reasons, or maybe it’s a trick of the early morning light, so different from the afternoon sun he’s gotten used to seeing Cas in.

“Mornin’,” Dean says. “Figured I’d find you up here. Anything I can help with?”

“Sure,” Cas says. He points out a few plants that need repotting, a few new containers he got for the purpose of planting new seeds—some of the things Dean had asked for that Cas had determined it wasn’t too late to start, some garlic and shallots, spinach and carrots.

It’s not like it’s rocket science, not that Dean needs a whole lot of direction, but Cas seems surprised each time he asks a question, seems a little distracted, like maybe his mind is elsewhere. Dean doesn’t suppose he can blame him; God knows his mind has been elsewhere a whole lot of the time these past months. He figures maybe the polite thing to do would be to leave him to work out whatever it is he’s thinking through, so he finishes up the tasks Cas gave him, he wipes his hands on his jeans and he says, “Hey, I’m gonna head inside, get started on some lunch. See ya down there?”

Cas doesn’t turn from his task, just nods and says, “Yes, I’ll be down soon.”

He isn’t, though. He doesn’t come down that whole day. Dean takes him up lunch, and then dinner, and he’s still up there, finding more things to do. Whatever shit he’s working out, it must be something big.

Dean hesitates in front of Cas’ closed door, wondering what it means, if maybe he’s already asleep. He had cycled through his usual go-tos, tried reading and listening to music and lying down to sleep, late as it is, until he found himself here, hand hovering in the air, poised to knock as he chews at his bottom lip. He’d had this idea that maybe Cas would still be up, and they could sit together in bed and watch a movie until he passed out with his head against Cas’ shoulder, and at that point it would be silly for him to go back to his own room, so Cas would shut his laptop and set it aside, press a kiss to Dean’s forehead as he urged him under the covers and they settled into sleep, and—he taps his knuckles against the door.

“Come in,” Cas says, voice tilting up at the end, making it sound like a question.

“Hey,” Dean says, pushing the door open, smiling as he leans against the frame. “So I was wondering—”

“Sorry,” Cas says, “I’m tired from all the work earlier. Rain check?”

“Oh, I—” Dean says, suddenly embarrassed that Cas has misunderstood, that now he’s at a loss for what to say, for how to correct himself in a way that sounds believable. Embarrassed that either he can’t or just doesn’t know how. “Right, yeah, of course. G’night, Cas.”

“Good night, Dean.”

Dean lies awake for a long time, replaying the interaction in his head. It’s well after midnight when he forces himself to stop looking at the clock, so he has no idea what ungodly hour of the morning it is when there’s a soft knock at his door, one that he very well might have missed if he had been asleep.

“Cas?”

“Dean,” he says, and then he’s inside, closing the door, he’s sliding into bed and on top of Dean. Cas’ his hands are up under his shirt, his mouth is at Dean’s neck, and Dean’s not complaining, but—

“Thought you were too tired,” Dean says.

“Changed my mind.”

And then there’s not much room for conversation any more.

Dean opens his eyes to find Cas already awake, looking at him across their pillows, frowning. “What’s wrong?” Dean asks.

Cas reaches over to him, gently brushes his fingertips over his forehead, through the hair at his temples, behind the curve of his ear. “I can’t do this anymore.”

Something twists in Dean’s chest, that old familiar panic returning in one swift moment, the weight of all the empty days of an indefinite quarantine hitting him at once like a door slamming shut on his fingers. For a long, dizzying moment, he can barely breathe against the pain of it.

He chokes out, “Why the hell not?”

“Because it matters to me,” Cas says, pulling his hand back. “I can’t keep pretending it doesn’t.”

Dean can feel his heart beating out a frantic rhythm in time with his racing thoughts. In his panic, he defaults to the nihilism that’s gotten him through this ordeal so far. “You can’t be serious,” he says, scoffing. “What about our lives, about any of this, makes it seem like it means something.”

“It means everything to me,” Cas says.

Dean swallows, mouth dry. What does? Dean wants to ask, but what comes out is, “Why?”

“Because I died.” He looks at Dean steadily, holds his gaze even though he wants desperately to look away. “I was dead, and for once, I wanted to come back, and then I did. And I think that was it, that was the last time it’s going to happen. This life, now, this is all I get. And I want it. I want every second of it. All of it matters.”

“If that were true,” Dean says, “you wouldn’t be wasting your time here.”

“Dean,” Cas says quietly. “I’m exactly where I want to be.”

He says it broad. Open for interpretation, like orders to bring one stupid human back to life.

“And that’s why you’re telling me to fuck off, huh?”

“No,” Cas says. “That isn’t it.”

“Then what is it?”

“I don’t just want to be a way for you to pass the time.”

“I—that’s not—I never said—” Dean starts, frantically searching his memory, trying to remember how he pitched this to Cas, what exact phrasing he used, which of the scenarios he’d rehearsed had actually happened.

“You don’t remember, do you?” Cas asks, and he looks so fucking sad, so disappointed, that it makes Dean nervous, makes his heart beat faster, his palms sweat. “Last night. I asked you what this is.” He gestures between them. “Do you know what you said?”

Dean mutely shakes his head.

“A good distraction.”

“Cas, I—” He wants to deny it, but he knows that he can’t. Knows Cas wouldn’t make this up just for the sake of torturing him. Knows himself well enough that he’s sure he said it. “Please don’t do this,” he says.

Cas pushes himself up on one elbow. He brushes Dean’s hair away from his face and leans over to kiss him, a gentle press of his lips to his forehead. And then he gets up out of Dean’s bed and walks out of his room and doesn’t come back.

You would think, given Dean’s life, the people he’s watched die, the apocalypses he didn’t stop soon enough, that he would be used to staving off grief too big for any one person to manage, grief for the whole world at once. You’d think, given his wealth of practice, that small, personal grief would be easier to manage.

It isn’t. Layered on top of the existential dread and crushing hopelessness is something simpler and more personal, a feeling of loss much closer to home, guilt over hurting someone he cares about without meaning to. It blindsides him, how bad he feels.

There is, of course, nothing he can do about it. For the first time in his life, he can’t go off on a hunt to blow off steam or feel like he got a win or distract himself from his thoughts. There’s nothing to do but stare his despair right in the face.

The CDC map is waiting for him, right where he left it. The number of deaths has almost doubled since the last time he looked. They’ve changed the layout slightly, too—the country-wide numbers are up top now, the calming shade of blue-green surrounding them, a buffer between the user and the angry warm tones of the map. If you want the visual that really makes it hit home how bad things are, you have to scroll down. You really have to want it.

It’s easier than Dean thought it would be, avoiding one other. Sure, they’d been having family meals a little more often than usual, but with nothing to do and nowhere to be, they’ve all slipped into different sleep schedules, different patterns.

“What, no sit-down dinner tonight?” Sam asks once, as they bump into each other in the kitchen.

“Nah, not today,” Dean says, and they leave it at that.

Sam seems to have plenty of his own shit to do, anyway, if his scarcity is any indication. At any rate, if he notices the change, he doesn’t let it show. Actually, it seems like maybe he’s enjoying the shift, because the first time Dean tries to tag along with him, here’s how it goes: he spends five minutes fiddling with things on the shelves, narrating his adventures, until Sam looks up from his laptop, eyebrow raised, and says, “Don’t you have something better to be doing?”

In other words, not well. Nothing seems to be going well, if the amount of time he spends refreshing the CDC map is any indication. It’s like he can’t remember how the fuck he spent his time before. The days are one big blur, one long awful haze that he has to navigate his way through step by sluggish step.

Which is to say that he really isn’t trying to stir up trouble. He just literally doesn’t know what else to do.

The blast of cool air that hits him as he opens the door to the roof is a surprise. There’s a sharpness to it that he can smell as much as feel that he knows means winter is on its way, that it’s already dipping down near freezing at night. He knew, on some level, that time was still passing, but it shocks him anyway—the cold, or maybe just that the seasons have changed without his permission.

Cas is sitting in the middle of his plants. Not watering or pruning or reading or...anything. Just sitting slumped over as though in defeat.

There’s no way Cas didn’t hear the door bang shut, but he doesn’t turn around, doesn’t acknowledge his presence in any way. Dean sighs to himself, shoving his hands in his pockets as he makes his way over, stops at a calculated distance—not so close he’s crowding Cas, but close enough that they can talk. He absently pokes at the tip of an aloe vera spike as he says, “It’s going to be too cold for them to grow up here soon.”

The wind picks up, tosses Cas’ hair wildly, makes him shiver against it. Flatly, he says, “Then I guess they’re just going to die.”

“What?” Dean says. “Jesus, no, it’ll be fine, it’ll just take a little work. We can bring them in and get some grow lights or something, or set up a greenhouse with some heaters.” He gives Cas an awkwardly long pause to respond before he presses on, “I looked into it and it really doesn’t seem too hard. There are plenty of spare rooms, and it’d be easy enough to rig up some lights. That way you wouldn’t have to trek out into the snow to water them. We can use one of the rooms with a sink, maybe hook it up so you can attach a hose instead of having to go back and forth with a can. Or if you did want to go the greenhouse route, they sell them at Lowe’s. Well, not in store, but we could work out the measurements, see how big of one we’d need and have it shipped.”

Cas sighs, shoulders rising and falling with it. “Why are you doing this, Dean?”

“I mean, they seem important to you.”

“So what?”

“I—look, I’m just trying to help, all right?”

“I’m not going to fuck you just because you build me a greenhouse,” Cas says. From anyone else it would sound angry and bitter, but Cas just sounds tired.

“That isn’t what this is about,” Dean says, heat creeping up his neck, uncomfortable even in the coolness of fall.

“Isn’t it?”

It isn’t, Dean knows it isn’t. He’s had sex with a hell of a lot of people and he’s never felt like this when he knew it was over.

“You know what?” he says, already turning to go. “Forget it.”

It’ll be safe to grab himself something to eat, he thinks. It’s nearly noon. Cas will already be up on the roof; Sam will be off doing his own thing.

Naturally, they’re both there, in the goddamn kitchen. Sam is sitting at the table sipping a cup of tea and Cas is at the counter, pouring himself a cup of coffee.

Dean gives serious consideration to hightailing it out of there before Cas turns around, but Sam picks that exact moment to look up from his phone and say, “Oh, hey. Mornin’.”

Cas immediately tenses, and Dean knows it’s too late—Sam sees the way the Dean reacts to the movement, the way his eyes are reflexively drawn to it. He tries to be casual, hoping to play it off, stepping down into the kitchen in the hopes of making it to the table and clearing a path for Cas to escape. Instead, Cas turns with his cup in hand at the same time Dean starts moving, setting them on a collision course. They wind up brushing past one another, Cas completely ignoring Dean’s aborted attempt at a Good morning. Sam sees all that, too, of course he does—how could he have missed it.

Dean feels no small amount of trepidation as he finally takes a seat and looks up at Sam, and yeah—Sam is giving him the disappointed look he always knew he eventually would. Ah, there it is, he thinks, but he doesn’t feel satisfied about being right. It just feels like shit.

“What was that all about?” Sam asks—not accusingly, not angrily, but with a terrible gentleness that immediately makes Dean regret abandoning his escape plan.

“Nothing.”

“Okay,” Sam says, drawing out the a in his disbelief. “You wanna talk about it?”

“Not really,” Dean says. He shoves himself up, lets the awkwardness hang in the air as he grabs himself some coffee, hoping against hope that maybe Sam will take pity on him and let it go.

Instead, Sam just sits there, looking at Dean all mournfully as he returns to the table and stares down into his cup. Sighing, Dean finally says, “I fucked it up.”

“What happened?”

“Cas thinks I was just using him as a distraction.”

“Hmm,” Sam says, looking at Dean over the rim of his mug as he takes a sip of tea. “Well, were you?”

“No!” Dean says. He sighs, drags a hand down over his face. “I don’t know. I guess I hadn’t really thought about it.”

“You hadn’t thought about it,” Sam says, deadpan. “Really.”

“It’s a weird fucking time! I don’t know!” He spreads his arms on the table, palms up, willing Sam to understand, to accept what sounds like a pathetic excuse, even to him. “I wasn’t thinking about how it would all play out. This whole year has seemed fake, like we’ve tumbled down some rabbit hole and any day now we’re going to wake up and none of it will have happened, and things will just be how they were before.” Saying it out loud makes it sound even more absurd. He wonders how he could possibly have thought that things would one day just revert to baseline, how Sam could possibly respond with anything but incredulity.

Sam exhales slowly, runs a hand through his hair, and Dean braces himself for impact.

“I get it,” Sam says, bringing Dean’s racing thoughts to a sudden halt. “Feeling like you need a distraction, I mean. Hell, even during our ‘normal,’ we see some pretty awful shit, and we’d lose it if we just dwelled on it all the time. I think that’s part of what’s made this quarantine thing so hard,” he says, looking almost embarrassed by the admission. “It’s kind of...forcing us to confront things in a way we can usually avoid.”

“Wait,” Dean says. “What are you saying? You’ve been totally fine throughout this whole ordeal.”

Sam snorts in disbelief. “No, Dean, I haven’t. I’ve been trying to tell myself that everything we’re doing is for the greater good, but god, it’s hard. It’s hard to just…watch it happen.”

“Yeah.”

“But, I dunno. I think just framing it as a distraction isn’t giving us enough credit, you know?” Sam pauses to stare down at his mug, run a finger idly along the top as he thinks. “I can’t speak for you, but what keeps me going is choosing to do things that really matter. With everything we’ve seen? Everything we’ve done? You know as well as I do how fragile and precious life is.”

“That’s the problem,” Dean says. “All of this”—he gestures broadly, encompassing the kitchen, the bunker, their lives these past six months—“it feels so pointless. It’s like I said before, I can’t just spend all my time repeating the same three fucking activities over and over—”

“I know,” Sam interrupts, his tone somewhere between confused and bemused. “You think I’m not sick of reading and going on runs and what the fuck else?”

“You are?”

“Yeah, no shit.” He gives Dean a strange look, an I can’t believe the big brother I’ve looked up to all these years is really this dense kind of look. “Do you even know what it is I spend my time doing?”

Dean opens his mouth to respond, tries to conjure up an answer—and realizes he can’t actually say for sure. “I guess not.”

“Talking to Eileen, mostly,” Sam says, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Texting, video calling, whatever. Just having the screen up as I go about my day, even. I thought you knew that. I thought that’s what we were doing, both giving each other space.”

“What are you saying?”

Sam sighs, rolls his eyes in a very little brother kind of way. “Look, things are hard, and we’re all trying to find meaningful ways to spend our time. Eileen and I are choosing to spend ours on each other.” He shrugs, pushing off the table to stand. “Maybe you should look at what you decided to do and try to figure out what that means to you.”

“That wasn’t an answer and you know it,” Dean says, pointing an accusing finger Sam’s way as he rinses his mug.

Sam just laughs, clapping Dean on the shoulder as he leaves. He says, “I have faith that you’ll figure it out eventually.”

The CDC map has changed again, the reds and yellows and oranges gone, replaced by shades of blue and green. Dean wonders if it’s supposed to be soothing. He certainly doesn’t feel soothed. The number of deaths is well up over two hundred thousand, now.

He’s still trying to accept the fact that there’s nothing he can do besides what he’s already doing, and he’s not sure he’s ever going to get there. He’s trying to remember that he’s never been able to save everyone.

But maybe there are still some things he can do, some small raging against the dying of the light.

The bite of winter in the air makes his skin itch, raises goosebumps along his arms. It’s a relief after the heat of summer, for him if not for Cas’ plants. Some of them are looking pretty sad, whether from the cold or some other variety of neglect Dean isn’t quite sure.

He picks up one drooping plant that he recognizes—he could never remember the name, but he remembers the dark green leaves, their purple undersides. Remembers how it had so frequently flopped over in spite of Cas’ diligent watering, the way Cas had laughed when Dean said it sure had a flair for the dramatic. Underwatered, then; not the cold.

“I know just how you feel, buddy,” Dean tells it as he carries it inside. He really should have planned better, because now he’s stuck scoping out a room with his bedraggled companion, opening door after door until he finds a space not already occupied by more junk than he has the heart to clear out.

The fifth try yields a workable room—a couple shelves it’ll be easy enough to shove to one side, a drain in the center of the concrete floor, a lonely sink in the back corner. He shoves the poor little plant under the faucet, giving it a good long drink, before he heads back for the rest.

It takes him the whole damn day to bring everything inside, painstakingly going back and forth, up and down so many sets of stairs that eventually he loses count. By the end of it, his whole body aches. He wants nothing more than to flop down into bed, but he forces himself to hold out a little longer, to fill and refill the watering can and check the soil plant by plant.

Underwatering isn’t the end of the world, Cas had told him. You just show them a little care and they bounce right back.

Sure enough, when he checks on them the next morning, they’re looking better. There’s something to that, he thinks, the way they’ve soldiered on in spite of everything—thrived, even. It feels like such a small, stupid thing, but it gives him the push he needs to finish what he started.

The plants keep him silent company over the two additional days it takes him to get the rest of it done, working in spite of his muscles aching from the sudden activity. He makes a trip to curbside pickup at Lowe’s, getting grow lights and extension cords, the right hardware to screw everything into the ceiling so they can be raised and lowered as needed, a ton of plastic saucers so everything doesn’t drip onto the concrete and create one big trip hazard.

It really speaks to how thoroughly Cas is avoiding him that he doesn’t see him until the whole project’s finished. It’s the least he’s seen Cas in months, maybe years.

He’s lying completely still, trying to move his poor body as little as possible, when Cas appears in his doorway. “What did you do with my plants?” he demands.

Dean answers without lifting his head. “I brought them inside. I figured it was easier than dragging a greenhouse or two up to the roof.”

“Where?”

Dean stifles a groan as he struggles up off his bed, winces as he makes his way in silence through the hallways, Cas a sullen presence behind him. “Well, here they are,” he says, gesturing weakly into the room.

Cas pushes past him to stand just past the entryway, taking it all in. Back to Dean, he says, “You did all this?”

“Yep.”

He takes a tentative step forward, reaches for that first plant Dean had brought down, looking happier now in its newly cared-for state. Quietly, as though speaking to the plant, Cas says, “Thank you.”

Dean watches him move from pot to pot, takes in the tender, careful way he runs his fingers along the leaves—the same fingers that had once curled inside him, had gripped his sweat-slick skin, had brushed his hair back from his forehead. He stands there, chest aching, and watches the steady, searching way Cas examines every flower, that same look that Dean had so frequently turned away from.

He should say something, You’re welcome or No problem or Sure thing, bud, but he can’t do it, he can’t summon the strength. He turns on his heel and he leaves without saying a word.

Sam and Cas are talking animatedly at the table, leaning towards one another as they look at something on Cas’ phone. Dean smiles, seeing them like that, and for a moment he thinks maybe this can be his morning—maybe they can sit and eat breakfast together, laughing and joking, maybe he can nudge Cas’ foot under the table.

His pleasant little fantasy is dispelled before he even takes a seat. He hasn’t even finished pouring himself a cup of coffee before the conversation becomes more subdued, and by the time he sits down next to Sam, they’ve fallen quiet.

Sam glances over at Dean, across the table at Cas, who is stubbornly looking down at his phone, scrolling as he sips his coffee. “Well, uh,” Sam says, clearing his throat. “I have to—yeah.”

Jesus Christ, Dean thinks to himself as Sam beats a hasty retreat.

He should so the same, he knows. He should just get up and take his sad little breakfast to his room and eat alone. But he can’t stop thinking about the morning that might have been, so many mornings that could have been something else if he hadn’t messed everything up.

That feeling in his chest is back—hasn’t really left him, he supposes. Before he can think better of it, he blurts out, “I miss you.”

Cas stiffens. “I haven’t gone anywhere.”

“You know what I mean.”

Cas doesn’t look up from his phone, but Dean can tell he’s not reading, his eyes fixed in one spot. His jaw clenches, unclenches. He bites out, “Someday there will be a vaccine and you can go back to finding other people to fuck.”

Something in Dean wilts. “Is that really what you think this is about?”

Cas shrugs. “Am I wrong? The pandemic will end and things will go back to normal and you’ll have other things to distract you. You’ll be fine.”

The thing is, he doesn’t want things to go back to whatever their normal was before. He’ll take the pandemic being over sooner rather than later, but whatever it is that happened here, during this time where for once in his life he couldn’t hunt—this time where, having nothing else making demands on his time, free of everything he had always felt obligated to do, he had finally simply done what he wanted—he doesn’t want to let that go.

“Dammit, Cas,” he says. “I don’t just want a life full of fucking distractions!”

Cas sighs. “I can’t make your life mean something to you, Dean.”

“I’m not asking you to.”

“Then what is it you want?”

“I don’t—I don’t know.”

“Well, maybe you should figure that out.” He pockets his phone and starts to get up.

Dean stands, blocking his path to the sink, arms spread wide, placating. “Can we have a real goddamn conversation, please?”

“Why? Because you’re bored?”

“No! Because you’re pissed at me and I don’t understand why and I’m trying to fucking fix it!”

Cas looks at him, glancing from one of his eyes to another, brow furrowed.“You really don’t get it, do you?” He brushes past Dean, heading to the sink.

“Look,” Dean says, turning to follow him, “I know you’re still angry—”

Cas slams his empty cup down into the sink. “I’m not angry!” he yells, spinning to face Dean, something a little wild in his eyes. He visibly tries to collect himself, closes his eyes and takes a few deep breaths. “I’m not angry. I—fuck.” He reaches up, clenches his hands in his hair, chest heaving.

Dean stands perfectly still for a second, just watching Cas trying to steady himself, and then he moves towards him slowly, hands outstretched. He should probably just fuck off and leave Cas the hell alone, but that’s his problem—he never could stop reaching for him.

“Hey,” he says, softly. “Cas, hey.” He reaches up and pulls gently at Cas’ wrists, feels his pulse beating wildly beneath his fingertips. Cas lets him move his arms away from his head, but he keeps his face turned away, won’t meet his eyes. Dean steps closer to him anyway, wraps him up in a hug that he doesn’t return.

“I’m sorry,” he says, pressing his face into Cas’ hair. “Jesus, Cas, I’m so sorry.”

Cas’ breath hitches. “What are you doing?” he asks, voice breaking across the words.

“I don’t know,” Dean says. He’s never quite figured out how to love someone without it hurting one or both of them. “I haven’t got a fucking clue.”

The plants have perked back up in the warmth and light, at the return of Cas’ careful attention. Not a single bedraggled looking one in the room, and Dean smiles to see it.

Cas is curled up in a chair in the corner, watching something on his laptop. He hits pause, pulling off his headphones, and sighs. “Why do you keep doing this?”

Dean shifts from one foot to another. There’s only the one chair—he isn’t stupid enough to have dragged in another—so he’s forced to stand, squaring his shoulders against Cas’ weary, accusing gaze. “Doing what?”

“This,” Cas says. “Showing up here, when it just keeps ending badly.”

“Because nothing’s going to change unless I do.” Cas narrows his eyes at him, but he presses on. “You’ve never once sought me out,” he says, “not once this whole time. Not until you had decided things were over and wanted, what, one last goodbye lay?”

For a moment, Cas holds his gaze—and then he looks away, down at the floor. Quietly, he says, “It’s not like that.”

“Then what is it like?”

“I knew what would happen if I asked for more.” He gestures between them, encompassing the whole shitty situation, like it’s an explanation.

“You didn’t ask for more,” Dean says. “You told me I wasn’t enough for you and then ran off like you always do.”

“Stop,” Cas says, squeezing his eyes shut. “Please stop doing this.”

“Doing what?”

“Stop acting like you don’t know what I’m talking about!” Cas says, eyes flying open. “I don’t know how else to tell you, Dean. I love you. And I would happily spend my life with you, if that was what you wanted. And it's fine that”—he draws a shaky breath—“it's fine that you don’t feel the same. But please stop trying to force it.”

Dean gets it, all of a sudden. Tries to replay the last few months, mind racing, retracing the lines with something bolder. Cas isn’t angry. He’s fucking heartbroken.

He feels impossibly stupid all of a sudden.

“Wait,” he says, head spinning. “Cas, look, I—”

“If you’re about to apologize again, don’t.”

“I wasn’t—what?”

“You already said you were sorry. You don’t have to say it again.”

“Yeah, I did. I said sorry as in Sorry for hurting you, not as in Sorry for not loving you.” Something rises up in him, a brand new flavor of embarrassment—disbelief that he could mess this up so badly, could fail so spectacularly at seeming like he gave a shit over the course of, what, more than a decade? It kills him, the thought that he might have shown Cas that much disregard over the years. The thought that he might be that much like his father after all. “Look, I know I’m not the best at telling people how I feel, but Christ, what do you think all this has been about?”

“I’m not a mind reader, Dean. I can’t just magically know how you feel. And all you’ve told me is—is how nothing fucking matters, and how you’re just trying to distract yourself from thinking about it. What am I supposed to think?”

“Are you kidding me? After—after everything we’ve been through? Everything we’ve done? What the fuck do you think all that was about?”

“Well,” Cas says, “you made it pretty clear it was just about the sex, so.”

Dean drags a hand down over his face. “When has it ever been just anything, huh? Sure, that’s part of it, but it’s not all of it. It’s—it’s—it’s everything, all right? Everything that’s happened since we’ve known each other. Always sticking by each other, always working things out, no matter how hard it got. And everything that’s happened during this weird fucking pandemic. So yeah, the sex, but also going to bed next you to and waking up next to you, making you breakfast, helping you with your plants, just—I don’t know—just sitting around together, telling you all my stupid awful depressing thoughts and not having you freak out and run off or whatever. All that shit I said. I’ve never said that to anybody, all right? This is the closest I’ve ever been to feeling like I had a fucking life, okay, like maybe this is something that could last, and I fucked it up before I even realized that’s what was happening. That’s what I’m sorry about.”

In the silence after he stops speaking, Cas just...looks at him. But of course Cas’ looks have never been just anything, either. It still surprises him, sometimes, how expressive Cas has become. For the most part, it passes by unnoticed, just like so many changes that happen to people to spend so much time with—they occur little by little, day after day, so slowly that in the process you forget where things began. But Dean hasn’t forgotten how Cas used to be, will always remember the way it felt to be in a room with him, like he could see you—really see you, all of you—before he’d even looked your way. He feels just as exposed before Cas as always, but at least now Cas has to look him in the eye.

Cas looks at him now, human and hurting. Cas, who has never actually seen everything, who sometimes needs to simply be told things, just like anyone else.

Dean is the first to look away. “Well, anyway,” he says, clearing this throat. “I said my piece, so. I’ll, uh. I’ll leave you alone now.”

He turns to go, and Cas lets him leave.

Dean can’t save anyone right now, has never been able to save everyone, can’t even save himself from his own stupid decisions half the time. But he can at least keep the people he loves fed, even if it means spending hours alone in the kitchen only for them to heat up leftovers after the fact.

Which is why he startles at the sound of someone clearing their throat, and looks up to find Cas standing in the doorway, looking—he doesn’t know. Like he did that first night, maybe, when Dean first propositioned him, a little hesitant, a little embarrassed.

He says, “Do you want some help?”

Dean is pretty sure Cas knows about as much about cooking as Dean does about growing plants, which is to say: not a damn thing, but maybe he’s willing to learn.

“Yeah,” Dean says. “I’d like that.”

He was in the middle of a bread recipe he found on YouTube, one that looked easy enough and had a video that was only about three minutes long, which he’d felt was roughly the extent of his attention span and level of commitment right now. All the ingredients laid out, just waiting to be mixed. It would be impossible to screw it up, even for a beginner—the bread version of a plant you can’t possibly overwater.

“You can work on this,” he tells Cas, “and I’ll get started on the rest.”

It’s strange, how normal it feels, standing next to him, giving instructions until they wind up working together in silence, Cas frowning down at the dough as he kneads it while Dean peels potatoes nearby, trying not to smirk at his frustration.

“Can I ask you something?” Cas asks.

The peeler slips in Dean’s hand, nearly nicking his thumb. Okay, so maybe it’s not the bread Cas has been frowning at.

“Yeah,” Dean says. “‘Course.”

“If it meant something to you,” Cas says, “why did you pretend it didn’t?”

This time, he stops peeling to really think about it. He tries to remember how he felt back when he first came to Cas—restless, reckless, desperate to feel like anything he did mattered—remembers all too clearly how he only realized after it was over that it did matter to him, all the time they spent together. It mattered a whole hell of a lot. All that shit he said about nothing mattering? He gets it, now, that it was just a lie he was telling himself so he could pretend his actions wouldn’t have consequences. It’s fucking mortifying, figuring out how thoroughly he was lying to himself.

“I hadn’t figured it out yet,” he says, starting in on another potato, keeping his hands moving, giving himself something to look at. “When we’re out there, always on a hunt, always looking for the next case? I know who I am then. But this version of me, without the job? I don’t know who that guy is. And I guess it freaked me out, realizing that, so I panicked, looking for something else that felt like it mattered that much. So, I mean, I guess on some level I knew. And I was just trying to convince myself it didn’t matter, because, I dunno. Maybe I felt like I couldn’t let it mean anything because it would just become another thing it would hurt to lose. But it then it really fucking hurt to lose it anyway, so, well. Guess we can both do the math on that one. Anyway. I guess I figured that if nothing else, at least it would only mean something to me. At least I was only risking my own feelings, you know?”

“Not to turn your own argument back on you, but how can you think that? After all this time, after everything, how can you think I wouldn’t care?”

“What a pair we make, huh?” Dean says, and Cas huffs in agreement.

Sure, Cas had said he loved him—had said he loved all of them—but Dean knows that talk is cheap. After all, his dad had said he loved them, too. And of course that’s not fair to Cas, who has treated him better than that, has been his best friend for years. But some shit is just hard to unlearn.

“I think maybe that’s kind of baked in at this point,” he says. “That maybe it’s just a feature of my personality. I haven’t exactly ever been used to people giving much of a shit about me. Especially not enough of one to stick around through everything, you know? I know I’m a hard person to be around a lot of the time. I know I’m a hard person to love, and I don’t know if that’s ever going to change. You really want a whole lifetime of that?”

“Yes,” Cas says, easily. “I don’t know how else to convince you I love you, Dean.” The pause that follows is heavy, his words hanging in the air, until eventually he sighs and adds, “I don’t think this is working—”

When Dean’s brain catches up, he realizes that last part was about the bread and almost laughs at the relief of it. He stops his peeling to take a closer look—it’s coming together, it’s just not quite there yet. He supposes if he was trying to convince someone he loved them, he might not be a hundred percent focused on kneading, either.

“No, it’s fine,” he says, “keep going. It just needs a little more time, that’s all.”

“All right,” Cas says, resuming his kneading. “Anyway, I disagree with your characterization.”

“Huh?”

“You’re only infrequently hard to be around.”

Dean snorts in spite of himself. “Gee, thanks.”

“But you’re never hard to love.” Cas takes a deep breath and says, “You want to hear my shitty thoughts? The things I don’t want to admit?” He glances up at Dean just long enough to see him nod. “When I realized how long the pandemic was going to drag on, I was grateful. Of course I don’t want people to die. Of course I wish we could save them. But it seemed like a blessing in disguise. With the last of my power gone...it’s been nice, having this time to adjust. To not have to do anything other than eat and sleep and read and tend to my plants. To have things be easy for a change. But when things are back to normal and I have to hunt? To fight? When you or Sam get hurt and I can’t heal you?” He shakes his head. “I don’t know how I’m going to handle being human then. Historically, it hasn’t gone well. And this time, it’s permanent. You don’t know who you are when you’re not a hunter? Well, I don’t know who I am when I’m not an angel.” He pauses, sighs. “I think you already know I can be hard to be around, too. And it could very well get harder. Are you going to be okay with that?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You’ve been worrying about me, now that I’m human.”

“That’s nothing new,” Dean says. “I’ve always worried about you. If you’re hurt, if you’re safe, if you’re going to come back. Not that I didn’t already know this, but if this past year has taught me anything, it’s that shit’s tenuous.”

“I know,” Cas says. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. That’s what makes it so precious.”

“Yeah,” Dean says, setting the last of the peeled potatoes in the pot. “I know.”

The dough is done, too, smooth and perfect, just like in the video. Dean rinses his hands, idly wiping them dry as he leans with his hip against the counter.

“You know you don’t just have to accept scraps from me, right?” he says, as Cas turns to face him. “You deserve better than that, man. You can ask me for things. Or tell me things, whatever. Just don’t tell me and then run off. Give me a chance. You gotta give me a little more credit than that. It might take me a minute to sort my shit out, but you’re not going to scare me off. You know that, right?”

“I do now,” Cas says. “No promises about the rest of our lives.”

And, well, Dean’s in no position to hold that against him.

“I know how this started,” he says. “But I want you to know that this wasn’t just something I wanted to do during quarantine and stop as soon as it’s over. I want this all the time. I want to have an actual life. With you.”

“I want that, too,” he says. “But I don’t have answers for you, Dean. I don’t have anything to offer you other than my love and whatever time I have left. Is that enough for you?”

“Yeah, Cas, it is. Of course it is.” Dean swallows, sets the towel aside. “Is it too late to try again?”

“We’re both still here, aren’t we?”

“Yeah.”

“Then it’s not too late.”

“Good,” he says. “Great. Let’s just. Start over?”

“From which point?”

“Whichever one makes you the least annoyed with me.”

Cas huffs a laugh. “You’ve been annoying me since the beginning.”

“Look who’s talking,” Dean says, and he’s happy to see that Cas is smirking, too. It gives him the confidence to close the gap between them, to nudge Cas’ arm with his own and say, gently, “Hey.”

Cas looks up at him. He thinks it might always terrify him a little, looking right into Cas’ terribly expressive, wholly human face, but he plans to keep doing it, anyway.

He reaches up carefully, grazes his fingers along the side of Cas’ face, strokes a thumb over his cheek. As Cas presses his face against Dean’s hand, he leans in and kisses him, sweet and slow.

They lean with their foreheads together, after, catching their breath.

Smiling, Cas says, “Off to a good start.”