The Texas sky is a rolling black bruise, and the persistent storm makes the windowpanes rattle like teeth. From his place on the couch, Castiel looks out to see the trees bent double.
He lets out a sigh, stretching his neck from side to side to release the tension that is less physical than it is mental, and with a glance at the time, braces for the phone to ring.
It's a Wednesday evening routine; arrive home from training, take a shower, and wait for the inevitable phone call from his mother. Somehow, after all but ignoring his existence for the first twenty or so years of his life, she had decided as soon as he moved away for college that she required a weekly update on what he'd been doing.
Seven o'clock Wednesdays had quickly become a time to dread, and now, thirteen years after he'd left Chicago, the sight of the hour hand inching past the six is enough to set him on edge.
It had been marginally easier to deal with while he was still in college—his roommate had been loud and generally inconsiderate, and made it notoriously difficult to carry on conversation for more than ten minutes. He'd always had an excuse to hang up, then.
But he graduated years ago, and tonight, in his Houston apartment, he's watching the clock with a kind of creeping terror in his bones, because with only five months left of his training, he still hasn't told her about his upcoming assignment.
In less than half a year, he'll be moving to the International Space Station for a seven month long research mission. She's going to be furious.
He's certain he hasn't dreaded one of his mother's phone calls this much since his third year at Harvard, when she'd found out through a family friend that he had switched his major without telling her. She'd been hell bent on him following her example, pushed him into studying psychiatry despite his interests lying elsewhere, and he knew she was going to be angry. It's why he hadn't said anything.
The following day had been spent in a cold sweat, heart thrumming fast and a feeling like he might lose his lunch at any moment, and when the phone rang he'd gripped his sister's arm tightly.
Of everyone in his family, his twin was the only one with whom he seemed to get along, and even that was an occasionally strained relationship. Anna, though she'd had a brief rebellious streak in her teens, seemed content to do as she was told, and was not-so-subtly marked as the favorite. Castiel, on the other hand, bristled at the notion of unwavering obedience, and as a result Naomi considered him the problem child.
A thirty-two year old problem child with a PhD in neurobiology and a promising future at NASA, but a problem child nonetheless.
But Anna, for all their differences, had been on the doorstep of Castiel's share house at noon with a six pack and an apology in her eyes, and given him the heads up that his mother knew. She offered Castiel a beer and told him in no uncertain terms that if their mother had a problem with it;
“Then that's her loss. I know we haven't spoken much lately, Cas, but I'm proud of you, even if she isn't.”
Castiel had just stared at her, listened to her increasingly kind-yet-aggressive words, and nodded lamely, shocked that his sister was so accepting. So willing to back him up. Anna had stayed all day, sat on the edge of Castiel's bed and waited with him until the call came through. Still at seven on the dot.
She was a woman of habit, even then.
The first thing she told him was that his father would be disappointed. As if that should even matter. Though she still spoke to him, neither Castiel or Anna ever had. Castiel couldn't even remember him—he'd left at some point before Castiel had learned to talk—and whatever reasons his mother had for keeping in touch with him, let alone keeping him on a pedestal, Castiel didn't share them.
He told her as much, and her voice took on a tone of contempt that was difficult to ignore. Anna had smiled at him, but even with her encouragement Castiel just felt sick to his stomach.
Now, years later, the memory still makes his palms sweat. He wipes them against his jeans, looks at the clock. Three minutes until seven.
His entire body is tense, and he hates himself for it, for letting her get to him this badly. His entire life, regardless of his successes (and there have been a great many of them) she has never been satisfied unless he followed her instructions to the letter. This, working for NASA, using his PhD for anything other than what she considered sensible, goes completely against everything she wants. After two years she still hasn't warmed to the idea of him working for the space agency—and that's without knowing that he is actually going to space.
No, he thinks,furious is an understatement. She's going to kill me.
Pushing to his feet, Castiel paces to the rain-spattered window and leans his forehead against the cool glass to watch the storm. Trees whip about, branches thrashing in the wind, and he wonders if he'll be lucky enough for one of them to fall and bust the phone line.
Maybe I should just unplug it, he thinks, and huffs out a bitter laugh that quickly gives way to a grimace when the phone finally rings.
His mouths runs dry before he answers.
“I just spoke with Anna.”
Straight to the point, no hello, no how are you. It's what he expected, really. He stares out at the sky as a flash of lightning illuminates the rolling clouds and curses his sister. If this is how his mother is starting the conversation, then Anna told her everything.
“There's a storm coming in so I can't talk long,” he says, hoping he'll be able to get away with faking a signal outage, and he can hear her sigh on the other end of the line.
“When were you planning to tell me about this?”
“I only just—”
“Anna told me you've known for two years.”
Dammit, Anna, he thinks, and as if she'd heard it, a text message flashes on his cell phone, sitting on the coffee table. He backtracks immediately.
“—found out when I was leaving. It's not until October.”
“And you'll be there how long?”
“Seven months? For what purpose, Castiel?”
“Research on the effects of prolonged weightlessness on higher brain function, among other things. It will prove invaluable for the planning of future deep space exploration.”
She scoffs at this.
“You're wasting your doctorate.”
Castiel shuts his eyes, his head aching.
“Thank you, Mom.”
“Castiel,” she says, voice softening to that tone she uses when she wants him to think she's on his side, “I'm saying this for your own good.”
“I'm going to space. People would kill for an opportunity like this.”
“People would kill for a lot of things, Castiel. That doesn't make those things worthwhile.”
Castiel heaves out a breath and squeezes the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.
“I still know the head administrator at Johns Hopkins,” she tells him before he can speak again, “I'm sure I could get you an interview.”
“Did you want anything else?” he asks, already exhausted.
“Why? You can't stand to talk to your mother for half an hour?”
Exactly, he thinks. He wishes he could just cut her out, leave her as easily as his father had left them, but she wont let go. Besides, outside of his sister and his fellow trainee astronauts, who he wouldn't call more than colleagues anyway, he has a grand total of zero friends. If he cut his mother out of his life, he'd be down to one significant person in his life. It's too depressing to think about. He shakes his head.
“No, that's not—I'm just tired. How have you been?”
“Busy, you know. I spoke with your father this week.”
Not my father, Castiel thinks, but he bites his tongue.
“That's good,” he says.
“You don't want to know what he's been up to? He was asking after you.”
That's the kicker. He's been asking after Castiel and Anna their whole lives, checking up on them, keeping tabs and passing judgment down the line through their mother. As if he has any say in their lives at all.
“I suppose I'll have to call him again now. I doubt he'll be pleased.”
“I don't—” Castiel takes a deep breath, telling himself it's pointless to get into another argument about this, “I'm going to bed. I have to be up early for training in the morning.”
“Avoiding difficult conversations isn't conducive to good mental health, Castiel.”
It's difficult not to laugh at that.
“I'm not avoiding anything, I'm tired. I'll speak to you next week.”
He hangs up the phone before she can say anything else, then leaves it off the hook. It's barely five after seven.
Collapsing back onto the couch, he picks up his cell.
I'll be in Houston
Hope we can catch up.
No apology. He huffs out a miserable laugh and dumps the phone back on the table, ignoring the message. Leaning back, he closes his eyes and tries to understand how he ended up with the only mother on the planet to whom a son becoming an astronaut is a disappointment. He can't wait to be out of reach.
“Five months,” he says to himself, “sixteen days, eight hours.”
It feels like a lifetime away.
It's bizarre, Dean thinks, how quickly he has grown used to the feeling of weightlessness.
He's been aboard the Legacy spacecraft, hurtling toward the moon's surface at unfathomable speeds for a little over a day, and it's strangely comfortable. For the past half hour, he's been floating somewhere near the small rear window, staring out at the distant Earth.
“You nearly done with that, Barnes?” he asks Pamela.
She's hovering nearby with her back to him as she carries out a series of checks on the life support system, and with a glance over her shoulder she grins.
“Why, you gettin' bored?”
Dean snorts, leaning his forehead against the window.
Miles away, in Houston, he figures he might have been. It's close to eight in the morning, there, and if he'd still been on Earth, he'd probably have been stuck in traffic right now, crawling along at a snails pace from his too-big house to the training site. God, he's hated that drive. As much as he loves cars, he's never been patient enough for a peak hour commute. He'd much rather have his hands in the engine than his foot on the brake.
It's a major part of what lead him here. As a teenager, when he wasn't busy looking after his younger brother or talking his Dad down from a whiskey-fueled breakdown, he spent most of his time with his nose buried in the hood of his car. First, a second (though more accurately, fourth-or-fifth) hand Honda, then, after he turned eighteen, his '67 Impala. His interest in engineering was a natural progression, and combined with his strongly denied love of sci-fi, it graduated when he did and found him employed by NASA.
Their mission, to install four Helium-3 mines on the moons surface, is the first of it's kind, and even now, halfway there, Dean can't quite believe it's really happening. The drills at the center of the mission were built on Dean's own design, with a substantial amount of credit due to their crew-mate Jo for a few key parts, and the fact that they are actually here because of something he dreamed up has him grinning like a fool.
Once the mines are all up and running, there will be a quarterly rotation of eight crew members, four swapping out at a time and transporting the mined Helium-3 back to Earth for processing and conversion into an energy source. For now, their crew will be spending their time putting finishing touches on the base and setting up the hydroponic greenhouse, expanding and ensuring that everything is up to scratch in anticipation of the first eight operators to arrive In a little over six months.
“You think anyone's watching?” he asks, still staring down at the Earth, “kid with a telescope or something?”
“If you're thinking about flashing them, I'd like to remind you that this spacecraft counts as US soil,”Jo calls out from behind them, and Dean looks back to flip her off. She laughs.
In the exercise area, separated from the control room by a half-wall, the engineer is riding the stationary bike while Victor, the mission commander, pulls down on the weight bar. Every day they're in zero gravity, they are each required to exercise for a minimum of two hours to ensure their muscles don't waste. It's exhausting, and combined with the dehydration they all experience, Dean doubts any of them will have trouble sleeping when they land. Right now, Jo and Victor are nearing the end of their exercise cycle, and as they work out they're listening to what sounds suspiciously like Earth Wind and Fire on the small entertainment monitor. Dean squints.
Nope. Scratch that. It's definitely Earth Wind and Fire. It's fucking Let's Groove, blasted at full volume, and the two of them are singing along.
“You guys couldn't leave the damn disco behind?” Dean asks, scrunching up his nose in distaste, and Jo leans over the handlebars to look at him through the opening, blonde hair floating up in the air in front of her eyes where it isn't matted to her forehead.
“It's not disco,” she says, as if he's an idiot, “it's funk.”
“And hell no we couldn't,” Victor adds, “this shit is classic.”
“Classic shit is right,” Dean says brightly, and Victor laughs.
Dean looks back out the window, catching Pamela smirking at him as he turns.
“Not everyone can have such impeccable taste as you and I,” she says with a wink as she holds down a button, waiting for a beep to let her know it's all in working order.
“Yeah, well if they start playing Rick James I'm gonna throw them both out the exit hatch.”
“Challenge accepted,” Jo calls out, and three seconds later the bass line of Super Freak starts blaring through the tiny space, while Jo floats out, dancing in mid-air with a serious expression on her face.
Somewhere behind her, Victor is laughing loud enough to drown out the music, and Dean can't help but grin.
“You're both idiots.”
“And just think—you're stuck with us for six months,” Jo says, head bobbing from side to side in time with the music, “regretting this yet?”
Looking back out the window, watching the Earth slowly shrink away, Dean shakes his head.
“Not even a little.”
The rest of their flight goes smoothly, and at 5:36am on Friday, May 2nd2008, the Legacy begins it's shaky descent onto the surface of the moon. This, Dean decides, is the worst part.
For three days they've been hurtling through space at 21,000 miles an hour, and yet this is the moment he's been dreading. Landing is where it could all go wrong.
Back home on Earth, he'd written a letter to his brother just in case something happened, and given it to their uncle Bobby at the party Sam had thrown with express directions not to open it unless they absolutely had to. Bobby, gruff as ever, had taken it with a pinched expression on his face and looked at it like it might bite him.
“I'm serious, Bobby,” he'd said, “I don't want Sam reading this unless I make a new crater up there.”
“Why do I gotta be the one to deliver it? You think I'm gonna be in my right mind if somethin' happens to you?”
“Aw, Bobby, I'm touched.”
“In the head,” Bobby had muttered, but he shoved it into the overcrowded top drawer of his desk all the same before pulling Dean into a brief, motor-oil scented hug.
Sam had, of course, chosen that moment to walk in from the yard, and wanted to know what the love-in was all about. To avoid the touchy-feely conversation that he knew his brother would try to start up, Dean just told him Bobby was getting a little emotional in his old age.
His brother didn't believe a word of it, and within minutes had wheedled the truth out of Bobby and attempted to get the letter to hold onto it himself. Dean took it back.
Now, it's sitting in the glove compartment of his car, between the yellowed pages of the owners manual, and as the Legacy shudders toward the ground he wonders if Sam will find it there.
Soon, his heart is thundering loud enough that he can barely hear the rattling of equipment as they plunge down, down, down. He clenches his fists and hums the opening riff of Some Kind of Monster until he catches Jo looking at him with a raised brow and lets out a deep breath through his nose, releasing his hold on the communication button of his pressurized entry suit.
Focus, he tells himself, staring hard at the screen in front of him, making sure everything stays within safe parameters.
“AGS residuals all okay,” Jo calls out over the noise, looking over the instruments, “minus zero-point one, minus zero-point three, minus zero-point two. X and Z nulled to zero.”
“Looks like we'll need to yaw five degrees left,” Dean says, eying the screen, and Victor holds up a hand for him to wait a moment before giving him the go-ahead.
Carefully, Dean maneuvers the shuttle, tilting slightly to the left.
“Done. Still good Jo?”
“Better than,” Jo says, grinning, “all go for powered descent.”
“Altitude light is on,” Dean says, flicking a button, “ready when you are, Pam.”
“Beginning powered descent in three, two, one,” Pamela says, and hits the thrusters, “we have ignition.”
“Thrust is at nine—no, ten. Looking good.”
“Descent speed is on target,” Victor says before glancing at Dean, “how's our altitude?”
“Altitude is spot on,” Dean tells him, “now at four thousand feet.”
He stares hard at the screen, tries not to blink too much. Dimly, he registers that he's sweating profusely, and he tries not to cross his eyes as a single bead of sweat runs distractingly down his nose. He gulps, glad no-one can see his face through the helmet as he watches the altitude steadily drop.
“Coming up on three thousand feet... now. Go for landing.”
Jo nods and inputs a command while Pamela leans forward, straining against her harness to look out the tiny window. The noise is deafening, now, Legacy's thrusters roaring for all they're worth.
“I see the compound. Right on target,” she tells them, excitement making her voice louder than usual, “nice aim, guys.”
“Two thousand feet,” Dean relays, grinning at her despite his still panicking heart, “looking good.”
They descend rapidly from there, the capsule shuddering around them, and Victor relays information back to Houston as they go. Dean watches his screen with intense focus.
“Seven-fifty... six-fifty... altitude and velocity all okay.”
“Okay, here we go!” Victor says, pressing an assortment of buttons before pulling down on a nearby lever, “landing gear is locked and ready, brace for touch down in thirty. Let's set her down nice and gentle.”
There's an almighty roar as the reverse thrust slows them, pulling up, and then, with a bump that seems altogether too soft for the intensity of the moment, they are landed.
Victor inputs a sequence into the keypad in front of him, shutting off all engines, and at once they are in silence, stationary for the first time in three days.
For a long moment, nobody speaks. Nobody moves.
Dean stares out the window, looking over the lunar landscape he's dreamed of since childhood, and feels his breath catch in his chest. They're here.
“Holy crap,” he says, looking around at his crew mates, awestruck.
The moment shatters, and they burst out laughing. Jo just shakes her head.
“Jesus Christ, Dean.”
“In fifty years, when kids are sitting in class learning about the first people to mine the moon, they're going to see the transcript of this mission,” she says, still laughing, “and the first words uttered were holy crap.”
Victor reaches across and pats him on the shoulder before opening the clasp on his harness and stretching out his arms.
“Real smooth, Winchester,” he says.
“I try,” Dean tells him, laughing, and turns his attention back to the window. Outside, the surface of the moon rolls on for miles under a black sky.
It's a little over five hours later that they are finally given the all clear to leave the capsule. After three days with no gravity, even the gentle pull of the Moon's surface takes some getting used to. Before they exit, Pamela carries out a final check on their suits, just in case.
“Surface temperature is currently around one-ninety Fahrenheit,” she tells them, looking everything over, “thank God for the textile geeks that made these things, or we'd be frying our asses off.”
“Should send 'em a fruit basket,” Dean says, smirking when Pamela rolls her eyes, jiggling the clasp at his throat despite him already having done it, “we've all put these on before, Pam.”
“Yeah, well I kinda like you jerks,”she says, moving on to Victor, “and considering these suits are the only thing between us and certain death, I'd rather be sure.”
“Aw, you like us?” Victor asks, mocking, and Pamela winks at him before turning to Jo.
“Did I say you? I meant your asses. It'd be a damn shame to lose those.”
Jo snorts, and Pamela grins at her as she finishes checking.
“Alright, I think we're ready.”
Victor puts word through to ground control that they're heading out. The airlock takes a moment to open, and when it finally does, they file out, one by one. Dean holds his breath, exhaling slowly as his foot touches the surface for the first time.
His first few steps are surreal. The slow-motion hover of his feet in the air as he moves away from the Legacy's hatch is like being in a dream, and when Dean feels the ground under the sole of his boot, and it feels like Earth, he is stunned. He's not sure what he was expecting exactly—rock is rock, after all—but he sure as hell didn't think that it would feel familiar.
He moves to follow Victor and Jo, already making their way toward the base constructed before their arrival by remotely controlled robots and an earlier set up crew. Pamela trails close behind.
The Legacy base sticks up out of the pale ground, reflecting silver in the light of the distant sun; three squat, metallic domes in a row, the middle connected to the sides with ten feet of tubular polycarbonate. In the distance, to the left of the base, a second building houses the grow system that will eventually supply them with fresh fruit and vegetables, and a huge metal container that looks as though it would belong in a shipping yard sits waiting—the transport vehicle, buggys and drill components all stored inside.
“Home sweet home,” Victor says through the comm when he reaches the base's door, and following him inside, Dean grins.
They wait while Pamela carries out a series of tests to ensure that the life support systems are still fully operational, and once she's done, they go about the task of removing their space suits, not without fear.
Somehow, Dean thinks that no amount of tests or knowledge of how scientifically inaccurate Total Recallwas will ever convince him that his head is entirely safe from the possibility of exploding until he's proven it himself. Even once his helmet is off and he's breathing the cool air of the base, there's a full minute when he's half expecting to drop dead.
He doesn't, though. They're all fine.
After a few minutes of tense silence, all four simultaneously realize that they are still alive, and set about moving the supplies they brought with them into the limited storage space of what passes for a living area.
It's not exactly homey, but once they've all stuck a couple of photos to the wall in the sleeping quarters and beside the base computer and Victor and Pam have started heating up their first meal, it definitely starts to feel welcoming.
Over dinner, the four of them squashed elbow-to-elbow around the small table, Jo clears her throat and looks pointedly at Dean over her freeze-dried mashed potato.
“So. What was with the humming?”
He blanches, and even as he feigns ignorance, he knows it's a lost cause.
She raises her brow at him, pointing her loaded fork accusingly across the table before looking at Victor and Pamela.
“You guys heard it too, right?”
“When?” Victor asks, taking a bite, and Dean wants to high five him for about three seconds, but then he continues, “during take off or landing?”
“He was humming Metallica,” Pamela says, a glint in her eye, “I thought I was imagining it.”
“It calms me down when I fly,” he mutters, shoveling a fork full of gray, flavorless Swedish meatball into his mouth.
“Wait,” Victor holds up his hand, fixing Dean with a look of utter confusion, “are you... are you saying you're afraid of flying?”
They've all known each other for just shy of three years—and he's known Jo even longer—so considering their field and the scope of their training, Dean has felt more than a little prideful that his fear of flight has never been discovered. Still, that it's even come to light now is irritating.
“Kinda,” he says, taking another bite and hoping that it'll be the end of the conversation.
“Seriously?” Jo asks through a grin, as if she's psyched to have finally discovered something that scares him, and knowing her that's exactly what it is.
“Uhuh,” he mutters, resigning himself to the oncoming ridicule.
Victor looks away, contemplating this further, before looking back with a frown.
“Do I need to point out to you that you're an astronaut?”
“What?” Dean says in mock horror, and Pamela bursts out laughing. Victor just narrows his eyes, apparently still struggling to understand how and why. Dean can't help but laugh, and he looks down at his meal.
“I know it makes no sense.”
“It makes less than no sense,” Victor tells him, and Pamela chimes in, “What in the hell is wrong with you that you'd willingly do this for a living?”
“Short story? Star Trek.”
Victor narrows his eyes even further. Any more and he might as well close them.
“Yeah,” Pamela says, “I'm gonna need the long one, too.”
“That's what she said,” Dean says on reflex, and the entire table groans, “oh, come on, she set it up.”
“Just give us the story,” Pamela insists, leaning back in her seat and stretching out her legs, and Dean figures, what the hell. He's known them all long enough. What's a life story between friends.
“You know my dad was a marine, right?”
They all nod, and Dean puts down his fork, drumming his fingers over the table top.
“Basically, I had the typical military childhood. We moved all over, never stayed in the same place too long, so it was kinda hard making friends beside my kid brother. But I was a big fan of Star Trek. Like, I'm talkin' big fan. Starfleet button on my backpack big.”
“Dork,” Jo laughs and Dean grins at her as the others join in.
“Glass houses, guys,” he says, “I know for a fact you all went to space camp.”
Pamela snorts, shaking her head, and Dean goes on.
“Anyway, when I was eight we ended up living in Jacksonville, Florida for a few months. This kid in class saw my Starfleet button, we started hanging out, and when Dad shipped us off again to California we stayed in touch.”
“Like pen pals?”
“Yeah, I guess. So the next year, after my Mom...” he trails off, not really wanting to go into the details, and is grateful that nobody asks him to elaborate when he picks back up, “Dad left the marines and we settled in Lawrence. A little while later her family moved to Topeka. So we kind of grew up together. Anyway, I got really into cars, and I decided I wanted to be an engineer, or—technically, I wanted to be James T. Kirk, but that job was already taken and engineering seemed like a good second choice. But I never thought I'd get the grades to get into college.”
“Gotta admit, past Dean probably had a point,” Jo tells him, and he flips her off.
“I'm sharing a moving story here Jo.”
“Sorry, sorry, go on.”
“So anyway, this one day in senior year I was on the phone with her and said I was thinking of dropping out of school and joining the Navy like Dad always wanted me to, and she seriously lost it. Just started yelling at me down the phone, so you're just gonna give up without even trying because you're scared you're gonna fail?” Dean shakes his head, remembering her anger, “I told her I didn't want to let everyone down, and she just said what about letting yourself down? What would Kirk do?”
Victor laughs aloud, and Dean looks away, embarrassed.
“Anyway, I realized, terrible execution or not, she kind of had a point. And I really didn't want to join the Navy. So she pushed me to keep trying, I aced my final year, got into MIT on a scholarship, and here we are.”
“You still talk to her?”
“Pretty much every day.”
“Plot twist!” says Jo, and he winks at her, “that story got even more cheesy since the last time I heard it. And I'm telling Charlie about the voice you did.”
“Charlie?” Victor asks, looking between them, “ground control Charlie?”
“Yep,” Dean says.
“I knew you guys were friends, but...”
“Practically family. Seriously, if it wasn't for her being a total hardass, I'd probably be flippin' burgers right now.”
“So that's my long answer. I always wanted to see space. The idea of actually doing it scared the shit outta me, but I wanted to do it, so I did it.”
“Because that's what Captain Kirk would do,” Pamela says seriously, nodding and trying not to laugh, “way to go.”
“Boldly,” he says with another wink, and Victor laughs so hard he chokes on his potatoes.
“You're such a geek,” Jo tells him, thumping Victor's back, and Dean just shrugs, digging back into his meal.
“It's been said.”
After they've eaten, they end up watching Back to the Futureon the tiny monitor mounted on the wall, and halfway through Jo starts giggling over the absurdity of watching cheesy 80's sci-fi, “on the fucking moon!”
Soon enough they're all in stitches, and by the time they call it a night, they're all worn out enough that sleep comes easily.
It's during the hour that his training group breaks for lunch that Castiel meets her.
He's standing in line in a diner over the road from the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, trying to decide between a burger or a club sandwich, when someone prods him sharply between the shoulder blades.
He turns, expecting to see one of his future ISS crew mates—probably Garth, given how enthusiastic the poke was—but instead finds a red-haired woman with bright eyes smiling at him.
“You're Castiel Novak, right?” she asks, sticking out a hand before he can respond, “I'm Charlie.”
He takes her hand, shaking it despite being utterly confused and more than a little uncomfortable with the sudden and unexpected social interaction. It's not one of his strong suits, socializing. Without adequate preparation he's generally useless.
“Nice to meet you,” he says after a silence that goes on a little too long, and she grins widely, pointing over his shoulder.
“What?” he looks back toward the counter, where the cashier is waiting patiently, “oh.”
He orders his lunch—a Reuben, of all things, because the surprise introduction has left him flummoxed enough to forget what he wanted—and steps aside while he waits. Charlie, whoever she is, orders what seems like an utterly horrible combination of flavors—a spiced chai latte and a philly cheesesteak—and sidles up beside him.
“It's not often I get to actually meet the astronauts before they launch,” she says, tapping absently on her phone while she speaks before shoving it in her pocket, “so when I see one, I like to, y'know... swoop on in.”
He looks across at her with a raised brow, and her smile falters when she seems to realize she didn't properly introduce herself. She pulls an ID lanyard out from under her bright blue blazer, waving it under his nose briefly.
“Charlie Bradbury, mission control,” she says, her voice dipping low as if she's quoting something, though Castiel has no idea what, “I'm mainly working with the Legacy crew right now, but I speak to the ISS guys every now and then. That's where you're headed, yeah?”
“How did you know?”
“You're already online.”
That's not true. He hasn't accessed the systems at all, yet—that particular training wont start for another few weeks at least—and he narrows his eyes, trying to parse what on Earth this woman is talking about. She waves a hand in the air while she goes on to explain.
“Y'know, on the NASA website. Future missions section,” she says with a shrug, “I may or may not occasionally indulge in a little light internet stalking during my downtime.”
“That's a little unorthodox,” he tells her, and she grins at him again, as if he's made a joke.
“Girl's gotta have fun somehow,” she says, “I actually read half of your paper on... what was it? The physiological effects of space travel on the central nervous system?”
“You only read half?”
“Well it's pretty damn long, dude. And neurology isn't really my area, so it kinda went over my head a little, but still. Good stuff.”
She holds her fist in the air between them, waiting, and he stares at it.
“Neurobiology,” he corrects her, and she frowns in confusion, lowering her hand.
“Not neurology—neurobiology. There's a difference.”
The cashier calls out his number, and Castiel steps forward to take his sandwich, ready to leave. Charlie nudges him in the elbow before he can go.
“Hey, wait up, I'll walk back with you.”
He does, and they do. They're halfway back to the space center, discussing some book series that apparently Castiel needs to read, when Charlie pauses mid-sentence and looks over at him.
“You don't talk much,” she observes, then flushes, “sorry. I sometimes do this really cute thing where I say whatever pops into my head without thinking about how rude it is first.”
Castiel looks at her with a smile and shakes his head.
She's odd, to say the least, but he's been told the same thing about himself, so he figures he's not one to pass judgment. Besides, the more he talks to her he realizes that it's a pleasant kind of odd. She behaves as though they're already well acquainted, but unlike other people he's met he finds it isn't abrasive, but strangely charming. He decides, in that moment, that he likes her. He hopes they'll become friends.
“You're right,” he agrees, “I don't tend to deal well with social interaction. I'm working on it.”
“Sorry for the ambush.”
“It's okay,” he says, then figuring that transparency is key in maintaining relationships, adds; “I like you.”
She grimaces, uncomfortable.
“Oh... uh... jeez. I'm not... I'm gay, dude. Sorry.”
She points at herself, inexplicably drawing Castiel's eye to the Star Wars t-shirt she's wearing under her blazer.
“Strictly into chicks.”
“I just meant you seem nice. I'm not interested in you.”
“Blergh,” she says, before laughing, “tactful Charlie strikes again.”
“It's a shame, though,” he muses when they resume walking, “if either of us were interested in the other we'd certainly have an interesting story about how we met.”
“In the line at a diner?” she asks, doubtful, and he shakes his head.
“I was thinking more along the lines of you stalking me on the internet before confusing me to the point that I ordered the wrong sandwich.”
“You ordered the wrong sandwich?”
Nodding, he looks down at the paper bag in his hand with a scrunched nose.
“I hate sauerkraut.”
She laughs, holding out her own sandwich.
“We'll swap, then. I'll eat pretty much anything.”
“Are you sure?”
“Please,” she says, shaking the bag, “humor me. It's the least you can do to make up for not being a woman.”
His mouth ticks up at the side in amusement, and he accepts, handing his own sandwich over, and the rest of their walk goes by quickly. He can't remember having such a comfortable conversation in years, beyond the occasional good day with Anna, and when they reach the door to the training center, he's reluctant to say goodbye.
He's halfway inside when he hears her call out.
“Hey, you doing anything tonight? A few of us are going out if you wanna come with.”
In the two years since he moved to Houston and started training, he's been invited out maybe three times. It's his own fault. His own doing. He's always been solitary, and he knows that it's a defense mechanism—his parents are distant and even Anna fails to connect a lot of the time—but he doesn't likeit. And Charlie seems nice, and conversation with her is easy in a way he hasn't known for a long time. So he nods.
“Well alright,” she grins, pulling out her cell to exchange phone numbers, “you know The Garden?”
Castiel spends an embarrassingly long time standing in his apartment with a nagging doubt in his gut.
Charlie had invited him, but perhaps she's changed her mind. Maybe it was just out of pity, or guilt at having startled him in the diner, and she regrets the invitation. He changes his shirt three times, pointlessly considering they are all basically the same—a white button down is a white button down, after all—and contemplates sending her a message to say he can't make it. In the end, though, he looks across the room at his phone, and thinks of how the only thing keeping him from being okay is how isolated he is, and makes a decision. It's almost nine when he gets there, and for a couple of minutes he can't see Charlie. He goes to the bar anyway, set on at least trying to enjoy himself, and orders a whiskey sour.
It's as he turns around, looking for somewhere to sit, that he catches Charlie waving at him from a booth in the corner. She's surrounded by people, a couple of whom he recalls seeing around at the space center, and based on the enthusiastic way in which she's waving, she's already on her way to being drunk. He takes a big gulp of his drink and waves back, weaving through the crowd.
“You made it!” she shouts, climbing up over the table as he approaches, and the woman sitting next to her pulls her tall cocktail out of the way just in time.
“Sorry I'm late,” he tells her, instinctively reaching out to steady her as she jumps down onto the floor.
“Pshh, no problem,” she says, “anyone want anything from the bar?”
She points at the people at the table, repeating their requests back to them twice, before disappearing through the crowd, and Castiel watches her go before looking back at the group of strangers he's been left with.
“Hello,” he says, trying for a smile, and the nearest man—perhaps twenty-four, with a wide, friendly smile—sticks out his hand.
“Kevin Tran,” he says, shaking firmly, “you're Castiel, right?”
“Charlie gets kinda forgetful when she's had a few mojitos,” the woman with the cocktail says, tucking a loose strand of her short blond hair behind her ear, “I'm Kate, that's Ash, Sam, and Jess.”
Ash is wiry, scruffy in his sleeveless shirt, and his hair is cut into a style that even Castiel knows hasn't been socially acceptable in at least twenty years, but his eyes are kind and his grin is genuine. Sam and Jess are sitting close together. He's tall, Castiel can tell even though he's sitting, and his arm is around her shoulders where she's pressed up to his side. They both look up at him, smiling in greeting, and he smiles back as he slips into the space beside Kevin, all his worry about the evening fading quickly.
Kevin and Ash, he soon learns, both work with Charlie on the Ground Control floor. Ash talks like an old country song, weaving so smoothly from phrase to phrase that when he switches from complex physics to Skynyrd lyrics he doesn't miss a beat. Castiel has no idea what he's talking about half the time, but he thinks him infinitely interesting. As he drinks his whiskey, listening to Ash talk, he feels a nudge at his shoulder. Charlie is there, holding a tray of drinks, and she puts it down on the table.
Everyone shuffles along, and Charlie sits down next to him before pointing at the last drink on the tray. It's bright green and tall.
“That's for you,” she says, “it's called I Hate Sauerkraut.”
“They have a drink called that?”
“They do now. Worked my magic on the bartender. Drink up, spaceman.”
He does. It's sour and sweet, and his eyes scrunch a little.
“Good?” she asks, “Gilda told me it'd be good.”
“Too good, I think,” he tells her, “how many shots are in this?”
Kevin laughs beside him, raising his own glass to clink against Castiel's.
“Welcome to the gang,” he says, and Castiel very nearly thinks he's being serious.
As the night goes on, he gets to know them all a little better. Kate is a friend of Kevin's from Michigan, though he suspects both of them are a little in denial about how deep that friendship goes. Sam and Jess are newly married, which doesn't surprise him in the least, and they are old family friends of Charlie's.
“We went to Florida to see of my brother, stopped by here on the way home,” Sam tells him across the table, “maybe you know him? Dean, on the Legacy crew?”
Castiel thinks for a moment, then shakes his head.
“I don't think we've met.”
“He designed the drill they're using up there,” Sam says, clearly proud, “We're just crashing at Charlie's place for a couple more days before we head back.”
“Where do you live?”
“San Francisco,” Jess says, wistfully, and Castiel smiles at her.
“You miss it.”
“We've got beaches here too, y'know,” Ash tells her, and she makes a pssh sound.
“Not the same.”
By the time the bar lights come on, the owners not-so-subtly trying to kick everyone out, Castiel is buzzing. When Charlie hooks an arm around his shoulder, asking if he'll come next week, too, he has no reason to say no.
It's a few days before the Legacy crew are given the all clear to begin the drill assembly, and they spend their time until then properly setting up the habitat. While Jo and Victor work on the main building, checking over every inch of the structure to ensure that there are no weak points and unpacking six months worth of freeze-dried food, infirmary supplies and maintenance tools, Dean and Pamela head over to the greenhouse.
They have seeds for romaine lettuce, spinach, peas and radishes, and while Dean would have turned his nose up at any of them before leaving Earth, he's already looking forward to the day that they can eat some real food.
“Shame there's no such thing as a bacon tree,”he says, adjusting the pink-tinged lamp over a tray of spinach seeds, “you think any of this is actually gonna taste like anything?”
“Maybe the radish,” Pamela says, “if not we'll just have to save up the shrimp cocktail sauce.”
Somehow, of everything they've eaten since taking off, the only thing that hasn't tasted of cardboard is the little plastic pouch of shrimp. It's been less than a week and Dean is sick of it already.
It's a side effect of space travel—the sinuses getting all blocked up—and the taste buds just stop functioning properly. In a way it's probably a good thing that they don't have anything particularly appetizing to eat—they probably wouldn't be able to taste it anyway.
Setting up the greenhouse takes hours.
Low gravity makes everything slower, and even though lifting heavy objects is far easier, it's also more tiring. When they're done, Dean is exhausted, and there are more trays of seeds than he thinks they'll ever need. The first operations crew are going to have a miniature farm waiting for them. Climbing back into his suit with aching limbs, Dean hopes they'll appreciate it.
At the end of the next day's call back to Houston, he mentions it to Charlie, and she laughs at him.
“How is that even funny?”
“Your suffering amuses me,” she says, still laughing, “anyway, now that all the business is done, gimme the Dean News.”
“What news could I possibly have? Met a moon man?”
“I met a space man,” she says, and Dean snorts.
“An astronaut, I mean. Another one. Your replacement. I think I'll keep him.”
“He better looking than me?”
“How is that possible?”
“I think you're making him up.”
“Now why would I do that?”
“What's his name, then?”
“That's obviously a made up name.”
“All names are made up,” she shoots back, “like Dean is any less weird. Say it ten times in a row and tell me again how normal your name is.”
Dean leans back, calling out to Victor.
“Hey, Vic—you know anyone at NASA named Castiel?”
“Victor hasn't heard of him,” Dean says smugly.
“I have,” Pamela says, making her way across the room to lean against the computer as she chews on a protein bar, “nice guy, eyes like fuckin' lasers.”
“That's the one,” Charlie says, and Dean pulls a face.
“Laser eyes? Really? Not making him sound more real, Charlie.”
“Sam met him, too.”
“Sure he did.”
Charlie laughs again, and Dean can picture her, shaking her head at him. He grins at the computer, glad he's lucky enough to have near constant contact with his best friend.
“Well if there's nothing else,” she says after a moment, “Michaels is coming in in a few minutes, so I'd better get to writing up the log.”
“Say hello to your fake friend for me,” he says.
“Signing off, Dean,” she says, feigning exasperation.
Most days go by in much the same way. The Legacy crew is woken at seven in the morning, Houston time, and after eating a generally disappointing breakfast, they work on the drill, break for lunch, work on the drill some more, then call back to ground control to update them on their progress. Half the time it's Charlie they talk to—the rest of the time, it's either Kevin or Ash. Through some unspoken agreement, Dean ends up doing most of the talking, and considering that he calls all of the control officers friends, that's alright by him. Charlie mentions Castiel three more times before he actually believes that he's a real person, and when he tells her as much she laughs for so long that he mutes the audio.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” she says when she's stopped, “I ran into a friend of yours at The Garden last week.”
“Linus,” she says, and starts laughing all over again.
Dean feels his face burning red.
“Christ,” he mutters, “six years, Charlie. How are you still laughing about that?”
In the way that most of the good stories of his youth seem to begin, he was drunk, and the campus security guard tasked with removing him from the bar had been adorable. He told him as much.
“You're very seductive,” Charlie says, her voice a low growl that Dean assumes is meant to be an impression of him, and he scowls at the microphone.
“I said, you're awesome,” he says, though he knows that doesn't account for the wink and come-hither eyes he'd made at the guy, “and that's all.”
“He hit on Cas,” she tells him, clearly amused.
“And now I'm back to thinking your spaceman doesn't exist.”
It's almost a month later, a month full of tending to the greenhouse and the frustratingly slow assembly of complex machinery in low gravity, that they are finally ready to run the final checks on the first drill. If all goes to plan, it will be in operation at some point in the next twelve hours. Dean is pumped.
For the past five years, these drills have been his entire life. While his brother had been off meeting his girlfriend-turned-wife, he'd spent his nights slaving over notebooks, eyes bleary and sore as he stared at the blue flicker of his computer screen. Fifteen years ago, if someone had told his teenage self that he'd actually skip college parties in order to work on a drill design, he'd have thought they were crazy. Then again, the fact that he'd even gone to college, and MIT at that, would have been a pretty hard sell.
From the original concept all the way to construction and now, installation, he and Jo worked together to create something that he's pretty sure is going to help solve the worlds energy problems for the foreseeable future. He still can't quite believe that he managed to sell the design to NASA, let alone get hired on as an astronaut, and as he attaches the drill trailer to the transport vehicle, checking the clamps, he lets out a heavy breath that fogs the inside of his helmet.
Somehow, an idea mentioned in passing to Jo over coffee turned into his life's work, and after asking his favorite professor—a woman named Missouri who had convinced half her students she was psychic by her uncanny ability to detect what she referred to as their nonsense—for advice, he had set about drawing a plan. She'd known someone, a previous student, who was involved in the space program, and after a few surprisingly short meetings during which he sweated through his shirt, he'd been offered not only a substantial sum for his design, but a position on the crew that would set it up. Over the span of three months, he'd gone from having a vague plan to apply for work at a car company to having a guaranteed position at NASA and a space mission on the horizon. He hadn't even mentioned the idea to his brother when it was offered to him, and that phone call will go down in history as one of the most convoluted and confused conversations he's ever had in his life.
It's a little overwhelming. Whenever he lets himself really think about it, about where he is, where he came from, what he's doing, he gets overcome with the feeling that he's an impostor. Even now, he's halfway convinced that someone is going to come up to him and demand to know what he thinks he's doing. But he did it. He's here. Mom would be proud, he thinks, Dad, too.
“Locked in?” Victor asks over their comm link, and Dean raises a hand with a thumbs up.
“All good, boss,” he says, thumping the back of the trailer before moving around to the passenger side.
“Well alright,” Victor grins, “let's get this show on the road.”
It becomes a thing; after training on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Castiel goes to The Garden. Sometimes the others are there, sometimes it's just Charlie, a few times just Kevin, and he finds himself getting more comfortable with every passing week. He's opening up, learning to see himself though their eyes, and when his mother's Wednesday night phone calls come around, he stops getting nervous.
Somewhere along the line, they stop organizing to meet up at the end of the day, and just do. Castiel knows that if he turns up at The Garden after six, there will be an empty seat and a full drink waiting for him.
Thursdays at The Garden turn into Saturday movie marathons and take out on Charlie's sofa. Castiel doesn't think he's ever seen so many films in his life. It goes on for weeks, then months, and then suddenly it's September and he finds himself with the best friend he's ever had. Maybe the only one, other than his sister.
For the past month Charlie has been trying—rather desperately—to get the bartender to ask her out. When Castiel first pointed out that she could save herself a lot of trouble if she just asked the girl out herself, Charlie looked at him like he was crazy.
“Dude, I do notask girls out. I charm the shit out of them until theyask me.”
“Oh, I'm sorry—when was the last time youhad a date?”
Castiel opens his mouth to reply, then realizes how many yearsit's been, and sinks back miserably onto the bar stool.
“Point taken,” he mutters, and Charlie looks taken aback, muttering something under her breath about tact and her own intelligence.
Tonight, he's drunk, and it's entirely Charlie's fault. Her current plan to entice the bartender involves asking her to come up with new cocktails, a bizarre plan if anyone cared to ask Castiel's opinion, but every one she makes ends up being placed in front of him after Charlie has taken a sip. The drinks have all been good, but he's drunk. Very drunk. He gets talkative when he's drunk. Even more so when he's talking to someone who asks personal questions when they'redrunk.
So when Gilda heads away to take an order and Charlie leans heavily on the bar, her head resting in the crook of her elbow, and asks, “Castiel are you lonely?” he has no other reply but the truth.
It's not something he'd ordinarily admit, but right now, in the swimming, dim light of The Garden, with the Genesis song he really shouldn't have cued up on the jukebox playing quiet under the chatter of the Thursday night crowd, he's feeling just loose enough to let the words come out. Charlie looks at him unhappily and reaches over to squeeze his forearm.
“I know you get... anxious and stuff. But you're awesome and if you talked to more people, then they would knowyou were awesome then they would definitely want to be around you and then—” she pauses to breathe, a big gulp of air followed by an equally big gulp of whatever cocktail it is that she's drinking, “thenyou won't be lonely.”
Castiel shakes his head, staring at the slow-melting ice in his glass.
“That just makes it worse.”
“You know that makes no sense, right?”
“If I'm alone, then it's okay.”
Charlie just stares at him, squinting through a vodka haze, and he searches for a way to explain. He's tried to articulate it before, if only in his own head, but it's difficult to put into words the bone-deep feeling that he'll never quite measure up without it sounding pathetic, and he's fine, he tells himself. He doesn't need anyone else. He's got Charlie. To a lesser extent, Kevin and Ash. Occasionally he has Anna. Three friends and a sister is more than enough. Any more than that would be overwhelming, surely. When he thinks it in so many words, it doesn't sound quite so convincing.
He swirls his drink, frowning, and takes another breath before he speaks.
“If I'm alone then it's okay that I'm lonely,” he says slowly, hoping it makes sense, “If I'm alone it means I'm not ungrateful for the people I do have in my life, and if it's my choice it means I'm not... unlikable, or wrong; I'm just alone. See?”
Charlie's expression turns positively empathic, and Castiel shakes his head.
“But it's fine,” he tells her, believing it less and less with every time he says it, “I'm fine with it.”
“No, you're not,” she says after a moment, “and you shouldn't feel like you have to pretend to be.”
Giving up, Castiel nods, non-committal, and Charlie gets up from her seat to hug him, arms wrapping tightly around his waist.
“I get it,” she says over his shoulder, “but you are in no way unlikable or wrong, Cas. Don't ever think that.”
“Don't hmm me. I'm serious.”
“I believe you.”
After a while, Gilda saunters back to the bar in front of them, and Charlie becomes too distracted to carry on a conversation.
So by midnight he's sitting miserably at the end of the bar, watching a weather report on the flatscreen while Charlie makes another attempt at gaining said bartenders affection. His mood has already lowered further than before, and when he sees the words chance of thunderstormsappear on screen, he groans aloud.
A dark-haired girl sits down beside him and tuts before turning to him.
“Ugh, more storms?” she says, and Castiel nods, taking a sip of his drink and hoping she'll leave him alone. She's pretty, he thinks. Dark curls and a wry smile. But he's drained, and the prospect of having someone flirt with him in the wake of what he just admitted makes him want to give up leaving the house altogether.
“Do you—” the girl starts, then cuts herself off, “Wow, I was actually about to ask if you come here often. God, embarrassing.”
She grins, shaking her head.
“Let's start over. My name's Meg,” she says, sticking out her hand, “and I'm not trying to pick you up, I swear.”
Good, Castiel thinks, shaking her hand with a half smile, and tries to take Charlie's advice. Perhaps making some more friends would be good for him. It certainly wouldn't hurt.
“I'm Castiel. And yes, I do come here often. My friend—” he points at Charlie, who's leaning over the bar, grinning while Gilda mixes her drink, “appreciates the service.”
Meg looks over at Charlie's shameless flirting, and an odd glimmer of recognition flickers over her face before she looks back at Castiel.
“So what're you, her wingman?”
“I don't think she really needs one,” he says, and she laughs, "Do you know Charlie?"
Meg's eyebrows raise in surprise, and she leans her elbow on the bar.
"What gave it away?"
Shrugging, Castiel swirls the ice around his drink.
"She's a friend of a friend," Meg says eventually, though there's a strange catch in her voice, a brightness to her eyes that Castiel can't place, "we hung out a few times."
Something in the way she says it suggests that there's a lot more to the story than that, and were Castiel in a better mood he'd probably ask about it. But the alcohol is living up to it's name as a depressant. It's late, close to midnight, and he has another full day of training tomorrow. Home, as dull as it is, is seeming like more of a refuge with every passing moment. Standing up, he picks up his drink, draining the glass.
"I'll let her know you're here."
“I have to get up early in the morning,” he says, putting his glass down on the bar and shrugging on his overcoat.
“Damn,” she says with a dejected frown, “cos I kind of wastrying to pick you up.”
Raising his brow at her, he opens his mouth to give her some form of the I'm not interested, sorrythat has worked out for him thus far, but before he can she's standing.
“I guess I'll see you around, Clarence,” she says, walking toward the pool tables, out of earshot before he can correct her.
He watches her go with an uneasy feeling that is either the whiskey in his gut or a sixth sense for trouble, and as he makes his way over to Charlie, he sincerely hopes it's the former. When he taps her on the shoulder, she turns, still grinning about something the bartender had said.
“Cas! Gilda was just telling me about nursing school,” Charlie says loudly, “she's gonna be a nurse.”
“Really?” Castiel asks, arching one eyebrow.
Dropping her voice into what's supposed to be a whisper, but comes out at the same volume as regular speech, Charlie smirks at him, “I'd let her check my vitals, if you know what I mean.”
With a glance up at Gilda, who's busy shaking a cocktail and pretending not to listen to their conversation, Castiel laughs.
He leans in to Charlie's ear.
“Just ask her out.”
“Nooooo,” Charlie stirs the straw around her drink, shaking her head, “my plan is working.”
“Good luck, then. I'm going home.”
“No, Cas, stay! Have another drink! I'll buy!” she waves at the bartender, “Gilda, give this man ten cc's of alcohol, stat!”
“You know that's only two teaspoons, right?” Gilda asks, pouring the mix into a martini glass and handing it to a woman a few stools down.
“Don't poke holes in my banter,” Charlie says with a smirk, leaning across the bar and pointing at Gilda with her straw, before looking back at Castiel, “c'mon, Cas, stay a little longer.”
“I'm tired,” he lies, “Will you be okay to get home?”
She frowns at him, disappointed. Part of him wants to point out that she wasn't actually talking to him anyway, but then she'll think he's upset with her—which he isn't—so he doesn't say anything. After a moment she sighs dramatically.
“Fine,” she says, crossing her arms in mock anger, “go ahead. Leave me. You're a terrible friend.”
“I love you, too,” he says, and she shoves him.
“Get out of here, spoilsport. Kevin's still around here somewhere, I'll share a cab with him.”
“Are you still coming tomorrow?”
“Is the princess in another tower?”
“I take it that means yes.”
“You know it means yes.”
“So why don't you just say that?"
"Banter. Holes. No poking."
Leaning down, he kisses the top of her head, and she shoves him lightly again.
“Bye, Charlie,” he laughs, and she leans off her chair to slap his ass as he walks away.
"Don't give her anything else to drink, Gilda," he calls back over Charlie's giggling, "she's so drunk she thinks I'm a woman."
At some point during the night, the forecasted storm rises up and knocks out the power, and Castiel's alarm never goes off. When he wakes, it's to the sound of the doorbell, and a glance at his phone tells him it's a few minutes after eleven. He scrambles out of bed and pulls the door open to find Charlie waiting with a bag of bagels and two cups of coffee.
"Nice jammies," she says in place of a greeting, and he rolls his eyes, pulling the door fully open to let her inside.
"They were a gift," he tells her, scratching at his stomach, "from my sister."
"Sure they were, spaceman."
She holds out one of the paper cups, and Castiel takes it, breathing in the coffee smell. It wakes him quickly, and the vague embarrassment over his astronaut pajama pants dissipates as he takes his first sip.
“I take it you got home without any trouble?” he asks, closing the door, and sees Charlie biting down on her lip, suppressing a smirk.
“Hmm,” she says, “in a manner of speaking.”
“Don't tell me you actually—”
“There was spooning,” she says primly, handing over the bagels, “very classy. And then... well, this morning there was other stuff, but I was sober by then, so there was no advantage taken.”
“In that case, I'm happy for you,” he says, and she grins as she sits down on his threadbare couch, “do you want one of these?”
She shakes her head, and he ducks into the kitchen to dump the paper bag on the counter. When he comes back out, he finds Charlie looking with interest around the cramped living room, and knows she's probably wondering why it's so plain.
Despite having been friends for months, she's never been here before. He's been in her apartment plenty of times, and it's bright, decorated with photographs and paintings and posters. There's a fish tank by her door, where Pippin and Merry swim endless figure eights through a stream of bubbles; a couple of indoor plants in colorful pots along the windowsill; bookshelves stacked with novels and figurines she insists are collectables and not toys. Her home is lived in and warm, and while the building itself isn't in much better condition than his, it's infinitely more welcoming.
His apartment, on the other hand, is on the first floor of a block built in the late seventies, situated opposite a small park, and is what a realtor would call cozy—perhaps even quaint, if they were feeling particularly fallacious. If he'd written the advertisement himself, he'd have called it tiny and dilapidated.
There are cracks in the drywall, mysterious lumps in the carpet that move when he presses a toe against them. The kitchen is ancient, barely even worth looking into, let alone cooking in. His bedroom, at least, is decent sized. To a degree. He can walk around two sides of his double bed, and the closet door only just bumps into the footboard when he opens it three quarters of the way. It's better than his last place, at any rate. But he still hasn't put any pictures up.
"I don't plan on living here long," he tells her, and she looks back at him with a frown, "it's just a place to store my things until I find someplace better."
Almost every day, he reminds himself that it is temporary. So far, it has been temporary for two years.
Still, he refuses to decorate for fear that the run down rooms will start to feel like home. Beyond the string of Christmas lights, still suspended over the window from the year before when the building's super had insisted that anyone with a street facing window should get in the holiday spirit, there's nothing in his apartment interesting enough to look at. He's waiting, though he's not entirely sure what for. Sometimes, when he's half-asleep and daydreaming, he thinks about a time in the future, perhaps after he returns from the ISS, when he'll build a house, settle in. It'll be somewhere open and bright with a fireplace and a birdhouse and something fragrant growing in the front yard. Maybe near the ocean, or a river, or a forest--somewhere where he'll be able to sense the movement of the world, hear the sound of flowing water and rustling leaves. It'll be the kind of house he'd wanted to live in as a child; warm, rich carpets and worn furniture instead of the sterile, multi-level maze of tile and stainless steel kept so spotless that to so much as touch the counter top was to show a level of disrespect akin to spitting on the floor.
"I'm planning to build a house after I get back from the ISS."
"I don't know yet. It depends."
He shrugs, picking at the back of the couch.
"Anna will be here at twelve," he tells her, "I just need to--"
"Go, get ready. I'll just snoop around out here 'til you're done."
"I don't think you're supposed to actually tell people that."
"Pssht, like you didn't already know I was gonna."
Anna is every bit as punctual as their mother. When the clock ticks over to 12, the doorbell sounds, and Charlie looks at it incredulously.
"See?" Castiel says, rising from his seat to let her in, "I told you."
When he opens the door, Anna smiles at him.
"Hey, Cassy," she says, holding out a white cardboard box for him to take, "I brought quiche for lunch. Is your friend here yet?"
Stepping aside, he gestures toward Charlie, who's standing awkwardly by the couch, blatantly checking his sister out. He tries not to laugh at her expression when he catches her.
"Anna, Charlie, Charlie, Anna," he says, and wonders why on Earth he thought this was a good idea.
When his sister had called a month ago, reminding him about her trip to Houston, he'd been with Charlie, and she'd seen the look of worry on his face when they'd made plans. Once he'd hung up, she'd asked him about it, and he admitted that he wasn't sure where he and Anna stood. Whether she was siding with his mother or not, and that seeing her made him worry that he'd go back to how he'd been before. That he'd lose all the progress he's made when it comes to branching out. Charlie had suggested making it a group thing, but he'd told her that he doubted that would go over well. This was her next suggestion.
As it turns out, it was a great idea. Somehow, it's the most comfortable he can remember being with his sister since they were teenagers, and he puts it all down to Charlie's good natured spirit. Even his dingy apartment feels nicer, more homey, and they talk in depth for the first time in years. When he learns that their mother had told Anna he hated her for mentioning his mission, he huffs out a heavy breath and shakes his head.
“I wasn't,” he says, “I'm not. I never said anything like that.”
“Why would she... do you think she'd say that on purpose?” Anna asks, “turning us against each other so we'll have nobody but her?”
"Hmm," he nods vaguely. He's considered it before. Even when they were teenagers, she'd pit them against each other, drive them to compete, and he's never known his sister to be as disappointed in him as his mother has made her out to be. It's still an awful thing to think, though, and he hates what it does to him. Anna looks stricken, and he hates that even more. "Honestly, Anna, I hope not. But it wouldn't surprise me."
In the end, Anna stays until nearly five in the afternoon, and when she leaves it's reluctantly, with repeated dismay about the dinner meeting she has to attend. Castiel hasn't had a pleasant day with his sister in years, and he's missed it. He's missed her. He tells her as much as she hugs him goodbye, and she squeezes him tightly. Before she goes, she thanks Charlie for the music she's promised to send her, and heads out to her car.
With the door firmly closed, he rounds on Charlie.
"What happened to Gilda?"
"Coy doesn't suit you, you know."
"Ah, shut up. For one, your sister is cute as hell, and straight or not I couldn't help myself. For two... don't tell Gilda. Not that I'm actually dating her. Yet."
"Your shameless flirting is safe with me."
"Thank you," she laughs, "now d'you wanna order some real food?"
It's a slow process, installing the drills, and almost four months in they are ready to set up the third mine site. The Aristarchus crater, the edge of which is around 45 minutes drive from the base, with another 30 minutes to get to the bottom, following a steep incline around one side, is the planned location.
“You wanna ride shotgun?” Dean asks Pamela, patting the seat beside him in the transport vehicle, and she shuffles around to face him, halfway to the buggy where Jo and Victor are already waiting.
“Nah,” she says, “the seats in that thing are horrible.”
“Your loss,” he says.
“Sure it is, Winchester,” she winks.
As they drive toward the crater, Jo, Victor and Pamela in one buggy, with Dean following a few minutes behind, there's a shock wave that makes the ground tremble.
Bright in the sky ahead, burning through the dark, is a small cluster of meteors. It's not uncommon—small showers happen from time to time, and it's in no way the first they've seen since they've been up here—but at the center is a bright rock, and it's definitely bigger than the others. Brighter. He stares up at it, and his stomach drops as his eyes register it's trajectory. He hits the button for his voice link as another of the smaller rocks collides with the surface, exploding in a cloud of pale dirt and rocking the ground beneath him.
“Jo, look ou—”
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh sh—”
As Jo maneuvers the buggy along the crater's edge, the meteor hits, sending up a massive plume of rock and dust that hides it from view, and her voice is cut off by crackling, roaring static, so loud that Dean's head pounds. He slams on the brakes.
“Jo?” he says, panicked, hands shaking as he tries to hold down the communicator button, “Pamela? Victor?”
There's nothing but static, and the dust cloud obscures everything.
“Do you copy? Jo, are you—”
For a moment Dean sees nothing but darkness. Then, there's a flash, red and orange and awful, that lights up the cloud from within, and then even the static is gone.
Another shock wave rolls through the rock. Another. Another. When the shower is over, seconds later, he's counted seven in total, though most must have been no bigger than basketballs.
It takes Dean nearly three minutes to catch up to them in his slow moving transport vehicle, and by the time he gets there, the dust has cleared, and the buggy is nowhere to be seen.
He pulls to a stop, tasting acid, heart in his throat, and moves as quickly as the low gravity will allow him. The meteor, a glossy, dark thing the size of a bar fridge, has driven into the ground, and there's a scrape of blue-white down one side where it hit the buggy. He moves past it to look down over the ledge, and there he can see the buggy, crumpled in on itself. The oxygen tank on the back is blackened, torn open from within, and the front seat has detached completely. It sticks up out of the ground to the buggy's left.
Beneath it, the buggy itself he can see a space suit, half pinned under the front wheel. Unmoving. Another lays about ten feet away, prostrate over a jag of pale rock, growing darker with seeping blood.
He stares down, seeing the blood, the wreckage without really comprehending what any of it means, because it's just too much. His chest is shaking, heaving.
That's probably a panic attack, his brain informs him helpfully, and he decides he doesn't have time for one right now. His breath returns to normal. He feels detached. Like none of this is really happening.
It takes him a while to notice the third space suit, but when he does, he sees movement. Whoever it is, they are dragging themselves across the ground to the right of the buggy, stretching out their arms and pulling slowly forward while their legs leave tracks in the pale dirt.
“Hold on, I'm coming,” he says into his headset, but there's no reply. Just silence.
He's on auto pilot by the time he climbs back into the transport vehicle, and he drives it as fast as possible to the bottom of the crater. It still takes too long, and when he gets there the third suit has stopped moving. It's face down, maybe twenty feet from the wrecked buggy, and he is afraid to turn it over.
Beyond it, he can see two more shapes, bright against the dusty ground, but they just are bodies. Two bodies. This one might not be.
He leans down, kneels, and turns the suit slowly. Pamela. He looks back up at the other two bodies and knows that they are no longer Commander Victor Henriksen, or Engineer Jo Harvelle. Just their shells, empty. Void. He can't look at them.
Pamela's suit is miraculously unbroken, and after a few seconds he realizes that she is still breathing.
The inside of her suit is stained red, blood running freely from her nose and dripping down the face guard of her helmet, but as he turns her onto her side her eyes flicker open. She opens and closes them, over and over again, her mouth moving rapidly as she tries to speak but her communications link has been damaged.
Trying to be as gentle as possible, he carefully lifts her to her feet and finds she can't stand on her own. He doesn't let himself think about what that means. With some difficulty, hindered by the cumbersome space suit, he manages to pick her up and strap her into the passenger side of the transport vehicle.
There's a nagging voice in the back of his head telling him to check the others, and despite his certainty, he moves over to them. He reaches the one on the rock first, and pushes it over. Victor. His helmet is shattered. His mouth is open wide, skin already blistering in the heat—almost one-fifty today, he remembers—and there's blood spreading beneath him on the rock, dark red and steaming, bubbling.
He retreats, feeling bile rise in his throat. He doesn't want to look at Jo, doesn't want to imagine her like that. He's known her for years, worked with her through late night study sessions at MIT, driven the long way back to her mother's house in Nebraska on Spring Break to help tend bar and earn some cash, her and Charlie singing power ballads until he threatened to make them walk. Now, she's pinned beneath the front wheels of the buggy, twisted at the waist with her face to the sky. One arm is stretched out as though she was trying in some last ditch effort to get away, and her leg is bent, snapped somewhere around the thigh, the bone protruding through the layers of her suit.
It's too late, though. He's already seen her eyes, staring.
He doesn't even realize he's back in the transport vehicle until they're almost back to the base, and even then he doesn't remember the whole thing. Stepping out of the drivers seat doesn't seem to happen, but then he's on the other side and lifting Pamela down, so it must have at some point.
Someone else walks instead of him between the vehicle and the exterior door, and he takes over for the airlock, for the infirmary.
Inside, he lays Pamela down on the exam table they'd hoped they'd never have to use before he yanks off his helmet and his outer layer, freeing up his hands. As slowly as possible, he unlocks her helmet, trying to keep her head steady as he slips it off. He pushes her hair out of her eyes. It's matted with blood.
“Pamela?” he says, and it comes out as a whisper even though he doesn't want it to, “Pam, can you hear me?”
She sucks in a breath, and it rattles wet in her lungs.
"Yeah, yeah, it's me. I'm here."
“I can't see you. Just...” she coughs, chokes, and reaches out her gloved hand. He takes it, squeezing gently.
“Hold on, just hold on, okay? I'm gonna get you out of this suit and then we'll figure out what to do.”
“I should—” she starts, and coughs, blood peppering her chin, “I should have known you'd still be hitting on me on my death bed.”
“You're gonna be okay.”
He is. He knows he is, but he still shakes his head. It has to be true. She has to be okay because she has to be.
“Just hold on,” he repeats, squeezing her hand again, and she hushes him.
“Are... Jo and Victor... did they...”
“They... they didn't make it.”
She grips his wrist weakly, tears welling.
“Really starting to wish I'd ridden shotgun now,” she says with a desperate kind of grin, and Dean tries to laugh, but there's blood in her teeth, on her lips, and the sound dies in his throat. It's a miracle she survived this long. He doesn't know what to say.
She starts coughing again, and he can't move her, can't even begin to get her out of the layers and layers of protective clothing that has failed on every level. He just clutches her hand, pushes her hair from her face, tells her it's okay, he's here, he's here.
She's gone in minutes. Dean is alone.
The smell of blood is thick and cloying in the confines of the infirmary, and it isn't long before it becomes too much. There's a refrigerated containment unit attached to the room, behind a thick door, and with shaking hands he pulls it open. Stale, icy air rolls out in a cloud.
After a moments deliberation, Dean slides a hand beneath Pamela's head, lifting it as he puts her helmet back on. Despite all logic telling him otherwise, her body is heavy. His limbs feel weak, lactic, and when he lifts her up, he has to pause, to gather himself.
You can do this, he tells himself.
Gritting his teeth, he breathes steady as he can through his mouth as he hooks his arms around her more securely. He tries not to notice the way her head lolls to the side inside her helmet, the way her mouth hangs open. It takes him nearly fifteen minutes to move her, to lay her flat in the containment unit, and when he's done he stands in the doorway, out of breath and dizzy.
I'll have to go back for the others, he thinks, and the thought blindsides him. The others. Jo and Victor, dead at the bottom of the crater. The knowledge of how alone he is hits him anew. Shoving the door closed with a thud, he heads back through the infirmary and into the main room, trying not to notice Pamela's blood on the exam table.
He notices it anyway. Can't stop from noticing it. There's blood on his hands, too, he realizes, and he moves into the tiny bathroom, wishing for running water but having nothing but wet wipes. He scrubs his hands until they're raw, until they're so red he isn't sure he's done anything at all. When he walks back into the main room, Dean stares at the comm system in silence. He knows he has to contact Houston, knows he has to call this in, but he can't. His hands sting when they sweat.
It's mid afternoon on a Monday, and Charlie isn't scheduled for an audio link with the Legacy crew for another two hours.
Sitting on the edge of her desk, Castiel drinks his iced coffee and takes a hefty bite of jelly doughnut. There's a little more than a month until his mission, and in just over three weeks time he'll be entering his pre-launch quarantine. Until then, he's trying to fit in as much outside food as possible, and that begins with Krispy Kreme on his lunch break.
“Don't let Commander Michaels see you with that,” Charlie tells him, scooping the custard filling out of her own doughnut and proceeding to muffle the end of her sentence by talking through it, “he'll lecture the shit outta you.”
“Let him,” Castiel says, licking jelly from his index finger, and Charlie snorts.
“I love it when you rebel, Cas.”
“Well I'm glad someone does,” he says, and glances over to her muted computer monitor, where an icon is flashing insistently on the desktop, “incoming.”
Still laughing, she reaches over to her headset and slips it on, clicking on the screen and grinning when she sees Dean's name appear as the logged in Legacy caller.
“Well well well, look who's calling me early,” she says, disregarding the usual sign on announcement because it's Dean and nobody important is listening, “I knew you secretly missed me.”
“Char—” he starts, but the word gets choked off with something that sounds a little too close to a sob, and Charlie's grin disappears immediately. She sits up straight in her chair, pulling in close to the desk before turning up the volume.
“Dean? What's wrong?”
“They—there was an accident. They didn't...”
He can't seem to get words out, and Charlie's face pales visibly.
“Hold on,” Charlie tells him and turns to look up at Castiel, still poised on the edge of her desk, now watching her with worry, “can you get Kevin? Tell him there's been an incident at Legacy.”
Castiel nods and hurries away, and Charlie turns back her her computer.
“Dean, I'm here. Are you okay?”
“I'm... Charlie, I couldn't, I was too late. She's... fuck. Fuck.”
“Dean, who? Who's hurt?”
“Everyone. They didn't... I was, I was, I w-was—” he's stuttering, panting, and Charlie recognizes the breathing pattern. . He's having a panic attack.
“I need you to breathe out, okay? Can you do that for me? Remember San Diego?”
They'd been eighteen, and a few weeks after he'd been given the keys to the Impala, they'd driven fifteen-hundred miles west, the first of many road trips, and gone to Comic Con. When they'd returned to the parking lot at the end of the day, the car was gone. Dean had almost turned blue.
“Big breath out,” she tells him, “then another one in. You need to breathe out first or you wont catch your breath.”
Finally, she hears the exhalation, inhalation, and after about thirty seconds he sounds like he's returned to normal. Behind her in the control room, people are rushing in to their computers, slipping on headsets and linking in to the conversation.
“Are you okay, Dean?” she asks again, and there's a shaky breath.
“Yeah. Yeah, I think so.”
“Okay. Now start from the start.”
“They're all,” he gulps, pauses, “Jo, Pam and Victor, they're... they didn't make it.”
She hears the words, and she knows what they mean, but they just don't make sense. She shakes her head helplessly, and her voice comes out small. On the edge of her computer monitor, a bobble-headed Hermione stares at her as if she's a moron.
“What do you mean they didn't make it?”
“A meteor. It hit the buggy.”
Charlie slumps back in her chair. There's a hush over the entire control room floor, and she covers her mouth with her hand.
“They... Jo was driving. It hit, and... I think she swerved, and the buggy... it fell into Aristarchus.I think Jo and Victor died on impact, but Pamela was still... for a little while I thought she was gonna be okay. I almost... but I was too late. I didn't get her back to base in time. I didn't... I couldn't get her back fast enough.”
Tears are stinging in her eyes, and she pushes them back, forcing herself to remember protocol. There's a protocol for this. For emergencies. Think, Charlie, she tells herself, staring hard at Hermione until her training clicks into place.
“Are you injured?” she asks, slipping into her role, and hoping Dean understands the suddenly clinical tone.
“No. I was in the transporter.”
“If you can, you should move the—” she pauses, hating the words, “move the remains to a containment unit.”
“Pam is already—I took her there. The others are in Aristarchus. At the bottom of Aristarchus. I can't... Charlie I can't drive back out there right now. I don't think I can drive right now. I can't... I can barely stand up.”
“Okay, that's okay. It can wait a little—” Charlie feels a hand settle on her shoulder and turns to see Commander Michaels looking down at her, stern faced as ever in his pressed suit, “sit tight a minute, Dean. I'm putting Kevin on.”
She slips off her headset, and Kevin waves to let her know he's got it. He looks as stricken as she feels.
“Pam, Jo and Victor are all,” she shakes her head, blinking furiously against her tears, “they're dead. Dean is alone up there. We have to bring him home, Commander, he's—”
Commander Michaels holds up a hand, cutting her off, and she takes a breath.
“The replacement crew isn't scheduled to complete training for another two months,” he tells her, “and he can't initiate take off alone, certainly not in this state.”
Charlie's mouth falls open, her expression dazed as she shakes her head.
“You can't just leave him there—” she starts, and he cuts her off again.
“We aren't. But it'll take at least a week to ensure a capsule is prepared for flight, and we still need to find a crew to fly it. Hopefully—”
“I'll go,” someone says from the rear of the room, and it's testament to how far out of control Charlie feels right now that she doesn't even recognize the voice.
Commander Michaels looks over his shoulder and Castiel steps forward, clearing his throat.
“There's only three weeks until I'm meant to be going into pre-launch quarantine. I'm ready. The ISS crew will still have five people, and I trust Rachel and Garth to carry out our research alone. I'll go.”
The entire room is hushed, everyone staring with bated breath, and Castiel speaks louder.
“I'm more than qualified, Commander.”
Commander Michaels considers him briefly and nods.
“Very well,” he says, before turning back to Charlie, “tell Dean we need to find a second flight engineer to accompany Dr. Novak, and we'll be looking at around a two week time frame before anyone lands—but help is on it's way.”
She nods, mouth dry, and Commander Michaels walks out, waving at Castiel to follow him. Charlie watches them go. Two weeks. He's going to be alone for two weeks.
When she slips her headset back on to repeat what she was told, her voice is hollow, and though Dean replies to every question and acknowledges everything she says, she isn't entirely convinced he's listening.
It's twelve hours after he disconnects from the comm link that Dean breaks down completely and discovers that crying in low gravity is more uncomfortable than he could have anticipated.
He's on the floor of the base, hunched beside the table, and more than once he feels his breath catch. He repeats Charlie's words in his head, keeping himself calm, and counts down the hours until he'll be able to talk to her again.
She's promised to bring Sam in to ground control as soon as his flight gets in, and the knowledge that he'll soon have both of them to speak to brings him some degree of comfort. But every time he manages to calm down, to breathe steadily, to stop the overwhelming sense of terror that he is more alone than anyone has ever been, he notices the red flecks of blood on the leg of his overalls, and Pamela's slack mouth, her empty expression fill his mind, then Victor's wide eyes, then Jo, skin blistering from the heat. It's too familiar.
He squeezes his eyes shut, pushing the memory out of his mind, but it only twists, reshapes until it's not just them he's seeing, but his mother.
The thought of his friends had been bad enough alone.
As it turns out, sudden changes to the space program require a lot of meetings.
Castiel's first is with a tiny woman in a gray blazer, her long blonde hair hooked behind her ears and thick-framed glasses perched on the tip of her nose. She writes his responses in a note pad with sharp, decisive strokes of her pen, and everything about her pisses Castiel off.
“And you understand,” she says in a condescending tone, “that this means you won't be able to join the ISS for some time, if ever?”
She has the gall to raise her eyebrow at that, and as she leans over her note pad to mark down his response, he goes on.
“I don't know about you, Mira,” he says, his annoyance thinly veiled, “but I tend to place compassion a little higher on the scale of importance than personal gain. Perhaps that makes me a bad scientist, but I'd rather be a good person any day.”
She doesn't deem his comments worthy of a verbal response, but judging from her rapidly moving pen, every word is finding it's way into the report. Castiel grits his teeth together and counts down the minutes until his next meeting.
Thankfully, the next couple end up being little more than reviews of his knowledge of the spacecraft and basic take off and landing protocols, both meetings he would have had prior to a regularly scheduled flight anyway. The fourth meeting brings him face to face with his crew mates. One of them, a tall, bearded man named Benny Lafitte, he recognizes from one of his first days on the base--he'd been lost, looking for the flight simulator building, and Benny had pointed him in the right direction. Despite his rough appearance, he'd come across as a genuinely good-hearted guy, and Castiel is glad he's coming along. The other is a surprise.
“Nice to see you again, Clarence,” Meg says with a grin, sticking out a hand to shake.
”It's Castiel,” he says, and she almost laughs at him, “Are you qualified?”
“No, they found me on the street and thought I'd look good in a space suit.”
Behind the desk, Commander Michaels clears his throat.
“I can assure you, Ms. Masters and Mr. Lafitte are both more than qualified.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere, Commander,” Meg says with a smirk, before turning back to Castiel, “I was one of the original crew members for Legacy, but I had to pull out for personal reasons. I should have been up there. Not Pamela.”
Castiel's eyes widen a little.
“We were both meant to be on the first replacement crew," Benny explains, "if it were up to me we'd fly out now."
After a lot of discussion it is decided that they can all be ready in ten days, and they are given two days to prepare to enter pre-launch quarantine.
It isn't until they are half way through a meeting with a man from human resources, reviewing and updating the details of their next of kin, that Castiel realizes he'll have to call his mother. He barely cares.
By the end of the day, Castiel never wants to see the inside of another conference room for the rest of his life.
As soon as they let him out of the final meeting at half past eight in the evening, he calls Charlie. She answers on the first ring.
“Cas, I hate this,” she says in place of a greeting, and his heart aches.
“I know. Where are you?”
“I'm coming over. Have you eaten?”
“I'll bring something.”
He picks up barbeque ribs and cornbread and potato salad from the take out place a few blocks from Charlie's apartment, and when he arrives, letting himself in through the unlocked front door, he finds her on the sofa looking at a photo album and crying.
He dumps the paper bag of take out on the coffee table and sits down beside her, looking over her shoulder at the photographs on her lap. Staring stoically up from the page is a girl in her late teens in a blue v-neck, wearing a short black wig and pointed rubber ears, being hugged from behind by a grinning boy the same age, dressed in mustard yellow.
“Is that you?” he asks, pointing, and she laughs, nodding.
“Surprised you can tell. I was Spock and Dean was Kirk,” she says, then, as if she thinks she needs an excuse, adds, “it was Comic Con.”
“He's cute,” Castiel says, and she elbows him in the ribs.
“That's my best friend you're talking about. It's gorgeous or nothing.”
“He's a teenager in this,” Castiel points out, “cute is all he's going to get.”
Looking over at her, he sees the thin veneer of her smile starting to crack, and he lifts an arm to wrap around her shoulder. She leans against his side, head tucked in to his shoulder as she flips through the album's pages.
“Did you know them well?” he asks after a while, “Pamela and Victor and Jo?”
“Yeah,” she mumbles, “I talk to them—talked to them nearly every day for the past four months. And I've known Jo a while. We weren't like, close, but she and Dean designed the drill together, so I knew her pretty well. But... Fuck, it's awful. I can't even... I can't even grieve for them because I just keep thinking of Dean up there, alone, and he... he's been through so much already.”
Castiel wants to ask what she means, but she's upset enough as it is, so he just squeezes her tighter and kisses her forehead.
“I'll make sure he gets back safely,” he says, and she lets out a massive sob, “I promise.”
She nods, and he feels the shoulder of his t-shirt growing damp.
“Sam and Jess are coming to stay with me,” she says after a while, “I spoke to him today.”
“Good. You can help each other stay positive.”
“Their flight is getting in first thing in the morning,” she says, then pulls back, as though suddenly realizing something, “Do you know when you're going? Did they find someone to go with you?”
“Benny Lafitte, and Meg Masters,” he says, “she said you know each other—”
She stares at him, wide eyed.
“She's... she actually volunteered?”
Charlie half opens her mouth to answer him, then closes it, shaking her head.
“The whole reason she switched to the later mission was so she and Dean wouldn't be on the same one. I mean, NASA doesn't know about the detailsof it, so of course they're letting her go, but... I can't believe she actually volunteered.”
“I shouldn't... it's personal. Dean doesn't like people to know. I...”
“It's okay. You don't have to tell me.”
Charlie breathes out in relief.
“But if it's something that could potentially cause issues,” he adds carefully, “I think it's worth you telling Commander Michaels. Or at least mention it to Dean so he knows she's coming.”
“Yeah... yeah, you're right. I'll tell him.”
“Are you okay?”
“Nope,” she says, but she smiles, “ask me again in a few weeks.”
“Oh. That's... that's the other thing.”
“What other thing?”
“We're scheduled to launch on the 15th, touch down on the 18th, and then they want us to stay to finish setting up the drills. We'll be up there another month at least.”
When Dean gets word that the rescue crew has been organized, he feels his shoulders sag in relief. It doesn't last.
“It's Castiel Novak, Benny Lafitte and Meg Masters,” Kevin tells him, and it's fine until that last name.
He's met Benny more than a few times--he's one of the replacement crew, a good guy despite being a Saints fan, and he makes a mean gumbo--and he's heard enough about Cas through Charlie to know he'll like him plenty. Meg, on the other hand, he has a complicated and messy past with. It's not something he likes to talk about, and while most of the higher-ups know he doesn't like to work with her, they don't know the reasons. The only people who know the full story are his brother, his uncle, and Charlie, and he wants to keep it that way, for both their sakes.
The fact that she volunteered is a little overwhelming, and Kevin speaks to him three times before he comes back into focus.
“Sorry, what was that?” he asks.
“I said, Charlie just texted to let me know your brother will be here tomorrow. We'll get him in to talk to you as soon as possible.”
Nodding, Dean exhales.
“Good,” he says, “that's... that'll help.”
The hours between speaking to Kevin and speaking to Sam pass more slowly than Dean can stand, and he tries to occupy himself with cleaning up the base. There's not much to do, but he starts by taking the photos from the other's bunks and sticking them up on the wall beside his own. Their few personal belongings end up on the shelf by the computer, and he fiddles with them idly as the small entertainment screen plays in the background, the noise keeping him company.
When he finally speaks to Sam, their conversation is too brief for his liking, but neither of them seem able to find words to say. He promises to come back to talk as often as he's allowed, and Dean thanks him before signing off. He tries to sleep. It's a lost cause.
The day before going into quarantine, Castiel emerges from the final three hour session in the landing simulator to find a missed call from Charlie on his cell.
“Hi Cas, I know you're busy but if you get a chance during lunch come to my desk. Dean wants to meet you before you launch and you wont get another chance since you're flying out to Kennedy in the morning. He knows about Meg. I think he's going to be okay, but... just maybe don't leave them alone if you can help it. Ugh, I wish I could just tell you. But I guess if he wants to tell you he will. Don't be offended if he doesn't. He doesn't really talk about it at all. Wow, I'm rambling. Shut up, Charlie.”
He opens up a message and replies.
I'm on break now.
Is it a good time?
I have until 3.
Walking beside Benny from the changing rooms a few minutes later, his cell chimes and he digs it out of his pocket.
Meet you out front.
“Who's your friend?” Meg asks, emerging from the changing room to walk with them, bumping her shoulder against his, “anyone special?”
He glances up, putting his phone away.
“I'm going to see Charlie at ground control.”
“We got just over a half hour, brother,” Benny tells him, and he nods.
“I'll be back in time,” he assures them, and hurries away, heading for the ground control building on the opposite side of the center. Charlie's waiting for him at the door when he gets there, and she holds it open as he approaches.
“It's no problem,” he says, slipping through, “I really should have come in earlier. I didn't think.”
They walk briskly to the control floor, side by side, and when they're nearly there Charlie pauses.
“I should mention,” she says, “Dean's... well. He's kind of a dick.”
Castiel narrows his eyes at her.
“I thought he was your best friend.”
“He is! But he... he's a smartass. And when he's scared or uncomfortable, he has this habit of making inappropriate jokes. And I can guarantee he is scared shitless right now. So if he insults you don't take it too personally. He's just... projecting. Or some other psychological term for having shitty defense mechanisms.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
“You'll get along great, though.”
“Well I am friends with you,” Castiel points out, walking past her onto the main floor, “so obviously my standards aren't that high.”
“See?” she says, “you're a smartass too. You'll be a perfect fit.”
A few minutes later, they're seated at her computer, and Castiel puts on the headset, adjusting it to fit. Once it's comfortable he leans forward to press the button like Charlie showed him.
“Legacy, this is Houston, do you copy?” he asks, and there's a blast of feedback, a high pitched whine that has everyone on the control floor pulling their headsets off and Casting dirty looks in his general direction.
Charlie reaches over and flicks a switch on his panel.
“That should be on,” she says, and he grimaces.
“This is Legacy, everything okay down there?” a voice comes through, distant and tinny, “you nearly blew out my eardrums.”
Castiel grimaces, putting his headset back on and pressing the button to speak.
“Sorry about that,” he says.
“Are you Cas?”
“You sure you want to do this?”
Castiel's mouth falls open at the question.
“Yes,” he says, half-tempted to repeat the reason he'd given the woman from HR, but Dean speaks again before he has a chance.
“Good, because it sucks up here right now,” there's a pause before another question that makes even less sense, “so, what's for lunch?”
“I've been up here months,” Dean says, “and besides the obviously horrible situation right now—that I'd really rather not talk about if that's okay with you—it's been awesome. But goddamn do I miss real food. Which leads me back to my question; what's for lunch?”
“I hadn't really decided yet. Maybe... Won't it just make you miss food more if I talk about it?”
“Nah, let me do a little second hand living.”
“Okay, then. Well right now it's a toss up between a double bacon cheeseburger from the place over the road, or a club sandwich from the cafeteria. And fries. I definitely want fries.”
An appreciative moan comes over Castiel's headset, and he tries not to replay it in his head. He fails, and feels his cheeks burn red.
“There are no words for how much I miss bacon. Get the double cheeseburger.”
“Now I'm going to feel bad eating it.”
“No, no, get the cheeseburger,” Dean tells him, “let me have my vicariously gained bacon.”
Castiel laughs, and catches Charlie grinning at him as he shakes his head. She was right; the guy is kind of a smartass. But strangely enough, Castiel finds that he kind of likes it.
“If you insist.”
“I definitely insist,” Dean says, voice dipping low, and Castiel smirks into the headset.
“Then I suppose I'm having a cheeseburger.”
For a moment, he just sits there with a grin on his face, wondering what the hell he's doing flirting with the guy. He doesn't flirt with anyone, and this is hardly the right time or place to start. He can feel Charlie's eyes on him, and he pointedly keeps his gaze on the screen while he searches for something else to say. In the end he doesn't have to.
“You got a girlfriend, Cas?”
The question comes out of left field, and Castiel doesn't know how to reply. Because, no, he doesn't have a girlfriend, or a boyfriend for that matter. But he barely knows Dean, and as much as he wants to hope that he isn't bigoted—and considering he's such good friends with Charlie he assumes he probably isn't—he's always wary of correcting peoples assumptions, just in case. The last thing he needs is any kind of negative relationship with the guy when they're going to be in such close quarters for so long. He clears his throat.
“Just 'cause if you do,” Dean adds before he can formulate a response, “I hope she's okay with you coming up here.”
“Uh, no. No girlfriend,” he says, and before he can find some way to make the conversation more awkward, Charlie taps him on the shoulder and gestures to the door. The training coordinator has come to collect him. He nods to let them know he's on his way.
“Apologies, Dean, I have to undertake final checks before quarantine. I'm glad we had a chance to talk.”
“Yeah, same here. Take care, Cas.”
“See you soon.”
Castiel ends the connection and takes off the headset, handing it over.
“No problem,” she says, pulling him in for a hug, “look after yourself up there, okay? I want both of you home in one piece. Or, you know. Two pieces. Probably two pieces would be better.”
He laughs, squeezing her tightly before pulling back. She looks nervous. He smiles at her reassuringly.
“You do realize we'll be in contact the entire time, right?”
“Still. He's my best friend. And I know you and I haven't known each other that long, but you've kinda grown on me.”
“That's a relief. I don't have any other friends in Texas.”
“We need to get started, Dr. Novak,” the coordinator tells him, “running on a tight schedule.”
He looks back and nods, quickly giving Charlie a kiss on the cheek.
“We'll be fine,” he assures her, turning to follow the coordinator, “I promise.”
When night falls on the moon, it stays for close to two weeks.
Five days after the meteor, Dean sees the reminder pop up on the base computer, telling him the sunset will come in twelve hours, and he thinks of Victor and Jo. They're still out there, at the bottom of the crater. It's been too long, already, and he knows they'll be worse than he left them, scorched by the heat of the sun.
It takes an hour of psyching himself up before he puts the call through to Houston, telling them he's going to drive out and bring them in.
“You sure you're okay to do that?” Kevin asks him, concerned, and Dean swallows the lump in his throat, nodding to himself in reassurance before he answers.
“I'm good. Just wanted to let you know since the comm link in my suit is still fried. I'll check in when I get back. Should take two hours, three at the most.”
“Okay, I'll be here.”
It's the first time he's left the base since it happened, and when he takes his first steps out it's on shaky legs. As he drives, the transporter shakes, rattles over the rocky ground, and every few seconds he involuntarily pictures what he's going to find. Each thought is worse than the last, and it makes him queasy, his skin hot and clammy.
He's been driving nearly half an hour when he sees movement in his periphery, and he slams on the brakes. The transporter shudders to a halt, kicking up dust, and he stares out into the distance. There's nothing; of course there's nothing. The sky is clear, the surface rocky but barren. Still, he sits, motionless, breathing hard, and waits. Waits. He saw something. He knows he saw something.
A brief flash of red, of fire, flickers far ahead, and he flinches, presses back into his seat with his eyes squeezed shut.
“Not possible,” he says to himself, quietly, breathing slowly out through his nose, “calm down.”
When he opens his eyes again to scan the horizon, he finds it as endless and empty as he should. Whatever he saw, he imagined. Still, when he starts up the transport vehicle, he sits with his hands on the wheel, and can't bring himself to go any further.
After close to twenty minutes he gives up, hating himself for it, and turns around. Back in the base, he goes to the computer.
“Legacy to Houston, do you copy?”
“This is Houston, go ahead.”
Dean slumps forward in his seat.
“Hey, Kevin,” he says, “I couldn't... they're still out there. I couldn't get there.”
There's a brief pause, and he tells himself it's concern that causes it, not pity, not judgment. When Kevin speaks again it's easy to believe.
“That's okay, Dean. Don't push yourself. You sound tired, maybe try to get some sleep.”
“Yeah,” he says, nodding, “I will. Thanks, Kev.”
“Don't mention it.”
He signs off after a few minutes and heads for his bunk, collapsing onto it and willing himself to drift. But he can't. Night falls, and he's still awake. The memory of something moving keeps popping into his mind, and he lays there, staring at the ceiling.
At first, he's able to tell himself that it was just in his head.
Over the next day, he talks with Charlie and the other ground control officers, distracting himself with idle conversation, and he's successful in ignoring it.
After a few more days, though, he sees the movement again, and he starts to doubt himself. The base begins to feel like a colorless cell, all off white and gray blue and neutral tones, and he sees things. Brief flashes that are gone if he tries to look at them directly. He wants to get out of the cramped space, and he needs to tend to the plants in the greenhouse. It's easier said than done.
Before the meteor, he'd take the drive out to the greenhouse once a day. Now, every time he looks at the transport vehicle or the second buggy, his stomach turns and his skin prickles, and from the corners of his eyes he sees shapes on the horizon, strange nebulous forms of dust and smoke.
He misses Earth. On Earth, he could tell himself it was just the wind that moved the dust, just a swaying tree branch. But here there's no wind, no nothing, and the only two possibilities are that there's actually something there, or he's losing his mind. He doesn't know which option scares him more; all he knows is that he's never been more terrified in his life.
He's never been a big sleeper, and now, with a current of paranoia running constantly under his skin, he's sleeping even less. What had once been a low but reasonable six hours a night ebbed back to first to four hours, then three, and now he's lucky if he sleeps at all.
When it does overtake him, it's brief.
Microsleeps, the kind they warn you about on long drives, little flashes of unconsciousness that come and go at all hours. Dimly he's aware that it can't be helping, but irrationality and sleep deprivation go hand in hand, and he's no longer sure whether the irrational thing is to sleep and let himself be vulnerable to the things moving out there in the dark, or to not sleep and keep seeing them.
He doesn't tell anyone about any of it.
Charlie asks him how he is and he tells her he's fine. Bored, lonely, miserable, but fine. He makes sure to throw in enough negative to keep it realistic.
As the days drag on, the things moving on the horizon seem to get closer.
He stops going outside unless it's absolutely necessary. The things stop caring about walls.
There's a point, Dean knows, when a person has been deprived of sleep and sun and human contact for long enough, that they will almost certainly begin hallucinating. He knows this.
So when the moving shadows melt through the walls and start taking form, he tells himself that it's just in his head. When they touch him, long fingers like tendrils of smoke skimming over his neck, even through his suit, he tells himself it's not real.
But it looks real. It feels real.
When the shadows start talking, he forgets to argue with himself about it.
“You're already dead, Dean,” they say, voices dripping, a sing-song lilt that makes his skin crawl as dark fingers trail over his throat, his cheek, “it's just a matter of time.”
The alarm goes off four hours before launch, and Castiel is out of bed immediately.
He eats french toast and bacon for breakfast, and thinks of Dean as he swipes the crispy bacon through maple syrup. When they get back to Earth, he decides, they'll need to go out to brunch; Dean, Castiel, Charlie and a whole lot of bacon.
He smiles to himself, and eats every last bit.
After a quick shower and a shave, he heads down the hall of the quarantine compound, where the suit technicians are waiting. Meg is already there, halfway into her suit and buzzing with anticipatory energy.
“Good morning, sunshine!” she says, stretching her arm out as her tech makes an adjustment, “sleep well?”
“Better than I expected,” he tells her, stepping into the open legs of his suit and letting the tech set about her task.
Benny walks in a couple of minutes later, clean-shaven for once, and he yawns widely before he grins in greeting. Soon enough, they are all securely suited up, and once the pressure checks are all complete the techs give them the all clear.
Before Castiel knows what's happening, they're in a van on the way to the launch pad. Benny's foot taps restlessly against the floor, and Meg has lost some of her earlier bravado. The smile she casts toward him from the other side of the van is nervous and real, and Castiel finds himself thinking it's the first truly honest expression he's ever seen on her face.
There are still over two hours until launch when they strap in to the shuttle, Seeker, and for a long time they are quiet. The launch crew are busy doing their own thing, and while they wait (and wait, and wait) for the final couple of hours to tick away, Castiel realizes he never called his mother. He bursts out laughing.
“Little early for the hysteria to strike, don't ya think?” Meg says from beside him, and he looks across with a grin.
“I just realized I never told my mother I'd taken on a new mission. She still thinks I'm not leaving until October.”
Meg laughs aloud.
“Wow, you're gonna be in trouble.”
“I take it you're not close,” Benny says, his eyebrows raised, and Castiel shakes his head.
“Not even a little. But she still won't be happy.”
“Good luck with that.”
“Hmm," he smirks, "I don't envy my sister the task of telling her.”
Meg wriggles in her seat, getting comfortable, but now that the silence has been broken she seems determined to talk.
“Do you... I'm guessing you both know by now that Dean and I know each other.”
“Yes. But that's all I know,” Castiel says, glancing sideways at her as Benny nods in agreement, “and honestly, I'd rather not know any more.”
“Okay. That's fine. Just thought I'd mention it. Because he is not going to be happy to see me.”
“Then why did you volunteer?”
“He might not like me too much,” she says after a moment, “but that doesn't mean I don't like him. Without telling you too much... I don't blame him for how he feels about me, but there were things that happened outside of my control, and outside of his, and I... I represent something that hurt him. Really hurt him. His whole family, really. It's all super messy and complicated.”
“You all were friends?” Benny asks.
“We were. Briefly.”
To her credit Meg actually seems upset about that, and Castiel wonders if he's judged her too harshly.
“Maybe this will help,” he offers, gesturing vaguely around them, and she nods, smiling weekly.
“I won't hold my breath.”
The launch crew returns soon after, carrying out their final checks, and then, quite suddenly, the doors are sealed and a voice comes through their headsets informing them that there are now twenty minutes until lift off.
There's the occasional mechanical hum, the whir of drills and machinery outside, and then silence. For a long time, silence.
“T-9 minutes until launch, stand by.”
Castiel glances across at the others, and finds Meg grinning wide and trembling.
“I've been dreaming about this since I was ten years old,” she whispers, and Castiel smiles back at her.
On the control panel in front of them, all the emergency lights blink on and off in a final test sequence, and slowly all go out.
“T-90 seconds until launch. Seeker, close and lock all visors and initiate O2 flow.”
Castiel takes a deep breath in.
“T-60 seconds. Good luck up there, Seeker.”
The countdown goes on, now every second, and Castiel suddenly becomes very aware that they are strapped to an explosive that could very easily misfire and kill them all instantly. He tries not to think about it. Before he's had long to worry, the countdown hits zero, the boosters ignite, and they're off.
He feels like he's been punted by a giant; a heavy thud against his back like a massive boot, and the roar of wind quickly builds, louder and louder until it turns into a whining scream as the sky outside grows steadily darker. The engines shake, the entire cabin shuddering, and as the shuttle rolls over, miles off the ground already, the view shifts.
For a few minutes, Castiel watches the Earth below as it shrinks away, momentarily disappearing beyond the blinding flames that flare out from the engines, and then, when the boosters tear through the last of the fuel there's a flash and a thunk, and the capsule detaches.
The shaking stops, and the noise drops away, and he feels the crushing load of three G's against his chest. He forces himself to remain calm, remembering his training, and breathes through it until the engines cut out completely. Then they're soaring, hurtling upward at unimaginable speeds until there isn't an up any more than there's a down or a left or a right.
They are weightless.
They've been in orbit four hours when the first transmission from Dean comes through, and though he knows that Meg is on board, he doesn't address her.
“Legacy to Seeker, Cas, Benny, do you read me?”
Meg feigns disinterest, waving at the others to let them know she's going into the exercise area, and floats out the door. Castiel doesn't miss the hurt expression beneath it, though.
“Hello, Dean,” he says, holding down the button, “we're well on our way now.”
“How're you holdin' up?” Benny asks.
“I've been better,” Dean replies honestly, “It's been rough, but I think... knowing you guys are only a couple of days away helps.”
“Glad to hear it,” Benny says, smiling down at the speaker, and Castiel hums in agreement.
“You guys mind talking for a while?”
“I gotta hit the head,” Benny says, “but I'm sure Cas here'll keep you company.”
“Okay,” Dean replies, and Benny nods toward Castiel as he makes his way out of the control room. Castiel wonders what in the world he's supposed to talk about.
“If you look up, you might be able to see our lights,” he says, finally.
“Hmm, not quite. But I'll keep an eye out.”
“Then I'll keep waving.”
Dean actually laughs at him, and Castiel scrubs a hand over his face, absurdly embarrassed.
Looking out the small window, Castiel can see the moon in the distance, huge and bright, and he waves.
“I wasn't, but now I have.”
“Would you think I was a dork if I waved back?”
“Then lets pretend I didn't.”
Dean laughs again, and Castiel smiles, glad that even if it's only momentary, he's helping Dean feel a little better. They're quiet a while, and when Dean speaks again it's with surprise, as though it never occurred to him until now.
“Y'know, I have no idea what you look like. I've met both the others, but you're a blank.”
“I suppose that puts me at an unfair advantage.”
“Your pre-launch photo is up on the wall at Kennedy.”
He'd seen it the day before launch, Dean and his ill-fated crew in their space suits, helmets under their arms, all smiling at the camera. He was surprised to recognize Pamela—they'd met briefly, near the beginning of his training—and was less surprised to see that Dean had become even more attractive since his teenage years. He'd been tempted to send Charlie a message to take back his verdict of cute and replace it with gorgeous, but knew she'd never let him live it down.
“Oh yeah. I forgot they took that. How'd I look?”
“Good,” Castiel says too fast, and thanks everything that is holy that Meg isn't anywhere nearby to see the flush on his cheeks, “Also, Charlie showed me some older pictures.”
“Oh, God. Please tell me she didn't show the Comic Con photos.”
“I'm going to kill her.”
“It was a very well made costume,” Castiel tells him.
“You like Star Trek?”
“'I don't think I've ever watched it.”
“Well that's just depressing.”
They talk for over two hours before they're interrupted by a transmission from Earth, and as their conversation goes on there is never a lull. There are silences, but they are comfortable, quiet moments of consideration, and it is with some reluctance that Castiel disconnects.
The rest of the day is taken up with the requisite hours of exercise, and though he talks with Meg and Benny, it's nowhere near as easy as his conversation with Dean had been. As he looks through the few options on the capsules entertainment system for something to watch while he works out, he finds episodes of Star Trek and smiles. Despite the telltale signs of a serious crush forming, he doesn't begin to realize how far gone he already is.
An hour after disconnecting from the comm system, Dean stands in the middle of the base compound trying not to think about Pamela's body laying in the containment unit. It's been nearly two weeks and he can still feel the death on him, under his skin, and though he's scrubbed his hands until they were raw, the lack of running water means that he never quite feels clean.
He's relieved that Charlie's friend is coming to help him. She'd mentioned Castiel a few more times since those early days, and though he's only spoken to him himself a couple of times, he's already coming to like the guy.
Not for the first time, he wonders what he looks like, and whether it'll be anything like what he pictures. With his rough voice and dry humor, Dean thinks he'll fit right in with him and Charlie when he gets back to Earth. Sam used to complete the trio, but since he headed west for the coast and a position at a Los Angeles law firm, he barely gets to see him. It'll be good to have someone else they both get along with, he thinks, and tries to focus on the fact that he'll meet him in two days.
Two days and help will arrive.
Two days and he'll be okay.
He pointedly doesn't think about the fact that Meg is coming too, but the shadows remind him, whispering it in his ears.
He learned quickly that they don't leave him alone unless he keeps himself busy, but finding things to do that don't put him in the buggy or out on the surface is more difficult than he would have expected.
He leaves the entertainment system switched on at all times, a low current of sound in the background so he doesn't feel quite so alone, and for a while it works. Soon, though, it's not enough.
In the empty base, he watches the red light on the comm system, waiting for it to flick to green, waiting for Charlie to log on, waiting for Castiel, for Benny, for anyone, and reminds himself again that there are only two more days.
The shadows tell him that'll be plenty of time.
He turns up the volume. So do they.
Castiel wakes up halfway through the sleep cycle and can't relax. It takes a while for him to realize why; it's Wednesday. Despite being further away from her influence than ever before, and having all but pushed her from his mind, his mother is still a nagging presence in his head. He can't remember the last time he got a full nights sleep the night before her call. He wonders if he'll ever really be free of her.
Floating out to the main room, he straps in to the exercise bike, determined to ride until he's tired enough. He switches on the mp3 player. By sheer force of habit, he also presses the communications system button.
He's been riding the bike a few minutes when there's the crackle of static.
Castiel starts, and if he wasn't in zero G's, he'd have fallen clean off his seat. He depresses the button to talk.
“Hello, Dean. Sorry. It's early, didn't mean to connect.”
“Hey, Cas. It's okay. I was up anyway. Got worried when I saw the connection light on.”
“Hitting the switch is a force of habit. Sorry, I'll—”
“You listening to Queen?”
“This is my favorite song.”
“Mine's Ramble On by Zep.”
“Glad to hear you have good taste,” Castiel tells him.
“You should tell that to Jo and Victor.”
Castiel hesitates a moment before deciding it was probably just a slip of the tongue—Dean's half-asleep right now. He probably doesn't even realize he said it. He decides not to press the issue.
“Why are you up so early?” he asks instead.
“I didn't sleep.”
“Don't want it to be a new day.”
“If I stay up, I know what I'm getting.”
Frowning in confusion, Castiel slows his pedaling.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, y'know, the day already sucked, and it's gonna keep on suckin'. If I go to sleep, then I wake up and think, it's a brand new day! That shit leads to expectations, and I don't think I can stand to have any more shattered at this point.”
Castiel doesn't quite know what to say to that, and he's selfishly grateful when Dean speaks before he has to reply.
“Why are you up?”
“That's a long story.”
“Just... deeply ingrained neurosis that is apparently inescapable even in orbit,” he says with a laugh, “I shouldn't be bothering you with it.”
“Hey, it's fine.”
They have another of their silences, and Castiel wonders if they'll still have them when they meet. If they'll still be so comfortable.
“You have any family, Cas? Brothers, sisters?”
“Just one,” he says, “Anna.”
“Older or younger?”
“She's older... technically. By three minutes.”
“You're a twin?”
“I'm told she got all the good genes.”
“Unfair. What did you get?”
“Set of steak knives.”
“But can they cut through a tin can?”
Castiel laughs, shaking his head.
“How about you?” he asks, “other than Sam, I mean.”
“I forgot you met him,” Dean says, “but no, it's just him. He's a good kid. Practically raised him.”
Castiel wants to ask, what about your parents? but it seems too personal.
“He's pretty tall for a kid,” he tells Dean, and hears that laugh again. It's a good laugh, he thinks. Deep. He wonders if Dean's eyes crinkle.
“Yeah, well one minute he was this gangly fucker asking me to help with his algebra homework, and now all of a sudden he's a grown-ass man. I should probably get used to it. He got married a month before I came up here.”
“How long was he with Jess before?”
“Years, man. She's been family since we were teenagers. She's way too good for him—and that's saying something, because Sammy is awesome.”
“How about you?” he asks.
“What about me?”
“Are you married? Or seeing anyone,” he clarifies, hating himself for it because he's sure he sounds like he's fishing for information. Which he kind of is, despite himself. He's fairly certain there's noone—Charlie surely would have mentioned—but still, a part of him is desperate to know for sure.
“Nah, man,” Dean says, “the only woman in my life is a '67 Impala, and sadly the great state of Kansas isn't ready to let a man marry his car.”
“What else would you expect from a red state?”
“Damn republicans keep ruining all my fun. I should move to California.”
Castiel grins. Good sign, he thinks, then reminds himself what this situation is and how incredibly creepy it is of him to even be thinking about flirting with Dean right now. He clears his throat.
“So you're from Kansas?”
“Call it home when I'm not in Houston or kicking up moon dust. You?”
“I'm from Chicago.”
“That where your family live?”
“I'm guessing you don't see them a lot.”
“They—my mother and I don't... we don't really get along. Anna visits sometimes, though.”
He neglects to mention that though she visits, his family situation is still one big pile of uncomfortable, and he'd rather not get into it so early in their friendship.
He's surprised to find he's already thinking of Dean as a friend, considering how little contact they've had, but the more he considers it, the more accurate it seems. He wonders a little vainly if Dean would agree.
“What does she do?” Dean asks, and it takes Castiel a moment to snap out of his musings and figure out who he's talking about.
“She's an art history teacher.”
“She assures me it's more interesting than it sounds.”
Dean laughs—it gets cut in half with another yawn.
“There's still three hours until your morning alarm is due to go off,” Castiel says, glancing at the time, “you should try to sleep.”
“If I sleep now I'll just wake up tired,” Dean tells him, and there's something under it, something edgy that worries Castiel, “I just need some mental stimulation to kick start my brain.”
“Read something,” he suggests.
“Nothing to read that I haven't read twenty times already. I'm pretty sure I could recite Breakfast of Champions in full at this point.”
“Bullshit,” Castiel says, and after a half second, Dean launches into paragraph one.
“This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast—”
“Okay, okay,” Castiel laughs, “I believe you.”
“Here endeth the lesson.”
“You like Vonnegut, then?”
“Yeah, man. He's one of the few writers I have the patience for. Him and Kerouac.”
“How about Palahniuk?”
“Guy who wrote Fight Club. You'd probably like his stuff.”
“Read me some.”
“What, right now?”
“Okay. Um. Hang on, I think I've got one of his here.”
Castiel unbuckles from the bike and floats across the room for the book bag, dragging it back with him. He digs around inside. It's not there. The best he's got is Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, and he looks at it for a moment, wondering.
“Cas? You still there?”
“I guess I didn't bring it after all.”
“Damn. Got anything else? Seriously, I'm willing to listen to you read the phone book at this point.”
“Well, I've got another book you might like. But it's just poems.”
“What kind of poems?” Dean asks, and there's a hint of are you kidding me in his voice that tells Castiel in no uncertain terms that were he not currently stranded on the moon, there is no way in Hell that he'd willingly listen to someone recite poetry.
Castiel flicks through the book anyway.
“The good kind. I'll read a short one first,” he says, mainly to himself, before settling on Wild Orphan and clearing his throat, “ready?"
There's a few quiet seconds when Dean seems to decide, and then he lets out a resigned breath.
“Go for it, Cas.”
“Blandly mother takes him strolling by railroad and river—he's the son of the absconded hot rod angel—and he imagines cars, and rides them in his dreams,” Castiel pauses, but when Dean remains silent, he goes on, “so lonely growing up among the imaginary automobiles and—”
“You still there, Cas?” Dean asks, cutting him off, and Castiel frowns.
“I can hear you fine, Dean.”
“Dean can you hear me?”
“Cas? Come in, Cas.”
Castiel presses the button, releases it, tries every combination and pressure he can, but nothing works. Whatever the fault is, it's on the other end.
After fifteen minutes, Dean gives up.
“Alright, I don't know if you can still hear me, but something's busted. I'll see if I can fix it. If not, I guess I'll see you in a few days. Bye, Cas. Liked the poem by the way.”
It's a few hours later that Dean speaks again, and he sounds shaky and exhausted, his voice quivering.
“Do you believe in ghosts, Cas?” he asks, and Castiel looks over at the speaker from his place at the weights, “'Cos there's something, man.”
He lets out a nervous laugh, and there's the sound of something shuffling, his space suit, Castiel thinks.
“I don't know... I think there's something here. My skin's crawlin', just... fuck, I think I'm losing it. Can you hear me? Are you even there?”
Meg, just woken, floats in the doorway between the bunks and the exercise room, and she looks from the speaker to Castiel's concerned face with worry.
“You think he's gonna be okay?” she asks, and Castiel exhales slowly, chewing absently on his lower lip.
“I hope so.”
The thing about meteors is that they're small. Even with all the money NASA can throw at their telescopes, anything smaller than a bus is practically invisible. For the most part, they're too small to do any real damage. The one that hit the buggy was an exception, and Dean has managed to convince himself that he's safe.
Statistically, the chances of another direct hit anywhere near the Legacy base are incredibly low. But still, there's a heavy thud that rattles through the ground somewhere nearby, and he scrambles up from the floor by the computer and into his suit.
He can't see anything through the window, and he goes through the airlock, out into the freezing dark. There's a cloud of dirt still rising up about twenty feet away, and he looks up to the dark sky for any sign of more. There's nothing. He breathes out in relief and heads back inside, pulling free of his suit and moving back to press the button of the comm system again.
“Cas, you there?”
There's still no reply; not even static. Just silence. He flicks the power again, but there's no difference. The lights of the base seem dimmer, as if running at half power, and he moves through the rooms, checking every system.
Half the base is non-operational. The life support system appears to be running on it's primary backup power supply, but the radio is out, and along with it, the computer system and satellite controls. It doesn't make sense, and before he realizes what he's doing he calls out.
“Hey Jo, how do I restore the radio signal?”
He's met with cold silence that settles in his bones like lead, and the sound of his own voice seems to hang in his mind, tinny and hollow, as the shadows creep in.
It's not long after that he sees her through the thick polycarbonate window on the airlock door, standing out in the dark.
She's barefoot in denim overalls and a purple t-shirt, grubby nosed with wide brown eyes, just the way he remembers. Her blonde hair is cropped short, like Tinkerbell, she'd told him, and it waves in a breeze that can't exist. She can't exist, either, of course, but his brain is reluctant to believe that.
In her left hand, she holds a book of matches.
“You're not real,” he tells her through the door, and she flicks one alight. He flinches. The flame jumps up, bright, and he can't stop staring at it.
“This isn't real,” he repeats, and she raises the match, watching the flame leap, reflecting in her eyes.
“He's gonna give me the moon, now,” she says happily, “it's all for me.”
He can hear her. He shouldn't be able to hear her, but her voice is clear and high, floating through the door.
She looks up over her shoulder and smiles, and Dean sees him, then, a dark shape in a white cloud, flame reflecting yellow in his eyes, and he turns away from the window, moves to his bunk sinks down, crushing his fists against his eyes.
“There's nothing, there's nothing, there's nothing.”
There's only a day left in their flight when they hear from Dean again, and he doesn't sound good.
“He's here, Cas. Fuck, I think he's come to finish me off.”
Benny frowns, staring at the speaker, and looks over at Castiel. Both of them lower their meals, appetites gone instantly, and float across to listen. They've tried over and over to speak to Dean, to send something back, as has Ground Control, but nothing is getting through. Meg, having just emerged from the washroom, looks at them with a furrowed brow. Castiel glances up at her.
“You want to send a message back to Houston? Tell them what he's saying.”
She goes to the computer, sending an email down so as not to interrupt the reception of the communication system while Dean keeps talking. His words make Castiel's skin crawl.
“He's gonna burn me. I don't know how he did it, but he sent her here and she's got the matches.”
“Jesus,” Benny breathes, face gray with worry, “he's lost the fuckin' plot.”
Castiel doesn't reply, just stares at the speaker with a sinking heart.
“I can see her outside. She's not even... she's not even wearing a suit. How the hell is—no, no, it's fine. It's fine. It's not—she isn't real. She isn't real. I know. It's nothing.”
Castiel feels like he might be sick by the time Meg comes back, and he turns down the volume.
“I can't listen to this any more,” he says, rubbing his eyes, “he's talking about someone setting him on fire.”
Meg pales, takes a deep breath, and shakes it off.
“They said we should detain him when we land. Lock him in one of the containment units until he's calmed down.”
“Hate to admit it, but they're probably onto something,” Benny says, and Castiel stares at them, incredulous.
“He's only like this because he's been on his own so long. Isolating him is going to make it worse.”
“Well what the hell else are we gonna do?”
“Talk to him! Anything! I'm not letting you lock him up.”
Benny nods, but doesn't agree any further, and Meg remains silent. Castiel lets out a sharp breath, moving to stare out the window.
The moon is growing ever closer, a huge white expanse filling the window, and with every passing hour, the messages that come through the communication system get worse.
Before long, shadows fill the room. They melt down through the walls, up through his mattress, touching his face, his hands, his neck. They speak, a susurrus of loud whispers, and the words he picks out are none he wants to hear. Forcing himself back to his feet, he looks out the airlock door and sees the girl, still there, still smiling, happy. Sees her father, hand on her shoulder, whispering encouragement, and he sees the fire. Smells it, smells the hot and acrid stench of burning flesh. He tells himself over and over that it isn't real.
“Oh, we're real,” comes the sing-song voice of the man, and his eyes flicker firelight.
Dean flinches at the sound, turns away from the window and finds them inside the habitat, standing behind him. The man smiles, squeezing the girl's shoulder, and she strikes another match.
“Don't worry, Dean,” she says, softly, “it's just an adventure. This is how it starts.”
“You're already dead,” the man tells him.
“They'll be here soon,” he mutters to himself, pressing the heels of his hands hard against his eyes, “it's not long.”
The man laughs, and it sounds like rust, like flame.
“Nobody is coming,” he says, still laughing, as if Dean is an idiot for thinking otherwise, “you're alone here, Dean. Just like my little girl was alone. Just like you should be.”
Before he knows it the man is right up in his space, nose to nose, his breath hot against Dean's face, the stink of sulfur and gasoline and liquor burning Dean's nostrils.
“Your body is at the bottom of the crater with the others,” he snarls, eyes fire-bright, “has been for weeks. Blister in the sun, Dean.”
The man's smile is sharklike, and Dean shakes his head. The girl insists that everything is fine, and her father laughs. She flicks the match. Flicks the match. Flicks the match. Dean tries to block it out and manages for a few hours, or a few minutes, he has no idea. The passage of time is all sideways, skewed, and she doesn't stop. The shadows are all still there. The shadows are all there are.
It's too much, finally, too much, and with his helmet tight he leaves the base, desperate to prove them wrong, to see for himself that the only ones at the bottom of that crater are Victor and Jo. He drives the buggy, rattling over rock, as fast as it allows. He can barely see where he's going. The headlights cut a sharp line through the dark, bright white in the blackness, but he feels flames on his heels, on the back of his neck.
The closer he gets to the crater the louder the voices get, telling him he's dead, telling him he'll see. When the meteor comes into view, he slams on the brakes and clambers out, stumbling in slow motion to the crater's edge, certain that he's going to see himself laying there. That he's dead or dying and the past two weeks have just been some last-ditch nightmare, his brain refusing to let go.
He holds up his spot light, casting it around as he goes, and it flickers over the girl, barefoot and smiling, her fathers hand back on her shoulder. He tries not to look at them. Edges closer to the crater as he feels smokelike tendrils back on his neck.
“It's okay, Dean,” the girl whispers, slipping up beside him and grasping for his hand, “my Daddy said it's fine. You'll see her again, now.”
Her fingers slip through the fabric of his glove, closing cold around his hand, and squeeze. He feels them. They feel real. He blinks, his eyes stinging.
“Okay,” he says, and squeezes back, “I'm going.”
They land on schedule, at oh-nine-hundred on September 18th, and Castiel expects Dean to speak into the communication system again, to tell them that he sees them. He doesn't.
Castiel looks out the windows and Dean is nowhere to be seen.
“He's probably just inside the base,” Meg tells him, “don't panic.”
He looks at her over his shoulder, unable to stop himself from glaring.
“Both buggys are gone,” he says, pointing a gloved finger against the window, “only one was involved in the accident, and he wouldn't have left the other one somewhere else.”
A little desperately, he heads over to the communication system and tries to contact him, though he knows it's pointless.
“We need to get out there and find him,” he says, and Benny shakes his head, bulky helmet barely moving.
“You know the rules, Cas. Five to six hours to acclimate before we can open the doors.”
“It's been more than three hours since he spoke to us. He could be hurt.”
“Don't go out there,” Meg warns him.
“I'm going. I can't just sit here.”
“You can both wait if you want, but I am not leaving him out there on his own.”
He moves toward the hatch, pausing to enter the unlock sequence into the keypad, and Benny hurries after him, trying to convince him to wait. He tunes him out, but he's anxious, fumbling the number on his first attempt. He's dimly aware of Benny trying to pull his arm away, and harsh voices coming through his headphones from Ground Control telling him not to break protocol, but he ignores all of it, dragging his arm free and entering the number a second time.
The exterior hatch opens, slow and heavy, and he's out.
It takes nearly thirty seconds before it really sinks in that he's on the moon, but he's got no time to marvel. All he can think is that he needs to find Dean, and he needs to find him now.
He glances back to the capsule once, just in case the others have had a change of heart, but the door is shut. He sees Meg at the window, and when he turns away, moving as fast as he can, she speaks to him through his headset.
“You'd better hope he actually needs help, Cas.”
He ignores her, switching off his voice link, because he honestly hopes the opposite. He want to get to the side of the base and find the other buggy parked behind it, and Dean inside, asleep in his bunk and perfectly fine.
But he gets to the side of the base and he still can't see the buggy. And when he checks inside just in case, he finds the compound entirely empty.
Outside again, he looks from horizon to horizon, scanning the empty landscape. There's nothing. The ground is covered in tracks, criss-crossing lines in the dust. He presses the button on his palm, switching the link back on.
“Ground control, this is Castiel,” he says, “the second buggy is gone. Dean isn't in the compound. If you can locate the buggy I'll take the transport vehicle to find him, but I am not getting back into the capsule. Either help me or I'm just going to set out in the first direction I happen to look.”
For a long moment, there's no answer, and he's convinced they aren't going to help—that they are going to insist he get back into the capsule and wait before looking.
When he hears Charlie's voice, relief sinks deep into his bones.
“Cas, you're in an ass-load of trouble,” she says, “but since you're not getting back in regardless, they've given me the okay to help. I'm tracking the buggy now. Shouldn't be long.”
“Thank you, Charlie.”
He climbs up into transport vehicle, limbs loose, and waits for her direction.
“Okay, it looks like it's stationary, but that could just be a feed delay. He's about... oh. He's at the top of the Aristarchus crater.”
That's all the information Castiel needs, and within seconds he's swinging the vehicle around, aiming in the opposite direction of the capsule and gunning the engines as much as they'll allow.
“It's gonna take you about forty-five minutes to get there,” Charlie tells him.
The drive is bumpy, and the wheels kick up dust in huge white clouds as he goes. He barely notices. After thirty-five minutes he can just make out the shape of the buggy parked at the craters edge, and he curses the slow-moving transport vehicle and the low gravity and just about everything he can think of, because he can't see Dean at all, and he has a sick, rolling feeling in his stomach that he's going to find him dead.
When he's about twenty feet away he stops, climbing down carefully, and then he's running (as much as he can run on the moon) to the edge. Each step is slow and awkward, his spotlight bouncing wildly. He's dizzy with the feeling of low gravity, nauseated and exhausted, and he wobbles when he reaches the edge. About fifteen feet down there's a rocky outcrop that juts almost nine feet off the craters edge, and moving slowly toward it's furthest point is Dean, staring down.
Far below him, beyond the ledge and at least another fifty feet away, Castiel can see the wreckage of the other buggy and the reflective space suits of two bodies laying beside it.
Climbing down unaided will take far too long, so he pulls the thin wire cord from his belt and attaches it to the weighted buggy, before dropping down onto the ledge.
He lands gently, the low gravity slowing his descent, and the vacuum of the moons surface swallows any possible noise his landing might otherwise have made. He moves as swiftly as he can, diving forward with outstretched arms, because Dean is right there now, right at the very edge of the massive drop, and he's leaning forward to stare down, so close to falling—too close.
Castiel grabs him, one arm around his middle and the other at his shoulder, and before Dean can flinch away he's dragging him back, attaching the caribiner on Dean's belt to his own climbing cord and pulling him as far away from the drop as possible. Dean's spotlight slips from his grip, tumbling down over the ledge, and Dean struggles, terrified and delirious.
Castiel holds him steady, trying to catch his eyes through the layers of polycarbonate. Suddenly the silence of the moon seems less convenient.
It takes time, but when Dean stops thrashing enough to look at him Castiel sees more emotions flicker over his face in the space of thirty seconds than he thinks he experiences in an entire day. When he settles, it's with wide, disbelieving eyes and a half open mouth, slightly curved up at the edges as though he wants to smile but doesn't trust that he should.
With his hands pressed down on Dean's shoulders, he can feel them rise and fall, a rapid rhythm, and he regulates his own breath, exaggerating the movement of his own chest and shoulders in the hope that Dean will subconsciously match it.
Castiel breathes slowly, holding his gaze, and eventually, Dean calms down. He smiles, tentatively, but that seems a little much for Dean, who is still stuck on disbelief.
He drops his hands from Dean's shoulders, checks the tightness of the caribiner, and gestures up toward the buggy and transport vehicle. For a few seconds, he wonders if Dean actually sees him at all, but finally he nods and they ascend the steep rock face, pulling themselves up with the cord.
From here, looking back toward the base, they can see the capsule sticking up on the horizon, and Dean stares at it before looking back at Castiel.
“Cas?” he mouths, and Castiel nods, smiling, wondering who else Dean thought he could be.
He unclips Dean's caribiner, retracts his jump cord, and sees Dean about to climb back into the drivers seat of his buggy. Reaching out, he taps his arm, and Dean looks back at him in confusion. He points firmly at the passenger seat. After a couple of seconds hesitation, Dean complies.
As they drive, Castiel can see Dean swiveling in his seat to stare at him, and he smiles as he presses the button on his communication system.
“Ground control, this is Castiel,” he says, clear as he can, “Dean Winchester is safe.”
The drive back is surreal, and Dean wonders when he's going to wake up. The voices have stopped, all faded away, and casual movement of another solid body is enough to distract him from the slowly retreating shadows.
When they arrive back at the base and pass through the air lock, Dean pulls his helmet free and stares as Castiel does the same. He's solid, he thinks. Not like the others at all. Where they were like lifting ash, smoke and air and water, Castiel is soft tanned skin and bright blue eyes and dark stubble, and it's all there, all within reach.
Dean doesn't think he's ever been happier to see anyone in his life.
“Hello, Dean,” Castiel says, and Dean feels like he might collapse from sheer relief, because he even sounds more solid. Like his voice is rising from someplace deep, someplace real.
“Are you real?” he thinks, or he thinks he thinks, because now Castiel is tilting his head at him and frowning as if he said it out loud.
“Yes, I'm real. Dean, when was the last time you slept?”
“Can't sleep, he's... he'll tell her to do it, and she'll—”
“Dean, it's okay. You're safe.”
Dean takes a deep breath through his nose and nods. That's right. That sounds right. They were sending Castiel to help him, to bring him home. But she's coming too, he thinks. He shakes his head.
“Dean, you need to sleep.”
“I'll watch over you,” Castiel tells him, like it's the most natural thing in the world, and Dean stares at him, still not entirely convinced that he's real, but God he wants him to be, he wants this to be Castiel so badly.
“I thought you weren't,” he starts, “I thought...”
He shakes his head again.
“I thought you weren't coming. I thought... I thought I imagined it all. That no one was coming to help me because I was... I thought I was... I was going to climb down to the bottom of the crater, and that's where I'd be. I'd be down there at the bottom with Jo, and with Victor. He told me I was dead. He kept telling me I was dead. He—”
He stops talking, because Castiel is watching him, and he looks so worried, so lost, that Dean is suddenly sure he is real after all. His subconscious could never be so kind.
“Come on,” Castiel says finally, taking hold of his arm, and his hand is so warm that Dean can barely think.
He leads him toward the sleeping quarters and gestures inside.
“Get some sleep,” he says, “I'll be right here. I'm not going anywhere. I promise.”
Through fuzzy eyes, Dean stares at him, trying hard to focus, to commit him to memory in case he wakes up and it was all a dream, because he's got all those images of him and her and the matches—flick, hiss, burn—and he needs this, needs the image of a friend come to help him, even if it isn't real. His eyes have other ideas, though, as do his legs, and though he's not aware of it, he ends up being half carried to bed.
Meg and Benny make their way into the compound two hours after Castiel had returned Dean to it, carrying supplies. A spiteful part of Castiel is glad to see that they look more than a little ashamed.
“How is he?” Meg asks, and Castiel, sitting at the table in the center of the main living area, glances over toward the sleeping quarters.
“Incredibly sleep deprived, hallucinating and paranoid,” he says, stretching his neck from side to side, “but he's alive. And he wouldn't have been if we hadn't arrived when we did, so I'm calling the whole thing a success.”
Meg nods, sinking down into the seat opposite him as Benny moves over to look in at him.
“You made the right call,” he admits, though it's directed to the floor.
He doesn't have the energy to reply, and he chalks that up to the fact that his body really did need to acclimate to the gravity before everything.
“Do you think—” Meg starts, and cuts herself off, hesitating.
“Do I think what?”
Pushing her hair back, Meg clicks her teeth together a few times before the part of her that cares wins out.
“Is it a bad idea for him to stay?”
“I'd say definitely.”
“Then you should take him back.”
Castiel raises his eyebrows, and Meg waves her hand in a preemptive dismissal of whatever his argument is.
“We can finish the drill construction alone,” she says, shifting in her seat and trying to make the hard surface comfortable, “which is half the reason Commander Michaels allowed us to come at all. And the rest of the replacement crew will be getting here in less than two months. It's not that long. Just, it's an option.”
“The base's comm system is malfunctioning,” Castiel reminds them, “you could both be in the same state as Dean by the time they get here.”
“So we'll fix it,” Benny says, matter of fact, and Castiel looks up at him.
“Don't you think he would have fixed it if it were possible to do so?”
“I think he would have tried. But maybe he missed something. He's smart, but he just saw three good friends die, and it would have brought back—” Meg stops, looking away, before changing tracks, “he's traumatized.”
“No matter what, he's not exactly firing on all cylinders right now,” Benny says.
“Okay. Then I guess I'll ask him if he wants to go,” Castiel says after a few minutes consideration, and Meg smiles.
“Good. I mean, they'll be pissed. Michaels will probably ream all of us nine ways from Sunday, but it's... y'know. The right thing to do, or whatever.”
They sit in silence for a while before Meg stands up and opens one of the bags, pulling out a navy blue NASA t-shirt and a fresh pair of shorts to put on under his overalls. She tosses them toward Castiel.
“You can wash up first,” she says, sitting back down and resting her head on her folded elbows, “all that running around has made you stink.”
He takes the clothes into the wash room, which isn't much more than a closet, and once he's cleaned the sweat and grime from his body and dressed, he emerges to find Meg fast asleep at the table and Benny in his bunk. Dean is still out cold. Castiel sits down in the chair closest to him and waits. He doesn't sleep.
It's not until Dean wakes, blinking against the dull gray ceiling, that really understands that he's been saved.
Pushing himself up on his elbows, he looks around to find Castiel sitting exactly where he said he'd be. He looks exhausted, dark circles under his eyes, and he smiles when he sees Dean looking at him.
“Hey,” he says, and Castiel's smile widens.
“Where are the others?” Dean asks, scrubbing his face with his palm, and pushes himself out of bed. Castiel gestures toward the opposite side of the base.
“Sleeping,” he says, “they got in a couple of hours after we got back.”
“How long was I out?”
“Ten hours, give or take.”
"You've just been sitting there this whole time?"
"I promised I would."
He blinks, bleary eyed, one hand on the wall for support, and tries to remember what happened. His memory is vague and patchy, and his brain is sluggish, not quite wanting to operate properly. He remembers smoke. Fire. Shadows pressing in.
“How are you feeling?” Castiel asks him, and Dean's eyes snap back into focus.
“Like I took the brown acid.”
“Are you still—”
“Seeing shit that isn't there? No. I mean, I don't think so,” Dean shakes his head, following him out into the main room, “unless you're not real, which, no offense, but I'm still counting it as a possibility.”
“I assure you, I'm real.”
Dean smiles weakly and Castiel smiles right back. It's lopsided and kind of awkward, and possibly the best thing he's ever seen. A calm seems to settle over the base for a few seconds, until Dean notices Meg. He takes an involuntary step back and squeezes his eyes shut.
“Sorry,” he shakes his head, gritting his teeth, “just give me a second.”
Castiel frowns at him.
“Meg is here to help, Dean. I couldn't have come without her.”
“Yeah. I know,” he says, his eyes still shut, “it's... complicated. It's not her fault. Brings back bad memories, is all.”
“Are you going to be okay?”
“Yeah,” Dean lets out a breath and nods, shaking it off, “thanks. I'm good.”
“If... you don't have to decide now, but if you don't want to stay for the rest of the construction, Meg and Benny are prepared to stay on alone until the new crew arrives. You and I can go back to Earth.”
“Michaels is letting us do that?”
“He doesn't know.”
“Then we can't.”
“He's hardly going to put you at fault after everything you've been through. And I'm already going to be disciplined,” he adds, “because I broke protocol when we landed.”
“I exited the capsule before the five hour acclimatisation period was over.”
“How soon before?”
“Four and a half hours. Give or take.”
Dean blinks at him, frowning.
“Why did you do that? You could have been—”
“If I hadn't, you and I wouldn't be talking right now.”
Dean's frown only grows more pronounced as he tries to remember what had happened, and then at once it comes back to him. The crater's edge, Castiel pulling him back.
“I nearly... shit,” he sinks down onto one of the chairs and scrubs his hands over his face, “that was damn good timing, Cas.”
“Which is why I couldn't care less about breaking protocol again. I don't want to pressure you, Dean, but I really think staying here is a terrible idea. And I don't know exactly what your history with Meg is, but it's obviously not going to help.”
“You're right,” Dean says after a few minutes, staring down at his hands, as if he's ashamed to be admitting it, “I know you're right. But...”
“We can leave whenever you like.”
“I think... I should try to stay. I mean, if we can. I've been working on this drill so long, I wouldn't feel right leaving it.”
“It's up to you. We can take it one day at a time, and if you decide you want to leave—”
He's interrupted by a buzz of static and a muffled voice, and Castiel goes to his helmet, pulling out his headset. He slips it on.
“This is Castiel, please repeat that, Houston?”
There's a pause, while he listens, and Dean waits for news.
“Thanks, Charlie, I'll put him on.”
Slipping the headset back off, he hands it over, and Dean raises his brow in question.
“Charlie and Sam want to talk to you,” he says, and Dean's face just about crumples, because those are the two most important people in his life, and a day ago he was convinced he'd never see them again.
“Don't tell them about the possibility of leaving early,” Castiel warns him, “if Commander Michaels gets wind of it too soon... I think perhaps this is one of those times when it'll be easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
“Sure,” Dean says, taking the headset, and Castiel makes his way to the sleeping quarters.
“I'm going to try and get a little sleep. Wake me if you need anything.”
“I will. Thanks, Cas.”
Dean puts the headset on and presses the button.
“Hey, Sammy,” he says, sinking back in the seat, “it's damn good to hear you, little brother.”
“You too. How are you doing?”
“I'm good. Much better now,” he says, looking toward the door that Castiel went through, “got kinda rough there for a while, but... I'm good.”
“That's great, Dean,” Sam says, voice thick with relief, “you had us worried there for a minute. Bobby hasn't stopped texting me. He uses more abbreviations than a thirteen year old girl.”
“Glad I missed that.”
“Yeah. So, uh... have you spoken to Meg?”
“No. I was asleep when she came in, and now she's snoring. I knew she was coming, but... it's still... I know it's not her fault. But... you know.”
“Yeah, I know,” Sam says, then hesitates, and Dean can just about see him with that pinched expression he gets when he's trying not to chicken out, “so, look. Since... I'm guessing you could probably do with some good news?”
“What's the catch?”
“No catch. Just good news.”
“So why are you askin'? Just tell me.”
“We were gonna wait until you got back,” Sam says, voice brimming with excitement, “but, we figured you could use the distraction now... so, um...”
There's some muffled bumping, something that sounds a lot like rustling paper, and then all at once he hears Sam's voice mingling with Jess', both shouting at the same time.
“You're gonna be an uncle!”
“We're having a baby!”
“Wait, I thought we were doing the uncle one,” Jess says, and Sam laughs, “weren't we doing you're gonna be an uncle, then we're having a baby?”
“Guys, I don't think it matters,” Charlie says in the background, laughing, and Dean still hasn't found his voice.
He's staring at the communicator button with a grin wide enough to catch flies, if the moon had any, and finally, a sound between a giggle and a sob that he will deny having made for the rest of his natural life bubbles up out of his chest.
“You're having a baby,” he repeats, dumbfounded, “I'm gonna be an uncle.”
“See?” Charlie tells them, still laughing, “he still got it.”
“Wait, wait—” Dean says after a minute, finally regaining his brain function, “Jess, I don't think you guys have really thought this through.”
“What?” Jess asks, panic clear in her voice, and Dean tries not to laugh too hard.
“How are you going to survive giving birth to a sasquatch?”
“Oh my god, Dean,” Sam says, laughing, “you're such an asshole.”
“Well if that isn't proof he's gonna be fine, I don't know what is,” Charlie tells them.
Dean grins, and for the first time since the meteor, he thinks he'll be okay.
Benny is the first to wake, an hour or so after he disconnects from the call, and when he makes his way out into the main base he wordlessly pulls Dean into a gruff hug. Dean thumps him on the back.
“It's good to see you, Benny,” he says.
“You, too. You doin okay?”
“Yeah. Glad you all got here when you did. If Cas hadn't grabbed me...” he trails off, and Benny nods once, looking away, his expression almost guilty.
Meg wakes not long after. She's clearly uncomfortable, but no matter their past, Dean is grateful that she came. He thanks her, and it seems to startle her, as if she'd expected less.
The atmosphere is tense and awful, and though Benny tries to lighten the mood with a story about the last time they'd seen each other, it falls flat. When Castiel wakes a little later, walking back out into the main room, he finds the three others sitting at the table in silence. Benny rises.
“Mornin',” he says, and Castiel nods in greeting, “since you're up, we oughtta check out what's wrong with the comm system.”
“Sounds good,” Meg says.
Within a few minutes they are both gone through the airlock, box of tools in hand. Dean drums his fingers on the table for a moment, before he gestures toward the small television monitor mounted on the wall in the far corner.
“I'd been planning to force you to watch Star Trek with me when you got here,” he says, “but whatever busted the comm system ruined the sound on the TV, too.”
“We can eat?” Castiel suggests, “I know how you like food.”
“I knew there was a reason I liked you,” Dean says with a wink, and Castiel uses the hunt for freeze dried macaroni as an excuse to turn away. He gets embarrassed enough when people he doesn't have interest in look at him like that; Dean doing it makes him want to crawl under the table until he remembers how to talk.
Somehow, he'd managed to develop a crush on the guy before they'd even landed, and considering the state Dean has been in, he doubts that says anything good about his own psyche. He puts all his focus on the task at hand, telling himself to stop.
Once the macaroni is located and heated, a loud ding signifies the end of the heating cycle, and Castiel hands one serving over to Dean.
They sit side by side in front of the blank screen, and for hours they talk, and don't talk, and Castiel loves every minute. Somehow, the silences are just as comfortable as they had been over the comm link, and their conversation comes even more easily. Castiel tells him about how he met Charlie, about her increasingly embarrassing attempts at garnering the attention of Gilda the bartender-slash-nursing-student and Dean laughs aloud, eyes crinkling at the corners. Castiel's stomach swoops at the sight, and he smiles until Dean speaks again.
“You know... you look different to what I pictured.”
Castiel can't help the way his face falls, and Dean sees before he can school his offended expression.
“No,” Dean twists to look at him, realizing how it sounded, “I mean... because you have a really deep voice. I thought you'd be this giant burly dude. But you're like... nice looking.”
If he weren't so sure that it were next to impossible, Castiel could swear that Dean is actually blushing, staring hard at the bowl on his lap.
“I mean—never mind,” Dean shakes his head, and grimacing, and Castiel shoves the last of his macaroni, now cold, into his mouth, feeling his own face going red in the process.
“Thank you?” he finally says through his mouthful, and the silence they fall into is the only awkward one all day.
The power comes back soon after, and Meg and Benny return victorious. Meg holds up a heavy black rock the size of a grapefruit, naming it as the culprit, and suggests they try the comm system again. They find them working properly, though the damage to the headset in Dean's suit is unchanged. They swap it out with a spare from the Seeker.
“So, what now?” Dean asks, and the three others share a look.
“We have to get to work on the drill ASAP,” Meg says carefully, and he nods.
“Jo,” he says, looking away, “Jo and Victor are still there. I couldn't get them.”
“We'll take care of it,” Castiel tells him.
“I should help.”
“You should stay here. It's too much, Dean.”
“He's right, brother,” Benny tells him, and Dean sighs, nodding.
In the end, Castiel and Meg set out on their own, and Benny stays behind, talking animatedly with Dean about the drill design.
What's waiting for them at the crater is worse than Castiel could have imagined. With the surface temperature fluctuating from freezing to blistering, Jo and Victor's bodies have not fared well. Meg stops walking before they get within fifteen feet of them.
“Are you alright?”
“Not really,”she admits, “this is...”
Castiel considers it a small blessing that the mostly intact suits will make it easy for them to move the bodies, and he swallows the bile that rises in his throat when he thinks about how close Dean had been to being one of them. If he'd been a few moments later, there's every chance that Dean would have fallen.
“Okay,” Meg says, moving forward, “let's do this.”
They start with Victor, and Castiel has to close his eyes. The sight of his face, blistered and ruined, is too much, and when they lift him his suit sticks to the rock, held by dried blood. Jo is more difficult, with one leg crushed beneath the buggy, but with a jack they lift it off her enough to pull her out.
With the two of them in the back of the transport vehicle, they go about cleaning up all evidence of them, digging into the dirt and shoveling the blood-stained stones into a bag. The rock Victor landed on seems to extend far down into the ground, and they have to leave it, settling instead for scraping away what they can. It's not perfect, but it's the best they can manage.
The wreckage of the buggy will have to wait—they'll need the back of the transporter completely empty to take it back—so after a look over their work, they head back to the base in a silence made deeper by the bodies in their cargo.
That night Dean sleeps soundly, and he wakes to the sound of The Beatles singing Here Comes The Sun. The alarm is working again, now that the comm system is functioning, and the sound of music makes the last few weeks seem distant. Nothing but a bad dream. When he makes his way out into the main room, Meg is already there, and she tells him that she and Benny are heading out to clear the last of the debris from the drill site.
“You and Cas should work on the greenhouse,” she tells him, slipping her suit on over her overalls, “It's getting a little overgrown in there.”
An hour later, after they've eaten and gathered their supplies, he and Castiel make they way over to the squat building.
The greenhouse is far more self sufficient than Dean had given it credit for. When Meg said a little overgrown, it seems she actually meant it's a goddamn jungle.
When they step out of the airlock and into the wide, bright room, Dean swears under his breath. It's mainly spinach, dark green waves of it overflowing from the pots along the wall, and from the lower shelves, peas climb upward, tall stems reaching for the lights that hang from the ceiling.
"Christ," he mutters, pulling off his helmet and putting it by the door, "didn't think it'd be this bad."
Beside him, Castiel shuffles free of his outer layer.
"At least there'll be plenty to eat," he says, and Dean admits he has a point, “though now I understand how much you missed bacon. Nothing tastes like anything, here.”
“That's why it's at the top of my list,” Dean says, marking things off on his fingers, “food, showers, sex.”
Castiel raises his eyebrows.
“Stuff I'm looking forward to when we get back,” Dean shrugs, “all I've had for months is freeze-dried protein, wet-wipes and my right hand. I'm telling you, Cas, it's no way for a man to live.”
“I'll second that,” Castiel laughs, “particularly the showers. I didn't realize how much I cared for running water until I stopped having access to it.”
It takes a little more than two hours to tidy the overgrown plants, cutting what's ready to be eaten and filling a crate to take back to the base. It's calming work, and the smell of the plants is almost overwhelming. After weeks in the base, breathing recycled air, the greenhouse is heady with life.
When they're done, Castiel begins to climb back into his suit.
“Cas, wait,” Dean says, “can we... I don't know. Just sit for a minute? It's... I don't want to go back yet.”
“Is this about Meg?”
Dean raises his brow, then shakes his head.
“No. I'm... did Charlie—?”
“She told me you had a bad history, but that's all. I'm not trying to pry, I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“Okay. Yeah. I'm... I'll be fine. I like it in here, is all.”
Slipping his feet back out of the cumbersome suit, Castiel sits down on the floor, back against the shelving unit, and after a few seconds Dean joins him.
“It's weird,” Dean says, pulling a leaf apart, “I never really gave a shit about trees and plants before, but...”
He trails off, rolling the stem between his fingers, staining them green, and Castiel watches him for a moment.
“You miss Earth,” he says, and Dean half nods.
“Yeah. Not just that though.”
Dean looks down, frowning at his hands, and Castiel watches him, waiting. When he doesn't seem to be adding anything else, he bumps his knee against Dean's.
“What is it?”
“Movement,” Dean says eventually, “I miss movement. And sound. You never really notice how much noise there is until there's nothing, and the same goes for things moving. Leaves, flags, dust, even the clouds. Here... there's JUST nothing. It's static. And I mean... it got worse in the last couple of days before you guys got here, but I was seeing shit for about a week. Seeing things moving around when I knew it wasn't possible.”
“You asked me if I believed in ghosts,” Castiel recalls, and Dean nods.
“I just kept thinking to myself, it's only the breeze—but there's not one, you know? So I knew I was either going nuts or there was something there.”
“You're not nuts.”
Dean raises his brow, looking over at Castiel.
“Wow, that's comforting.”
“No, I mean... you were in shock. Even if you'd gone through something like that on Earth, you'd still have been in shock. But to be up here, completely isolated, and then to have your only link home severed? That kind of trauma can't be easy to get past. Hallucination isn't uncommon.”
“What are you, a shrink?”
Castiel smirks, shaking his head.
“Not quite. I'm more concerned with the hardware than the software.”
Dean squints at him a moment, and Castiel is about to explain when he figures it out.
“So you're what, a neurologist?”
“Then, no offense, but why did they send you?”
“I was nearly done with intensive training, and I volunteered.”
“You're Charlie's best friend, and she's my only friend, so...”
“Cas, I think we can safely say we're friends by now.”
“She's half of my friends, then.”
Dean huffs out a laugh.
“What were you training for?”
“A study on the ISS. I was due to go into pre-launch quarantine on October fourth.”
“Will you still be able to go after this?”
“How long had you been preparing for it?”
“A couple of years.”
“Don't be,” Castiel says, looking back, “I'm glad I came.”
Dean leans his head back against the shelf, tilting it to the side to look at him. After a few seconds he nods, looking back at the leaf in his hands.
“Yeah,” he says, “me too.”
Dean floats down, and lands. The surface is cool beneath his bare toes, the ground chalky and soft. He crouches to dig into it with his fingers. Lifting a handful of dust, he lets it go, and it floats slowly back, glittering in the light. When he looks up into the sky he's confused to see the moon there, and he's on it—he can see himself waving, and waves back, and waves back, and waves back—and as he stares up at the surface reflected he notices a figure approaching him from behind.
His pulse races in fear or anticipation, and he turns just in time to see Castiel, trailing green leaves and water behind him as he walks, like a path leading here from the Earth, and he wants to run down it, follow it home.
His helmet is tucked beneath his arm, and Dean's heart nearly stops.
Frantically, he shouts for Castiel to put it back on, there's no air, there's nothing, you'll die, but when he opens his mouth there's no sound, and his own suit is gone, his body bare and exposed. Gasping, he clutches at his throat, looking frantically around for his suit, cursing himself for stupidly coming outside without it on, when lips find his. They press oxygen into him, and he drinks it down, devours it with the taste of sunlight and stardust and safety that converge on his tongue. He feels fingers at his collarbone, curling, feels everything he is stripped away, and falls, floats backward, hits the ground in slow motion and is filled without warning. There's no burn, no sting, though he knows there should be—just pulse after pulse of hunger and want and heaven, and he arches, watches himself arch on the moon in the sky above him, watches as Castiel's back tenses, and--
The others are sound asleep; the lights in the base all dimmed down low. He can hear Benny snoring in the bunk opposite, can see the silhouette of Meg's hand hanging down from her mattress. Castiel is a shock of messy dark hair, sticking out of his nestlike pile of blankets.
It's the first time since the meteor that he's had a dream that wasn't a nightmare, and while he's sure he should be glad about that, the insistent, aching pulse between his thighs leaves him more irritated than anything else. It's his own fault, he thinks, for talking about sex with Castiel, and he wishes he could travel back in time to punch his past self in the mouth.
With that not an option, though, he sits up and lets his legs drop off the side of his bed. Once he's in the bathroom, the door firmly locked, he slips his sleep shorts off completely, leaving them on the shelf under the mirror, and tries to bring himself off as quickly as possible. It's awkward—the room too small and the silence of the base too absolute to really enjoy it—and he wrings the orgasm from himself miserably.
The next evening, Dean watches Castiel as he makes the call through to Ground Control, updating them on their days work, and wonders. His dream is fresh in his mind, and he'd be lying if he said he thought of anyone else as he worked himself to completion in the bathroom after. He's definitely Dean's type, when it comes to men, and the way he talks sometimes, the tone of his voice, the flush of his cheeks, makes Dean wonder if something is there.
He's pretty sure there is, but then again it's been a while. More than a while. And he's not exactly operating on a full battery right now. Still, he thinks, it could be nice. If...
The guilt comes over him quickly. One moment he's remembering his dream, wondering if Castiel's mouth would twist that way beneath his lips, if he would taste that way--the next, his minds eye is overtaken by images of Pamela, of Victor, of Jo, of their bodies laying in the containment unit.
His stomach lurches.
Looking up from his white-knuckled grip on the chair back, Dean sees Meg watching him with concern. It's jarring. He swallows bile.
"Yeah, just... got a little dizzy."
She reaches out toward him, as if to check his temperature, and he flinches back. She lowers her hand.
"Sorry," she says, weighted, and Dean nods, knowing it's not just the gesture she's apologizing for.
When Meg and Benny announce that the drill site is clear a couple of days later, they set out for the crater in the buggy and the transport vehicle, and Dean feels himself getting nervous. The closer they get, the more apprehensive he becomes, and Castiel notices. He stops the buggy.
"Are you okay?"
"If it's too soon—”
"It's not. I'm fine. Lets go."
Castiel looks at him for a long moment, clearly doubtful, before starting the buggy up and following after Benny and Meg. They arrive at the crater too quickly for Dean's liking, but he ignores the pounding in his chest. Breathes through it. In, out, in, out.
If it weren't for the dark stain on the rock and the gouge in the ground where the buggy hit, he wouldn't have known anything ever happened. Dean ignores it as best he can as they drive to the bottom, out to the center where some of the supplies already sit.
They've been out there an hour when Meg groans, stretching her arms.
“God, I could use a smoke,” she says, and it's enough. The flick of a match in his head, and Dean feels himself slipping. As he stares at her, he sees her body collapse, shrink down inside her suit, twisting smoke, twisting shadow, and the blonde girl fills his mind, her matches, the fire, the smoke, the shadows, her father, the fire, the fire, the smoke, the fire, his mother—
There are hands on his shoulders, gripping him, and he clutches at them, realizing suddenly that he's on the ground, on his knees. He struggles to stand.
“Dean, breathe,” Castiel tells him, “it's okay. You're safe. I'm here.”
He feels himself being maneuvered into the buggy, pushed into the seat, and he lets it happen, can't focus enough to say anything. Castiel disappears for a moment, and Dean hears him talking to the others through the comm link. Their words are jumbled. He squeezes his eyes shut.
Before he knows it Castiel is driving them back toward the base, and when he realizes, he turns to look at him.
"I can help," he says, "I'm okay. I don't know what that was. I'm fine now."
"You're not. I don't care what Michaels says, keeping you here is... it's... it's fucked, Dean."
"I don't want to go back to Earth."
"I need to do this. The mines. The drills. Without them... it's all I've got. It's the only thing I've ever... I need them. I don't have anything else. I used to have my kid brother to look after but he doesn't need me any more. I don't have any other skills. I don't have anyone waiting for me. I have nothing. If I give up, if I leave this--"
"It's not giving up, Dean. It's putting yourself first."
"Why should I?"
"Why? Because you're worth that. You need to believe that."
"Easier said than done, Cas."
“Believe me, I know.”
They're silent for a time, the wheels shaking over rocky ground.
"What were you planning to do after the mission?" Cas asks "if it all went smoothly?"
"Develop more new tech for NASA. Settle down, eventually."
"So why isn't that enough now?"
"Because they're dead! They're dead because of me! If I hadn't... it's because of me that any of them were even here, and it's like, it's just like... I keep... I can't--"
"I don't want to talk about this."
Castiel, to his credit, doesn't push. Dean isn't sure if he's grateful for that or not.
Castiel wakes in the middle of the night to hear the sigh of the airlock door opening. He can hear Meg snoring from her bunk, can see Benny flat on his back with his mouth open, but a quick peek into Dean's bed tells him what the sinking feeling in his gut already knows. Dean is gone.
Castiel gets into his suit as fast as possible and makes his way outside.
About fifty feet away from the base, he sees Dean walking slowly, boots dragging across the ground. Just above the horizon ahead, the Earth sits, a massive blue-green marble, swirling with cloud. When he reaches a wide, flat rock, Dean stops, staring up at the night sky reversed, and Castiel comes to stand beside him. For a long time neither speak, and when Dean finally does, it's not at all what Castiel expected.
“I was nine when it happened.”
Castiel tilts his head to the side, listening, and Dean pauses, gathering his thoughts before he goes on.
“Meg was seven. She lived next door with her dad. The day... when it happened it was just me and mom and Sammy at home, and Meg came to the door. Mom saw her and thought she'd come over to play or whatever, and she opened the door, but then he was there. Her dad. He grabbed mom, dragged her inside. Said our family was mocking him. That she was mocking him because she looked so much like Meg's mom, and because Meg's mom was gone, ours would be too. He said he was doing it for her. He... he made her carry the matches.”
Dean nods, swallowing.
“She was seven, Cas. It wasn't... I know it wasn't her fault, but... she was carrying the fucking matches. And he just turned to her and said this is for you, sweet girl, and he lit—”
Dean's voice catches, and he clenches his jaw, seeming to gather strength before he goes on.
“And she... Mom was screaming, and Sammy was screaming, and I... I didn't know what to do, so I just grabbed Sam and Meg and pulled them outside, and that's... that's when Dad got home. I don't... I don't remember what happened right after, but the cops got the guy pretty quick, and Meg went into foster care and got adopted and fifteen years later we ended up in the same fucking class at MIT. She had a different last name, and she'd dyed her hair, so I didn't realize for a while, and she was working with me and Jo on the drill design. She knew, though. Pretty much right away. But she didn't tell me for about a year, and...”
Shuffling his feet against the dusty ground, Dean stares up at the distant Earth, and through his helmet Castiel sees his eyes bright with unshed tears. He looks away, knowing Dean will be embarrassed, and waits for him to go on.
“Seeing her just... it brings it all back. And I mean, it was tough back on Earth, but I could deal. Up here though... with everything that's happened. It's getting to me, man. I just... I don't think I can do this. I think... I think I need to go back.”
The words seem forced out, as though they are painful to admit, and Castiel knocks his shoulder against Dean's.
“Then we will,” he says, “we'll leave tomorrow.”
Finally, Dean turns to meet Castiel's eye, and he lets out a breath of relief. He smiles.
Back at the base, Castiel can't get back to sleep. Everything Dean told him is rattling around in his skull, and he climbs back out of bed around three in the morning, heading for the living area to read. He sits down on the bench seat in front of the monitor and flicks through the pages of Musicophilia, but no matter how he tries he can't seem to read it.
His minds eye is replaying Dean's expression as he had stared up at the Earth, the sadness turned to fear turned to calm when he turned to look at Castiel, and he wishes he could cut the memory out because that look fixed on him like a physical thing, and he wants it over and over. But everything is wrong.
He's Dean's rescuer, his friend, and nothing more. For him to want anything more is inappropriate, he's certain of it.
So he stares hard at the book in his lap, forcing himself to focus on the words before him in an attempt to drown out the thoughts in his head. He's rereading the same sentence for the seventh time.
The whetting of the blade, the falling of the flowers, the transience of all things earthly, the falling ascent to the heavenly garden—each of these is sung to the same tones, each is made equally alive by the same melody.
“Hmm,” Castiel says, and looks up to find Dean hovering in the doorway, hesitating until he marks his page, putting the book to his side on the bench.
Dean clears his throat and nods to himself, walking in and sitting down beside him.
“Couldn't get back to sleep either?” he asks, and Castiel shakes his head.
“Pre-launch jitters,” he lies, and Dean's eyes crinkle at the corners.
“Same. You wanna listen to some music? Usually does the trick for me.”
“We'll wake the others.”
“Headphones,” Dean says, pulling a pair from the shelf below the monitor and plugging them in, “I'm happy to share if you are.”
Dean hits play and sits back beside Castiel as the music starts. It takes him a moment to recognize it as it fades up from nothing, a steady pulse giving way to the tick and grind of gears, building to a mad crescendo before dropping away into an atmospheric melody, but when he does, he looks over at Dean with an arched brow.
“Dark Side of the Moon?” he asks, “really?”
“It's a good album,” Dean says, and Castiel laughs, settling back against the wall behind them.
“That it is.”
By the time Us and Them begins to play, Castiel's heart is pounding hard, and he tries to ignore the warmth of Dean at his side, the way their elbows bump together on the small bench, the way they're sharing one set of earbuds like a couple of teenagers on a bus. He's glad they don't seem to need to talk, because he isn't sure he trusts himself to speak right now. Whatever this is that's been growing between them over the past few days is more than he'd bargained for, and in this moment he's almost able to believe that Dean feels it too.
When the album reaches its end, Dean's fallen asleep, his head lolling sideways onto Castiel's shoulder, and Castiel doesn't have the heart or the will to move away.
When Dean wakes in the morning, it's with his face pressed into Castiel's neck, his arm wrapped around his shoulders. He's still trying to wriggle free when Meg walks out and sees them, and Dean flushes, knowing how it looks. She smirks knowingly.
"You know who he kind of reminds me of with those big baby blues?" she asks, "that security guard from--"
"Shut it, Meg," he says, finally getting his arm out from behind Castiel.
Meg presses her lips together, though there's a smile there, and Dean glances over at Castiel, still leaning against him, before he carefully maneuvers himself away and stands, gesturing for Meg to follow. They go to the bunks, and Dean rolls his eyes at the sound of Benny snoring loudly next door.
Meg stands uncomfortably in the doorway.
"I just wanted you to know," Dean says, sitting down on his bunk, "I don't... I don't blame you. For what happened to my mom."
"I know,” she says, though from the look on her face she's scarcely let herself believe it.
"It's just—it's hard.”
"I didn't know how to tell you," she says after a moment, finally moving to sit down next to him, "I realized about two months in. When your brother was in town and we all went out. But we were--"
"Yeah. How do you even... how was I mean to bring that up?"
"We're leaving," Dean says, "Cas and me. Today if we can swing it.”
"Good. That's probably best."
"I think so."
"You're... what you said yesterday, about what happened to Jo and Victor and Pam.”
"Cas told you about that?" he asks, and she shakes her head.
“Comm link was on,” she says, smiling sadly, “Dean, you can't let yourself think it's your fault. It's not. no-one could have predicted it. And if you hadn't come up with this drill, someone else would have. Probably me. Frankly I think you stole my idea. I'm considering legal action.”
Dean snorts, glancing over at her, and she grins, nudging him with her shoulder.
"We good?" she asks.
"Honestly, I don't know if we ever will be," Dean says, "but..."
"Close enough," he agrees.
After a moment he clears his throat, looking out toward the main room.
"He's better looking than Linus."
Meg laughs aloud, and Benny thumps the wall, muttering something about keeping it down.
"Better taste in music, too,” Meg whispers, and Dean looks down, smirking.
The preparations for launch take less time than Dean expected, and by mid afternoon he and Castiel are saying their goodbyes, loading into the capsule. Benny and Meg wave, heading back into the base, and have agreed not to say anything to ground control until they see them lift off. Commander Michaels isn't going to be happy, and Dean doubts any of them are going to get away with this in the long run, but Castiel was right. He's going to lose it if he stays up here, and he owes it to himself to make sure that doesn't happen.
When the final checks are all done and the one-minute countdown begins, he starts humming, and Castiel looks over at him with a tilted head.
"Is that... is that Metallica?" he asks, and Dean fidgets in his seat.
"It calms me down."
"Some Kind of Monster calms you down."
"What's wrong with Some Kind of Monster?” Dean asks defensively, and Castiel shakes his head.
"Nothing. It just seems counter-intuitive."
"Why, what would you be humming?" he asks, and Castiel frowns, considering the question for a moment.
"Rocket Man, perhaps. Or Learning To Fly."
"...yeah, well sure if you wanna get logical."
"You could just say I was right."
"I could, but then I'd be lying."
They fall silent, both half grinning, and the countdown continues. When he starts humming again, he hears Castiel join in, and feels something warm unfurl in his chest. When they take off, he's smiling. He almost forgets to be scared.
Once they're up, they check all the systems multiple times, ensure their trajectory is okay, and by the time they've ascertained that everything is doing what it should be they've already been flying for close to four hours. With the adrenaline of launch fading, Dean feels his energy flag, and Castiel prods him in the shoulder.
"Get some sleep. I'll contact Houston."
Dean does, unbuckling his harness and pushing off from the seat. He claps Castiel on the shoulder, squeezing briefly, before he floats in to his bunk and pulls the curtain shut. He sleeps. His dreams are nebulous things, liquid images of eyes like the blue Earth. When he wakes he's warm and floating.
Cas is still in his seat, and Dean makes his way out to settle beside him.
"Was I out long?"
"About seven hours. We're moving along nicely."
"What're you reading?"
Castiel holds up the book--Dean recognizes the title as the one he had been reading over the comm system when the power had gone out.
"I liked the start of the thing you read," he says, after a moment, "something about hot-rods."
"Hmm. It cut out just after the bit about riding in cars in his dreams."
"Here," Castiel hands it over, "you can finish it, if you like. I need to get a couple of hours rest. Unless--"
"It's fine, I'm good,” Dean tells him gratefully, “thanks."
Castiel smiles, and his eyes are bright. Dean tries not to stare as he floats away. It's bizarre how normal that seems. Dean thinks he wouldn't be surprised if he just did that anyway—if even on earth he floats wherever he goes.
For a while, Dean is alone with the book and the sound of Castiel sleeping nearby. It's enough to keep him calm. The terror of the last few weeks feels miles away, and he figures it is. When Castiel joins him again, they eat and watch the moon shrinking in the rear window.
"Hey, when we get back..." he says, pausing to lick sauce from his finger, “I was thinking, we should have lunch or something."
Castiel side eyes him.
"I assumed we would."
"I don't really have any friends in Houston besides Charlie," he goes on, “I suppose Kevin is a friend, too. We're not that close, though.”
“Why do—” Dean starts, then shakes his head before trying again, “none?"
Dean hesitates again, then gives up on finding a more tactful way to ask.
“I don't deal very well with people I don't know. Or people in general.”
“You always seemed to talk to me fine.”
“You're different,” Castiel says simply, then frowns, “I mean, you're friends with Charlie, so...”
“So you figured I wasn't a complete asshole?”
“Basically. But what I'm trying to say is that I'd hoped we'd remain friends,” he shrugs, “so yes, we should have some variety of meal together once we land.”
“Deal,” Dean says, smirking, and floats back toward the door, “I'm gonna read some more of that poetry.”
“You like it?”
“If anyone else asks, definitely not.”
Castiel shakes his head, following him through the opening and into the main area. The majority of the flight back is passed in the same way—reading, talking, listening to music, using the exercise bike—and with each hour that slips by Dean finds himself hoping more and more that what he feels is reciprocated. There's a pull, something magnetic between them, and by the time they're ten hours off landing, he's almost certain that it's not just him.
Castiel is stretched out in his bunk, and when he flips to the last page of his book and pushes out into the air, ostensibly to find a replacement, Dean floats up to meet him. He's planning to ask him if he wants to watch a movie before they have to start landing protocols, figuring he might manage to get an arm around him at some point if he gets the signs right, but he miscalculates his speed and ends up crashing directly into him.
Laughing, Dean takes hold of his shoulders to push him back, but he doesn't. And they're laughing at the strange dance they've fallen into, and they're smiling, both smiling, and Dean's hands slip down of their own accord, settling warm against Castiel's waist, and they float together, turning, spinning in the exercise room until their laughter fades, and when they kiss it's like free falling; exhilarating and terrifying and humbling and brief.
His lips are softer than they looked, and he kisses like a man drowning, as though he's desperate for it, helplessly pulling Dean to him, and for the moment it lasts Dean thinks it perfect. But then Castiel pulls back sharply, pushing away.
Dean is ready to lean back in, but he sees the look on his face—a look of horror, of shame, and his heart stutters in his chest. He barely has a moment to think before Castiel leaves, practically flees to the cabin, where he slips back into his landing gear, helmet and all, and straps in to his seat.
He doesn't say anything. Dean just stares after him.
“Cas?” Dean says a moment later, his voice wavering, but Castiel doesn't respond.
For the remaining hours, they don't say a word to each other beyond what is needed to safely land, and when they touch down in the late afternoon it's to a mixed reaction of anger from their superiors and relief from everyone else.
They are separated almost immediately, both requiring medical attention while they re-acclimatize to the Earth's gravity, and Dean watches as Castiel is wheeled away in the opposite direction, a red-haired woman trailing close beside him.
When he hugs his brother, and Jess, and Charlie, he honestly can't tell if he's getting choked up over being home or because of how badly he's fucked up.
The doctors give him the all clear to go home after two days, and Sam collects him in the Impala. His house is just as he left it—big and empty and in complete disarray--and he slumps down onto the couch as his brother moves around the kitchen.
"Don't cook," he calls out, "for the love of God, order me a pizza."
"I'm not cooking. I'm looking for your cell charger."
"It's in my room."
Sam disappears and comes back moments later with Deans cell, and plugs it in to the wall outlet. Dean eyes it suspiciously.
"Not expecting any calls," he says, and Sam rolls his eyes.
"Yeah, you are. Charlie told me she gave Cas your number."
"Because he asked for it?"
"I don't know, Dean, maybe because he wanted to check how you were doing? Why do you think?"
"Why are you so pissy?"
Sam sighs, scrubbing a hand through his hair, and slouches down onto the couch beside him.
"Sorry,” he says, “just tired."
"Join the club."
For a while they sit in silence, watching an old World Series highlights show flicker on the TV.
"So,” Sam says eventually, in the way he does when he's been psyching himself up for a conversation, “you sure you're okay?"
"I will be,” Dean says, picking at the cushion, “What happened up there... the shit I saw... there aren't words, Sammy. But I'm still kicking."
"Pizza would help," he adds, and Sam huffs out a laugh, clapping him on the knee.
Sam digs his own cell from his pocket and dials, making the same order they've made since they were kids. As he talks, Dean notices his cell phone blink on, and a moment later, a familiar riff plays. He heaves himself up from the couch, legs still a little wobbly as he gets used to the gravity, and makes his way across the room. He picks it up.
I was hoping we could talk.
His thumb hovers over the button. He wants to reply. Wants to agree. But the look on Castiel's face as he'd pulled away is burned in his memory, and he can't handle the rejection he's sure is coming. He deletes the message, and regrets it immediately. For hours, he considers calling Charlie to ask for Castiel's number, but he can't seem to convince himself he has a chance.
Castiel's disciplinary hearing is scheduled a week after they land, and despite the rift between them, Dean attends in order to make his statement in support of Castiel's actions. It's all completely pointless, but the world runs on bureaucracy. They both leave without more than a warning, due to what the directors deem somewhat extenuating circumstances.
The hearing finishes at eleven thirty in the morning, and Castiel, through some kind of newly discovered need for self torture, calls Dean a few minutes after leaving to see if he wants to get lunch.
“I seem to remember you liking bacon cheeseburgers,” he adds, hopeful, and tries not to think about the fact that his last invitation was ignored.
“I have to go to this trauma counseling thing,” Dean says, and Castiel can hear each word colored with disdain, “but it gets out at two if you want to meet after?
“Half past two?”
“Sounds good. Text me the address.”
Now, it's a quarter past two, there's still fifteen minutes until he's meant to be meeting Dean, and Castiel is so nervous he can't feel his legs.
“You ready to order?”
He looks up to find a waitress with an open notepad.
“Not yet, waiting for someone.”
She turns to leave.
“Wait,” he says, leaning forward to call her back, “can I get a whiskey sour?”
“Sure thing, hon.”
She smiles and leaves, and he drums his fingers over the tabletop until she returns with his drink.
He's pretty sure he looks ridiculous—still dressed in his suit from the hearing, slightly rumpled from the drive. The change of clothes he'd meant to bring is sitting in a bag on his kitchen counter alongside his travel mug of coffee. Or, as is probably more accurate now given the amount of time that's passed, iced coffee.
It's blowing a gale outside, his hair is practically a birds nest, and he's pretty sure that on the off chance that Dean actually was attracted to him before, he's not going to be now.
He's still fidgeting, wondering if there's any point in trying to fix his hair in the bathroom, when the bell over the door sounds and Dean walks in. He's changed since the hearing, dressed in faded jeans and a maroon button down, covered in a brown leather jacket. He stops at the counter, smiling at the waitress, and Castiel feels his pulse racing. This is the first time he's seen him dressed like himself, not in a bulky space suit or regulation NASA overalls or a cheap suit. And god damn he's gorgeous, he thinks.
“I'm screwed,” he mutters to himself, glancing at his reflection in the window and trying to make his hair sit right, making it worse in the process.
When he looks back up, Dean is looking around the restaurant. Their eyes meet and Castiel raises his hand in an awkward wave. Dean walks forward, eyes crinkling at the corners as he tries not to laugh. Castiel wants to disappear.
“Windy out there,” Dean says, and Castiel tries again to flatten his hair, “your tie is on backwards, by the way.”
Castiel looks down, and flushes again.
“Nobody else told you?”
“That sucks, Cas,” Dean laughs, sinking into the seat opposite him.
Thankfully, the waitress returns with their drinks, and Castiel decides to focus on his glass for a good few seconds. The conversation is stilted at best, and when they finish their lunch, Castiel leaves with a pit in his gut. He doesn't notice Dean staring after him, dejected.
Dean is miserable. Over a week after he got back, Sam is still at his house, and his presence is doing nothing but highlight Dean's own misery. Its obvious he's itching to get back to California to Jess, who had to return for a doctors appointment the day before he was let out of hospital. She's almost six months pregnant, and Sam keeps looking at his phone, and out the window, and at the photo of them together that's stuck to Dean's fridge. It's infuriating, because Dean gets it. Sam isn't the only one missing someone, and Dean is guilty as Hell for even thinking about that. For thinking about Cas so much after everything else that's happened, when he should just be grieving, only grieving and nothing else. Somehow, though, he can't stop thinking about how for a brief moment, when they kissed, he felt like he'd found that sense of peace he'd been searching for for years, even before the meteor.
But Sam is driving him insane.
"Go home," he says, watching Sam trail his fingers over the photo on the fridge instead of opening it to get the beer he'd offered.
"Jess needs you and you're driving me crazy."
"You don't want me here?"
Dean groans, thumping his head against the backrest of the couch.
"Did I say that?"
"Kind of,” Sam says, pulling the fridge open and grabbing two bottles.
"Don't be an idiot. You're welcome to stay as long as you want. But you clearly want to be back with your wife, and watching you pine for her is—" irritatingly familiar “—nauseating."
"I'm not pining."
"Yeah, you are."
After an argument that Dean isn't entirely sure he's the winner of, Sam agrees its time he went back to California, and he books a flight for the following afternoon before calling Charlie to let her know he's leaving. When he hangs up, he comes out of the kitchen with a smile.
“We're going out,” he tells Dean, “Charlie's booking a table at The Garden to see me off.”
For some unfathomable reason, Charlie invited Castiel. When he walks into The Garden with Sam and sees him, sitting stiffly in the seat between her and Kevin, Dean falters in his step. Their lunch had been a disaster; awkward beyond belief, and he has no desire to relive it.
The dinner is astronomically worse, and somehow, Dean and Castiel manage to avoid talking to each other at all for most of the night, despite the fact that everyone inexplicably shuffles around to make sure they're sitting beside one another. Dean spends most of the evening playing twenty questions with Gilda, who is less than impressed with having to be at her workplace on her night off, but still smiles whenever Charlie catches her eye. Dean envies what they have and hates himself for it. He drinks more than he should, hoping to drown out the feeling, and when Castiel announces that he is leaving around nine, Dean, a little tipsy, scoffs.
“What?” Castiel asks, pausing as he pulls on his coat.
“I didn't say anything.”
“Right,” Castiel rolls his eyes before turning to face the rest of the table, “goodnight, everyone. It was nice seeing the rest of you.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Dean asks, getting up to follow him. Everyone else at the table is staring at them. Dean suddenly notices, flushing, and looks back to Castiel, dropping his voice, “we need to talk.”
He grabs hold of his arm and pulls him out onto the quiet street, lined with light-covered trees. Castiel yanks his arm away and fixes him with a glare.
“Look, Dean, I know this has been incredibly uncomfortable. I didn't want to come tonight.”
That hurts more than Dean thought it would, and he lashes out.
“Then why did you bother?”
“You know what Charlie's like.”
“Yeah, I do. And if you really didn't want to come, she wouldn't have made you. So why are you here?”
Castiel's jaw clamps shut, and he looks away, shaking his head slightly. Dean feels sick. He can't stop talking.
“You think I want to have this... this reminder? I know I fucked up. I shouldn't have—I just. I thought there was something there. I thought you—I'm sorry I misinterpreted whatever the hell was happening with us up there, but I can't take it back.”
Castiel looks back at him, eyes narrowed, and something about the look renders Dean speechless. He's looking at him as though studying him, trying to understand, and there's something beneath it, something like hope.
But he doesn't speak. Doesn't tell Dean he's wrong, doesn't agree with him, doesn't do anything, and after a long stretch of nothing, Dean gives up. He leaves, walking briskly down the street toward his car, and Castiel just watches him go.
While Dean drives, his cell rings. And rings. And rings. He ignores it for as long as he can, but when he gets home he sees Sam's suitcase and realizes he's left his brother without a ride.
“Shit,” he mutters, and pulls his phone from his pocket. Most of the calls are from Sam; two are from Charlie. He texts Sam first.
To : Sam
I'll come get you.
Sam replies almost instantly.
From : Sam
It's cool. Charlie said she'll
give me a ride. U ok?
For a couple of minutes, Dean considers telling him the whole thing. Explaining the mess he's found himself in and hoping that his genius brother will come up with some way out of it. But he can't begin to do it.
To : Sam
From : Sam
Let me know how
it works out.
That doesn't make sense, Dean thinks. He stares at his phone for a moment when a text from Charlie comes through.
From : Charlie
Call me back.
Any time she sends a text without some kind of cute phrase or emoticon, it's cause for concern. With trepidation, he dials.
"Okay, I really didn't want to interfere," she starts, foregoing a greeting, "but I love you, and you're both idiots so you're kind of forcing my hand here. I'm texting you Cas' address. Go there. Talk to him. Actually talk."
"I don't know what you--"
"Dean. Come on."
"He made it pretty clear that he wasn't interested."
"He said the same about you."
"That's all you're getting out of me," she says, clearly frustrated, and sighs, "Please, Dean. Just go."
He doesn't ask any more questions. There's a strange amalgamation of fear and hope battling for dominance in his gut, and he slips on his coat, hurrying back out into the cold with Castiel's address burning a hole in his pocket.
He drives through the streets too fast, nerves and adrenaline pumping hard in his veins, and when he pulls up outside the crumbling brick building, parking under a low-hanging tree that whips around in the wind, he finds his hands are shaking.
He's at the door before he knows it, and he's terrified. Objectively, it's an ordinary door. Seven feet tall, three and a half feet wide. Pine, if he's not mistaken, painted blue at some point in the past thirty years, and slowly fading to a dusty gray from exposure to the sun.
A brass number 4 hangs at eye level, dirt and cobwebs gathering in its corners.
It's no different to any other door he's approached in the past twenty-nine years of his life, yet still, the sight of it fills him with fear, coiled tight in his stomach, because this time it leads somewhere important, and God if he's wrong, if Charlie's wrong, if Castiel doesn't want him—
Before he can lose his nerve, he raises a hand and knocks.
There's a long moment of quiet, then the sound of shuffling feet before Castiel opens the door in his pajama pants. There are rocket ships on them, and his hair half mussed from changing, and Dean wants to kiss him more than ever before.
“Do you—” Dean starts, and Castiel surges forward before he gets any further, kissing him hard, a sound like a sigh slipping between their lips that he doesn't know who started. When he finally pulls away, it's only by inches, and Castiel's arm around his waist is warm and solid and right.
“So I wasn't imagining things, then,” Dean whispers into the space between them, and Castiel lets out a wavering breath, his eyes pressed closed as he shakes his head.
“You... I thought...” he shakes his head, snapping himself out of it, and suddenly that laser-like focus is back, right on Dean, cutting through him, “I thought that you didn't... that you didn't so much want to be with me as you just wanted to be with someone. That you were just... I'm an idiot. I thought you'd regret it, that I was taking advantage because I wanted you, I wanted you so—”
Dean swallows, hard, and shakes his head as he feels Castiel's fingers weaving into his hair.
“I don't regret it,” he says, “everything since, yeah, but not that. Not this.”
“Stay,” Castiel says, pulling him in through the door, “please, just—”
Dean catches the rest of his words, tastes them on his tongue as he's pulled inside, kicking the door closed behind him.
Outside the window, there's a string of twinkling lights hanging along the awning. They're a miniature galaxy beyond frosted glass, reflected in Castiel 's eyes, and Dean wants to lose himself.
He thinks he might.