By the time Dean’s finished putting the chairs up and wiping down the bar and re-stocking the fridges and locking up, it’s way past three o’clock, edging onto four. He comes out onto Kaufman Street and turns into the wind and the cold air slides down his throat and down his collar at the same time. He shivers and does the last button up on his jacket, though it does fuck-all for the chill. It’s the same shitty canvas jacket he wore all through last October, too. Pretty soon he’s going to have to drive over to the strip mall in Springville and buy a real coat. He’s thinking about that- and about checking out the Goodwill on Sixth Street, seeing if they have anything in his size, about the electric bill, about the awesomely greasy take-out waiting in his fridge- when he hears the clink of bottles rolling on pavement. Dean tenses and runs his thumb over the folding knife in his pocket, but tells himself it’s probably just a cat. A sad, skinny cat trying to dig for gold in the recycling bins. There’s another clink and then a rustling noise, and a dark shape struggles to rise behind the convenience store dumpster. A soft, defeated sound comes out of it, and the shape collapses. Homeless guy, Dean thinks. Poor motherfucker. Dean wants to get home to his kung pao and his couch and his staticky television like, three hours ago, but he figures he can spare five seconds to check if this guy’s dying of an overdose or something. Dean wonders if he’ll have to call an ambulance, and then also wonders if he’s charged his phone this week.
“Hey buddy,” Dean says, stopping a couple of feet away. He’s been charged by drunks enough times to know you don’t get up close and tap strangers on the shoulder. Unless you want to get a tooth chipped. “Doing alright?”
“Obviously not,” the guy says. He sounds more sober than Dean imagined, low and grim like a movie villain. But maybe it’s just a residual whiskey burn: Dean’s voice drops into the James Earl Jones register when he’s had too many, too. Dean can’t quite make out his face- there are so few streetlights back here, thanks city council- but he can see the slump in the guy’s shoulders, the alert and irritated way his head juts out and upwards, towards Dean. Like Dean has rudely interrupted his romp in the trash.
“Okay,” says Dean. He’s trying not to get offended. It’s too fucking late, or too fucking early, to get offended. “You need any help?” The guy makes an exasperated noise and leans forward, trying to get his legs underneath him, but he slips on the trash bags and slides down, backwards, into a heap. Dean watches the guy stare at his own feet, accusatory. It’s bizarre. Dean has no idea what makes him hold out his hand, then, and from the skeptical look he gets, neither does the other guy. “Come on,” says Dean. “Come on.” The guy reaches up and takes his hand and lets Dean pull him upwards, out of the shadows and into the weak light of the convenience store neon. He doesn’t let go of Dean, just stands there five inches away and stares into Dean’s face, wide-eyed and absorbed, like it’s the first human face he’s ever seen up close. Dean snorts and moves backwards, shakes the guy’s hand off his wrist. He doesn’t know what he expected, but it wasn’t this: some kind of accountant or middle-school guidance counselor, a dude in a cheap and clean and boring suit, with wrecked hair and wild, indescribably bright eyes that won’t leave Dean’s face alone. He doesn’t smell like alcohol, but something else: something sort of sharp and chemical, like the airport. Like maybe he just came down from the stratosphere. “Wow,” says Dean. “Did you get lost? Fall off a tour bus?”
“I don’t understand,” says the guy. He looks down at his own hands, turns them over to stare at the palms and then back at the topsides, then glances at his feet, Dean’s feet, and back up to Dean’s face like his eyes are anchored there. “Do I look like I fell off of something?” Dean rolls his eyes. Great. This is obviously the first bender of this guy’s straitlaced and soul-crushing life, and Dean is the lucky jerkoff who gets to call him a cab and pat his back when he inevitably spews.
“You look like you’ve had a rough night,” Dean says. “You need me to call a taxi?”
“No,” says the guy.
“You parked around here?”
“No,” says the guy.
“Work with me,” Dean snaps. The guy’s head tilts, like a goddamn puppy’s.
“Work with you on what?”
“Jesus Christ,” says Dean. The guy perks up at that, and then slowly sticks his hand out between them, stiff and formal, like they’re being introduced at a job interview. It’s like he learned how to shake hands from the movies.
“Castiel,” says the guy. “Nice to meet you, Jesus Christ.”
And this is how Dean ends up with a homeless weirdo sleeping on his couch.
* * *
“I think he’s got some kind of brain disease,” Dean tells Sam, on the phone the next morning. He is watching Castiel take things out of the refrigerator, one item at a time, opening the lids and smelling the contents and setting them into rows on the counter. He is sitting on one of Dean’s kitchen stools, barefoot. He’s lost his tie. “I didn’t know what to do with him.”
“You should take him to the hospital,” Sam says. “Maybe it’s some kind of mental break.”
“Yeah,” Dean says. Castiel looks up at Dean and smiles and mouths silently, this is my favorite. He’s holding a jar of bread and butter pickles. “Could be.” When Sam hangs up, Dean goes over the fridge experiment and watches Castiel put everything back, in a strange new order: all the little condiment jars together on one side, and everything else scattered in the door shelves. Dean is faced with the uncomfortable truth that there is really not much nutrition available in his fridge. “Um,” says Dean. “So do you remember anything before last night?” Castiel gives him a strange look.
“I remember everything,” he says, calmly. He holds the mostly empty milk jug in one hand, shakes it experimentally. “I thought milk would smell differently than it does,” he says. He sounds kind of disappointed. And then his eyes widen. “I wonder, if I smelled a cow-“
“Do you have family to get back to?” Dean asks. “A job? A house?” Castiel shrugs.
“No,” he says. “Not right now.” His shoulders hunch a little, like an unconscious defense mechanism. “I’m being punished.”
“Somebody kicked you out, huh?” Dean shakes his head. “Rough.”
“I got too close,” Castiel says. He looks up at Dean with those luminous, bizarre eyes. They’re oddly tender. “Your kind is too interesting,” he says. “I couldn’t keep away.”
“Whoa,” Dean says. He puts his hands up between them, and ends up backing his heels into the stove. He curses and bends down to rub them, then hits a bar stool and whacks his forehead on the seat. “Ouch, shit, fuck,” he says. Castiel is watching him without any obvious mockery, just plain curiosity. “Uh,” Dean says, collecting himself. “You got kicked out for, uh, looking at dudes?” Castiel stares at him blankly for a second, then smiles widely, and then laughs once, like something has just bubbled up and can’t be contained. It’s a raw bark of laughter, totally uncontrolled. The noise surprises both of them. Dean feels himself smiling, too.
“Dean,” he says. “You’re very amusing.”
“Great,” says Dean. He glances heavenward, and sees only ceiling. “The mental case thinks I’m hilarious.”
“Mental case,” Castiel repeats. He gives Dean a narrow look. “You think I’m insane.”
“Well,” says Dean.
“I’m not insane,” says Castiel. “I’m a star.”
“Oh, yeah,” says Dean. “A famous nut. That makes perfect sense.”
Castiel frowns and his eyes narrow down even further, into little glowing slits. Dean is about to suggest that Castiel chill out and think about getting his shoes on- time to see the nice folks down at Saint Claire’s- when there is a strange shift in the room and Castiel starts to. Well. Glow. There’s no other word to describe it. His vivid eyes go from blue to almost white, like an especially hot-burning fire, flickering with odd intensity. His skin seems pricked with starlight in every pore, bursting out of him, so bright Dean’s eyes are watering. “What the fuck-“ Dean says, and brilliant light pours out of Castiel, floods the house, whites out everything like a camera flash. Dean puts his hands over his eyes but he can’t look away, not entirely. Cas is like a little supernova burning away in his kitchen, a miniature ray of light that engulfs the edges of Dean’s vision. The force of it is searing. After a minute the glow dies down and Castiel is still sitting there calmly on the bar stool. His radiation seems to subdue itself, pulling back in, leaving only a spark in his eyes. After a second, he looks human again. He tilts his head at Dean, like he’s waiting for a reaction. Dean hasn’t the faintest fucking clue what to say.
“Like I said,” Castiel tells him. “A star.” He wiggles his bare toes and looks thoughtfully downward. “Do you think you could take me to meet a cow?”
* * *
Castiel is pretty excited about Dean’s bathroom, about the plastic shampoo bottles and the water taps and the fact that he can change the stream from hot to cold and back to hot and cold again and hot and cold and-
“For fuck’s sake,” Dean says, after about ten minutes of this. “Just get in and take a shower, would you? You smell like the trash bags I found you in.” Castiel glares at him but then jerks the shower curtain aside. Before Dean realizes what’s happening, before he can reach out an arm or even sputter a protest, Castiel steps dutifully into the spray, fully dressed, and takes a jet of water straight to the face and trenchcoat. He turns slowly around and looks at Dean accusingly, like a wet and disappointed cat. He raises his sleeves and they soak through, darkening.
“This isn’t enjoyable,” he says. “Why does your kind bathe so often?” Dean says a couple of unrepeatably evil things and then hauls Castiel out. He explains about the clothes- and then about why it is not okay to just take them off right now wait a second Castiel you literal-minded son of a bitch- and then beats a hasty retreat to the hallway, leaning backwards against the closed door and wondering what the fuck is going on. Inside the bathroom, he can hear splashing and then the sound of every bottle or product he owns being knocked off the shelf. And then more splashing. And then tuneless, cheerful singing. Dean recognizes it as the ringtone from when his cellphone went off this morning: All the Single Ladies. The ringtone Sam keeps programming into Dean’s phone because he is a shithead.
“I hope this is a dream,” Dean says. He pinches himself. It doesn’t wake him up. Instead, Castiel opens the door and leans out of it, stark naked and pink and steaming. He beams at Dean, almost literally. He looks brighter again when he smiles.
“It’s much better without the clothes,” says Castiel. Dean shuts the door in his face. And goes to get him some towels from the closet. The trenchcoat and the suit are basically a loss; Dean hangs everything over the shower rail and gives Castiel a pair of pants and a shirt and some socks and other stuff. Dean’s only got one real jacket so he digs one of Sam’s old hoodies out of the back of the closet and Castiel drapes it over himself, pulls the hood up, fiddles with the drawstrings, pulls the sleeves over his hands and then wads them up around his elbows. “Thank you,” he says. He really looks like he means it.
But Castiel’s excitement about the shower- and about the gobs of scented shampoo he apparently used over every inch of his body- is nothing compared to his excitement about Dean’s car. He leans himself across it, draping his body over the hood and staring in through the windshield, running his fingers along the wipers and the locks and bending down to peer into the wheel wells. Castiel stands up again and puts his cheek against the car’s roof. “I’ve only seen these from the sky,” Castiel says, adoringly, rubbing his face against the metal a little bit. Dean tries to ignore that. “They move so fast, like little droplets of water skimming across the surface of the earth. I love watching their lights. At night the drops become whole rivers of those lights in your cities.” He gives Dean a glazed, far-off look. “I remember when there were only fires and torches. But now the world’s dotted with stars of its own. Stars you made yourselves.”
“Uh, yeah,” Dean says, feeling sort of dumb. So the guy doesn’t really know how to take a shower, but he can talk like some kind of old-timey poet, apparently. “We’re pretty good at making stuff,” he agrees.
“The best,” Castiel hums.
They drive through town while Castiel leans halfway out the window, practically nonverbal with joy. Well, practically, because he sits in rapt silence for long minutes like he’s zoning out, and then just when Dean stops paying attention to the passenger seat, he’ll inevitably grab Dean’s sleeve and start breathlessly asking questions. He has questions about the library- all of human knowledge, Dean, he whispers, overwhelmed- and about the gas station and about other cars and the people inside them. He asks questions about the playground and the animal hospital. And then he opens his mouth to ask a question about the laundromat and a huge gurgling sound comes out of his abdomen instead. He looks down at himself in terror while Dean chuckles in the other seat. “There’s something wrong with this body,” Castiel says. “It feels exhausted and kind of- empty but also angry and-“ his head whips around as they pass a donut shop. “And that smells amazing,” Castiel breathes. Dean shakes his head and pulls into the Burger Barn parking lot. He buys them a couple of combo meals. They eat in the car, because Dean doesn’t really feel like answering endless, fairly bizarre questions- what is ketchup why did humans first cultivate onions do you know which specific cow this burger came from- in the middle of a fast-food restaurant. Castiel inhales his burger and fries and drinks half his soda and then looks kind of queasy. Still, he recovers quick, and starts eyeing Dean’s onion rings. And then, for no reason at all that Dean can tell, his questions start to change. They start to be about Dean. About Dean’s likes and dislikes, his home, his face.
“They’re just freckles, geez,” Dean says, frowning a little. “Lots of people have them.” Castiel brings one finger close to his cheek and then pulls it back when Dean scowls at him. “Don’t.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. Abashed. “I’ve never seen freckles up close. They’re just so beautiful. Like a thousand perfect pebbles on a beach.” Shit. Dean feels himself go bright red from neck to scalp. The guy really must be a fucking star or an alien or some shit, because nobody talks like that to Dean. “How long have you been alive?” Castiel asks, shifting gears. Dean appreciates it.
“There are millions of trees older than you,” Castiel says.
“Thanks, I think,” says Dean. “How about you?”
“I don’t know,” says Castiel. “I’ve been burning a long time.” He leans his head back on the seat, looking kind of full and sleepy. “Before there were people, there were fish. I watched them, too,” he murmurs. “I like fish, but they never built a rocket and tried to rise to meet me.” He turns to look at Dean, sideways. “I kept hoping someone would make it. You made it as far as the moon,” he says, dreamily. “So I keep hoping.” Dean drives them out of town and Castiel takes a fifteen-minute food-coma nap in the next seat, breathing softly through his open mouth. Once they get into cornfields and go over some bumpy country roads, Castiel wakes up, almost jittery with eagerness again. Dean finds them a spot to pull over next to a big wood-and-wire fence; there’s a small herd of brown and white cows lazing around in the grass, chewing slowly and regarding him and Castiel with enormous, placid eyes. Castiel leans over the fence rail- but Dean checks first to make sure it’s not electric, he doesn’t know and doesn’t want to find out what happens when a star hits the power grid. Castiel reaches a hand out towards the cows and weirdly, they all start to pay attention to him: they swing their heads around and perk their ears and heave themselves up out of the dirt. A bunch of them plod over to Castiel and let him rub the little furry knots on their foreheads, the soft places behind their ears. They make low, loving noises when he scratches between their shoulders.
“You got a way with cows,” Dean says, impressed.
“They’re gentle animals,” says Castiel. “I’ve enjoyed watching them and their ancestors graze for millennia. And I’m grateful to them.” He hums to himself and strokes their broad noses. “One of them generously nourished this body today.” Dean cracks up. One of the cows gets skittish at the sound and leans away, and Castiel stares at Dean narrowly. “I don’t see where that’s funny.”
“It’s just,” Dean wipes at the corners of his eyes. “Nice speech, but I don’t think PETA’s going to be knocking on your door anytime soon.”
“I don’t know anyone called Peeta,” says Castiel, and this time Dean has to lean on a fence post for a second.
“Okay, Hunger Games,” he says, eventually. “Let’s get going.” Dean’s got to get ready for work and he’s also got to call Sam and see if Sam can maybe deal with Castiel for a few hours. Or at least maybe Dean can take some time to explain about appliances and Why Not To Touch Them, make sure Castiel doesn’t burn the house down or wander away and get himself committed for illegally being a freaky lost star. But first he drives them back the long way, so that Castiel can get a taste of ice cream. It only seems right. The place they go is cow-themed, with cartoon animals painted on the walls and windows. It’s cold out again but they sit against the side of the car anyway. Castiel tries not to rush it this time, tries to savor it the way Dean suggested, but ends up taking too long. Some of the cone melts and runs down his hand and onto his sleeve. Castiel licks his hand and apologizes for messing up the hoodie and Dean tells him it’s okay. He just goes back inside to get Castiel some napkins.
“This is the best day of my life,” Castiel tells him, when he comes back. “You’ve been so kind to me.” His cheeks are glowing a little from the cold, or maybe just because he’s an otherworldly being full of light. Dean doesn’t know. “If I burn another million years, I won’t forget it.”
“Oh,” says Dean. “Good.”
He tries not to think about that all night- while he changes and walks to work and as he pulls pints and mixes overpriced cocktails and as he wipes down tables- but he can’t help it. It’s maybe the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to him. When he comes back Castiel is asleep on the couch and Sam’s left a note on the kitchen table. Call me we should talk, it says, and then there are little drawings of stars underneath that and the word wow underlined twice. His little brother is a huge nerd. At least Castiel didn’t mind doing the lightshow twice in one day. Dean’s going to slip past him and just go to sleep when he hears his name called out, very quietly, in the dark. “Yeah?” he says. “You need something?”
“No,” says Castiel. He hasn’t even opened his eyes. “Goodnight, Dean.”
He’s glowing a little. It’s like leaving a nightlight on.
* * *
In the morning, Castiel is gone.
Around eleven-thirty Dean wanders out to check on him, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and stumbling around a few piles of books and dvds on the floor. Apparently, Sam spent some time last night explaining the plots of movies and letting Castiel rot his brain on prime time tv. Dean wonders what today’s going to bring- a trip to the woods or maybe the mall, another interrogation about Dean’s family photos, Cas losing his mind over pecan pie- but the living room is silent and empty. There’s nothing on the couch but two piles: one of folded blankets, the other of folded clothes. The hoodie is on top, sleeves tucked neatly inside. Dean assumes this means his quasi-magical houseguest is naked again. He rolls his eyes and shuffles to the bathroom and knocks on the half-shut door. Silence.
"Cas?" he says. "I’m coming in. Put a towel on or something, okay?" There’s no response. Dean sighs and swings the door open, but there’s nobody there. The wet trenchcoat and the suit are gone from the shower rail. Dean stares at his bathroom for a long minute and then goes back out to the living room. He circles it and goes through the kitchen, down the hall, back to his own bedroom. On impulse, he looks inside the closet. Castiel is not hiding in his old duffel bags and winter boots. Dean sits on the edge of his bed. He leans down and picks up the jeans he was wearing last night, digs his phone out of his pocket.
"A star," Sam says, first thing, when he picks up on the other end. "A freakin’ star, Dean, did you even know that was pos-“
"He’s gone," Dean says. "Is he with you?"
"No," says Sam. "He’s missing? You think maybe he just took a walk?"
"The chain’s still on the door," Dean says. "So, no."
"Oh," says Sam. He sounds deflated. "Maybe he- went home? I don’t know how stars travel," he says, apologetically, like he should have had that totally insane piece of information.
"Neither do I," says Dean. "It’s okay." He and Sam hang up and Dean sits there for a while, feeling dumb. There’s no reason to get worried about it, no reason to feel- well. Lonely like this. Kind of empty. Like something wonderful came and went, and now there’s just nothing left of it. Nothing but a folded hoodie and a vague feeling like maybe Dean dreamed it all. Like it never really happened. He’s glad Sam met him too, really glad. Because otherwise he’d never be able to explain it to anyone. He’d just have to be alone in this feeling forever. Dean sighs and goes to clean up the living room; he does yesterday’s dishes and eats a bowl of cereal without milk and then drives over to the Goodwill and looks for a new coat, like he was going to. He finds a canvas coat with a flannel lining that’s just a little too big for him in the shoulders and buys it anyway, because it’s seven bucks. He puts it through the wash with a couple pairs of jeans when he gets back. Everything feels real and dull and normal again. He watches some tv and makes himself a can of ravioli and eats it in the living room, balancing it on one knee while he watches a recap of the football game. And then the news. There’s a three-minute story about a dog getting rescued from a well. And then the anchor turns around to face a different camera and says,
"In other news, the sky is falling. Well, just one little piece of sky," the guy says, smugly, and laughs at his own terrible joke. "Researchers at Memorial Observatory say a meteorite may have landed within town limits yesterday." He keeps talking- makes another shitty joke about watching the heavens, tells people to get their old telescopes out of the attic- and they interview a bearded nerd from the observatory. Dean barely hears a word they say. Because his heart is pounding weirdly in his chest. It happened, he thinks. It did. It happened to me. He has never had a secret like this in his life. At work that night Jo teases him about it, the stupid grin on his face, the distracted way he keeps zoning out when the crowd at the bar thins a little and he’s got a second to think. She asks him if he’s finally got a boyfriend.
"Bite me," Dean says.
"You wish," says Jo.
But the good feeling’s worn off by the time he’s walking home. It’s cold outside and he forgot the new coat in the dryer and he knows his apartment will be empty when he gets home, like it always is. One day shouldn’t have mattered so much. One stinking day. Except that it wasn’t just a day, it was- it was like a look at another life. Like Dean got rocketed into another universe for twenty-four hours, a world where things felt new and fresh, where he could make somebody happy so easily, where even eating a fucking cheeseburger felt special. Dean has his head down and his keys out, just wallowing in that awful feeling, when he comes up on his apartment block and somebody says,
Castiel is sitting on the stoop in front of Dean’s building, wearing that stupid trenchcoat again. His hair is a wreck and he’s got a smear of something bright green on one cheek. Dean stares blankly and Castiel gives him a little wave. “Hello, Dean,” he says. “I remembered where you lived.” He glances up at the apartments above them. “My aim was off, though,” he says. “I landed at the playground.” He smears one hand across his face, trying to clean it, but it only makes it worse. And then Dean sees that he’s got bright green on more than his cheek- it’s on both his hands, across his knees, even dotted on his shoes. “There was a sign that said-“
"Fresh paint?" Dean guesses. Castiel beams at him. Literally.
"That’s it," he says. "Can I take another shower?"
Dean says he can.
* * *
Later, when Castiel is clean and de-greened and dry and dressed in jeans and a hoodie again, curled up against one arm of Dean’s couch, Dean asks him why he came back.
"Because I wanted to," Castiel says. He gives Dean a sly, conspiratorial glance. "Can you keep a secret?"
"I think I enjoyed my punishment more than I was supposed to." Dean cracks up and falls forward, elbows on his knees, honking with laughter, and Castiel goes brighter with second-hand amusement. "I still don’t know what’s funny," he says. "But I’m glad you do." Dean pulls himself together and leans back. When Castiel says he’s hungry, Dean goes into the kitchen and finds a box of frozen French bread pizza. He heats it up and then he watches Castiel eat. It’s less thrilling than the onion rings and ice cream, apparently, but Castiel still makes appreciative noises and glows a little. And then he tells Dean a long story about the things on his pizza, about watching tomatoes ripen on the vine, about the first people who pressed olive oil and the wind moving through the olive trees on Cyprus. It’s like reading a really good book except the book is also making excited hand gestures and talking with a smear of sauce in the corner of its mouth. Dean is surprised by how much Castiel knows about the world, when he isn’t trying to work something like a car door or a microwave first-hand. He supposes that’s because Castiel’s only ever been able to see the big picture from up there. No pun intended.
"Are all stars like you?" Dean asks. Castiel takes a bite and chews and swallows, and doesn’t answer for a while.
"No," he says. "I’m- different," he says.
"I’m wrong," he says, frowning. His glow fades. "I want things. I feel things. I’m not supposed to be the way I am."
"What way?" Dean asks. That is the most ridiculous shit he’s ever heard. Castiel is great. "You’re not supposed to be awesome?" Castiel is quiet and still for a minute but Dean can see light leaking out at his seams, around his eyes. He’s like a living lens flare, until he ducks his head and seems to get hold of himself again.
"Thank you," Castiel whispers. Dean is going to say he’s welcome, but what comes out instead is the biggest yawn of his life. "Oh," says Castiel. "You need to sleep."
"S’fine," Dean mumbles, waving him off. "Weren’t you going to tell me about circling the ocean at night?" So Castiel talks more and Dean listens and tries to stay awake but it’s- it’s so hard, when Castiel is telling him about the ocean currents and the reflections in the water, the way Castiel can see down through the clearest parts all the way to the bottom, the silence of night and the rushing waves, the white foam on the breakers and the tides slipping in and out- and then Dean is somehow lying down on the couch in total darkness with a blanket around him, face pressed into the seat cushion and Castiel glowing faintly beside him, kneeling on the floor. "Cas," Dean yawns. "Where you gonna sleep?" Castiel just pats his face and tells him to go back to his dreams, and Dean resists for about a second and a half. When Dean wakes up it’s bright outside, late morning. Castiel is still there, curled against the side of the couch with his head pillowed on his arms, slumped against Dean’s stomach. Dean stares at him for a while before he dares move. He doesn’t want to disturb him, doesn’t want to do anything but look at him, at his sleeping face and the light that he makes, the beautiful warm light that’s almost a halo. But Dean is a human, so eventually he needs to pee. He taps Castiel gently and wakes him up halfway, manages to pull him up off the floor and onto the couch. Castiel just sighs and burrows into the arm of the sofa and Dean sneaks off to the bathroom. When he comes back, Castiel rolls onto his side and holds his arms out. Like he expects Dean to come and curl up against him. "Um, Cas," Dean says. "Human don’t really-" he starts, and Castiel makes a grumpy face like Dean is being an idiot. Wow. Maybe he is. So Dean sits down on the couch edge slowly, awkwardly, and Castiel’s arm comes up around his waist, pulls him in until he is pretty much resting with his back against Castiel’s chest and one of Castiel’s arms curled up around his heart.
"Mmf," says Castiel, and goes back to sleep. Dean wants to worry about it- he plans to, actually, this is fucking strange- but Castiel is warm and soft in that hoodie and the couch is big enough for him to slot his legs backwards between Castiel’s knees. He lies there for a second thinking anxiously about What Is Happening but then he just shuts his eyes and tries to focus on nothing, on blankness, on imagining a dark sky dotted with stars. And in his imagination, one of them blinks at him and glows and falls in a beautiful arc, down to earth. Comes to meet him. Dean thinks about that until he is actually just dreaming it, but the line between those things is so thin he doesn’t notice.
* * *
Castiel stays for another three days, during which he eats half of an entire anchovy and mushroom pizza, visits the Goodwill, and watches Casablanca on television at three o’clock in the morning after showing up at Dean’s work to walk home with him through the chill. He stays up to watch the movie while Dean goes to sleep against his chest, face pressed close to the folds of that hoodie and arm tucked safely around Castiel’s waist. It’s still weird but less weird. It keeps happening. Dean doesn’t know why he doesn’t care anymore. And Dean thinks, just before he nods off to the sound of Humphrey Bogart insulting Nazis, how nice it is that the hoodie now kinda smells like star and ozone instead of laundry detergent. In the morning Dean stretches and untangles himself from Cas and takes a shower and reads the last chapters in an overdue library book until Castiel wakes up and starts demanding breakfast.
"How’d you like the movie?" Dean asks him. Castiel thinks about that for a while, picking little balls of lint off his clothes and dropping them onto Dean’s floor. Okay. Maybe Dean is going to teach him about the earthly delights of the vacuum cleaner.
"There’s a lot of things I still don’t understand," Castiel says.
"That’s okay," Dean says. "I can help with that." So he tells Castiel to get changed. They’re going to the library.
At Goodwill the day before, Castiel picked out new clothes, ones that fit him a little better than Dean’s. He’s a couple of inches shorter but built, with strong legs that were kinda testing the seams on Dean’s pants. They found him a pair of sweatpants to use as pajamas, and a pair of his own jeans. He chose an ugly sweater with zig-zags on it that he said reminded him of weavers working on hand looms, and Dean didn’t have the heart to tell him to put it back. And then Castiel picked out a t-shirt with the observatory logo on it, because Dean told him about the news report. Dean laughed and laughed and bought it for him along with everything else. He made Castiel carry the bag because, as he put it, it’s your shit now. After they left, Castiel had showed him these little red half-moon marks on the inside of his hands, that he made himself by pressing his nails into his palms. They’d already mostly faded- he didn’t break the skin at all- but Dean had held his hands close anyway and stared at them in unmasked horror. “What the hell?” Dean had asked. “What did you do that for?”
"I was too happy," Castiel had said. "I was trying not to glow. I know it would’ve caused a scene." Dean had been flabbergasted. "I’ve never owned anything," Castiel explained. "Not really. The clothes I arrive in are- I’ve never had anything that was mine. That I wanted." He looks at Dean and looks away, embarrassed. And okay, Dean totally got that. He remembers being a shit-poor kid, how good it felt to have new clothes once a year, even if they were only new to you. He’d rubbed his thumb gently on Castiel’s palms and then taken him to CVS to pick out soap and deodorant. Dean had valiantly swallowed down his horror of coconut-scented body wash and bought whatever Castiel wanted.
So now today, at the library, Castiel in his clean but hideous sweater, smelling like a Hawaiian Tropic advertisement, goes over to the information desk and asks for their section on human history. The librarian gives him a friendly but sort of confused look.
"Human history?" she says. "Do you mean- social sciences? Anthropology? World history and politics?"
"Yes," says Castiel.
They take out fifteen books on Dean’s card; some of them on human evolution and some of them on geopolitics and even one gigantic atlas, so that Castiel can point out his favorite places to Dean and talk about things he’s seen while waiting, watching the earth’s slow turn. They also take out two books of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, because Dean actually figures that those explain the world about as well as anything else he can think of. Castiel reads the first one in the car on the way home, chuckling to himself every now and then but not elaborating. He turns the last page and shuts the cover as Dean pulls into a spot by the apartment block.
"Are you finished with that already?" Dean asks.
"Yes," Castiel shrugs. And then he finishes an entire book on evolutionary biology in two hours, while Dean leans against his knees and reads about the history of astronomy.
"Did you know," Dean says, after a long time, "the ancient Egyptians had star clocks? They could tell time really accurately." Castiel makes an interested sound. "But they also believed that stars were between our world and the afterlife. That a soul could rise to become a star after death, if it was worthy." Castiel doesn’t say anything. "Neat, huh?" says Dean. He looks up and Castiel is looking down at him with a strange expression. "Cas?"
"Neat," Castiel echoes.
Dean has the night off for once, so he takes his time in the kitchen for dinner. He makes pasta with a red sauce from scratch, using canned and whole tomatoes and some fresh basil he bought at the supermarket this afternoon. (He made Castiel wait in the car for that one. It would have been too much, too soon. Dean’s not ready to explain why there are fifty different kinds of cereal.) He cuts a loaf of bread and toasts it with garlic and butter, and even though Castiel’s still reading, every time Dean looks up he’s moved closer and closer, until he’s abandoned his book and is just standing behind Dean while he cooks, with his face practically pressed into Dean’s back so that he can watch everything he does over his shoulder. “You’re good at this,” Castiel says, admiringly, about a dozen times. “Your hands move quickly, but they don’t make mistakes.”
"Um," says Dean. He pretends his face is red from the steam of the pasta pot. "Thanks." They eat in the kitchen at the table, like adults. First Dean cleans all his car magazines and bills off of it, then he shows Castiel how to set it, where the forks go, how to fold a napkin.
"I’m just going to unfold it," Castiel says, skeptically. "I don’t see the point." Dean can’t really argue with that. But then Castiel turns into a human-shaped lamp when he takes his first bite of the garlic bread dipped into Dean’s homemade marinara.
"I’m going to take that as a compliment," Dean says.
After dinner they take a walk to keep from falling asleep on the couch right then; Dean shows him a couple of neighborhood places that he likes and Castiel talks about what they look like from above. It’s kind of amazing, Dean thinks. To meet someone who’s seen a lot of the world, but who’s never seen what you see. And vice-versa. Dean’s never thought of himself as interesting. But Castiel makes him feel like he’s actually got things to say. When they go back to the apartment they’re still talking: they talk through brushing their teeth and changing- through the door, Dean still has some boundaries- and then Dean is propped against the headboard of his own bed with Castiel seated cross-legged at the foot, asking him about why thread counts on sheets are considered important. “I don’t really know,” Dean says. “I think the higher it is, the softer they’re supposed to be? Or they wash better?” He shrugs. “I think my sheets are like, a five-thread count.” He is only kind of surprised when Castiel scoots forward and slides like an eel to stretch himself out on the other side of the bed, rubbing his face against the sheets. He glows a tiny bit.
"They feel good to me," Castiel says. He pulls the blanket over his legs and curls against Dean’s hip. Dean sinks down and shuts the bedside light off, then lies there in the dark with Castiel’s mild glow for company. It’s different in the bed, than on the couch. Dean doesn’t know why. Dean hasn’t- it hasn’t been like this, not with anybody, for a long time. There have been people, okay, Dean’s not a monk. But not like this. Castiel’s warm and solid next to him. Breathing steadily and slowly through his mouth. Wearing a t-shirt of Dean’s, even though clearly he’s got his own stuff now. Dean doesn’t know: is it okay to do this with a star? Is there like, some kind of celestial overseer who is gonna explode Dean’s head off his body for this? For lying next to a star in the dark and wanting to pull him closer, to get him to slide his thigh over Dean’s, to bury his nose in a star’s hair and fall asleep that way? To keep him, to wake up like this tomorrow and do it all again? Dean worries and worries, even when Castiel does roll in and sling his leg over Dean’s and slot their hips together before he nods off once more. It’s close to an hour before Dean can turn his brain off enough to fall asleep.
When he wakes up, the other half of the bed is empty and cooling, and Castiel is gone again. His clothes are in a neat pile on the sofa, same as before, and his trenchcoat is missing from the hall closet. Dean wanders around the house in stunned silence, touching the walls with his fingertips, telling himself Castiel went out for doughnuts or something. Dean waits and then calls the library, the Goodwill. A few other places. Nobody has seen a dark-haired man in a trenchcoat. Nobody has seen Castiel.
Dean goes to work and waits outside after closing for ten minutes, thinking maybe Castiel will appear again. And then he practically jogs home, imagining Castiel waiting out there on the stoop again, cold, impatient. There’s nobody there. There’s nobody there in the morning, either, when Dean gets up; nobody in the afternoon, nobody before, during or after his shift. He doesn’t want to be miserable to Jo so he just says nothing, really, unless she asks him a question. She’s all kind eyes and gentle questions but he doesn’t know what the hell he’d say. I met somebody, maybe. And then they disappeared. Dean feels numb. Kind of stupid. If he thought the last time was bad, this is worse: he didn’t know, last time, what Castiel would feel like pressed against him. He didn’t have that information. Dean goes home and drinks half a bottle of whiskey too fast and falls asleep on the sofa in front of PBS. In the morning he tries to get up but his legs don’t really work. He thinks for one dumb, panicked second that maybe he drank himself paralyzed, until he realizes there’s a star sprawled across his lap, glowing a little, snoring faintly. He’s heavy and Dean’s legs are asleep. Dean looks at him for a long time and then looks up at the ceiling, and to whatever else is up there past it.
"Thanks," he whispers. "Thank you."
He really means it.
* * *
Castiel stays a day and then vanishes again. He comes back the next night. Stays two days. He leaves again. Then he stays for four whole days, four absolutely amazing days wherein Castiel finishes all his library books and gets new ones and sleeps against Dean like a warm and perfect nightlight and goes to dinner once with Dean and Sam at a Thai place Sam likes, over by the college. Castiel thinks it’s amazing and he and Sam talk nerdy astrophysics shit all night, while Dean grins and interrupts and finishes their noodles. And then Castiel makes Dean take him to the zoo. Dean has never been to the zoo here, even though he remembers going to the zoo as a kid, when they used to live in Kansas. It’s a little different this time, to say the least. For starters, Castiel communes with almost every animal there: they keep coming up to the chain-link fences or the bars of the cage or the edge of the enclosures, looking dazed and suspicious and then totally excited. They make weird yelping sounds of eagerness, trying to get Castiel to put his faintly glowing star-hands on them. He’s irresistible to basically every species. Dean has to keep him from reaching into the primate and big cat cages, arguing that they’ll get kicked out. But he lets Castiel sticks his fingers through the gaps in the red panda enclosure, while the red panda practically purrs and lets Castiel run fingers through its tail. In the lizard house, the snakes rise up and sway against the glass, pressing themselves closer to try and get some of Castiel’s warmth.
"This is crazy," Dean says. "You’re like animal crack."
"They know what I am," says Castiel. "It’s harder to fool animals than people." Dean buys them a box of popcorn and they eat it on a bench overlooking the duck pond. A couple of ducks waddle up looking for popcorn and then get a whiff of Castiel. They settle around his feet like a little duck-down comforter, and forget all about the popcorn for at least a few minutes.
"Absolutely fucking nuts," Dean says, shaking his head. "You should get a job as like, an animal behavior therapist."
"You think that I should get a job?" Castiel asks, then, looking curious. "Is that what you would like me to do?"
"No, I- I don’t know," Dean says. "You’re a star. That’s your job, right?"
"It’s what I am," says Castiel. "I don’t know if that’s the same thing."
Dean thinks about that a lot when Castiel is gone the next day. And then more and more as Castiel stays gone, for five entire days. The longest he’s stayed away since they met. Dean has a lot of time to worry and tell himself that somehow he ruined it, that he hurt Castiel’s feelings, that he made Castiel believe that Dean sees him as a freeloader, a drain. That Castiel isn’t doing anything useful or important. Dean berates himself over that, sits on the sofa with his face in his hands, wonders what the fuck he’s going to do if Castiel decides he’s not worth it, that he’s tired of playing human, that Dean is just an asshole and the sky is better than the ground. If Castiel is bored already. And then Castiel crawls into bed with him one morning, while Dean is still half-asleep and wrung out with misery from a series of shitty nightmares. Castiel puts his face against Dean’s chest like he’s listening to his heartbeat. Dean shuts his eyes and tries not to feel hysterical while Castiel hums Dean’s ringtone- Single Ladies again- into Dean’s ribcage. More days pass. Finally, he’s got to say something. He’s got to. He takes Castiel to Burger Barn, because he hasn’t in a while, and while Castiel helps himself greedily to Dean’s onion rings, Dean says,
"It’s hard for me." He fiddles with a buttonhole on his jacket and very much does not look at Castiel. "When you leave." Castiel stops chewing. Dean can hear him swallow a large piece of onion and then sputter a little on it. Dean pats him on the back. Castiel’s eyes are very wide and surprised, and he’s not glowing at all. "I just feel like," Dean says, so awkward he thinks he might die, "like when you go, I don’t know if you’re ever coming back."
"Dean," says Castiel. "I’m sorry."
"You don’t need to be sorry," Dean says, even though he’s grateful, he’s grateful at least that Castiel doesn’t want to hurt him, even if he’s maybe going to in the end. Dean appreciates the sentiment. "This is all- new. Right? And you have star stuff to do. I just wanted to- tell you. In case I ever act weird about it. Okay?"
"Okay," says Castiel. And then he says, kind of defensively, "But I’m always coming back." Dean stares at him.
"As long as you want me to," says Castiel. "And I will stay as long as you wish. I won’t go away again, if you prefer." He eats another onion ring, looking deeply satisfied with himself, like he’s just cleared everything right up, hooray, parade for Castiel. Dean feels kind of dizzy.
"No, it’s cool," says Dean, slowly. "You go when you have to go. Do what you have to do. Just, it’s nice," he says, and finds Castiel’s greasy hand on the car seat. He winds their fingers together. He is not so much losing his cool, as metaphorically throwing it out the window of a moving car. He doesn’t think he’ll miss it. "It’s nice to know you even want to come back."
"Of course I do," Castiel says. "I told you, I’ve never had anything of my own. That I wanted. This planet rotated in my sight billions of times before I saw you," Castiel informs him, and slurps from his soda. "I’ve never seen anything I wanted as much as I wanted you."
"Jesus Christ,” says Dean. He can’t breathe. His head’s floating away, like a balloon.
"I still don’t know what that means," says Castiel.
"Cas," says Dean. "Can I kiss you?"
"You may," says Castiel.
Dean leans across the seats and pulls Castiel gently forward by the front of his hoodie. And suddenly Castiel drops the onion rings and grabs Dean’s head, pulls his hair a little and opens his mouth against Dean’s, and then hallelujah, they are full-on making out in the Burger Barn parking lot. Castiel rolls over into Dean’s lap and makes these amazing noises, almost the same as he makes when he’s discovered a new food group, or a cool spot on the pillow. Dean licks his mouth and wraps his arms around Castiel’s waist, tugs him down. He can’t get him close enough. He doesn’t feel like he’ll ever be close enough. Castiel sits down onto Dean’s thighs and groans a little, eyes wide, mouth pink and his hands still fisted in Dean’s hair. He’s literally radiant. He’s glowing like the inside of an oven.
"Um," says Dean. "Want to go home?"
"Yes," says Castiel. He leans forward again and presses a gentler kiss to Dean’s mouth, relaxes his hands, touches Dean’s cheek reverently. "I’ve seen people do this countless times," he says. "I always wondered why. And now-" he rolls down against Dean again and sighs happily. "Mm. Now I know."
"Did you see, uh," Dean says, "other stuff?"
“Lots,” Castiel says.
Dean drives fast.
* * *
Later, when Castiel is lying next to him, naked and blissed out and beaming so bright Dean’s afraid he’s going to get a sunburn, the phone rings. Dean ignores it until Castiel starts to sing along again.
"Ugh, why,” Dean says, to nobody in particular. He rolls over Castiel- who makes a small oof and then wriggles like a fish under Dean, which is all kinds of fucking distracting- and grabs his phone off the bedside table. It’s Sam. Dean feels briefly weird about answering his phone in bed, naked, kind of still in the middle of- “Cas,” Dean says in response to something happening near his hipbones, and then manages to peel himself away with a twinge of regret. He gets up and pads into the living room, still naked, but at least not actively touching. It’s fair. He answers the phone on the last ring. “Dude,” he says. “You still have the worst timing.”
"Oh my God," Sam says, breathlessly. "You didn’t- did you- with a star? Dean,” he says. He sounds kind of mad. But also amazed. “Dean, he’s new here. Don’t ruin him.”
"Are you kidding me?" Dean asks. "Sam, you have no idea. He taught me things I never-"
Sam hangs up.
And then calls back about thirty seconds later. In the meantime, Castiel has come out of the bedroom and he’s now sitting naked on Dean’s couch. Still glowing like a candle, casting warm shadows on everything. Wow. This is going to break the curve of Dean’s ego forever. When Sam’s ringtone goes off again, Dean answers right away. “You still blushing?” Dean asks. “Because I was not joking.”
"Screw you, Dean," says Sam, without real malice. "I just called to tell you to turn on the tv. There’s something on the news you should be watching." Dean finds the remote and flicks it on, in time to see the end of the weather. A little graphic comes up after that, with the words BREAKING STORY in huge hysterical letters. The anchor turns to the camera with a hilariously serious face.
"In an update from last night’s story," the guy says, and he actually sounds kind of harried, "an unusual local phenomenon has left scientists baffled. Falling meteorites, in increasing numbers, have-"
"Oh my God," Dean says, gasping through his laughter. He can hear Sam losing it on the other end of the phone. "Oh my God, Cas, you’re an unusual local phenomenon.”
"Thank you," says Castiel. His eyes narrow, and he dims a little bit. "I think."
"Aw, babe," Dean says.
"Ugh," says Sam, cheerfully, and hangs up. Dean sits next to Castiel on the couch and they watch the news report, including another interview with that bearded nerd from the observatory, who now looks like he’s been systematically pulling his hair out for a few days. After the report, there’s a feature about animal adoption that only Castiel pays any attention to.
"I should talk to them," Castiel says. "The scientists. Put their minds at ease."
"I don’t know if that’s such a good idea." Dean thinks about E.T., about the X-Files, about every alien movie ever made. "People don’t always react very well to things that are-"
"Special," says Dean. He leans over and kisses Castiel’s shoulder. "Wonderful." Castiel is briefly, blindingly bright. And then he pulls it down a notch and tugs Dean’s hands away from his eyes.
"I would like to try," he says. "I don’t want people to be afraid, needlessly." So the next morning, against Dean’s better judgment, Dean drives him up to the observatory, parks in the visitor lot in front of the planetarium and the science center. Castiel’s wearing his ugly sweater and he’s brushed his hair. He squeezes Dean’s hand. "It’s going to be fine," Castiel says. They go in the visitor’s entrance and Castiel asks to see Dr. Shurley, the bearded scientist from the news report. He says that it’s important.
"Dr. Chuck?" the guard asks. "He’s up in the lab. You want me to page him?"
"Yes, please," says Castiel. When Dr. Chuck comes downstairs, he looks like he’s gone three rounds with- well, with something horrible. He looks somehow worse than he did on television. There are huge dark circles under his eyes and he trips on his feet as he comes up to Dean and Castiel. He offers a hand to shake and Castiel shakes it, stiffly, and then says, "It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Chuck."
"Uh, likewise," Chuck says, totally baffled. He stares at Castiel for a second. "Did you need to- ask me a question, or something?"
"Is there a room in this building," Castiel says, "without any windows?"
Castiel and Chuck go into one of the instrument rooms. Dean sits in the hall outside the lab, to make sure that nobody goes in before they’re finished. There’s a burst of light under the door and a little bit of excited shouting at first, and then slightly calmer shouting, and then just a lot of quiet conversation. Dean’s not really listening in, except to make sure that Castiel doesn’t need any help. He reads a book about Egyptian mythology for about an hour and a half, and then the door opens and Chuck walks out with frenzied, glazed eyes and a new spring in his step. “Thank you for understanding,” Castiel says. Chuck turns on him and takes Castiel’s hand between both of his. This time he shakes it like it’s made out of glass. Glass that Chuck feels incredibly privileged to be touching at all.
"Thank you,” Chuck whispers, adoringly. Dean thinks to himself that it’s kind of like being at the zoo again. Chuck clears his throat and lets go of Castiel after a second. “Uh,” he says. “Please think about my offer.”
"I will," says Castiel.
"What was that about?" Dean asks, on the way back to the car.
"He’d like me to consult on a few of his charts," Castiel says. "His calculations are good but they’re a bit-" he frowns. "Earthbound." He turns to Dean with a sudden smile. "He says he’ll compensate me. I could take you to Burger Barn.”
"Cas," says Dean. "How are you real?"
"I don’t think I understand the question," says Castiel.
That night when Castiel is glowing again, brighter than ever, so bright and gorgeous, Christ, so beautiful in the light he makes, his skin warm and solid in Dean’s hands but his aura, his halo burning and blurring away the rest of reality, Castiel leans down and whispers, someday I’ll take you with me. And Dean knows what he means, now. Knows he means to the duat, the afterlife, the great dark carpet of the sky. To be a star or to be among them, to watch forever, to circle the world and see everything, to dip in comet trails to earth and rise again. Endlessly. Dean doesn’t know how it’s possible. Doesn’t know if it’s possible. Knows he ought to be afraid of it, of all of this. But he isn’t. Cas waits, eyes closed, mouth against Dean’s collarbone, trembling. Dean just arches against him- closer, closer- and whispers, yes.
And his star falls for him.