The lights in the planetarium were off. Dean was about to start up the presentation, but no one was with him to see it. They had all gone home hours ago, but he needed to relax, settle back into his skin. He started up the projections again, and even the audio accompaniment. Sometimes he would just watch it silently. Tonight though he wanted to hear the voice that sometimes felt too familiar, despite the fact that it really wasn’t.
The voice that filled the room was rich and melodious. It soothed away the day and made him almost sleepy. He settled into one of the high backed seats and let it tip back as the stars popped into existence overhead with the words of the narrator. A small corner of the indoor sky contained a swirl of light, the Aurora Borealis. Dean sighed and closed his eyes for a second to let his mind dip into memories and the beginnings of dreams.
It had taken him years to find this reality, to eke out a chunk of existence that he could tolerate. Sam had helped him get to this place. If it hadn’t been for him, Dean surely would have given up, let himself slowly waste away to nothingness. He lived though, and even thrived, in some ways more than others.
They lost Cas. It was never as simple as just fighting the good fight, or never giving up. A person can care a great deal and fight until the world is bloody and all that can be seen is rage. In the end everything can still be lost and all can smell like rot. Dean wallowed in those thoughts for nearly a year before Sam snapped him out of it.
He had found Dean in a run down, beat up old motel that likely charged most of its patrons by the hour. Dean was alone in there, had been for some time. His unconscious body was sprawled across the orange and brown comforter. His hand curled tight around the now empty bottle of Jack. Sam might have prayed for a bit of healing for Dean. He couldn’t remember most of that time or what Sam had done. He remembered not caring and the way that he had passed out night after night--the drip, drip, drip of the leaky motel faucet his lullaby.
He remembered the things that he wanted to forget though. He remembered the way it felt to lose. He remembered what it felt like to let go, to have everything pulled from his hands. He cursed God and anyone that could hear him. He raged and trashed the room he was in. He lashed out, and no one tried to stop him. He tried to let Sam take over at first. When Sam ate, he ate. When Sam heard of a demon that needed to be destroyed, Dean would follow and do his part. He let himself be lead, but living in Sam’s wake did nothing to dull the hurt. He decided rather quickly that he would leave, and that no one would find him. The world could just let him slip away too.
Once Sam found Dean, fixing him became one truly difficult task. Dean might have chosen to fight Sam at first, but Sam had made plans for that. He had given Dean tasks, not hunting. Dean made it clear that he was out of that life. “Done my time.” Instead, he let Sam distract him with college. It began simply enough. Sam was taking a class and told Dean to come with him. No commitment needed, just audit the course.
So he did, and he loved it. He took classes in science and eventually he found a niche that fit him just right, astronomy. He wasn’t sure what did it, but he thought that it might have been all of the late night drives in the middle of nowhere, back and forth across the US. Miles on miles in country dark, with only the sky full of stars looking down on him. The sky, like the Impala, was his constant companion. He took comfort from it, from its predictability and guiding lights. It might have also been something else too, something that lingered in one of the memories that he tried not to dwell upon. The flash of light, the dying star of memories that he continually tried to lose. Somehow those pockets of thought pushed him to this new life too.
He finished out his AS in a year and a half. He transferred to a four year for the BS. Sam was by that point no longer worried about him. He too had given up the hunting life. He consulted and took classes when he felt like it. Dean took more classes than most. His nights were filled with books and study. He got glasses at one point, thinking that they’d just be used occasionally for reading the tiny footnotes in textbooks, but they managed to become a bit more permanent than he had thought they’d be.
His four year BS was accomplished just a year and a half after his AS. He was shaving off a semester with each milestone, and he felt proud. He had decided to keep going though. A Masters would let him teach at a small community college. He was pleased with the thought. He considered going for the doctorate, but realized that it was just because he wanted to be called Professor Winchester or Doctor Winchester.
He found a Master’s program that he liked, and once again managed to get accepted. He lived at the library and devoured the books. He even took on a small teaching job as a T.A. running the discussion section for the lower division course. It paid squat. In fact, one could make more flipping burgers, but he was in it for other reasons. He scored papers, talked about the chapters on dwarf planets and black holes. He never once let his mind truly consider why this subject really caught him, or why he let it keep him.
Some of his professors had been quite pleased with him, and had offered to help him find work when he graduated. Most of the members of his cohort had been much younger than him, almost all of them in their twenties and energetic. He carried the weight of the world, but he did not let that show in his lectures. He let the students see his enthusiasm for the infinite universe. Sometimes he let himself think of the time when the vast expanse above was almost his home. Death had said that he could take him far from earth. When he had the Mark, it had seemed like the best solution. Go live among the stars. One can’t hurt anyone from out there.
Of course things didn’t end that way. It might have been better if it had. Cas might... He shut down that thought every time. Death likely would agree that Dean had missed an opportunity to do less harm when he instead chose to save Sam.
He made his way out of the planetarium some time later. The courtyard just outside afforded him a view of the star-marked sky. He stood in the middle of it and tucked his hands in his jacket pockets. He stared up and mapped out the constellations that he now knew nearly as well as he knew the vast array of interstate highways that stretched across the country.
The darkness between the patches of light, those places were sometimes the focus. The parking lot lights were polluting the view a little with their orange glow. He had signed a petition once to get them to change out the bulbs to something less sickly, but that had gone nowhere. The sky seemed to almost pulse. He rubbed his eyes, feeling the long day that was now behind him. He was tired and would fall into immediate sleep the moment that his head hit the pillow. It was almost 9 and he almost laughed at the thought that this felt late. He remembered a time when he could burn the midnight oil and survive on five hours. Like a lot of things, that was a part of a different life.
He heard the clack of her shoes before she drew up to his side. It took some concentration for him to not turn to her in greeting right away. He wanted to cling to the silence just a moment longer, that and the lonely vision of the sky. Charlotte was okay though. She’d stand at his side and share the vision for a bit before breaking the silence with chatter.
She looked like the reaper Billie. When he first saw her, his hand fell instinctively to his side where he no longer carried a weapon. She taught philosophy, a night class on the other side of the courtyard. It was like a funny joke, that someone had decided to put the philosophers right next to the scientists. They rarely talked of philosophy though, well, not directly anyway.
“You seem content. Good class tonight?” He looked at her as she spoke.
“I like the night class. Plus, tonight was our night in the planetarium.”
“Oh, you maximized your time in there today then. I heard you had the littluns in there for some sort of elementary school field trip thing.” She smiled at him and her teeth and eyes sparkled under the moonlight.
“Yeah, I think that was the best part of the day. It’s nice to have such an appreciative audience.” Dean smiled back and tipped his head toward the parking lot to signify that he’d walk her to her car. She fell into step at his side.
“I think most of your students appreciate you, Dean. Kids though offer up a different kind of appreciation.”
“Yeah.” He let out a short sigh.
“How come you never had kids?”
“Who says I didn’t?” Dean tossed off without really thinking. “I could have a few here and there.”
She elbowed him and then asked, “So, you never had kids?”
He went silent a moment and recalled another past that he buried deep down. It was not something that he wanted to think about. “I did have one once.” He didn’t know why he shared this. His life here could be whatever he wanted it to be. He didn’t have to be the sad sack that lost everything every time there was something to lose.
She reached out to him and pressed her hand to his arm in comfort before asking, “What happened?”
“She died.” He knew that he’d have to come up with a story that wasn’t about Amazons or Sam shooting her. He knew that he’d have to come up with something quick, but he was not finding anything that felt right. She was real, and she was his, so he didn’t want to take what little life she had away from her. He didn’t want to fill her storyline with fictional childhood illnesses or car accidents.
Thankfully, Charlotte didn’t press him further. She just walked at his side and curled her hand into the crook of his arm as they walked. They got to her car, a beat up old Mazda that he’d pick on if he were in the mood. The paint was rust colored, and the interior was sun bleached to some new color that had yet to gain a name. “Ah, my chariot awaits. Thank you for walking me here.” She gave his arm a final squeeze before releasing him.
“Anytime.” He slapped on a smile to show that he was fine now, everything was so fine, fine, fine.
She tipped her head to the side and stared at him a moment. It reminded him of Cas. He looked away. He tipped his own head back and looked at the stars. She said, “Why’d you pick astronomy?”
He chuckled low, and said, “Random much?”
“Not really. I was just thinking that you’d make a good philosopher. You’re a man of faith.” She was still smiling at him, still staring at him with her head tipped to the side.
“Don’t know what gave you that impression. I’ve been called a lot of things before, but never a man of faith.” He rolled his eyes for emphasis and felt his lips curl up in a smirk.
“Yeah, right. You have tons of faith.”
“Really? What makes you think that?”
“The way you look at the stars, it’s like you’re hoping to see something else, something more.”
“We astronomers just want to spot the next undiscovered planet first. I’m just looking for something to slap my name on.”
“Nope.” She leaned back against her car. “It’s more than that. I’d say it looks a lot like praying. You look like you’re waiting for an answer. You’re definitely a man of faith, Dean Winchester.”
“Well, I use to have faith once, a long time ago. Not anymore though. It ain’t worth the let down, and there isn’t any reason to believe that someone out there is gonna have my back. Sometimes I have hope, like for the next generation or for the diner down the street to have some decent pecan pie. In the end though, hope is a minor thing. Way easier to handle than something like faith.”
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” She practically whispered the words, and Dean recognized them from the Bible. “Maybe what you call hope is really just another name for faith.”
He just shrugged and made like he was going to head off for his car. “I”d best head home. See ya Charlotte.”
She gave him a tiny wave and said, “Let’s do lunch tomorrow, between your classes.”
“Sure. I’ll swing by your class.” He turned then and walked off to his car. Her words played out in his head though. He didn’t have faith. He had no need for it. That had died along with so much else.