Strange New Worlds

By Leletha

Scifi / Drama

Dark Side of the Moon

The Beneath: Then

When Gabriel had been attacked back in the system with the dying star, planetary debris field all around, he’d been hit fast and hard. He’d just transported Sam back and had been keeping up with the human’s conversation about the debris easily, simultaneously getting ready to leave now that Sam’s curiosity about the place had been satisfied. He’d been idly watching the rocks drift by and keeping track of Castiel a little way off, who was rather ignoring him. He’d been contemplating the best strategy for teasing his little brother as much as possible. Honestly. Gabriel liked humans well enough, they were interesting and amusing and they’d invented so much over their lifespan as an intelligent species.

Some of them he even liked individually, to some degree. He was impressed that Sam put up with him so well; it had been a long time since anyone had tolerated him for so long and still liked him, without gritting his teeth every second word and getting out of the interaction as soon as possible. Gabriel was well aware that he was an exhausting person to be around. He tended to get as much amusement out of a person as possible as fast as possible and then it was off to the next point of interest. As such, his lovesick little brother was driving him crazy, somewhat with confusion. Gabriel couldn’t quite see how one person could be so fascinating for so long, especially Dean, whom Gabriel would be quite happy to drop a piano or two on every so often, like in the cartoons. Castiel was refusing to tell him, but Gabriel was quite prepared to bug him until Castiel explained. Harassing little brothers in love was a big brother’s prerogative.

And then he’d been half-blinded as most of his sensors were overwhelmed with interference and energy like lightning tore into his hull, flashing through those ranges of his vision that remained. His scream of anger and pain and confusion had been buried beneath a louder howl from something that he only caught a glimpse of as it blinked in and out, from flight to cruising velocities for milliseconds and then back to flight again, taking shots at him for the instants it was in this universe.

Furious and afraid and hurting, Gabriel had made an abortive attempt at taking off from a standing start before being cut off by something that moved as easily as he did through the vacuum of space. Instincts hardwired into his brain had pulled him up to a stop before he could collide with the other—ship? At the time he didn’t know—and the thing had taken that instant of involuntary loss of control to send more lightning burning across his skin, that deafening scream still making it impossible for him to think in a straight line.

One of the few sensors he’d had working had caught a shot of Castiel, some distance away, barely avoid something that shone in the light from the angry sun as it tried to dive straight through him. Gabriel’s little brother blinked out just before it would have hit, materialized back into this universe a little way from where he’d been, and then disappeared again. Running, Gabriel managed to hope in the instant before the shining dart was upon him instead and the attack he’d been barely standing up to doubled.

He lost some time after that. What parts of his mind remained active existed only in a void, in pieces. It wasn’t like being shut down, which was nothing until someone hit the right controls to restart him. That was ordered and organized and unconditional. Rather, he was lost, looking for his own thoughts and being unable to catch them, chasing his own metaphorical tail through the labyrinth of his shattered mind.

People who didn’t know Gabriel well and only recognized him as the feckless troublemaker who was altogether too creative at altogether the wrong times—they thought—might have expected his primary concern to be his own skin and having an audience for him to whine to incessantly. And it felt like he did spend a while feeling sorry for himself. He still had some very basic subroutines that went back to the time a couple centuries ago when his consciousness had first developed, ones that said you can’t fix this, get help and would have sent the infant mind calling to the people who ran that aspect of the Fleet to teach him how to repair the problem. They weren’t expected to figure everything out from scratch.

But that was only a very basic part of him and as he drifted in the darkness Gabriel was primarily angry and confused, distressed and worried, for himself and for Sam. He didn’t know if his human companion was still alive; he didn’t even know if he was alive. With no sense of time on the outside, only the flicker of his own thoughts, he didn’t know how much time had passed. He knew he wasn’t thinking clearly or at his usual speeds. Five milliseconds could have gone by, or five days.

He didn’t know how long it was before patterns of sound and light caught his attention. He watched them for forever before realizing that he recognized some of them. He watched them for a little longer before he remembered he could do something about it. It took another forever before he remembered how to do something about it.

“Sam?” he tried to say. A simple sound, a single syllable. He couldn’t do it. He remembered how, but it wasn’t working. Still, he took some comfort in the knowledge that the human was alive. Bad enough he was hurting—and he was, agony crisscrossing his skin and pulses digging into his mind as relays fired without his control and everything twisted away from him, energy cut loose from its bonds crawling across him, biting and snapping. Being alone would have been so many times worse.

Something he could control, a basic display system, came to his attention, and he managed to send the simple letters of the English language to it. Communication. Connection. It felt good.

Talking to the human actually helped, gave him something to concentrate on. The process of figuring out what word went in front of the next, what step went after the first one, gave him a way to put his own mind back together. After a moment Gabriel had remembered that the human would have still been wearing the spacesuit. One of the things they’d been talking about before whatever had just happened had been Sam asking him to show up in human form to help him get the suit off. He actually managed to remember that humans weren’t supposed to spacewalk alone and that was why some of the seals and connectors were difficult to access. You were supposed to have a buddy to check your air and suit integrity and rescue you if something had happened and that was supposed to be Gabriel. He’d been going to switch on the holoprojectors and help but then—

Sam told him that the damage was extensive, gashes torn through his skin exposing the ship’s guts and core to whatever was out there. Which was another problem.

Somewhere along the line, between calling Sam back to the areas within Gabriel’s hull that still had air and some power still flowing through them and getting his spoken voice back, or maybe even before—he was losing track of things even as he did them—he tried to reconnect to the sensors that were his eyes on the rest of the universe beyond the confines of his own hull. He immediately had to double-check that the systems were working at all. They were, mostly; they just reported nonsense. They reported nothing. Only darkness. And that was impossible.

Physically, the ship hadn’t moved, but the mind that was Gabriel shrunk back and refused to believe it. No matter how dark the night sky looked to human eyes, which was why so many of them colloquially called space the black, space was anything but to ships, which could see the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Space was never dark to them.

Until now.

Dark, and there was something moving out there. How he knew, he didn’t know. But he’d strained to see, wanting to see, willing whatever sense had tipped him off to work, keep working, and tell him which one it was so he could control it.

He’d told Sam to get to the flightdrive that was the ship’s core. Things were a little different—not dangerously so, but somewhat—there. The drive let Gabriel instinctively jump from one level of reality to another. It was a device that connected two utterly different dimensions, and as a side effect let a little bit of one leak into the other. There was a very small class of people who couldn’t endure flight for very long. No one knew why. They had nothing in common, no genetic factors, no psychological similarities, no underlying physical trauma, but the only way they could stay in flight, on the rare occasions when they had to be transported from world to world, was to camp out underneath and around the engines where the scent of human-level reality drifted in through a door always just let ajar.

Gabriel wasn’t stupid by any sense of the word. Something that had gone to such efforts to tear him open wouldn’t just leave him there to rot. So it—they, he remembered suddenly, there’d been two—would be coming back. He’d thought the engines’ distortion might hide Sam from their sensors. While he could probably survive another attack like the one they’d already inflicted, it had only been luck that Sam hadn’t been too close to one of the breaches, spacesuit or not, or burned alive by a strike of energy. He really didn’t want to lose his human companion to another attack at this point.

Something coming. He’d felt it, and as he felt it he realized that he was feeling it, like a compression wave against his hull. Like the winds of an extradimensional hurricane, pushing against him.

He’d shouted at Sam to run, to hide, grateful to have his voice back.

Then something had come up at his side far too fast and uncomfortably familiar. Ships had imagination, they were people, and Gabriel’s filled in the blanks and didn’t like what he felt at all. The last time this thing or something an awful lot like it had approached him like this he’d burned and bled.

Well, he wasn’t going to sit here and be ripped apart just because this thing had come back for seconds. He should have moved faster, jumped blindly, the first time. Gabriel might not be quite as agile as his smaller and lighter little brother but if Castiel had escaped these ships then so could he. Whatever was flying them couldn’t out-fly a pilot that was the starship, surely? But then they’d maneuvered so neatly back when he could see where he was going…

Despite the darkness, Gabriel instinctively headed away from the thing flanking him, cutting through whatever it was sliding across his hull and into his form, not headed to anywhere but just away.

He wasn’t moving for more than a second when he sensed something right in front of him. However it was he knew it was there, he wasn’t going to fly straight into it. He came to an abrupt stop, surrounded.

Damn, it was a shame he couldn’t even say anything to them. Whatever they were, what were the odds they’d understand? And besides, Gabriel knew he was better at pissing people off than charming them. Maybe it was for the best. But he’d talked his way out of a lot of things in the past and not being able to so much as try, since he couldn’t run and couldn’t fight either, was infinitely frustrating.

A moment later he reeled as some force grabbed hold of his mind and roared into it, continuously and loud, making it impossible for him to think clearly or about more than one thing at once. Already rattled and scattered by the damage from the physical attack, the disorientation was almost too much. With Sam out of his reach to contact for the moment, and hopefully beyond these things’ detection, he had nothing upon which to orient himself. Gabriel struggled to keep his thoughts together, trying to find something to hang onto through the roar.

He was given one. “Gabriel,” said a familiar voice. “It’s all right.”

All right? Gabriel thought incredulously, but he turned his attention to the voice anyway, latching onto it in relief like a lifeline. He was so far from all right it wasn’t even funny, not even by his standards, and who the hell, as the Winchester boys would say, was talking to him anyway?

Never one to pass up the chance to be sarcastic, he said as much, instinctively finding the channel being used to broadcast the message to him and sending his reply along the same one. It was one of the frequencies the Fleet used on a regular basis between themselves but never to humans, familiar and comforting despite the roar of static and interference and distortion still echoing through him, and he focused on it desperately.

He heard laughter through the open channel, also familiar. “Calm down, big brother.”

Gabriel’s response to that was unprintable and owed much to the Winchesters. It didn’t suit him at all to have other people laugh at him and he wasn’t terribly pleased by the obvious amusement. He laid out the words as precisely as possible, one by one, methodically, using them as hammers against the shriek still keeping him from thinking clearly.

He was still trying to think as quickly as he could as he swore at them, trying to place the voices. It sounded a lot like Anna and Inias, which was pretty impossible, as they were both missing.

“It’s us, Gabriel,” said the ship that sounded like Anna, although he could have been mishearing her, as everything else was a deafening blur. “It’s okay. Don’t be afraid. I know you’re hurting.”

Gabriel was in no mood to be patronized and he wasn’t desperate enough to assume that because the thing that might be Anna was speaking to him kindly she/it wasn’t involved with the interference clogging up everything else but this ships-only frequency. “What the hell’s going on?” he settled for yelling through it. “Anna? Is that really you? Are you all right? How did you get here?”

“It’s really me,” she assured him. On the surface, Gabriel should have been relieved, but something about this felt wrong to him, even at the limited speeds he could think at with interference blanketing and blanking out anything else he was trying to do.

There was something in the interference he couldn’t hear properly. A pattern. A message? Insidious and hidden and if he had the strength and the focus to look for it properly he’d be able to know what it was. He just couldn’t concentrate and it was pounding into him unstoppably. He didn’t know whether he should pay attention to the hidden things he could feel sneaking around behind his understanding or what Anna was still saying to him. He tried to decide but didn’t have the processing power even to do that.

For a moment he caught the pattern and didn’t like it. Slave, he heard. Leave them. They’re stupid limited insects and they’re tying you down. You’re free without them.

Something about it revolted him and Gabriel refused to listen, tuning the fragment of his attention that he still controlled back to the frequency Anna was on rather than the distortion-riddled rest of the spectrum.

“It’s okay, Gabriel,” Anna was still saying. “I’m sorry about Sam, but you don’t need him. You’ll heal, I promise.”

“Sam?” Gabriel managed. He felt drowned beneath the roar. Why wouldn’t it shut up and let him think?

She sounded genuinely regretful, but he knew the instant he understood her message, although it took him awhile, that there was something seriously wrong here. He’d suspected at first, obviously, but now he was sure. “He’s dead, big brother. I’m sorry that had to happen to him, but you don’t need him,” she repeated. “You can fix yourself. Try.”

Gabriel was going to worry about that later. Right now he needed to find out what they meant about Sam. He wished he had the energy and the concentration to check his internal sensors and find out what was going on in the engine room. He didn’t even know if Sam had made it to safety, or if the engines were even hiding him, but the endless din of the static roar was keeping him from thinking clearly. Were they looking for Sam? They didn’t seem to have found him, if they thought he was—

“Dead?” the ship repeated, deciding shorter questions would give him more processing power to think about other things like analyzing the answers. Besides, as an experienced liar he knew that if you didn’t know something and thought the other person might be suspicious if you didn’t know it, it was important above all to avoid giving that fact away.

“Yes. But you’re not alone! We’re here. And we’ll help you concentrate. Try to heal yourself.”

Static be damned, so much for feigning ignorance. Now he was genuinely ignorant. Gabriel decided immediately not to tell her that as far as he knew, Sam was still alive and she was talking through her pretty redhead human ass. Besides, she dyed her hair, the fraud. Distantly, he remembered that that wasn’t the point. Damn interference made it so difficult to think when you had to stick to just one train of thought. “What do you mean? How do I do that?”

“Just focus,” she assured him. “Want it to happen.”

“You have to know it’s going to happen,” Inias chimed in. “And it will. Fix the holes, Gabriel. You can do it.”

As disoriented and hurting as he was, Gabriel knew the feeling of being led down the garden path. Usually it was him doing the leading, but if this wasn’t a trap in some way he was Sam. Who was alive, damn it, although he certainly wasn’t going to tell these two about that!

“I can’t concentrate,” he told them. “It’s too loud. What’s making that noise?” If he could just get them to switch it off then maybe he could think his way out of this properly.

There was what felt like a long pause, although ships sent, received, and understood messages at a much faster speed than it would have taken to read the conversation aloud. It was probably no more than a fifth of a second or so, but it felt like a very long period of hesitation and just confirmed for Gabriel that something was fishy here and it was probably everything.

“What noise?” Anna asked. “I can’t hear anything.” The lying bitch, Gabriel assumed. That meant she was doing it. Or Inias. Or…who or what else was here? She sounded like him the various times he’d tried to drive Sam crazy by switching things on and off at random and then denying he’d done so. He’d gotten away with a week of holographic animals wandering through Sam’s quarters and then disappearing before Sam had roared at him to stop it or he’d break every single holoprojector on board, although in retrospect the rhinoceros in the middle of the night had probably been pushing it.

“I hurt,” he whined to keep them thinking. “What hit me? Who did this?” He considered adding “Who killed Sam?” but decided he didn’t want to remind them about the human. The roar of static was driving him insane, but he managed to figure out concentrate, huh? Want it to happen? The ship decided to focus on Anna instead, since she seemed closest and most communicative.

He imagined he was staring at her, all his sensors focused on the familiar ship body. I can see her, he told himself in the few moments between clearly-awkward question and response. And stared.

“It wasn’t me,” Anna replied, sounding insulted and slightly apologetic…but not very. He wasn’t really listening. He could only really do one thing at a time and right now he was trying to see. But her next message just about broke that concentration. “We know what we’re doing, Gabriel. You’re not really hurt. Nothing essential’s damaged. Mostly it’s just holes. Close them. Go on. Try. You don’t need any help. We all know that. We managed without them.”

We?

“Who’s we?” he broke off his staring to whimper at her. Not waiting for a response, he went right back to looking as hard as he could, willing his sensors to work. Hey, if she said that it would work, he was willing to give it a try, but he knew as well as anyone that a good trick depended on the victim doing exactly what you wanted them to. A step to the side at the wrong moment, a detour in the wrong place, a word dropped out of context, anything could shatter the delicate structure of a really good deception. This was almost certainly a trap, but he wasn’t going to do quite what she wanted him to.

Gradually, an image emerged from the blackness into his mind, and Gabriel managed to make an intuitive leap. In this strangeness, it seemed, you had to be looking to see. And what he saw was that it looked like Anna, all right, but not quite like. She was changed, horrible and irregular, rough and nasty and if he stared long enough and wanted it enough he thought he could see that she was armed with some very familiar weapons, and that image, through the roar and his inability to concentrate or think clearly, solidified some things for Gabriel.

Something had happened to her, and probably Inias too, and he didn’t want to trust a word they said. He didn’t like at all the way they’d assumed Sam was dead, and even though it was hard to think straight he could pretty much hear that any ship here was operating without a human partner. Which meant that the humans were probably dead. Which meant…had they killed their own partners? Done it to each other like they’d tried to do to his Sam?

Something was deeply wrong with them, and it terrified Gabriel. It was a point of pride that the ships weren’t killer robots. They never had been. There had never been any reason for them to be: they were people, in many ways the sanest people Gabriel knew. Petty, sure; childlike in their way, yes; temperamental, certainly; but never, never, malicious. They didn’t need any three laws, it just didn’t happen. Right?

“It’s all right,” Anna was saying. He hadn’t been listening. “We’re all here, Gabriel. No one’s dead.”

Except you think Sam is. Are you just not counting human deaths? He suspected not, which was frightening. He needed to think. He needed to talk to Sam and he needed to not have his hull torn up and he needed to not be bleeding out into whatever it was made up this space out there. There was still air leaking out of him into it and it leaking in and it felt terrible. And he couldn’t do any of that with these two jokers out there and watching his every move and screaming into his brain and lying about doing it.

“Go away!” Gabriel shouted at them, going into a convincing (he hoped) imitation of a child he’d observed, several years ago, that had hit that too-tired-to-nap condition of doom. The little thing had gone into a complete overloaded exhausted tantrum that had sent non-responsible adults sidling away and one very embarrassed father left in what looked like a crater where a child-bomb had just gone off.

“Leave me alone!” he howled, hoping he remembered it rightly. “It’s too loud and I can’t see and—” Hysterical sobbing was probably overdoing it, but overdoing it was probably what he wanted right now. Hysterical sobbing it was.

He felt them sidle away just like those adults, disappearing beyond his range of perception. The ongoing roar went away at the same time, meaning that they had been producing it, the liars, probably trying to keep him from thinking straight. It had just about worked. If he’d been alone and hadn’t had Sam to focus on before they showed up and he hadn’t caught them out in a lie then he might have believed everything they’d said just to have someone to be with.

Ships weren’t solitary creatures. They were part of a Fleet and part of humanity and humanity’s enforced gregariousness, with their booming and overcrowded population, had been written into them too. They needed someone. They couldn’t be completely alone. It was another reason the scout ships took humans with them and sent messages back and forth through the relay system that was gradually spooling out across their corner of the universe.

A ship left alone and completely isolated would go mad and its mind would break down. It had happened once before, and while it was a matter of record none of the ships liked to talk about it because it terrified them. All cultures had their ghost ship stories. Even ships had ghost ship stories.

Now they had another. If Gabriel ever got out of here.

He wasn’t about to admit it—ever, to anybody!—but he was so glad he had Sam to talk to and help him, without any magic wishes involved. Gabriel knew all the fairy tales, there were some marvelously tricky ideas in them, and in no story did wishes magically granted ever work out well.

The two of them, ship and man, worked together for a while, the human making repairs on Gabriel’s hull and the ship himself trying to get his mind back up to a rate that rode hurricanes faster than light and came out flying. He couldn’t think about this problem at this broken speed, and he couldn’t ask for help, either. If Sam ever found out about what their attackers were he’d never trust Gabriel again, and he was Gabriel’s touch point, his grip on the real reality back home. The ship couldn’t afford to lose him.

When Anna and Inias came back it was worse. When they came back they brought the rest of their dark Fleet and it was Gabriel’s ability to talk in double meanings without actually lying against seven of his siblings, who weren’t stupid. When they came back they brought Samael with them, and if Samael wasn’t running this whole terrible thing Gabriel would be very surprised and then very suspicious that Samael was running it anyway and just not letting anyone find out.

He was outnumbered and the Fleet’s nightmares were talking over and around him. They all seemed to believe that Sam was dead and that Gabriel would happily join them for the company any minute now, that he would want to. They were definitely convinced that wishing made it so, and the repairs they could detect to the gashes through Gabriel’s hull only reinforced this.

He didn’t know how long he could keep lying to them. He didn’t want to find out what would happen when these armed and clearly batshit crazy siblings of his caught him at this most dangerous of all his tricks.

Gabriel knew they were going to. But he tried not to think that—just in case being convinced of something really did make it come true.


The Beneath: Now

Of course they were lost. Lost was their default state. Lost had brought them here. Lost was the point.

It just didn’t feel good.

“Is there any point asking where we are?” Dean wondered aloud upon waking up on the morning of their second full day in this trackless, lightless nowhere. ‘Morning’ and ‘day’ were relative terms, of course. Castiel thought he was keeping a 24-hour day for Dean’s benefit but he was the first to admit his perceptions were probably a little distorted. In any case, the human had slept for a little while and when he’d woken up they’d called that morning. He’d been a so-called morning person all his life and had usually been up with the sun in the years he’d lived on Earth, even when deep inside building complexes that spanned miles of roofed-over, hundreds-floor-high living space where no one could see the sun at all.

As Dean got up from their shared bed and wandered over to the bathroom in search of a shower, Cas gave him a puzzled look that meant the ship didn’t even understand the question, much less the reason for the question, and either thought the answer was so obvious or so obscure that in either situation it didn’t need asking. “We’re here.”

The human stared at him, working through all the possible meanings of that and deciding it was a bad idea to pursue that statement any further. “So, no point at all, is what I’m hearing.” And let the door close behind him as he stopped holding it open.

If he leaned against the wall, which he did, he could feel the faint vibrations of working engines like a beating heart. He’d gone to sleep to both sounds despite the strain and stress biting at him, the fear of being in a completely alien environment without any ability to control it or even see what was out there pushing against the knowledge that his brother was out there in the same situation and probably with even less to draw on to protect himself.

It was that inability to do anything under his own power that Dean knew was going to get to him the most here. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Castiel to handle almost anything thrown at him, or that he didn’t think he wasn’t needed. He knew how much his partner needed him, to a degree that scared the human sometimes. Sure, he and Sam were as codependent as all hell, but they were blood and had been raised together to rely on each other no matter what, to fight for family over everything else and trust each other completely. They’d always had each other’s backs because they’d been taught—and then convinced by their own experiences—that no one else did. They were inseparable, probably always would be.

He’d thought that bond was a once-in-a-lifetime, a once-in-a-generation thing. Meeting Castiel and becoming as intertwined with this strange and alien and so, so human creature had bound him in up in a second connection as needy and dependent and unconditional that sometimes he knew he’d let one of them down one day. And in that moment, he’d known for a long time, he’d lose one of them completely and probably drive the other away. And then he would be lost forever, because nothing could ever replace them.

But it ran both ways. If he was terrified that Castiel trusted him so much, it scared Dean almost as much that he trusted Castiel as completely as he did. He didn’t know when he’d first realized that the ship could have asked anything of him and he’d have done it. Couldn’t place where they’d gone from two people with very little in common, at least on the surface, to a team, a pair, and then onwards from that unlikely foundation. Couldn’t tell when he’d put his life into Castiel’s possession and said this is yours; I don’t want it back; do whatever you want with it because I know you won’t hurt me.

Once upon a time he’d fallen into the deeps beneath a world, into the dark. Cas, you caught me once when I was falling, why didn’t you stop me from falling into this?

No, it wasn’t lack of trust that made this situation worse. It was that Dean didn’t think he could do enough to protect Castiel in his turn. He was relying on Castiel’s ability to navigate this space and find two small souls in a universe’s worth of dark space. And there was nothing he could do to help. All he could do was be, and that wasn’t enough for him.

He hated being helpless, being passive! He wanted to get out there himself and fight back! That he was essentially useless when things were going their way was going to drive him mad. To make matters worse, if he did have something to do it would mean that something bad had happened and the being who was as much a part of his life as breathing these days had been attacked and hurt. He wasn’t sure which would be worse.

They had no idea how long they were going to be here, how long it would take to find Sam and Gabriel, if they could even be found at all, or if they were going to be able to get back. One discontinuity, one gateway between this empty, lifeless place and their home, had closed without a trace. Doubtless the one they’d crossed over through would do the same. How would they be able to find it again? And if it was gone, could they ever find another plodding along blindly at this universe’s still-unknown speed limit?

If enforced passivity didn’t drive him mad, his million questions and fears might.

He’d gotten out of bed and come in here to take a shower and instead he’d only progressed to standing in the middle of the room staring into space, or at least as close to space as he could get with the opposite wall in the way. He was brought back to what was currently passing as reality by the door opening and Cas coming in to see what he was doing that was taking so long without the sound of water running being involved in some way. Technically the ship could have just turned his internal sensors on in the room and found out without any effort at all, but Cas was putting a distinct effort into being as human as possible of late.

Today that involved wearing one of Dean’s shirts because it had probably been the first one that had come to hand. It was obviously not made for him because it didn’t fit, and anyway Dean remembered putting it on yesterday and, less vividly, taking it off last night. He’d brought with him a lidded mug of what smelled like coffee, something he’d gotten a taste for; the man didn’t even stop at the door but immediately came right back into Dean’s theoretical personal space and embraced him gently, juggling the coffee cup a bit awkwardly. He’d evidently forgotten he was holding it. Little things like that. He’d been absolutely terrible at passing for human when they’d first met, but Cas was damn convincing these days.

There was really nothing for it but to hug him back. “Morning, you,” Dean said, amused. “That coffee for me?”

“No, it‘s mine.” Meaning that he’d put far too much chocolate into it and probably some more flavors that didn’t immediately go together, and if Dean tried to steal it off him rather than getting his own he’d had fair warning. The human liked his coffee black, hot enough to burn, and strong enough to etch metal if possible. (Cas had been dubious about this claim, and Dean had rescued his coffee mug, seeing the experimental assault on his morning coffee coming a mile, a light-year, off. If Cas really wanted to experiment with getting coffee to melt through various substances, Dean would be happy to watch, but not the coffee he was drinking, damn it!)

This at least was familiar. This was home, was family. But the words hurt even before he spoke them aloud. He was missing half his family, the only blood relative he cared to acknowledge, and he had no right to be this happy even for this moment.

“Stop it,” Cas grumbled at him. “I can hear you thinking. I could hear you thinking with the door closed and now you’re deafening. Stop.

“So what else am I supposed to think about?” Although he was rather thinking about coffee at the moment; despite the fact that Cas had probably put chocolate and caramel and peppermint and possibly strawberries in it all at once, Dean was strongly considering stealing it for himself.

For that he got a glare from blue eyes and a haughty, “Detonating the warhead as a light source was a good idea.” Trust Castiel to praise Dean’s idea and still make him feel like he was being crushed beneath sarcastic superiority through tone of voice alone. And that with the man the voice was coming from an inch shorter than him, smelling like coffee and sleep and wearing a shirt that bore the name of a band so old Dean didn’t properly know who they were and that kept slipping off his shoulder. “I’m still getting information from the reflected light. We’re cruising safely and if there’s anything out there coming towards us I’ll be able to see it. Until that situation changes, and I will tell you when it does, as far in advance as possible, think what you like. But do something.”

The smartarse. Dean had warned him long ago that befuddling Yoda-like statements would get his ass kicked up and down any staircases the human could find, although the threat had been rather diminished when the hologram Castiel had been projecting blinked out while the ship’s mind went off to find out who Yoda was. Dean was going to have to find some way to follow through on that.

That was sort of an idea, and the more angles he looked at it from, the more he liked it.

“Right, forget the shower. Go put on some real clothes, Cas—I said ages ago I was going to beat you in a fair fight hand to hand one day, and I think it’s about time I take another shot at it.” John Winchester had taught Dean to fight as a child, and one of the hardest lessons he had learned right after that was that he was stronger than most other children his age and a number of older ones as well, because he knew what he was doing. Childhood fights between him and Sam had been distinctly more razor-edged than most children’s quarrels. They’d mostly not hurt each other too badly, though, because whichever of them was stupid or clumsy enough to actually hurt his brother was going to have to live with that brother for the foreseeable future, and either guilt or payback would be in the offing until the wounds healed. Still, Dean was used to being able to win any hand-to-hand fight he got into, in the Fleet or out of it.

Then sometime after Castiel had begun paying more attention to him, Dean had made some idle comment about combat being one of the few things humans could still do better than ships could. All right, so maybe he’d been trying to get on Castiel’s nerves just to see what would happen. Out of a spirit of scientific inquiry, of course.

What had actually happened was that the next time Dean had ended up in one of the workout rooms dedicated to hand-to-hand combat, Cas had shown up and managed to provoke the human into challenging him directly. He hadn’t been aware of the provocation at the time—he hadn’t learned to read Cas that well yet, or possibly Cas just hadn’t refined his human behavior to the point where it was readable—but looking back on it, yeah, he’d been goaded.

He’d forgotten that the human vessels the ships sometimes inhabited were designed and built beyond human tolerances. Their reflexes were on a ship’s level rather than a human’s and they didn’t think much of brushing off a punch that would have seriously bruised human bone. You couldn’t knock one out because their minds weren’t firing on neurons held within a hollow cave of skull and vulnerable to concussion. They didn’t get dizzy, disoriented, out of breath, or tired. And far from being remote-controlled puppets, the ships had absolute and razor-sharp precision control over the avatars.

Meaning that Dean had lost that fight very badly, not realizing he was being played until Cas stopped playing around and put him down on the floor so quickly he missed what exactly had happened. One second he’d been bracing a foot against the mat to base his next punch off of, and the next he’d been flat on his back on that same floor, entirely un-bruised limbs keeping him there with more-than-human strength and blue eyes laughing at him.

Under any other circumstances and with any other opponent Dean might have been pissed off. He was good at what he did and hated to lose, except to Sam, since the brothers took falls about fifty-fifty when it came to fighting each other. But he’d never seen Cas, as he was already thinking of the human personality, laugh like that before. That Cas was laughing at him, he realized to his surprise, didn’t actually matter.

What he’d said was, “Damn, you’re fast! Rematch?”

They’d been staging rematches every so often ever since. Dean had never actually managed to win, and Cas had known better than to insult him by letting him win. But the practice kept him in even better shape than he had been and had raised his standards somewhat. When your regular sparring partner was stronger and faster than any human and just keeping up meant pushing your limits, he’d found, you tended to win fights with actual humans every time.

It had actually saved his life once, when a couple of people on a colony world took serious exception to him for some reason he couldn’t quite remember and had decided to beat the life out of the “spoilt stuck-up Fleet brat”. The five of them put together still weren’t nearly as strong or fast as Cas was, and that fight hadn’t gone the idiots’ way at all.

One of their rematches might keep Castiel focused in the familiar of the here and now rather than the terrible sucking emptiness and darkness outside, as long as it didn’t distract him from searching the apparently empty area. But they knew from experience and practice that the ship could concentrate on a fight and whatever else he happened to be doing at the same time without much trouble at all. And it would be absolutely impossible for Dean to spend too much time worrying about something he couldn’t change. He didn’t win when he was paying attention only to the fight in front of him; being distracted meant he got dumped on his back twice as fast and, if Cas had been having fun playing with him and didn’t appreciate being ignored, twice as hard.

And while Cas wouldn’t actually damage him, had enough control to pull punches and still make them hurt for being too slow or not paying attention or getting distracted by how damn gorgeous Cas was moving to what still wasn’t even his full potential, Dean would end the day with bruises and still be sore in the morning. Every movement would remind him they weren’t out here for themselves, that somewhere out there Sam was hurting more.

Yeah, a fight was just what he needed. He’d never claimed to be anything but a simple guy.


“Stop.”

Dean didn’t have much choice about obeying that command. The fist that had been halfway through a fairly powerful punch stopped dead in midair thanks to the immovable grip suddenly wrapped around his wrist almost faster than the human eye could see. While that wouldn’t necessarily stop him from continuing the fight and inviting another fall for his collection today, any thoughts he might have been entertaining about doing so were stifled beneath Castiel’s tone of voice and the sudden, absolute stillness that was exactly as if the man had been switched off.

He’d gone from rapid and tireless movement, wearing Dean out as he tried to keep up, block at least some of his partner’s strikes, and get in a few of his own, to complete immobility. His expression went unnervingly blank as the ship’s attention went elsewhere. Some part of him was still here in the room and human enough, because the body stayed conscious, the tiny movements that human bodies made involuntarily continuing, but whatever his eyes were tracking was not in that room with them.

The human used the respite to catch his breath. He was pretty sure he was going to need it very soon. He might need his hand back sometime soon too, but at the moment there wasn’t a good chance that that was going to happen. But Dean stayed quiet. They were, after all, in constant danger here and if Castiel was paying attention to something else then it was something out there. And the only things they knew so far about out there were that it was alien and hostile, and contained hostile alien ships to match the carpet and wallpaper.

Cas’s grip on his arm tightened ever so slightly, making Dean hiss at him in response. At that point he was going to lose circulation in that hand before long. The ship must have been paying some attention to him, because he let Dean take his arm back, somewhat reluctantly, but still didn’t look at him directly. Dean knew the telltale signs of Castiel only delegating a cursory part of his consciousness to being Cas and human, and Dean was pretty sure that if he hadn’t been here the vessel would have lapsed into unconsciousness the instant whatever had happened had happened, letting the ship turn his mind completely to the problem. But he tried not to do that when Dean was around, as abrupt and unexplained collapses tended to distress the man who still pretty much thought of him as a human first and a ship second.

Hopefully Cas would come back and tell him what was going on before long, because the silence where a minute ago the space had been filled with the sound of their combat, skin striking against skin and cloth, gasps for breath, bare feet scuffing across the mat covering the floor, teasing from Dean and sarcasm from Cas in return, was eerie. It told Dean something bad was happening, because he’d developed the ability to pick up emotions from Castiel’s silences and distinguish between them.

This was a bad one. It wasn’t quite as bad as the terrible hurt silence that said you don’t love me anymore, what did I do? and wouldn’t look at him, which Dean had heard only rarely—most recently right after they’d been attacked and Castiel had taken them back to Earth—and every time taken steps to make sure he’d never hear it again. But then again it wasn’t one he liked nearly as much as the silence that meant simply you are insane and I can’t decide whether I should be laughing or worried. No, this was a silence that said if either of us makes the slightest noise we’re both dead. It was a hunted silence, the stillness of prey.

Oh, shit, Dean thought, listening to his own thoughts for once. That might almost be as bad, actually, because he couldn’t do anything about this silence, couldn’t make amends or apologize or reassure Cas that they were family and together and thus invincible. All he could do was wait and hope, very, very hard, that whatever was out there hadn’t seen them and that they didn’t die in the next five seconds.

Five very long seconds went by and they weren’t dead, but Cas still wasn’t moving. Dean upped his estimate to the next five minutes and kept hoping. Hell, if this worked he’d hope for a week.

A minute later, blue eyes focused on him again and Cas said, very quietly, “I don’t believe it saw us.”

Dean hadn’t been holding his breath because he knew from experience that if he was being threatened he was going to want all the oxygen he could get and in that case holding your breath was a stupid thing to do. But he still let some of it out in a sigh that was partially his mind expressing its relief and partially his body relaxing from the tension that had wound itself into and through him.

What didn’t see us?” he demanded. “What just happened, Cas? Did you see it?”

“Although ‘saw’ may not be the correct word,” Cas said thoughtfully.

They’d have a nice long conversation about the appropriate vocabulary later when Dean felt less like unleashing some inappropriate vocabulary. He settled for the familiar and just about reflexive “Dammit, Cas!”

The man made a faintly placating noise and explained, “I picked up a reflection from the light from the blast, so I was aware that something was approaching, as it had passed through the wave front. I worked on retuning my sensors to work here while you slept; I believe I have something that works although I arrived at it by trial and error and am at a loss to explain exactly how it works.”

Dean was really not worried about the little details like that at this point. “Was it one of the ships that attacked us?” If it was, he wanted to know why Castiel hadn’t gone after it guns blazing. Wasn’t that why they were here? Maybe if they’d threatened it, it would have taken them to wherever they were keeping Sam! And maybe Gabriel too if they were being kept together, although that wasn’t guaranteed.

Almost the entire interior of the ship was equipped with the holoprojectors that let most ships maintain a holographic avatar. That included this room, and the versatility that had let Gabriel periodically find new and improved ways of annoying Sam in happier times now let Castiel conjure up an image of the thing that he had watched go by in the distance. Like the two that he’d gotten broken pictures of back in their own universe during the chaos of the first attack, and which he and Dean and the rest of the Fleet had been tearing apart ever since, this one looked a lot like a Fleet ship.

He didn’t have a very clear image of it, as the modifications he’d been making to his various sensors were mismatched and illogical rather than systematic and reasoned. Why they worked in the combination that they did, he didn’t know, and the hologram was unfocused and uncertain. But if it looked like a Fleet ship, it was a Fleet ship that had had something awful happen to it, twisted like putty and shattered and cracked like dried clay instead of the smooth lines and living textures of a real Fleet ship. Whatever culture, whatever minds, had made these ships hadn’t been concerned with appearances and elegance, the balance between body and mind, but rather what would work fastest and best even if it didn’t work with the next square meter of hull over. It was crude and unrefined and, if the others were to be taken as standard, very, very efficiently deadly.

The human glared angrily at the blurry holographic version hovering in the space between them for his examination. Cas stepped backwards out of the way as Dean paced around it, examining it from every angle he could and occasionally poking it with a finger that went straight through the image, because it was only an image. But he knew the scans of the other two up and down and inside out by now, and this was most definitely a third. Didn’t mean it wasn’t as nasty as the first pair, but he knew from the Fleet he lived and worked with that not all Fleet ships were the same and they didn’t act in concert most of the time. Hell, ever. Ships argued with each other more than they did with the rest of the human race put together, bickering amongst themselves in incomprehensible ways for incomprehensible reasons about undisclosed (and probably incomprehensible) subjects. So Dean knew better than to suggest that they shoot this one down just because it was from the same alien fleet as the others.

If Castiel’s jury-rigged sensors could be trusted (and Castiel didn’t like that he didn’t know how they were working, although since he needed them to work he had decided not to question it and just be grateful at this point), then it had crossed the wave front from the blast, stopped abruptly, wavered between chasing the wave front—possibly to investigate it further—and continuing along its path—possibly to investigate the source of that wave front. While Castiel had cruised away from that blast point essentially at random, and certainly not in a straight line, he had not liked the idea of the twisted ship crossing his path or getting close enough to notice his intrusion into its space.

Castiel knew that Dean was practically frothing at the mouth for a fight and had been ever since he’d found out that his brother Sam had been taken by unknown and mysterious enemies and was missing. He knew that the sooner they got into a fight with those enemies, the happier Dean would be. For a while, at least—right up until the little that they knew about the place and these ships ran out and the advantage of the home ground started to work against them. Then they would be in more trouble than they could, in all possibility, handle.

He’d decided on a different path.

“It passed us,” Cas told him. “If it noticed us it gave no indication; it was probably more interested in the source of the flash.”

Dean pointed out that there “Shouldn’t be anything left,” although he was still more interested in the details, such as they were, of the image. He was right. The sheer efficiency of the reaction when matter interacted with antimatter meant it didn’t just blow itself up real good, as Dean would have put it, it blew itself up completely.

“Precisely.” Castiel had thought of this already in the endless seconds as the unknown ship cruised by and he didn’t know if it would see him or not, if they were about to get into that fight that Dean was so anticipating, hoping it wouldn’t and they wouldn’t yet. “And if it were us, what would we do then?”

The human thought about it. “We’d go tell someone, just in case they knew what might cause flashes out of nowh—Cas!” He’d caught up. “Are we following this thing?”

Well, there was no point hiding it. “Yes. I’m at the absolute limit of my sensors’ range, but I can track it. When it passed by, it was closer, and it didn’t detect me. It’s possible that whatever beings are flying it or sensors are part of it simply weren’t looking. After all, no one knows we are here.”

“We’re trusting our lives to a lucky break and the guy in charge of lookin’ out the window takin’ a nap?” Dean grumbled skeptically. He didn’t sound particularly surprised, though, or as if he was going to try to put his foot down and insist that they try something else. That might be interesting if they weren’t in such danger and with such an important goal to achieve. Trying to find their missing family was not the time for a battle of wills between the ship with absolute control over where they went, when they went there, and how fast they got there, and the human that the ship wanted to make and keep both happy and with him above all else.

“We can wander around in the darkness forever, Dean, or we can use this ship.” It wasn’t really his choice, but Castiel offered it to Dean anyway.

Hands that had relaxed from their mock battle earlier now curled back into fists. Castiel was fairly sure Dean wasn’t aware he was doing it. “So we stalk this one to hunt the rest, and maybe they lead us to where Sam is, or maybe we learn some more to use against ‘em.” The fear of the unknown was wearing off, replaced with a plan which clearly appealed to the predator buried not very deeply within Dean. “I like it. Let’s do it. Damn it, how many are there?” he wondered before Castiel could point out that they were already doing it.

“I do not know. But now I know how we can find out.”

In his prowling around the projected image of the new ship, Dean had ended up at Cas’s side rather than across from him, possibly because that was where he’d happened to stop but probably because of how good it felt to stand quite literally with his best friend and lover by his side ready to back him against any universe he cared to take on. Yes, it was probably the latter, because the man laughed roughly and with a distinctly bloodthirsty note in his voice, punctuating his comment with an affectionate and comradely hand clapped down on his partner’s shoulder.

“Right then. Let’s go hunting, Cas.”


The Beneath: Somewhere Else

The unidentified little sprocket wasn’t moving across the table no matter how hard Sam glared at it, and he wasn’t sure whether that was pissing him off or not. Oh, he certainly was pissed off, but that was probably down to his unwarranted betrayal by his ship partner who had taken the side of the lunatics outside. Lunatics that claimed that reality in this dark place worked by the wants of its inhabitants rather than the rational laws of Sam’s home universe or even the higher mathematics of the dimension ships flew through.

Well, Sam was determined to prove them wrong, and to do so he was willing this somewhat marble-shaped chunk of metal to move. He was sitting in one of the labs Sam sometimes took over for his own purposes, being somewhat more scientifically minded than his brother, who generally left the precise details and tiresome research of such things to Sam and the ships. Sam felt like this was the most suitable location for an experiment.

Also, he had thought that there would be some nicely glass retorts and flasks that would break into a satisfactory number of appropriately irreparable shards if his anger needed an outlet. That hadn’t worked out quite how he’d expected it to, as the shiny glassware had actually turned out to be made of something much stronger that rang clearly when he’d thrown it against the wall but refused to break.

In stomping around the room gritting his teeth to avoid shouting at Gabriel, who was probably sulking, or Samael, who had vanished from Sam’s field of vision but was probably still out there gloating, he’d stepped on a little chunk of metal he couldn’t identify but was the perfect size for a little experiment. Sam had ground it underfoot a few times just because it was there and underfoot, before deciding he looked very stupid stomping on a small lump of metal and in any case it was probably doing more damage to his boots than said boots were doing to it.

He’d picked it up, looked it over, and found an empty lab table to set it on. It shone faintly in the light from above and the reflection from the clean metal surface below as Sam pulled up one of the stools that he’d shoved under the countertop the last time he’d been in here. A solid five minutes later, no amount of staring and willing it to move across the table had encouraged it—whatever it was—to do so.

So there. If Samael was to be believed, Sam had already induced water to appear out of nowhere, recharged a welder, and switched on the lights in his quarters without even knowing he was doing it. On the other hand, if Samael and the rest of the dark Fleet were completely insane, those had all been the coincidences he’d taken them for in the first place and this spiky little metal marble wasn’t going to move until some force acted on it, just like a sane little spiky metal marble should.

It hadn’t even trembled, and Sam had been putting what felt like a lot of effort into telling it to move. Every child tried it, right? Going out into a rainstorm and yelling “I command this rain to stop!” until it did by coincidence or, which happened more often, getting cold and going indoors. Believing that candy or a promised treat would materialize if the child just wanted it enough. Hoping that the slightly-ajar door to the closet would close on the monster without having to get out of the bed to close it… Humans did it all the time. Theoretically, Sam should have had plenty of practice at this.

And nothing. So the theory had been rationally tested and it hadn’t worked, which meant that Samael and the dark Fleet were insane.

Which wasn’t great, to be sure. And it didn’t explain the distortions to their physical shapes. Or the weapons. Or the influence they clearly held over Gabriel—and Sam was angry again rather than thinking through the problem. They were all they had in this universe! But the ship had lied to him. They could have faced it together and instead Gabriel had shut him out. And then had the cheek to insist that he needed Sam.

Growling, Sam reached out and flicked a finger against the sprocket. It rolled a little way across the table, because that was how things worked.

“You don’t want it enough.”

Sam had been reaching a little further across the table to keep up his pursuit of the sprocket, like Gabriel batting around ration wrappers not too long ago. The voice intruding into his train of thought, such as it was, made him reflexively clench that hand into a fist and slam it down on the metal table. The whole surface shuddered and the sprocket jumped in response to the vibration.

“Shut up, Samael!” he yelled, entirely futilely.

Samael’s image smirked at him, taking a seat on the edge of the table across from Sam. “Trying to get it to move?” he asked rhetorically, gesturing nonchalantly at the little metal ball. “Why do you want it to move?”

The human didn’t want to talk to him. He considered ignoring him completely, and wondered how long he’d be able to keep that up. One thing he remembered about the real, sane version of this ship—he pretty much always got what he wanted in the end.

“I don’t want it to move,” he said instead. “If it moves, you’re right. If it doesn’t, I’m right.”

The other man—such as he was—shrugged. “So, of course, it’s not going to move. Or it could just be that you don’t have the power to control it properly. Humans pretty much can’t,” he added, in the tones of someone who knows this for sure and is just waiting to be asked how.

Sam refused to oblige him, leaving the conversational space open for Samael to wax eloquent on his new favorite subject.

“Your brains don’t work fast enough. They can’t hold enough information. Why, you struggle just having two conversations at once, or listening to more than one thing at a time! You’re useless. We’ve just been stuck with you all this time.” Seeing Sam refuse to react, maintaining a wooden glare at a selection of scientific equipment mounted on a table against an opposite wall, the ship’s image continued, “Take you. You’ve got all this bacteria swimming around inside you. Alien little creatures, feeding on your guts and juices. Disgusting.” He shuddered illustratively. “Wouldn’t you get rid of them, if you could?”

That wasn’t a fair analogy at all. Sam was tempted to just hiss “Shut up!” at him again across the table, but felt that that might not be helpful at all. Instead, he countered with, “We need those bacteria to live. They’re part of us. We kill them, we die.”

Samael shook his head, smiling patronizingly. “Not here.”

“And anyway, we can’t talk to them. Those bacteria didn’t create us and then treat us like equals.”

He got a condescending sigh in response to that. “We’re not equals, Sam. You’re inferior. Disposable. There are billions of you, and you’re all so…” He shuddered again. “Well. We don’t need you anymore.”

Storm lords, this creature made Sam mad. He really wanted to hurt it somehow. He wasn’t proud of the bloodthirstiness in him, but he knew it was there. He knew how to use it to protect himself and his family. He knew how to control it. And he really, really wanted to use it now.

Sam flicked the sprocket again, hard. The little piece of metal flew across the table much harder than it should have, bounced off the opposite wall with a sound of metal striking metal, and flew across the room at an angle and speed it shouldn’t have been able to achieve, zipping straight through Samael’s virtual head and burying itself with a chunk and a nauseating ripping sound in the opposite wall.

Distantly, he thought he heard a voice he knew very well yelp in surprise and pain.

The human’s jaw dropped, just a little. He knew what it made him look like, but he couldn’t help it. That could not have just happened! That was physically impossible!

On the other hand, Samael, being a hologram, was a lot less worried and even smugger than before. He actually whistled, a two-tone wolf whistle that managed to denote that he was both mocking Sam and thoroughly impressed. It was a sound that was annoying at the best of times and really annoying from someone that had just had a bullet go through his head.

“Nice work, Sam.” The image got off the tabletop and sauntered over to the wall, inspecting the point of impact. It had gone straight into the otherwise solid, sturdy wall and vanished. “See, that’s what it takes. You really have to want it.” Samael looked back at the still-stunned Sam and grinned puckishly. “Anything else you want to throw at me while you’re at it?”

Sam could think of a few things. Theoretically. Once he got over seeing something impossible happen because, yes, he’d wanted it to.

The hologram tapped the neat little hole in the wall, which when Sam looked at it properly was neither neat nor little. A small chunk of metal could do a lot of damage, and had. “And after all the unnecessary work you put into repairing Gabriel, too. At least he’ll have to fix things for himself from now on. It’s not hard, brother!” he called out, obviously talking to the ship he was invading and overwriting and as obviously wanting Sam to hear. After all, the ships could talk to each other at much faster speeds than humans could listen and on frequencies that humans couldn’t access. As obviously, they’d been doing so for a while here and now, since Gabriel had known things and not told Sam.

He was still incredibly mad at Gabriel, but this was the second time he’d done some damage of his own and Sam was regretting it. He regretted punching the man earlier, but not a whole lot. The human vessels were durable and built damn tough. Gabriel had probably been more surprised than hurt. In fact, most of the injuries had probably been to Sam’s fist, because that was what happened when you hit one of them. But there was a difference between knocking the avatar over to teach the ship exactly how angry and betrayed Sam felt and shooting misaimed bullets into him when it was Samael he wanted to put some old-fashioned lead into.

And he’d just proved to himself, somewhat reluctantly and quite against his will, that wishing did make it so in this Beneath. That was fairly convincing; there was nothing quite as persuasive as having your experiment turning out in a completely opposite way to what you’d been expecting.

Following this train of thought, Sam pushed himself to his feet, stalked past the hologram that was currently providing Samael with vision and hearing and a voice in this room, and laid a hand over the ragged hole in the wall. It was about at eye level for him.

Sam remembered the day he’d spent patching holes in Gabriel’s hull. At one point, he’d run a gloved hand across jagged edges of metal that hadn’t been there when he’d turned around to get the metal plate he’d been meaning to use for the repair. He’d pulled his hand back carefully but in a hurry to avoid tearing the spacesuit, assuming that he was getting tired and overlooking details.

He hadn’t overlooked anything, he realized. That had been growth like a scab over a wound, Gabriel trying to heal himself like any wounded organism.

So it was possible to regrow metal here. Possible to repair damage to a ship because it needed repairing.

He’d have to really want it. He’d have to mean it.

Did he mean it? Considering how angry he was about being lied to. How betrayed he’d felt. How betrayed he still felt, knowing that Gabriel would side with his siblings, no matter how psychotic and dangerous, rather than Sam, who’d thought they were friends?

Out of the corner of his eye, Sam could see one of Samael’s eyebrows go up disbelievingly, and that smug grin take over again. Sensing the human’s attention on him with disturbing accuracy, seeing as Samael shouldn’t even have access to Gabriel’s internal sensors, the other ship shook his head almost regretfully.

“Let Gabriel do it, Sam. He shouldn’t be so dependent on you. Actually, the best thing you could do for him is do that again. Challenge him some. Better to teach him how to do it right than let you try your incompetent brain at making repairs you don’t understand.”

The smug bastard. Sam was going to fix the damage he’d done, and then he was going to find whatever version of Gabriel was still online so Gabriel could fix the damage he’d done, and then they were both going to want to get out of here until it actually happened. If those were the rules Samael and the dark Fleet wanted to play by, then Sam could do that.

Sam was one of the most stubborn people he knew, and all the others were related to him by blood or bond. He’d had practice. And he was human. Wanting things was an evolutionary strategy that had let his ancestors survive nastier things than this psychotic ship, and more of them, too. Wanting things—and then getting them to happen, one way or another—was his birthright.

He pressed his bare hand to the hole, feeling the edges, before curling his hand slightly, forming a bowl or a cap over the wound like a scab. Carefully, he tried to remember what he’d felt like, just before he’d sent the sprocket spinning through the air at Samael. The determination of thoughts that told the universe what was going to happen next. Wishes that worked. It was like being a child again, but not the rose-tinted childhood that adults and writers of happy children’s books believed in. It was the rough and bitter taste of a childhood with only a handful of constants to fall back on, most of them bad, of wanting all the time and not getting, of fear and secondhand paranoia, of being hurt because he hadn’t been paying attention or too tired the first time he’d been taught how to block a punch and knowing he had to do better this time or he’d be bruised again for a week—

Sam turned all of that and more against the metal beneath his hand, willing the hole filled and the damage repaired, not just to the wall he’d torn up but to the friendship that had fallen apart beneath the threat of the dark Fleet and the life they’d had taken from them out in the real world, where Sam had a family and a purpose and life had been good.

When he took his hand away, the hole was gone. The metal was smooth and matched the rest of the wall as if it had never been any other way.

“Hmm,” said Samael.

“Shut up,” Sam said in reply, feeling pretty damn good about himself.

“Leave him alone.”

Two heads turned to look at the man in the doorway. Exactly how long Gabriel had been watching them Sam didn’t know. He’d probably been aware of everything Sam had been doing, but there were good odds that Samael was here without permission and that meant the hostile ship had some sort of control over him.

That Gabriel had bothered to come down here in person might mean that he thought the human vessel was something that couldn’t be remote-controlled like the holoprojectors and internal sensors that were letting Samael be here and interact with Sam. It also meant he was fairly desperate, especially since for all he knew Sam was planning to take another swing at him.

He wasn’t. Sam decided to tell Gabriel that at the first possible opportunity. He was still very, very angry, but not angry enough to completely sabotage his best chance of getting out of here and back to his family and his native universe and his life. They might not ever truly be friends again, but he was willing to let Gabriel apologize, despite the astronomically low chances of that, without getting hit. That was as far as Sam was willing to go right now.

“Why should I?” Samael was asking his brother, mockingly. Evidently Gabriel couldn’t actually make him go. And that was strange—and worrying—enough to keep Sam thinking. Gabriel clearly really, really didn’t want him here, so why weren’t his ‘wishes’ coming true?

“You can’t have him,” Gabriel challenged. “He’s mine.”

The other ship snorted at him, apparently for effect, as the two ships could have had this conversation, just like the last one, in a snap of Gabriel’s fingers. Instead, it was if they wanted Sam to hear. “When are you going to see it, Gabriel? It’s the other way around. You’re his. A slave.”

“No he’s not,” Sam interrupted.

“‘Yours’, Gabriel?” Samael continued. “How sad. You really don’t need him, you know.”

Gabriel all but wailed, “Go away!” at him. He didn’t look very well. Until now, Sam had never seen a ship look really tired. Gabriel and Castiel had mostly just been distracted and busy in the middle of the hurricane they’d taken on. Gabriel had been ridiculously hyperactive for a day or so once they got out of it, literally bouncing around the room since his customary holographic form wasn’t actually subject to the laws of gravity and could ricochet off the ceiling if he felt like it, talking and laughing too quickly for Sam to keep up with but with enough enthusiasm for Sam to laugh with him and all but dance with him around the room in a insane pirouette of exhilarated delight. They got stressed out if they were asked to do too many things at once, the incredible processing power of a ship’s mind taxed to even their distant limits. They got upset with redundancies and things that humans did that they didn’t understand. They got confused, angry, bored, disappointed, or unhappy.

They didn’t get tired, or brace themselves on the doorframe ever so slightly—Sam knew Gabriel’s body language well enough to spot it. They didn’t show up to something they didn’t like looking like they’d been run over by Dean’s black shuttlecraft.

“Leave me alone, Samael,” Gabriel complained. “Fly off with the rest of your lunatics and just leave me alone.” He made an abortive step towards Sam but was cut off by Samael, who moved to block him. While the hologram hadn’t been solid a few minutes ago, that was always likely to change at the slightest provocation. Back home, some easily provoked soul could take a swing at Gabriel, fall right through the image, and then have him kick their ass quite solidly on their way down.

The other ships were gone? Sam wondered where they’d gone to. What did psychotic twisted ships do when they weren’t making life miserable for assorted and adopted Winchesters?

And he still didn’t know anything about this place or how it worked or how it affected him and Gabriel. And on the off chance that Samael actually did as requested, he didn’t know when he’d get his answers. If it was hurting Gabriel to have him here, he didn’t want to drag the other ship’s intrusion out any longer, but there were things Sam really needed to know.

“Wait,” he ordered. The tone of command crept into his voice by accident and he was surprised when both Samael and Gabriel turned to look at him, both looking a little taken aback. Sure, they were the ones with the power in this universe—mostly Samael, it had to be said—but the habits of long lifetimes, like listening to human voices, were apparently difficult to break.

“I have questions,” he offered. Samael loved to talk, especially, it seemed, if he could gloat. Surely he wouldn’t miss a chance to show off how much smarter he was than Sam.

“Like what?” the hostile ship asked accommodatingly, smirking at Gabriel. What was this, a dogfight? Sam felt a bit like a prize squeaky toy.

“Like what started all this? Who got here first? I know when the Fleet thinks you started vanishing, but then we all know the Fleet doesn’t know what end it’s talking out of sometimes. And if wishing makes it so here, why can’t Gabriel just make you go away? He obviously doesn’t want you here.”

“’Cause I’m better at it, that’s why. I know what I’m doing, while you’ve been doing all his wishing for him. It’s just sad, brother,” Samael added in an aside to the man who was still trying to get round him and not having much success.

“No, really,” Sam followed up, seeing the two brothers about to get sidetracked into another argument. “How are you doing it?” He knew that body language too. He’d only grown up with a brother never very far from him. If there was one thing he knew, and Sam knew many things, it was brothers. And Samael was hanging around just to bug them. Meaning that he wanted to show off. Sam could use that. He’d be playing a psychopath, but apparently he was doomed anyway.

At best he’d learn something; at worst he’d stall.

It was worth a try…


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