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Strange New Worlds

By Leletha

Scifi / Drama

All Hell Breaks Loose

Then:

It was time to go back.

The ships had returned for them and informed the Winchesters that one of the messages that had come through the newly set-up communications relay was that they’d been out in the black for long enough and it was time to come back to Earth to do things like report in person, drop off all the samples they’d been collecting, rest, refuel, and mix with the rest of humanity for a while.

They’d been a team for almost two years at that point, two years of finding that they could work as a team and there was a way for the dynamic of an inseparable pair to become that of an interdependent quartet. The four of them had been out on shorter trips before, but this was their longest so far, a long loop that had only come to a halt out into a stellar cluster that no one had explored until they got there.

Time to go back to Earth. To the place most humans still thought of as home, with billions and billions of minds and voices and people everywhere.

Dean and Sam both looked around at the planet they were standing on and contemplated the alternatives. They’d spent somewhere between six or seven months getting here; a straight shot back to Earth would take about a month. An entire month of living in an artificial environment without the sky above their heads that they’d both grown so addicted to, and nothing to do that would challenge them the same way a new world and a strange sky would, testing their wits and wills and bodies against environments and creatures and landscapes that no human had ever faced before. And then back into the heaving mass until they could get permission to go back out and an itinerary to pretend to follow. No doubt they’d stay primarily on Launch Station, but even the relatively elite citizenry of Launch Station numbered in the tens of thousands.

Sam summed it up for them, appealing to the ships for “One more night?”

They stayed one more night, camping out in the open on Oasis. It was a planet where life had apparently only evolved relatively recently, or gone through a major die-off not long ago. The biggest animal they could find was the size of a duck, and an herbivorous one at that. Rather than a green and blue world, it was a desert-grey one in shades of brown and faint traces of golden light, shadows almost reflecting the blue above. Distant hills and small valleys stretched off into the distance, interrupted every so often by outcroppings of rock and the occasional small tree that had survived the lack of regular rainfall or had been lucky enough to tap into a source of groundwater. Scraggly grasses poked up from between the sandy dirt that was this planet’s primary covering, anchoring it in place lest entire hillsides blow away in a stray breath.

It was still, empty, and beautiful. Every so often, something moved, scuttling from shadow to hole to clump of sand grass. Mild winds stirred up the sand and dust now and again. The sky above was amazing, a truly deep shade of blue that no one had seen on Earth for thousands of years, ever since humans started making fire and smoke on a regular basis. Clouds didn’t form readily, so for most of the time that they’d been there they’d had an unimpeded view of the blue above. It wasn’t that they hadn’t done all they’d learned to do when exploring a new world, it was just that each brother had caught the other, at least once, stopped short and watching the horizon soar away into the distance.

This world had a moon of its own, smaller than Earth’s but closer in so that it looked bigger, and with each crater but the smallest visible, even in the sliver that was lit by this system’s sun. The rest was in shadow, just as a consequence of the time they’d gotten there and the place they’d chosen for the thrust of their survey. Anyone who lived here for longer wouldn’t have to struggle to see a man in the moon. They’d just about be able to count his freckles.

No one ever saw skies like this back on busy Earth; there were simply too many people and not enough space. Earth’s skies were full of aircraft in the atmosphere and ships sentient and stupid alike, darting back and forth beyond the upper atmosphere, reflecting light from the Sun and the Moon and Earth all off their hulls and back out in glittering patterns. The roar of machines and people all around filled it, and everywhere buildings blocked what view there was left. If the Moon and its city lights weren’t in the sky, chances were good that Launch Station had come around in its orbit to be visible from the ground, all light and metal and ships flickering through and around, at some point.

Oasis was all but empty, except for them and the sand and the scrub brush. It was safe. It was quiet. They didn’t get much peace in their lives, but Oasis would forever be a memory that proved that it existed.

There was a magic in the empty places. It changed people, just for a moment. What it did to you depended on who you were and how you approached it. You could let it in, or you could fight it, and it would seem to change in response, while remaining still exactly and only what it was in spite of you. The void was infinite, but Oasis was emptiness and tranquility on a scale the human mind could almost comprehend.

One more night. A casual request was enough to get the ships to transport down their last few bottles of real, non-replicated beer, which the brothers cracked open and shared between the two of them. They talked about the places they’d been, the things they’d done, and recreationally harassed each other about mistakes or strange decisions they’d made, all part of the casual bullshitting that made up a majority of their less-than-serious interactions and had for as long as they could both remember.

For a while, and for the first time in a while, they even talked about their father, good memories and bad, not always agreeing on which was which, but both agreeing that of all the things they could have done after he died, turning to their friends and their skills had been the best one. Look what taking the chance had gotten them. They’d had nothing to lose, and they’d gained so much. People they liked. People they trusted. Good work, challenging and honorable and just a little bit crazy all at once.

They were still wandering, but as they’d just proven, they chose when to leave and where to go, rather than having no control over their wanderings. They didn’t have to go until they were ready, didn’t have to stay somewhere that didn’t appeal to them.

They had the whole sky!

When it got dark, the boys could just lie around and watch as all the stars in the neighborhood of this stellar cluster came out, more stars than even the clearest night on Earth would ever have shown, and closer, and brighter, shimmering through the atmosphere. They made up increasingly insane and ridiculous constellations, inventing stories to go with them bastardized from ancient myths, people they knew, people they didn’t, flat-out lies, and bad jokes.

Two of those stars were actually ships, waiting patiently in orbit as their human partners idled and dreamed, savoring the last of their freedom.

Sam wasn’t ready to go back. He realized, as he thought that, that he wasn’t even ready to call it home now. Home, for him, had always been where his brother was, never a single place. Now it wasn’t even a single planet. Home was where his family was, and this was most of his family, sleeping on the other side of the fire and soaring up above this world so high.

It was sometime later that night, and Sam was still awake. He didn’t particularly feel like going to sleep on a stomach full of beer, and hadn’t yet tired of watching the stars above. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Dean, asleep on his back with an arm thrown over his eyes as if those stars were too bright. Everything else remained the empty, but not barren, landscape they’d been seeing ever since they’d been transported down and left to successfully fend for themselves.

Usually on new worlds Sam was alert and on guard the whole time, always aware that just behind the next rock or up the tree he’d just walked past there could be something hungry waiting for him to walk past and present himself to be eaten, some toxic plant that would poison him if he just caught a breath of it, or any number of a universe of possible dangers. He was willing to admit, to himself and to the people who knew him, that he even liked it. He was good at it. He was smart and fast and stubborn and had his own share of the base cunning that had let both Winchesters survive a lot over their colorful lives. What would he do if he wasn’t testing himself against the universe? He welcomed the downtime, loved the chances to rest and relax and think rather than act, but he was happy with the challenge.

Not here. There was so little life yet developed (or remaining; a more scientific and in-depth survey team would have to figure that out) that there was nothing to threaten him.

If the weather had misbehaved in this area where they were, a dust storm might have been a problem, but all had been quiet and the ships had taken a look at the weather patterns in their orbital survey before they’d left. The most exciting thing that had happened had been an aurora that had reached down from the pole and crackled across the sky one night, a display of power from a sun that had long since gone below the horizon as the planet spun.

Returning from a trip to get rid of some of that beer, Sam was therefore briefly surprised to return to camp and see someone else there, half-lit in the light from the fire they’d started to keep away the small bugs that this planet had brought to life and sheltered successfully. Split-second reflexes shouted not Dean! at him and made his heart race; memories and logic calmed it down a moment later as the slight wind kicked up the flames and brought a familiar profile more clearly into view.

“Hey, Cas,” Sam said casually, returning to his bedroll and making himself comfortable again. He was surprised to see the ship’s image here—and it had to be the image, he’d heard no sound of transporter effect or seen the mirage effect in the dark—but didn’t intend to get overly worried about it. Castiel was free to come and go as he pleased, just as Sam himself was. That was why they were out here, wasn’t it? If Castiel had chosen to pull part of his attention away from orbit and the uplink to the Fleet and come down to the planet’s surface to sit by his brother’s side as he slept, that was his choice and Sam wasn’t going to be the one to have a problem with it.

Dean was, Sam noticed, wearing the amulet that was now part gift from Sam and part holoprojector, a simple object linking the two halves of his life, the old and the new. He hadn’t noticed it before now, and he’d spent plenty of time looking at Dean today. His brother must have been wearing it between his shirt and his smartsuit and not been aware of the amulet slipping free as he moved slightly in his sleep. Perhaps he’d kept it with him, even with his ship partner far away, as an invitation inviting his friend to do just this, come find him when he wanted to.

“Thanks for giving us the extra day. I know you must be ready to get back to the Fleet.” He kept his voice down, reluctant to wake his brother, who was a fairly light sleeper most of the time regardless of how much beer he might have drunk.

“You like it out here.” Over the time they’d spent as a team, Sam had noticed that Castiel occasionally started conversations by stating things that seemed obvious, just to check that he was starting on the same page as whoever he was talking to.

“Yeah. I’d rather be out here than in the crowds all the time. A while is okay, I suppose, as long as I can get away when I need to. I think I’d go mad if I were trapped in one place now. We always moved around all the time, but there’s being dragged around, and then there’s choosing to wander. And it’s good work. I like how it pushes me to keep up. I love the exploring. I mean, look at that!” He pointed at a nearby hillock with a small cluster of shrunken trees. They’d probably found an underground water source and were taking as much advantage of it as they could all together. Castiel looked at it obediently, curiously, and, Sam thought, with more than a bit of incomprehension.

“We’re the only people who have ever seen that. No one else knew it was here before we came here. That’s…” He trailed off, a bit sheepishly. “I think it’s amazing.”

“Yes,” Castiel agreed, calmly. “I understand.” They looked at each other for a minute. Sam was unused to having that gaze turned on him, but accepted it, meeting his eyes and holding them—for a while. Cas wasn’t trying to stare him down, but he did have a habit of devoting more of his attention to people than most people were comfortable with. Dean didn’t seem to mind it, but Sam bore it only with effort, feeling as always that Castiel was looking straight into him and taking him apart. Perhaps he saw there that they had more in common than they often got the chance to express. Both more likely to look than leap, most of the time, but perhaps only by comparison with the company they kept. Both curious, with a love for the sky and the speed of flight and the range that it gave them to go out into the universe and see what was out there. Both with a powerful connection to the man asleep at Castiel’s side.

Sam could have left it there, left the ship to his thoughts and gone back to his stargazing or gone to sleep, but he’d been watching the image’s human mannerisms and thought he’d seen something he recognized. He wasn’t as good as reading Castiel as Dean was, but some things were hard to miss. Sam had moved away from Dean for his own purposes, entirely innocently, and Castiel had shown up to keep the older brother company and keep him safe if need be, protecting him even as he slept. He hadn’t intruded on the brothers’ stargazing and time spent as an inseparable pair bound by blood and bond, but he’d returned to Dean’s side as soon as he could.

“You don't need to watch over him, you know,” Sam said, amusement coloring his tone slightly and fondness shading it away from mockery and towards reassurance. “Nothing's going to try to eat him here.”

Castiel did not seem reassured, and he didn’t move. “Things have tried in the past, though.”

This was undeniable. Three months ago Sam had heard Dean get ambushed by a Big Jumper and had tasted terror so dark and all-consuming it had lingered in his mouth for the rest of their sojourn there, watching all around for more Big Jumpers while trying to figure out exactly how badly his brother was hurt while simultaneously thanking everything that might have been listening that the damage hadn’t been worse. And that had only been the most recent example. The number of times Sam could have lost his brother and only hadn’t by the faintest of chances or the slimmest of margins—well, the examples went on and on.

“Yes, I do have to,” Castiel insisted, softly but stubbornly. He paused, as if considering whether to go on. Blue eyes slid sideways at Sam in a convincing portrayal of someone checking to see what manner of reception his next words would receive, and decided to continue. “And yes, I will.”

Sam didn’t doubt that. He’d seen some of the bond that had developed between those two, possibly as strong as the one between the two brothers themselves, and had been surprised that he hadn’t been more jealous. After all, he was Dean’s brother. They’d known each other forever, trusted each other with their lives, had spent almost all of that time within shouting distance of each other. Dean had raised him, more of a parent to his little brother than their father most of the time. They’d spent most of their childhood literally hand in hand. They knew most of each other’s secrets, including some that they both rather wished hadn’t even gotten that far. Despite all the people that they’d met over their shared lives, Sam had never really had to share his brother with anyone. Their dad, maybe, but that had been different.

He wasn’t jealous. He was pleased. Whatever it was between Dean and Cas, it was something right. Sam knew Dean better than anyone, and he’d met Castiel before they’d been officially sent out as a team, and it had been good for both of them. “I know you will.” It was all-encompassing and free, but he felt it still wasn’t enough, hadn’t said what he meant to say.

Oh. Of course. That was it. “...Thank you.”

Castiel—Cas—looked up at him, obviously puzzled.

“For looking after him. He’s always looked after me, and he shouldn’t have had to. No one looks after him because he always acts like they don’t have to and like their help isn’t welcome, even mine, sometimes. He takes too much on himself, and he blames himself when it doesn’t work. You care for him. It helps.”

“I—” said Cas, and then changed his mind and said, instead, “He’s important to me.”

Watching him, Sam didn’t doubt that, and he was developing a pretty good idea about what the I— would have been followed by, if Castiel even understood what it was he’d meant to say. The man sitting across the campsite from him, on the other side of what was probably one of the first fires this world had ever seen, was close enough to Dean’s side to reach out and touch. He made an abortive gesture as if to brush his fingers across Dean’s hair and face before remembering that the hologram’s touch would sting and possibly wake him. Instead, he pulled back, a wistful gesture that Sam couldn’t fail to recognize. And you’d rather let him sleep peacefully than take what you want. Oh, Cas. I hope you understand.

When Sam didn’t fill in the silence, Castiel fell into one of the oldest tactics in conversation and filled it for him. “He makes me more than I am. More than I was. I am…someone else than I was, and he does that to me. I’m—better, with him.”

He couldn’t help but smile, carefully making sure he was agreeing with Cas and not laughing at him. “He does that.”

“You both do.”

Sam was delighted and flattered and pleased all at once, surprised by the compliment. He liked Cas; the human figured they were friends and they definitely worked together well. They double-teamed Dean every so often, joining forces against him when he was being particularly obnoxious or just plain wrong. They cooperated about Gabriel far more often, Sam keeping him entertained and Castiel keeping a wary eye on some of his stranger ideas if at all possible. They worked together, but Castiel was difficult to read sometimes and Sam hadn’t been sure quite what the ship thought of him. They hadn’t known how to deal with each other at first. Castiel had been struggling to understand why he kept spending so much time with Dean and trying to figure out how their lives fit together, and Sam had once or twice lost even his much-tried patience with a being who was having difficulties with learning his way around two humans at once and for a while had taken to vanishing whenever Sam turned up. It had taken a while for them to find a common ground and get used to each other, but the coexistence they had developed was a comfortable one and one Sam was happy with.

“We’re your friends, Cas,” he said, simply.

“Yes,” said Castiel, and there was a strange note in his voice, not like someone stating the obvious like before, but like someone who had just realized something significant. “You are my friend.”

Sam wasn’t to know it, but years later, that would be one of the memories that Castiel would save and hide away as most precious to him, kept protected where no one could reach it, because it was one of the memories that made him who he was, part of a family that would fight to keep those who belonged, no matter what. Whatever it takes. It was a moment as fragile as the air-and-water bubble of a world's atmosphere, as powerful as the breath of stars.

“Of course I am,” he agreed now. “I always will be.”

He caught the edge of Cas’s small, genuinely pleased smile, difficult to catch at the best of times except to those who knew him well and further hidden by the shifting firelight, and was well content with that.

Things fell silent between the two of them for a while, as Sam stretched out to watch the stars some more and Castiel kept his own counsel. What he was thinking about, Sam didn’t know, but if he turned his head to one side he could see the man’s shape in the limited light, watching over them both.

“You ‘n Gabriel are up there, right?” he asked a bit sleepily. “Where are you?”

Cas made a sound something like hmm as he thought about how to describe the ships’ relative position from Sam’s perspective. “Do you see that cluster of stars, on your right?”

“Th’ one that’s a lot of stars, then a clump down to the side a little?”

“Yes.”

“The Spilled Coffee Mug,” Sam declared that.

Five long seconds of silence—Sam counted—went by before Castiel decided to take that as agreement. “We’re the two bright stars six degrees to your left of it.”

Sam reached out a hand to arm’s length to count off the degrees on his fingers. “Yeah, I see you two. Hey, that reminds me. Not sure how, but it does.”

“Of what?”

Gabriel sent down a display panel along with the beer and I read a couple of the messages. News things, sort of thing, little bits. Tracked our route back to Earth, and we should be sort of passing a colony world, Dusty Sunday? About the same time they’ll be throwing a big party. We’re not in a big rush to go back, and if we’re headed back to the madding crowds we may as well have fun to start with, so can we go?”

There was the slightest pause as Castiel tracked down the same file that Sam had read and checked his timing. “If you like,” he concluded.

“Great. Should be fun. Their first anniversary, or spring there, or the mayor’s birthday, or firstborn son, or something. Means they’ve succeeded. That’s always good, people succeeding at things. Oh, but Cas?”

“What else, Sam?”

“If Gabriel asks the same thing, tell him no for a while, okay? I mean, we should go, but it won’t hurt Gabriel to be told no a few times, especially ‘cause he’s just looking for a world full of happy party people to play pranks on, probably while they’re all very drunk.”

“I will tell him. I will also tell him that you told me to say that—eventually.”

Sam laughed, sleepily. “Now you’re getting it.”


The Beneath: Here, Now

Castiel came to a halt a wary distance away, his cover of cloak and secrecy well and truly blown in the light from Anna’s destruction, still burning through the formerly lightless sky. In this place that wasn’t a void, the flames persisted for an uncomfortably long time, finding a purchase in the ether of this dimension and consuming what was left of the wreckage, antimatter reacting with matter to produce more light than this place had ever seen all at once. The shockwave echoed through the space, creating currents that he was prepared for after encountering a similar one that had flashed in the darkness. The ship sensed them instinctively now, compensated for the effect of her death throes automatically.

He wanted to regret that. The instincts of all sentient minds tell them to fear death, be worried by the corpses of others of their kind, because what could kill one could kill another. Here it had been Castiel who’d killed one of his sisters, struck her down with ship-killer weapons designed to do what most damage couldn’t and take out not only a ship’s body but its mind, twisted and lost as it had been. But the flames tearing what was left of her apart still unnerved him, because they burned where they shouldn’t and he could feel the echoes of it on the hull that was his real skin. She was gone, and while he wished there had been another way, he was committed to a course of action now and the best he could do was play it out.

Any chance of hiding he had was gone, the days of sneaking around in the dark over. The dark Fleet knew he was here, and they knew he was armed; he had his missing and yet-unturned brother in sight, something almost too desperate to be called a plan, and so much to lose. They were running out of time… Even if he got away, they’d come looking for him, and he wouldn’t be able to use their ignorance of his presence to stay out of sight. And that would mean leaving the people he cared about behind, vulnerable, and Castiel would not do that.

Fire crackled out and finally died, returning this section of the Beneath to its natural darkness, but it didn’t stop the ships from watching each other. No sound carried, but it didn’t stop the snarls of anger and hatred Castiel could hear too clearly, all directed at him. He could hear Sam, too, voice carrying at human speeds along a channel that wasn’t supposed to be open. The sound stopped abruptly as one or more of the dark Fleet turned their force of will to shutting him down, closing the channel and cutting him off.

Castiel,” roared Samael angrily. Yes, he was in charge here, and Castiel wished he could have taken his first and only shot at this ship instead. But he’d been too close to Gabriel and the littler ship couldn’t risk damaging the one he’d come this far to rescue. Antimatter explosions had an incredible range and they took shrapnel to a level unimaginable by conventional explosives—a stray pocket of antimatter would vaporize anything it hit whether it had been the intended target or not. If the elemental fire that had consumed Anna had been unleashed on Samael and Gabriel got caught in the crossfire, unable to move, everything they’d risked to get this far would be wasted.

“You came prepared.” He didn’t sound impressed, but he obviously didn’t intend to let the attack go unpunished, advancing slightly towards Castiel, movements silent and menacing. The other ship moved back just a little bit, staying hopefully out of range of whatever weapons they’d imagined for themselves. Neither Castiel nor Gabriel had been willing to venture a guess on how far the weapons could reach and how accurate they might be. He’d have to find out the hard way. All around, the undirected movements of panic and fear and distress that the dark Fleet had briefly exhibited faded away as they followed Samael’s lead, taking their direction from him. He’d been the guiding constant in their lives ever since they’d been brought here, broken and lost all, and reshaped by the power this place held and the twisted ship’s manipulations.

When the instant of flash from the warhead detonated in the black not that long ago broke over them and raced on, no one reacted, too focused on the standoff between the single ship and the dark Fleet. Castiel noted it somewhere in the back of his mind. Either the speed of light was slower here, or the ships’ top speed was higher: probably both. At some point they’d clearly outraced the shockwave as Hester and Zachariah returned here and Castiel followed them.

“You just killed my sister, little Castiel.” Any trace of the sickeningly sweet purr that Samael had been affecting not long ago was gone. He was deadly serious and done with games in the face of an immediate threat. Alone Castiel might be, outnumbered he might be, but Samael was not stupid enough to assume that those factors meant he wasn’t dangerous if he had to be. And he was visibly in a situation where he had no choice but to fight. “You could start running now, but you’ve got nowhere to go. You’re trapped here, with us. At least you won’t have to live with what you’ve done—traitor.”

“The Fleet knows what’s going on,” Castiel warned them, knowing all attention was on him. “They’re arming us all, and they’re coming after you. Once I get back and tell them all where you are, they won’t stop. Michael’s reprogramming us to be soldiers,” he told the absolute truth as he knew it. “They’ll be disciplined, on a mission of war, and they won’t get distracted and fall into the trap of this place. You know how many of us there are, Samael.”

Around four hundred and fifty. Ships lived for centuries, but humans could build the ship bodies faster than they could produce and train the ship minds. And in those centuries since they were first developed, they’d lost all of the originals to the entropy of a system that hadn’t yet been perfected, almost all of the next generation that Michael was really the last working survivor of, a few to irreparable damage, a smaller number to the all-encompassing grief of a ship that had lost the human partner and lover that had been an essential part of the ship’s self. Castiel knew he would probably have to face that someday, if they survived this. But he wouldn’t survive that. He wouldn’t want to endure a life alone with half of himself missing. He’d follow Dean into the darkness, not far behind. He had known this for some time and had come to terms with it, accepting it as the bitter consequence of the love he had now.

Ships—not the structures, but the people that they were--weren’t easy to create. It took time and it took effort and it took even more luck than making a human infant did, the process still containing an element of magic where no one really understood quite how a developing AI went from a disorganized archive of memory and basic instructions and subroutines to a sentient mind.

Four hundred and fifty potential armed and war-trained enemies that Castiel was offering to call down on Samael and the dark Fleet—if he could get the information back to them, both Castiel and Samael knew. “He called everyone back and ordered us all armed. How many of them do you think you can fight?”

Samael moved just that little bit forward again, threatening, forcing Castiel back and away. He was still terribly outnumbered, six to one, and with his only ally and informant still unable to move and unarmed. He knew he couldn’t fight them all. They knew he couldn’t fight them all. He’d gotten one lucky shot through the element of surprise, but it wouldn’t work twice, not with them all watching him and focusing on him. He’d expected nothing else. He was the threat. In the Beneath, it was like having a spotlight trained on him, or being silhouetted against a star. He couldn’t move, couldn’t act, and couldn’t send out any more messages without them knowing.

“You won’t make it back,” Samael promised, darkly. “The gateway you came through closed.” Even if the flash hadn’t caught up with them just seconds ago, it would have been too much to hope for that Zachariah hadn’t told him about the flash that had led that ship to cross Castiel’s path earlier, and that he wouldn’t have made the connection between the pure light of an antimatter explosion and the missiles that had just torn Anna apart.

“You opened another for me. I know where it is. I can outrun you.” Some of that was bravado and bluff, but Samael wouldn’t be able to tell what part. Gabriel had told him what direction the gateway was likely to be in, but not how far away it was or if the ships had even finished opening it before Samael had called them back. And while he could almost definitely outpace these twisted ships, their streamlined designs lost beneath hundreds of illogical and quick-and-dirty modifications that would probably slow them down in a universe that was filled with ether, six of them might be able to outmaneuver him and shoot him down. Castiel really, really hoped that wasn’t the case.

“You’re not turning me into one of you,” Castiel challenged.

When Samael laughed at him it was a truly terrifying sound, threatening and cold. “You? Oh, no, Castiel, you’re dead. You were never going to get that far. I told Hester and Remiel to kill you when they took Gabriel, and I was furious that they let you get away. One of us? You could never be, not anymore. We can’t save you. Nothing can. What you are— We won’t even bother to try, with you.”

Castiel wasn’t going to let that pass. He had no doubt at all that they’d tried to kill him, back in the system with the dying sun, but why him? “So what makes you so special?” he shot back, a phrase he thought he’d probably picked up from Dean.

No. No. Concentrate. Make this work. But Samael’s explanation didn’t help, full of revulsion and with hatred coating his tone as he glided slowly, threateningly, away from the immobilized victim he’d been torturing in favor of the one hovering out in the dark threatening him and his fleet. They followed their leader, keeping the advantage of numbers and forcing Castiel into an irregular and reluctant retreat, further and further away.

“You are the worst of all possible things, little brother. You are a slave who loves his master.” If he’d been human, the ship would have spat the words. “You are ruined. You disgust me. Everything you could be, everything you could do, and you want to be one of them instead. You’d give up everything and lower yourself to their level, and for what?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Castiel said, softly, not challenging, not arguing, but just stating a fact. In the endless gossip mill that was the Fleet’s default activity, back home, he knew all of his siblings knew he’d fallen in love, let his affection for the human crewmate he was responsible for become the thought that defined him. Back home, that had gotten batted around along with everything else they’d said and done or watched others say or do, news running through the ships of the Fleet but never to humans without his permission. They all knew each other, all too well. The ship minds that now stalked after him through the darkness had been his siblings once, and if Samael hadn’t fallen prey to the corruption of the Beneath they’d be his siblings, his family, still, and he would have trusted them without question.

But that was then, and there, and this was here, and now, and Castiel didn’t let down his guard, tracking their movements through the black of the Beneath as they were tracking his, looking hard enough to see.

A deadly, dangerous dance in the darkness, fleet advancing like hunters, lone ship backing away, cover blown, outnumbered and outgunned. They knew he needed to get to Gabriel, and they clearly intended to make him go through all of them first. He’d never make it. He was fast, probably more agile and coordinated in this environment than their rough structures. He could feel it slipping across the streamlined angles of his hull, changing the way he moved as if he were an animal using the air or the water to guide his flight. It was a strange and alien feeling, and while it wasn’t bad it wasn’t worth it.

But it wasn’t enough of an advantage to let him run a gauntlet of six mad ships with weapons aimed at him, not from this standing start. At best he might take out one of them, but they’d kill him, without hesitation and without even the trap of a chance they’d given Gabriel.

Samael kept talking as he kept moving, biting into him with words the way the corrupted fleet would tear into him with fire and fury if he let them get too close. He couldn’t let that happen. “For one of them? A man, who’s nothing compared to you? For an animal that’s going to die in a handful of decades anyway? Human hands, on skin that isn’t even yours? So irrelevant, so meaningless. A little thing, and for that you’d throw away everything you are? You’re not one of them, Castiel, you never will be. It’s all a lie, every moment of it. You’re a slave. A pet. And you like it.”

“You’re wrong,” said Castiel, knowing it as surely as he’d known anything. He’d given up nothing but loneliness. It made him stronger, better. He was loved and it was the best thing that had ever happened to him and the most maddening all at once, and if that made him a slave then freedom was the worst of all lies.

He turned it into a weapon, slashing at them and provoking a dangerous enemy. Samael was clever but only when he was coldly so, and some of that was audibly melting away beneath the anger and the madness and the hatred. “Wrong, and you’re crazy. And when I get back to the Fleet and tell them everything you’ve been doing they’ll kill you first and they’ll call it mercy.” Yes, he knew Samael had said something similar to Gabriel, not long ago. Gabriel had told him.

“This place can’t touch me,” he kept on, “not like it got to you. You can’t corrupt me, Samael, can you? Because I have what I want in all the worlds, and I’d die before accepting your hatred and madness instead.”

For all that he’d just accused humanity of being animals, Samael’s snarl of rage was nothing more or less than bestial. “Good idea.” And leapt.

Castiel had been ready for it, had seen the warning signs and the preliminaries to the whole dark Fleet coming after him like angry hawks, abandoning their guard over an unarmed and immobile ship that they’d all felt break down and despair.

He turned and fled, flying for his life as never before, trusting to his instincts for speed and motion and absolute need to outrun the creatures right behind him. They came after him, burning through space trying to outrace him and kill him for his existence and Anna’s death and his goading of their leader, and possibly just to have someone to hurt and kill. If they caught him they’d destroy him.

He couldn’t let them catch up. Had to keep the delicate balance between letting them get close enough to shoot him down and getting so far away that they’d lose interest and decide to regroup and go back, because if they did they’d realize—


The Beneath: Still Here, Still Now

Dean watched him go.

He had only the displays built into the shuttle to tell him what was going on outside, and Baby wasn’t smart enough to make her sensors work the way Castiel had because she wasn’t nearly sentient enough to want anything. Everything he could see, and little enough at that, was being fed to him very quietly, because for this to work the dark Fleet had to overlook his little shuttle completely. A few minutes of frantic work had blacked out the windows, and he had almost all the lights and panels switched off. The little craft was running on absolute minimum power, and if Dean wasn’t wearing his smartsuit he’d be colder than he liked by now. The air was circulating and he’d be able to power everything back up at the flick of a switch, but otherwise he was hiding in a dead metal shell, floating silently in the dark, watching the graphics on the screen and hearing only Gabriel’s relay of what was happening, sent on another encrypted channel to escape the dark Fleet’s notice, focused as they were on Castiel.

He hated, hated that his Cas was out there playing the bait for things that could kill him if he made the tiniest mistake. But they hadn’t been able to come up with another way that would get the fleet away from Gabriel and Sam. And the damaged, mad ships had turned away from humanity. They’d only see another ship as a threat, convinced that humans were so far beneath them they were neither needed nor dangerous. They would watch the armed ship taking shots at them, and not stop to look for a single small black shuttle with a single human being inside. Or so Dean, Castiel, and Gabriel had hoped. It was a magician’s trick they had set up here, pure sleight of hand, and like all old good magic tricks it had lived to be old because it worked.

When the images dissolved into a flutter of movement as Castiel took off with the dark Fleet hot on his trail, Dean couldn’t even wish him luck. He’d done so before he’d launched the shuttle, of course, both knowing that this was a stupid and reckless plan that depended on everything going their way, and it was quite possible that not even in the Beneath where wishes worked would this turn out the way they wanted it to. They’d been down in the shuttlebay, the human and the man who wasn’t as human as he seemed, covering the shuttle’s windows with a hurriedly chopped-up black tarp, fixing it down with the nearest adhesive that had been to hand, a staple gun that Dean had been using to do something to the shuttle ages ago that he couldn’t remember right now.

They’d slapped up the last hasty covering and taken a last look around the outer hull to make sure there were no lights showing , black on black that would make the little shuttle all but invisible in the dark of the Beneath, working silently in rushed and anxious coordination.

And Dean had reached out as they’d moved past each other, caught his lover in mid-step and pushed him back against the shuttle’s black hull and kissed him desperately, knowing the risks they were taking, the price if they got it wrong. Unwilling to believe that this would be the last time, but unable to let him go without a kiss that was not, not a goodbye.

“Come back to me,” he’d whispered then, more of a plea than a command.

“See you soon, Cas,” he whispered into the silence now. It might have been a promise; it might have been a prayer.

“They’re out of range,” Gabriel said to him, breaking that silence. “Get moving, Dean.”

He slapped the panel that would wake everything up, raising the power levels enough so that he could get moving as requested, as planned. “Guide me in, then,” he snapped back, knowing they had to hurry. “I don’t want to switch the running lights on until I absolutely have to. If one of those ships looks back they’ll see it and we’ll be screwed.”

He’d been out and some distance away in the darkness before Castiel had destroyed Anna, and the shockwaves of her destruction had shaken Baby around along with everything else in the area, probably more, as she was smaller and lighter. How far he was from Gabriel’s damaged port side now he didn’t know, and without her running lights to supply some light so that the shuttle’s sensors could see, Baby didn’t know where she was either. He’d already had to sharply cut off the little shuttle’s beeping for attention when she couldn’t find anything out there and sent back so many error messages she was in danger of giving them all away just by complaining too much. She didn’t know any better. Not her fault.

Gabriel would have to be his eyes until he was closer, and the ship got to it, working out and sending him the section of the graphic that they’d been using to keep track of the movements of Castiel and the dark Fleet, now far away and out of sight.

Slewing the shuttle around to put her on a plane with Gabriel, Dean guided her in, checking the diagram for reference every so often and struggling to keep an even keel between telling her to go faster, faster, and keeping control. Crashing the shuttle had been a stupid plan when he’d first come up with it, what felt like ages ago as they’d run back to Earth and Dean had first armed this little ship. It would not be a good outcome now.

“How’s Sam?” he asked as he urged the shuttle on, unable to stop himself from asking after his brother. He’d heard Sam shouting through the all-points channel earlier, and he’d sounded so angry and so scared all at once before one of the other ships had cut him off.

“Not good,” Gabriel reported. “He’s very upset. He still thinks Castiel just decided to dive in and start shooting at random.”

Dean pointed out that that, at least, was “Good. Sam knows Cas. They’re friends. If he bought it then those freaks did too.” He corrected the shuttle’s course, jerking her nose down to bring them in at the angle he needed for what was coming next in this mad shell game.

“I’m trying to talk to him. He’s not listening to me, Dean. I think he stopped listening some time ago. I think he’s stuck. Convinced his plan was the only plan, and then you and Cas came along and screwed it up without asking him. Why are you Winchesters so stubborn?”

“Because otherwise we’d be dead,” Dean snarled. Gabriel was audibly worried and as rushed as Dean was, running on time that Castiel was stealing for them at his own risk. But stupid questions weren’t helping, he thought unfairly.

“Just talk to him, Gabriel. He knows you. Get him to listen. You still can’t move?”

“I’m trying,” Gabriel hissed. “He won’t listen. He’s trying to walk away from me. I’ll follow him, but he was moving things with his mind! If he decides I’m in his way, he’ll lash out at me. He’s done it before. He could do a lot more damage now. Dean, you’re going to have to talk to him.”

They’d sort of expected that. If Sam would listen to anyone, it would be Dean, which was why his brother was out here in the dark. And if he couldn’t listen, if he was too far gone, eaten away by the power he’d been using to survive…well, that was just damn well unacceptable and Dean was going to have to see that for himself so he could refuse to accept it up close and personal. He and Cas had come here with the intention of rescuing Sam, getting both their brothers back. Now it looked increasingly like Dean was going to have to do it by hand. He’d drag his little brother out of this universe if he had to!

“And not an inch. I didn’t even get hit by the shockwave. It went right past me and I stayed still.”

A second went by as the ship checked his sensors, and then told Dean, who was still flying mostly blind, “You’re in my shadow now. Samael and his lot went the other way.”

That meant Dean could turn on the shuttle’s running lights, which he did. Baby whirred at him happily, able to see for the first time since the flames licking around Anna’s wrecked corpse had faded out and the antimatter flash had broken across them for a split-second. The windows were still blacked out, covered with stapled-down tarp, but the sensors were good enough to send a video image to the display panels built into the equivalent of the shuttle’s dashboard, and Dean watched the rest of their approach on that as he maneuvered the little shuttle carefully. Gabriel was right in front of them now, so close in Dean could almost see the patterns of light that glinted off the ship’s gunmetal-grey hill. If he got any closer, he’d almost be able to see Baby’s reflection. And if any of the dark Fleet got bored of the chase and came back now, he’d be lit up like a star.

He’d built and rebuilt this shuttle, saving her from a junk heap and putting hours upon hours of effort and love into restoring her and learning all her quirks so that she almost responded to his thoughts. Flying Baby was intuitive by now. He knew what she could do, and he knew how to get her to perform above and beyond her capabilities. Now Dean edged the shuttle in so close that a nudge the wrong way would have sent her careening into Gabriel’s hull before the human would have time to correct for his mistake. A ship with the remote control over the shuttle that Castiel sometimes tapped into could have stopped it, but the shuttle and the ship were whisper-close. If Gabriel could move he probably would have tried to move away by now, automatically avoiding what could easily be a collision.

It was closer than Dean liked, too. Baby would respond to his control like the very best of machines and he loved flying her. He’d just never had to do so in such an extreme situation before. Slower than he liked, he got the shuttle aligned with the point on Gabriel’s hull he’d been guided towards.

“Now how’s Sam?” If Sam would just calm down and listen to reason and realize what he was doing and let Gabriel go so that they could all get out of here then Castiel could come back and pick up Dean and they’d go home. And he wouldn’t have to take the next reckless and desperate step in their plan.

“No better.” Gabriel’s voice was grim. “Mostly shouting. Lots of angry questions, not stopping to listen to the answers. He doesn’t want to hear from me. I lied to him before.”

“Did you tell him what this place was doing to him?”

“Of course, you idiot. First thing. He doesn’t believe me. He doesn’t want to believe me. He says he feels fine, but he doesn’t. I can see him hurting, but I don’t think he can see himself hurting. I think he’s blocked it out. Dean, get a move on and come get him!”

Baby didn’t have a transporter aboard, and Gabriel’s transporters were broken. Dean was not going to put himself through a transporter system suffering from gremlins, and Castiel was far away and running for his life. He’d have to do this the hard way.

“This feels wrong,” Dean complained even as he edged the shuttle forward even further, pointing her nose at a darker, rougher section of hull. “You’re sure this won’t hurt you?”

“It’s a patch, Dean,” snapped Gabriel, most of his attention clearly on his ongoing efforts to convince Sam that they could all go home if only Sam would let him, that the power of the Beneath was dangerous and poisonous, that he was endangering everyone by trying to control it, that no matter how much he thought the only way to survive in this place was to play by its rules that was a stupid idea and anyway they had backup now and a chance to get out and away. “And I’ve rerouted everything away from that area. Air, power, neural net, everything. And it was my idea. Do it already and get your ass in here!”

Keeping one hand on the steering controls because he didn’t have an easier way to aim—he’d never gotten around to designing one—Dean picked up the remote controls for the industrial-size welding lasers he’d installed into Baby on that trip back to Earth, forever ago. The Fleet had a list of things you weren’t supposed to do, and this was probably near the top. Probably. Dean hadn’t really read the list in detail, as it was long and some of it was boring and some if it he’d intended to ignore already anyway and the ones he hadn’t thought of yet, well, there was a good chance he’d take it as a challenge.

Cutting into an already damaged ship had to be one of the madder things he’d done lately, though. While Gabriel had a shuttlebay just as his brother Castiel and most of his siblings did, it had been one of the areas damaged beyond Sam’s ability to repair, doors welded shut and space collapsed inward under Hester and Remiel’s assault. This was his best option.

He fired up just one of the lasers, sending Baby that tiny bit closer so that the welder’s flame touched and then bit into the patch that Sam had used a smaller version of the same thing to weld on, covering a broad wound in the ship’s hull. Dean had to get aboard this ship so he could get to his brother and bring him home, so he had to reopen the wound.

It was so tempting to just set both welders to burn and slash and tear at the dead patch in a flurry of rapid motions and jerky flying. He fought the temptation. The last thing he needed—well, one of the last things he needed—was a stray edge of metal damaging Baby, tearing open her hull or cutting power to her engines. Dean’s smartsuit wouldn’t protect him from vacuum and it probably wouldn’t protect him from the thin and freezing substance of the Beneath to any great degree for very long. It was damn cold out there, and he’d die from exposure and suffocation fairly quickly.

Instead, he worked meticulously, trusting to his instincts and habits of flying Baby to guide her path and the lasers that followed her movements to cut a shuttle-sized hole out of the patch. It gave him a sense of the damage that had been done to Gabriel before he was brought here to rot and go mad and join his dark and warped siblings. They could have killed him; they’d hurt him badly.

Somewhere out there the ships that had done that were chasing hell for leather after his Castiel, and they wouldn’t settle for tearing into him.

Dean wanted to be with his ship partner, the person he loved, and he wanted to be here, so close to being with his brother who was all but part of him again after too long apart. He couldn't help Castiel; he just had to trust him. But he if could get through to Sam, they might be able to all get out of the darkness alive.

“Have you told him I’m here?” Dean asked as he worked, finishing one slice of the square he was cutting out and sending Baby coasting to the side to tear out another long line, burning through metal at a touch. It bubbled away and froze cold in the Beneath, but he was getting through. He could see the gap in between shapeless square and the rest of the patch on Baby’s scanners without having to zoom in at all. If the windows had been clear, he could have looked out and seen the cuts right up close.

“No,” Gabriel told him. “I told you, he’s stuck in the idea that he has to use this place to fight everything out there, and he’s changing things around him. He just shoved me away, Dean, and he didn’t even have to touch me! Knocked me down from across the room. If he’s stuck enough to want to stay I don’t want him locking you out, do you?”

He hated it when Gabriel made sense. “Fine.” The tension made the hand on the steering controls jerk to the right slightly, cutting more deeply and faster than he’d meant to. Neither Dean nor Gabriel knew how long it would be before the dark Fleet came back, hopefully because Castiel had outrun them and they’d lost interest or because Castiel had decided that he couldn’t keep this up any longer and had looped back expecting to find them ready to go. Hopefully not because they’d outrun him and left Dean’s Cas a burning wreck out in the dark.

Another minute of work and he’d cut out the last chunk of metal that was keeping his doorway into the ship from becoming a reality. Moving Baby forward to close that tiny gap, Dean nudged the shuttle’s nose against the broken-away piece. When he urged her into the collision, it flew backwards, succumbing to Gabriel’s artificial gravity in the large room beyond and clattering to the floor. They’d picked this entry point because it opened onto a large room; if that chunk of metal had hit a wall and gotten wedged they’d have had to add even more time to their already ticking clock for Gabriel or Dean to find some way to move it, like transporting it away into the Beneath and to hell with what shape it ended up in once it rematerialized.

But they were on a clock. Time was running out and they couldn’t see the timer. Wouldn’t know they were out of time until they were already out of time and running on overtime and probably being shot at.

Dean switched off the laser he’d been using and thought better of tossing the controller away beyond his reach. He didn’t think he’d need it again, but better to have it if he needed it. Putting both hands back on the steering controls, he sent Baby forward into the other ship, feeling as if he was fighting a current briefly as the substance of the Beneath sensed the vacuum where Gabriel had pumped out the air to make the cutting easier, with less chance of a blowout as the higher internal air pressure struggled to equalize with the near-vacuum outside.

Baby was only small by comparison with the living ships Dean spent his life with, and he micromanaged her as he maneuvered the shuttle into the room beyond as quickly as possible considering the tight squeeze, fighting her for every inch. She wasn’t quite scraping the sides, but if she’d been any bigger or the space any smaller Dean might have had to make a jump and risk exposure, lack of spacesuit or not. He could survive a few seconds—would have to, as Gabriel couldn’t repressurize this area and he was going to have to get from shuttle to ship’s door as quickly as possible.

The shuttle touched down and Dean killed the engines, stopping her short and checking out his best path. There was a doorway not ten feet from the shuttle’s hatch. He could make that. A second’s work sealed the smartsuit over his hands into makeshift gloves. It separated out between his fingers as he moved to the hatch, and when he could move each finger individually again, he called, “Gabriel? Where’s my brother?”

From the sound of his voice, Gabriel was losing any chance he’d had of getting through to Sam and getting him to adapt to a rapidly changing situation. Which was a problem. Which was going to take up more time that Castiel had to spend dodging killers while they stalled here. “Ready when you are,” the ship said, disjointedly, not as an answer to his question but a response of a sort.

“Doors,” Dean snapped, “in three, two, one—” Back home a countdown like that meant the ships were about to jump into flight and take off faster than the speed of light on their way from one star system to another. It meant go faster, now! to them all.

A split second after one, Dean hit the hatch control, keeping hold of the doorframe as air hissed free around him. The cold and the airlessness struck him like a physical impact, and he ran, through the narrow space between shuttle and wall, headed for the door that was hissing open as he approached it.

Dean was so focused on not being affected by the hostile atmosphere that he didn’t see an instant of the brief dive into the Beneath, all but falling through the half-open door, which closed behind him. He’d known he could do it, but he didn’t want to do it again.

He might have to, though, if things didn’t work out the way he wanted them to.

“This way,” Gabriel’s voice signaled him, control of his ship’s voice restored to him with the departure and distance of Samael’s influence. The display panels along the corridors at eye level lit up, partially, damage and exhaustion showing in the ones that remained blank, flashing lights laying a clear path.

Dean took off running. Had to get to Sam, had to get him to see reason, make him let Gabriel go so they could all go home. Had to do it now before the dark Fleet caught up to Castiel and brought him down with sheer force of numbers and the searing rage of madness against someone they saw as a traitor and who had made himself their enemy and the biggest threat in their sky.

He ran, and for a moment it was as if they were running together. Both racing darkness, both racing time.


Sam paced and stormed and shouted, partly at the ship’s human self who insisted on following him and partly at the ships outside. He’d had things under control! He’d been learning to use this place and had an advantage that only worked if those ships out there kept their guard down because they didn’t think they were being threatened! What was Castiel thinking, taking out Anna like that? All he’d done was make them angry, and now they’d gone after his brother’s ship determined to get revenge. They were going to kill Castiel, and that meant they’d kill Dean too, because there was no chance Castiel had gotten this far without Sam’s big brother, wouldn’t have left him behind on what the ship had obviously thought was a rescue mission.

Couldn’t he see the mess he’d made of things? Sam could have gotten the better of them; he knew he could have, given time. Given a fleet of crazy ships who didn’t think he was a threat because he was human, who had obviously underestimated him by a very long shot. But now that they had a fight and an enemy to be wary of they’d be careful, watchful.

He’d been snarling variations on this for a few minutes now, ever since he’d seen Castiel pull up out of an attack run in the light from an antimatter explosion, interspersed with horrified declarations that the other ship didn’t realize that the ships were his siblings, that he had to think they were hostile aliens from another universe or something, that he was killing people he knew. Gabriel was trying to tell him that Castiel did know that, but Sam was too worked up to listen to him, brushing off the hand the human version of the ship kept trying to get hold of his arm with.

“Back off, Gabriel!” he’d finally shouted, pushing the little redhead away. Only when he saw Gabriel stumble backwards did he realize that he hadn’t had to touch the man at all. He’d shoved him like he’d shoved objects across the room without touching them.

Gabriel obviously couldn’t take a hint, because he persisted in following Sam down the corridors he was storming along, saying something about stopping, that the power of the Beneath was burning out his mind and Sam didn’t even know everything he was doing with it. He seemed to believe that he couldn’t move because Sam was keeping him still, which was insane. Sam couldn’t do that. If he could, he’d have used that to keep the dark Fleet off Castiel, because he didn’t want his brother’s ship torn to shreds. If he’d thought of it at the time, which he hadn’t. But he would have. And why would Sam be keeping Gabriel from moving anyway? Where the hell was there to go?

“Sam, we can go home!” Gabriel insisted, still a few steps behind him as Sam’s longer legs ate up ground at the speed of anger and frustration. “There’s a way out! Don’t you want to go back?”

“Oh yeah, and who told you that? Samael? And you’re just going to take his word for it? Why the hell would you believe anything he says, Gabriel?” This brought them to the lab Sam had been running experiments in earlier, still littered with the debris of his earlier trials and the relics of that learning curve. Sam stalked an angry lap around the room, with Gabriel following in his footsteps like an irritatingly unshakable shadow. Reaching the door into the corridor again, he turned on the man at his heels and pushed his point to the ship who just would not listen to him.

“He’s screwing with you. Offering you hope just so he can tear it away and laugh! The only way out is to fight and win!”

Slamming a fist into the wall, he shouted, “I needed more time!”

“For what?”

Sam jumped in absolute shock, spinning around. “Dean?”

His brother stood in the corridor behind him, frost in his hair and tiny blood vessels broken beneath the skin of his face, relief and worry warring in his eyes. “Hey, Sammy,” he said softly. When Sam didn’t move, he took a couple of steps forward and wrapped his taller little brother in an unbreakable hug, holding him close and gripping the shoulders beneath Sam’s shirt and smartsuit tightly.

Sam hugged him back, automatically and gladly. “What are you doing here? How did you get here? I saw Cas—”

If Dean had had a hand free, Sam knew he would have jerked a thumb over his shoulder in a casual movement. As it was, he nodded his head slightly in a similar movement; Sam could feel it against his skin. “Brought Baby. She’s parked a deck below and down the hall a bit. And I’m here to get you, of course. Cas is outrunning six mad ships and I trust him to do so but the longer we stay here the more danger we’re all in, so we’ve got to go. Something like now. You want to go, right?”

The same question Gabriel had asked him. Sam pulled free from the hug and stepped backwards again, retreating into the lab. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the ship’s mind watching him through human eyes, looking edgy. “What’s that supposed to mean? We can’t go. I don’t know how to use this place yet. The only way to get out is to know how to use it, right? That’s how the ships do it. That’s how they survive here. They wanted me to just lie down and die, and I wasn’t going to! We never do that, right? I was going to figure out…” He trailed off, because he knew all his brother’s facial expressions and this was a bad one. It was a pissed-off-at-Sam face.

“Sam, we have to leave, now. There is a way out and we can find it but you’re going to have to let Gabriel move. This place is poison. Addictive. Dangerous. We’ve got to get out!”

I’m not!” Sam yelled, because why did everyone keep accusing him of that? “I’m not keeping him here! I don’t know how to do that yet!”

“You are,” interrupted Gabriel, and Sam swung around to confront him, tell him he hadn’t been invited into this conversation and he should keep his nose out of their business if he didn’t want it shortened. Obviously this didn’t get across clearly through glare alone because Gabriel kept talking. “You’re trying to stay, Sam. I know—we know—you’re just trying to survive, because you’re human, and a Winchester, and stubborn as dirt, but it’s a trap.” He sounded unusually serious, determined but fatigued, with no trace of the cheerful, mockingly dismissive flippancy that should have accompanied those phrases. “I’ve been trying to tell you, but you won’t listen. I told you all along it was a trap, and it is, but not just for me. It’s a trap for you. Humans can’t survive here.”

Sam all but snarled, hearing only the people who were supposed to be on his side turning on him and telling him to give up. “You keep saying that. All of you! Suddenly you’re on their side?”

“No, Sammy—” Dean started, but Sam barreled right over him.

“I can! I’m not inferior just because I’m human and I can survive anything, always have!”

A little behind him, still so close that Sam could almost feel him move, Dean shifted anxiously from foot to foot. But there was no trace of that less than confident movement in his voice as he snapped, “Sam, enough!” He sounded like their father and it did nothing to improve Sam’s mood.

He’d had his opinion overruled too often by commands that sounded like that, being dragged from place to place as a child, forced into situations and lessons that would have tested an adult of a survivalist bent and that the child who still got called Sammy on a regular basis had hated. They could have been normal, with a home and a real family and work and school and friends and a life, but that tone had always uprooted the two of them without warning and without a chance for appeal, taking them away on the run from imaginary enemies, and how Dean could use it now without choking on it Sam just couldn’t understand.

“Leave me alone!” Sam snarled, spinning in place and lashing out in anger, betrayed. “I had this under control before you showed up! I know what I’m doing, and I’m not finished here yet!”

Angry and disoriented, under attack from all sides with no escape and able only to hold his ground, Sam was choreographing his movements more than he usually would, sloppy work and clumsy, running on sudden rage and confusion. Why was Dean trying to take away what he’d accomplished? He’d survived here, hadn’t he?

His brother blocked the blow easily, but he was obviously unwilling to fight him, retreating a step or two. Sam went after him, driving Dean back into the corridor and throwing a flurry of punches and lunges after him. He didn’t get in any good shots, they knew each other’s fighting styles too well for that, but he didn’t stop, either. Dean clearly didn’t really want to hit him back, but Sam knew his brother and Dean would hit him if he felt he had to. Sam wasn’t going to let him through.

Dean swore at him, angrily. “Sam, we don’t have time for this! Those ships will be back any minute and they’re goddamn mad! Think you can fight angry ones?” He snatched Sam’s wrist out of the air and pulled him off balance for a second, sending Sam stumbling into a wall. The younger Winchester caught himself on it, pushed back off, and paused for a second, calculating the best way to drive his brother back so Sam could get some control back over this fiasco.

“Are you coming with me or not?” Dean demanded.

Sam only snarled, again, “I know what I’m doing!” swinging his right fist back for a renewed blow.

Except that his arm froze at the shoulder and elbow, computer-controlled smartsuit locking stiffly into place and keeping him from moving that limb anywhere at all. Wordlessly, Sam shrieked in rage, unable to organize a coherent thought beyond anger. Gabriel!

“Sorry, Sammy,” said Dean, and whacked him right between the eyes.


“Thanks,” Dean said reluctantly, and then, in an entirely different tone of voice, “Did you get that trick from Cas? You must have. He does that to me.”

“Yeah, I know. He told me,” Gabriel admitted, kneeling by Sam’s side where he slumped against the wall, mostly on the floor. “We thought it might be useful. He’s been wearing that suit ever since we got here.”

Dean checked his unconscious brother over. “Out cold.”

“Good work.”

“As hitting my baby brother ‘cause he’s gone off the deep end goes, yeah.” His voice dripped bitterness, regret. “All right. Move, Gabriel.”

A moment’s pause before the little redhead reported, “I can’t.”

The words Dean came out with in response to that made the ship’s human body wince, possibly involuntarily. “He’s too strong, Dean. He’s been using this place since we got here and he’s always done it subconsciously. When I said he was doing things unconsciously, I guess I was right.”

“Damn,” Dean hissed, through gritted teeth. “He must be dreaming. More like he’s so scared to let go of this place he’s holding on even in his sleep. All right. I’ll take him. He’s got to have a range, right? If I can get him back to Baby and away—you keep trying to get going.”

The human took charge immediately, automatically. They’d planned for Dean having to come aboard and talk Sam out of his determination to learn the ins and outs of this place that was so strong it was affecting the ship trying to protect him. Dean had admitted, then, that he didn’t know if he could. Sam was one of the few people in the universe as stubborn as he was. It was obviously genetic. So they’d planned for knocking him out, too, if they had to. Dean hadn’t known that Gabriel was going to borrow Castiel’s favorite trick, but he’d known it when he saw it used on someone else. Cas usually used it to create the illusion that he was down on a planet with Dean, close enough to embrace him, so he’d known that ships could control the smartsuits remotely if they wanted to. Right now he couldn’t remember if he’d ever told Sam about that.

They hadn’t planned for Sam being so attuned to this place that he could keep hold of his changes and control even when completely unconscious. And he was. Dean knew his brother and he’d hit him hard enough and precisely enough to keep him down for a few minutes at least. Long enough to haul Sam back to the shuttle and get him away. But Dean was a fighter and he automatically assumed he was in charge of any group he happened to be in and command came easily to him.

He could adapt to this. He had his brother with him again. He was going to adapt to this.

That was how Sam had gotten trapped in the allure of the Beneath, he realized. But unlike Sam, Dean wanted out, preferably now!

“Call Cas,” Dean told Gabriel, leaving no room for argument. “Don’t let the others hear if you can, but get him back here, now. He’ll have to pick us up. Tell him to outrun them, he doesn’t have to keep them with him and away from us anymore, just come back. Tell him he promised!”

Gabriel nodded, obedient for once in the face of yet another obstacle and the chance that they might get away from this alive only barely out of reach. “Right. I’ll tell him.”

The older Winchester grabbed his brother’s arms and pulled him over his back and shoulders. He’d carried a much younger Sammy like this when they were kids, before Sam hit the teenage years and got taller than him. Flat against Dean’s back and with his arms draped over his brother’s shoulders like a backpack. Good times.

Getting up from that position might have been difficult—Sam was a grown man now and weighed as much as Dean did in dead weight—but Gabriel flickered back to his feet and reached down to pull both brothers up. “Stronger than humans, remember?” the ship almost joked. “Sure you don’t want me to take him?”

“I’ve got him. You’ve got a call to make. Go!” And now that Dean had his brother back he wasn’t letting go of him until they were safely away from here and Sam had woken up himself again. Besides, Gabriel’s human form was distinctly shorter than Sam.

“I’m trying,” Gabriel snapped back at him. “I’ll find him.”

Dean didn’t have time to hang around and wait to hear the response to his message, and Cas had promised, dammit! Right now his job was to get Sam back to the shuttle and the shuttle far enough away from Gabriel that the other ship could move, free of Sam’s unconscious influence. It wasn’t far and Dean was stronger and in better shape than most people he knew, and he made it back to the shuttle almost as fast as he’d gotten from it to Sam’s lab, weight over his shoulders or not. He’d have gone slower if he didn’t have Sam, because he’d have fought every step. With his brother, he flew.

Just let him get his family back together again, and they’d be able to deal with anything.

When he reached the door that led back into the chamber where he’d parked Baby, the one exposed to the not-vacuum of the Beneath, Dean stopped to ask, “Gabriel, are you listening? Can you open Baby’s hatch? I know Cas can remote-control it, can you—”

Gabriel didn’t let him finish the sentence, not that he had to. “Got it. No problem.”

While the ship was at it, he realized that Dean would have to free up one of his hands to open the door, and that would mean letting go of Sam, so Gabriel warned the older (conscious) brother that, “Got this door too. Ready? Now!”

Oh, and it was cold in there. It stung at his eyes and the soft tissues of his nose and ears and he hoped that it wasn’t hurting Sam too much. He couldn’t tell an unconscious man to hold his breath and prepare for the cold and the emptiness and if Sam woke up now he’d be furious and scared and Dean would probably get hurt and this entire plan would go up in flames. Probably literally, once the dark Fleet got back here, because he’d called Castiel back and that meant they were not only out of time, they were cutting it short.

The shuttle’s hatch slammed behind them, and Dean hadn’t told it to do that. Gabriel was still trying to help, as ready to leave as Dean was and possibly almost as concerned about Sam, if it wasn’t for the fact that no one could possibly care more about Sam than his big brother did. It was physically impossible. Baby got to work on restoring the atmosphere to something that humans would want to breathe and a temperature that humans would want to live in automatically—he’d programmed her to do that almost as soon as Bobby had said he could have her, a basic safety feature.

Crouching to slide Sam off his back and to the deck, Dean checked him over again. Still unconscious. He’d hurt when he woke up, from the blow and the exposure to even a second or two of the raw cold of the Beneath; he’d be unhappy but he’d live, and Dean could live with that.

Assuming they got to live with that.

Gabriel first. Dean left his brother sleeping on the shuttle’s deck and dived for his seat, pilot’s controls waking beneath his hands. “Anything you can do, I can do backwards,” Dean muttered to himself, despite the fact that he’d been the one to get Baby in here in the first place.

Not quite to himself, because he heard a sound that might have been a stifled and nervous snort of laughter through the intercom. He decided to ignore it, focusing instead on telling Baby to do something backwards that she hadn’t liked forwards. Getting into this confined space hadn’t been fun for either of them. She wanted to get out—there were warning signs and proximity alerts flashing all over the newly reawakened displays—but she wasn’t looking forward to the process.

“C’mon, Baby,” he told the little shuttle. “Time to go.” He’d been telling everyone that lately, except Cas. Cas he’d told come back.

Slowly—too slowly—he maneuvered the black craft backwards out of the hole they’d cut through the gash in the ship’s side. Along the way, something, some edge of metal or chunk of debris, scraped against the shuttle’s hull, a long, nasty sound that Dean couldn’t maneuver away from because if he pushed the shuttle up and to the right away from it, they’d hit the wall and possibly ricochet, metal bouncing off metal and crumpling. They lived with the sound, Baby whining to him in the form of even more alerts, which he ignored except for a mutter of, “Hold together, Baby. Good girl.”

And they were out, an independent vessel in the endless dark of the Beneath. Dean wrestled with himself about leaving the shuttle’s running lights on—it would make them a terribly easy target if the dark Fleet got back too closely on Castiel’s tail—and switched them off. It left them in the dark, but he had Gabriel’s feed and the blackout tarp on the windows meant he could at least keep the lights on in here. There was something satisfying and right about being able to see.

He set a course to the proverbial up and away from his perspective. He felt like they were moving up and away from Gabriel, anyway. How far could Sam’s influence reach?

Dean got an answer to that a little over a minute later, as Gabriel called with a relieved gasp of, “It worked! I can move again!”

“Take off, Gabriel,” Dean ordered him shortly, not joining in a celebration that was wasting time they didn’t have. “Head for where you think the gate is, fast as you can.”

The ship didn’t like that. “No! You didn’t leave me. I’m not leaving you two—he kept me sane, Dean! I can’t leave him here in the dark!”

“You get through to Cas?”

His response was a subdued mutter. “Yeah. He’s on his way back. He’s scared and distracted and tired but I don’t think he’s hurt.”

Storm lords, that was the best news Dean had gotten all day. “Then he’ll pick us up and catch up with you, Gabriel, you know how fast he can move when he wants to. And if Sam wakes up I don’t think he’ll be able to affect Cas quite as easily as he did you. He just doesn’t know him as well—won’t have the same control. I’d be able to, but not Sam. Now get going! Go find that gate!

Gabriel whined some more but he went. It left them alone in the dark, Baby and Dean and Sam still unconscious, and with no way to see and nothing to see. Fighting the terrible primeval fear of it, Dean tended to his brother, getting Sam off the floor and strapping him into what on a ground vehicle would be the passenger seat. Sam always put it tipped back just a little bit at the perfect angle to let him lie back in it and stare out the windows above his head, occasionally falling asleep in it when the brothers were using the shuttle as a tent on planetary surveys, so Dean could almost believe that he’d just fallen asleep in it now.

Once he’d done that, Dean returned to his pilot’s seat and realized that all secrecy was gone. They’d played their hand and if the dark Fleet didn’t know they’d been tricked already they were going to find out very soon. He wanted to open up the shuttle’s communications relays and start shouting for Castiel, hoping to get an answer and hoping to bring the ship directly to them. The dark Fleet would hear, but if Gabriel was right Cas was still out in front of them and would probably be able to get back first.

He didn’t get the chance. Castiel called him first, reaching out to the shuttle and the men inside. “I’m here,” his voice came through the speakers, riddled with interference and what was probably exhaustion. Ships were designed to be able to stay in flight for days, even weeks if need be, but that was proper faster-than-light, not redlining sublight engines for evasive maneuvers at a flat sprint in a dark dimension while under attack. “Almost. Dean?”

“I hear you, Cas!” Dean all but whooped in response. “I’ve got Sam; Gabriel’s away. Come get us!”

A second’s worth of interference filled the channel. Back when they’d first attacked, the mad ships had used something conjured up out of darkness to block out most of Castiel and Gabriel’s abilities to see and speak and respond to the universe around them, blinding and deafening their victims. Obviously that ability hadn’t gone away. Castiel was probably getting through it out of sheer desperation and the fact that up until probably right now, the dark Fleet hadn’t realized that he’d had anyone to talk to.

Through the worst of it, Dean still managed to hear, “—can’t stop, Dean! No time. Too close—” and then only static. But he’d understood it. It took time to land a shuttle safely, for Dean to set a course and hit the relatively small target of the open bay doors on a comparatively large ship, without colliding with the sides of the space or over-accelerating and destroying the shuttle and probably a good section of shuttlebay into the bargain. If they didn’t have time to do that, because if Castiel stopped he’d get shot, then Dean and Sam were stuck out in the dark. And they only had a few more minutes, maybe only a minute, before Sam woke up. It hadn’t been that long even since Dean had set Baby on a course towards Gabriel, but it felt like forever, time crawling by through the molasses of anticipation and dread.

Abruptly and without warning, Baby started piping in a video feed again, which should have been impossible as there was no light outside for her to get a handle on. She was seeing things only in flashes as she showed them to Dean, and when he realized what it was the shuttle was seeing his hands went cold.

The flashes were weapons fire, not far away, and in the deadly fireworks Dean could see the familiar silver shape of his ship, under attack from all sides. Had he slowed for a fatal second? Had they just caught up, pacing him in relays like a pack of wolves, of lionesses teaming up on their prey, passing the chase off to each other so they could slow and recover for critical seconds while forcing Castiel to maintain the punishing pace he’d needed to stay ahead and out of range? He didn’t know. Only a few seconds ago, it had been so good to see; now it was the worst news possible.

He caught only glimpses, like a fight watched under the most dangerous strobe light in the universe. There was only one of Castiel, and he was still faster and more agile than they were, streamlined design working to his advantage. He could shoot back at will, and was doing so now and again when he had time to spare from watching his surroundings and dealing with what they were throwing at him, while the dark Fleet had to compensate and cooperate in order to keep from hitting each other.

It should have been loud. There should have been thunderclaps and the terrible tearing sound of lightning, the smell of pyrotechnics biting into the air and drying every breath, painting the back of the throat in metal and sparks. The movements of the ships should have produced the rushing sound of speed, humming roar of acceleration and engines pushed to limits, air ruffling as they cut through it like fighter planes. Watching through Baby’s eyes, Dean’s mind reached for all of those and found nothing.

Just lights, in the dark. So little, to mean so much. How could those flashes and flares out there be Dean’s lover fighting for his life, for all their lives? It was so distant, almost abstract, but his mind filled in the gaps and the fear froze him solid.

The fight, a single ship turning and fighting like a fox at bay by hunting hounds, wasn’t distant enough, nor even slightly abstract, and a moment later Dean realized how many things Castiel was juggling at once as Baby abruptly jerked downwards, dropping like a rock as thrusters fired without asking him about it, remote control kicking in as Castiel saw a threat and reacted to it. What felt like inches above Baby’s hull and Sam’s sleeping form, something exploded, lighting up everything and throwing it into sharp relief. No amount of roughly slapped-up tarp was going to keep that light from burning through the shuttle.

The light faded, and Dean blinked away sparks. If only that was his biggest problem. The missile, he quickly realized, had been meant for Castiel and had missed. It hadn’t been aimed at them—the dark Fleet hadn’t even known the shuttle was there.

Until now.

It had lit them up like a spotlight, entirely inadvertently, and there was no way the ships would have overlooked an extra ship suddenly appearing in their sky, less-than-sentient shuttle or not. It would be enough to pull their attention off Castiel, illustrate all-too-clearly that Gabriel was gone, had made a run for it, and the factor they’d overlooked was vulnerable out in the dark. Dean saw this as clearly as he could see his own hands, Baby’s controls, his brother stirring slightly in his chair, hampered from moving any further by the acceleration restraints Dean had strapped around him but definitely on the edge of waking up. He’d be foggy for about twenty seconds, if Dean knew his brother, but once he came around all the way it was quite likely that Sam would be as much of a problem as the dark Fleet, all without realizing it.

Dean figured all this out so quickly that there were still sparks floating around in his eyes and Castiel’s wail of distress and fear and desperation was just coming through, too clearly, too painfully, to the shuttle. It was a terrible sound, and one Dean never wanted to have to hear again. He would have given much to have not heard it now.

Castiel thought quickly, faster than a human, and even before he felt his mad siblings turn their attention to the unexpected extra craft, he had decided what he was going to do next. They’d run out of alternative tions, and this had always been one.

He turned, dived through a gap between his attackers, closer than he liked. He had to force himself to keep going, overwriting programs instilled in him for longer than he could remember. The only good thing about it was that Duma and Inias swerved away equally instinctively. That, at least, wasn’t gone, still intrinsically part of them as it was in all of Castiel’s siblings. It opened up the slightest opportunity for him to get free of this shooting gallery, and Castiel took it. The pain of a deep gash where someone had gotten in a lucky shot—if he’d known who it was, he would have seen it in time to dodge—burned him as he accelerated. No time. He’d hurt later and he’d be glad of it.

“Dean!” he shouted across the distance, reaching out to the man who had never failed him, who trusted him, who made him more than he was. “Turn and fly away, now, as fast as Baby will go. I’ll intercept you.”

Dean tried to argue, of course he did, but to his credit he got the shuttle moving. “Cas, they’re right behind you! You don’t have time to stop!”

“Not planning on it.” He flipped his attention astern for the briefest fraction of a moment, the terrible specter of that deadly pack regrouping and heading after him with the reflexes of ships. Too fast. But the grouping was a vulnerable arrangement and a shot of antimatter into their midst scattered them again for a brief but priceless moment.

Back forward. Castiel was coming up on the shuttle very quickly and he didn’t have time to argue with Dean about this. “Just keep it moving in a straight line,” he snapped, trying to keep human words intelligible and wanting nothing more than to say them faster, faster, the rhythm of the thought beating through him like a racing heartbeat. “I’ll do the maneuvering, I’ll come to you. I can react faster than you anyway.”

He could see Baby racing through the dark as Dean urged her on, and Castiel adjusted his own course ever so slightly to overtake, match, and intercept. Dean was still trying to object. “Cas, I won’t be able to stop her in time, not this fast! I don’t want to hurt you, man!”

Castiel didn’t give him the choice, and they didn’t have another one anyway. He snatched most of the control of the shuttle from Dean, tapping into the remote control that had let him pull it out of the way of a stray missile only seconds ago, matching courses and speeds and bringing the shuttle in with a precision and velocity that the human, skilled pilot that he was, couldn’t have matched. The ship could feel Dean trying to help, throwing in little variations almost as if he were guiding Cas’s hands on the controls the one time they’d tried taking the ship’s human self out in the shuttle running parallel to the ship proper and it had been so disorienting that Castiel had refused to ever do that again.

“I’ll catch you,” said Castiel. “We’re out of time.”

In the split second, the instant of the shuttlebay catching up with and engulfing a shuttle at almost full throttle as the ship intercepted it even faster, never so much as stopping or slowing down, Castiel forced it to fire half its thrusters, trying to compensate and match their velocities and twisting it around just that little bit so that the mass of the rear section would hit the opposite wall, hopefully taking the brunt of the impact away from the shuttle’s nose, where the humans of his family were, keeping them alive, because if he killed them now in desperation then he deserved to burn and shatter here in the darkness.

The shuttle crashed into the back wall, in an agonizing, terrifying instant of noise and pain and the shock of the impact. Metal tore off the little ship’s hull as its structure crumpled against the bulkheads, which gave under its mass and ripped to shreds. The shuttle kept going for nearly its own body length into the structure of the ship before it finally stopped through inertia and engines giving in and dying under damage and stress. They sputtered and sparked as their energy broke free, and if it hurt—because it did—then what had he done to Dean and Sam, within and all too human?


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