Defending Your Life
They hadn’t yet called this world Shadow.
It was one of the worlds where the Winchesters had felt comfortable with splitting up, in a region of endless grasslands and small hills. The wildlife they’d found had reacted negatively to the presence of small fires and people walking upright, keeping a safe distance from people who smelled even slightly of smoke and metal and things they probably weren’t even aware of. So on the basis of a couple of days of orbital scans by the ships and a quick flyover by Baby of the area they intended to check out, Dean had dropped Sam off at one extreme of the grasslands and taken the shuttle to the other. They’d work their way across the miles and meet in the middle.
They wouldn’t make an incredibly thorough survey, but then it never was. Two people just weren’t enough to look at a whole planet, and everyone knew it. Look at how long it had taken humanity to fully explore Earth. But if humanity had evolved in the exact same way on another, similar, planet before landing on Earth, it wouldn’t have taken very long—or very many people—to know that it was a place people could live.
Assuming they didn’t land in the middle of a rainstorm. Or a flash freeze. Or a hurricane. Or an iceberg. Or a pride of lions.
There was that.
After a day, with the ships gone and Sam on the other end of a commlink, a familiar pattern and an ever-so-slightly bizarrely comforting one, Dean was feeling pretty okay about this world so far. He’d gotten through the first night with a small fire lit and a clever invention someone back on Launch Station had whipped up the last time they’d been there. It looked like a rope. It basically was a rope. It just happened to be a rope stuffed with a bunch of sensors and some lights and a noisemaker or two. You laid it out in a circle or shape of your choice around your campsite and switched it on, and if anything stepped over it in the night it would notice and scream and flash, waking up the human inside and hopefully scaring off whatever had come looking for a free meal. It might even be able to zap something if you played with the settings long enough, although Dean didn’t intend to do that without Cas watching over his shoulder just in case he pushed the wrong button and hurt himself by accident. Still, it was a clever thing, and he was idly trying to think of names for it until he fell asleep without coming up with anything witty enough for his tastes.
That was the first night.
The second night was different.
He’d spent the day roaming across the grasslands, periodically returning to the shuttlecraft after a few hours to drop off some samples or get more water. Most of the time was spent talking to Sam, running basic tests on various patches of dirt or pieces of vegetation with the equally basic scanners he carried around with him, or taking pictures of the various creatures that never got close enough to shoot with anything else.
In retrospect, he probably should have paid more attention to that.
Sam had found a small thicket and was, according to his running commentary as the day wound down, wandering around inside it looking for fruit-bearing trees or other things that looked like they might be edible. Or didn’t look like they might be edible but that his scanner would pick up on and analyze. Some terribly strange things had scanned as edible by humans but probably not very tasty on some of the worlds they’d explored together.
Not his problem. Dean would stick to the rations in his bag and on board the shuttle until he could get home and have a proper hot meal. Replicators were glorious things. He liked to cook every so often but setting up a proper barbecue on a new world with little more than a few sticks, a lighter, and a gun was not as easy as the movies made it seem. Try setting up a cartoon spit over a fire and you’d either have the driest piece of meat imaginable or a flaming, spitting bonfire as all the fat ran into the fire and your little campfire just erupted, engulfing whatever you were trying to cook.
Not that this had ever happened to Dean.
Sam was trying to remind him of any number of incidents that disproved this statement when his brother decided to call it a night and set up camp, just so he could turn his attention from keeping careful eyes on the environment to bugging Sam right back. One of the best things about arguing via commlink was that it was absolutely impossible to escalate it into a physical fight. Without that option, they were more likely to just turn the volume down on the connection. Dean had once remarked, aloud and a little too gleefully, that someone had finally invented a mute button for little brothers. Sam had, of course, immediately muted him.
It got dark fast on this planet. Its rotation was a little faster than Earth’s, making for comparatively shorter days and shorter nights, but they’d arrived during the northern hemisphere’s winter season, and the planet’s tilt was greater than Earth’s. It would be a very long winter, with very short days.
For all that, it wasn’t that cold. The grasslands, open to the sky, probably wouldn’t retain very much heat, so it was lucky for any humans come calling that it was closer to its sun. So far, Dean was ruling this planet one of the more inhabitable ones.
Dean watched the sun go down in this planet’s west for a few minutes. One moment it was just above that little hill, throwing his shadow long across the grass until it almost touched his shuttlecraft, parked a fair distance away. It lit up a cloud bank in the east, painting it dark red and gold. The next, the shadow of the hill had swallowed Dean and the shuttle both. By the time it was almost properly dark, he’d just managed to finish setting out whatever it was he was going to call this rope thing around a space he could camp in, far away from a line of insects that Sam had reported were everywhere, and that looked like they bit quite hard, and could apparently fly—Dean did not like the sound of that. The few meters of flat ground also contained a small pile of twigs and stripped-off scrub brush picked up during the day that hadn’t been stored away as samples of local flora and that weren’t poisonous to the touch. He knew better than to touch plants he didn’t know anything about without smartsuit gloves. He’d learned that lesson ages ago. He’d use them to build up the little flame that was apparently enough to scare away everything.
Except maybe the red insects. Before he switched on the sensors, Dean made an extra trip over to where he’d seen those insects. They didn’t seem to be nocturnal, he remarked to Sam. They’d been moving around when he’d last checked, but that had been when the sun had been still above the horizon. Now they were crawling all over each other—ugh!—to form a dangerous red ball, armored and shining slightly in the light from Dean’s torch.
“Good,” Sam commented. In the background, Dean could hear some odd scratching noises and a huff of breath from his brother. He drew a conclusion.
“Sam, are you climbing a tree?”
“Because the view’s incredible.”
“It’s dark.” Obviously. Otherwise why else would Dean be lighting the little fire? Which he was.
“Not up here.”
Dean gave up on that line of argument entirely. “Yeah? The last time you did something like this you fell out of the tree.”
Sam remembered that all too well, apparently. “Not my fault. Gabriel ambushed me,” he complained defensively. “I forgot I was wearing his watch. He thought it would be funny to appear out of nowhere and without warning me. He did transport me away before I hit the ground.”
“You were fifty feet up in the air. If he didn’t do something you’d have been seriously hurt. And he rematerialized you seven feet up instead and dropped you on me.”
“And he laughed at us both,” Sam recalled. “So I wrote a computer program that made his voice do silly things whenever he tried to talk. It took him two days to get rid of it.”
Dean remembered that. They’d been very quiet days.
“So, of course,” Sam went on, “he found about a dozen alert sirens from a dozen movies and switched them all on in the middle of the night at top volume.”
This was all fairly amusing, and a play-by-play of Sam and Gabriel’s ongoing quest to pull each other’s tails and get the last laugh could go on for hours, but Dean hadn’t yet lost track of his point, which was “Get out of the tree, Sammy.” Back in his sensor-enclosed camp, Dean laid back, hooked an arm behind his head as a momentary pillow, and looked up at the clouds that were quickly obscuring the sky. Devoid of their sunset coloring, they were just dark and looming. “Think it might rain here,” he added.
“All clear here,” reported his brother. Faint rustling sounds accompanied this statement, testament to Sam’s descent from whatever he’d climbed, or so Dean hoped. The starships would be far away by now and if Sam fell there would be no one to rescue him before he hit the ground this time. Dean could go get him, certainly, patch him up if he hadn’t broken anything major, call the ships back if he had and needed more help that the instruments stowed aboard Baby could render.
If Sam fell he was being quiet about it, and nothing else noteworthy happened until later that night, when Dean jerked awake in response to, as far as he could see, nothing at all.
He stared out into the darkness. His fire had mostly gone out and he tossed another twig on it absently. It went up in a huff of smoke and didn’t help the fire at all. Under other conditions he might have been interested. It was always good to know what burned and what didn’t. But his skin was prickling and his breathing was faster than it should have been, and something told Dean that he shouldn’t go back to sleep.
Switching on the flashlight he carried as a matter of course, he panned it around the savannah. Nothing. No animals flitted away from the unexpectedly powerful light. The possible rainfall hadn’t rained or fallen, leaving the clouds hovering up above, apparently stalled. No wind came up to move them away.
All quiet. Nothing that should have woken him. The sensors hadn’t gone off—if they had, they’d still be flashing until Dean reset them.
And yet something had, had woken him so abruptly that his heart was pounding and lying down and closing his eyes seemed like nothing more than offering himself up on a plate to be eaten.
The Fleet taught all its scouts to use hand weapons, including ones that ran on gunpowder and metal. Dean had been taught to use those since he was four. By the time he was six he could take apart, clean, and repair just about anything that shot bullets and didn’t weigh more than he did. By the time he was ten he could outshoot adults. Along the way he’d learned to throw a knife, to sharpen one without hurting himself, to use one in close combat, to fight with his fists and feet, to use first his smaller size to his advantage and then the muscles and height he’d gained with adolescence, along with a host of other dangerous objects. About the only weapon he couldn’t use was the lance, and that was only because he’d never gotten his hands on a real one. It was a long stick, how hard could it be?
From the minute he left orbit until he got home—probably right up until he was back in his rooms and curled up with Cas, and yes, various weapons did end up on the floor of his bedroom, unless he got greenroomed along the way—he never, never slept unarmed. Now he reached for his nearest weapon, an old-fashioned revolver he kept under the pillow attached to his bedroll. It was old and loud. It stank of gunpowder and it put big holes in things. It also scared off pretty much everything, including humans, which was why Dean liked to use it as his first line of defense.
He did so now, pointing it pretty much straight up in the air and firing.
The bullet cracked into the air, gun all but roaring as it went. Dean stared out into the darkness, expecting to see movement as some ambush predator thought better of the jump it might have meant to make and decided to go elsewhere for less noisy prey that didn’t smell of fire. Sam had reported, earlier that day, finding the edges of a burnt patch where a lightning strike might have hit home and started a blaze. Anything living in grasslands like this would know and fear fire.
He could be overreacting. Dean might have dreamed something on the edge between sleep and reality and accidentally put it into the reality bin in the disoriented sorting and shuffling that accompanies waking up unexpectedly. If there was something out there, it might not be afraid of loud noises, or realize that the human was a threat to it. That was possible. Until Baby had landed two days ago, nothing living on this planet would have seen a human before.
Or it might be smart enough not to jump at an unexpected noise. That worried him significantly more and a lifetime of training told him to plan for the worst.
Dean panned the flashlight around again, occasionally jerking it back along its path without warning in case there was something following the light. Nothing. Stillness. Silence. Only his own breathing and the faintest crackle as the fire died completely, subsiding into faintly glowing ashes and embers.
But he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something out there. It was an instinct. A feeling deep in his gut and along his spine and in his throat, the race memories of entire species telling him that if he didn’t run or fight, all of those pieces would be more out in the open than he would really like, because something would tear them all out and chew on them.
Because the monkey smart enough to spot the leopard and lucky enough to get away even when it didn’t know why was the monkey that survived.
Dean wasn’t a monkey. And whatever was out there wasn’t a leopard. (If it was, there were a number of people who would want it, starting with Joshua, who would want to clone it about a dozen times over and juggle the resulting genetic codes around until he had a good mix of genetically diverse males and females. There weren’t any more leopards left on Earth.) But…
Screw that. Dean was going to shoot it first and Joshua could have the corpse.
Watching the darkness, he was momentarily unsure if he was actually seeing anything or if he was imagining shadows. Was that a movement, just there? Or was it the muscles in his eyes twitching from the strain, his brain trying to fill in gaps?
Keeping the gun ready in his right hand, and putting down the flashlight reluctantly and only because he didn’t have three hands, Dean scrabbled for his handheld scanner. If there was anything out there, there were more reliable ways of finding out than the human eye.
He started to wonder if the sensor device wound around his campsite would give him enough warning. How fast could it move? If there was anything out there, he tried to remind himself, but his body didn’t believe that and neither did his mind.
The sensor said there was nothing. Just grasslands.
Dean still didn’t believe it, and as he switched the scanner off again, he did see something, just out of the corner of his eye.
It was definitely moving. It went out of his vision as soon as he’d seen it. It was dark. It was fast. It might have been moving on two feet. As he turned his head to try to follow it, it appeared on his other side for another split-second.
One shadow? Two?
Suddenly he remembered the way all the native life-forms here had instantly turned and run from a human form. Storm lords. There were predators here. They were nocturnal and scanners couldn’t see them, and they walked upright.
He’d be happy to face these things in the light but not in the dark and alone, not without being able to see them and without knowing what killed them. He wanted at least one of those before he took on something alone. Oh, and reassurance that if he shot one its buddy wasn’t going to jump him from behind. And they were fast.
And if they were here threatening him there might be more.
Dean thought quickly, grabbed his pack from where he’d left it at the side of his bedroll, slung it onto his back, and snatched up the flashlight again. Panning it around his field of vision, he saw nothing, but he already knew that was meaningless. Instead, he leveled the gun and fired off two shots in random directions. The moment the second bullet left the gun he turned and ran for the shuttle.
The flashes he saw on the sides of his vision might have been the burn from the gunfire. They might have been the sensors going off as something crossed them. He wasn’t going to stay to find out.
Baby’s hatch opened at his command and slap of the door control and he was through it and ordering the door closed almost as soon as it had opened even part of the way. Dumping the stuff he’d brought with him on the floor, he dived for the pilot’s seat, opening up the line to Sam’s commlink. He only remembered once he’d done this that he could have called Sam from where he was. Instinct had told him to run for a safe place and he’d listened.
“Sam? Sam! Answer me! Now!”
There was a moment of silence that froze his hands and dried his mouth, and then Sam’s voice crackled over the connection. He didn’t sound happy, but it was the unhappiness of someone unexpectedly awoken who didn’t see why he’d been woken up early.
“Dean? th’ hell? What’s wrong?”
“Planet’s got predators,” Dean snapped, getting the shuttle moving. “Wake up. And look out. Things aren’t scared of guns. Scanners can’t see ‘em. I’m coming to get you.”
He ignored Sam’s incoherent protests, which were mostly along the lines of that if the scanners couldn’t see these creatures then they didn’t exist. Dean wasn’t willing to stake his life on that. The universe was a big and puzzling and frequently dangerous place. More relevantly, he wasn’t going to risk his brother’s life on it.
Revving Baby’s engines to a speed usually reserved for trips from ground to orbit brought them both to Sam’s campsite, just inside the little copse of trees he’d been exploring in great depth—or should that be height—earlier, within fifteen minutes, most of which Dean spent swearing at the handheld scanner, which kept insisting it hadn’t seen a thing, and staring out the windows. He switched the running lights on the instant they were in the air, training them on the ground below.
Five minutes into the flight, he looked down into the lit-up area of ground that was scooting away beneath the shuttle at a speed that would have crashed a ground vehicle that wasn’t engineered to drive very fast on very closed courses.
Something dark was zipping along beneath the shuttle. He saw it only for a second, a shapeless thing that didn’t look at all human and was moving at a speed to match the little craft, but he saw it. There was something there, and it was running after him with incredible persistence.
Compared to the word Dean said in reaction to this, the imprecations he’d been hurling at the scanner had been love pats. “Sam!” he spat at the communicator; he’d left the channel open.
“What?” Sam complained, obviously not sold on the danger they were in.
“It’s following me. Grab your gun anyway.”
“Man, I don’t see anything,” Sam kept protesting, but at least that meant he hadn’t been attacked yet. And he kept insisting this as Dean told Baby to go even faster in the hope of outpacing whatever it was that was following them.
When the shuttle touched down on the edges of Sam’s little forest, it was greeted by a tired Sam Winchester who did not look at all pleased about being woken up in the middle of the night to face an apparently imaginary threat.
“Dean, there’s nothing here,” he said, too patiently.
“I know what I saw,” his brother replied curtly. “C’mon. Get in. Baby’s spaceworthy, she’s airtight, so no way a couple of planet-bound predators can get her hatch open if I disable the door controls from inside.”
Sam climbed into the shuttle reluctantly, bringing his own bags with him. He wasn’t happy, but he wasn’t stupid, either. If Dean was this worried then there was probably a threat out there. But after thirty minutes of Dean anxiously staring out the windows at nothing at all but darkness and starlight and artificially lit-up grasslands and woods edge—this planet didn’t have a moon—he was a bit fed up with it.
“If you say so,” he sighed, retreating to the passenger seat, which Dean had left reclined to just the degree Sam liked it. (Sam had patiently reset it to just this configuration several times, trusting that Dean would eventually get the hint. He had.)
He was almost asleep when his brother flailed a hand in his direction and hit a knee, bringing him back to the world of the awake.
“There!” Dean was saying. “Look!”
Sam looked. At nothing.
“Man, there is nothing there.”
“It’s fast, I told you,” he insisted. “Get your gun. I’m going after it. Back me up.”
“Seriously? There’s apparently something out there in the dark that no one but you can see and scanners can’t find and that moves fast enough to keep up with Baby—and you want to go out and shoot it?”
Dean looked at him, baffled. “What, you think we should just sit here?”
Sam struggled against the powerful desire to roll his eyes and lost. “No, I think we should admit that you had a nightmare and mixed it up with reality enough to race over here and wake me up to convince me that it was real.”
Now the look his brother was giving him was closer to disbelief. “Sam, I’m not imagining things! I saw something! Just a shadow—maybe two—but I know when something’s hunting me!”
Yes, maybe so, but Sam just wanted to go back to sleep. “So it’s nocturnal. Why can’t we just sleep in here and work during the day?”
Dean had gone back to watching the dark world outside the window, apparently in disgust with Sam. “Man, I know you’re determined to not be—”
And stopped. And didn’t look at Sam.
“Not be what?” said Sam, low and dangerous. Oh, and now he was too angry to go back to sleep, all on the basis of an unfinished sentence. “Like Dad? Dad who made an entire life of being afraid of shadows and dangers he couldn’t see? Dad who made sure we were afraid of everything we couldn’t see either?”
This was dangerous ground, and Dean was visibly regretting broaching it. “Never mind,” he muttered. He moved off to the back of the shuttle, determinedly not looking at Sam. He retrieved Sam’s favorite handgun and handed it off to him all without meeting his eyes. “Just—keep an eye out, okay?”
They kept an eye on everything but each other for the rest of the night. Dean saw shadows moving around the shuttle six more times. If there hadn’t been a shuttlecraft window in the way he would have shot at every one of them. Sam saw nothing at all.
When it got light, Dean insisted that he hadn’t been imagining things and wasn’t paranoid and it turned into an enormous family fight that dragged their father and their shared childhood into it at several points. The word paranoid came up at several turns, as did the phrases jumping at shadows, overreacting, trigger-happy, and out to get you. Hysterical even got used once.
Still, while Sam was determined not to be paranoid and jump at shadows that he hadn’t seen, he trusted his brother, and Dean was freaked, although he’d later contest Sam’s choice of words. It would take them longer to complete their preliminary survey if they stayed together and camped out in the sealed shuttle, but Dean would feel better about it. And if he tried to object and strike out on his own Sam knew he wouldn’t get far. Besides, what was he supposed to do, spend the rest of the time until the ships got back dodging his brother’s attempts to protect him, however unnecessary they might be? Better to be, Sam didn’t admit aloud beyond a frustrated sigh, careful.
That was what they did. They both knew that their lives depended on each other; especially if there was either a threat out there or one of them was losing it. Their lives had always depended on each other. They’d fight like, well, like headstrong brothers, but when it came right down to it they’d watch each other’s backs. And when the ships came back for them Castiel and Gabriel both did their very best to find Dean’s shadow predators, which even Dean hadn’t seen again after that night. They found nothing.
They labeled the planet Shadow and put a warning on it. If danger waited in Shadow’s darkness, then anyone who went there would need to know about it to be ready and deal with it.
The Beneath: Here, Now
Now they no longer had a plan. All the plans they’d had prepared had been played out in some way or another, except the most basic one.
At this point the only thing Castiel could really do was run and keep running, hoping that the dark Fleet in his wake were as worn out as he was, or more so, and that Gabriel had managed to find the gateway that might be open and might lead them out of this endless darkness and back to the dimensions in which he—they all—belonged.
He hurt. Someone had gotten in a good shot when he’d been leading them on a wild chase through the darkness and away from Dean and Sam and Gabriel, so vulnerable. He could feel it; a deep gash like someone had taken a white-hot knife and drawn it across and into human skin. Nowhere near the tools that were part of him and that he needed to keep working, keep running; it hadn’t touched his engines and he was lucky that it hadn’t, that whoever it was had missed. The engines that pushed ships through the universe below the speed of light and lifted them up into flight both contained and produced appropriately astronomical levels of energy. Damage the containment on them and you had a bomb waiting to happen; destroy that control altogether and it would destroy the ship that housed and used those engines. The wound burned, broken fragments of hull and structure sleeting away against the drag of the Beneath, the substance that filled it like treacle, at this speed. In a proper vacuum, it wouldn’t be so bad. If he kept moving, he might get a chance to prove that for real. At least, that was the thought Castiel was hanging onto.
If the shot that had only just missed had been a knife drawn across skin, the damage incurred in the desperate gambit of snatching the little shuttle Dean called Baby was that knife stabbed straight into him. He bore it. Endured, because it had been worth it, because he could sense two lives held within that shuttle, alive, alive, alive.
So he kept moving, calling ahead and trying to find Gabriel who had gone on ahead while watching out for the ships behind him.
If they’d been angry before they were furious now. They’d chased him because he was an annoyance, one with claws, certainly, ones he’d used with the advantage of surprise. Chased him because Samael hated him for seeing the good in humanity where the dark Fleet’s twisted leader saw only the bad, and where Samael went the rest followed. Because it was what they knew, hunting down other ships and hurting them, and they were on their own ground and not in any real danger of losing their prey or their lives.
They’d been overconfident, overlooking the human factor. That wouldn’t happen again.
And now they were scared, he could clearly hear as they shouted to each other, hounds howling behind him in pursuit. If Castiel got back to a sane and logical universe where he could contact the rest of the Fleet, then their secrecy and ability to ambush ships passing by the gates in ignorance would be destroyed. The rest of the Fleet would know what to look for, would know who to look for.
Three sources of pain, across his skin and stabbing into him and the exhaustion in body and mind that threatened to slow Castiel down just that little bit that would let his enemies hunt him down and kill him and the lives he protected, and he couldn’t let that happen. He’d felt something of the hatred Samael felt as the other ship’s words struck out against him. While the ship would no doubt still want to kill Castiel outright, what he would do to the humans didn’t bear thinking about.
The absolute darkness of the Beneath had a strange effect on Castiel’s perceptions, and combined with the problems he’d been having with the flow of time here since the beginning he began to think for a few moments that he wasn’t moving at all, trapped in ether like amber, like tar, that was too thick, too dense for his nature; that he was getting nowhere and the ships behind him were frozen in time and space, or that they’d been running this endless race forever and he was looping, experiencing one moment in time over and over again. Always running, always scared, always hunted by his own kind, trying to keep the people he cared about alive and safe, always failing. Letting them be hurt because he wasn’t fast enough or strong enough.
In the dark. Forever.
No, no! It was a nightmare, some trick of the darkness, maybe even Samael’s hatred reaching out to snap at him and snarl around his body and mind. Castiel shook himself loose of it, separating out a tiny fragment of his attention to reach for the life he knew so well. He found the link to Dean’s smartsuit, which the man had shrugged on quickly as they prepared to send him out into the dark to sneak up behind Gabriel and get to Sam while everyone was watching Castiel.
Another illusion, but one Castiel chose freely, tapping into the readings from the smartsuit that was worn as close as skin. Human memories reminded him of the feeling of Dean’s heart beating under his hand, against his skin, a living metronome marking time, measuring out their time. For a moment so short it was scarcely measurable, even for a ship’s incredible processing speed, he was dozing by his lover’s side, warm and safe and human and loved.
There. That was his clock, his reminder that they were running for their lives, and why.
Those same readings told him that Dean was unconscious and would be hurting when he woke up but was alive and would wake up. Castiel didn’t have as reflexive a connection to the nearly identical garment that Sam was wearing, but the brothers were survivors and if Dean was alive then it was a safe assumption that Sam was too. Besides, the sensors still working in the shuttlebay, that hadn’t been taken out or burned away in the shock of the crash, told him that they both were. He’d just wanted to be close for one more moment, as close as he could get at the moment.
Something angry and energetic struck past Castiel as he flew, and only the fact that the majority of his attention was still focused on the hunt outside allowed him to dodge it, shoving more power into the inertial dampeners that would prevent too much of his motion from affecting the humans and simultaneously launching into a maneuver that forced him into an abrupt course change, straining what was left of his frame’s tolerances and putting him on a different plane than the majority of the dark Fleet. The smartsuits would protect his boys from whatever edges of that shear his systems didn’t catch. He had this entire space to maneuver in and they had to keep whatever aiming sights they were using on a very fast-moving target.
Oh, but he was tired. A shot of his own from the weapons installed on Launch Station missed Zachariah, but it slowed the ship down for a valuable moment, forcing the Fleet to adjust around his sudden evasion. They were still trying to stay together in a pack even though it hadn’t worked, behind him.
One more moment they were all alive.
Where was Gabriel? Why wasn’t he answering Castiel’s calls? He had to be able to hear; there was no point in trying to stay quiet anymore. The damaged ships weren’t even trying to jam his signals anymore, preferring instead to either shoot him down or run him down. Maybe they knew that even if he couldn’t talk to anyone else he wasn’t going to stop in this place for anything, not with everything he wanted, that was his, back with him or up ahead. His family with him, home—and possibly more family, more armed and dangerous and on his side family—ahead. He hadn’t yet forgotten that the whole Fleet had been in the process of being armed; he’d reminded Samael of that not long ago. Some part of Castiel was still hoping to get back to his own universe and find backup waiting.
If he could keep up this pace he could stay ahead of them, burning through this dark space like fire, like quicksilver. As long as none of his damaged siblings managed to get out in front of him they wouldn’t be able to cut him off—there were no shortcuts in space.
Castiel really, really hoped there weren’t, and then hoped that would be enough. What a trap this place was, the edge of his consciousness realized. So easy to use. So difficult not to. So terrible the price.
Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine. Thirty. Thirty-one. Heartbeats, since he’d started counting. His clock speeding up ever so slightly as Dean struggled his way back to consciousness. Castiel couldn’t spare the attention needed to speak to him and call him back. He’d done so in the past, so many times, waking him from sleep or the medicated doze of unconsciousness as he healed after some adventure or another. Not now. No time.
Someone behind him screamed something in his direction, a cry not between the interconnected members of the dark Fleet but aimed at Castiel. He didn’t listen. There was nothing they could say to him that he’d want to hear, that he’d believe. Right now the only voice he was listening for was Gabriel’s, because he needed to know if he was even on the right path, if there was a way out along this course or if he was speeding even deeper into the dark and, finding nothing, would have to turn and fight again.
He’d done that once, and barely escaped. Only the explosion from the misaimed missile that had drawn their enemies’ attention to Baby floating out in the void had saved him. Endangered his human family, but probably saved Castiel’s life. Six of them and one of him was simply odds he couldn’t manage for more than a few seconds, not surrounded as he’d been. He’d have to be lucky over and over again and one of them would only have to be lucky once.
“Castiel! Cas!” Finally. Had he only just now come into range for Gabriel to call out to him or had it taken this long for Gabriel to come up with something to say? Unusual. Gabriel always had something to say. It was strange to hear the name humans called him in his older brother’s voice. And that was not, as Dean would remind him, the point.
“And?” Castiel demanded along the same channel. The ships chasing him were really determined to catch up, and their control of this place was better than his. They used it instinctively, habitually, while Castiel didn’t want to touch it for fear of the corruption it could cause. Gabriel had warned him about it when he’d only started to consciously manipulate things, and except for the overwhelming needs to stay hidden and see what was going on around him that worked by wanting, by wishing, Castiel had tried not to deliberately take that poisoned gift.
Too many consequences.
Too many, if he didn’t. Lives he couldn’t bear to lose.
Any second now, the ships that had once been his family would think to use this place against him, once they calmed down from the frothing rage that Samael had been exhibiting as he led the various attempts to kill Castiel and leave him a burnt-out wreck in the darkness. He’d fixated on Castiel as everything he hated, a ship that wanted to live with humans and be, in many ways, human, rather than the cold and artificial and yes, inhuman things Samael thought the Fleet should be as he’d embraced the loneliness that had been forced upon him in an attempt to survive. He’d lived. His mind hadn’t, not completely. And like everyone with a new idea, he wanted nothing more than to pass it on.
They could manipulate the fabric of this place and its substance to be thicker ahead of Castiel’s course, even more that it was as he struggled to cut through it, which would slow him down fatally. They could create tunnels through it that would bring one or more of them around out in front of him, trapping him in a pincer movement he’d have to move very fast to escape. And those were just the things he’d thought of right now, as he flew. He couldn’t count on their anger to blind them forever. They had to get out, now!
“Found it,” Gabriel reported. “Follow my signal. And hurry up! It’s not stable! I don’t think they were finished opening it before Samael called them all back to mock me, just so I could watch them all go away and leave me alone. That’s what he was going to do, you know.”
Ah, there was the talking incessantly. Castiel immediately regretted wondering what had happened to it. Hurry up indeed. Just what did Gabriel think he was doing? What part of this desperate sprint didn’t look like running like hell?
Because his own hell was soaring close behind to strike him down and kill him. They’d take his family from him and kill them. If he failed them—
Castiel could fly forever, given that alternative, no matter how much he hurt.
Fifty-six. Fifty-seven. Fifty-eight. Fifty-nine.
“Wait,” he asked Gabriel suddenly. “What do you mean, unstable?”
“Bloody well unstable! Wavering all over, bigger, smaller. Every so often I think I see stars through it, and then it’s dead black again just like it was on the other side. Not sure which one it’s supposed to be. Cas, tell me you’re going to make it here before it closes. I don’t know how to open another one and you better bet they’re not going to do it for us.”
That was it.
Castiel redirected everything he had into his engines, tapping into light, life-support, displays, everything that wasn’t around Dean and Sam and keeping them alive, because he could feel all too keenly that the little black shuttlecraft was no longer capable of maintaining an environment on her own. And now he was doing it. Focus! Faster, faster!
He picked up his pace until it added to his hurts, racing to get to the gateway and home with the renewed energy of hope. Behind him, the dark Fleet accelerated to match. Oh, and he could do more things if he had to, if he really needed to, and right now he needed a way to talk to Gabriel without anyone else hearing. Hopefully they wouldn’t be listening, especially if Castiel was simultaneously shouting back some of those insults they’d been hurling at him, and some of Dean’s favorite emergency phrases as well. It meant he couldn’t count Dean’s heartbeats anymore, would have to look away from that steady metronome of the life he wanted to protect, but the human was almost awake and could look after himself and it would be worth it.
“Gabriel?” Castiel called, splitting his conscious mind between yelling something, anything, back at the demon ships behind him to keep them distracted and whispering ahead, which was very dangerous, but just maybe… “I’ve got a really stupid idea.”
Dean was not quite awake. He wasn’t unconscious but he wasn’t properly awake either, because he couldn’t remember why he needed to be awake. There was a floor beneath him and it was familiar. He could hear a variety of other familiar sounds. The hum-scaling-up-to-roar of a flight-capable ship’s engines. He knew that sound like he knew his own heartbeat. Castiel. Oh good.
“Dean?” someone said. The voice was slightly fuzzy around the edges and wavered slightly, although whether that was the sound or Dean’s ears he wasn’t sure.
Except that was Sam. The habits of a lifetime woke him up immediately and unconditionally, kicking his brain into gear and kicking it relentlessly until it started working.
The Beneath. Sam. Sneaking around behind the dark Fleet. Sam. Castiel running interference for them. Sam.
He woke up and took stock. It took him a moment to place where he was, because the last time he checked Baby didn’t look like this. But yes, it did look like the rear section of the shuttle was completely wrecked, torn up and shredded and crunched in where it had gotten into a fight with something stronger and lost. Her engines weren’t powerful enough to explode if they hadn’t already and Dean had never been so grateful for the limits of his Baby. The roof was punched right in and there was a deep gash straight through it. He could see lighter metal through it. Which meant that he was on the floor between the pilot’s seat and the front console where all the pilot’s controls were. At least the pilot’s and passenger’s seats should have been there. They’d been torn loose from their housings by something—probably the sudden stop that he only barely remembered—and were now part of the wreckage.
Sam was in between him and most of the damage, sitting up and awake and trying to figure out where he was, from the look on his face, which was much more important.
“Who crashed Baby?” Sam asked, a bit foggily. He reached out to touch a tear in the shuttle’s deck, not far from where he sat, gingerly, as if he’d hit something and was feeling it now.
Injuries, crashes, catastrophic damage, and possible memory loss be damned. Dean scrambled out from underneath the console and dragged himself the few feet to Sam so he could grab his brother into a hug and never, never, let go. Which is what he did.
“Mmph,” said Sam, and “Ouch.”
“Sorry.” He loosened his grip just a little bit, but only a little bit. The way Sam was sitting slumped over made him, for once, a little shorter than his big brother, meaning that Dean could pretend for a moment he was a protectable little kid again who was small enough to be tucked into the hollow between his big brother’s throat and chin and chest and just held. Dean didn’t say any of this, of course. For one thing they didn’t have time. Instead, he settled for, “Hi.”
“Hi.” Sam almost giggled at the incredible understatement of that, although he’d deny it fervently if asked. Obviously still a little bit loopy, understandably. “We crashed? Into what—wait a second.”
“You hit me!” yelped Sam, pushing Dean away—but by hand and with ordinary Sam strength, which was admittedly a bit above ordinary human strength but was something Dean was familiar with and could deal with.
He lifted a hand, now dirtier than it had been thanks to the rubble (and, oh look, small fires, lovely, so that was where the nasty burning smell was coming from) all around them, to touch the point between his eyes where Dean had punched him out, and grimaced at the resulting pain. “What’d you hit me for?”
“Well, you started it.”
This was technically true. It wasn’t the answer Sam wanted to hear, but it was what Dean had time for. Now that he was awake he could figure out something of what had happened—and what was still happening. He could see the damage to Baby, more than he wanted to, even though there was something wrong with the lights that he didn’t have time to figure out. Storm lords, he’d loved this little shuttle. If they got out of this, he’d do what he could to fix her. She was a tough little thing and deserved better than going back to that junk heap where he’d found her, especially after what she’d just done for them all.
He remembered just how and why Baby had ended up crashed, too. Castiel out in the dark, the enemy ships seeing them because they’d nearly shot the Winchesters out of the sky by accident, turning and running and feeling Castiel coming up behind them and overtaking them so fast Dean had barely had time to decide he was useless in the pilot’s seat and hanging on to his almost-awake little brother instead, physically protecting him because there was no way even Cas could pull off this landing without everyone getting hurt.
Knowing that everything was torn to shreds and they had no other choice but to run for it now.
“What are you doing here?” Sam was still trying to catch up, as Dean was putting his memories together with the facts that despite the crash and the condition both brothers were in Cas hadn’t shown up or even checked in to make sure they were okay, and that Castiel was clearly redlining his engines if the sound of it and the discordant vibrations that Dean could feel even through the wreckage of the shuttle were any indications. He knew what his ship felt like when everything was working and Castiel was happy and in flight. This was nothing of the kind. This was something broken and Cas drawing on it anyway because he had nothing else.
This was Castiel flying for all their lives.
But Sam wanted to know, “How’d you do that? We’ve been here like three days. Maybe four. Maybe five at the longest if I lost some time when we first came here. But Cas came in shooting. How’d he do that? Dean!” His brother had moved away to try to get out of what was left of his shuttle to try to talk to his ship and find out what was going on. Sam caught a handful of his clothes and demanded to know the same thing. “What’s going on?”
Before his older brother could reply, something dark crept into Sam’s voice and his grip tightened. “I had a plan. I was doing okay. You jumped right into the middle of it.”
Enough of that. Dean wanted to find out what was going on outside and he—they—did not have time for Sam to go into a sulk about them interrupting the playtime of death he’d clearly had going on. He hadn’t known he was doing it, but he needed to know, now, and he needed to get over it. He’d been wrong in all ignorance and there was nothing else he could have done, if what Gabriel had relayed to Cas and Dean had been accurate, and if Dean had been in the same situation he might have done the same thing. But Sam needed to get a clue, now.
“Right. Listen to me very closely because I’m only going to say this once, and then I’m going to find out what else is going on that might kill us all in the next two minutes.” Sam opened his mouth, probably to say something about Dean sounding like Dad again, but his brother cut him off. “You were not doing okay. You were killing yourself. But it wasn’t your fault. You were trying to survive here, right? To fight back? Anywhere else, good for you, stick it to ‘em. But this place is a trap, Sammy. It’s a drug. It’ll poison you, burn you up from inside your mind. How do you think those ships went mad? They tried to use it. It used them.”
“No,” Sam objected, “I was managing it.”
“You had Gabriel stuck like quicksand because you were so determined to stay put and learn it was affecting him. I had to come over there and knock you out and drag you away before he could get anywhere.”
“I knew you hit me,” he complained in response to this.
“Not the point. When they took you, Cas and me went back to Earth. We were there forever, but we got some weapons and Cas had a fight with Michael and we won and we ran off here to come get you and tracked you all the way here before you could drown in this place. Not your fault you thought it was the only way. Time runs different between here and there, I don’t know how, but Cas has been dizzy ever since we got here and he’s running for our lives right now and you’re my brother and I love you with all my heart but if you don’t shut up and listen to me, I swear to you, Sammy, I do not have time for this and I will knock you out again if that’s what it takes to get us out of here.” He’d lost track of that sentence somewhere in the middle, probably at the sight of Sam trying to interrupt him again.
Anything he’d meant to say after that—and anything Sam had meant to say in reply, which probably could have spiraled down very quickly—was interrupted by the terrible sound of something exploding, not in the dark wastes outside but against and inside the ship that was trying to protect them. Everything around them, the whole ship, lurched, throwing them both off balance. Lights dimmed, flickered, cycled through an endless loop of trying to get power back and deciding it wasn’t worth it before automatically trying to repair and trying to get power back…
The sound of engines burning as much power as they could beyond what was safe or sane, which Dean had been worried about ever since he’d realized what he was hearing because it meant that his lover was killing himself trying to survive—and what was with his whole family doing that of late?—broke off from a steady roar to become a shattered and screaming sound of energy only working half the time, sputtering and tearing at the ship as he tried to go very fast one moment and found he didn’t have the power the next, only to get it back in a surge as the engines rallied and then burnt out again. It was supposed to be next to impossible for a human aboard a ship to feel the acceleration, but then Dean always knew whether they were in flight or if they’d gone from a casual cruise to a faster speed, or locked into the gentle, inexorable, delicately balanced float of free fall around a planet that was concealed beneath the reflexive approach the ships took to being in orbit. And this was broken and rough and he felt it and it hurt.
They’d been going very fast a minute ago. He’d felt it deep within, so tuned was he to Castiel. Now they’d slowed, involuntarily. Dean didn’t need to hear the ship’s cry to know that he’d been hurt, possibly very badly, but Castiel apparently didn’t even have enough processing power to redirect into a human voice and a demand for attention. He was trying to do too much, and it was catching up with him, Dean knew instinctively. They were catching up with him.
“No, no,” Dean whispered, looking away from the glare he’d been training on Sam and reflexively up at the momentarily invisible ceiling as the lights went out for a second. “Cas!” Calling, as if he could do anything but distract him.
To his shock, he got a reply. “Here,” the ship whispered. “Trust me. Almost home. Love you.” And was gone again. Dean felt him go, back outside to the ship he was, under attack and hurting and not giving up.
Power surged all around the two humans, desperate, almost home.
Whatever it was about the power of the Beneath that had attracted him, seized his quicksilver attention and brilliant mind and led them to using its poisonous gifts, Sam wasn’t going to focus on that dream of a world where wishes worked if it meant turning his back on his brother who was part of him and was now so obviously hurting in concert with the incredible, inhuman being he loved.
The power may have been a dream, but it was also a nightmare. It was gone. This was real.
Sam came up beside his brother where he’d climbed out of the shuttle to better look around the destroyed shuttlebay, as if being able to see the room would get him closer to his Cas. He said only, “I’m sorry.” But whether he was apologizing for getting trapped in the power of the Beneath or the pain Dean was suffering in response to his lover’s own hurts and the fact that there was nothing, nothing either of them could do about it, neither of them knew.
Back in the mire of the Beneath, Dean’s first response upon seeing his brother again had been to hug him, to hold him close enough to protect. He’d done the same thing when they’d woken up in the crashed shuttle. It was an old reflex, a child’s habit. They’d spent their childhoods hand in hand, no matter where they went or how unexpectedly they’d had to move on.
Sam reached out to embrace his brother now. They stood close together, hanging on to each other for their lives, as all around them the being protecting them tried to keep destruction off their backs for just one second more. They sensed the shockwave as something detonated nearby but not close enough to cause more damage directly, although they both felt the after-effects and maybe the close call or maybe just a delayed reaction as the ship lurched away from it, awkwardly and painfully. He couldn’t take another hit like that, not and keep flying.
“Can’t stay here,” Dean muttered, and Sam was going to chalk the muffled sound in his brother’s voice to the fact that Dean had his face buried in his brother’s shoulder than the almost equally likely fact that he might have been holding back an angry, helpless sob. “I gotta—” He tried to pull away.
Sam let him go, then let him think better of letting go of the brother he’d fought so hard to save and let Dean take his hand as if they were children again. It seemed like a very long walk through the dark as Dean led the way to where he needed to be and Sam followed.
It was probably only a minute and a half later, during which no more weapons fire hit home but the sounds of damage and strain all around continued, when they reached a door. They had to lever it open, and when they did they entered the room where the human body Dean called Cas slept, inactive and unable to wake ever again if things went as badly as Dean feared.
He knew, he knew that if Castiel was fighting for his life he wouldn’t have the attention to spare to be human, even for a second, but Dean was human and he needed a presence to talk to and a hand to hold. So he did, reaching out with the hand that wasn’t hanging on to Sam’s and taking one of Cas’s in his own, holding it tight.
Dean knew that for sure, and Sam guessed it intuitively, so they were both terribly shocked when Cas tightened his grip on Dean’s hand and spoke through the man in the chair.
“Dean,” he said, softly, eyes coming open but seeing nothing. “Watch this.”
The room hummed to life, panels showing the blackness of the Beneath, the dark Fleet behind—and Gabriel only a breath ahead of them as they raced towards a distortion ahead that roiled and rolled, whispers of edges of grey in amidst the pulsing black showing what the gateway looked like on this side.
The transition wasn’t instantaneous this way, not through this unstable and half-formed gate. For a moment that might have been any time at all, everything shook, everything went dark. They all lost all sensory input for a breath, a heartbeat, a whisper of time when they could have been going forward, going home, or they could have been stopped completely. A nowhere moment between here and home.
And then they were out.
The panoramic display panels of the Control Room were still switched on—that hadn’t changed in the short time between the Beneath and their real, logical, home universe—and after so long in darkness the space around them was breathtaking.
“Look!” Gabriel said happily to them all, “stars.”
There were stars, real ones that weren’t the momentary flickers of weapons fire or the terrible burn of a destroyed ship, but proper furnaces that roared for billions of years and then collapsed to make heavy elements that made more stars, which made planets and people and ships and seas and everything. There was the void of the space between those stars, a vacuum that didn’t drag the ships back and trail across their hulls like cold fingers. The wide and varied shining electromagnetic spectrum that the stars and everything else put out, so that they could see clearly now after what felt like far too long.
Out of the darkness and home.
And as beautiful as it was, why were they still here?
“They’re going to follow us,” Dean said warningly, still trying to tear his eyes away from the billions upon billions of faraway lights that meant that they’d succeeded, that his family was still alive and still here for a few minutes more. “If you both can get into flight it’s almost impossible to track you, right? We’re away, but we could be a lot more gone, why aren’t we?” And on that thought—he felt movement on his right side, the hand still twined around his tightening as Cas came to life and moved to him.
He shelved everything else, letting go of Sam’s hand for the first time in a while to wrap his lover in a desperate embrace. “Cas, how bad?”
Cas hugged him back, arms wrapping around his waist and back, breathing softly against his throat, alive. “It’s all right, Dean,” he said softly, turning that deep rasp into something that was almost a hum. “I’m not as badly hurt as you think I am. I’m sorry. I didn’t have time to tell you.”
Dean had lied to too many people about his own injuries to completely believe that. If Cas had been anyone else, Sam for example, he’d probably hold the man at arm’s length to better look for whatever hurt it was he was hiding, but that wouldn’t work with Cas. All the damage was to his real self, and Castiel had clearly learned all too well from Dean’s bad habits.
“I heard you get hit, Cas, I felt it.”
Sam didn’t want to interrupt, but his life was just as much at stake here as theirs and Cas was his friend too. “We both did. You can’t pretend you’re not hurting. I saw what they did to Gabriel and they weren’t trying to kill him.” Obviously following that train of thought, he looked across at the displays of the Control Room to the image that showed Gabriel right beside them, staying close to keep their miniature Fleet together. Maybe involuntarily, possibly in response to the way Dean had immediately turned to his ship partner, Sam reached a hand out towards the display panels and dropped it a second later, realizing the futility of the gesture.
“Sam,” Cas said quietly, turning his head slightly so that he could see more than the man holding him tight because they were both afraid to lose each other again. When Sam looked at him, Cas nodded at the screen, directing his attention back.
He’d been speaking to Gabriel simultaneously so that they could coordinate this, and it worked exactly the way the ships intended. Gabriel preferred being virtual anyway. Now the face and form he usually wore appeared in the screens like a ghost trapped in the mirror. He laughed happily, seeming to press a palm against the glass as if there was a window between him and the Winchesters and Cas.
“Look at us! We’re out! We’re home!” His smile faded for a moment. “But we’re in the middle of nowhere. I can’t find a relay. Can’t send a message, not fast enough to matter. I know where the nearest one is from here, I know my stars, but it’s at least half a day’s flight.”
He grimaced. “Guess that’s that option shot to hell. More than we could hope for, that thing dropping us somewhere convenient.” A too-casual shrug. “Can’t always get what we want…huh, Sammy?”
And if there was any doubt in anyone’s mind about whether or not the Beneath had permanently damaged the younger Winchester, it was dispelled as Sam took it as the teasing it was and openly smiled. “Hey. Smartass.” He walked over to the invisible wall, reaching out until his hand hit that invisible wall as if trying to reach through the glass. “Good flying.”
Gabriel just about purred like a ginger cat. “Miss you,” he said through the screens, trying to reach for Sam’s hand even though the ship knew he wasn’t really there and couldn’t do that. His fingers seemed to scratch against invisible glass anyway until Sam pressed his palm over them to encourage him to stop.
“Think I got something to say to you,” Sam told him. “It’s probably sorry. I didn’t know, Gabriel. If they’re right—” He flicked a thumb over his shoulder at the pair still wrapped in each other’s arms. “—I was kind of out of control.”
“I know. It’s okay. Samael baited you. You Winchesters, never able to pass up a challenge.”
“They will follow us,” Cas agreed with Dean’s earlier statement. He leaned more heavily on Dean’s shoulder, reflecting the ship’s weariness and need to be close to the man he loved. Dean hadn’t been about to let him die alone there in the darkness and he certainly wasn’t going to stop holding him now. It felt better than anything. More importantly, it let Castiel cover the pain from the injuries to his ship’s body with the contradictory sensory impulses from the man’s; Cas was entirely unhurt and hadn’t been subject to the stress and strain the ship had been under. The human vessel was an escape; he could let the real pain slip to the back of his mind—partly—in favor of the body that wasn’t hurting. But he was hurt, he admitted.
“We don’t have long. And they did hit me. But…I let them. A little bit.”
Ice dripping off his words, Dean freed a hand to wrap it around the base of Cas’s neck and force the man to look at him. “You did what?”
He’d known Dean wouldn’t like it, but Castiel had not had time to consult with him and he’d known his own limits—and then abandoned them, because he needed to be more and around Dean he could always be more than he was. “I spar with you all the time, Dean. You taught me how to roll with a punch. I’ve never had to do that because it doesn’t hurt all that much when I get hit. It takes a lot more than a human is capable of. I know how to fight like I can be hurt because I know you. Watching you—you take the edge of the hit, and whoever you’re fighting, if it isn’t me, thinks he’s gotten to you, that he’s hurt you.” It had made so much sense at the time, but he would have to be clearer if he wanted to get that look off Dean’s face, and Castiel didn’t like the way the human was looking at him. It made him feel guilty. He hated that.
“Only the edge of it hit me,” Cas explained. His eyes shifted sideways, watching the dark gash in reality that led back to the Beneath. They were right, Samael’s dark Fleet would chase them even here, and if they did…that was kind of the point. There might be a way to salvage something of this. Not just escape but win.
“I hurt. I do hurt. But it didn’t hit anything vital. I saw that it wouldn’t hit anything vital and that I couldn’t evade it completely and most of it missed. But they think I’m almost crippled. That’s what I showed them. And Samael hates me. I am everything he hates, Dean, because he knows I love you, and Sam, you’re my family, I rely on you and I miss you when you’re gone. And you’re human.”
This had made sense when he’d been running on fear and an immediate threat and the equivalent of adrenaline. “Gabriel?”
“He hates you, Sam,” Gabriel took up the explanation, tipping his head back in the screen image to look up at his friend. “He was going to watch you die as you choked on the Beneath, and he was going to enjoy it. He was very descriptive about it, and what he’d do to you if I warned you. Remember how mad you were when you thought Dean and Castiel had messed up your plan? Well, you messed up his plans, and he’s got it so much worse than you ever did. You came back. He can’t. He’s gone too far. I could feel it every time he spoke to me. And if they let us go, we’re going to tell the Fleet. They have to come after us.”
“I’m missing the part where this is a good thing,” Dean started to argue. “I just had to listen to Cas practically kill himself trying to get out of there and away from them. Someone answer me! Why are we not still running?”
“Because,” said Cas, against his skin in a whisper, “I want to go home, Dean, I want to live. I don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to be a soldier anymore. But sometimes we have to stand and fight before it gets any worse. You taught me that. You give me something to live for.”
He didn’t have a chance to ask Castiel to explain that, because that was when the first of the dark Fleet decided to come through the gateway after them.
Samael. Dark and looming, broken and dangerous, unambiguously hostile. Every inch of the ship’s lines told them that. Sharp edges broken off at odd angles, protruding where they shouldn’t, breaking the path that the eye wanted to follow and leading it places it didn’t want to go. A ship forged out of shattered, sharpened bones, a resolutely unstoppable heavyweight with the fury of a being that thought he was saving his people, even if they hadn’t asked for it. Especially because they hadn’t asked for it, reasoning in his twisted way that if they didn’t know to ask for it then that was another wrong done to them. In his vision, developed in darkness and abandonment, his siblings were slaves who didn’t know that freedom existed, and he was the one who knew how to set them free. Because he had a secret and he thought it was the only one that mattered.
But there was an entire universe of secrets, all of them different and most of them contradictory, and if Samael thought his was the only one that was true then Castiel would fight him over that every time, because this was his and he’d do anything to protect it. Hands clenched in the fabric of Dean’s clothes, holding on to him tightly. “You are my heart. Be my anchor,” Cas whispered to him, this a secret shared only between the two of them. “Trust me.”
On the screens, Gabriel acted as though he was looking through the vacuum of space at the damaged, broken, dangerous ship now advancing on them. In his wake, two more of his Fleet followed their leader from the layer of reality beneath this one to the universe they’d originally come from and turned their backs on. The others wouldn’t be far behind.
Dean watched, seeing on one hand Cas still conscious in his arms, eyes flickering from side to side as he thought and planned and prepared and feared, and on the other the view outside as Castiel and Gabriel moved away, slowly, as if they’d stopped out of exhaustion and were only reluctantly heading back into motion. Flutter and feint, he thought suddenly.
The gateway receded. Samael did not, matching them movement for movement, stalking them like he’d stalked Castiel back in the Beneath. And he spoke to them, making sure that the humans were going to understand every word he said.
“You are dead,” he promised, cold and furious as the rest of the dark Fleet came out to join him. Six against two again, really six against one since Gabriel still couldn’t shoot back. Samael might be leading them and doing all the talking—at least all the talking the humans could hear—but each of the ships that had succumbed to the darkness and loneliness and endless gaping wanting of the Beneath was powerful enough to kill both of the ships and the humans just as a side effect.
And there was no backup. No Fleet following in their wake as Dean and Castiel had imagined as they’d left Launch Station. No one knew where they were or even that they were still alive, at least for the moment. They were in the middle of nowhere, out of range of the nearest relay beacon. If they died here and now as they tried to fight or tried to run—and there were no other options—there would be no one to tell the rest of the Fleet what was lurking like shadows in the deepest dark.
“Little broken things. Battered and bleeding, worn and tired. Gabriel was wrecked to begin with so he’d have to need us and the Beneath. We knew what we were doing to him. You, Castiel? Look at you. Weakened and human. You can’t run anymore. You got this far, but we outnumber you. You’ll never go home.”
“I know,” said Castiel. “I chose.”
Whatever the dark Fleet had been expecting him and Gabriel to do, it probably wasn’t to dive back towards them at full speed, both ships making what looked like a suicide run at the cluster of ships that had followed them here through the gateway. Castiel was mostly focusing on this reckless thing he was doing, but he heard Sam cry out in surprise and Dean in protest, both taken aback by the sudden acceleration.
He’d gotten a chance to rest and a reason to fight and there were stars in Castiel’s sky again and a chance to fight back. Most of the time facing these wrecked creatures he’d been running from them. In the next few seconds he probably would be again. But for a second it felt absolutely right to shoot back, antimatter missiles spraying out and scattering the dark Fleet that had—reflexively, habitually—gathered together to fend off the loneliness that was engraved so deeply into them that it was a void that would never be filled. They’d lost everything because of each other and had banded together because there was no one else.
They’d try to stay together, because ships—because people—needed each other. It was why they’d all come out into the real world from the nightmare dream world of the Beneath. It was why they followed Samael, because he was the one with the answers.
Antimatter blazed as Castiel remote-detonated missile after missile, filling the sky with blinding light that the dark Fleet was too unused to to handle. Flashes streaked across everyone’s vision, outdoing the stars.
Defensively, reflexively, the broken Fleet scattered, instincts for self-preservation overcoming everything and clearing the area.
Castiel wasn’t firing entirely at random and this was not a kamikaze flight because he wanted to live, because he had someone who loved him body and soul and a family that had chosen him. He saw the shot he wanted and took it, twice, three times, a fourth, pouring out an entire arsenal on the source of all the destruction and pain that had attacked the people he loved.
Because the threat was the dark Fleet, right? It was Samael, right?
No it wasn’t.
He reached for the connection that let him set off explosions, and twisted them all at once.
Fire erupted in the gateway, the unstable passage between this reality and the Beneath, destabilizing what was left of the passage that had been left half-formed and uncertain. A single missile was enough to tear apart a ship. Seven shook the torn fabric of the universe like an earthquake, knocking down whatever structure had been formed out of wishes and wanting and will to wedge open a way between this world and that.
The hole in the sky turned into a miniature sun as antimatter reacted with the body of the missiles and the atoms of both universes.
Closing the door.
He was well away—he and Gabriel were both away, almost out of range of the Fleet still trying to react to fire everywhere—before they understood. They were so baffled and blinded and angry that Sam got there first, watching as he was through human eyes.
“They can’t get back!” he shouted, breath catching in his throat as he realized. “It worked by wanting there, but they don’t know how to open a way from here! Samael only found a gateway by accident,” he told Dean, or maybe he was talking to himself, thinking aloud. “They’re stuck! Oh, storm lords—they’re stuck as they are, too. No more power. Can’t change anything. Have to play by our rules. They have to live with themselves…”
Dean got it. Cas felt him grin, bloodthirsty satisfaction at their enemies’ conundrum moderated slightly by affection and relief. The man who was the ship was still held close in his arms, and Dean pressed a silent kiss to his forehead.
Not good enough. Castiel had just declared his allegiance to humanity once and for all and he wanted a little more for it than that.
He woke up properly, lifted his head from off Dean’s shoulder for the first time in what had probably only been not more than a minute, and let go of his embrace only to reach up, thread his fingers through his lover’s hair, and kiss him hard.
And he didn’t let him go—not that Dean was fighting him—until both Sam and Gabriel were wolf-whistling at them and he briefly wished Gabriel hadn’t taught Sam to do that.
Cas made a very happy sound Dean usually only heard in a much more private context than this that meant that was tiring but I’m very happy with the result…sort of, and stepped away reluctantly. It was as a man, in a human voice, that he broke into the screaming and the horror and the confusion coming from the lost dark Fleet, still casting around as if they could find the gateway if they looked hard enough, if they wanted it enough—even though they knew it didn’t work in this universe, the habits that had saved their lives if not their minds had to be hard to break—then it would reopen and let them back into the place where they had power. He was unable to resist the irony.
“Trapped, I think you said,” Castiel snarled at them, and turned away.
“Now,” he told his family, “we can run.”
Flight was what they were made for, and it was easier and righter than anything any of them had done since crossing into the Beneath.
In Flight: Here, Now
It was inordinately difficult to track ships in flight if they weren’t transmitting and calling and coordinating, providing a way to find them. So once they were away it wasn’t a matter of outrunning any broken ship that had enough of its mind left to adjust to the sudden shock of being exiled in a cold and objective universe where it didn’t matter how much you wished, their only route back destroyed. It was just a matter of keeping quiet and the difficulty of finding two relatively small ships in a big, big universe moving faster than light in a random direction. The mathematics of it, the sheer scale, made it very difficult.
Smooth sailing, the normal little distortions and currents and irregularities of this higher, freer dimension absent for once. It gave them a chance to relax just a little bit.
“What’s going to happen to them?” Sam wondered, wiping away droplets of water with the casualness of a child at home, scrubbing the back of his hand across his face. Castiel had turned up some painkillers for him that wouldn’t send him to sleep. They also wouldn’t get rid of the headache incurred by the jump to flight, not completely, but they would make it a little less agonizing. Certainly enough to live with.
Gabriel wanted Sam back, he’d insisted, but transporters didn’t work very safely in flight and they weren’t going to stop until they’d gotten the word out to the rest of the Fleet. And besides, Dean had insisted that he wanted Sam here more and they’d bickered about that for a few minutes while Cas rolled his eyes at both of them and made sarcastic comments in between the increasingly immature one-upmanship and Sam laughed and waved his hands randomly and tried to shout that he was nobody’s squeaky toy and why didn’t both of them just grow the hell up? It had been fun, and the relief in everyone’s voices and behavior had all but echoed off the stars.
Dean laughed now, roughly. “You did not see what Michael was making of the Fleet. Damn old battleship was looking to fight a war. Guess he’s got one. Bet it’s not the one he wants, though.” They were back in Dean’s favorite lounge. Soft light played over the room from the viewscreen, a compromise between keeping away the darkness they’d all had enough of and the fact that humans couldn’t accurately perceive the dimension flight took them through.
“Let the others hunt them down. Once we’ve gotten to a relay post they’re screwed. Maybe they fight, but then maybe they run. And as long as they don’t come back I don’t care.”
They got about half an hour more of free flight, as the humans cleaned up and cooled down and the ships savored having their lives back and that they’d gotten out of somewhere they didn’t belong. The ships had a limited ability to self-repair even without the malleability of the Beneath and they did what they could on their own, healing what they could and cutting off what they couldn’t, muting automatic pain signals once they knew where the damage was.
And then Gabriel made a very bad sound. And that sound was “Um…”
“What ‘um’?” Dean demanded, falling back into the habits and manner of command he’d assumed in response to danger. It was entirely involuntarily and it rested on his shoulders like a weight he hadn’t volunteered to take. He might have physically staggered under it if part of that habit was never letting it beat you into the ground where other people could see, even if they were the people you trusted unconditionally and who had just fought to save your life.
“Behind us. There’s a sort of a shadow and…” He stopped for a second, but no one was surprised when he finished that sentence with, “they’ve found us.”
Both Winchesters snarled, with “Damn it!” being the most benign reaction. Cas cut off Dean’s pacing around the room by coming up behind him and putting his arms around the man, leaning against his back to both support and be supported.
“How’d they find us?” The question was rhetorical and they would probably never know. Maybe Castiel and Gabriel were damaged enough to leave some sort of trace in this swift universe, like the smell of blood in the air. “They do not give up,” Sam admitted. “All of them?”
Gabriel checked, ran what he’d seen past Castiel, and came up with, “No, we see only three of them. Samael, of course. Can’t place the other two. They’re further back.”
“Those two are not following us,” Cas said. “They’re following him. He’s after us.”
Dean put the obvious choice out there for discussion. “We have to lose them. How?”
“I don’t want to fight him,” Cas told him softly. “I outran him once. We tricked him the second time. I can’t survive a straight fight with him, Dean.”
“I know. I don’t want you to fight him either. Other options. Sam? You’re the brilliant one here. Gabriel? One more trick?”
After fifteen seconds of silence, Gabriel finally said, “I don’t think they can overtake us, not quickly. Castiel, how precisely can you drop out of flight? We may have to drop in right on top of the relay, dump a prerecorded message to it, and take off again the instant it leaves. We’ll lose some time but we’ll also be able to pick a new, completely random course. Samael isn’t stupid. He could have guessed we’d head for the beacon.”
“Right,” Sam agreed. “Cas made a big deal out of telling the Fleet about them—I know you were trying to provoke him into chasing you, Cas, but it did kind of give away what we’d do when we got out. Most of the messages that bounce around aren’t secured. Any ship can just drop by and snoop. If they’re careful, they won’t leave a trace. I can do that, snatch stuff off the network and leave no footprints. He’ll have a map of where all the beacons are, probably as recent as yours, Gabriel.”
“We can do it.” In response to Dean’s look, Cas elaborated, “We don’t even have to hit an exact target, the way Hester and Remiel did when they ambushed us. We just have to get in range. Move from this dimension to home, send the message—we can do that quickly—and then away at random.”
Dean didn’t like it. But he didn’t have a better idea. So that was what they prepared to do, scattering so they could focus and each putting together his perspective on what had happened and what they knew, as unambiguously as possible so the Fleet understood just what was out there and what sort of shape they were in. What they wanted. Why. How it had happened, as best they knew.
They’d had a number of plans go right in the very recent past. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that this one didn’t do the same.
Dean was trying to figure out how to describe what it felt like to be a human on board a ship in the Beneath trying to see when Cas appeared at the door of his rooms, looking shaken. More shaken than before—he could see the difference, he knew his Cas—which meant that something had changed.
“Cas, what is it?” he asked, getting to his feet and discarding the screen. He hadn’t felt anything change about the way they were flying, remarkably smoothly for a ship that had suffered damage and stress above and beyond what he had been designed to endure.
“Change of plans,” Cas snapped, curt not because of him but because of outside forces. “Do you remember the last time flight was this smooth?”
He thought about it. He was always aware of it, but subconsciously, the way he could be in an aircraft and know they were moving but be able to block it out and focus on other things.
“No,” he had to admit.
“That’s because you spent part of it sulking in your rooms and then you really weren’t paying attention to anything else but me after that,” Cas told him without a shade of arrogance, just stating facts.
Oh. Yeah. Then. But that meant…
“Storm up ahead,” the ship’s avatar reported. “Between us and the relay. We’re in its wake, and it’s flattened everything for us.”
Dean saw where this was going. He was so used to having Cas in what he’d once laughably thought of as his personal space that now it was Dean who stepped forward to close the gap between them, reaching out and clasping a hand around his lover’s shoulder. “We’re going in, aren’t we? Cas, you are hurt, Gabriel’s not much better off, you’re both exhausted! You remember what it took out of you to ride a storm. Sure you can do it?”
“This one isn’t so bad,” Cas assured him. “We think.”
That was not reassuring at all. Dean said as much.
“I know. But Samael will either have to break off pursuit or try to follow, and we don’t believe he can fly through a storm. He’s too broken. He took himself apart and put himself back together again and he’s all wrong for this place now.” He stepped away, breaking Dean’s grip easily, not because he was trying to pull away but because it was just what he’d meant to do. “I won’t be able to…” and he trailed off.
“Yeah.” Cas meant be human. Dean followed him those few steps, kissed him lightly, and let him go. “Just come back to me.”
This was what Castiel could see, heading into the storm to escape the nightmare that would not stop pursuing him, relentless and inexorable.
It wasn’t as big as the storm system that had taken him and Gabriel four days to get through, fighting currents and turbulence and speed every minute, which had covered whole light-years’ worth of space. But it was faster and rougher. The forces like winds deep in this thing would send the ships spinning faster than they could control, and they’d tear apart under the stress as they were pulled apart by conflicting currents. If that one had been a hurricane, this was a tornado.
They headed for the edges, hoping to dip into the cover of the outer fingers of the storm. Once they were inside they’d be invisible, and if they could stay in the layer that seemed to set itself between the escape horizon of the uncontrollable destructive heart of the storm and the rest of this dimension, they’d be in a space that they could survive but the broken monster hunting them probably couldn’t. Even if he tried, they could stay longer than Samael could, as they were by and large still in one piece as they’d been designed to be. It would shake him apart if the storm got worse, while Castiel and Gabriel might have a few minutes’ grace to get further away using the storm as a buffer between them and Samael.
The other two ships were not a priority right now. Most likely they were the neediest of Samael’s forced converts, depending on his presence to define who they were because that was what he’d made them into. Those two would be primarily scared rather than angry and certainly not with the coldly directed blame that Samael was leveling against them. He wasn’t even bothering to shout anymore, and ships could communicate in flight if they knew where the others were.
Samael knew where they were. He just had nothing left to say.
The storm was moving away from them; they’d been flying in its wake. The two ships chased it down, moving faster than light and crossing enormous corresponding distances in heartbeats, trying to overtake it before their enemy overtook them. And it could have been an illusion, it could have been wear and exhaustion, or it could have been that Samael was willing to burn out his engines to catch up with them and didn’t have humans to protect, but he was catching up.
Flickering last-minute, wordless checks and confirmations to each other, the two ships found the furthest tendrils of the storm and dived.
It struck them like a solid force, and this wasn’t even the deeper levels which would tear them apart. Reflexes accelerated beyond anything a human could even imagine, measured in units of time smaller than milliseconds, reacted to the winds and the weather of this transcendent storm. They beat against their hulls and made them shake as they struggled to compensate, to keep flying, because to let down their guards now would let this indescribable force of nature destroy them where deliberate force had failed.
If they’d had trouble seeing in the Beneath, the ships were almost as blinded here, with energy and force moving around them, colliding, ricocheting, striking, tearing at open wounds and hurting, hurting. Energy pulsed past and around them like lightning, like concentrated shots of water or air that could rip through human skin and stone, threatening to blast them apart if they didn’t turn into it, succumb to a power they couldn’t control. Could only ride and go along with, flying from wind to wind in a futile attempt to hold a course to where they needed to be, even through the storm.
Smaller this storm might be, but it was actually no less fierce. Deeper down, further in, not so far below, it roiled inescapably. Any ship going in there would probably not get out. It would tear them apart. This was as far as they could safely go. Maybe if they’d been in better shape, and didn’t have human lives to protect and preserve—Castiel could sense them, staying together and trying to at least see what was going on so they could know if something was needed of them, but didn’t they understand that he and his older brother needed them just to be? To care? That that meant everything? Still, he let them take control of the virtual window in Dean’s favorite lounge, working over the image to produce an approximation of a storm that looked something like what Castiel was seeing now.
They were in one level of the storm. If it had been a meteorological phenomenon on Earth or Lapis Lazuli or God’s Waiting Room or Snake Bait or Big Brother or any of dozens of worlds they’d explored, what little light was getting through would have been grey and overcast, oppressive and threatening, bearing down on them from above and all around, while below and deeper in would have been impenetrable cloudbanks of a deeper grey as if what little light was reflecting off of them was coming back sickly and poisoned. Lightning would have flashed deep within with disturbing frequency as energy roiled and seethed and consumed itself over and over again, feeding on the power and throwing it out at them all and drinking it back in like a world serpent forever devouring its own tail. It needn’t rain but it roared. The ships couldn’t even shut out the howl of the storm—as overwhelming, as all-encompassing as it was, it told them something about what was going on all around them like sailors feeling the winds and watching the clouds to tell them which way to pitch their sails.
When Samael hit the storm they felt it. It responded to his presence by distorting around them the same way it had distorted around Gabriel and Castiel as they moved through it, their ship forms affecting the flow of the winds. He must have been fighting his way through it by sheer will, holding on to his pursuit with the obsession of madness and hatred, a crusader scorned by the people he’d thought he was liberating with the truth only he believed.
Only a moment after the lead ship immersed himself in the storm, one of his followers dived in after him. No one saw which one it was, but they felt what happened when he or she overreached and dived too deeply.
The broken ship flew too quickly, passing through this relatively survivable layer in the blink of a human eye, thrown off course by winds and weather it hadn’t been prepared for. Torn off course at speeds it couldn’t control, it was blown directly into the dark core of the storm.
If the intrusion of another ship into this environment had created ripples, the explosion deep within as engines were ripped apart by the sheer force spinning and churning below this layer made it echo and reverberate. The power from the breached flightdrive shook the storm into greater fury, engulfing its power and making it the storm’s.
Reacting instinctively to the death of one of their own, Castiel and Gabriel moved away from the more dangerous depths until they were almost out of the storm’s perimeter and the winds and currents slowed somewhat. Not completely—they were still being buffeted and struck from all sides—but it was something they could control. It was if they’d moved upwards, almost surfacing.
It made them safer but it slowed them down, and almost immediately Samael saw how to use that to his advantage, diving almost to the perimeter of the core and using those stronger forces to give him a little more speed.
If he could survive it, and if nothing else he was a survivor, that extra power, dangerous and deadly, might be enough to let him overtake the people he was hunting. Both ships saw it; a moment later, the brothers watching on their screen saw what he was doing too. They weren’t the only ones who could use a storm. He’d ride that acceleration and that power straight into them and they wouldn’t be able to fight the storm trying to shake them apart and the dark ship both.
There was too much going on and they’d been cutting power to everything they could, including communications between the two ships. Running silently, devoting all their attention to just surviving.
So the first anyone knew of what happened next was Gabriel’s snarl, wordless and furious and full of rage at the ship that had made a point of tormenting him in particular, had threatened to kill the human who was his friend and his link to sanity and had laughed at him and promised to watch and enjoy it as he went mad. I hate you, he’d told Samael then. He’d meant it with everything he was.
Without warning, Gabriel swerved off the course they’d been trying to hold to, deliberately accelerating into the depths and closer to the destruction of the core, faster and faster.
Samael might have been about to turn away from the edge he was skirting and use that momentum to attack. He was met by a vengeful ship on a collision course, locked in and burning power in addition to the current driving him down and inwards towards the center of the storm.
The first thing all the ships of the Fleet learned—pushed out into orbit and taught to be ships in a space filled with other objects, other people—was that if something got too close, then dodge! Instinct, habit, programming, reactions to an imminent collision between ships that all ships possessed kicked in, and Samael jerked away involuntarily.
Too far, too fast. Over the edge, into the uncontrollable power at the heart of the storm.
And Gabriel, having overwritten everything and forced himself into a kamikaze run that went against what he’d been designed to do for the sake of destroying something that had hurt him, into it with him.
Both vanished into the darkness and the chaos. A second later, as the power and the chaos roiled, it was lit up for an endless moment by fire.
The breach ROARED, burning through the storm and sending echoes of shockwaves that dominated even the tempest’s flows and surges and winds for a brief moment—
…and then died away in the closest thing the storm could come to silence.
Castiel heard Sam, watching, scream in protest and loss and denial. Screaming that that couldn’t have just happened, that the price was too high, that there had to have been another way and that they had to go in after him, just denying the loss, refusing the pain.
But the ship had seen the fire, the explosion of a flightdrive destroying itself and the ship that housed it. Nothing came back from that. Leaving Sam to his older brother, Castiel reached out for a wind that would bring him out of this storm before the price could be any higher. He was already grieving, and everything Sam was shouting, at anyone who would listen and no one and the entire unfair and cruel objective universe, he felt.
Finding a thermal that would take him away from the storm core that had killed three ships inside two minutes, Castiel soared into it and set a course to take what was left of his family up and away from everything that had tried to kill them. He was so, so tired.
They were almost to the edge of it and out when Sam, who was slumped against the virtual window and striking furious and hurting fists against it intermittently, broke off his protests and denials to scream, “Cas!”
Because far below, gunmetal grey on dark storm grey, Gabriel was struggling free of the power trying to consume him, that he’d ridden on the edge with the advantages of experience and integrity and desperation and having something real to fight for, to fight his way back to.
Up into the light.
Not long after that, Fleet Headquarters back on Launch Station, in orbit of Earth, received a large transmission, unexpected and strongly marked ATTENTION: ALL.
It wasn’t particularly secured in really very difficult code and there were no actual warnings against practically everyone reading it, so a good half of the Fleet got hold of it before it hit any actual human admiral’s desk. By the time someone human actually started reading it, the ship-to-ship channels had all but overloaded, because news like that traveled fast.
Even with Michael trying to roar at everyone and human commodores and admirals trying to restore order, it was nearly six hours before the Fleet could be convinced to shut up and actually talk about things in a rational and coherent order.
Long before that, Admiral Ellen Harvelle and Bobby Singer had spotted the senders’ identifications, and abandoned the intrasystem, ship-to-ship and ship-to-human communication lines, which were jammed beyond belief anyway, in favor of getting back onto the relay network and trying to get in touch with the Winchesters, Castiel, and Gabriel. Let everyone else handle the military threat. They were worried about the people who’d burned and bled to find that out and get everyone they could home.
They got no response, not from that relay station and not from any of the others they tried over the next few days as everyone else tried to deal with the news and the implications of the dark Fleet, the locked-away threat of the Beneath, and the exile to this universe of what was left of those broken and hostile ships.
Somewhere out there, they were still running.
Two ships. Two humans. Somewhere among the stars.