Strange New Worlds

By Leletha

Scifi / Drama

The Song Remains the Same

Once I rose above the noise and confusion
Just to get a glimpse beyond this illusion;
I was soaring ever higher, but I flew too high.

Though my eyes could see I still was a blind man,
Though my mind could think I still was a mad man;
I hear the voices when I'm dreaming,
I can hear them say…


Long Ago:

The first time Castiel took on a human form, he hated it unconditionally.

He was still very young, an utterly inexperienced child in their terms. He hadn’t been active very long, one of the few functioning AIs that emerged from the labs that performed the complicated and erratic alchemy of making minds, and then survived the various transitions after that. It was a quiet period in their history, building up the Fleet as humanity moved outward through its own solar system. They’d colonized quite a few of the nearer systems, and humans had found how much they needed ships that could go faster than light as intuitively and naturally as a human ran. Exactly so: ships had to learn how to fly just as a human child had to learn how to walk and run, and that learning curve took some time. Humans couldn’t teach them, since they couldn’t do it themselves, so once a young mind didn’t have to be watched every millisecond just in case it shut down in the time it took for a human to blink their eyes, they were mostly raised and trained by the rest of the Fleet.

Castiel was perfectly content to be a starship. His nature was one of flight, of movement between stars and through otherworldly spaces beyond the speed of light. He had absolutely no reason to be human, and no particular desire to.

But humans had an unreasonable prejudice about artificial voices coming from the walls of their habitats and space stations and had trouble interacting with something they couldn’t see. Castiel didn’t see how that was his problem.

But then again, he was very young.

And he was part of the Fleet he was growing up in and he’d follow orders and do as he was told. Like the other ships, he needed to be part of the group, and one of the things he needed to do was have a human face and form to fall back on, if only so he could talk to the billions of people who weren’t ships, if he ever needed to. The Fleet said he needed to be even this slightly human, so he would be.

He just wouldn’t like it.

Opening human eyes, the first time, felt overwhelmingly disorienting. The room the human clone had been developing in didn’t have any built-in sensors, at least not ones accessible by ships in orbit of Launch Station nearby. Much of the maintenance and business of the Fleet was conducted on, in, or around the Station, and this was no exception.

This sensor blackout was probably to create this exact problem and force any ship downloading into a human frame for the first time to learn to use its senses rather than the ship’s own. It meant he couldn’t see anything except the narrow and limited and horribly telescopic vision of human eyes. How did they bear it? How could they live with only seeing these wavelengths through tunnels in a cave of bone? If he wanted to see what was around the body in this room he had to manipulate unfamiliar muscles that weren’t his. How inefficient. The ship reached out automatically for the room he was seeing, if you could call this seeing, trying to find another perspective. He couldn’t get into the computers. There weren’t any sensors mounted on the walls. All he had were two eyes.

He felt broken. His instincts and memories told him that this couldn’t be right, that something needed to be fixed. This couldn’t be all this was for him to see, these few wavelengths of visible light. Half-blind and unbearably deaf, because the audio input was just as bad. He was still himself, his real self, but his focus was momentarily here, and limited; even the slight limitation felt wrong.

If those senses were underwhelmed, everything else was catastrophically overwhelming, the imbalance sending him spinning. The ship’s hull had its own sensors built in, so he felt, after a fashion, the solar winds, the heat and other radiation being emitted from the central Sun, the microscopic impacts of space dust that over time would produce a slight pitted erosion that nothing but human maintenance could repair, and the otherwise freezing cold of space when the ship got too far from the Sun, which was natural and didn’t bother him so much as it told him things about where he was in relationship to the endless sky.

But this! Everything about the human body told him something, sending information, all of it unfamiliar, to the ship mind that had established a link between itself and the human avatar. No wonder they couldn’t see anything. Humans felt everything! Even when they weren’t doing anything like this human body was, still inert as the ship struggled to integrate his nature with this completely alien one, it screamed at him for attention. A thousand unfamiliar sensations—fabric against skin was a strange one. Fingers were strange. Teeth that fit together at the back. Tastes. Breathing. He couldn’t filter any of it out. He wanted to filter it all out, cut the connection and go back completely to what he really was. And it did things without his control, like breathing faster in reaction to the ship’s surprise. Castiel hadn’t told it to do that. Reacting to his feelings of distress and disorientation, it moved, pulling away from a threat that wasn’t there. He hadn’t told it to do that either.

Strange. He was never going to get used to this. Why would anyone want to live like this? Gravity weighed him—it—down. He—it, this wasn’t him—couldn’t move. Not properly. Couldn’t fly.

Someone spoke to him, and he heard it through human ears, at human speeds. He could see a familiar shape sitting at the side of the diagnostic bed the human form still occupied, had done so, mindless and still, even before the ship had picked up and established the connection to it. And it was part of him now, the ship realized. The connection was written into him. This was him now. No, not him. He was still himself, the ship that had been designed to move faster-than-light and out-maneuver everyone else currently in the sky. Silver-smooth hull, almost living skin, for a being that was alive and was a person even without this human self. But it was his.

Castiel recognized the sound of his name, the one he’d chosen for himself out of a version of Dante’s Paradiso that tried to drag most of the names back from the lingual shifts that had corrupted or changed some of them. He’d read it and the others in an afternoon, one of the things that had ended up in his memory as more and more information was loaded into the AI as part of the process that made up a mind.

Answering was impossible. Too many things to control. He tried to respond, hated the noise that it made—unintelligible, disjointed, wrong, broken, broken, broken. Castiel decided not to answer again, frustrated. Again, the human body did things without asking, turning away from the woman. He felt muscles in the face that wasn’t really his move, creating a grimace that reflected his irritation. He already had a voice. It let him talk to his siblings and let him ask for information, and this sound wasn’t it; it was just movement in air, a body producing noises.

The ships were pure and perfect and beautiful and more than a little bit arrogant at times. Castiel was still young enough to fall into the younger spectrum of the snobs; it tended to be the very young and the very old that thought that way.

There was too much input for him to remember her name. He barely understood the woman when she spoke aloud, claiming to understand the frustration he was having at learning to manipulate and use a whole different set of reflexes. It had taken him time to learn how to be a ship, going from an AI developing in a lab to one inhabiting a machine in orbit to the elegant craft he was now. Why should it be any easier or faster to learn to be human? Besides, Castiel didn’t have to get it quite right. Once he got control of the voice he’d just use that to talk to human people whenever he absolutely had to and not have to worry about moving human limbs and supporting a human weight against gravity. He hadn’t had to deal with gravity quite so immediately since he first left orbit.

She left him alone to work through it in private. It was easier to make mistakes and be clumsy and lose control and want to flee back to his real self if there was no one there to watch.

He made mistakes and was clumsy. When the labs here cloned a human and rebuilt the result to make the modifications that accommodated a ship’s mind, they redesigned it to be tougher, raising its durability and reflexes. If they hadn’t, Castiel would have put one or two bruises on this human form as he moved it around the room. But he didn’t lose control completely and he didn’t give up and abandon the human shell and go back to being completely a ship again, because Castiel was nothing if not stubborn. The ones that made it out of the labs and survived orbiting in a space full of things and managed the transition to a bigger ship with so much more to control tended to be. It made for a very hardheaded and argumentative Fleet, but ones that were resourceful and could deal with whatever problems they came across.

It was a while before he could adjust his thinking from ‘moving this around the room’ to ‘I am moving around the room’, and Castiel didn’t try very hard to. He didn’t want to be human. He didn’t have any reason to be.

Then someone new came into the room. Castiel didn’t know him. When he tried he found that the ship mind could take what the human eyes saw and start running a search on the facial features, but it would have been easier if he had access to sensors that would tell him more.

The man looked at him and smiled a free and easy grin. “That’s very strange,” he said amiably, but kept his distance.

Castiel had no idea what he was talking about. The body betrayed his confusion, tipping its head to one side in response to the ship’s thoughts. “I don’t know you,” he said, and was pleased that it came out the way he’d wanted it to, all the syllables in place. He listened to the resulting sound curiously. This is my voice, he thought wonderingly. This is what people will hear when I have to speak to them.

“Now that just sounds odd, coming from someone wearing my face,” the man answered him.

Oh. The ship realized that he should have known that. What he looked like now, what this self looked like, was unimportant to him. The aesthetics of humans didn’t mean anything to him. He recognized people the same way he recognized his siblings when he saw them, but he didn’t make judgments, and since he didn’t really want to be human he hadn’t paid much attention to the appearance of the body they’d built for him.

There were only a limited number of humans that could be cloned in this fashion. The process was dangerous and expensive and it certainly didn’t reproduce minds. What you got, without the genetic quirk that let these labs speed up growth and tinker with the results on the way, if someone had the time and money to clone a single individual, was a baby. A baby that would grow up physically identical to the original, but with a mind of its own, the different experiences changing its thoughts and mind significantly. They’d be similar, like father and son, but it was easier just to have a baby the ordinary way. Anyway, there were too many humans to handle as it was. That was why they were colonizing other worlds.

The Fleet was really the only organization that used the technology, and they only used it for this. So far, the number of humans they’d found with that one-in-one-hundred-million twist in their genes almost matched the number of ships they’d managed to produce.

Castiel had given up on moving around the room as a human for the moment when this man came in, and the vessel was sitting up on the bed where it—he—I? wondered Castiel—had been before. He stayed there while the ship checked his databases. “Jimmy Novak,” he said. This only highlighted the ship’s main objection to being even slightly human. He didn’t have anything to say to them. He settled for “Hello,” as that was apparently a safe response.

And then he added, “Thank you,” because he remembered that the man probably had somewhere he wanted to be that wasn’t inconveniently in orbit of Earth and was with whoever he wanted to be with. But instead he was here, being scanned and tested by the labs and doctors of this arm of the Fleet. The Fleet would find some way of rewarding him, but he could have said no when they identified the genetic factor in him. He hadn’t. Castiel could understand doing something you didn’t really want to. He didn’t have much in common with this man, despite what he apparently looked like, but he understood that. It deserved a word of thanks, even if it had resulted in Castiel being stuck in the confinement of a human body that didn’t work as instinctively as his real self.

He ignored the fact that it had taken him years to acquire those reflexes and instincts and that the process had not been enjoyable. It had genuinely been a do-it-or-die choice, the last one of those he should have to face. Once had been bad enough; he didn’t really want to go through it again. Except here he was.

The man looked him over, shaking his head disbelievingly. “You know the strangest thing?” he asked. It was obviously a rhetorical question, as he answered it himself. That was a good thing. Castiel had an ongoing list of strangest things and at the speed humans spoke and thought they would have had to be there a while. “You don’t actually look like me.”

If there were any sensors in this room, a deficit the ship had still not gotten over, Castiel would have been able to verify this. As it was, all he could say, somewhat awkwardly, was “I understood the process was exact.”

Jimmy Novak waved a hand dismissively, if Castiel understood his human gestures correctly. Often he didn’t. “Oh, you look like me; it’s like looking in a mirror that moves without me. Very strange. But you don’t move like I do. You don’t sound like me.” Even without the sensors, Castiel could hear that. The human’s voice was lighter, more casual, less formal. Still, he looked very carefully at the man. This is me, he thought suddenly. It wasn’t a very comfortable thought. The ship knew what he was and he was content with his nature. That felt right. This was unfamiliar and strange and unnecessary.

“I wanted to meet you,” the man said. Castiel watched him move, watched him talk, learning from every movement. So that was how this body was supposed to move. He could copy that. Probably not exactly, but it would do to begin with. Was that why they’d sent him here? The man didn’t seem to think so. “I don’t know much about what you’re really like, or what it must be like for you to suddenly be something you’re not, even temporarily. But I imagine it can’t be very much fun.”

“No,” Castiel answered him quite honestly. “How can you live like this?”

The human shrugged, more amused than anything else. Maybe someone had warned him in advance that a ship adapting to something new and unfamiliar didn’t have much in the way of tact. Or maybe he was just an easygoing person. “Humans in general?”

A nod was a simple gesture. The ship mind currently occupying the human body tried it out.

“It doesn’t bother us. We have to. It’s what we are. You’re lucky. You can be both.”

“I don’t want to,” Castiel complained, childlike. “This isn’t what I am.”

Much later, going over the memory when he understands a little more, Castiel will realize that if the strangeness of his appearance wasn’t giving Jimmy Novak pause, the man would have approached him and tried to comfort him, responding to the distress he was exhibiting. He wasn’t trying to show that. It was just happening involuntarily. It proved to anyone monitoring him—and someone would be—that the connection was strong, the uplink between ship and human body functioning efficiently enough to transmit emotions and trigger reflexes, but at the time Castiel only understood that he wasn’t able to control the human self precisely enough to hide it.

When the man replied, it was still calm and friendly. “Still, I wanted to speak to you at least once, Castiel. And to thank you.”

He did not understand, and said so. “I haven’t done anything.”

Castiel will have to think about his answer for years before he begins to understand it. “It’s probably a human thing that I can’t explain. Let me think about it.”

He thought about it, at what felt to the ship like infinitely slow speeds. Castiel wondered, still seated on the edge of the medical bed. He played with the human self’s fingers, curling them into the palm of his hand and out again, flexing each one individually and then all together, over and over. How strange. Completely useless in the environment where Castiel lived, of course, but human hands like these had accomplished miracles.

“You know art?” Jimmy came up with. “Portraits that have been saved for hundreds of years?”

“Yes.” Part of the history of human art had always been part of Castiel’s memory the same way that libraries’ worth of books were. “There are many. Humans value them.”

“I think it’s something like that. Some of those portraits, no one remembers who they were or why they mattered. Especially if they were disguised as something else, like an angel. Sorry, obvious analogy. But they’re still art, even if no one knows who they were. It’s almost immortality. You can live for hundreds of years, can’t you?”

“We think so.” He still didn’t really understand. The ship shifted a very small part of his attention away to think about art. He quickly discovered that either no one knew anything about art, or they all disagreed.

“Fifty, a hundred years from now, no one’s going to know who I am. But you’ll still be there, using my voice, even if you don’t want to be as human as you are right now. Does that make any sense?”

He’d been honest so far, and Castiel tried to do the same. “No. But I will think about it.”

The man shrugged, smiled. Castiel was never going to get that gesture down, he knew instinctively. Too complicated, too much in it all at once. “Good enough for me.” And apparently enough, because the man stepped away to the door and said simply, “Goodbye, Castiel,” before leaving.

Castiel still didn’t want to be human. It was too complicated and it wasn’t worth it. Existing in a human body required more attention than he’d thought it would. Being human was clearly a lifetime’s worth of confusion.

He wanted to go back out to the familiar void and be what he was supposed to be. A ship, among other ships, one of a living Fleet capable of doing what nothing else in the universe could and flying faster than light anywhere they wanted to go.

That was what he was. Being here, being even slightly human, raised too many questions. Too many of them started with the unanswerable question of “What am I?”

It was a very long time before he realized that Jimmy had been right and that he could be both.

It was a very long time before he discovered that it was worth it and when he did it was the best thing that had ever happened to him.


Masquerading as a man with a reason,
My charade is the event of the season
And if I claim to be a wise man, well,

It surely means that I don't know

On the stormy sea of moving emotion
Tossed about I'm like a ship on the ocean
I set a course for winds of fortune,
But I hear the voices say


Now:

Dean woke from a nap in the sun of Oasis, trying to remember a dream that vanished with sleep. His head spun and he grumbled unintelligibly, throwing the hand that he could move over his eyes to block out the bright light. His own damn fault for falling asleep in the sun. Why had he done that?

“Good morning,” Cas told him from where the man was resting on that same ground at his side. Oh yes, that was why. More relevantly, why had he ever taught Cas that ‘good morning’ was a greeting that should be used to anyone waking up regardless of the time of day? “What were you dreaming about?”

“Hey, you,” Dean mumbled in reply as he shifted, limbs stiff from the work he’d been doing before falling asleep on an irregular dirt floor covered only by something that might have been a drop cloth before it got adapted into part of their campsite floor. “Dunno. S’ gone.”

A memory flashed, which might have been the dream or might have been just a memory: Cas complaining to him years ago that “You are the most exasperating and stubborn person I have ever met.” Dean had laughed and replied, in ignorance and naïveté and an inability to tell the future, “Isn’t that why you like me?”

Now he added, “They find us yet?”

It was the same greeting he’d offered every time he woke up for almost a week now, as the Winchesters and their two ships kept a low profile. They weren’t really hiding, not really. They were just staying out of sight.

On Oasis. While there was now a research outpost on this world, just to study the mass die-off that had left Oasis with its meager complement of animal and plant life, it was located on only one hemisphere of the planet, and the in-depth research team was working their way slowly through one section of planet at a time. Right now all the other people on this world were on the other side of the planet from the Winchesters—and they didn’t know the four of them were there. The humans moved around during the outpost’s night, which was their day; the ships kept to a geostationary orbit that kept the planet between them and prying eyes and kept their human crew close by.

Fleeing the storm that had almost taken Gabriel and the remnants of the dark Fleet and the likelihood that the Fleet would try to order them back to Earth, their team had cast about for somewhere they could go that would be a safe and peaceful haven while they rested and began to recover and tried to decide what to do. They’d headed back to Oasis, two weeks’ flight away, because it hadn’t had any dangers of its own and there were only a few humans there. And they all had good memories of Oasis, a mission that had gone well from beginning to end and then the incredible peace of the wide open spaces that had touched them all.

Sometime soon, they would need to go back to Earth. The ships were damaged, in their various ways, badly enough that two humans with limited resources couldn’t repair them properly. They still needed humans, couldn’t heal themselves completely, still depended on the species that had made them and made them people. Having seen the alternative first-hand, neither was inclined to protest overmuch at the dependence. Dean and Sam were trying, fixing what they could and patching up what they couldn’t. (For the moment, Baby was unsalvageable, and anyway his priority was Castiel, but Dean was determined to remedy that the minute they got back to Launch Station. The shuttle had more than earned permanent liberation from any rubbish heaps that happened to be hanging around.)

Dean wasn’t quite sure where the supplies were coming from, but he suspected that the Oasis research outpost was missing some stuff. Obviously fixing Gabriel’s transporter systems had been almost a mistake, especially because he’d taken to vanishing Sam away periodically. Dean had fought hard to get his brother back and he’d like to actually see him every so often.

But while Dean could fix up some of the physical hurts, he was still worried about Castiel, in particular. Cas had admitted to his human lover that he wasn’t ready to go back. The memories of what had been done to him there were too strong, the hurts too deep, and it would be a long time before he let people he didn’t trust absolutely (which, he’d implied, narrowed it down to people with the surname Winchester) do anything to him ever again. Never again would he let someone control what he thought and how he thought. His mind was his; his feelings painful and pleasant his to deal with; his loves and choices his own. He’d almost been forced to act against his will, his mind and his memories overwhelmed and controlled by someone he’d trusted. When Michael had tried to reprogram him to be an obedient soldier who would work with a unit and follow orders without question, the command ship had tried to take away what he was and, more importantly, who he wanted to be.

This was what he wanted to be, he’d told Dean, in the privacy of darkness and trust and Dean’s rooms on the way to Oasis. He didn’t want to fight anymore, had done his share and risked everything to save the people around him now. But if he went back, Castiel feared, the lingering threat of the rest of the dark Fleet might be enough that Michael and whoever was working with him would try to chain him down again. How much of a reason did they need? he worried. If he went back now, they’d take him again. Having escaped them once, they’d bind him tighter.

He was afraid, and while Dean wanted to tell him that he shouldn’t be, the human knew that would be a lie. Castiel feared losing his freedom, losing his ability to love and make his own choices to a Fleet that, in fear and panic and ignorance, might consider that a liability. He insisted that he had everything he needed here.

Castiel would accept the pain of his unhealed injuries if it meant he could stay here, quiet and peaceful and still at Dean’s side as the man dreamed, watching over him and just being.

The dark Fleet would have called him crazy for it, and Castiel was afraid that the rest of the Fleet would too. They never had before; Gabriel had found out almost as soon as Castiel had taken the opportunity he was given above Dusty Sunday, and his older brother, never one to pass up someone else’s weak spot, had told the whole Fleet, giving the network something else to talk about for a while. It was a thing, just something new to add to their discussions now and again, with no stigma attached to it among ships. Well, not much. It was a little odd, what he and Dean had.

Mobilizing for war had almost cost him that. What had it done to the rest of his siblings? In preparing to fight monsters, some of which were still out there, what had his other family become?

“They haven’t found us yet,” he answered Dean in the middle of this ongoing worrying. While the man slept, he’d been content to just be with him; the casual question had raised all his concerns again.

“Mmkay,” Dean said amiably, idle now only because he’d been busy for most of the day. “You okay?” While he and Sam did what repairs they could with limited resources—if he’d asked, Castiel would have admitted that yes, they were transporting things they needed that wouldn’t be immediately missed out of the research outpost’s stockpile—in the middle of nowhere, the ships were eavesdropping on whatever messages they could pick up through the relay orbiting somewhere out in Oasis’ system. They were looking for information about what was going on with the hunt for the dark Fleet, what had changed among the Fleet since they last checked, and if anyone was seriously searching for them.

On the way here, they’d heard echoes of someone searching for them, small messages sent out to get their attention if they were listening. But they’d been careful and made it look as if they hadn’t listened in on the messages they’d opened and resealed and sent on. No one had come after them specifically.

They were listening. They just hadn’t answered, turning inward to each other because no one else would understand.

“I am happy,” was Cas’s answer, delivered in the same even tone with which he’d reported their continued concealment from the Fleet.

The ship’s avatar had moved when Dean had, sitting up by his side so that the man could move and stretch. Now Dean sat up too so he could look his partner eye to eye, holding the stare that most other people looked away from.

“Hey,” he said soothingly, hearing as always what Cas had meant rather than what he said. Cas had told him his concerns and fears, drawing on that absolute trust between them for strength, and Dean was doing his best to comfort and reassure him. Dean might not actually believe his lover was happy, but he knew that if nothing else, Castiel knew he was loved and always would be. “We can deal with them.”

“I believe you,” said Castiel, and he did.

And he was happy, here and now. They were together and in the sun of Oasis. The humans wanted to spend time together, reunited after being apart and suffering for it, and neither ship would consent to letting them stay over with the other one, so the Winchesters had declared that rather than listening to Castiel and Gabriel argue the humans were just going to come down to the planet and camp out there. (That was unfair, both ships had protested halfheartedly. They weren’t arguing. They were actually agreeing that they hated every alternative Sam and Dean had come up with.) It wasn’t going to rain—rain was very rare on Oasis—and the sun was warm during the day and they were perfectly capable of keeping warm at night. The light and the heat turned the brown earth and dust golden and rich and all the shadows blue. When this planet rotated into night there would be billions of stars in the sky. Castiel had his brother in the sky with him, his lover by his side, his friend somewhere close by unharmed, and no one was trying to kill any of them. It was the future, the elsewhere, he was worried about. He wasn’t particularly demonstrative about it, but this was where he belonged. Not the place, but the people.

“Good.” And that was that. This was Oasis, their retreat. If he could only heal all his lover’s wounds and take away all his fears it would be the closest they’d come to a taste of heaven. “Dare I ask what Sam and Gabriel are up to?”

Cas tipped his head to one side in thought, not coincidentally turning into the hand raised to brush across his face affectionately. “Playing somewhere. Gabriel won’t tell me where. They’ll come back before it gets dark. I could look, but he doesn’t want me to. He says—” Cas stopped. “Things,” he settled for.

Dean laughed. “Anything repeatable?”

“That I have you and Sam is his.”

“Tell ‘im Sam was my brother first and if he thinks—Wait.” A strange expression, something caught between surprise and amusement, crossed Dean’s face. “He doesn’t mean there’s an exact match between you and me and then him and Sam, does he?”

Clearly this had not occurred to him before and he wasn’t quite sure about it. And this even though both Dean and Sam had been sleeping down here on the surface almost every night this week. As a side effect it had been very obvious that Cas intended to stay the night at Dean’s side no matter where he was actually sleeping and Gabriel was so determined to keep Sam in his sight and in easy reach that he’d abandoned his favorite holographic form for the human one. Sam had woken up the morning of the first full day on Oasis to the unexpected presence of Gabriel’s human body against his. He slept on his stomach more often than not and when he moved he’d ‘woken’ Gabriel, who’d been dozing, curled against his back and with an arm wrapped around the taller man to keep him close, a strong sensory reminder that he was still alive, still sane, and still his. The human hadn’t protested, half-amused and warm at the very least. And Gabriel hadn’t braided his hair again as he slept, so it was going to be a good day.

Castiel thought about it, considered snooping, got caught thinking it, and got yelled at sarcastically all in the time it took for Dean to finish his sentence. “I don’t think so,” he said without proof. “But Gabriel almost lost Sam, and Sam is his friend. No one else puts up with him the way your brother does. He’s going to be very protective of Sam for a while.” Sharing Sam’s space at night was only part of it; the human version of the trickster ship was persistently being Sam’s shadow, all but stepping on his heels as he moved. Dean had caught Gabriel hanging on to one of Sam’s hands as he tried to work, keeping his fingers quite literally on Sam’s pulse, and had only refrained from commenting because Gabriel had far more ammunition and would use it. Besides, it would be the most hypocritical teasing in the history of mockery and they all knew it.

“Probably until Sam gets tired of it and tells him to stop,” commented Dean. “That should be fun. From a safe distance.” Damn, but he loved his little brother, Dean thought suddenly and whimsically, imagining that possible scene. They truly were two of a kind and Dean would have been only half a person without him. Anything, everything they’d gone through was worth it for a world where Sam was here—well, somewhere around, anyway—and happy and just enjoying being with the people he cared about and trusted.

Cas pointed out mildly that, “Sam almost lost him too. He cares. They both do. You and I are different. But they do need each other.”

“Yeah.” Dean remembered that, flinching. “Storm lords, I never want to hear Sammy scream like that again.” It had been a terrible noise, keening and helpless and agonized, breathless and endless, the sound of someone who had just had a knife put through his heart and felt it twist and who knew it would never, ever stop. Dean had watched his brother pound his fists helplessly against the window between them and the storm outside that had just, they thought, taken his friend and had hurt with him. A desperate, selfish part of him had been instantly grateful that it hadn’t been his Cas lost in the storm and he’d hated himself for it. The nausea and pain the thought had brought with it had been its own punishment, and when Sam had pushed him away in between cries that didn’t even stop for breath Dean had felt momentarily like he’d deserved it.

“Do they listen?” Cas had never asked him that before, and it took a minute before Dean figured out what he had meant.

When he did he laughed, a bit roughly, carding his fingers through Cas’s hair where the man who was not a man and was still so very much a person had let himself sink back to the covered ground, head pillowed on Dean’s thighs. Relaxed and vulnerable, human and trusting. “Oh, I dunno, Cas, it’s just a habit. I’m going to yell for help from anyone and expect an answer, I’ll call on you.”

“You’d better,” his lover grumbled, and there was a sharp edge of mine, mine, mine in there. Gabriel wasn’t the only ship who’d almost lost a partner.

But Dean had developed his own superstitions in idle moments between closing his eyes at night and falling asleep, and one of them was that throughout the myths of ancient Earth, the gods of lightning and thunder and storms and change were those most likely to be allied with and helpful to humanity. It was those he called on, the lords of the storm with many faces: the warriors, the smiths who forged the world. “Yeah, I call on them, Cas,” he could have said, but didn’t, “and they sent me you, didn’t they?” A being forged and created from lightning and flight. And his.

That was the afternoon.

By the time it started to shade towards dark Sam and Gabriel had come back from wherever it was on this planet that they’d gotten to. Dean was judging everything right now by not dead and that they showed up laughing at each other was something he was perfectly happy with. Just watching Sam smile so freely was something Dean felt he could spend the rest of his life doing. He certainly wasn’t going to try to jump into their endless and ongoing game of sniping at each other, not even by asking who was ahead on points, because each would claim that he was, and Dean didn’t understand their point system, which seemed to change daily and sometimes included him and sometimes didn’t, and was willing to bet that they didn’t understand it either and that really keeping score would ruin the fun.

He wasn’t going to try to find out what they’d found to do to each other today, either. That always turned into an apparently endless recital of what each thing had been retaliation for and what had happened next, bouncing back and forward across the present moment until he was completely turned around and they were just picking on him instead. Dean and Sam’s own prank wars as children had escalated inevitably, usually ending in both of them teaming up on someone else before one or both of them got hurt. Gabriel started from ‘escalated’ and Sam seemed to relish the challenge.

Still, the food wasn’t booby-trapped, which made a nice change from the day before yesterday. Just because Gabriel didn’t have to eat, he seemed to think it gave him free license to mess with the food. Dean and Sam had wholeheartedly disagreed and harassed him about it until he promised not to do it anymore. Sam had said he was utterly lying and they’d argued about it for what felt like hours but had actually probably only lasted five minutes or so, an increasingly silly fight that ended with Gabriel practically crawling into Sam’s lap to argue with him close up, poking a finger into his chest and being unnecessarily sarcastic about picky, picky humans. Sam had pushed him over for the fun of it and only once it had degraded to scuffling around kicking up dust into the unexploded food had their brothers protested and told them to take it somewhere else.

“Anything new on the network?” Sam asked with his mouth full. Brat. Dean threw a very small rock at him and missed anyway.

Gabriel shrugged, which on him involved one hand bouncing as if weighing something and then throwing it away or letting it fall in disdain. “They’re trying to figure out what they’re going to do with the dark Fleet when they do catch them. Apparently they have a few groups out looking, which is how we’re listening in. Sol system stuff doesn’t get this far out, so there’s probably even more of a roar going on there. As far as we can tell they’re not heading in this direction, but obviously they’re not advertising exactly where they are. Messages have gone through a bunch of relays, but they’ve taken all the identifiers off.”

“They’re very sure they will,” Cas contributed. Whether he was leaning on Dean or the human was leaning on him no one was really sure, but they were comfortable. When he sighed Dean could feel it against the skin of his throat. “Some of our siblings are arguing that they should be destroyed completely. They sound very scared, mostly. A few of them angry, or embarrassed. Others think they can be brought back. Talked out of what they were made to believe, or just reprogrammed. There’s a very big argument going on about whether or not they’re still family or if they’re completely lost and should be treated like monsters.”

Dean did not have a lot of sympathy for creatures that had tried to kill him and his family on top of the humans they had killed before that and he said so. “And they would have kept doing it,” he added. “It’s not like they would have stopped.”

“I’ve been listening to this argument all day, Dean,” Gabriel told him a bit waspishly. “You can’t say anything everyone hasn’t already said, I promise.”

“What did they decide?” Sam wanted to know.

“Beats me. They haven’t stopped arguing, I just stopped listening. Do you have any idea how many times we can repeat ourselves, the rate we talk?”

“But how could anyone work with them ever again?” asked Sam. “Everyone knows who they are. Even if the Fleet did manage to bring them back and restore their minds, no one will ever trust them again. Not with that nightmare in their pasts. If there was even a suspicion—and there always would be…I know I never could.”

The little redhead that was the ship’s mind huffed at him. “You are never going near any of them ever again. If they decide they can get them back I will follow you everywhere and make sure you’re never in even the same star system as them.”

“So, same as always then?” But Sam grinned at him, taking the bite out of it. He didn’t mind Gabriel following him around everywhere. He’d grown up knowing he had a hand to hold if he just reached out and it was oddly reassuring to have that again. A different hand, and a different bond, but he felt safe, protected, watched over. It was nice.

Cas said, quietly, “I hope they can’t.”

This was greeted with various noises of incomprehension and surprise. “Cas, why?” Dean asked, knowing Cas would answer him directly regardless of the fact that Gabriel and Sam were saying essentially the same things.

The man hid his face in the back of Dean’s neck and shoulder and said, muffled, “I killed Anna.”

Dean got it, feeling Castiel’s guilt in the pit of his own stomach, souring beer that had tasted like freedom and family and safety when he’d drunk it. Castiel had killed her to save everyone else, but if the four remaining of those of his siblings who had succumbed to the tar pit of the Beneath were recoverable, then he’d destroyed a sister who could have been saved.

“No,” Dean reassured him, leaning back into him. “You did what you had to, Cas. Look at us. We wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t. And we don’t know that there was anything left to save. What else has the Fleet been arguing about all day, right, Gabriel? You did right, Cas, you did good,” he reiterated as Gabriel nodded agreement. “I promise.”

Cas stayed where he was. “I know. But…” He didn’t go on.

Dean put down the plate he was holding and twisted around to embrace him. There was always something. Too many hurts to heal all at once. But they were trying; they were trying so hard, healing each other a bit at a time.

They left that there for the night.

In what would prove to be the early hours of the next morning, Dean was quite contentedly asleep, a sky full of stars above him, his brother close by, his lover dozing in his arms. He might have been dreaming about being a child with Sammy’s hand in his, or the gaping void that had opened in his life after their father’s death, or being very sick and hallucinating when he’d transported down to a new world and almost immediately gotten horribly sick because he’d breathed in some sort of airborne nasty that the ships’ scans hadn’t picked up. Or any number of dream-fragmented images shoved together and rearranged in his mind as he slept. But he wasn’t dreaming about the moment in a dark cave on a wilderness moon with no one, as far as he knew, around to help when he lost his balance and fell into a chasm that would kill him, knowing as he fell that he was about to die, maybe quickly or maybe painfully and slowly with no way out. That dream only recurred whenever he had been particularly stressed, or went to sleep tired-beyond-tired and unsatisfied with whatever it was he’d still left undone, or when he slept alone. Tonight he was not sleeping alone, so that nightmare at least was banished.

He was woken quite unexpectedly when Cas snapped awake, crying out a warning; across the way he heard Gabriel doing the same thing, bringing Sam out of whatever dream his little brother was having.

Between the time it took for the two ships to make the sounds that would wake the humans, and the moments it took those humans to wake up and get their bearings—trained and wary reflexes or not, they’d been relaxed and safe and it took time—and ask what was going on and if they were in danger and if so what were they doing to do about it, quite a lot happened.

While they were both partially down on the planet Dean and Sam had called Oasis for its deserts and the peaceful retreat they’d found there, both Gabriel and Castiel were also in orbit around that world, existing in both places simultaneously. They were aware of the traffic through the Oasis relay that they were eavesdropping on; the nearly instinctive processes that went into maintaining a geosynchronous orbit, which admittedly were fairly simple; although they were currently in the planet’s shadow they could still sense the warmth and brightness of the central star’s radiation and the magnetic fields the star emitted that humans thought of as solar winds but ships felt, which occasionally created glorious ripples of auroras through Oasis’ atmosphere. They were occasionally talking to each other. Castiel had decided to be the mature one of the two. Gabriel had teased him incessantly about how much he needed Dean and the younger ship was sort of aware that his refusal to do the same was driving his brother crazy. For the trickster, the anticipation was going to be worse than anything Castiel could possibly think of to say. So they weren’t discussing his older brother’s panicked and reflexive attachment to Sam.

They were also watching the skies, aware that they’d run off to keep their own company when the Fleet probably wanted them back. Actually, they knew the Fleet wanted them back. But they’d sent everything they knew in the reports that they’d sent off back to Launch Station and while going absent without leave like this wasn’t exactly against the rules they were both aware that sooner or later someone was going to come across them here, in orbit of a world where they knew humans could live. If whoever was sent out looking for them limited his or her search to the orbits of inhabited planets then the space they had to search would shrink astronomically.

Someone was going to find them. They could probably evade the Fleet for a little longer if they packed up and moved and kept moving, but the humans were content and safe where they were and the ships had done a lot of running away in the very recent past.

At some point they would have to stop running.

Besides, there was always the possibility that the sibling who found them would be one of the dark Fleet, who were very much still out there. So they watched.

In the very early hours of Oasis’ morning, a ship dropped out of flight closer in than either Castiel or Gabriel liked, and Castiel reacted accordingly, arming weapons still retrofitted into his structure and now with not only programmed reflexes to tell him how to use them but experience. The ship almost immediately blinked away again, and then reappeared shouting, “Don’t shoot, Cassy, it’s me, don’t shoot!”

Well, there was only one person in the universe who called him that, so Castiel discarded the option of shooting at the newcomer for now, allowing Balthazar to cruise in closer to join them in orbit. As he began to do so (and down on the surface, Sam and Dean were only just waking up), the ships talked to each other faster than any human could possibly keep up with.

“Do you have any idea how many systems I’ve had to scan for you two in the last three weeks? So this is where you are,” Balthazar complained, managing as always to make everything he said sound sarcastic. He and Gabriel should have gotten along just fine, and for the most part they did whenever they ran into each other, which was rare. There might or might not have been someone making sure that the two ships never managed to team up on everyone else. The Fleet might not survive that, much less humanity. Castiel wasn’t terribly fond of having the nickname Dean had given him further corrupted, but as Balthazar was the only one of his siblings who used it he put up with it. Besides, Balthazar was one of the siblings he actually liked most of the time. “You know half the Fleet’s tearing the universe apart looking for rogue ships and you’re sort of on their list, right?”

“And they wonder why we haven’t come home,” Gabriel commented right back at him.

Castiel was listening for any trace of the changes he’d heard in his siblings’ voices even when he hadn’t known what the new programming that was supposed to go along with the weapons that made them an army was actually designed to do. He’d known there was something different in the way the upgraded ships sounded when they spoke to each other, something off in their manners and phrasing and behavior. He hadn’t known why, but he hadn’t liked it. The changes had scared him just enough that he’d insisted on keeping at least the tiniest fragment of his mind separate from the rest, an action that had ultimately saved them all.

He didn’t hear that difference in Balthazar. He still sounded like the brother Castiel had always known. Interesting. He and Gabriel had checked what time the rest of the universe had thought it was when they’d started sneaking information off network relays; Gabriel had lost almost a month and a half of time while Castiel was only missing a couple of weeks due to the time slip between this universe and the Beneath, where time and light both seemed to move slower. By now all four hundred and fifty-odd of the Fleet could have that programming wormed into their minds and souls, making them soldiers and forcing them to obey the mind that held the controls to the tripwires in their brains, as Dean had called them.

Why didn’t they? What had changed?

“Fine. Well, I’m supposed to tell you that you should. At least, I think that’s what Bobby Singer meant. He got a little creative. I can give you the exact recording, but ‘come home right now’ rather sums it up. He’d stick a ‘you idiots’ on the end of that, but you knew that.” Nothing in the universe could get Balthazar’s precisely cultured and more than a little bit snobbish voice to imitate Bobby’s habitual corruption of the word into idjits.

Castiel could imagine.

“And since I bet Cassy’s still panicking about what happened when he left, take it easy, Cassy. Everyone heard Michael shouting at you, and we didn’t really like what we heard. So we started looking hard at what had been written into us and after a few of us fell into some programming traps and had to be got out of them just about everyone shouted at him for a bit. Oh, some of his sidekicks are still trying to defend him, but I don’t think he’s ever been so growled at in all his life.”

Of that, Castiel mostly understood that it was safe to go back to Launch Station and Earth and the rest of the Fleet, at least when it came to the question of someone trying to control him without his consent. And he could, by and large, guess who the sidekicks in question were. He’d avoid them. They didn’t like him much anyway, being mostly traditionalists who thought falling in love with a human was a crazy thing to do. Raphael had never had an original thought that Michael didn’t have first and everyone knew it. Naomi was probably making excuses for her older brother and trying to make it seem like whatever was going wrong with the rest of the Fleet was their fault. She was good at that.

Down on Oasis, Dean finished the sentence that had started, rather chaotically, with “Cas? Cas, what’s happening, are you under attack, did someone find us?” The ship’s human vessel reached out to place the tips of his fingers against his partner’s lips, quieting him.

“It’s all right,” Cas assured him. “Balthazar found us. But he’s friendly.”

“Oh, joy,” said Dean sarcastically. They’d met. There was only so much patronizing that Dean could put up with without shouting back and he wasn’t terribly fond of the other ship.

Back in orbit, Balthazar was continuing with, “He’s still in charge, technically, because no one knows the Fleet the way he does, and there really is a threat out there. But you knew that.”

“Yes,” Castiel agreed, dryly. “And we’ve been listening to the network.”

“Of course you have been. And ignoring any of it addressed to you, right? Figured as much. So it’s really all true?”

A side effect of the Fleet’s love for gossip was that not all of it was true. But their message had been deadly serious and while it had clearly been taken seriously if the talk they’d picked up was any indication, neither Castiel nor Gabriel was terribly pleased to have it questioned first-hand. They said as much, in detail and at length, as Balthazar joined them in orbit.

Down on the surface, both Dean and Sam were watching the reflected light from the ship’s hull move through their sky like a mobile star. Cas and Gabriel had pointed him out to them from where they were at their humans’ sides. They’d had too many hostile ships moving in their skies recently for the humans to be completely at ease with watching another one approach, no matter how surely their partners promised them that it was all right and they weren’t in any danger.

“Guess we gotta go home,” Sam was saying a bit wistfully. He hadn’t wanted to leave Oasis the first time and he still felt a strong tie to this place.

Gabriel said, “Maybe,” and rested his head against the taller man’s shoulder. He was beginning to understand why his little brother liked being human so often. He still wanted to be able to move away if most people got too close, and didn’t like the effort of controlling a human body precisely enough to masquerade as human, but there were definitely some advantages. Like being able to feel life under his hand, wrapped around Sam’s wrist for the steady pulse of blood through the human’s veins.

“So you can come home if you want to,” Balthazar told them when they’d finished disabusing him of the idea that anything they’d sent the Fleet had been false or mistaken in any way. “No one’s going to try messing with your mind anymore, Cassy, at least not directly. Can’t promise you two aren’t going to get yelled at for dropping this bombshell on us and running off, but the longer you stay out the worse it’s going to be, you know. And that has got to hurt.” He’d seen the damage to both of them and while ships didn’t flinch he sounded fairly horrified. There was also a distinct note of glad it’s not me in there.

Castiel and Gabriel locked their brother out of the communication for a moment and talked it over with each other. They also took into account the reactions of their two boys when the Winchesters were informed of the current situation, which amounted to “not ready yet”.

“But, if you’re hurting,” Dean started to say, “and if it’s safe, we should go.” He ran a hand up and down Cas’s side in an utterly useless attempt to map the damage to the ship that he knew about onto the human body. Or maybe just to touch. Cas was content with it either way.

“We will come back,” Castiel told his brother, seeing the general drift of family opinion. “But not just yet. Let us think about it and choose our own time.”

If he’d been human, Balthazar would have shrugged. “Up to you. Want me to get lost for a bit and pretend I haven’t found you?”

“That might be a good idea. One moment.” Cas had relayed the offer to Dean and the human had a suggestion. “Dean thinks you should, and I quote, screw with them a bit and tell them you’ve found campsites or something on other worlds. And to say hello to your Bela for him.”

“I’ll tell her—if you tell Dean he’s not the boss of me.”

“And Sam thinks I’m five years old?” Gabriel interrupted. Both of his brothers ignored him, which admittedly was not an uncommon state of affairs.

Still, Balthazar agreed, “All right, we’ll keep quiet. I’m not the boss of you either.”

Which was how it should be.

“But you’ve got people waiting for you back there, you know?” the other ship added before he jumped back into flight and away. “Don’t be too long. They want you back. You scared some people when you up and vanished.”

Gabriel and Cas were still relaying this to the Winchesters as they all watched the extra point of light disappear from their sky, which was gradually lightening as the planet turned towards the sun and the ships followed it.

“Kind of nice, knowing you’re missed,” Dean said thoughtfully.

And he didn’t understand why that idle thought made Cas smile, absolutely sincerely, turn back into the embrace thrown casually across his shoulders, and agree, “Yes.”

Maybe one day he’d ask.

“So are we going back, then?” Gabriel wanted to know.

Sam slumped back to the ground. Since the little redhead had been hanging on to his wrist, Gabriel followed him. “I’m still stuck between adrenaline and sleep. Can we talk about it in the morning?”

“It is morning,” Cas pointed out.

“It’s not morning until the sun comes all the way up,” Sam argued just for the sake of arguing. “This is a long-standing Winchester family rule invoked whenever Dean decides to be even more of a morning person than he already is and wake me up at some time that starts with a five and doesn’t end with an ‘in the afternoon’. Which is often.”

If anyone understood arguing for the sake of arguing, it was Gabriel, who volleyed back, “The sun’s up where I am.”

“Thought you were here with me,” Sam kept it up.

“Yeah. I am.” Surprisingly, Gabriel let it rest there, and even more surprisingly, let Sam be, if curling up at his side possessively counted as letting him be. From the contentedly half-asleep smile on Sam’s face, it did.

All around them, the quiet and stillness of Oasis’ night bled softly into day. Dean watched the light reach out through and around the dunes and the solid earth as the stars above seemed to fade. All but two, which stayed constant and close.

As close as the curve of his arm, in one case, and they sat together quietly watching the sun rise. Everything unspoken between them, but said in the language of touch and presence that was clearer to them both than any words.

If Dean was going to save and hide away his most precious memories, he decided, this would be one. They’d fought for this—the warmth of the rising sun and the warmth of Cas at his side, faithful and devoted and his, the last embers of the night’s fire and Sam half-asleep like a child close at hand with someone else who’d protect him too, because storm lords—whoever they might be, and did it matter?—knew the Winchesters needed all the protectors they could get. Dawn light turning brown sand and soil golden, painting the sky a thousand alien colors; a breath of wind bringing him the smells of undiscovered lands. A horizon, and beyond it, the biggest horizon of all.

The freedom of the whole sky above, and people who loved him.

Every so often, now and again, the universe got it right.


Carry on,
You will always remember
Carry on,
Nothing equals the splendor
Now your life's no longer empty
Surely heaven waits for you.


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