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if it's true

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The Empty is... Adam's not going to lie, the Empty is probably the most unnerving place he's ever been in, and he's spent a really long time in Hell. It's the pitch blackness that's getting to him the most, the emptiness and the utter silence. Unlike the Cage, he's here of his own free will, but also unlike the Cage, he's here alone, and he's really not sure if it's better or worse on net. 

But hopefully he won't be alone for long. Dean had said he'd just walked, and called out for Cas, and he'd showed right up. Made it sound as simple as picking up a gallon of milk at the grocery store. On the other hand, Dean could probably condense War and Peace to three or four bitten-off words, so Adam's not sure how reassuring he should find that. Especially when it doesn't take a genius to see that Dean and Cas are wrapped up in the kind of tooth-rotting love that saves the world and brings people back from the dead, and Adam's only got a half-formed crush and a thousand years of codependency on his side. Not that he minds! He's had time to get comfortable with both of those things. He's just not so sure Michael will come when he calls. 

Focusing on all the ways this could go wrong is definitely not going to help him. He picks a direction and starts walking, trusting that it probably won't matter too much if he gets turned around and starts going in a circle in the dark. He walks for what feels like a long time, although his sense of time has been impressively fucked up ever since Hell, and he talks. Quietly, so as not to wake up anything they should probably let sleep, but he tells Michael about the days he's missed. There's not really much to tell, given that until Jack had showed up he'd really just stuck close to home and tried to relax, but it's not like he doesn't have practice spinning a conversation out way longer than it should be. He rambles, and he steers clear of topics like "Michael, I can't believe after everything you went back to your dad" and "Michael, your nephew is the new God and it's really weird" and "Michael, I might be in love with you." 

He gets as far as the spell in the library, and the hole-in-the-wall burger joint a few miles out from their apartment that Eileen passed through a couple years back and swears by, and stops. He has no idea how long he's been walking, or where he is, or where Michael is, and he really doesn't want to leave without him and he really doesn't want the Winchesters to come pull him out. On the other hand - there are so many other things boiling up inside him, just under his tongue, and he doesn't know if he wants to say any of them, or which one he could even start with.

Don't make me go back alone. Don't make me learn to do this without you. Don't make me keep feeding the stray cats you keep luring to the back door by myself. He can't help the huff of laughter that bursts up at the memory of Michael frozen on the apartment steps with what must have been every cat in the neighborhood twining around his ankles. "I miss you," he tells the darkness before he can think better of it, the last traces of a smile still clinging stubbornly to his face. "I miss you, you idiot. Come home with me."

Far away, so faint he nearly misses it, there's a spark of something just a little brighter than the endless smooth floors of the Empty. Oh.

Adam's not ashamed to say he breaks into a sprint.

Michael seems curled in on himself somehow, wings folded and myriad eyes shut, and the golden glow of him is dimmer than Adam's ever seen it before. But he's there, and that's the only thing Adam cares about right now. If Michael is there, Adam can wake him up, and if he wakes him up, they can leave. That's what Jack said, and the kid is God now, he should know. Michael's wings rise and fall slowly, slowly, the gentle rhythm of sleep, and for just one moment Adam lets himself really look at him. He's never seen Michael like this before, hopefully never will again, but he's - he's peaceful. Finally, for once in his impossibly long life, he's at peace.

"Michael," he tries, softly, and reaches out to brush the massive golden feather nearest to him. "Michael, wake up."

The wing that had almost been brushing his cheek flares out, nearly taking Adam's head off, but then the great stirring mass of light and feathers shrinks and shifts until Adam is suddenly looking himself in the face. Or, close to himself - there's that set to the jaw, the tension in the shoulders that screams Michael, and he really hadn't realized how much he'd missed him until he was right there -

Michael blinks at him once, twice. Then, in a voice so courteous it clips right through polite and straight into chilly: "Oh. It's you. I'd thought you would want me soundly out for all eternity."

In Adam's defense, it wasn't that long ago that he was murdered by God himself. In the days since then he's been out of his mind with worry and then grief, and he's just shot himself into a hostile parallel dimension to drag Michael's sorry ass out after he got himself killed trying to help his asshole dad destroy the world even faster. So he's maybe a little sharper than he'd meant to be. "If I'd known you were going to be like this about it, I wouldn't have bothered to come." That's - okay, that's a lie, he would've, and now that he's here he's still not leaving without Michael. He'd just kind of hoped that maybe it wasn't true. That there was some other explanation, that Michael hadn't chosen his father over Adam in the end.

"Yes, I wish you hadn't." Okay, that stung. Michael takes in the wounded, furious expression Adam hasn't even bothered trying to hide, and has the fucking - the fucking gall to shoot Adam a look that's more annoyed than anything. "Don't. Don't look at me like I'm the one being cruel here."

He can't quite keep all the bitterness out of his voice when he shoots back, "You always do take a couple centuries to realize when you've fucked up, don't you?"

"Don't throw that back at me. You're not the one I owe an apology to." There's a furling of light like a whip that Adam knows means Michael's having trouble restraining himself from violence, but he's well past giving a shit. How could this have gone so far south - he'd really thought, after everything, that he'd meant more to Michael than that. That Michael had finally realized that the kinds of fathers who left their children behind without so much as a backwards glance weren't worth a plug nickel, that they could make something better together.

"Yeah, I heard all about that, how you went right back over to your dad's side begging his forgiveness -" Michael erupts, wings and blades of light and incomprehensible wheeling forms of birds and beasts and vast spires lashing out in a fraction of a second. The Adam-shape in front of him is incandescent with fury, and something more pained than fury.

"What do you want?" Michael snarls in a voice that's more than sound. A thousand gleaming wings rear back, every feather spread. "For me to say it all over again? That I would have done anything for anyone who had the power to bring him back, that for years the only thing I wanted was his absolution, that I loved him?" The coldness inside Adam's chest is just growing, threatening to suck him down under black water again even as Michael blazes in front of him. The glowing-eyed apparition in front of him takes a ragged gasp of air that it doesn't need. "That I loved him, as no angel should ever love a human? That he alone showed me what there was to value in the world my father abandoned?" Oblivious to Adam's sudden, screeching recalibration, the trembling vastness of Michael's grace sinks down, slipping away until there's just the shape of a man, sunk to his knees with only the faintest suggestion of wings furled close around him.

"I loved him," Michael says into the silence, in a voice that's only their own. "I hurt him beyond forgiveness. I was too much of a coward to save him in the end. You've had your fun, now take his face off and put me back to sleep."

Michael is a thrashing flood of despair in front of him, a sucking well of bitterness that would make Adam's heart ache if he weren't fucking giddy with relief. "Hey. Michael. Look at me." Michael doesn't move. "Hey. It's me, dumbass." Adam doesn't think he could have put even the slightest fraction of heat into the insult even if he'd tried. When they'd just gotten out of Hell, when he'd seen the world spread out in front of them for the first time in centuries, he'd been overjoyed. Somehow, he feels the same now, alight with relief and an entire universe of possibilities ahead of him. 

Gently, he reaches for Michael's shoulder, feels something solid under his hand for just one instant before Michael starts back, head snapping up to scan his face. His eyes are wide, searching, so impossibly Michael even though Adam knows they're the perfect copy of his own, and for just a moment they're both perfectly still, caught breathless with hope. Then Michael collapses into relief. Through the mostly-human shape he's wearing Adam can see him settle, an echo of the peace he'd had before. "It's me, Michael. I'm getting you out of here." He aims his tone for light, because otherwise he'll be swept away with a nameless joy he doesn't think he can stand. "Come on, asshole. The kitchen light burned out two days ago and it's too high for me to reach."


"There we go!"

"Adam. Adam, I -" The way Michael's looking at him, tentative and reverent and still half-disbelieving and utterly lost for words, Adam thinks he's going to break apart if he has to weather those eyes on him a second longer. He settles for grabbing Michael's arm and tugging him up. If he's reveling in the closeness of Michael's grace after so many days alone, nobody has to know about it but him.

"Hey, it's okay. You don't have to say anything. Come on, let's get out of here before you wake something up that we should probably let sleep."

Michael scans his face for a moment, and then seems to come to some sort of conclusion, his stance settling into something more decided, more like the Michael Adam remembers. "Of course. I -"

"Oh, you kids missed that one by a long shot." There's a liquid rustle and a voice that Adam only knows from half-shared memories, but he's got a pretty good guess at who the short man with the neat beard and freezing eyes is supposed to be. The Empty sizes up Michael impassively. "Bit of a screamer, aren't you?"

Michael puts himself between Adam and the Shadow immediately, which would be sweet if he weren't the one who's probably in more danger, of the two of them. "Don't touch him."

The Empty pulls an exaggerated face. "Ew. No. Why would I want to? This place isn't built for humans. Don't want them, never have. You, on the other hand..."

"You don't touch him either," Adam says, although he's pretty sure he's the least able to back that up of any of them.

The Empty rolls Chuck's eyes at them both. "Kid, he's mine. Mine. He died fair and square, he sleeps fair and square. Them's the breaks."

"Adam -" and okay, no, Adam didn't spend hours crying on the couch and then planning a prison break with the Winchesters and their god-kid just to go home empty-handed, even if Michael's going to be a colossal idiot about it.

"Yeah, well, he's awake now, and I'm not leaving without him."

"Y'know, it'd be cute how you think you call any of the shots here, except for how it's really annoying." The Empty leans in, its voice somehow even colder. "He's. Mine. Here's the deal - if you go home now, I won't torture you for hours before kicking you out myself."

"Adam," Michael says, a little more desperately.

"No. Shut up." He can see the ruffled feathers rippling off Michael in waves, and he doesn't give a single shit. To the Empty, he adds, "You don't want me here. You don't want me screaming."

"You got me, I don't." Adam can't really enjoy his moment of triumph because the Empty adds sourly, "But you know what I want even less? For this shit to keep happening. You know, when the new kid took over I wasn't even mad about it. I don't care who's running the show as long as they keep it quiet. I even let them take Castiel back without a fuss because I figured he'd stop there. But if I have to make an example of you, to keep this kind of thing from happening again whenever the new god gets bored?" Adam doesn't even have a moment's warning before the Empty raises a hand, twists it, and everything hurts. "I won't think twice." He's vaguely aware of his own screams echoing through the nothing all around them, of Michael thrashing all the thousand gleaming facets of him, begging for it to leave Adam alone, and he'd feel kind of touched if he weren't so busy feeling the kind of pain that somehow manages to top out even being literally eaten alive.

"I'll go back to sleep, I'll stay here," Michael pleads in the background, and the boiling agony dies back enough for him to collapse gasping on whatever passes for ground out here.

"Oh, shut up," the Empty says, almost fondly, "obviously you're staying. Don't get so worked up, it's not like I'm keeping him either. Just... disincentivizing idiot heroes showing up to pull this kind of stunt again. Now stay down." Michael crumples like a ragdoll next to him and doesn't move again, and it's just enough to kick Adam's brain into gear and get his tongue working again.

"Hey," he rasps, and the Empty cocks its borrowed head at him.


"I'm not leaving without him." Before he loses his nerve, and before the Empty can turn its annoyed expression into more pain for him, Adam adds, "I know you can't keep me here against my will, and I think that means you can't throw me out before I'm ready either. Otherwise you'd've done it the second you knew I was here."

Annoyance morphs into cold fury, which is how Adam knows he's guessed right, and the Empty snaps, "So?" Which Adam is okay with. Snapping at him is infinitely preferable to torture, even if listening to this thing spit venom at him and Michael is like nails on a chalkboard. "You don't think I can't make you so desperate to get out of here that you'll leave anything behind just to make the pain stop?"

"I mean, I definitely think you can. But I also think you'll crack first." Okay, so he's bluffing his ass off, he's probably not going to last five minutes if the Empty really puts its back into it, but he also played poker under the bleachers with his AP Calc classmates every Thursday lunch for a year, and cleaned them out more often than not.

"Hm. Tempting offer." Adam's mostly focusing on evening his breathing out from embarrassing gasps, but he feels cautious optimistic. "Tell you what, I'll make you a bet. You want to get him out of here, right?"

Oh thank fuck. "Obviously."

"Yeah, yeah, listen, you think that, but let's see how much you really want him." Adam's... pretty sure he knows the answer to that question. He's got this. "See, angels and demons, while they're here, they don't just sleep. They dream. Greatest regrets highlight reel, my specialty. You make it all the way to the end, you can keep him."

Adam does a mental inventory of his greatest regrets, and comes up with a couple times he was a dick to his friends, making himself an unintentional accomplice to the failed apocalypse, and not being able to save his mom. It's going to be a little painful, and probably a whole lot embarrassing, but he figures he can handle it. He's had a long time to make his peace with it all. "Deal."

The Empty gives him a sour smile. "Oh, not yours, kid. His. See whether you really want what you came all the way out here to get."

Adam's... Adam's not sure he wants to know what Michael's greatest regrets are. He's not sure Michael wants him to know what his greatest regrets are. But he's got to try.

"Deal," he says again, and the world goes white.

When he opens his eyes, at first it's hard to tell what he's looking at. The air is thick with smoke and the rubble around him looks almost indistinguishable from any rock-strewn section of desert. Then his eyes adjust, a little, and he picks out ruined foundations and tumbled walls and, scattered between them all, the charred corpses of an obliterated city. Flights of angels flicker through the air, telling him what's happened just as surely as the blackened eye sockets of the bodies all around him.

He can pick out Michael by instinct, even though the form he's wearing is shorter, darker-haired, olive-skinned and sharp-eyed and clad in gleaming bronze armor that's at least a couple millennia out of date. Adam would know the set of his shoulders and the twist of his grace anywhere, in any world, in any shape. He's standing squarely in the middle of a street running with blood, side by side with another angel, also armored, also holding a sword that drips blood to mix with the rivers coursing through the streets below.

"Fuck's sake, Michael," he whispers, but no one in the memory so much as blinks.

Adam can't hear what either of them is saying over the fire and crumbling buildings all around, but he knows that the words aren't important. He doesn't need it to know what's happened, and he doesn't need it to know what's about to happen. The important part is the boy sheltering in the corner of a torn-down house, half-covered by a fallen section of wall that's somehow kept him from being crushed entirely. He's staring at the angels with terror in every line of his horribly young face, one hand pressed tightly over his mouth, tears streaking from his eyes and tracking wet lines through the ash on his face. Adam looks away. He's heard this story before, but hearing it and seeing it are two different things, and he doesn't want to see this.

There's a voice in his ear, cold and harsh - the Empty, watching him even in Michael's dreams. "No cheating," it hisses, "watch."

"Fuck you," Adam snarls, but he steels himself and jerks his gaze back to the boy. He's not going to fuck this up for them so easily, won't let the Empty win so easily.

It plays out more or less how he'd heard it before. The other angel sweeps away in a blaze of wings and a flash of gleaming armor; the kid flinches. Michael catches the movement out of the corner of his eye and turns. Adam has no idea how he'd missed the kid until then, but it doesn't matter in the end. His eyes narrow and flash blue. The kid drops, light streaming from his eyes and mouth, too full of holy wrath to even scream. Then Michael flickers out of existence and Adam swallows, tasting bile. The scene changes before the kid's eyes have even stopped smoking.

It's another smiting, this one a young witch who'd broken some incomprehensible law of Heaven. Then a city, then a handful of families. Adam nearly loses track, but he knows it's only a fraction of the ones Michael has seen carried out, and he feels sick. As they switch focus to yet another body dropping lifeless to the parched earth, Adam finally snaps, "I know what you're trying to do." There's no answer from the cold voice in his ear, but he knows it's listening, and he keeps going even as they land in the middle of a burning house, blasted with Heaven's fire for a reason that isn't important. "You think we didn't trade histories in the Cage? He had a lot of stories to tell, and they weren't all pretty. Just because I'm seeing it for the first time doesn't mean I haven't heard about it. And screamed at him about it." Now they're standing in the doorway of a hut in a plague-stricken village. Michael, flaxen-haired and bone-pale in yet another vessel, strides through the desolate streets as corpses lie across every doorstep. Adam closes his eyes for a long moment and opens them again. "They're his regrets. You think I don't remember that? I'm not saying I'm happy about it, but he isn't either. I know what he did, and I know that if I'm seeing it here, it means he's not the same now. You're going to have to try harder than that to make me give up on him."

There isn't a verbal response, but the scene shifts obligingly. He's already preparing for another ravaged wasteland and Michael, cold-eyed and murderous, handing down God's judgement to the inhabitants, but he recognizes the white walls and the gilded crown molding of Heaven's holding tank. There's Zachariah, dead on the floor with his wings burned into the wall - and there's him, ten years younger, scared and still dripping blood at the mouth, beating at a locked door for all he's worth. And it's easy enough to say he left all of this in the past hundreds of years ago, but looking it in the face - he hates Zachariah in that moment, wishes he'd been the one to drive the blade through his skull instead of Dean, and he hates Michael too.

He thinks he hears the Empty laugh, but he's not - he's not giving up this easily. Just because he actually has to face up to it doesn't mean he's going to let it beat him. The light starts to stream into the room, the building thunder of Michael's approach coming fast on its heels, and just looking at the fear on his younger self's face Adam can feel it rising up old and bitter inside himself in answer. But he looks up instead and there -

There's Michael. Not his Michael, not the one softened by space and time and Adam's relentless irreverence and indignation, but the old one: proud, self-important, terrifying - and beautiful. Adam isn't going to lie to himself, even back then he'd thought he was beautiful.

Say yes, the Michael of his memories snaps coldly, in that voice that leveled cities, or I'll make what Zachariah did look like nothing in comparison. We're in a hurry. Okay, beautiful and an asshole, he does remember that part too.

"Michael," he says, on the off chance that the memory can hear him, that somewhere through the thick layers of dreams Michael can still him, that a prayer made in love can wake him up even from this. "Michael, you ridiculous asshole, I forgive you. For this, and all the rest of it." There's a flash of light as his younger self signs away the rest of his life, and Adam closes his eyes and holds onto the memory of years in the Cage, suffering through Hell together with only the unexpected gift of each other's company. "I forgave you for it all a long time ago, remember? I told you I'd let it go just the once, and you told me you'd never hurt me like that again. And then you went and died. And I - I forgive you for that too. Just let me bring you back."

He opens his eyes not to the dark of the Empty, as he'd hoped, but to the Cage. A lot more to go, then. They're arguing in Michael's memory, which probably puts them somewhere in the two-to-three-hundreds, after Michael had deigned to start having actual conversations with him and before he'd mellowed out a little from being such an insufferable dick. And yeah, Adam wouldn't do a lot of that over again if he had the chance, but it wouldn't come anywhere close to being on the list of things he regrets most. Hell, he'd kind of had fun after a while. Michael couldn't tell a joke from a doctoral dissertation back then (and, if Adam's being honest, half the time he still can't), but it didn't stop him from being accidentally hilarious sometimes.

"- don't understand why I should have to engage with the arguments of an insect without the good sense granted to the lowest orders of cherub," Michael snaps. Jesus, Adam doesn't even remember this fight. If he's going to have to sit through every single spat they had in the Cage, he's going to be here a long-ass time.

"You're one to talk! The insect wasn't the one in the driver's seat when we got dragged down here!"

Michael visibly bristles. With a few centuries' distance, Adam honestly just thinks it's cute. "I should just bury you in your own memories and leave you alone to rot," Michael hisses, and Adam's grin slips suddenly, in sync with the visible flash of fear across his younger self's face. Michael had stopped threatening to ditch him in the back recesses of his own mind pretty quickly, but yeah, it had been pretty scary the first few times he'd pulled that card out. He's pretty sure hundreds of years completely alone in there wouldn't have ended very well for him.

You think this is a foundation for a stable relationship? something asks, deep inside him, and as much as he wants to say it's the Empty getting into his head, he knows it's all him. Sure, he regrets it, but that's some hefty baggage.

"We'll figure it out," he says sharply, into the darkness. "Or, you know, we won't, but we'll try first. I'm not leaving him here." And the scene obligingly shifts.

For a moment he thinks the Empty has given up and is just going to barrage him with the rest of Michael's biblical smitings until he gives up and goes home. But something feels different about this one, despite the textbook blackened buildings and smoldering rubble. For one thing, there's just Michael - whether his forces have already left, or whether he came alone, he's the only angel left in the place. For another thing, there's one woman left crouched in the remains of a house - middle-aged, a few streaks of gray beginning to show in her dark hair, kneeling at Michael's feet. Three children huddle behind her, the oldest no more than eight or nine and the youngest still plump with baby fat. Adam watches with a dull sickness in his gut, ready for the flash of Michael's eyes that will end the whole thing.

Michael holds his sword loosely, unsheathed at his side and still streaked red with blood, but he doesn't raise it. Adam hears - understands, somehow, despite also knowing no one's spoken this language in centuries - "You have served my Father faithfully all your days." And he sounds almost - soft.

"I and my household," she whispers. 

"You and your household," Michael repeats. The sword hangs motionless beside him, neither raised nor sheathed. "A poor reward for a life of devotion."

The woman seems almost to shrug before she catches herself. "It was not done with the thought of reward."

And Michael smiles. Not the sharp-edged smirk of the conqueror, but a gentle thing that Adam only remembers seeing after centuries in the Cage. "No," he agrees. "Go in peace." His eyes spark and Adam's heart leaps into his throat, but the woman's face shows only wonder and joy. Blessing, not destruction. Michael is gone in a flash of wings but this time the scene changes with him, Heaven's halls marble-paved and gold-lined like he's only seen them in Michael's visions. It's a glory of columns and wide arches and angels everywhere, the faint threads of song echoing just above it all, but Adam only has a moment to be confused before there's a flutter of wings and someone is standing next to Michael, grave-faced.

"Raphael," he says, genuine warmth in his voice, and then checks, seeming to catch something in Raphael's expression that gives him pause. "What -"

"Our Father is gone."

The vision only lasts long enough for Adam to catch a glimpse of Michael's face, despair and grief buried beneath an entire ocean of guilt. He doesn't even have the time for the disappointment and the anger to really hit before they've moved on to the next memory.

He watches Michael admit for the first time that his all-knowing, all-good Father might be less than perfect, watches Michael give the Winchesters the spell to seal God away, and he wonders a little hysterically if there's even a single moment of his very long life that Michael doesn't regret. Knowing him, probably not.

"He's always going to be the loyal son," a cold voice whispers in his ear, but this time Adam knows it's something outside himself. "Whatever he says, he's wired to be obedient to his creator. He can't even help it. It's the only thing at the core of him. Every time he's tried to be something else, he's just hated himself for it five minutes later."

Adam doesn't dignify that with a response. The Empty retaliates by changing the memory again, this time to a scene that Adam doesn't recognize. A bright day, a sandy shore, Chuck Shurley calm and steely-eyed in front of Michael. A betrayal revealed, and the pain on Michael's face when he realizes even that wasn't enough to win the love of a hack author and a deadbeat dad without a fragment of love to spare for any of his creations.

Fissures of light spread through Michael's core and into the silence Adam finds himself whispering, almost drowned by the sound of Michael dying, "I forgive you." The memory doesn't stop, but Adam doesn't care, even if Michael can't hear or won't remember, it matters to Adam that he says this - "I forgive you. I want you to come back with me, I want to figure this out with you. I want to show you everything else there is that isn't him. There's a whole world that you're learning to have compassion for, I know you are, and I want to see it with you." Michael is more light than body at this point, and Adam can feel tears trickling down his cheeks despite his best efforts to hold them back. "Come home with me," he whispers, and Michael is gone.

For a moment, he's just standing there, blinking away tears as his eyes adjust from the brilliant flash that was Michael's death to the emptiness around him. And then his eye catches the slightest bit of motion in the blackness as Michael's sleeping form stirs at his feet. Take him, then, the Empty snarls, but Adam isn't listening because Michael is sitting up, eyes wide and glowing and then there's a question in his head, wordless and tentative and awestruck, and his mouth forms the yes without even thinking about it.

He hadn't realized how empty he'd been until he feels light running through every vein as gentle as a summer dawn, how alone he'd been until Michael's voice echoes in his head, familiar and bewildered, Adam? You were - what happened -

Take him and get out, the Empty hisses, all malice, and Adam doesn't need to be told twice.

"We're going," he says, quickly, and then he pushes at the blackness and there's a rush of sudden light, sharp-edged like needles, nothing like the gentle wash of Michael's grace tucked safe inside him. He fumbles the landing a bit, collapsing in a pretty inelegant heap all over the Winchesters' floor, but those weird Cold-War era lights are bright and warm and there are people rushing up to help him to his feet. A good thing too, because his vision swirls as a wave of screaming exhaustion slams abruptly into him like a truck. He's covered in disgusting black ooze and the lights are starting to make his head hurt, but Michael is warm and solid and thrumming steadily in time with his heartbeat, settled just under his ribs, and that's the only really important bit right now.

"I got him," he says, over the crowd of voices, "he's back. I'm going to go sleep for a week now." The last thing he feels is Michael's grace rushing up around him as he plummets deeper inside himself, soft and familiar and fiercely protective as he lets a much more welcome kind of nothingness take him.