Mary lifts Dean into her arms, buries her face in the vulnerable junction of his neck and shoulder and breathes in the warm, baby-sweet scent of him.
He’s so young, she thinks, aching and proud at once, and he’s the one comforting me. What kind of mother am I?
When she lifts her head, pressing a loving kiss to the thin, fragile skin of his temple, Michael is watching her from across the room. He looks soft, wearing a face that doesn’t belong to him, jeans and a long-sleeve shirt that’s wide-necked and just a little too loose. It would be easy enough to forget what he is if only he didn’t stare so intently at her – at them – like they’re the most fascinating things he’s ever seen. His eyes follow her as she sets Dean down and turns away, not watching as her boy dissolves back to wherever her memories go when she’s not experiencing them anymore. She imagines she can feel him go and the reminder that this is just a memory, that Dean is not really Dean, hurts.
The kitchen doesn’t even waver. Michael must be holding them here.
She can feel his eyes on her as she twists the tap and plugs the sink, adding dish soap and wetting a sponge automatically. She watches the yellow swirl and begin to froth on constructed water currents. Her hands are wet when she twists the tap off and reaches for the first plate.
Michael is there when she holds it out, dripping wet, and he takes it from her without a word, methodically towels it dry, sets it carefully aside. It should be hilarious that an archangel is doing something so mundane, so domestic as helping her wash dishes that are already clean, but she only feels sick. This is her heaven, her memory, her kitchen – a kitchen in a home she shared with John, once – and he has no right to be here, chasing away the happy ignorance and peace and reminding her that her sons are suffering somewhere she can’t help them.
“I wish you wouldn’t look like that,” she says quietly, hands sudsy and white-knuckled on the edge of the sink.
Michael moves, and when she looks up he is leaning close enough to share her breaths. He stares with open curiosity, a sort of hungry fascination that makes his eyes glitter as he asks, “What do I look like?”
“You look like John.”
“Oh,” Michael says, and frowns. “I’m sorry,” he offers, but it’s an empty apology – there’s no guilt or regret for causing her pain in the words. “But I don’t choose my form here. You do.”
Mary closes her eyes, then reaches into the sink and follows the water down.
When she surfaces in the next memory, she is still aware, so instead of splashing and laughing with John she lets herself float on the impossibly still surface of the river and stares up at the sky.
Michael told her, once, that her sons’ path through heaven is a road that goes on forever. Hers is a river. She wonders if the type of path says something about a person. Is the path defined by experience, or nature? Does her river mean she’s like water? Adaptable and contrary, capable of both nurturing and destroying, of ferocity and calm? Do her sons follow a road because they have been following roads all their lives, or is it because they're fixed, steadfast, purposeful?
Maybe, she thinks, it just means that it means that they’re all heading towards an ending.
She watches the sky and doesn’t think. There are clouds, but beyond them the sky is the kind of impossible blue that, once, made her believe in miracles. It takes her a while to realise the clouds aren’t moving, and she sighs.
“I know you’re there,” she says, too tired for anger or resentment.
Michael materialises on the surface of the water, feet bare, like it’s nothing strange to stand on water as though it’s solid. He’s wearing the same jeans and shirt from the kitchen, the same face, the same curious expression.
She watches him instead of the sky, thinking that turnabout is fair play. She concentrates on picking out the ways he’s different than John, and finds it surprisingly easy to separate them, even though the features are identical. Michael’s expressions are smooth as glass and there’s almost no emotion behind them, like they’re something he puts on and takes off like masks. John always smiled like it was an accident, like someone surprised it out of him and he couldn’t help the way his mouth split into a grin, the corners of his eyes crinkling with crows feet and honest joy. Michael smiles slow and tight-lipped, deliberate - nothing like her John.
“Why do you keep coming back?” Mary asks, and climbs to her feet. The water ripples around her feet, but holds her.
Michael frowns, affecting confusion. She wants to punch him until he shows something real, but she’s tried that before and all it gets her is a blank stare and broken fingers, so she wrings the water out of her hair to occupy her hands.
“You know why.”
Mary laughs and folds her arms across her chest, hands curled tight into fists at her elbows. She stares mockingly into eyes that look particularly green in this light and smiles sharp enough to draw blood.
“My Dean is four years old. He has nightmares about tiny people because he saw Gulliver’s Travels a few weeks ago and now he won’t sleep unless I sing to him and tell him…” Her mouth twists with bitter amusement, “That angels are watching over him. He likes apple sauce, the toys you get out of cereal boxes and yellow bandaids. He loves to swim but hates baths, and peas, and when we brought Sammy home from the hospital Dean hated him, right up until Sam wouldn’t stop crying one night and Dean got there first and told him it’s okay, Sammy, I’m here until he stopped.
“That’s my Dean. I don’t know what Dean’s like at five, or ten, or thirty, and you know why? Because of you. Because you and your family decided to use my planet, my family, to have your fucking feud! It’s your fault, you soulless bastard! You took my children away from me,” she trembles, furious and grief-stricken; “You took me away from my children.”
Michael looks away and Mary feels, for a moment, triumphant. His face is still turned to her, his gaze averted, so she can see the expression he’s wearing and she has to give him credit for accuracy. He almost looks ashamed.
When he speaks, his voice is soft, insistent. “You’re his mother.”
“Yes,” Mary says, fiercely. “I am, and I’ll never help you break him.”
He lifts his eyes, narrowing them as though this is something difficult for him to understand – as if her defiance is unexpected. Underneath her, the water breaks and she slices through, bubbles rising around her in plumes as she vanishes from the memory.
Michael doesn’t follow her this time, so she forgets that none of this is real and wanders unaware through memories of quiet places, of warm moments, of her sons, her parents, John, boys – and a girl – she kissed and thought she might have loved, once. Time doesn’t really exist in Heaven the same way it does on earth, so maybe it’s an eternity and maybe it’s only hours, but when Michael returns she’s lying in a hospital bed with Dean curled into one side of her and Sam tucked into the other arm, suckling at her breast for the first time.
She ignores him this time, watching the crumpled, beautiful face of her newborn and carding her fingers through Dean’s hair. She can smell antiseptic and harsh cleaning products, the vague scent of flowers from the bouquet John left on the table, the strawberry shampoo John used on Dean’s hair last night. The sun is setting, and the light in the room is a strange mixture of soft, pastel-gold natural light and bright, artificial fluorescents from the hall.
Michael slouches against the wall, wearing a leather jacket and no shoes, a pair of jeans with holes in the knees. John’s wedding ring hangs against his chest, suspended on the leather thong he used to keep it safe when he was working on engines. Mary thumbs her own wedding band and looks away.
“Dean stopped believing in my Father and angels the night you died,” Michael says, voice low and almost lost under the faint, remembered sounds of a busy hospital. “But he prayed to you every night for years, dreamed about you, mourned you, promised a thousand times that he’d kill the demon who killed you – and when he did, he claimed the victory in your name.
“Perhaps you don’t know him, but you’re still fundamental to his make up, you still shaped – shape who he is.”
For a moment, Mary turns this over in her head. The knowledge that Dean became a hunter because of her – for her – is like fingers buried in her guts, twisting and pulling and tearing, like seeing John dead and a demon smiling at her from her father’s face, offering her husband in exchange for her son. It hurts in a way that goes beyond the emotional and right into something physical.
But there’s no smugness in Michael’s expression, no suggestion that he meant to cut her deep.
“Are you trying to be comforting?” she asks, quietly, incredulously.
“No,” he says. “Only honest.”
They are silent a moment.
Mary sighs. “I still don’t understand why you keep coming here. Even if all that is true, there’s nothing I can or will give you.”
“Peas,” Michael says suddenly, and she stares. He shifts his weight. “You said he hates them. I could try peas.”
Mary can’t help it – she laughs, the sound shocked out of her and breathless. Sam doesn’t stop suckling, and she realises belatedly that Michael has looped a few moments of the memory so that she can have her children a little longer. She doesn’t know what to make of that, or the shy smile Michael gives her, except she thinks maybe this is the answer to her question. She’s not sure what to do with that thought, either, so she pushes it away.
There’s a jug of water on a table nearby. She could pour it out and vanish from here, but she feels warm and Michael’s presence is – for once – not unpleasant, so she doesn’t.
Mary leaves the memory of her prom dress and appears on a jetty she has never seen before. The lake stretches out before her, ringed in trees and utterly still, bathed in the gentle, red-orange light of late afternoon. Beside her is a fishing chair, a tackle-box half unpacked beside it. It’s eerily quiet and nothing moves, not even the clouds that threaten in the distance.
“Where am I?” she asks. She can’t see Michael, but she knows he must be there – that this is his doing.
“This is a place Dean finds peaceful,” he replies, and steps silently onto the jetty beside her. “I thought you might like it.”
Mary lowers herself to sit on the end of the dock, kicking her shoes off into the water without a care and rolling her jeans up her calves by hand. Her toes skim the surface, making it ripple as she watches the play of light on the water.
She’s not sure if this is a place Dean has visited, or something he made up in his head, but it’s Dean’s, and her throat feels tight at the thought that she’s sharing this place with her son.
She doesn’t say anything, but she touches the empty space beside her with her fingertips and after a moment Michael folds himself down beside her. The water swallows his feet to the ankles, the denim of his jeans clinging to his legs and darkening. Michael's mouth tugs down in a disgruntled frown at the feeling, and Mary smiles at the expression before she realises what she is doing.
“Michael,” Mary says, sitting on a swing in Lawrence, fall 1983. John is chasing a happily shrieking Dean around the play equipment in exaggerated, staggering steps, but she’s eight months pregnant and exhausted, so she only watches. “Don’t ask Dean again. Please.”
It’s the first time she’s asked – the first time she’s thought to ask, really. It didn’t even occur to her before, because why would an angel listen to this request of hers? She still doesn’t think he’ll listen, but she thinks it’s at least worth asking now.
The chains clink as Michael shifts. She can’t see him, but she can feel the unnatural heat of his body hovering behind her, of his fingers locked in place a few links above hers. He doesn’t answer.
“I wouldn’t harm him,” he says, instead. “He wouldn’t suffer more than he has to.”
Mary shakes her head. “That’s not the point.”
Mary blinks, hard, and sinks her teeth into the meat of her palm. Her sob comes out as a pained, choked whimper instead, and Michael touches her shoulder.
“I didn’t mean to cause you pain,” he says, and she believes him.
“No,” Mary says, voice trembling. “No, this is… who is she?”
“Her name was Jessica,” Michael tells her, as they watch Sam smile against the shell of the blonde’s ear, whispering something inaudible that makes her face soften. “I think he was going to ask her to marry him.”
Unaware of their audience, Jessica rolls her eyes and pushes Sam’s face away, turning back to her textbook with a hidden smile. Sam sweeps her hair aside, pressing a kiss to the side of her neck before settling his chin on her shoulder, eyes half-lidded with a sort of dazed contentment. They’re reclined on the bed, bodies slotted together like the mechanisms of a lock while Jessica studies.
“She made him happy,” Michael says, like both an observation and a realisation.
Mary reaches up and touches the fingertips still resting on her shoulder. Michael goes utterly still, but lets her press his hand, trying to say everything without words.
“Thank you,” she says anyway, because with or without words, there’s nothing she can do to express her gratitude for these small, stolen moments of joy in her sons’ lives.
She asks him about the stars, and he tells her what it feels like to pass through one. He tells her what it’s like to watch one being born, to pull stardust and light waves together and make it breathe, and she tells him what it was like to carry a child, to hold Dean for the first time, the way her heart broke and healed and was ruined forever because she loved him so, so much.
He asks her about the taste of strawberries, and she tells him about the window-box garden she kept at the first apartment she and John shared. She tells him about watching them grow red and fat and sharing them with John one night, when the power went out and they sat on the kitchen floor surrounded by candles, talking about nothing.
They go on like this for a while, trading memories. She doesn’t understand his curiosity about her life, when he’s seen the formation of the universe and felt the shape of a human soul and seen millennia and known God, but she is hungry for every scrap of memory he will give her.
Finally, stupidly, she asks what Lucifer was like Before. Michael gives her a look full of such love and heartbreak she can’t breathe, and leaves.
The memory changes before she can feel guilty.
“I don’t understand,” Michael says, frustrated.
He’s sitting across from her in the memory of her first anniversary dinner with John. It was at a nice Italian place, with soft music and the low murmur of other people at their own tables, but there is an illusion of privacy and intimacy created by the dim lighting. There’s a candle flickering on the table between them, and Michael’s face is a study in light and shadow. It makes the expression on his face sharper.
It looks so real her heart stutters, because for a second he looks so, so like John when he’s frustrated: John after dealing with stupid people all day, John when Sam won’t stop crying no matter what they do, John trying to remember where he left something, John just before an argument.
“I don’t understand this… resistance,” Michael continues, drags a hand through his hair. She wonders if he picked up these little human traits from watching her, or if she’s projecting – making him more human because she’s starting to forget he’s not. “Why do humans fight the inevitable? Dean will say yes, and Sam will say yes, and I will fight my brother and then this will be over – it is destined, it is foretold, it is written… but they still rail against it.”
Mary shrugs, twirling her pasta into towers that slowly unwind themselves again. There’s a thought in the back of her mind, scratching away half-formed, like maybe she can find Michael’s weak points before he finds Dean’s, like maybe she can save her boys if only she can press Michael the right way.
“Your father gave us the ability to write our own endings,” she remarks. “Or so the story goes.”
But Michael is shaking his head. He speaks as if to a child, gentle but with conviction, “Free will is an illusion. They can’t escape this.”
“That’s bullshit,” Mary says, leaning forward and pinning him with a stare. His eyes are dark and very green. “Of course they can.”
“How can you of all people have such faith in free will?” he asks. She watches his face shift, picking out curiosity and bewilderment and a sort of hungry fascination, like he wants to open her up and look at the way all her pieces fit, the way she works inside – like she’s something so alien to him he can’t quite comprehend her making.
When he speaks again, he leans in, voice low and dark and something like a challenge in his eyes, something like cruelty in his tone. “Your life was orchestrated by Heaven. You were watched all your life, guarded because you were necessary, and when the time came we led you to the right stud and bred you and let you be slaughtered like an animal, so that we would have our Vessels. Nothing in your life happened unless we allowed it to – you didn’t even fall in love on your own. That was our doing.”
Mary clenches her fist around her fork, briefly imagining stabbing him with it. Would he bleed, or would the tines bend and snap like the bones in her hand when she punched him? She closes her eyes briefly, reminds herself that this argument isn’t about her, that no matter how much it hurts knowing John didn’t love her by choice, this argument is about her boys. Loving them wasn’t a choice either, but that’s because she’s their mother – no mother has a choice.
“That wasn’t destiny,” Mary says firmly, setting the fork aside and flexing her shaking fingers. “That was you engineering fate – you choosing to follow the script. It’s like being told you’ll die by walking off a cliff and believing it, so you spend your whole life walking towards the edge! Things only change if you change them, Michael.”
Michael leans back, expression flat. “It doesn’t work that way.”
It’s on the tip of her tongue to challenge him on that, to ask how he knows, if he’s even tried changing things, to push and push – but Michael’s too stubborn for that, is too like her. Pushing will only make him push back, because the only thing worse than being wrong is being forced to admit it. She thinks about vinegar, thinks about honey, thinks about letting someone think they’re stringing her along when she’s really just giving them enough to hang themselves with.
“Let’s make a bet, then,” Mary says, and sets her cutlery down with trembling hands. “I bet you that destiny can be changed. I bet you that, in the end, free will wins.”
“What do you want if you win?” Michael asks, tilting his head curiously.
Mary smiles, a wicked little curve of her mouth. “Getting to say, ‘I told you so’ is good enough for me.”
“And if I win?”
Her smile wavers slightly, turns sad. “Well, isn’t that your prize in itself?”
Michael stares back like he’s not sure either.
There is a long stretch of time where she doesn’t see Michael at all, except once, when an angel calling himself Zachariah comes to take her away and Michael appears to banish him from her Heaven in a blaze of light and sound and fury. After that, she drifts through her river of memories, letting them tug her in and let her go as they will, until she finds herself in the memory of walking along a California beach before dawn.
The sun’s only just breaking over the horizon, so the beach is lit in sleepy greys and pinks, calm despite the foam-crested waves that curl and crash on the shoreline, roaring in the predawn silence. In her memory the beach was empty, but as she walks barefoot across the cool, wet sand, picking up shells and tucking them into her pockets, she spots a man – a boy, really – standing several metres ahead of her. He's facing the horizon, face turned upward and shoulders soft, almost relaxed, and he doesn't look at her as she approaches.
She knows it’s Michael, even though he doesn’t look like John anymore. None of the other angels dare enter her Heaven anymore – but more than that, she knows Michael. She knows the way he stands, the arrogant tilt of his head and the way he looks at her, the way presence warps her slice of heaven like heat waves off tarmac.
He’s younger, and blond, and he’s wearing layers of clothes instead of a simple shirt and jeans. His eyes are similar, though, and something about his facial structure reminds her of Dean – the Dean she remembers, now, from the first time she met an angel. She’s not sure whether it’s the face or something else, but he looks much more human than she’s ever seen him.
“You look different,” she observes, stopping at his side before turning to share his line of sight. Sea spray brushes across her face and she licks her lips, tasting salt. “I thought I chose your form. I don’t know this one.”
“This is my vessel,” Michael says. “His name is Adam.”
Mary breathes in sharply and glances at him. “I thought you needed Dean.”
Michael hesitates. “Adam will suffice.”