It's a pattern he's followed for almost two years, a circuit that's stretched from northern Oregon south to Panama. He's come up against the hard faced guards in the south who shoot on sight, once walked the northern border for sixteen days until he found an opening before they closed behind barbed wire and watchtowers, men with AK-47s who watch with the blank faces of professional soldiers and never miss a shot. Once upon a time, he bought Sammy's passage with a shielding spell and five thousand dollars in weapons--no one takes money anymore.
There's space after that.
He remembers refueling the car outside the broken remains of Phoenix; the abandoned armories he broke into in Nevada, handguns and molding boxes of bullets stretching down halls that went for miles; the slow ecstasy of napalm and sarin gas in underground bunkers dusty with disuse. He learned how to build bombs from kitchen supplies, sat in abandoned elementary school chemistry labs with calcium nitrate and platinum triggers, banned science fair projects piled around him, learning the slow and hard way the science of demolition; he burned his arm in Green Bay, and was feverish for months after with antibiotics the price of gold; he lost a finger in Chesapeake and two companions just outside Des Moines, whose faces he can barely remember.
He's only been in Texas for two days, but he's already feeling the itch to leave. Coming up in front of the remains of a diner, Dean studies it briefly, looking for signs of recent occupation.
The doors are still locked, but the front windows were broken a long time ago. Dean's careful when he steps through the glass, sharp edges gleaming in the dim light. Overturned tables litter the path to the kitchen in carefully orchestrated carnage, and Dean steps over bodies so long dead the sweet smell is lost beneath the wet rot of wood and lingering scent of smoke. The counter's black from smoke damage, edges charred from two fires he can remember setting and one he can't.
Climbing over, he turns on his flashlight, ducking to the back and the refrigeration unit long since relegated to storage. He's been out of ammo for ten days and no one lives by handgun alone. Padlocks are pointless, like flags to show something's hidden inside, but the booby traps are how he left them, and he disables them by rote, eye on the slow swing of the kitchen door and the orange-grey morning outside, thick with rising dust from the south.
There's less stored here than he remembers, though he doesn't remember the last time at all. Lowering himself to the floor, Dean methodically checks each box; bullets are a scarce commodity and getting scarcer. He might be making his own soon enough.
His body's used to being alert, automatically listening while he cleans his guns, keeping inventory in some part of his mind; what he can replace, what he can't, what he can live without, what he can trade for, fight for, build for himself. The rhythm's always been soothing, a slow trance of automation and habit, maybe too much, maybe too long, when there's a whisper of sound so close he can feel the hairs rise on the back of his neck, a shivering consciousness of something--
He's already on his knees, gun pointed at the thin body posed at the doorway; to his surprise, there's already a gun aimed at him.
There aren't many of Dean Winchester's caliber left anymore. There are reasons he's still alive.
Dean sucks a breath between his teeth, keeping his finger hovering over the trigger. "Who are you?"
The guy doesn't move; Jesus, can't even tell he's breathing, close as he is, grey-dusted shirt of indeterminate color, grey pants, and the blank look of an animal that doesn't know it's been shot. Dean thinks back; he set salt, set the door. Probably human, then. "Who. Are. You?"
The man licks his lips. From here, Dean can see the almost imperceptible tremble in the gun hand, mind cataloguing the weaknesses like his father had taught him--gaunt cheeks, too-straight stance, but there's something else that makes Dean hesitate to pull the trigger. Human. Human. It's been too long.
Christ, it's been too long. Probably too long for this guy, too. He hasn't shot yet, either, which Dean has to consider a plus.
"Dean Winchester," Dean says slowly. He's been out too long, away from other hunters; groups call attention, and Dean's never liked attention. "You?"
The man doesn't answer; it would be just Dean's luck to finally find people and the fucker doesn't even speak English. "Me llamo Dean?" he tries warily, thinking of Nuevo Laredo only three miles away. His Spanish sucks outside protection spells.
The guy doesn't answer for a moment, and Dean can feel sweat pop up beneath his palm, cold and slick. He doesn't kill humans, people, but a Mexican standoff always ends in someone on the ground, and Dean's not going to be that someone.
"Sheppard," the guy says slowly, like he's not sure how to speak, voice a thick drawl that bleeds Midwest by way of Texas. Dean can feel the sudden flare of attention like a spotlight, eyes crawling across his body from head to toe. Dean's vividly aware of the dried blood on his jeans, the holes in his shirt that he hasn't bothered to replace, uncut hair, a messy shave after a run-in with a harpy in Philadelphia. The eyes flicker at the scars--his hand, his arm, the long infected and barely healed scrape down the side of his throat, pulsing red and uneven even in the dimmest light. They're the marks of who he is, of what he is, more indelible than his name has ever been.
Slowly, the other man's gun comes down. "I'm--looking for antibiotics." Dean eases his finger off the trigger, keeping an eye on the guy's gun hand--starved or not, Sheppard's got the same disciplined movements that he remembers from Dad, the same too-easy space in his skin despite the jerky movements of his hands.
"I don't have any." Sheppard's eyes flicker to the boxes, surveying briefly, before coming back to Dean with a nod. Turning on a booted heel, the man is almost out the door before Dean jerks his weapon down, scrambling to his feet. "Hey." Grabbing for the Beretta, he shoves it into the thigh holster, keeping the 9 mm in his hand--no reason to be stupid. He kicks the door closed behind him, going out into the diner to see the man's already outside, walking toward a jeep that looks a hell of a lot better than what Dean's driving these days. Sliding across the dusty counter, he stumbles against a table before he can climb through the window, dodging glass by instinct. "Hey. Where are you--"
Another man, less than three feet away, has something pointed at him he can't even identify. Dean goes perfectly still; at this distance, there's no way this guy'll miss.
"Ronon." The single word snaps through the air like a whip; the guy doesn't hesitate, lowering his gun to point just before Dean's feet. The dark eyes, however, watch Dean's every breath. "Leave him alone."
The guy--Ronon?--nods shortly. He's bigger than Sheppard--huge, actually, now that Dean's not staring down the barrel of a gun. Short hair cut recently from the looks of it, dusty pants of maybe-leather, maybe-not, wearing two holsters and three knives that Dean can see. A professional soldier, sharp edged and wary; Dean knows the type.
Dean keeps his hands where the guy can see them, even after the gun comes down; you don't fuck around with reflexes like that. "You need antibiotics?"
Sheppard stops short. Turning, he pushes back his hair, watching Dean with sharp eyes. "Said so."
Dean licks his lips. "I know where you can find them."
The big guy follows his every move warily. Sheppard just watches.
"There's a guy north, El Paso," Dean says, keeping his voice even. He doesn't want to test his reflexes against Ronon's in a gunfight: there's no reason to let it come to that, anyway. "He can get stuff." Stuff like bullets, if Dean has something to trade, and he's running short. "I gotta stock up first, but I can take you there."
"What's he trade in?" Sheppard's voice is flat but interested. Crazy, maybe--fuck, who wouldn't be when they're living out here--but sharp, very sharp. Dean's learned not to evaluate on a look--that way lies waking up to a knife at your throat and a broken line of salt--but he's good at getting an impression, and this guy's changing every second. The men never look at each other, but they move like they're joined by a rope, and that's practice, years of it.
One corner of the straight mouth quirks briefly. "Can you give us a map?"
Dean almost snorts, then thinks better of it. "This guy doesn't see strangers."
Sheppard studies him, and Dean can almost feel the weight of his regard, stretching time like taffy, seconds feeling like minutes that pass like hours. "Okay," he says, deceptively soft, turning his back like there's nothing in this world that would put a bullet through it. Maybe there's not, when the other guy stands there like he can wait forever. Dean makes himself turn around, shoulder blades itching as he goes back in, stepping through the glass on autopilot, going back to the refrigerator for his bag.
He needs to restock anyway; taking his last boxes of bullets, two more guns, a new strap for his knife, he fills his bag, glancing around to see what else he might need. There's little left, so he plunders what he's got; he's lucky this place has been ignored so long, and now that it's been seen, he can't use it again. When he comes back outside, he notes the smear he left in the dust of the counter, the way that Sheppard pushed things aside when he came through. No, he won't be able to use this place again.
Outside, Ronon's where Dean left him, and Dean makes himself keep moving, feeling the watching eyes like a cold touch up and down his spine. His keys are getting sweaty against his palm when he ducks into the alley, and when he opens the door, he catches narrowed eyes still watching him in the rearview mirror. Getting in, Dean turns the key and takes a deep breath.
When he looks back, the guy's gone. Dean doesn't for a second think that means he's not being watched.
They keep close, following Dean on pencil-line farm roads between overgrown fields, yellow-brown with untended crops, growing wild over the fences, barbed wire spread like traps. Dean's more careful than he used to be, even knowing the roads as he does, watching for changes in the area, habitation by human and not; both can be equally dangerous, but humans are always more desperate. He keeps one eye on the horizon, stretching sickly pink and grey to his left, the sun a dull smear the yellowed brown of leaves in autumn.
Dean hasn't seen a calendar in years; he knows the seasons by the movement of the sun, the feel of the earth shifting from warm to cold. The world tastes like September, the fleeing of summer heat farther south even this far south.
Dean remembers Texas as blackland stretching in marker-thick strips of vivid brown and black, broken with the sprawling metroplexes of Dallas and San Antonio and Houston; farms spread with the yellow tops of maize waving in pre-autumn winds, threshers moving complacently through the fields with drowsy men in hats waving at the road. He remembers green and gold fields dotted with cows, half-year calves running on the outskirts of the herds. He remembers these were what he saw between jobs, lives being lived that had nothing to do with creeping twilight and sleeping only behind salt circles and ritual wards.
He remembers when he carried his arsenal for those he hunted, not for those who hunted him.
He's been doing this alone for longer than he wants to remember, but he can still feel the phantom body that should be beside him--talks to him too, when the silence grows too heavy. The radio's been useless for so long he's forgotten when he last touched the knobs; the tapes he saves for need, growing thin and weary with repeated use. Some part of him wonders why he doesn't make copies; tapes are easy to find, try any burned-out Wal-Mart in any town in the south, but he never has.
It's not so alone today, even with the creeping silence. The hum of the jeep is close enough to almost feel running along his nerves; irritating, when he's not used to it, but soothing, too.
It would be a ten hour drive at its most ideal--in reality, avoiding highways and major cities, Dean's clocked it at fourteen and change when he's moving fast, thirteen flat when he's desperate. They'll stop for the night in Dryden, a messy collection of abandoned buildings that slept through the apocalypse and died without waking. Far enough from the border and the highways to be something close to safe; nothing and no one sane would choose deserted farmland to hide if they wanted to survive.
Driving can be a deadly rhythm to fall into; it's too easy to get caught up in the unchanging scenery, lose focus. For once, it's easy to keep alert, watch each side of the road, check for disturbances and dissimilarities from what he remembers. In his rearview mirror, he can see the jeep keeping up easily behind him--nice, he has to admit, slick and smooth, like something from a movie, the solid black exterior dusty and scratched but solid. Either amazing luck or one of them's a master mechanic--he wouldn't take bets on either.
At four and a half hours, they pull over just south of Uvalde, where there's still running water, God alone knows how, and Dean gets out, wiping sweaty hands on his legs as he turns to face the jeep that pulls up behind him. He notes the curve of the stop, trying not to admire the clean line of the tires and smooth curve of the engine. He may be a refugee in his own country, but he's still a guy.
"Nice jeep," he says when Sheppard gets out. One eyebrow arches, mouth quirking at one corner, and he looks younger suddenly, pushing back messy hair with one hand before stepping around the engine, leaning back onto warm metal.
"Marines always have the best toys," Sheppard says with a ghost of a smile, arms crossing over his chest. "Breather?"
"We got five more hours before Dryden; we'll have to stop there." He doesn't need to say sundown; this guy wouldn't still be alive if he didn't know the rules of survival. Turning, he ducks into his backseat, knowing that Ronon might be in the jeep but is still watching, and Dean wouldn't be surprised if there was a gun trained on his every move. He keeps two water containers in the back seat for emergencies, various indestructible and vital foods like Twinkies, because if it comes from the Hostess family, it'll survive anything, even the end of the world. Beef jerky by the pound is sealed up in the trunk.
"Sheppard." The big guy steps out of the passenger side of the car. Sheppard doesn't turn around, eyes on Dean, but he lifts one shoulder in acknowledgement. "She wants out."
Sheppard pauses, tensing, eyes fixing on Dean for a moment before sliding away. "Hold on." Circling the engine, he goes to the back of the jeep, and Dean can see the back open up, a low voice that's got to be Sheppard's, then the sound of feet hitting dirt. A tiny sound muffled immediately, and Sheppard comes back around, leading a limping woman with an arm beneath her shoulders. She squints, looking around them with the same sharp eyes as the men, but even Dean can see the limp she's trying to hide, and a too-quick step, the bandage curled up beneath the leg of her pants.
Antibiotics, yeah, got it. The smooth caramel skin is yellowed across her cheeks from strain, and he can see the flush of early fever starting in her face. She doesn't make a sound, even when Sheppard braces her gently against the side of the jeep.
She's gorgeous, though, and Dean may be tired, but he sure as hell isn't dead. A smile curves his lips automatically as he slides into a person he barely remembers, the one that could hit on women over bars still wearing a werewolf's blood drying on his jeans and caught beneath his nails. "Hey."
She turns her head, just enough to see him. "Hello. You are Dean Winchester?" Her voice is as good as her looks but shows the same strain as her body. He wonders how long she's had the infection.
"The same. And you are--"
Sheppard's hand tightens on her arm; she ignores it. "Teyla Emmagen." Her eyes flicker to Sheppard. "I thank you for your assistance." She pauses, and anyone else might not realize it was to breathe. "It has been a long time since we have seen other people."
He'd bet, from the look of them. Familiar, the look of people who ran into their own kind and learned hard and fast that even here, even now, human doesn't mean trustworthy. "Where you from?" he asks, unwrapping a Twinkie. He motions an offer of another, but Teyla shakes her head quickly, mouth tight. Nausea. Not good. Sheppard and Ronon don't bother to respond.
"Not around here," Sheppard says, leaning casually into the jeep beside Teyla. "Been on the road a while."
Humans have places, Dean knows. Canada's safe, a nearly impenetrable wall that's held for five years. South American's falling, or so he's heard--the border guards are restless with the trigger. The road's a place of last resort--pockets of humans here and there through the continent, dying slow or dying fast, either one. Even the best magic runs thin, and the last place he stayed he watched five hundred die screaming.
Getting attached had been a mistake.
They stand in uneasy silence; not talkers, these people. Teyla leans back, head tilted toward the sun, but her jacket's thin and even the afternoons are too cold now to remain outside long. After a few minutes, her hand touches Sheppard's, a subtle question, and he leads her back. Dean can see the limp this time, the way she favors her side. Something got her but good.
"What was it?" he asks when Sheppard comes back, waving his water bottle in the general direction of the jeep. Sheppard hesitates, eyes flickering to Ronon, then back.
"Werewolf," he says slowly, like he can't quite believe he's saying it. Dean's seen people after their first attack; no matter how much they thought they understood, they never knew, not really, not until the first time they see it, hear it, feel it. "She seemed okay."
"It happens." Claws could carry rotted meat from their last victims, dirt from the ground, whatever they picked up sprinting across miles of ground for their prey. Finishing his bottle, Dean bites back the next question; he doesn't think they'll answer. Crumpling the cellophane wrapper, he shoves it in his pocket "All right. Let's go."
Dryden has one gas station; using the manual pumps, Ronon gets them filled up in record time as they all keep an eye on the slowly dipping sun. Dean can count daylight by instinct; they're okay so far.
There are places all over town, but Dean's got his favorite; a basement blessed by a priest and read by a psychic before she went across the border like the others.
"Come on," he says, circling to the driver's side and sliding into his seat. Glancing back, he sees Ronon and Sheppard exchange a glance. "Look, nightfall's less than thirty minutes off. You want to get through the night? I got a place."
Dean watches in his rearview mirror as the two men pause briefly, weighing the pros and cons, before the sound of the jeep's engine jerks his attention back to the road. There are no street signs left, just twisted metal rusting in corners, wound 'round trees, or lying against cracked asphalt and concrete. He could find the building blind, winding down the remains of the small town streets, coming up beside a storefront as shabby as the others, crumbling brick walls dusted grey from soil and rock. Driving into the alley, he keeps an eye to the west as he sidles the car around a forgotten dumpster and against the tall wood fence at the back.
He grabs his bag before he gets out, circling to the trunk as Sheppard comes up behind him, edging around the dumpster that is the only thing they have for subterfuge. When he finishes unloading, Sheppard's picking up the woman, her head resting against his shoulder, her eyes closed. Fever-heat is crawling up her face and he knows red lines will have started their creep up her flesh from the wound. A part of his mind marks out her time, too: not long. Not long at all.
Slamming the trunk shut, he pulls the rifles over his head, slinging the backpack over one arm, duffle in his hand. When he turns around again, both men have military-issue grey bags almost as tall as they are and are waiting for his lead.
"It's a little weird," he says, eyes flickering to Ronon's gun hand hovering too close to his hip. Pushing the warped back door open, the smells of decay overwhelms him for a second, but they're nothing new. It's a slow journey across the floor--the boards are old and rotting, and some have broken already. Behind the remains of an industrial stove, there's a door below the staircase, as warped and rotted as the rest.
Special, though, and he takes a breath, glancing behind him, noticing how they follow in his footsteps with care. Licking his lips, he gets out his knife, hoping to God Ronon doesn't shoot first and ask questions later.
There's a hissed breath behind him that he can't afford to notice as he touches the tip of the blade to his finger. The first time, he'd felt like he was bleeding out when they set it to his body. Now it's just recognition.
He wipes the finger across the wood, bracing himself for the shock of cold that seems to reach through his entire body, every vein frozen, air going solid in his lungs like he's underwater and drowning slowly. The room goes silent, thick, like he's encased in solid stone, the second stretching.
Then it's over, and the door opens with a creak.
Behind him, he hears a breath let out in a shocked hiss and wonders what it looked like to them.
"It's a sanctuary spell," he says, trying not to shake too obviously. His fingertips are numb. Blood magic, even this kind, never feels quite right. "Come on."
Resetting it is less traumatizing than opening it up, but he still takes the time to lay a line of salt. Some habits shouldn't be broken, and this is one of them.
When he gets to the bottom, Sheppard has stretched Teyla out on one of the mattresses in the corner. Dean finds the kerosene lamps by the light of Ronon's flashlight, getting out his lighter and setting them in the four corners of the room. From habit, he studies the straight lines of the reinforced ceiling, glancing to take in the street-level barred windows, blackout blinds from the forties draped over each.
Sheppard seems to know the tricks, getting a chair to reach the first window, laying a line of salt with the careful precision of someone who's done this many times and still finds it new. Dean alternates windows until all four are covered, pulling the cheap blinds back into place so the light from the room doesn't penetrate the outside.
The bunker's an old one, the first he built after the change, when Sam was still with him. They'd spent weeks building it, slow and methodical, patching the ceiling and reinforcing the walls with concrete made from thrice-blessed water, mixed while he recited every protection spell he'd ever learned. It's safe, as safe as anything in this country can be, and it's home, in a way that nowhere else is.
Though Dean can feel the sharp eyes follow him wherever he moves, Ronon keeps his distance, sticking close to Sheppard's side as if Dean might turn on them at any moment. Not surprising. "Make yourself at home," he says with a grin at Ronon's narrow-eyed frown. "Mi casa es su casa. Whatever."
Getting a chair, he sets aside the rifles carefully, as openly as he can, before he sits down, watching the other two men circle the room, careful and meticulous as they check every corner. Military, definitely, Sheppard, too, disciplined in a way that reminds him so much of his father it makes him ache.
Sheppard finally settles by the cot, pulling a chair close enough to reach Teyla easily. Ronon leans against the wall between the cot and Dean. He's not holding a weapon, but it doesn't fool Dean into thinking he's safe. He's seen the man move.
"So," Dean says, wondering what kind of conversation he's supposed to make. He's years out of practice with chatting. His hands free of weapons feel naked. He's too used to being armed when he has company.
Sheppard's eyes flicker from Teyla. "Interesting place," he says. Dean can't figure out if he's being sarcastic or not.
"We built it when it--started," Dean says, glancing around the room. He can feel Sam here sometimes--psychic residue, maybe, or just wishful thinking. He's a zero on the psychic meter, but he likes to think that being brothers gives him something, lets him feel Sam even now. "It's safe."
Sheppard's head tilts slightly. "We?"
"My brother." Even to himself, his voice is too short. Sheppard raises an eyebrow but doesn't respond, turning his attention back to Teyla.
"How long?" he asks. When Sheppard looks at him again, he nods toward Teyla. "Since she got hurt."
Sheppard hesitates, gaze flickering briefly to Ronon. It might be the lamps, but his face seems to darken. "A week since she was attacked. Symptoms about two days ago."
Dean nods, letting the silence stretch over the room, mind blanking. It's been too long since he's been around people. It's an effort now to talk.
Time passes. Sheppard and Ronon aren't chatty, even with each other, though Ronon's more restless, moving around the room like something caged, fingers brushing the concrete every so often. Three or four rounds of the room bring him back to his bag, and Dean watches in interest as he settles on the second cot and opens the bag up, pulling out the kind of weapons cache that is the stuff of extremely good dreams.
He starts with his own gun, a model that Dean's sure he's never seen, and he's pretty sure he's seen them all. A quick breakdown reveals a completely alien configuration, the parts not as intuitive in their disassembly as anything Dean's worked with, and he uses cleaning supplies that Dean's never seen before.
"Nice," he says, and Ronon's head comes up sharply, a searching look before a quick, toothy grin. He keeps going, flipping the barrel this way and that with practiced ease, natural showmanship, and Dean finds himself studying the design. Thicker barrel, with a slight oval shape; not ideal for bullets. Not ideal for anything Dean can think to shoot. The fluid's different, too, evaporating in the cool of the room even faster than alcohol. There's no bullet chamber he can see, the hilt a single solid sheet, no visible jointure.
Former military, maybe prototype? Dean's fingers itch to touch, and it's a physical effort not to cross the space between them, get a good close look at it. Somehow, he just doesn't think Ronon would appreciate it.
Sheppard glances over every so often, but his focus remains on Teyla, now fallen into an uneasy sleep.
There's something about them, though; Sheppard, ex-military, has to be, from the easy way he wears a thigh holster to the way he watches the room, subtle and sharp, missing nothing. He's too thin, tense everywhere even at rest, like a wire pulled too taut, and there are familiar strain marks around his eyes that tug at Dean's memory. Sleep deprivation can do that, but that's nothing new in their brave new world. He looks like he could use about two days worth dead on his back, though..
"So, you folks been on the road long?"
Sheppard's head twists around, looking at Dean with unconcealed surprise. Dean shrugs. There's no way they can sleep fourteen hours down here. Might as well talk.
"Few months," Sheppard says warily.
"From up north?"
Sheppard's mouth quirks. "Colorado." From the corner of his eye, Dean catches Ronon's sharp look. Sheppard's head tilts, the focus sharpening so abruptly that Dean can feel it like a weight, pressing against every bone and every muscle in his body--who the fuck is this guy?
Then he's someone else, melting back into his chair like it's a part of him, lean lazy body and wary eyes. "We were following some people that vanished on us. We heard they might try a border crossing."
Dean snorts softly. The Mexican border is porous, but that doesn't make it any less dangerous. Old witches built their own defenses into the earth, last-ditch efforts as dangerous to humans as they are to anything else. "Nuts," he says, and Sheppard's eyebrows rise curiously. "Look, you folks survive this long, you know what the borders are like." He pauses as Sheppard shrugs. "Did you find them?"
Sheppard's mouth quirks slightly. It's not a smile by any stretch of the imagination, but there's amusement beneath. "We will."
Dean wonders why, but he doubts he'll get an answer, not with Ronon staring at them like Sheppard just pulled a rabbit out of his ass and left it bloody on the floor. Shrugging to himself, he thinks about cleaning his gun, but Ronon's too twitchy, and Sheppard's little smirk makes him nervous the way people always make him nervous. For the life of him, he can't figure out why the fuck he brought them here, his safe place that's never known another life but Sammy's.
He's been alone too fucking long.
"Get some sleep," Ronon says abruptly, eyes trained on Sheppard. Sheppard turns around, a wordless exchange that involves no facial expression and a lot of glaring, but Sheppard shrugs, levering himself out of the chair in a fluid motion that belies the exhaustion seeping from beneath his skin. He shifts Teyla over, sliding in beside her so smoothly she barely stirs; they're both so thin they fit on the cot easily with space to spare. His head touches the pillow inches from hers and he's out like a light.
Ronon watches with an unreadable expression before going back to his gun, dismissing Dean's presence like an annoying insect. Dean shifts back in his chair, resigned to a night of mindblowing boredom.
He hadn't known he was asleep until he wakes to sudden activity, bringing his gun up automatically, aiming from instinct. Ronon's huge back is to him--something Dean hadn't thought would ever happen--big hands on Sheppard's thin shoulders to hold him down while he flails, every muscle tense. Ronon's pinned him to the cot with his knees, but he's barely keeping his seat, jerked by Sheppard's body as he fights the restraint.
Dean holsters the gun, coming around to get a better look. Ronon's head snaps up, teeth bared. "Get back."
"Fuck off. What's wrong with him?" Epileptic, would be ironic in some way, or maybe just a bad dream. Sheppard's back arches like a bow, jerking Ronon up with the kind of strength Dean wouldn't have suspected the guy even had, and then the green eyes flicker open, glazed over and wide with horror, blood spotting his lip and smeared around his nose, and Dean knows exactly what he's been missing.
Jesus Christ and holy fuck. "You have a fucking psychic out here?" He's grabbing for the salt by instinct, even if the room's salted, even though the wards on this place are the strongest ever created, even though he knows if there's anything out there that sensed him, there's jack shit Dean can do about it now. Sheppard's head snaps back onto the thin mattress with an audible thump, and Dean watches the eyes close briefly before snapping open again, seeing the world as it is.
If it's better than what he's been seeing, Dean doesn't ever want to know what he saw. "New Mexico," Sheppard breathes. His head turns to the side, staring past Dean at the wall. "They died screaming."
Dean closes his eyes. "Psychic." Jesus fucking Christ, someone brought a fucking psychic on the open road. "What the fuck are you doing here?"
Sheppard looks at him, confused, and Dean wonders where the fuck this guy has been all this time--secret underground bunker in the middle of bumfuck nowhere? Hiding out with other humans who were so fucking stupid they didn't deserve to breathe? Shoving his shaking hands deep in his pockets, Dean checks the wards from rote, wondering if any of that got through, if they'll have things waiting at the door when they come out. No one's been in here since Sammy, and they'd never really known for sure if even cold iron laced concrete could block everything.
Eventually, Ronon climbs off Sheppard, sitting in Sheppard's chair and staring at him with naked worry. No fucking wonder they don't talk. They don't need to.
After a while, Sheppard sits up. Swiveling, he brings his feet to the floor, leaning over to rest his head in his hands as he breathes out, like Sammy would do at the beginning, when it would hit him hard and fast and unprepared. Ronon doesn't touch him, but the watching's enough.
"You didn't tell me," Dean says, voice shaking. "This is not something you don't tell, man. This is something you say right off when you're going into a place that's fucking warded."
Sheppard lifts his head, swiping at his nose with his sleeve. "It's not something I'm used to talking about," which isn't even close to an apology. Not thinking about it either--Dean knows all about that kind of denial. Just how the fuck the guy's been denying it is a mystery; now that Dean knows what he's seeing, it's written all over him.
"I don't believe this." Pacing to the far edge of the basement--not nearly enough room down here to pace, barely enough room to think--Dean stares up the stairs. Psychic zero he might be, but it's his blood that binds this place, his and Sammy's, and he'd know if something was breaching it. When he turns around, Ronon's looking at him now, in a way that Dean knows too well. Slowly, Dean lets his hand drift toward his gun. He can probably get to it before Ronon can shoot him. Probably.
"Stand down," Sheppard says, voice thin but firm. Ronon hesitates. "He's not a threat. I'd know."
Remembering the feeling of Sheppard watching him earlier, Dean twitches. "Have you been reading me?"
Sheppard hesitates, which is an answer in itself, then shrugs. "More like testing a mood than--whatever that is." He pauses, looking awkward and uncomfortable. "It's not like I know what I'm doing. It just happens."
Like Sam. Dean tries not to compare, but the slump of shoulders is so familiar that he can't help it, anger melting like snow. "Jesus."
Ronon grumbles something, which makes Sheppard roll his eyes. "I know things, yeah. You look for people like me. Sometimes. I know your brother's here, somehow. I just--" Sheppard stops, with that peculiar look people always get when they have to talk about something that sounds plain nuts. "I don't know how."
Ronon shifts uneasily, and Sheppard lifts his head, looking up at him with an unreadable expression. Dean makes himself relax; most of the psychics he runs across these days are already nuts. At least Sheppard seems to be relatively sane still, or faking it brilliantly. Dean will take the faking happily. "When did you--"
"It started a few months ago," Sheppard says slowly, like he's picking out every word from an unreliable memory. "We--didn't understand what it was. Or what it was doing until it was too late." Dean wonders what the 'too late' was, could have been. Countless possibilities hover around the words, and few are pleasant. He's seen enough of them, from the would-be prophet who got herself blown up in California along with her followers, to the ones strung up in trees in the deep south, where superstition is as ingrained as skin color.
Sheppard's eyes go flat. It seems the sharing portion of the evening is over. "Doesn't matter. We just want antibiotics for Teyla."
Dean crosses his arms, leaning back into the wall. Psychic in denial. Right. "And that group you're looking for."
Sheppard nods with no expression. "Yeah."
Like Sammy at the beginning, Sheppard's wired for a couple of hours after: restless, jerky movement that makes the tiny room feel smaller, then falls dead to sleep with a push of Ronon's hand. Dean watches the slow ease of strain wistfully as Ronon covers Sheppard and Teyla with a blanket, one hand resting on Sheppard's shoulder before he pulls away. Removing to the other cot, Ronon drops down onto the thin mattress, tense beneath his skin and restless in every deliberate movement.
"Doesn't sleep much," Dean says, jerking Ronon's gaze to him. Leaning forward, Ronon rests his elbows on his knees, looking smaller--feeling smaller, too, maybe. Dean knows all about that.
"Alcohol won't make it stop. Drugs won't. Sleep won't. It comes when it comes and then it goes when it's done. But I bet you know that already."
Ronon hesitates, then nods. "We learned."
He did, they did, they had to, the ones after Sam, something in them waking up in this new world. The ones that got drunk on cheap alcohol from abandoned bars and trapped themselves in nightmares that followed them back to morning. The kids with burned out eyes on sidestreets and wandering the desert; new junkies eating bullets in basements as the sun rose. He picks them up when he finds them, buries them when he has to, bone and ash sowed with salt and laced with iron as far into Nevada's desert as he can drive in four hours. His hands itch at the old memory of the first graves he ever dug, so intense he can taste his own sweat and the blood from cracked knuckles on his tongue.
Dean realizes he's holding his knife again, still sheathed by his knee, hilt between his fingers. Not threat, but relaxation, tension leaking away at the touch of supple leather wrapped around steel, familiar grooves from his fingers, the easy balance of a perfect blade when he pulls it out. Ronon tenses but doesn't move, eyes fastened on the shining edge with a kind of hungry appreciation. Flipping it, Dean hands it over hilt-first. "Check it out."
Ronon pauses with an unreadable look that could be amusement, but he barely hesitates before he reaches out, and Dean watches him turn the blade, studying it with the professional interest of a hunter. He runs one thick, callused hand a breath above the blade, checking the weight and balance. It's not for throwing, but it'll do in a pinch. "Nice," Ronon murmurs, handing it back. The hilt's warm from someone else, sliding smoothly into Dean's hand, and he clenches around it for a second, making it his again before he slides it back into its sheathe. "Little small."
Dean smirks. "Oh yeah?"
Something that crosses the line between a butcher knife and a machete materializes in one broad hand, and Dean catches his breath. "Yeah."
Dean thinks he could like these guys.
Dean always wakes for sunrise--his body knows the rhythms of the world, the slumber of the earth waking to a dreary yellow-grey dawn, and he leads them back outside just as the east spreads fingers of pale gold across the world, peering from behind the building and puddling in the street. Teyla's barely conscious against Ronon's shoulder, and Sheppard's pale, tight-lipped and silent, strained like he never slept at all.
Sheppard's thinking of the New Mexico that followed him into his dreams, technicolored bodies and tactile screams he'll carry with him for the rest of the day, the rest of his life.
Dust puffs up around their boots as Dean checks the alley with habitual wariness, watching for disturbances in the dirt, new marks on their vehicles, the smell of the air around them, as dry and dusty as the roads. From the corner of his eye, he sees Sheppard watch the same way, knowing another part of him is searching too, though he may not know it. Dean uses Sheppard's body to read the world, the tiny tells of someone who doesn't yet know what he can sense but his body can still recognize. When Sheppard relaxes, Dean does too.
It's safe. As safe as this place can be, anyway.
"We'll stop again in three hours," Dean says as he opens the backseat, throwing his bag inside. His mind's mapping El Paso now, marking the safehouses he can send them to; Sheppard's got to be like a torch, and he's so new at it he'll be easy for anyone who likes to collect psychics. Someone's always watching, and it's been a while since Dean traveled with a psychic. "Look, no matter what--no matter what you see, don't stop. Not without me. Not out here."
And if they haven't learned that little lesson in survival already, Dean's gonna say they're the luckiest people alive.
Ronon grunts something unintelligible before he ducks around, going to the back of the jeep. From here, Dean can see the mattress laid out, the careful shading on the back windows to keep her safe from the sun, the nest of blankets gathered around her. She hasn't woken up yet. It's possible she won't wake up at all.
Sheppard goes to the passenger side seat; Dean can't imagine him trying to drive, closing his own door as Sheppard leans against the morning-cool metal, eyes closing briefly before Ronon comes back around. He straightens, shoulders jerking back before he climbs inside, and Dean wonders if Sheppard really think he's hiding shit right now. With a nod to Ronon, he gets into the car, fingers wrapped around the gear shift as he closes his eyes and imagines a highway filled with cars speeding ninety miles an hour to nowhere in particular.
Then he gets over it and turns the key.
They stop twice; once for Sheppard to stumble out, throwing up in a ditch. Dean averts his eyes, watching Ronon in the rearview mirror. Ronon stays behind the wheel, like Dean finally learned to, learned Sam's need for space and air and a wide open sky above him when it hits.
Sheppard comes up off his knees with a look on his face that makes Dean think of hunters in out of the way bars, the ones that lived too long and would live far longer, running on adrenaline and hate and the creeping insanity of remembering everything they'd seen. Sheppard takes the water bottle Ronon offers wordlessly through the passenger side window, spitting out half before he finishes it off.
The second time's planned, a quick lunch of dried meat and an unfamiliar flatbread that Sheppard offers from his pack. It's a cross between a tortilla and a pancake, slightly sweet, with a tang that his road-trained tongue finds exotic. Sheppard stays in back with Teyla while Ronon wordlessly watches the road, stoic and quiet and vibrating with worry like a tuning fork; even Dean can feel him.
It gets better, Dean would lie, but he doesn't think the guy would believe him. Though it does in some ways, not in others. It gets easier to see the visions coming, feel them coming, that scratch on the edges of Sam's mind that he'd come to recognize. Dean watches with him, leaning against the warm grill of the jeep, chewing on not-pancakes on a clear day during a season he might have called fall once upon a time.
"Will this guy have the stuff we need?" Ronon asks, and Dean's so surprised to hear him talk that it takes a second to form an answer.
"If he doesn't, no one does." It's weird; in a world where there are miracle healers hawking their gift for food and safe sleep, antibiotics are what they can almost never find. Hospitals full of expired pills, pre-med dropouts growing it with their chemistry sets. Infections kill more people than even the creatures do. When he glances at Ronon, the tight line of his mouth makes Dean wince. He covers it with a drink of water. "Yeah. He'll have it."
Ronon grunts softly, arms crossing over his chest. The guy's huge--Dean's starting to feel a lot smaller than he actually is. Sure, this guy can bench-press a Buick, but it's not like there's much call for that out here. Though he supposes the guy's at an advantage when the big things come out to hunt. Dean pities whatever would think this guy's an easy mark.
"It's quiet out here."
Dean considers. West Texas is old, but not like the east, not the metroplexes of Houston and Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, where wars were fought and won and lost. It's quiet, even at night, a stretch of flattened land and red-brown sandstone, towns like bumps in the road. By highway, it'd be faster, but by highway, they might not make it all the way.
"Where've you been?"
Ronon shrugs, scratching the back of his neck. "Colorado. Some places around there. Following Sheppard." He pauses, staring into the west, like he might see something if he looks hard enough. Dean could tell him he will. It won't be any more real than an oasis in the desert, but he'll see something. "The visions. They're pulling him north."
Dean takes a drink of water. They're all pulled north, every one of them. "He won't go?"
Searching for something down here, a group, a person, a place, whatever. Dean doesn't ask about it, doesn't really want to know. Anyone who stays down here has reasons, and some of them even have good ones. Pushing off the truck, Dean finishes his bottle, tossing it in the car as he gets inside. "Four hours," he says over his shoulder, watching Ronon in the rearview mirror. "Unless you have one hell of a good reason, don't stop until we get there."
El Paso started as Spanish settlements, following the twists of the Rio Grande on both sides of the border, a pausing place on the Camino Real. People died for gold that was never found, for land that was never truly claimed. Before roads were built and the footprints of Catholicism stamped their way across the country, before railroads and airplanes and cell phones, there were Indians who wandered the hunting grounds, leaving their mark on the land in ways that the children of the Europeans never did.
Dean can't feel it, but Sam did, once upon a time, eyes wide and surprised as he turned in slow circles in a town that was once modern, in a world that's anything but.
It's two hours to dusk when they come into the city, skirting the edges until Dean finds an unblocked road. People come and go, fortifying this town and that building, blocking streets and setting fires before moving on, and Dean's never sure what will be safe and what won't. It's funny, in that way that Dean's found life to be, that he tends to worry more about people than the things that crawl out at night, that shadow their steps during the day. Those things only want to take you, eat you, kill you, bleed you out. People are infinitely more complex.
There are smaller groups here, barricaded in buildings, peering out the windows to watch them pass. Some wave, recognizing him as the car crawls down the potholed streets , and he waves back and wonders who they are.
Another building's crumbling, blackened concrete and old brick tumbled over: could be ritual magic, a pyro, or just an idiot too stupid to live. Winding up a road made narrow by broken asphalt, chunks ripped up and strewn like blocks, he glances back once. Ronon's so close that Dean can see the gleam of bared teeth, Sheppard slumped in his seat like he might be asleep.
Dean doubts it, though. Sheppard doesn't look the type.
The place he's looking for isn't a building at all; Dean slows down as he comes into the empty lot, pulling in, keeping a wary eye on the few people scattered nearby. Warding's all well and good, but if they know who he is, they know he keeps supplies, and he's not a guy that kills over unpolluted water. Coming to a stop, he pulls out the keys, tucking them in one pocket before he gets out, breathing out the warding spell before turning around to see Sheppard climbing out of the jeep.
"Sheppard," Ronon says, but his voice says a lot more.
"Stay with Teyla and watch the jeep," Sheppard says quietly. Ronon's hands clench into fists. "That's an order."
Ronon pauses, eyes narrowing, like he might just tell Sheppard where he can put those orders, but the moment passes, and Ronon turns on Dean with an expression that Dean recognizes from his own face. "If he doesn't come back--"
"You'll kill me, I get it." And he does. He does. Ronon doesn't strike him as someone who makes idle threats. "Try, anyway. Ready?"
Sheppard nods with a repressing glance at Ronon, pulling a bag from the ground and hooking it over one shoulder. One corner of his mouth quirks upward. "Let's go."
The girl at the door is younger than the last one.
Dean fights down nausea as she stares at him from dark-ringed, hollow blue eyes, painted lips tight, dress too large for her undeveloped body. Soft blonde hair falls in a ragged line down her back, covering her eyes whenever she lowers her head.
"Hey," Dean says, smiling by reflex, lowering his voice as she starts, already stepping farther back behind the door. "Tell Marty that Dean's here to see him."
She hesitates, leaning heavily onto the door, one bare foot pressed against the wood. "He's not trading today."
"He will with me. Go tell him."
Last time, it was a leggy brunette, tall and skeletal, temporary written all over her, and before that, a pretty blonde that could pass for legal if you squinted. Marty never changes. The girl hesitates, eyes fixing on something behind him. Dean turns to see Sheppard studying the high-rise dirtied pink exterior, broken windows as high as the eye can see. A flutter of ragged curtains, or heads popping out, those that don't mind a ten flight walk if it means safe sleeping for the night. Stupid people say Marty made a deal with the devil to keep it standing, keep the plumbing, which is funny, because if Marty had been making deals with the devil, he'd ask for considerably more than this piece of shit, and he'd sure as hell have better generators.
Sheppard's gaze slides down, catches Dean, then settles on the girl.
"I dreamed of you," she whispers, startling them both. She sways a little, softening into a practiced sensuality that makes the hair rise on the back of Dean's neck. Something flickers jagged in Sheppard's eyes, and Dean surreptitiously steps to the side, blocking direct access to the door.
"Go tell Marty," Dean says soothingly, feeling Sheppard's sharp gaze like a knife against his spine. She steps back inside, closing the door with a click, and Dean turns around. "You say shit, your friend dies."
Sheppard doesn't move. "What kind of place--"
"One where you do what you gotta to survive." Dean tries not notice, but he always does. He noticed the brunette who brought coffee and the blonde who smiled at him with fear-filled eyes, the girls before her, and he'll remember those that come after, too. Every goddamn one. "Shut up and let me do the talking."
Sheppard's head tilts slightly, and Dean wonders if this guy could possibly be stupid enough to start shit in the only place in the southwest they can reliably find supplies. A click of the door jerks his attention back, and Marty's smirking benevolently at him in too-small shorts and a brightly colored shirt, eyes as flat and empty as the city.
Marty's an old acquaintance, old enough that Dean knows to fake a smile. Gnarled, desert-dry arms wrap around his shoulders, a whisper of words against his skin to prove identity. Used to be he had to shed blood, but these days, Marty can do it with a touch. The welcoming smile fades as he takes in Dean's companion, eyebrows drawn together sharply. Marty's not an idiot and has never been a psychic null. He knows exactly what he's looking at.
"Passing through?" Marty asks, though he's got to know better. The sharp eyes already flickered over Sheppard once, taking him in, filing him in his mental rolodex of names and faces and events. "Unusual company."
"Need a trade," Dean says. Marty grunts.
Jesus fuck. Marty's getting stupid. "I'd be careful," Dean says lightly as he passes Marty at the door and drops into a chair, slouching while Marty looks between them. "You remember what Sam did when you got grabby." The chair puts Dean close enough to move if Sheppard takes it badly, but far enough away that Marty won't be sure he can stop Sheppard. Draping an arm over the back, Dean waits until Marty's got his brain back. "Antibiotics. And bullets if you got any."
It's almost funny to watch the struggle on Marty's face, balancing trade with opportunity presented, weighing Dean's business and Sheppard against whatever the fuck he thinks he could do with a captive psychic. "Right." Marty looks between them, then motions. "Come on and I'll see what I got."
Sheppard follows Dean, eerily quiet, as they cross out of what once had been a small meeting room, down a hall carpeted in faded red and to the door. Marty sells aboveground to anyone who wants a space, but the only safe places are below. Dean pauses at the top the stairwell, feeling Sheppard's gaze fixed on the back of his neck like a brand. As quietly as they all move, Sheppard's practically a ghost behind him, and Dean fights the urge to turn around and make sure he's still there.
"Got a line on a tinhat," Marty says casually, jerking Dean's attention.
Marty shrugs. "New Mexico last I heard, claiming second coming. The usual shit."
Dean carefully doesn't glance back at Sheppard, but he thinks he'd better consider asking Sheppard what he saw last night. "How long ago?"
"Swung through pretty recently." Marty makes a show of thinking. "Week or so. One of them your type."
His type being crazy psychics. Right.
Marty's head turns sharply, fixing Dean with an avaricious smile. "Thought you might be interested."
"That's not much to go on." It's not. New Mexico is big, and psychics can move fast when they think they're being followed, and even when they're not. Marty has the info; he just likes to see Dean twitch.
"Might remember more if I think on it," Marty offers generously. "It's been a while."
Right. That kind of information. "Right."
They pass an industrial refrigerator, a laundry room, the exit to the underground parking lots that no one sane would step in for anything less than death. Some doors with broken knobs, splintered wood, long-dried blood staining the dingy frame. When Marty looks back, opening a door with a quiet word, Dean glances back too, just to see if Sheppard's still there, and finds him close enough to touch.
Dean wonders how Sheppard did that without Dean feeling him.
"Antibiotics," Marty's saying cheerfully, turning in a slow circle. It's a familiar room, stacked with rotting boxes of prescription bottles from pharmacies and hospitals. There are other rooms like this, filled with painkillers and antibiotics, maybe even a lab if Marty's managed to find a replacement chemist since the last one up and died on him after going outside past dusk. Marty sorts through the unlabeled boxes, unlabeled bottles, coming back to them with a grin. "Trade's private, Winchester," Marty says genially, rocking back on his heels. "You know that." Dean almost objects, but Sheppard shrugs, slinging his bag on the floor.
"I know the drill." There's a wary resignation on his face that says maybe he does, too. Dean nods shortly, going back out the door and shutting it behind him. He can just hear the murmur of voices on the other side, and he figures if Sheppard loses his shit, he can probably get back inside fast enough to stop outright murder. Probably.
Reaching in his pocket, he pulls out the half pack of stale cigarettes he picked up two states ago, rolling it between his fingers to get the feel of the paper, smell musty tobacco and remember a time that payments was tendered with credit cards and cash.
After a while, the door opens, Marty grinning as Sheppard zips up his bag. Glancing down, Dean sees the bottle in one hand before Sheppard slips it into the pocket of his jacket, looking at Dean with unreadable eyes. Marty has the glee of a man who pulled off a good trade, and Dean wonders what Sheppard gave up. "So, Dean? Bullets?"
They barter for a few nights below-ground. Marty's defenses are good, better than anywhere else in the city, and it's not like Dean's got anyplace he has to be just yet. He throws his duffle onto the bed, thinking its been a long time since he spent so many nights running on a mattress. His back thanks him for the thought; the backseat of the Impala is getting old. And so is he.
Sheppard doesn't say much, feeding Teyla carefully crushed pills, slowly wiping a wet cloth across her face. Ronon hovers, no surprise there, hands opening and closing on empty air as Teyla falls into restless sleep. It's going to take more than a few hours to wipe an infection like that.
"Sheppard. You need to rest." Ronon pries the cloth from his hand, hip checking him off the edge of the bed. It may say something, that Sheppard doesn't fight him, getting up to lean against the wall, letting gravity drag him down. "You're going to fuck up if you don't sleep," Ronon says, relentlessly honest. "We can't afford that."
"Thanks for the newsflash," Sheppard answers without heat, leaning his head back against the wall, eyes closed. One hand absently scratches at his neck, over an uneven patch of skin that looks like an old scar. "I was just thinking I needed to go for a jog."
Ronon frowns at him, like he's not sure Sheppard's joking. Honestly, Dean's not sure he is, either.
"They come every night?" Dean asks, keeping his voice disinterested when he's anything but.
Sheppard pauses, shaking his head. "Not every night." Running a hand through his hair, he opens his eyes to stare at the door. "Just most nights."
Dean nods, taking out his guns, spreading them in a neat circle as he starts to break them down. Ronon doesn't leap for a weapon and Sheppard closes his eyes, so Dean figures that either they believe him or they're too tired to care. Taking out his kit, Dean pops it open, looking at the soft clothes, the oils, the worn brushes and bottles that have served two generations of Winchester men.
Sheppard shifts on the floor, and Dean watches in interest as he takes out his 9 mm, frowning at it before he shakes himself, reaching for the pack Ronon brought in. Dean loses himself in his work, aware that Sheppard's doing the same, practiced, automatic movements that speak of long familiarity. "You should go north," Dean says abruptly. "It's safer."
Sheppard doesn't look up, hands moving smoothly through the disassembly of what looks like a rifle, ignoring him so thoroughly that Dean almost wonders if he imagined he'd spoken. Snapping the barrel back on, Dean sights it before setting the gun aside, reaching for another one. "It's worse down here," Dean says, and this time, he doesn't think of Sammy at all. "On the road--"
Ronon's pretending not to watch them now, hand slowing against Teyla's skin. The smells of gun oil and leather almost cover the stench of the moldy carpets and dry-rot walls, thinly coated with peeling paint more yellow than white. Dean puts his case aside, wondering why he's even bothering. The tinhat, probably.
"Staying'll drive you nuts," Dean says quietly. "I've seen enough of you over the years. I know what it'll do to you after too long."
Sheppard's fingers stutter, just a moment, and Dean forcibly keeps Sam from his mind, too-private memories that he can't stand for someone else to see. "Why north?"
Dean shrugs. "I don't know." He doesn't know why north, why Canada, not really, not even when Sam was drawn, waking with the names of cities he's never seen on his lips. "But it's better there. Safer. The things here are drawn to you. People too. Sooner or later--" Something gets them. Or they get themselves. Dean's taken ten to the border, barely sane, hoping wherever they were going, it was better than here. Knowing somehow, that anything was better than here. Anything. "The longer you're down here--"
"The worse it gets," Ronon says flatly. "Sheppard--"
"No." Sheppard sets aside the reassembled rifle, stretching lazily before he turns to Dean. "What's a tinhat?"
Well, fuck. Dean leans back into the wall with a sigh. "Marty's word."
Sheppard waits, eyebrows raised in polite inquiry.
"Psychic that goes nuts, starts--" A religion, a cult, wanders around thinking crazy and taking others down with them. "Look, it's your future is what it is, if you don't blow your own brains out."
But Sheppard's not listening, focusing on Dean with that strange weight that makes Dean feel like he's being slowly crushed by air. "This one. He said New Mexico."
"That was a week ago." Marty's memory's trickier the less Dean has to trade. Dean taps thoughtfully against his thigh, watching Sheppard. "You think your vision was about this?"
Sheppard just looks back. Right. Dean doesn't sigh, but it's hard. "Guy goes into the desert, comes out thinking he's God. Like I said--"
"They go crazy." Sheppard's fingers stroke slowly over the barrel of the gun. Dean figures it's not supposed to be a threat. "You going after him?"
Dean wonders if Sheppard somehow picked that up from his thoughts, or if he's just that good at guessing. "I do sometimes."
Sheppard's head tilts thoughtfully. "You need help?"
Dean pretends he's sticking around to see what happens to the woman and make sure they'll be okay. Marty's girl watches him constantly, a reminder that Marty's always up for new and interesting forms of profit, and while Dean's pretty sure Ronon could kick the ass of anyone trying to get at them, Marty's a good magician. Sheppard's feral, like a trapped animal, playing human badly with nerves on the outside of his skin, rubbed raw. Dean gets him out of the building and into fresh air after twenty-four hours, when even Ronon's looking like he might commit random homicide if it means Sheppard stops pacing.
He pretends he's there to trade with Marty, scavenge through the city with a curious Sheppard at his back, who still studies the world with incredulous eyes. He pretends he's there for any reason but the one that's true.
Teyla emerges from fever in two days, with sallow skin and too-bright eyes but a sweetly amused smile at the men hovering over her bed, and Dean thinks he's almost as relieved as Sheppard and Ronon.
Lying gets you a lot of things, but lying to yourself just gets you killed. On the fourth day, when Sheppard gears up with practiced ease, guns and knives concealed on a body that isn't as skeletal as only a week before, strain lines eased from silent, dreamless nights and Teyla on Ronon's arm making slow progress through the hotel as she regains her strength, Dean admits to himself this one thing; he's not ready to let them go.
It's been too long, he thinks wryly as Sheppard heaves a rifle over one shoulder, exchanging smiles with Teyla across the room. He's a hunter who's never learned to forget he wasn't always alone. Sheppard's not Sammy, but taking him through narrow streets and teaching him what to look for in the swirls of dust, the yawning doorways of abandoned buildings, the strange plants that glow even during full daylight, satisfies something in him. He falls into the rhythm of it, sixteen again to Sammy's twelve, the little brother that fought him every step of the way yet never stopped going where Dean led him.
Sheppard's good at this, which Dean thinks shouldn't surprise him, asking questions like a man who's never seen the world before, like he's been saving them up all this time. Some are weird--when did this happen, how? How many years ago?--some are interesting--"So that thing with five heads--" "Hydra. Only on the big rivers. Just stay away from the Mississippi."--and some don't have any context at all.
"Do you recognize this?" Sheppard says one day while Dean clears a house on the outskirts of the town. Canned goods are still fairly common, but sometimes he finds cases of bullets hidden beneath the bed and under the sink--this is Texas, home of the highest gun per capita rate in the country, even now. Like today, emerging with a box of .38's and a strong sense of personal satisfaction to find Sheppard in the abandoned living room, toes almost brushing a long-rotted frozen dinner disintegrating slowly into carpet that used to be blue. He has a book in his hand, a curiously intense expression on his face as he flips through the pages.
"Huh?" Dean circles around, leaning over one narrow shoulder to see nothing but tiny print and a picture of a grey stone. Sheppard's always looking at books; Dean remembers leaving Sheppard at the library a couple of days before, half-burned and gutted, coming back to find an ashy and pissy Sheppard staring at the remains of the building like it personally offended him. Reaching out, Dean flips the book to see the cover. "Egyptian mythology?" The name Dr. Jackson on the cover doesn't mean anything to him.
Sheppard shrugs, but he's tense in a way that suggests there's something here that Dean's missing in an epic way. "Required reading for the new world order," Sheppard says lightly, flipping it open to glance at the page with the smooth grey stone. "This was found in Colorado."
Dean shrugs but doesn't protest when Sheppard stuffs the book in his pack. He's right, in a way, though Dean would have picked Americana horror if they were going to be relevant to time and place. Hydras came up all over the world, but he's never heard a case of Osiris wandering anywhere but Egypt proper. "Sure." Sheppard's looking at the books, tracing the titles with eyes that are searching for something very specific. Dean leaves him to it, checking the rest of the house for anything that could be of use.
Candles he can still find anywhere, but it never hurts to take what he finds, stockpile for the future. Kerosene beneath the sink, always good to keep a supply around. He goes through the clothes by rote, though there are still department stores out there filled to the brim. Malls are dangerous, though, creatures creeping into the protected, wide-open spaces to wait for humans in dry comfort with plenty of space to play before they make a kill.
When he notices the pale green fog slowly seeping through the bedroom window, however, he knows it's time to go. "Sheppard!" Grabbing his bag off the floor, Dean swings it over his shoulder, emerging into the living room to see Sheppard crouching to check something on the bookshelf. "We gotta go."
Sheppard frowns, checking his watch. "It's not noon--"
"And it's getting gamey out there. Get up and come on." Dean motions to the window. It's still bright enough to see, but it won't be for very long. Grabbing Sheppard's discarded bag, Dean waits impatiently as Sheppard grabs some book off the shelf, herding him toward the front door.
The day's turned an oiled brown-green that makes the skin on Dean's back itch. He'd parked in the front yard, as close as he could get to the door, just in case, but even ten feet feels like miles to cross when the air grows greasy and thick. Sheppard blinks in surprise as they come out on the front porch. "What the hell--"
"Less chat, more movement. Get in as fast as you can." Dean covers his mouth as the taste begins to penetrate, a sickly sweetness like a swamp of rotting bodies coating his tongue and filling his throat. He'll smell and taste nothing else for days now. "If you feel something touch you, don't stop to find out what the fuck it is." And with those words, Dean ducks out, the car a pale dark shape vanishing into the fog.
The sun's already misted over, melting pale orange into the slow green-black of the sky as the mist thickens, reminding him of pea soup at roadside diners. His lungs hurt from breathing, making him feel heavy and unbalanced, and the sounds are muffled like he's hearing from a distance. The ground is wet and spongy beneath his feet with too much give for honest dirt.
Blindly, he gets a hand on the handle, already slick, warm, soft as roast pork, and even though his mind knows it's an illusion, he can't stop the first instinctive flinch before he squeezes and jerks the door open. Getting inside, he pulls the door shut fast, letting as little of the fog as he can into the car with him, turning the key even as he throws his bag over the back of the seat.
There's no way to see now--the windshield is all misty greens and pale gold from the remains of the sun, and Sheppard--where the fuck is Sheppard? Dean has the words of the warding spell on the tip of his tongue, burning to be spoken, and it's an effort to hold them in. Once it's set, Sheppard's dead, and Dean realizes he's not ready to face that yet.
Then the passenger door opens with a sharp jerk, and Sheppard tumbles inside surrounded in a filmy green haze that seems to cling to his skin. The hazel eyes are dilated black and there are red abrasions up and down one arm, like sunburn, blistering sickly white and angry green.
"Close the door!" Dean hisses, ignoring the relief, even as Sheppard jerks his legs inside, slamming the door behind him, and Dean shifts into reverse and hits the gas even as he murmurs the words of the warding spell.
Sheppard is still half-bent in the seat, breathing hard, and Dean takes a second to wonder if all the water's in the trunk before he thinks he feels asphalt beneath the wheels. He never loses his sense of direction, knows to turn them right, feeling the bump of the car that tells him they made it over the curb. Taking a deep breath, Dean puts the car in drive, staring at the blank nothingness outside.
After a few seconds, Sheppard sits up. Dean goes slowly; he's got to now, the roads are tricky on a clear day. "What is that?" Sheppard says, voice harsh and broken. He breathed too much of it.
"Dunno. There's water in the backseat, I think." Whiskey would be better, something to cover the sickly taste, but Dean's pretty sure that's actually in the trunk, more fool him. Sheppard turns in the seat, slow, like he's not sure of his body anymore, throwing his own bag in the back before he goes half over the seat to look.
Keeping his hands on the steering wheel, Dean lets instinct guide him, feeling the asphalt beneath the tires like it's beneath his boots. "Don't throw up," Dean warns when Sheppard makes a gagging sound. That's more aesthetics than anything--the fog is bad enough. He doesn't want to drive with the smell of vomit as well. "Find any water?"
"Yeah," Sheppard says breathlessly, tipping over the seat more before struggling back, two bottles clutched in his hand. He opens one with shaking hands, almost tearing the plastic with the spastic twitches before he gets it to his mouth, taking a fast drink that spills water down his chin. Dean doesn't watch that either, or tells himself he doesn't, reaching for the second bottle. "Jesus. That was--"
"Nasty," Dean says, taking a drink of water. It cuts the taste a little. "Just sit back and breathe."
Sheppard braces one foot on the dash, a crime that Dean would kick his ass for he didn't look like he might throw up, warning or not. On the scale, he can oil the dash back to gloss, but getting new carpeting and more cleaning supplies will be trickier, so he lets it go, trying not to smile at the way Sheppard drinks down water like a man just come from a fasting spell in the desert.
Checking the speedometer, Dean sighs. Fifteen miles an hour at best. It'll be a couple of hours before they get back to the relative safety of the hotel.
"I've never seen that before," Sheppard says finally, half a bottle of water down, bottle cradled between his thighs. Dean shrugs; they're more likely in wooded regions, stretching from Oregon to Minnesota, but they still come here, vanishing after hours or days like the sun dries them out. They do better under soft green canopies, draped in humidity. "What the hell was it?"
"Fog," Dean says, then, just to be an asshole, "forms when relative humidity reaches one hundred percent at ground level depending on what side of the dewpoint the temp--"
"God," Sheppard says, looking at him in horror. "Shut up."
Dean smirks. "It's fog. It's just--different." Though these days, fog seems to create its own humidity--it's fucking El Paso--and the only warning is watching it form. Dean sees Sheppard rub a hand over his forehead shakily. "Did you see something?" Dean never has, but Sammy had. Sammy had seen a lot of things. Felt them, too.
"Yeah." Sheppard tips his head back against the seat. "I saw something."
Dean doesn't ask. If Sheppard wants to share, cool, but Dean's seen enough somethings. He doesn't need to add any more.
"There's a first aid kit in the glove compartment," he says, reaching over to pop it open. "Get something on your arm. Burns?"
"Felt cold." Sheppard shivers, then leans forward, retrieving the box and going through it with professional curiosity. Gauze, some precut strips for common wounds. Antibiotic cream--still fairly easy to get. Hydrocortisone for freaky plantlife, lidocaine for burns--Dean learned to stock those the hard way. Morphine in careful pre-measured doses, epipens, vicodin and oxy just in case. Tylenol. Tape, pre-cut and on a roll, scissors. Sheppard fumbles out the gauze and tape, and Dean gives it a second to see if his hand steadies before throwing the car into park.
Sure, it's the middle of the road, but who the hell is going to hit him anymore? "Hold still."
Sheppard freezes at the first touch of Dean's fingers on his wrist, and Dean can feel the muscles beneath his fingers go solid and stiff. After a few long seconds, Sheppard breathes out, nodding, and Dean reaches for the antiseptic, rubbing it quick and professional over the blisters, wrapping the gauze loosely over, taping it in place. Sheppard watches him the entire time, gaze following Dean's movements like he's watching for mistakes. When the last piece of pre-cut tape is in place, Dean pulls back, watching Sheppard slowly flex his arm, trying and failing not to look a little freaked.
"Good?" Dean asks. "There's Tylenol--" Sheppard gives him an incredulous look, shutting Dean down. Right. That type of guy. "If you want it," he says, settling back in his seat and putting the car into drive.
"Do a lot of field dressing?" Sheppard says neutrally.
Dean shrugs, wishing he'd thought to pack gum. "Dad taught me."
"Marine?" Dean's face must show something, because Sheppard smirks. "Spent a lot of time with Marines."
Sheppard shifts his boot against the dashboard and Dean bites his lip against commentary. "Air Force."
"Planes. Huh." And he doesn't even flinch when he says it. Dean can see this guy as a pilot--thin and rangy, sharp eyes turned on the sky. "Where were you stationed?"
"McMurdo." Sheppard pauses, like he knows Dean has no clue where that is. "Antarctica."
Huh. That would explain why he didn't know shit about what happened. Antarctica might be safe, if anywhere in the world could be. Even a determined demon would probably find all that ice fucking depressing. "You just got back?"
Sheppard pauses, staring out the windshield before his eyes flick down and away. Seeing something in the shifting grey, maybe. Probably. "Pretty much." Moving back in the seat, Sheppard shifts his arm to a comfortable position on his thigh, shaking his head. "When are we leaving for the tinhat?"
The word sounds weird in Sheppard's mouth. Affectionate, like a nickname, drawled over his tongue in a way that makes Dean wonders seriously where this guy grew up. "You don't have to come."
Sheppard nods. "I know."
"What you're looking for--"
"Isn't in Texas anymore." Sheppard's voice is quiet, and Dean wonders what he's been dreaming. "What do you do with them? The crazy ones?"
Jesus, what did he do. Dean's hands tighten on the wheel. "Send them north if they'll go."
"And if they don't?"
If they don't. The crazy ones never did. "A crazy psychic--" Dean stops, wondering how he can frame it. "There's something--when they go bad, they go bad. They build armies, cults. They get careless and stupid. And they're the most dangerous thing on this planet." The strong ones, anyway, and God knows, there are a lot of them, too many. Like something is waking up in ordinary people the longer this lasts, turning them into something that forgot they were human. Had been human.
"So you kill them."
Dean takes a deep breath. "I make sure they can't hurt anyone else."
Sheppard doesn't answer, but Dean thinks he can feel silent judgment from across the seat. Or hell, maybe Sheppard's weighing pro and con on whether to tell Dean that he's flipped to the dark side and plans to announce his godhead. Sheppard taps a discordant rhythm on his knee, gazing at the dashboard before he nods, like he's carrying on a conversation that Dean can't hear.
Jesus, he could be, for all Dean knows.
"Is that why you left your brother in Canada?"
If they'd been going sixty miles an hour, there would have been an accident. Now there's only a short skid and then Dean's foot is slammed into the brake. Putting the car in park, Dean fights the urge to reach across the seat, grab Sheppard by the collar, and use his fists the way God intended. But when he turns in the seat, Sheppard's just watching him, neutral and pale and practically oozing discomfort.
"Son of a bitch." Not a lot of psychics could have read that. Dean lived with Sam too long. "How did you--"
Sheppard shakes his head wearily. "I told you. It just happens." He looks as frustrated as Dean feels. "It's--flashes. Like the visions. Then it goes off." His mouth twists in amusement as he stares down at his knee. "Teyla--she was working with me to bring it under control." Sheppard shrugs. "So far, not much help."
And not much interest in trying, Dean thinks, taking a deep breath. Sheppard looks too freaked out to be lying. Dean had stayed up nights, once upon a time, watching Sam sleep, wondering what it was like. Watching the fine line of Sam's sanity shift sometimes a little too far, then come back from the edge just to teeter close again. And Sammy had been used to it by the time this happened.
"Could be worse," Dean offers lightly. Sheppard plays with his bottle, eyes blank. "I mean, hey, natural advantage when--"
"I hate it," Sheppard whispers. There's something dark in his voice--that place, that line, that fragile barrier coming too close, treading its edge. Yeah, if it started when he got here, it would feel like insanity. He wonders how long Sheppard's walked it. "There's nothing--" he stops short, mouth tight.
"North," Dean says clearly. Sheppard rolls his eyes, suddenly back inside himself so smoothly that Dean almost feels alone in the car. Sheppard's lips curve in a plastic, impersonal smile, body lazy and at ease.
"Maybe later." Leaning the seat back, Sheppard's head turns, smirking. Dean can't read anything in his eyes. "Let's drive."
The hotel's locked up tight, the fog still thick and too heavy to risk even running for a door that Dean could guarantee is unwarded. And Marty's door is always warded. Pulling into what his memory tells him is the lot, Dean puts the car in park, turning off the engine.
When he turns his head, he sees Sheppard staring straight ahead. His lips seem to be moving, but Dean can't be sure.
Sheppard reaches out one hand, brushing dreamily against the windshield, face slack and strangely peaceful.
Long fingers trickle down the glass, and Dean thinks the fog is thickening there, mirroring the touch in thin slices of almost solid grey and pale green, twisting and weaving together in an eye-distracting pattern that holds Dean for a second, long enough for Sheppard's other hand to reach for the door handle.
Dean pulls himself from the shimmering patterns, lunging across the car, catching Sheppard wrist just before he can open the door and unmake the ward. "Sheppard! Snap the fuck out of it!" Sheppard fights him, hand still reaching, and Dean digs his fingers into the tendons, keeping his hand from closing. Getting a knee under him, Dean pushes himself up, getting his face between Sheppard and the fog, using his other hand to grab his jaw, locking him in place. "Sheppard! Look at me."
The hazel eyes drift to him, blank and unseeing, an almost visible glaze coating pupils blown wide and black. For a second, he keeps fighting, then goes limp all at once, the glaze clearing between one slow blink and the next.
Dean doesn't move, keeping his weight on Sheppard's injured arm and his hip, enough to shift and pin him down if he has to. "Sheppard? You tracking?"
Sheppard stares at him, slowly shaking his head. "I saw--"
"It wasn't real."
Sheppard nods tiredly, going limp beneath him. Warily, Dean moves back to the seat, letting go of Sheppard's hand. It falls into his lap like a broken bird, fingers loose. "It was home."
Dean glances out the windshield. He could be imagining it, but the fog seems to be thinning--if he stares, he thinks he can see the outline of buildings. "You saw home?"
Sheppard closes his eyes, nodding tiredly. "Yeah. It was--" He shakes his head. "I have to get out of here." There's a desperate look on his face, something small and trapped, something that will chew its own leg off to escape; Dean doesn't think he's talking about the fog anymore.
Reaching over him, Dean lays the seat out flat, so Sheppard's staring at the roof.
"Soon," Dean says, looking at the fog. It's slow, but yeah, it's dispersing. "I'll tell you when."
That night, Dean dreams of Canada.
"Dean," Sam says, looking like he always did when Dean wasn't doing what he wanted, exasperated and angry and indulgent frustration. "So the thing for strays seems to be growing. Now you're picking up groups?"
Dean tries to argue, but his head is stuffed with clouds. They're standing on some grassy spot that looks like spring feels, fresh and clean, a bright blue sky stretched overhead; all this moment needs is singing birds and it'd be a Disney flick.
"I didn't know you could do this," Dean says. It's too real to be a dream; he's been around long enough to know the difference.
Sam smirks. "There's a lot you don't know anymore."
Dean ignores the jibe for once. Sam. Sam's here. "I miss you," Dean hears himself say, staring at his brother. He looks good, Dean thinks vaguely, remembering the skeletal man he left in the rearview mirror. "Your hair still sucks."
Sam rolls his eyes, crossing his arms. "Asshole," Sam says affectionately, but the smile fades. "Dude, you gotta listen. There's not a lot of time. You gotta just go with what I'm saying, okay? Think you can manage?"
Dean frowns. "Sammy--"
"Listen. This shit isn't easy. This is one of those times that everything's moving too fast. I need total attention here."
"Okay?" Dean can almost feel Sam's sigh. Jesus, it's like he's standing with him right now. "Sammy--"
"You're not listening. Dean, it's all--look, you gotta stick with them, okay? No dumping the crazy guy on the border and forgetting his name, not this time. Something's coming, you get that? It's coming and you have to be ready. Are you listening?"
"Listen, got it." Dean watches Sam's smile fade. "Listen to what again?"
Sammy's hand feels more real than the last five years of Dean's life when it lands on his shoulder. "Me, asshole. Are you paying attention here?"
What the fuck? "Could you be any more fucking cryptic?" Something aches in him when Sam pulls away, a Sam-shaped hole that hurts like a motherfucker when he thinks about it too long. His skin's cold where Sam touched. "Come on, get over the oracle shit. Just say it."
Sam's head tilts in amusement; Dean can feel his affection like the sun. "I don't know what it is yet. Just remember and be ready, okay? You'll know it when you see it."
The grass clears like a fast-forward in a movie, earth turning dark and crumbling, and Dean watches as Sam fades beneath grey cast skies swirling like a whirlpool above him. The clearing is cold and too bright, ultrasharp, like looking at a black and white photo.
"Sam?" he whispers, and feels cold fingers brush the back of his neck.
"You won't remember," the voice whispers into his ear.
Dean wakes up to a dark, dank room, curled on a pallet on the floor with Sheppard snoring on the bed above him. His face is wet with tears, and so is his pillow, but for the life of him, he can't figure out why.
He goes back to sleep with the taste of spring that's wiped away all trace of the fog.
Marty's not happy to see them go; Dean can't quite figure out if it's the regular trade or Sheppard. From the look on Ronon's face, he's wondering the same thing.
Finished with his own packing, Dean circles around the car, coming around to see Sheppard and Ronon studying the back of the jeep. Glancing in himself, he lets out a low whistle. "Sweet," he murmurs, looking at the arsenal that's replaced the mattress. With a glance for permission, Dean picks up the Glock, so new it's almost shiny, smelling gun oil, fitting warm and comfortable against his palm. A sweet submachine gun, well-used. P-90s, four stacked against the back seat. Something that looks like batons that Dean can't place. An M 24, beloved of snipers everywhere. Two MK11 carbines that could bring tears to his eyes if he looks at them too long. AK-47's like a wet dream. A few things he can't place, though he recognizes them from trade magazines, his dad's collections, growing up learning to strip and clean and shoot whatever he was given. "Jesus," he says reverently. "You clean out an armory?"
"Just what we liked," Sheppard says. Dean squints at him; he's looking better rested than Dean would have expected, though Dean thinks part if it could be attributed to Teyla walking out of the building under her own power. With a regretful sigh, Dean puts them back, amused as Ronon fussily rearranges everything before closing the back of the jeep. "So. I assume you know where we're going?"
Dean scratches at the back of his neck, cool air prickling his skin. Days are always chilly after a fog. "Got an idea," he says, leaning against the jeep as Teyla circles around, looking at them with curious impatience. Dean tries and fails not to stare. She'd been hot before. She's smoking now. "Marty didn't have great directions. It's gonna be more a--" he waves in the air. A little of this, a little of that. "Tracking."
Sheppard rocks back on his heels. "But you have a plan."
Dean does. It's not a good plan. "They tend to recruit," Dean says, fumbling his back pocket until he comes up with the map he unearthed this morning while Sheppard and Ronon packed up. Spreading it against the jeep's back window, he points. "People still congregate in the cities. If they're in New Mexico, Albuquerque and Phoenix. Since you saw Albuquerque, we try there. First stop, though--"
Sheppard's finger drops on the map. "Las Cruces," he says with a little smile. Dean raises an eyebrow. "Easy stop for the night before tackling Albuquerque."
"Right." Dean watches Sheppard studying the map, remembering his investigation of Fort Bliss the first year with Sammy, clearing out what they could from the deserted buildings. Sammy had been half-awake through the entire thing, a weird blank look on his face as he wandered the halls, head turning to voices that Dean couldn't hear. "Las Cruces is deserted, pretty much."
"Too close to the missile range," Sheppard murmurs. Ronon gives him a sideways look then grunts, turning to Teyla. The two of them exchange a complex series of glances before he follows her around to the front of the jeep.
Sheppard rolls his eyes but doesn't remark on it, finger following a line from Albuquerque to Phoenix. "I'm assuming you have good reasons to stay off the highways."
"High death counts," Dean says. Sheppard's head tilts, eyebrows drawn tightly together. "Those eighteen car pileups leave a bitch of a resonance behind. Attracts everything for miles." Not to mention the vehicles abandoned there already, making four lane highways an exercise in avoidance. The shorter distance didn't make up for the loss of speed.
Dean's got to wonder how he doesn't know this yet. Sheppard's still staring at the map, looking for something. "What the hell are you looking for?" Dean asks as Sheppard ghosts a line across the mountains.
"The tinhats. They have a pattern?"
Dean lets the map slide closed, busying himself with stuffing it in his jeans. "They go where there're people. The strong ones--the really strong ones--hit the cities, pull up followers."
Dean shrugs. "For whatever their crazy is. Girl out in New York started blood sacrifices to some god she probably read about on the internet when she was a kid. Started with cats, eventually--" Sheppard's eyes widen briefly as he gets what that particular nightmare escalated to. "Eventually called up a demon, ended up wiping the whole cult out."
And that hadn't been a pleasant hunt in any shape or form.
"We get close enough, you'll start feeling it," Dean says, closing the map with a snap and shoving it back in his pocket. His mind already knows the route, every turn of it. "If the guy's stronger than you--" He lets that trail off. Sheppard nods sharply, head turning away. "I'm just saying--"
"I got it. It won't happen."
"It can. It does. You start feeling anything--"
"I know." Dean wonders suddenly if Sheppard's met another psychic before now, if he knows more than he's saying about what they can do. The closed-off face turns away as Sheppard pushes himself off the jeep. "Okay, we're wasting daylight. Let's move out."
Dean hesitates, but it's a dismissal if he's ever heard one, and there's shit to be gained standing here. Nodding sharply, he goes back to the car as Sheppard climbs into the driver's seat of the jeep. As the jeep turns on with a purr like a cream-filled cat, Dean makes himself nod and ignore the prickling feeling of Sheppard's eyes following his every move.
Las Cruces has been a ghost town for five years; all broken, hollowed-out buildings like corpses rotting in the glare of the sun. Vague, black-purple blobs lurch over the eastern horizon, the Organ mountains that Dean had wanted to climb as a kid.
Of course, he'd also wanted to eat that ten foot enchilada they would show at the festival every year, so really, what the hell? Getting his bag out, Dean loops it over one shoulder, watching the streets warily.
Sam had hated Las Cruces, the ghosts that wandered voiceless and harmless through the streets at night, murdered girls with burned holes for eyes and red lips spread in welcoming smiles over slashed throats, boys who sing in high, clear voices in Spanish-accented Latin, dressed in blood-drenched robes. It'd been too late by then for the internet, but the libraries had given them parts of the story. Dean had spent a futile three days trying to find nine crosses that had vanished into history over a century before he was born.
He eyes Sheppard as he steps onto the dusty street with a curious look around, turning slightly like he's making way for something, but either he doesn't have Sam's sensitivity or he's better at controlling himself than any psychic Dean's ever met.
"Nice town," Sheppard says with a raised eyebrow, coming up to lean against the side of the car. Behind him, Ronon and Teyla are just getting out, looking with wide, thoughtful eyes around them.
"It's safe." It is, though Dean's not sure why. To the south is the Rio Grande that drowned more people than the population this city once housed; to the west is Fort Bliss. The town hosts the scene of a folklore massacre, and a single boy is forever burying his dead beneath nine white crosses that vanish come morning. Dean dug ten feet down and found nothing but rock. "Just ignore the--stuff." He indicates the empty streets with a flicker of his fingers. "It won't hurt you."
The air tastes faintly of salt and sand, the slow encroachment of the Chihuahuan Desert from the south, reaching thin fingers into the fertile Rio Grande watershed. With a shrug, he leads them toward the city hall, a common stopping place for travelers on their way north. "It's pretty dead here," and he can almost feel Sheppard's ironic look, "a few ghosts, but they're harmless. There's a kid--"
"Burying his dead," Sheppard says, too softly. Dean stops, glancing at the sun still well above the horizon, then at Sheppard, eyes fixed on ground that's long settled from Dean's grave digging efforts, a lowering mound coated in thick yellow-green Johnson grass, insects buzzing around Indian paintbrush and golden-brown ferns, heads dipping toward the earth.
"It's somewhere different every time," Dean says as Ronon and Teyla come up behind Sheppard, exchanging a look that he's pretty sure would piss Sheppard off if he could see it. "He doesn't do anything. Just--well, the burying thing is pretty much it. Come on."
Sheppard nods, controlling an incipient freak-out by dint of reaching for his gun. Dean hides his smile, crossing the street and the overgrowth of the lawn in front of the city hall. When he looks back, Sheppard's staring straight ahead, but the look on his face tells Dean that he's listening to something--singing, maybe, the low chant of a Mexican priest, or just the high, frightened sounds of nine people who died screaming, leaving a single boy behind to honor the dead. "Sheppard."
Sheppard's head snaps up, flat hazel eyes boring into Dean as Ronon comes up just behind him, face creased in worry. Dean turns back, opening the front door, frowning at the thickening smell--sweet and sickly, so familiar that Dean's already backing away before his mind catches up to what he's seeing--finger-shaped, rusting brown stains circling the door.
"Jesus," Sheppard whispers, coming up beside him. Dean grabs a handful of shirt, jerking Sheppard back before he can get a foot in the door. "What--"
"Don't go in there," he says hoarsely. The smell's so strong that Dean wonders how he could have missed it before: musty-thick, maybe a week or less. "Marty didn't say shit about this one being this far gone," Dean spits out. Nausea rolls slowly through his stomach, but he controls it by habit, checking on Sheppard before he pats himself down for salt.
"I've seen dead bodies," Sheppard says, but he's white around the mouth, lips thin, staring at the blood stains around the doorframe with an expression that Dean can't decipher.
"Not like this." Focusing on the doorway, he cocks his head, trying to work out the squiggles that look a lot less random than they did at first glance. Squinting, he tries to identify the symbols, aware that Sheppard's come up behind him, touching the doorway with light fingers. "Ritual magic."
"Something like that," Sheppard says, sounding strangled. "Teyla, can you--"
"I am." Dean glances back to see Teyla with a pad, sketching down the symbols. "Are you sure--"
"Pretty sure." Backing off another step, Sheppard's lips move--counting, Dean realizes. "Eight."
"You recognize this?" There's something familiar about them, but Dean's not quite sure what it is--not quite a memory, exactly, and he gives up trying to nudge it out. It'll come when it comes. "What is it?"
Sheppard hesitates. "It's Egyptian, sort of. I've seen it before." He pauses, pulling his hand from the doorframe like he just realized it burned. "Kind of an--address."
"Kind of." Reaching for the door, Sheppard pushes it open, and Dean has just enough time to think of stopping him before Sheppard's already inside.
The smell's worse, soaked into the walls as Sheppard follows some kind of inner map. Dean follows helplessly, knowing that Sheppard's found what he's looking for when he comes to a dead stop just inside a slowly swinging door. It's so quiet that Dean can hear it when Sheppard stops breathing.
Dean takes a careful breath through his mouth, tasting rot, and comes up beside him.
Before--before, ritual magic had been fairly rare when idiots weren't trying to call up demons for fun and profit. It had been clean. Neat chalk outlines and candles, symbolically shed blood for a sane, orderly world where magic had been pushed into the periphery, where even the monsters knew the rules of survival and didn't step outside them.
This is nothing like it.
"Jesus," Sheppard whispers, hand closing over the frame of the door, knuckles white. Dean wonders if he's going to pass out, a joke hovering on the tip of his tongue before he thinks better of it, stepping by Sheppard and just short of the chalk.
The walls were once a bare, clean white, now splattered with red-black smears of dried blood, long loops that could be words that Dean mentally catalogues for study before turning his attention to the floor. The faint remains of chalk and grease circle just above the head of a nameless woman, and Dean follows it to the next body, running through every one of these he's ever seen for a parallel. There's a faint hint of a wide circle, bodies neatly spaced at three foot increments--hell, he'd almost think the guy had a fucking ruler it's so perfect. Eight have knives shoved into their chests. Kneeling at the third, Dean studies the blood-smeared forehead over wide, dust-glazed eyes that stare into the ceiling. Dean looks up, just to be sure, but nothing's there.
"Ancestors," comes from the door, and Dean steals a quick glance at Teyla and Ronon, both staring into the room in disbelief. Sheppard pulls away from the door, pacing the outside of the circle, gun in one hand. Which is pretty fucking hilarious, or would be if Dean didn't have a hand close to his gun too.
"There's something on their foreheads," Dean says, frowning slightly as he checks the slashes. Sheppard kneels beside him, thigh brushing his, and Dean approves of the calm; he would approve even more if Sheppard was about thirty feet outside the building and still communing with dead children. "Teyla, bring me that notebook."
Over his head, he can feel them exchange glances, but he doesn't look up, reaching blindly with his right hand and feeling the notebook slap into his palm. Teyla did good work; from the messy scribbles, Dean identifies the first symbol as the one on the second woman's forehead. "Egyptian," he murmurs, shaking his head. Calling what, Egyptian gods? What the hell good would that do?
Getting up, he goes to the next body--no. Not the next one either, but the one after it, second symbol, matched with the knife in her chest. Dean pulls the pencil from the spiral binding and stops, making a second column and drawing each one, circling the ones that match the ones from the doorway. It's slow work, and he glances up once to see Sheppard with his back to the bodies, staring at the walls with a blank expression, mouth a thin, hard line. Teyla's beside him, murmuring softly into his ear as they pace the length of the room. Ronon, at the door, has his gun out, like that can do fuck-all in a situation like this.
Dean glances quickly out the window, then starts drawing faster. When he meets the woman again on the other side, he counts up the total, stepping back to try and get some kind of perspective on what he's seeing.
There's been worse, he's seen worse, but never anything quite like this. "Thirty nine," he says slowly, coming up against the far wall as he takes in the entire floor. "I need a ladder or something."
From the door, Ronon grunts something, going out the door, while Sheppard comes up beside him, looking over his shoulder in curiosity. "Thirty nine?"
"Eight matches to the ones outside," Dean says, scratching just above his ear. Looking at it doesn't make any kind of intuitive sense--the chalk outline houses only the bodies, each one laid out straight, bare feet only inches apart toward the center. "You said it's an address?" Sheppard doesn't answer--he's still staring at the far wall. "Sheppard?"
Sheppard blinks, shaking himself. "Yeah."
That doesn't even make sense. "To what? Wrigley Field? Hell? Another dimension?"
Sheppard flinches. "Something like that." Almost like he's not aware he's moving, he steps toward the circle again. "It's not--whatever it is, it didn't work." Sheppard frowns, rubbing a thumb and forefinger against his temple. "At least, I can't--" Sheppard's mouth twists uncomfortably. "Feel anything."
Kneeling, Sheppard looks at one of the bodies, one hand hovering briefly before he brushes careful fingers against bright blonde hair. Teyla, with a quick glance at Dean, comes over, dropping neatly beside him, hand covering his. Dean can't make out the words, but whatever she says makes Sheppard stiffen up, back going straighter than Dean had thought would be possible.
"No," he says finally, pulling away as if Teyla's touch burned. "Give me a second here. I can--"
"Got it," Ronon says as he shoves ten feet of metal ladder against the wall. Dean checks the angle, then climbs up. Ronon holds the bottom with two huge hands. Just as his head brushes the ceiling, Dean pauses, bracing a hand against the top and turns, looking down.
It's fucking perfect. Like the guy drew a circle with a protractor, the bodies as flawlessly spaced as he'd suspected, making a thirty-nine point circle. The bodies bearing the eight symbols sketched on the doorway are the only ones who seemed to have a post-mortem stabbing. "I haven't seen this before," Dean says slowly. "It's a perfect circle, thirty-nine sacrifices. The eight that match these symbols were stabbed, maybe to key the spell--" Dean breaks off, making a quick sketch on the next page, thinking that this is one of those times that his high school art class is actually coming in useful.
"They just lay there and let their throats be cut," Dean says, fighting to keep his voice even. The floor around each body is unmarked and clean, no signs of a struggle, like everyone of them just lay down there and offered up their throats. It's not unfamiliar, but it makes the hairs raise on the back of Dean's neck.
A tinhat, definitely. And one who has some damned good control of his powers.
Sheppard's silent, stealing brief glances at the wall, and Dean frowns, taking a moment to study it all at once. Not smears, not exactly--wide loops, smaller spaces, continuous lines that end a predictable pattern. Words. None he's ever seen, but--"That's a language, isn't it?" Dean flips a page, trying to reproduce it, but he can't tell what's run-off from blood and what's part of the actual words. "You've seen this before."
It's not even a question. Sheppard doesn't answer, pacing to the far side of the room, but Teyla at the foot of the ladder nods briefly. "It is Ancient."
Dean waits. Then stops waiting, because dragging this out piecemeal is getting pretty fucking ridiculous. "Ancient what?"
Teyla's eyes flicker up, looking at him in surprise. "Ancient. It is the language of the Ancestors."
Oh Jesus Christ. Nudging Ronon with his foot, Dean comes back down after a quick glance--got the circle, got the order of the symbols, close enough. Jumping the last three steps, Dean checks out the window. Too close. Jesus, what he wouldn't give for a camera these days. "Okay, we gotta get going." Teyla opens her mouth, but Dean has a plan. It's not a good plan. It'll take two days to burn and bury them, but leaving this here is just asking for Las Cruces to become the next hot spot. So. "Out of the building, salt a line around it until I can get back--"
"We could blow it," Sheppard drawls. When he turns around, he looks fairly normal, pallor receded, and the hazel eyes are bright and focused.
Dean had thought that, thanks. "Look, much fun as it would be to watch a bonfire, there's more to it than just fire pretty, okay? To make it worth it, temperature has to--" "Pour salt and an accelerant on the corpses and start them burning first," Sheppard answers. He nods sharply at Ronon. "Temperature won't be a problem. Get the stuff. This I've done before."
Dean blinks between them as Ronon heads back out the door. Teyla reaches into the satchel over one shoulder, coming out with a thin cloth bag, worked over in designs Dean doesn't recognize. Kneeling by the first body, she looks up at him. "This is to prevent their return?"
Dean nods slowly.
"My people once had a similar ritual." That seems news to Sheppard, who gives her a startled look. Carefully, Teyla rubs away the chalk circle, breaking whatever's left of the binding, and pulls the knife free, setting it aside like something soiled. Dean watches as she pours a careful measure of salt on the chest, nodding to herself as she stands up. "This is correct?"
"That depends on what you're trying to do."
"We're going to blow the building," Sheppard says, going to Teyla and reaching into her satchel. Taking out a bag, he goes to the next body, staring at it for a long second before he pours out the salt.
Dean feels something like a tug of affection for these people. "Do you have enough stuff?"
Sheppard nods as he gets up, passing Teyla to go to the next body. Belatedly, Dean gets out his own salt. "Yeah, we do."
What Sheppard has is C-fucking-4, which is almost enough to make Dean cry a little in sheer joy. "Jesus," he says, fighting not to pull it out of Ronon's hands. "You guys know how to pack."
Sheppard smiles a little as he and Ronon go to set the charges. Teyla, looking tired, leans against the Impala, brushing a stray strand of hair from her face. "We have found it is useful."
And isn't that the understatement of the year. Dean watches as they set it at the four corners of the building--very traditional--with Sheppard going inside with a second set; Dean guesses the room itslef. "Four corners," Dean calls out quickly. Sheppard gives him an eyebrow, yeah, whatever. It's ritual magic. God alone knows what the fuck that thing actually was supposed to do. "We need an accelerant," Dean says thoughtfully. Teyla's head tilts in question. "For the bodies. Gasoline, maybe." Not that he'd waste gas if he could help it.
"To assure the bodies are destroyed?" Teyla nods thoughtfully, watching the building with narrowed eyes. "We have a small supply of kerosene."
So does Dean, but once the world runs out of batteries, or until someone rediscovers electricity in a big way, kerosene's a hot commodity. On the other hand, the sun's getting close to the horizon and this needs to be done now. "Get it."
Teyla pushes easily off the hood, circling with slow, deliberate movements that she might think hides how tired she still is, favoring her leg so slightly that if you didn't know what you were looking at, you'd probably never guess. Dean has seen two bandage changes since, the slowly deflating wound smeared with antibiotic cream and a small bundle of herbs. Even so, she's healing fast--faster than Dean would have expected.
Turning his attention back to the building, Dean fingers the notebook, memorizing the symbols as Teyla rummages in the jeep behind them. Stuffing it in his bag--he can pretty much guess Sheppard's going to take it back, and the way they're acting about it, Dean will be lucky to glimpse that thing again--Dean goes back inside, finding Sheppard pacing the room in a slow circle, carrying a digital camera. One of their bags is open by the doorway, and Dean can see the eight knives are inside, wrapped up in some kind of cloth.
"How are you going to get the pictures?" Dean asks curiously as Sheppard snaps photographs. "You have a laptop?"
"Yeah. You already sketched it?" Sheppard climbs up three steps on the ladder and Dean moves to brace it, watching as the man snaps three more pictures." Dean moves hastily as he comes back down, noting the four corners of the room are already packed with the explosive. "Put some in the center of the circle," Dean says. "And give me the camera." Sheppard gives him an odd look but hands him the camera, going back to his bag.
"You've seen this before," Dean says, going to one corner of the room to snap another picture. Sheppard doesn't answer. "Okay, secrets, fine. Everyone has them. Except this is kind of important. I need to know what this is."
Sheppard pauses as he feeds out the line from the C-4, connecting it methodically to the others. "I've seen it before, but not like this." Finishing, Sheppard turns around. "It's based off Egyptian mythology, a portal that creates a stable Lorentzian wormhole that allows transportation of matter over long distances at near instantaneous speed."
Dean cocks an eyebrow. "Do you even know what that means?"
"Not really," Sheppard admits with a wry twist of lips. "Just go with it. In physics, it's the ultimate shortcut. It just takes a lot of power to run."
"And this thing--"
"Looks a lot like it."
Dean opens his mouth to ask--because obviously, there's a lot more going on here than just some crackpot trying to build a--wormhole? Really?--a wormhole, but Teyla comes in, carrying several small containers. "Accelerant," she says at Sheppard's look.
"Good idea." Taking one, Sheppard eyes the bodies with a kind of cool curiosity. "Okay, Dean, your call. How do we do this?"
Ritual magic isn't like the movies, except in all the ways it is; honestly, Dean's been surprised how often Hollywood gets it almost right. There's power in what was done here--even if it didn't work--and they have to make sure that the explosion clears both the physical bodies and the remains of whatever the crazy people were actually trying to do.
Dean can feel them watching him as he sets the purification spell to clear the building of the residue; salt and burn is all well and good for the bodies, but even Dean can sense the edges of unused power, a greasy slickness that coats the air and thickens in his lungs, and that shit tends to stick around.
He knows spells in more languages than he can count, but Latin was his first, his best; he knows every word, every nuance, every shade of meaning. He can do it in his sleep, exhausted after a hunt, half-conscious and burning with fever, string words into patterns that shape power to his will. Magic, real magic, is all about will. Someone could sit forever yelling every spell in the book and get exactly nowhere if they didn't have the will to back it up.
Kneeling in the circle of bodies, Dean takes out his lighter, watching the flame flare orange and bright, staring at it as he breathes the final words and the flame turns incandescent, the glaring white of untouched snow on a sunny day. Across the room, Sheppard blinks, eyes fixing on the empty air like Sammy used to. Not for the first time, Dean wonders what magic looks like to psychics, what they see.
Then the flame snuffs out, and when Dean takes a breath, all that's left is clean air. "Got it," he says, tucking the lighter back in his pocket. Teyla looks at him in wonder, questions filling her eyes, while Ronon grunts and turns away, going to the bag by the door and pulling out the remote.
Sheppard though, watches him, hazel eyes blank and pupils blown wide and dark, before he turns on his heel, walking out of the room. Teyla, looking unsettled, follows him out, Ronon on her heels. Dean checks the room one more time, marking the position of the C4 in the corners, the blinking lights that will set it off, the careful chalk outlines between them that connect them and demarcate the limits of the room. Giving them a few more seconds, Dean plays with his lighter, then feeds out the fuse to start the kerosene burning.
When he gets outside, Ronon and Teyla are already at the jeep. Sheppard's staring at the building with an expression that's very close to fascination. "That'll do it?" Sheppard asks as Dean crouches, picking up the end of the fuse.
"Should." Tilting his head, Dean snorts. "It doesn't make sense. Any of this."
Sheppard wanders toward the mound of tangled weeds with a curious expression, pausing with his head cocked slightly as he murmurs something to empty air. Ronon and Teyla keep watch a little ways away, and if watching Sheppard talking to nothing is freaking them out, they're hiding it pretty damn well.
It's close enough to sundown that Dean can just start seeing the outlines if he looks closely--which he doesn't, not at all. Quick way to drive yourself nuts, seeing everything there is to see.
A few minutes pass before Sheppard stops short, head cocked. With a little nod, he turns away, coming back to them like he hadn't been say, acting crazy. "Crazy people do crazy things," he says easily, answering Dean's earlier comment like he hadn't just spent five minutes staring into space. "Look, I could be wrong about it being a gate"
"Yet somehow, I don't think you are."
Sheppard pastes on a bland look.
"Oh whatever, man. Come on, it's nearly sundown. This thing needs to go and we need to be out of here."
Sheppard doesn't ask why, which argues that either he's aware that hanging around a recent violent supernatural mass murder is a bad idea; he believes Dean knows what he's talking about; or he just doesn't care enough to ask. Dean's guessing on the second; they spent enough time together in El Paso that Dean thinks he's got this guy down pretty well.
"Okay, let's move," Sheppard says. "Ronon, you and Teyla take the jeep out of town, about five miles. When this goes, it's going to take a lot of the buildings around with it."
Ronon looks like he might argue, but Teyla grabs his arm, pulling him back toward the jeep. "How much gas is in the jeep?"
Sheppard pauses. "We filled up back in Dryden. Why?"
"We're gonna have to drive the night." And God does Dean hate that. "Camp is a last resort at the best of times--"
"Yeah, I remember." Sheppard nods at the fuse still in Dean's hand. "Ready?"
"Yeah." Dean glances back to make sure that Teyla and Ronon are in the jeep, then lights the fuse, watching as it starts a slow crawl toward the building. Usually he'd watch the burn himself, but with all that kerosene, he doesn't think he should chance it. Straightening, he nods at Sheppard, following him back to the Impala.
Sheppard settles in the seat beside him as Dean starts up, feeling the Impala purring beneath him, and it feels so weirdly right--finally, to have someone there, finally someone else, and Dean thinks how much he missed this. Missed people, sure, though not enough to go looking for them. But allies? Yeah. He's missed that.
Teyla and Ronon are already on their way out of town--Dean puts the car in reverse, watching Sheppard from the corner of his eye. "What's the range on that thing?"
"Couple of miles." Sheppard studies the remote, then nods as Dean puts the car into drive. "Get us one mile out. That should be close enough to watch it go."
Dean smirks. "You just want to watch it blow."
Sheppard looks like he's fighting a smile. Good compartmentalization skills, Dean thinks, remembering Sheppard when he'd seen the room. He's seen worse, learned to deal with it. So few people could. "Oh yeah."
It's a fucking awesome explosion.
From the hood of the car, Dean watches as the C-4 does truly spectacular things, going up in a bright flash of orange red twice as high as the original building, taking out everything in a fifty foot radius on either side. "I have got to get me some of that," Dean breathes. This is better than a straightforward burn; the fire and salt to purify and reduce, then the explosion to scatter whatever remains.
There's a good chance that if the Las Cruces bodies are in range, they'll go, too. He can hope.
"Next base we go by, we'll restock." Sheppard pauses, studying the remote for a second before stuffing it back in his satchel. The sun's barely a orange crescent above the horizon. Sheppard turns his head, examining it briefly. "Teyla and Ronon already set the--the wards on the jeep. So straight to Albuquerque?"
"Better than stopping." Sliding off the hood, Dean murmurs the start of the spell under his breath, ending the last words just as he turns the ignition. He's always thought he should be able to feel something when that happens, but he never has. Sam had learned to, though, and Dean wonders if Sheppard's learned, too. "How'd you learn to set wards?" The first year, Dean had taught it to everyone he met, even the stupid ones, the ones that didn't, couldn't believe what they were seeing, even when it was in their face, trying to eat them alive.
"People we ran into early on showed us how. Took a while to master. Teyla does them the best." Leaning back, Sheppard stares deliberately ahead, probably counting the minutes until full sundown. Dean could tell him it's five. Five minutes until they keep driving and don't stop for anything at all.
"Teyla's 'people' familiar with that sort of thing?"
Sheppard's head snaps around. "Her people are a lot more open to this shit than we are." With elaborate casualness, Sheppard relaxes again as Dean slows down by the jeep.
"Don't open the window. The--"
"Ward will unmake. We figured that out, too." When they're even with the jeep, Sheppard makes a complex series of hand gestures that remind Dean faintly of Dad teaching them to follow orders like that. He thinks Sheppard's telling them to follow and not stop, but hell, he could be telling them Dean's holding him captive and set the rest of the C-4 to blow them up. It's been a while. "Okay," Sheppard says, turning back around, like Ronon isn't glaring at them as if Dean kidnapped Sheppard right from under them, "We're good."
Dean shakes his head but hits the accelerator, aware that Ronon's gonna be riding his ass for pretty much the entire trip. "I really hope you don't need to piss, or this is going to be pretty uncomfortable."
Sheppard smiles blandly. "I went before we left."
Sheppard's not a talker--that Dean knew from El Paso--but he's not quiet, either, not when there's nothing to do but watch the sides of the roads move, or see hitchhikers like mirages on either side, begging for help. No one sane goes out in the middle of the night, so Dean feels fine with driving by like they don't exist.
Sheppard keeps his eyes fixed on the dashboard, where his boot's taken residence again. "--back near Austin, that chainsaw massacre movie--"
"Yeah." Dean squints at a young woman who watches them with dark, empty eyes from the side of the road, throat slit into a wide red smile beneath her chin. "Don't go around there."
"Kind of figured that out." Sheppard jerks his gaze back inside the car as they go by. See you later, ghost girl.
"Picked up one of those?" Dean asks quietly as Sheppard starts playing with his knife, unearthing a sharpener from somewhere in his pockets for a blade that can probably slice air into neat pieces.
"Not exactly." Sheppard checks the blade. "Some people. We met up with them in Colorado, traveled them for a while. We thought we knew them pretty well."
"And they fucked you over."
Sheppard shakes his head. "Just one of us."
Shit. Dean glances back at the rearview mirror. At least Ronon's gotten over flipping on the high beams at random to make sure Dean's not trying to kill Sheppard while driving or something. "Sorry, man."
Sheppard shrugs. "We should have been more careful. I knew something was wrong."
And if his weirdness about himself is any indication, probably didn't believe what he was feeling. Dean wonders if the guy wants sympathy or a serious change in topic. He's really hoping for the latter. "They who you're looking for?" Revenge makes sense, especially in this world, with every life so easy to lose. Losing it to other people--
"Yeah." Sheppard watches the knife intently, in a way that Dean recognizes. "They're good at disappearing. No surprise there. But we'll find them."
Dean kind of thinks they will. Sheppard doesn't look the type to give up easily. Or for that matter, at all. "There are ways of locating people," he offers. "If you have something of theirs you can use as a focus. Especially you."
Sheppard looks up sharply. "Me?"
Dean almost smiles. Sheppard probably thinks about what he is as little as possible. "You're a psychic man. This kind of comes with the package."
And kind of like he figured, Sheppard changes the subject right away.
"So how'd you get so good at this?"
Dean shrugs. "Grew up to it. I mean--before this. Me and my family were hunters." Dean waits for the inevitable questions, but Sheppard just nods. And who would think John Winchester's obsession would be the new world order? Who'd really thought that would fucking happen?
"The La Cruces kid," Sheppard starts, then stops with a peculiar look on his face, like he swallowed something wrong. "He told me something."
Dean nods easily, keeping his eyes on the road. Something vine-like and snake fast runs out in front of them, but Dean ignores it. The car bumps as it goes over. "About?"
"He watched the--whatever it was."
Huh. "He know what they were doing?" And Dean would pay in bullets and blood to have heard that conversation.
"No, but he said there were a lot of them." Sheppard puts away his knife, staring at his knee for an intent moment. "If this works on variations on a theme, the next group will be forty-seven--thirty-nine for the gate, and eight separate for the address."
Sheppard looks like he's trying to figure out a way to ask a question with the minimum of discomfort, so Dean decides to nudge. "And?"
Sheppard struggles for a second. "There are these--they can force you to do stuff. Nuts stuff. And you think it's fine, as long as they--"
"Yeah. Ran across that before." Dean gives Sheppard a sharp look. "You got hit by it?"
"I was the only one that wasn't." The car goes quiet, broken by Sheppard's even breathing. "There were--there were about eight people, and all of them--"
Dean nods, turning it over in his head. "So your tinhat is my tinhat."
"I don't know." But Sheppard doesn't look unsure about it at all.
"That kid," Dean says, when Sheppard's silence goes on too long. "You said he told you about them."
"Yeah." Sheppard licks his lips, hands clenching into fists. "He said it didn't work this time. That it's coming. And that we have to be ready."
Dean glances sharply at Sheppard's face, but he can't see anything but pure profile. Something about the words resonate briefly, flickering images of a grey sky and a hand on his arm that's as familiar as his own flesh. Then it's gone. "What's coming?"
"That's all he said."
Right. Because that's all they ever say. God forbid a fucking warning ever come with actual information.
The quiet's comfortable, stretching out between them in near-palpable ease, which Dean hasn't felt in years. Sheppard rifles through his bag impatiently, obviously looking for something to distract him, then searches the floorboard, coming up with the box of tapes. "Oh no," Dean says, but Sheppard's grinning, pulling out one with the look of a man who has found God.
"Metallica. The tape deck work?" Even as he's saying it, Sheppard shoves it in, looking so pleased that Dean really doesn't bother explaining the tapes are for emergency use only. As the speakers rumble to life, the hard edge of guitar filling the small space, something relaxes in Dean that's been tight for years. "Okay, this is cool," Sheppard says, picking out tape after tape. "Hey, you got any Twisted Sister?"
They're twenty miles shy of the Albuquerque city limits when Dean sees it.
Sheppard jerks awake beside him, grabbing for the dashboard as Dean runs off the road, just missing what appears to be--and is, that's no fucking illusion--a pile of rocks and tree trunks that extends off the country road and onto the shoulder as far as the broken remains of a fence.
It's going to be bad, Dean knows it.
Dirt and barbed wire knock into the front of the car as they keep going, skidding into what used to be a field, and Dean hits his head on the steering wheel once before everything goes red-black and unhappily painful. Slamming his foot on the brake, Dean is thrown back in his seat before the car's still, steaming into the night.
Dean takes a second, reaching up to check for an open wound, then turning to Sheppard, who'd had the sense to put on a seatbelt. His nose's bleeding a little, and he probably wrenched the shit out of his knee, but he looks otherwise okay. "What the hell?"
"Someone blocked the road," Dean answers grimly. "Fuck fuck fuck. Fuckity-fuck." Methodically, Dean starts checking the car. Ignition--no go. Shit. And it's still five hours until morning. Unfastening his seatbelt, Dean swivels around, seeing the jeep's headlights shining on the roadblock, still on the road.
Ronon's got some seriously excellent reflexes there. "Jeep's okay," Dean says, turning back around. "Okay. That was unexpected."
And it really is. Roadblocks in the city aren't anything new, but in the middle of the fucking country? Not so often. Scanning what he can see of the road, he notes how close it is to the turn. Deliberate, definitely, set perfectly to be out of sight until you're hitting it. Frankly, Dean's kind of impressed that he didn't hit it dead on.
As a rule, only humans did shit like this. When the monsters wanted you, they just came after you.
There's nothing but bare field surrounding them, untilled soil grown with brush and Johnson grass as tall as his chest; Indian blanket washed black and white; flat land that had been farmland once upon a time. Here and there a stalk of something domestic, out of place and fragile. Dean thinks it could be corn, but he's never been rural. The entire field reminds Dean of the nights after Homecoming in high school, when the football players celebrated victory in bare fields, careless and young, little misdemeanors of rebellion while Dean learned credit card fraud and how to forge signatures on insurance checks.
Lights cut through the car, reflecting off the rearview mirror and straight into Dean's eyes. The headache that had been threatening takes over right then as Sheppard comes up on his knees on the seat, wincing, making frantic hand signals behind them. Probably to keep Ronon and Teyla from leaping out to beat the shit out of Dean for almost killing Sheppard. "So the car's dead?"
Dean sighs, leaning his head back. They have headlights. They have music. Dean supposes there are worse places to die gruesomely. "Very."
Sheppard does some more hand stuff, then comes back down, picking slightly at the door. "So the wards--"
"They'll hold." But now they're not a moving target, and just about guaranteed to attract every bit of attention possible. And that, Dean thinks with a sinking feeling, is a lot of attention.
"Right." Sheppard drops back down in the seat, frowning slightly. "Can we get to the jeep?"
Dean watches out the windshield as something starts to materialize in front of them, shapeless like too-solid mist in the beam of their headlights. "Yeah, no. Bad idea." Especially with Sheppard the Slacker Psychic probably acting like a flare to anything in range. Wards, especially these, can hold out any kind of supernatural assault--Dean's not too worried. What makes him twitchy are the things that come out that aren't ectoplasmic in origin. Say, werewolves. Large, deeply hungry, extremely pissy werewolves. Turning around, Dean cuts the glare from the lights with one hand. "Hey, can they tone down the high-beams for a sec?"
Sheppard makes some complicated gesture that does the trick, and as Dean's eyes adjust, he takes in the path. The gully's too deep for the jeep to come to them, and that's at minimum one hundred feet back. Turning back around, Dean stares hard at the mist, slowly spreading outward, forming into what could be a small army of extremely disgruntled spirits. He's not sure what's in this area, but there's a fairly good chance that from the number, they're talking massacre. "Sheppard, work with me here. You feel anything out there?"
Sheppard looks at him, startled, then turns around fully in the seat, squinting out the windshield. A wave of blankness passes over his face briefly before his body seems to flinch, pushing back into the seat like he's trying to crawl into it. "Yeah."
"Okay." Dean takes a deep breath. "We talking angry spirits or the kind that just do their thing and leave people alone?" They can't get in the car, Dean reminds himself. They can't get in, not when it's warded. That doesn't mean they can't do other shit, and Dean may be immune, but Sheppard is anything but.
"Angry." Sheppard frowns slightly. "Focused, too. That's--weird."
Dean wonders what that means, then wonders if Sheppard even knows himself. He's leaning forward, eyes widening slightly and going a little glazed, which isn't a good sign. "Sheppard." Nothing. "Sheppard."
"They're pissed." Sheppard has one elbow on his knee. "Apparently we're in--the wrong place? Jesus. This is like dealing with Pegasus natives."
Dean really wants to follow that bit up--as far as he knows, there aren't any military bases in any place known as Pegasus--wait, maybe cool military code word? Seriously, he wants to know--but Sheppard's frowning more, one hand waving Dean to silence as he stares out the windshield hard. Dean gives a wary look at the thickening mist, now developing pissy faces and threatening-looking auras. "Okay, what--"
"Oh." Sheppard blinks, leaning back with an incredulous expression. "Oh, you are kidding me."
Dean doesn't see it coming--one second, Sheppard is staring out the window; the next, the door's slammed open so fast that Dean doesn't even have time to think of stopping him as Sheppard steps out into the field, circling around to the front of the car. Dean has a single second to think of reforming the ward--with Sheppard out there, fine, whatever, guy's suicidal, let him be--before he gets out himself, jerking his jacket closed.
He's getting out in the middle of a supernatural event. This is nuts. The way the high beams come back on, flooding them with light, makes Dean wonder if they think he dragged Sheppard out of the car to sacrifice him to the protoplasm or something. It makes him wonder just what kind of range Ronon's gun has anyway.
"Why are you here?" a voice says firmly as Dean comes up around Sheppard's back, gun out, with a little mental sigh of relief that it's the salt-loaded one. None of the--things--even glance at him. "You should not be."
"Ran off the road," Sheppard says, head tilted, looking lazy and bored and a little like he forgot he had a backbone to hold his head up. "Not trying to cause trouble. You folks buried out here?"
The entire misty mass is separating out in alarming numbers--not a massacre then. Dean would have known about something that killed this large a group of people. It's like every ghost in the general area is gathering together. Features are easier to see, and so are clothing and death wounds. He's looking at about two or three hundred years' worth of dead people here. Dean eases his finger onto the safety as one of them comes forward.
"You should not be here,"a voice says firmly. "It's coming," the shape says, slowly resolving into a woman in a hoopskirt, eyes blank holes. Dean doesn't see any obvious wounds and really doesn't want to. "They called it. You destroyed the calling, didn't you?"
Sheppard's eyes flicker over their heads, fixing on a spot beyond that Dean can't quite make out. "Yeah, back in Las Cruces."
The woman nods, almost relaxing, and Dean does a mental count; that thing, whatever it was supposed to do, left one fuck of a residual if it attracted the attention of this many spirits. "You knew what happened?" Dean asks. They don't look at him, but then, when Sammy was around, they never did either. Being plain old unimproved human could suck sometimes. "Hey. Just trying to work out what this is."
"You have his blood," the woman says accusingly. Sheppard glances down at his hands, then shrugs.
"We cleaned it out," Sheppard says, and damned if his hand isn't close to that thigh holster. Dean moves enough to try and get a look at his face and keep ghost girl in range. "So what's with the threatening numbers here?"
The woman hesitates; Dean wonders if she's used to humans talking to her and not running away screaming. Psychics really are pretty fucking nuts. "We are not a threat. I want to show you."
Now Sheppard looks wary. "I saw it."
"No. You saw only what was done. Not what they were doing."
One ghostly hand reaches out, and Sheppard controls an instinctive flinch. Behind them, Dean can hear the jeep opening, and that means Teyla and Ronon are on their way, which is-- "Sheppard," he says, flipping the safety and bringing his hand up.
"Don't." Sheppard takes a step forward and Dean's barely got the gun aimed before it's jerked away and down. Dean tries to pull it back up, feeling the strain in his wrist to his elbow, before Sheppard starts to scream.
It's a second, or hours: Dean's never quite sure. Something slams around him, into him, and it's like being drowned in frozen water, filling his lungs, curling behind his teeth and beneath his tongue, swallowing his voice and sight until there's nothing but blackness, thick silence so heavy that nothing can penetrate, even the beat of his heart. Somewhere, he knows something is happening, and somehow, he should do something, but every thought is nailed to the bottom of his head, a single brightness rolling over and over like a marquee sign-- It is coming.
It is coming.
Then he opens his eyes on a bare field, dark and silent, Sheppard kneeling a few feet away, watching empty air.
Other things penetrate--Ronon's voice, strangely muted; a scrabbling on the ground; and then Teyla slipping by him, kneeling before Sheppard, both hands on his face. Tilting it up, she murmurs something too soft for Dean to hear, then lowers her forehead to his, eyes closing as Ronon comes up beside them, the ubergun in hand, looking murderous. He throws one accusing glance at Dean before he turns on the field, gun up, obviously looking for something to kill that isn't already dead.
Dean doesn't blame him. "What happened?" Ronon growls out. "What'd they do to him?"
"I have no clue, man." Staggering to his feet, Dean brushes the dirt off his jeans, but two steps toward them and Ronon's gun is on him. Great. Just fucking great. "Look, far be it from me to point out, but hey, fucking open field. We need to get back to the car."
Ronon murmurs something, and the gun makes a low purring sound, which can't lead to good things, but Teyla's voice cuts through. "He is correct. Is there anything you need from your car, Dean?"
Dean blinks. Leave the car? "I can fix it--"
Teyla shakes her head quickly. "We must not linger here. We will come back for it, but we must leave now." There's a pitch to her voice that he hasn't heard before, and Dean can see something fighting across the forced calm of her face. She's right, even if he doesn't want to admit it. "Ronon, please take Colonel Sheppard to the jeep. I will assist Dean."
Ronon's eyes never leave Dean. "Teyla--"
"That is an order, Specialist Dex," Teyla says icily. Ronon shoves his gun back into the holster, picking up Sheppard like he weighs as much as a kid, cradling him carefully as he turns back to the jeep. Dean catches a glimpse of glazed eyes and a slack, blank face before Teyla's standing up, crossing the ground between them in three quick strides. "Quickly now. I believe the spirits meant to protect us as much as they could, but it cannot last long."
Dean has no idea how she knows that, but honestly, he just doesn't care. "Right." He's always had a plan, just in case he had to leave the car behind. The night's cold and getting colder, but with that edge that says that something else is here. Opening the trunk, Dean looks at his arsenal thoughtfully, categorizing what they'll need at a glance.
Teyla packs everything he gives her. It's not everything--God, not even close--but it's enough, bullets in the bag, extra gun, both rifles, rations, leave the water, grab the grenades, grab the herb bundles he traded Marty for, just in case. Slamming down the trunk, Dean murmurs the warding spell. He's never run one of these for more than eight hours, so hey, test on how long those last. "Okay, got it."
Teyla nods, hauling one bag over her shoulder like it's weightless. "Let us leave this place."
Dean can totally agree with that.
Sharing a single vehicle can tell you more about a group of people than anything else. Dean, squished into the front seat with Ronon glaring at the road and Sheppard stretched across the back, head in Teyla's lap, finds the entire experience both illuminating and really fucking confusing. Every glance in the rearview mirror shows the same thing; Teyla, speaking quietly, brown hands cradling Sheppard's wide-eyed, blank face.
Whatever the hell they showed him, it must have been bad.
"He okay?" Dean asks, and gets a growl from Ronon for his trouble. Teyla glances up, meeting his eyes in the mirror.
"He is well," she says, smiling a little, and Dean sees the long fingers stroke a gentle line across Sheppard's face. "He will be well."
Right. "It's happened before?" Because from the way they've been acting--hell, what he would do if that happened to Sammy--he'd have expected a little more in the way of hysteria here, but they're both too calm.
"It has." Teyla's fingers pause, then resume their slow, even stroking. "Colonel Sheppard sometimes finds the--visions--overwhelming. He will be fine."
Dean's willing to go with that. Dean had to leave his car, and honestly, he thinks he has a grievance here. Ronon acting like Dean's trying to carry out some complex plot to kill Sheppard isn't helping. "Look, he got out on his own out there. So stop the fucking glaring, man."
Ronon bares his teeth at the windshield but doesn't say anything.
"Colonel Sheppard is often impetuous," Teyla says, with a note of affectionate dismay. Dean glances at her in the rearview mirror, thinking of this small little group, thinking of the fourth space he's occupying that belonged to someone else, and right, great thoughts to have now. There's a twist in it, not quite pain but so close as to make no difference. The car's behind them and so is the rest of Sammy, and Dean has to shake that thought away before it goes too far.
"I'm sorry. About your friend," he clarifies quickly, because seriously, he's not taking the blame for Sheppard doing an impression of a kamikaze psychic. "Sheppard told me you lost him up in Colorado."
The silence is so thick and uncomfortable that Dean heartily wishes he'd kept his mouth shut. Then Teyla sighs softly.
"We thank you. It has been--difficult. Especially for Colonel Sheppard. He blames himself."
Dean can see that. Making himself a little more comfortable in the seat, Dean tries to think of something else to say. Unlike the car with Sheppard, quiet with these two and a catatonic Sheppard is anything but comfortable. "So you're all military? Same unit?"
In the rearview mirror, Dean catches Teyla's slow blink, mouth opening then shutting quickly. "Yes. All of us were of the same unit before we came here."
"Air Force?" There's no way Teyla's anything like military. Dean's been around; the body language is all wrong. Though from what he's seen so far, he kind of wants to see her in action.
Giving up on conversation--because this line of questioning is just making all of them jumpy, and they just don't need that right now--Dean digs into his satchel on the floorboard, bringing out the notebook. If he's going to make them jumpy, might as well be a useful jumpy. Flipping the notebook open, Dean looks at the rough sketch from La Cruces. "So, this is a gate."
As a conversation stopper, it's probably the best he's ever had; even without conversation going, it's kind of the vocal equivalent of tossing a rock into a still pond. He can feel the ripples from both of them. Ronon twitches, eyes fixed on the road like his life depends on it; Teyla goes very still, hand frozen over Sheppard's forehead.
He'd say he was surprised, but honestly, he's really not. "Come on. Look, I don't really care why you know what it is. Obviously, you haven't been doing this shit yourselves. But you've seen it before."
Teyla licks her lips slowly, eyes flickering down to Sheppard. "The shape and symbols match a gate, yes. The method--that we have not seen before."
Dean taps the picture thoughtfully. "So how is it usually created? Chanting? Drawing?"
"A metal ring," Teyla says. "It acts as a conduit between different worlds."
"A wormhole," Dean says knowingly, which makes Teyla's eyebrows lift. "Right?"
Teyla nods warily. "Yes."
"How is it usually powered?" Dean can't imagine what was normally used if not humans. As far as blood sacrifices go, humans are the a-bombs of the supernatural world. The only thing better would probably be a big group of psychics, but good luck getting thirty-nine of them to stand still long enough to get their throats cut.
"I do not know," Teyla admits, frowning. "Dr. McKay could have explained it better."
From the way she stiffens up when she says the guy's name, Dean's guessing this is the missing member. Eyes flickering away, she focuses back on Sheppard, and Dean's fairly sure he's not getting more from her. And getting anything from Ronon--yeah, no. Not happening.
Dean stares at the sketch of the gate, tapping the tip of his pen idly against the paper. Thirty-nine symbols, eight for an address, whatever that means. Frowning, Dean traces a finger over one that seems vaguely familiar, though for the life of him, he's not sure why. Something in the shape of it, maybe. Or just--
"John," Teyla breathes, and Dean straightens as Ronon nearly runs off the road, eyes jerking up to the rearview mirror. "You are awake."
Dean can see Teyla's smile, and below that, the hazel eyes blinking slowly up at her, a small frown as Sheppard looks around him.
"Yeah." John gently pushes Teyla's hands away, sitting up. "We need to get to Albuquerque." Sheppard's eyes catch Dean's in the mirror. "They tried it again."
Sheppard's passed out again by the time they come into the outskirts of Albuquerque, home of burned-out suburbs and free-wandering plantlife that's sometimes slightly more sentient than anything in the chlorophyll family should be. Dean prefers open country to the quasi-urban; there's something faintly unsettling about the remains of modern buildings crumbling slowly around him when he hunts.
Also, the lack of people.
It's night now, but the stalls of the open-air market are easily visible from the road, along of what used to be an affluent neighborhood. "Take a left," Dean says as Teyla shifts forward to peer curiously out the windshield. "There's a place up here that should be okay." Or close enough to it. It's still three hours until dawn, and Dean wants out of the jeep like he wants air.
Ronon drives with a kind of seriousness that reminds Dean of kids on their learning permit--hands at ten and two, straight back, staring out onto the road like it might up and wander off if he's not there to watch it. It's a little disconcerting, but mostly, Dean finds it interesting. Like the guy hasn't driven much in his life. Military. Air Force.
Oh Jesus, they have to be kidding. "When you get to the first crossroads, stop."
Ronon frowns as he makes the left, following along the broken asphalt mixed with weeds and new grass. As the jeep shudders over the bumps, Dean thinks nostalgically of a time when potholes would piss him off. These days, he's excited about flat surfaces for driving.
It's too dark to see much--they're far from the age of street lights and a road with more than one or two vehicles--but Dean knows this place by memory, the crunch of gravel, the faint, ghostly shapes of the past drifting by, in hoopskirts and jeans, leather and buckskin. Albuquerque is old in ways that have nothing to do with cities. "Where are we going?" Teyla asks softly. Dean can see her eyes following a small group of children, pale faces turned up toward a non-existent sun.
"A place I know." Or heard of, close enough; Dean's not exactly a New Mexico kind of guy. It's a road stop, a short stretch of desert and flat land, but he knows his kind, knows the signs that humans leave for others. "Okay, stop."
Ronon jerks the brake with malice aforethought. Dean decides he'll take it personally later, catching himself with one palm against the dashboard. "Left. And try not to hit anything."
Dean almost grins at Ronon's narrow-eyed look, turning his attention to the front as Ronon turns on the small, twisty street, curving upward toward the city center. Not quite where he wants to go. "Okay. Stop here."
Years of instinct make him want to park, but technically, Dean's pretty sure the jeep could sit here for days without another vehicle needing to pass. He finds the door with minimal effort, ignoring a girl jump-roping close to the door, red Sunday hat the only spot of color in the world. "All right, when I get out, remake the wards. I'll be back."
Ronon doesn't look like he wants to stay anywhere if there's a possibility Dean is coming back, but Teyla nods. "We will do so." She pause briefly, looking uncertain. "Thank you for your assistance. We appreciate it."
Dean grins back. "Yeah, say that when you see the room we're getting."
There are a lot of Martys in the world, and every one of them has a nose for what's interesting. Filadelia may be female, but she's just as sharp, and just as weirdly, stupidly focused on Sheppard, who currently looks sleepily unhappy and nothing at all like a threat to anyone.
Ronon now--Ronon looks like a threat. Fila backs off with a nervous smile as Dean leads them back, breathing in the stale, mossy air of a building that really should have collapsed already.
This one, he'd believe was held up by dark magic. There's really no other explanation.
"What did she charge us?" Teyla asks as Ronon catches Sheppard before he tumbles over. He looks stoned and a little dreamy, letting Teyla and Ronon guide him through the turns of the hall and up a flight of stairs that Dean's fairly sure can't possibly exist in this dimension.
"She's cheap." And he didn't need that gun anyway.
As they get to the second floor, Sheppard drifts ahead, pulling free of Teyla and Ronon so easily that Dean is instantly on guard.
"Ronon," Teyla murmurs as Sheppard hits a wall with one shoulder. Turning around, he slides down, staring into the opposite wall. Dean glances back; Teyla and Ronon aren't moving.
Oh damn. "Sheppard?" They aren't moving--there's a fairly good chance they aren't even aware of the world around them right now. He's seen this before too. He just hadn't known Sheppard could do it. Moving to the far wall, Dean slowly inches forward, crouching as he comes into line of sight. The hazel eyes are all pupil, flickering on Dean briefly; something hot washes over him, then it's gone, and Sheppard drops flat onto the floor, knees raised.
"Forty-seven. They all died."
Dean closes his eyes. "When did you start feeling it?"
"When she showed me." Sheppard's head turns slowly, fixing on Teyla and Ronon, almost as if he's surprised. "I don't even know how I'm doing that."
Dean eases himself down. Psychic breakdown--this he's handled. "Look, man--"
"It's coming," Sheppard whispers. Every hair on Dean's body goes up at the low voice, words so rote they're almost like a chant. It's coming, it's coming, it's coming it's coming it's coming it'scoming. "Nothing feels right. It's all--" Sheppard makes a lazy gesture. "It didn't work, but it did something. They called something."
Dean frowns. "I thought it was like a shortcut to somewhere."
"It is. Something got through." Sheppard sighs, head tilted back to stare into the ceiling, like he can see straight through. Dean tries very hard not to think that's possible. "Didn't think it would work that way--"
Sheppard looks back down. "What?"
Dean gestures toward Teyla and Ronon. "You need to let them go."
Sheppard shrugs. "They want us to leave. Go north."
"And that's not a bad idea."
It's like arguing with a wall; there's just nothing to work with. "This isn't worth your sanity, okay? Soon enough I'll be hunting you." And if it goes like the other psychics, Ronon and Teyla are dead or the equivalent. Dean rests an arm on his upraised knee. "Sheppard."
Sheppard tilts his head, looking at Dean with glazed eyes. Dean lets out a breath. "Revenge isn't worth your life."
Sheppard's lowers his head briefly; when he lifts it, he looks like himself again. Ronon and Teyla lurch suddenly, looking dazed, then something disturbingly close to homicidal. "John," Teyla says tensely, as Ronon starts toward them. "Ronon, stop. John?"
John licks his lips, looking away. "Yeah. It happened."
Teyla nods slowly, arms crossing. "We have spoken of this before."
Ronon ignores both of them, hauling Sheppard to his feet. "You okay?" he asks. Sheppard shrugs, looking unconcerned and a little bored, a little tired, which isn't winning him any points with either Ronon or Teyla. Dean gets it, he totally does.
Taking out the room key, Dean hands it to Ronon as Teyla catches his eye. "Room 213."
Ronon frowns, looking between them.
"Take John to the room, Ronon," Teyla says softly. Ronon hesitates, then pulls John up higher and hauls him down the hall. Teyla watches them until the room door closes behind them.
"John said you had family that could--do these things," Teyla says bluntly. Now that John's out of sight, the calm is cracking around the edges like china, showing something pale and terrified beneath. Of John, of the situation, of what, he can't guess.
"My brother." Dean lets the wall take his weight. "He was like Sheppard."
"Will it get worse for him?"
Dean hesitates. Yes is too simple, too easy, right but not for the reasons she thinks. "It'll get easier for him to control it, the more he uses it," Dean says slowly. "Denial's gonna get him killed, and you two with him."
Teyla frowns, looking down at the carpet. "He will not use it if he can avoid it," Teyla says, mouth tight. She seems smaller somehow, closing in on herself. Afraid for Sheppard. Dean had nights like that, days like that, years like that. Watching his brother like a stranger, watching for--something. Anything. The slow, inevitable transformation to a stranger in his brother's skin. It could drive you crazy. It did drive you crazy.
"He needs to go north," Dean says tiredly. He's tired. God, he's so tired. And he can't remember when he wasn't. "It's safer."
"He does not wish for safety." There are years in that voice, and God, it's Sam all over again at the end. Sam who couldn't give up or let go or even know what the fuck was best for him.
"He'll go nuts. They all do." Every fucking one of them.
Teyla gives him a searching look. "We cannot force him."
Yeah, after that little display in the hall, Dean doesn't think so either. "Then he needs to learn to control what he can do. Look, the visions won't get any better. They'll come faster, be clearer. The rest of it--it builds up. If he's not controlling it, it controls him."
Teyla nods slowly. "I think it already is."
Dean stiffens, glancing down the hall involuntarily. "These guys you are chasing--they're the ones that took out your friend. I get revenge. Trust me, I completely get revenge. But--"
Teyla hesitates. "It is--complex. Your brother--did he learn to control it?"
Dean thinks of Sam, memories chasing through his head like sheep. He brushes them away before they can get too far. "Yeah," Dean murmurs. "And that wasn't enough."
Teyla nods slowly, turning away. "I need to assure John is comfortable," she says. "And that Ronon correctly measured the salt."
Dean nods, grabbing his bag and pulling it over his shoulder. "Right. Lead on."
Dean thinks there's something faintly ironic about life; they're exhausted and even Ronon's looking ragged around the edges, but no sooner does Sheppard strips off his jacket than his head comes up with an unmistakable expression.
"Oh no," Dean says, throwing down his satchel. Now Sheppard is actively embracing his psychic senses. Jesus. The timing-- "No. It's--no."
Sheppard frowns, turning in a tight circle, eyeing the water-stained walls, the peeling paint. "I don't even--"
"No spidey-sense," Dean says, feeling his stomach sink; he's already mentally categorizing what's in his bag. Teyla looks up from the bed curiously, while Ronon plays with one of his knives, looking a little more hopeful than Dean's really interested in seeing. Oh Jesus. "It's night," Dean tries, looking between them, but it's too late. The adrenaline's already running, sharpening the room, and Dean's instincts ping in time to Sheppard's deepening frown. Checking his gun, Dean goes down on his knees as John paces to the far wall, laying a hand against the wall with a thoughtful look.
"There's something here."
Teyla's already on her feet, unzipping the duffle bag, while Dean checks his salt loads and his silver, sliding the shot-gun over his shoulder and getting extras to stuff in his pockets. It's an Albuquerque hotel. It could be fucking anything. "Okay, what is it?"
Sheppard jerks away from the wall. "How the hell do I know?"
Right. Baby psychic. Dean doesn't cover his eyes in utter despair, but only because he's reloading his guns. "Nevermind." Asking a psychic to explain is always a bad idea; it's like the sighted trying to describe colors to the blind. There's no context. Sam had gotten good at it, but he'd been partnered with a plain old unimproved human most of his life. "Okay, load up."
Teyla stands up, and Dean takes a long second to appreciate the sight of a woman holding a P-90 with a 9 mm stuffed into a thigh holster. It's really, really hot. Checking a third gun, she slides it into her boot before bracing a foot on the bed and showing a creamy expanse of pale coffee skin and a long knife reaching from below the knee to nearly her ankle before she pulls her pants leg down.
Dean fights the urge to propose, busying himself with his belt as Ronon goes to Sheppard, one hand resting lightly on his shoulder. Their voices are too low for Dean to hear, but Dean's a betting man, and if that isn't an attempt to persuade Sheppard to stay behind safe wards, he'll trade them the Impala.
Sheppard's 'what the fuck' expression kind of seals it. Dean hides his smirk, straightening his back with a pop. When he turns around, Sheppard's already arming himself while Ronon studies the salt line.
"Do we know what it is?" Teyla says calmly while John riffles through their armory with a disgruntled expression. Dean eyes Sheppard, then shrugs.
"Expect anything. Rio Grande cuts through here--could be anything water-based. Hydra, nymphs, water-spirits. Some kinds of altered water-life." Dean has unpleasant memories of a certain long weekend chasing after a certain Jesus-Christ-eels-can't-be-that-big-and-what-the-fuck-do-you-mean- three-of-them. On the other hand, Jo had been with him then and downtime had made up for the grueling hours of hunting. "The Sandria mountains have some trolls, a few imps, werewolves who like altitude, ghosts, the usual." Sheppard's face shows conflict--whether it's Dean's recital or disagreement, Dean's not sure. Curious, Dean continues. "Urban areas--ghosts, demons, maybe some witches, the black magic kind." Dean pauses when Sheppard shakes his head quickly. "Harpies, vampires." Sheppard pauses, looking thoughtful, then another shake. "Incubi, succubi--whoa, Sheppard, you look a little pale there. You okay?"
Sheppard sits down hard, looking at Dean with an incredulous expression. "I'm waiting for the part where you start laughing." There's a look on his face that implies he'd take the laughing better than facing the reality. For a guy who fought off a werewolf and sees the future, Dean would think he'd be a little better adjusted.
"We can only hope," Dean says calmly. "Look, could just be a garden-variety ghost. Fila's lousy with security outside her own room." Getting out the Glock, Dean twirls it in one hand. A little adrenaline goes a long way, and truthfully, he needs this. It's been weeks since he was on a serious hunt. "It'll be fun."
Sheppard cranes his neck. "Somehow, I knew you'd say that."
They're a team already; they fall into position with each other so easily it's like a cord's stretched between them and Dean's pulled into it without meaning to be. At some point, all three shimmied into tac vests, with interesting pockets no doubt filled with good things like grenades and other toys, and Dean promises himself he'll check that out as soon as he has a chance. Sheppard concedes point to Dean, Ronon and Teyla flanking them both with the looks of people used to dragging their team leader out of danger at a moment's notice.
So riding with people tells you a lot about them--working with them tells you more. Dean reads the body language with one part of his mind while he studies the hall, keeping Sheppard at the corner of his eye. He's a walking barometer for this shit.
"Humans," Sheppard finally says, sounding confused. "They're doing something."
Ritual magic in an urban area. Dean shakes his head in wonder. Typical amateurs.
"Can you tell what they're doing?"
Sheppard winces, shaking his head, which is comforting. Big shit by now would be reverberating. Could be just trying to raise the dead or chatting with dead relatives, which is so painfully stupid that Dean can't even think about it without getting a headache, but professionals would be good enough at it to cloak themselves. A waste of power and resources. Annoying.
Dean takes out his EMF reader, upgraded several times due to having unlimited access to Radioshack and MIT's labs, squinting at the LCD screen thoughtfully. Something's being picked up, but it's too diffuse to figure out. The numbers aren't telling him much more than this way. Dean feels for his pendant from habit as he checks each door. Nothing yet.
"Is this usual?" Teyla says from behind them. Dean cranes his neck briefly to watch her consider every door.
"In places like this, sometimes." Marty would never allow it--that's a quick and fast way to get very dead--but Fila's always been more eclectic. She's warded ten ways from Sunday and probably sacrifices kittens every night. As long as she's safe and gets payment in advance, she really doesn't care all that much. "Most people do this shit where they'll have more privacy."
They're quiet for a while. This floor is baseline, which is to say, yes, paranormal activity, but the normal kind. Nothing Dean feels all that wary about. And Sheppard's so bad at this he's probably only able to pick up the big stuff anyway, and with high proximity. So fairly close, and fairly strong. Dean comes to the emergency stairs and turns around, giving Sheppard a thoughtful look.
"Up or down?"
Sheppard's face crumples up in something that could be thinking, or could be indigestion; it's a toss-up. "It--I don't know." Sheppard leans against the wall, frowning at Dean's EMF meter. "That helping?"
"Not unless I can get closer." Dean waits, but Sheppard just looks at him. "Okay, thought. We split up." Teyla and Ronon both stiffen, and really, that shit's got to stop. He's not planning on killing and eating them or he would have started a barbecue nights ago when Teyla was still sick and Sheppard was still being weird. Weird-er. "Look, it's got to be pretty close if Sheppard's noticing, so two up, two down. We meet back in fifteen minutes to check in, then go another floor."
Sheppard nods thoughtfully, eyes sliding to Teyla and Ronon. "You two down," he says, smiling with painful guilelessness at their expressions. "Dean's our expert, and I'm apparently the walking barometer."
Ronon gives Dean his if-he-is-injured-I-will-invent-new-ways-to-kill-you look, but Dean just nods back, copying Sheppard's expression as they tramp past him, going through the door first. Sheppard smiles a little as they vanish down the stairs.
"Wanna shake the keepers?" Dean says, almost feeling sympathetic. Sam was like that, too, wanting to get away at any cost, with many times disastrous results. But on the other hand, Dean's with him, so there's not much trouble Sheppard can get into.
"They just worry," Sheppard says in epic understatement as he goes through the door first, head craning to peer curiously up the stairs. Dean comes up behind him, wondering distractedly if the guy has a single pair of pants that fit and don't try to crawl down his hips. "Wait--"
"I go first," Dean says, taking out his gun, finger brushing the safety. "Rule one."
"You're kidding me."
Dean grins back as he takes the stairs two at a time, another little burst of energy flickering through him, washing the last of the tiredness away. A hunt's good for this. For not-thinking, just doing, reducing him to action and reaction, instinct, the long years of training that have made him the best at what he does snapping around him as familiarly as his coat.
Sheppard stays close to his heels, and Dean thinks he feels it, too. When he glances back, Sheppard looks less tired, hazel eyes shining in the light. Dean snorts to himself at the first landing, taking the second flight. Totally takes one adrenaline junkie to know one.
Dean pauses at the door, watching the EMF meter cautiously. There's a slight raise--still well inside the parameters for background, but a noticeable change. Sheppard leans over his shoulder, hair brushing his cheek. "What does that mean?"
"Something's up here," Dean says. Not ghosts, though. And Sheppard said human.
Dean eases open the door, gun already out and checking both ways before letting Sheppard by him. It's an empty hall in a building that smells of mildew and backed-up sewage. At best, it's a threat to Dean's allergies. And his sense of aesthetics, because Jesus, orange shag carpeting.
Dean aims the EMF both ways, frowning at the readings. "Sheppard," he says, pausing as he walks by peeling blue wallpaper, strips piling on the floor that Dean's careful to step over. "Anything yet?"
"Yes, I'm just hiding it to be an asshole." Sheppard's closer than he thought; a soft snort brushes warm air across the back of his neck. Dean fights the urge to lean back into it and then to tell him to back off.
"Asshole," Dean mumbles, watching the EMF. A slight rise toward the elevators. Dean frowns, coming around to see the broken metal doors, tracking along the short hall that leads to the east-facing side of the building. "Hmm."
"What?" Sheppard's backed off a little, thank God. Putting his finger on the safety, Dean pauses. "Hey. Question. Your little feeling--was it an ooh, something's here, need to find it? Or was it an ooh, something's here, let's get out of this room really really fast?"
Behind him, Sheppard's breath catches as the east stairwell door opens slowly.
"That's what I thought," Dean whispers, reaching back and grabbing Sheppard, jerking him back around the corner before they can be seen. Flattening to the wall, Dean looks at the EMF. Human, Sheppard thinks. Maybe a witch, from these readings. Maybe just an amateur playing with stupid shit. Either way, not good.
Dean looks up in time to see Sheppard trying to get by him to look around the corner. Slamming his arm back in place, Dean glares Sheppard into an unamused frown, but at least the guy's still, and listens.
"...can't have gone far, their gear is still in the room."
Great. Someone looking for them. Just fucking great.
And that's their cue to run now. Dean points emphatically down the hall, getting a bewildered look in response. Gritting his teeth, Dean gets Sheppard's arm and dragging him back toward the stairs, wishing they had radios or walkie-talkies, or hell, a magical tin can telephone, because from the sound of it, that's more than a few people.
Sheppard doesn't fight him other than to pull away, looking back every so often as they try to run away as quickly as possible. Dean's all about the awesome fight. But the awesome fight works a lot better if they aren't, say, really outnumbered.
A feminine voice echoes down the hall like a freight train. "This way."
Shit. "Time to run," Dean murmurs, and starts running.
Voices behind them rise, and Dean hears a distinct "There they are!" just as he slams into the door, hand wrapping around the useless doorknob. "Oh you are kidding me," Dean mumbles, taking a step back. A glance down the hall shows a group coming at them, and Sheppard staring blankly like he's never seen people before. "Do something!" Dean hisses, taking a step back and kicking the door. For a broken down building, these are some great doors. Not even a shudder. Shit.
Dean rolls his eyes and kicks again. "Stop. Them. Do--the thing. With the freezing." Another kick. Nothing. Pushing Sheppard behind him, Dean pivots and fires a warning shot, and the group scatters around the hall, taking up positions against the wall. Dean turns to the door, but Sheppard pushes him out of the way, kicking one last time and the door, bitch of a piece of metal, swings open as easy as you please. "Go!"
"You first." Sheppard gets a handful of jacket and throws him into the stairwell, sending a few more shots down the hall. The sound of return fire is followed by Sheppard, slamming the door closed behind them.
"That's weird," Sheppard says, sounding bemused.
Dean stares at him. "How have you lived this long?"
"Amazing luck," Sheppard admits as the sound of someone kicking the door echoes through the stairwell. At the first landing, Sheppard looks back, wincing. "They're gonna get through--right now." Dropping into a crouch, Sheppard smoothly unhooks the P-90, taking aim.
"Hello, running now." But he comes up beside Sheppard, raising his gun.
"I want to know what they want," Sheppard says, just as the door opens, spilling a rag-tag group into the stairwell, all of whom look completely surprised to see two armed men facing them.
"Hey," Sheppard says, smiling up at them. "Problem?"
The one in front warily takes a step forward, focusing on Dean. "Winchester."
"Friends of yours?" Sheppard murmurs, flashing a grin. Dean gives him an incredulous look before turning his full attention to the man on the stairs.
"Sure. And you?"
The guy licks his lips, eyes flickering between the guns. "No trouble. Just want the psychic."
Oh Jesus. "Marty's so dead." Gritting his teeth, Dean gestures with the gun. "Go back on up before we forget that the safeties aren't on," Dean says. He's suspected Marty's involvement in the disappearance of more than a few psychics but never had proof before now. "And hey, this one's mine. Get your own."
The guy looks uncertainly between Dean and Sheppard, and Dean admits, Sheppard looks a lot different than he did in El Paso. If they were expecting an easy mark--well, that's stupid, he's with Dean Winchester and he's not that kind of easy. Also, Sheppard with a P-90 watching them with that weird slightly dumb but thoughtful look is creepy as shit.
Sheppard aims. "You have five seconds."
The guy licks his lips again, eyes flickering uncertainly. Dean backs off one step, keeping his gun trained on the guy at the top of the stairs to check the bottom of the stairwell. And--yeah, reinforcements behind that door.
Of course reinforcements.
"So what did Marty hear that made him want me?" Sheppard says, completely out of the blue. Dean sees Sheppard's finger rest lightly on the trigger.
The guy does bad dumb there. "You won't be hurt," the guy says, because he's stupid. Sheppard's gun swings down and to the side, burying a bullet an inch from the guy's shoulder. Dean watches in interest as the guy jumps, stumbling into the doorframe as Dean covers the bottom stairwell door. Apparently the sound of gunfire made them nervous about coming through.
This is pretty much the essence of a Mexican stand-off.
"Kara," the guy says, and the group shifts. Dean watches in disbelief as the blonde kid from Marty's emerges, looking at them with blank blue eyes. Putting her body between Sheppard and the three men, she pauses, ragged skirt brushing her calves before she unfastens a small bag from her throat.
"Stop," Dean says, but she just drops it, powder the color of silver spreading across the stairs. Sheppard's coverage doesn't change, but something about his expression makes Dean nervous.
"He said this might help," she says softly, and Dean watches in confusion as the silvery dust comes together, forming slowly more solid masses. A chittering sound fills the stairwell, and Dean watches in surprise as Sheppard take a step back as the silvery-blue begins to flow down the steps like water.
Bugs, Dean realizes. Bugs? "What the hell--"
"Iratus," Sheppard says shortly, skin bleached white. He keeps his gun up, but even Dean can see his hands are starting to shake.
"What's an iratus?" Dean asks, but Sheppard's pulling back another step, and the gun's going down. Dean brings his up to compensate as the small group at the door tries a surge forward. "Nevermind. Not good."
Sheppard's eyes fix on the stairs. "Not if they're real."
From the sound, either a really fantastic illusion or the real thing. From the look on Sheppard's face, it won't pay to find out. Keeping his eyes on the creepily still girl, Dean gets Sheppard's arm and pushes him to the other side of the stairwell. "Reinforcements outside the door." His eyes drift back to the silvery flood. They seem to be getting bigger. Not good. "Iratus," he says, flipping through his mental encyclopedia of supernatural creatures. Nothing is coming up. "What--"
"Don't let them touch you," Sheppard says, and he sounds shaken. Dean watches as the blue things reach the fifth step above them, then moves, a gunshot just missing his shoulder as they both go down to the door on the floor below.
"They real?" Dean says breathlessly as Sheppard crouches when they get to the landing, missing a gunshot through the small glass window in the door. Sheppard glances back, white to the lips.
"I don't know."
"You do know," Dean answers hotly. God, this is... "You should be able to tell."
Sheppard licks his lips, keeping the landing covered, eyes trained between man-height and floor with constant flickers. "I can't."
" Try." Sheppard flinches as the chittering increases, a waterfall of them covering the upper landing like carpet. The blonde girl walks with them, watching them expressionlessly.
"Come with us and I will call them back," she says calmly. Dean braces himself against the door, feeling the first kick knock into his back and remind him of scars he's almost forgotten. Jesus H. Christ. Where the hell are Teyla and Ronon? They had to have heard those gunshots.
Sheppard licks lips the color of putty. "You know what they are?" he asks softly.
She shrugs. "I was told they would be persuasive."
Sheppard nods slowly. "And they'd know." For some reason, Dean's not sure they're talking about Marty. Sheppard slowly raises his gun, and Dean watches in fascination as a red dot appears in the center of her forehead. "You're going to need to kill me, and I'm betting that won't make them all that happy."
Another slam against the door slides Dean an inch and cracks open just enough for someone's gun. Dean braces his feet, pushing back, hearing the satisfying sound of crunching bone before the hand jerks back out. Dean uses the weight of his body to slam it shut, keeping an eye on the bugs flooding the landing around the girl's feet and heading down.
She watches Sheppard with blank calm. "You come with us, your friends will remain untouched."
Sheppard's mouth quirks up on one side. "What did they tell you? I'd come quietly?
The girl's mouth tightens. "Not Marty," he says slowly. How the girl got away from Marty's a mystery. Dean wonders if the next time he passes through El Paso, there'll be someone else in Marty's place.
"Not Marty." Sheppard keeps his eyes trained on the girl. "They told you it was for the glory of whatever the fuck. You do this one thing. What did they promise you?"
"He promised me eternal life."
Dean watches as a single bug breaks from the herd, coming down the steps, chittering increasing to a volume that is putting Dean's nerves on edge. Sheppard's eyes follow it as it makes the last step, coming to join them on the floor.
Sheppard stills. "He may not be able to keep that promise."
"Okay," Dean breathes. Sheppard's going grey, and that can't be good. Whatever the hell they do, Dean doesn't want to know. He just wants them gone. "Call it back, kiddo. Or I shoot."
"Can you?" she says softly. Dean pulls back the safety and points it straight at her head. Finger on the trigger, he feels Sheppard go tense beside him, the others of the group finally joining the girl, assuming, Dean supposes, that if they haven't killed her yet, they have a decent chance of survival.
Above them, the bugs start crawling over the banister, flowing over the wall, and they're about five seconds from being surrounded.
"You know," Sheppard says, voice soft, "that was stupid." The P-90 aims and fires so fast that Dean only get a blur before one of the men is howling, dropping on the landing with a hand wrapped around his knee. Almost immediately, the dot is back in the center of the girl's forehead, and Sheppard's hands aren't shaking anymore. "Call them off."
The girl's eyes flicker to Dean, uncertain. "You must--."
"You just ran out of time."
She pauses, eyes fixing on Sheppard. "He said you'd--"
"Call them off." Dean gives Sheppard a sideways glance, but there's nothing on his face, disturbingly blank and utterly, utterly focused. Dean's seen that look before, felt it on his own face, the second that something inside clicks over: casualty. The girl hesitates, raised hand shaking as the color drains from her face. Maybe, finally, she's getting what Dean's figured out. Dean can't kill a fifteen year old girl.
But there's a pretty good chance that Sheppard can.
"Do it," Sheppard says softly.
The bugs freeze in place around them: tiny, shining bodies like ornaments dripping from the ceiling, dangling from the walls, scattered on the floor in front of them. Dean sees what looks like blood streaking his upper lip. The hazel eyes are glazed. Now he's using his abilities. About fucking time. "Now get them out of here."
The girl's eyes are all pupil as she makes an aborted gesture, and green-black dust falls around them like rain. Sheppard breathes out abruptly, but Dean keeps his eyes on the girl, looking at them with surprised, bewildered eyes, empty pouch clasped in one hand.
"Get out of here," Dean says softly. She blinks, the men behind her starting to take slow backward steps, ignoring their moaning companion on the floor. Sheppard's gun hasn't so much as twitched, and Dean doesn't like the look on his face. Things end up dead when people look like that. "Now."
"How--" She looks between them, backing toward the men behind her. "I can't--"
Sheppard shoots the stair below her foot. Looking at Sheppard's closed, blank face, Dean thinks he was right. Sheppard will kill every one of them. "Run."
They do. A mess of limbs and frightened bodies, the door behind them suddenly without resistance. Sheppard covers at the stairs as Dean turns around, opening the door just in time to see Teyla and Ronon crouching over two bodies, pulling their knives free.
"Hey," Dean says as they look up, frightened eyes searching out Sheppard. They relax as Sheppard pushes by him, looking tired and a lot less homicidal. "Took you long enough."
Sheppard wakes up four times, though Dean's only awake for one of them, during his watch when Sheppard sits up, murmuring nonsense and the word iratus in a voice soaked with pain before Teyla reaches for him, gently pulling him back down on the bed and whispering in his ear until he falls into restless sleep, face pressed to her stomach.
"An Iratus bug attacked Major Sheppard soon after we met," Teyla says soberly, hands carding gently through Sheppard's hair. Her fingers pause, touching the scar on his neck. "It drains away life after attaching itself to a host. He was almost killed."
Dean nods, closing his eyes, wondering if he'll hear that chittering in his sleep, feel silver-blue bugs crawl up his body, tiny teeth digging into his skin to drain away his life.
When Dean wakes up the next morning, only Ronon's in the room. Sharpening a knife. Very obviously. "Cut it out," Dean says sleepily, rolling onto his stomach and shoving his head under the pillows.
Ronon doesn't answer, but the sharpening gets louder. Dean pokes his head out, glaring. Ronon looks at him with malicious innocence. "Sheppard and Teyla said to wait for you."
Dean blinks, pushing the pillow away. He's not particularly inspired to get up quite yet. "For what?"
"They'll show you." Ronon stands up, knife vanishing into a holster that Dean's pretty sure is hidden somewhere on his back beneath his shirt. Getting up, Dean stretches, scratching absently at his stomach. This bed thing is really working for him; getting up without cricks in his back and a strong desire for painkillers is pretty cool. "Bathroom," he says, gesturing toward the small door. Plumbing, he hopes. Please God. He's not up to the chamber pot experience.
"Right." Ronon jerks his head, pulling out yet another knife from a holster half-hidden beneath the waist of his pants--God, how many does the guy have?--and Dean gives up.
A quick toilet check--God, plumbing--teeth brush and face wash later, Dean's following Ronon out the door, wondering how late it is. They don't seem in any hurry to move on yet, which means another night to pay, but El Paso was nice. Nicer than he remembers life being in a long time.
And only part of it is all the sleep he hasn't gotten in years.
Ronon takes them down the stairs, past the crumbling lobby, decorated with faded, ragged curtains blowing on a breeze that smells like sewer. Dean wonders when he got used to that. Then they're going through a door into what appears to be a yoga studio, and Dean comes to a stop as he sees Teyla holding those stick things.
And beating the crap out of Sheppard with them.
"Watch," Ronon says, one hand coming up as Dean takes a fascinated step forward. Sheppard has a pair of sticks, too, and they're circling each other like jackals, intent and focused.
From here, he can see the red marks on Sheppard's arms from Teyla's sticks as they go into another turn, as neat and choreographed as a dance. It's all quick movement and control, speed over strength, and Sheppard obviously can't keep up with her; yeah, he'd figured Teyla was the type that could kick ass and take names without breaking a sweat. Goes with the unbelievable hotness.
"Faster," Teyla says calmly, not even out of breath. "You have not been practicing."
"You want me to practice here?" Sheppard comes at her with a fast overhand that she blocks easily, with a snap to his ass that makes him hop, looking pissed. Dean fights the urge to laugh; Sheppard probably wouldn't appreciate it. "Stop that!"
"Then be faster. You are better than this." Another almost insulting block, this time coming down with a sharp hit to his thigh that will probably have Sheppard limping later.
"Is she trying to piss him off?" Dean whispers. As far as he can tell, neither of them have noticed him and Ronon come in. Sheppard slams down, using way more strength than required, sloppy on his block, and gets another slam in the leg for it. The look on his face is priceless.
"Yeah," Ronon says laconically, leaning into the door, arms crossed casually. Dean turns his full attention back, watching how expertly Teyla puts Sheppard through his paces--and he's not bad, Dean has to admit. Just not as good as she is. But then again, who could be?
"Again," Teyla says implacably, bringing up her sticks. "Be faster."
"This is about as fast as I go here," Sheppard says breathlessly. Sweat is soaking the collar of his t-shirt, sticking the thin, worn cotton to his back, hair damp, shiny and flattened to his head.
"If this were a real fight," Teyla says, going on the offensive for the first time, "you would be dead."
"If this was a real fight--Jesus!" Sheppard jumps back, favoring his left leg. "If this was a real fight--"
"You would shoot me? Without a gun?" She comes forward again, a twirl of sticks leading right to his unprotected neck. "If this were real, what would you do?"
She's going to kill him, Dean thinks, feeling something uncoil in him at the same time Sheppard seems to realize the same thing. An inch away, the stick stops so abruptly it's like it hit something midair. No one Dean's ever seen has that kind of control.
And neither does she, he realizes, as the stick shakes in mid-air, like Teyla's fighting--something. Sheppard's staring at her from behind wide, dilated eyes, too shocked to move away, even with the stick shaking enough to brush the side of his neck.
A second passes, then another, before Teyla jerks, pulling backward, stumbling two steps. When she looks up, there's something like fierce satisfaction on her face. "Yes."
"Teyla." Sheppard drops the sticks. "No."
"Defend yourself." Teyla comes toward him, sticks up and ready. Sheppard doesn't reach for his, doesn't even move at first, maybe not getting that the lady is utterly serious. He blocks one stick with an arm--and even Dean winces at the sound of the stick hitting flesh--then Teyla's stick is stopped mid-air again as it comes down.
Sheppard backs off a step, then another. "Stop it, Teyla."
"You must learn this," Teyla breathes, spinning away as Sheppard lets her go, dropping into a half-crouch. "Defend yourself."
She comes at him again, even faster this time, a blur of motion that stops so abruptly that Dean feels off-balance just watching. The sticks this time hover only a few inches from his jaw, close enough for Sheppard to taste them if he wanted to.
"Jesus," Dean whispers. Sheppard flinches, stumbling two feet back and letting Teyla go. Almost instantly, she spins the first stick around, hitting Sheppard in the knee hard enough for Dean to feel it. The second comes in a blindingly fast overhead that there's no way Sheppard can even see....
"Stop," Sheppard says quietly, and Teyla's entire body goes perfectly still, a statue of human flesh.
Then she's free, stumbling slightly before catching herself. When she looks at Sheppard, Dean thinks he can see understanding.
"Then stop pretending this is not real." Teyla drops her sticks. "This is what you are here. It is what you can do."
"I don't want it," Sheppard whispers. Teyla crosses the few steps between them, hands reaching to cup his face, drawing his head down, forehead pressing against his.
"I know," she says, so softly that Dean can barely hear her. "I know. But we can no longer afford for you to be less, John. You must do this. We must do this."
It must be some kind of sign, because Ronon shrugs, going inside the room as Teyla sits down, legs crossed. Slowly, Sheppard lowers himself to the floor across from her as Ronon sits between them, looking awkward as he crosses his legs, hands resting on his thighs. Teyla breathes out once, then smiles slightly. "Good. Breathe, John. Clear your mind."
It's weirdly intimate, in a way that Dean can't quite explain. The open fourth space between Sheppard and Teyla is a reminder of their lost companion, and somehow, it reminds him of Sam.
Dean licks his lips, stepping backward.
"Join us, Dean," Teyla says, eyes closed. She looks more relaxed than he's seen her since he met her, a small smile curving up one corner of her mouth.
Dean shuffles awkwardly. This is--this is way too new age for him. "I don't do--um. This kind of stuff."
Teyla's mouth twitches. "Then you will learn."
Dean breathes out, then gives up, crossing to sit down, trying to imitate Teyla's fluid ease and failing--he gets the feeling he's more of the Ronon school of sitting than anything. Resting his hands on his thighs, he checks out Sheppard, face strained but eyes closed, then takes a deep breath, closing his own eyes.
Meditation. Right. "Clear your mind," Teyla says, voice low and hypnotic. Dean thinks there's not much he wouldn't do when that voice was doing the asking. "And find yourself."
Ronon and Dean are sent out to find lunch. Everyone's tired of beef jerky and canned vegetables, and since they're stationary and there's a market nearby, hot food would be good. Hot meat. Dean gets the feeling that Sheppard's due for some kind of talk with Teyla, the kind that Teyla doesn't want witnesses for, in case she had to kick ass, which Dean totally gets. He'd had those kind with Sammy. Sheppard gives them both a desperate look as they leave, but Dean blithely ignores it, leading Ronon outside.
"That market we passed should have something," Dean says, shouldering his bag. A few charms, ready for sale, always go over well. Dean's surprised when he sees Ronon pull out a small wrapped bundle, looking dubious. "What's that?"
"Athosian," Ronon says with a shrug, separating out felt packets. "This one's for dreamless sleep, one for--huh. Clear vision? Protection, protection, and--protection."
Dean almost sighs, filing away the 'Athosian' bit for later thought. At least they're all wrapped in different colors of felt. "Right." There're people who evaluates this stuff before sale; he's pretty sure one of them will be able to tell what is what.
It's a long walk, but Dean doesn't see the point of unwarding and taking the jeep and risking the tires if they don't have to. "Should be quick," he says quickly. "Never take the first offer--"
"I've traded before," Ronon says with a strange little smile. "What do I look out for?"
Dean stares up at him for a second. "Look out for?"
"Bad traders, weird requirements--wait." Ronon looks thoughtful. "Public ritual sex?"
Dean blinks. "I don't even want to know where you traded before." But then again, he kind of does. "Public ritual sex? Really? For what?"
Ronon shrugs, putting the felt packets back in his pocket with the air of a guy washing his hands of a subject. "Prove openness to others or something." Ronon smiles a little; obviously he has pleasant memories associated with it. "It was fun."
Dean feels kind of virtuous that he doesn't even ask where this interesting trading place is. Reaching the corner, Dean makes a right, suddenly wondering exactly what some of the patchy tents actually have going on inside. Could be anything.
And God, now he's thinking about it. "Is there anything you guys need to stock up on?" From Dean's few glimpses, they're armed well enough for a small war; the jeep's false floor in the back had lifted to reveal ordinance and more boxes of bullets and other miscellaneous items than Dean had thought could exist. He suspects the entire jeep is pretty much a wheeled repository for some of the most sophisticated firepower he's ever run across.
"Teyla would like some leather," Ronon says, stretching a little beneath his jacket. "But mostly food."
Fair enough. Dean crosses the street, Ronon on his heels, ducking inside the grounds and past the overly-armed guy who gives them a toothless smile and wave. Ronon looks around with the air of a man who has seen it all and still finds it unsettling. "Who's he?" Ronon says, jerking his head back at the man.
"Security, mostly. A couple of witches got the shit beaten out of them a few years back. Something about love potions." Or possibly ritual sex thing? Huh. Shaking his head, Dean sees steam from one of the stalls. "These are supposed to be neutral ground, but most wards only work against the supernatural, not our own kind. So, security."
Ronon nods. "Makes sense."
The ground here is sacred, or as sacred as a group of fairly mediocre witches can pull off, the broken concrete of sidewalks long since removed or flattened into hard-packed dirt, scraggly grass hiding by broken fence posts and the remains of street lights. Someone had rigged up a generator for some lighting, since the day's hazy and grey; it's easier to check the potency of dried herbs under some kind of illumination.
The first stall is brightly colored scarves, hand-woven with protection charms twisted into every strand. Farther down are rugs and clothing, mundane enough, though the hand-lettered signs advertising their origin in sacred sheep is enough to make him snort. There are stalls with bundles of luck-charms and wealth-charms, a staple at any market. Smiling, Dean passes them by, glancing into the booths at random, taking note of the herb vendors. Belladonna and nightshade, hand of glory, sandalwood and arsenic, candles of fat rendered from sacred pigs if the sign is anything to go by. Yellow poppy. Citrus oils. There's enough ingredients here to raise one or two really powerful demons, a host of smaller ones, and possibly cure several kinds of cancer.
Luckily, there aren't that many people with either the interest or the skill to do the demon raising. In most hands, they'll just be herbs. Dean comes to a stop as he sees a familiar face, feeling a grin spread across his lips without thinking. "Guila."
The woman grins back, pushing grey-streaked black hair from her face. "Dean. Long time no see." Ronon rumbles something as Dean approaches the booth, glancing at the folding table that holds possibly the only useful charms in this entire place. "New companion?"
"Ronon," Dean says easily. She leans up from her chair, craning her head, eyes fixed on his throat, and Dean pulls out the pendant. "Yeah, still wearing it."
"It brings you luck?" she asks, eyes flickering to Ronon with uncertainty.
She nods, sitting back. "For work or pleasure, Dean?" she asks, smile curving up one corner of her mouth as her eyes rest appreciatively on Ronon. Dean forces himself not to flush.
"Trade. Maybe some information." Dean studies the bundles she has out for trade, wrapped in simple string. Even after all this time, he can only identify a few of them on sight. "Picked up some things you might like."
Guila smiles, leaning her head onto cupped hands. "You always do."
Ronon snorts something. "Dean--"
Dean waves him off. "Trade, man. Go look around.."
Ronon hesitates, and Dean looks up to see an uncertain frown on his face before he seems to make up his mind. With a polite nod to Guila, Ronon moves on, vanishing into the scanty crowd, which shouldn't be possible with someone that tall.
"Nice friend," Guila says in admiration. Dean snickers, circling the table and ducking beneath the canvas, dropping his bag by the back table. She keeps boxes of her more interesting spells back here--request only. Opening the bag, Dean takes out the paper wrapped bundles he's collected, seeing her face light up as she takes them. "And something else?"
"Hmm?" Her eyes flicker to the notebook, widening as he opens it up. "This is--not unfamiliar."
With a quick glance for permission, she takes it, fingers hovering above each symbol, flipping to the full sketch with a tiny line pressed between her eyebrows. "This I have not seen before."
Dean had figured as much. He's probably seen as much as Guila. "It's new," he assured her, hoping to God it actually was. "Opens a dimensional portal apparently."
"I see." Her eyebrows drawn together, she reaches for a pencil, pulling out a blank sheet of paper from the back, making a few quick sketches. "As if we didn't have enough problems here. Bringing in more."
"I think the idea is to leave," Dean says. Guila blinks, nodding slowly, chewing on the eraser with small white teeth. "I'm just--not seeing why this is supposed to work."
Dean shakes his head. "It did something, left a lot of energy around, but nothing happened."
"So it was done incomplete." At his blank look, Guila rolls her eyes. "If it had worked, there would be nothing left. If it had not worked at all, same. Incomplete left power without a place to go." She shivers a little, tracing her fingers along Dean's rough sketch. "Thirty nine people?"
"Yeah," Dean answers, watching her make another note, professional curiosity swallowing the revulsion. Guila's old school white magic. She doesn't even eat meat, all earth mother new age crap. "The point was definitely the death. They left the place a mess."
"Seeing it would be better," Guila says thoughtfully. Dean thinks of Sheppard's camera for a second. "Was there an order in the deaths?"
"I can't tell. But these eight were special." Dean points to the circled symbols. "An address."
"So they try to go somewhere specific." Mouth tight, Guila leans back, frowning. "Or perhaps call something from there." She sighs, pushing her hair back again, frowning harder. "How were they killed?"
"Throats slit, knife through the chest after on eight of them. Looks like they held still for it, too."
"Willing would be better," Guila says absently. "There's power in giving life freely. Possibly they killed themselves."
Dean forces himself not to think about it. "Okay, can we move onto what we should be looking for?"
Guila looks up, startled. "Is there significance to this number? Thirty nine and eight? Neither--"
"Mean anything that I know of. The eight are the address, from what I got out of Sheppard, but the rest, no."
Guila taps the paper absently. "These are familiar," she says, stabbing at a couple of the symbols. "And it achieved something, if the power remained after. But not complete. Whatever was called--or opened--did not come out, or it did not open completely."
"Needed more power?"
Guila frowns. "I do not know. Incomplete, could mean the ritual was not done as it should be, or that the power was not sufficient. I cannot think of any that requires so much death. Not for a single summoning."
"Yeah." He'd kind of figured; if something like this had happened before, one of them would have found out about it. "One last thing--Ancient. You heard of it?"
Good question. The way Teyla had said it, it sounded like a language all its own. "The walls," he says, flipping the page. There's no way that he can figure out what's supposed to be letters, but Guila might recognize something. "This. The language is Ancient."
Guila frowns, one finger tracing along. "It's--familiar." Shaking herself, she looks at him. "Something I've read, maybe. But seen? No.
Dean sighs. "All right, I need a couple of things."
Guila nods. "I thought as much. As your friend is currently cleaning out the vendors of all meat products." Wrinkling her nose, she smiles slightly. "For what you brought me, you have only to ask."
"Location spell for a psychic. Something he can use for set up." Dean thinks for a second. "One who's kind of lousy at it."
Guila straightens. "That is new."
"We're trying to find the guys that did this," Dean says, tapping the notebook. "He knows them, sort of." Dean hesitates; some of this isn't his story to tell. "They did something here in the city. Sheppard says he can feel the deaths, but I'd like a little more to go on than hunches." If this had been Sam, they could have found it in ten minutes flat. Dammit.
"Right." Guila thinks. "I would need to meet him."
Somehow, Dean just doesn't think that's a good idea. "Guila--"
"For such a spell, I will need to be specific. You know this." And he does, sort of. "All psychics are different."
And won't Sheppard take that well. Dean shoves the notebook back in his bag, hooking it over his shoulder. "The thing is--"
"And if there has indeed been another sacrifice, I will need to be on hand to clean it." She frowns. "You burned the bodies?"
Dean tries not to look offended. "The bodies, the room, the building." And hey, they can do that again here. Dean tries not to look as excited as he feels. "Look, the guy's weird."
"They are all weird," Guila says, standing up and making a gesture. A very pretty girl shows up behind her, large-eyed and eager. "Laura, stay with our things. I will return. Be indoors before dusk."
"Of course." The girl gives Dean a simmering look that under other circumstances, Dean would have maybe thought about taking her up on, but Guila's got him under the arm, leading him out of the tent, just as Ronon emerges from somewhere, carrying--
"Chicken," Dean says, already picking up the scent. It's a physical effort not to close in on him and attack. "What the hell did you trade for that?"
Ronon smiles as he tears the meat off a chicken leg with big teeth. "Worth it." Ronon eyes Guila up and down as she looks on with narrow-eyed disapproval at his consumption of animal flesh. Dean's heard this lecture before. Ronon smiles in utter unconcern. "We ready?"
"Guila's going to help us set up a location spell," Dean says, bracing himself for Ronon to argue. He looks like the type.
Ronon raises an eyebrow. "Sheppard's not going to like that."
Oh yeah, he figured that part out already. "He'll have to deal."
Sheppard does his best imitation of expressionless boredom as Guila explains why she's here, smoothly taking over the small room they'd meditated in earlier that day. Teyla, to Dean's surprise, watches in interest as Guila purifies the room after shepherding them all into the corridor, with strict instructions not to come in until she's done.
"It is familiar," Teyla admits when Sheppard gives her an incredulous look. "A cleansing of earlier auras, no matter what they might be. You might find it easier being in this room than any other when she is done. There will be nothing left for you to feel."
Sheppard looks a little mollified at that, though he still sulks quietly and picks at the chicken that Ronon seems intent to shovel down his throat one way or another. Sheppard could use a little more meat on his bones. He's a walking advertisement for post-apocalyptic starvation diets. Not as sexy as television would have had you believe.
Guila finishes up her chanting and waving grass around, then nods in satisfaction before smiling at them. "Come in now and sit in a circle. Sheppard, please sit here." She indicates the spot with a gesture, stepping back as Sheppard warily takes a seat on Teyla's left side. Ronon comes up on Sheppard's right, but Guila shoos him away with a palm, and Dean finds himself between Teyla and Ronon.
"Look, do I need to--" Dean starts. Guila frowns. "Fine, whatever, just keep in mind--not psychic."
"You will be quiet," Guila says mildly as she starts unwrapping a felt-lined bundle, taking a candle and setting it in the center of their circle, sprinkling herbs around it. "It would be easier if we had something to use as a focus--"
"On a person?" Sheppard says shortly. At her nod, he digs into one pocket, pulling out a slightly crumpled piece of cloth. Dean blinks to see it's a Canadian flag, a patch. "This should do it."
Teyla looks bleakly at it for a second before staring at her lap. The look on Sheppard's face forbids comment.
Guila, expressionless, takes the patch, setting it on the herbs, then shifts closer so her knees touch both Sheppard's and Ronon's. "The circle must remain unbroken."
Ronon snorts, earning a glare from Teyla, and Dean fights the urge to smirk. Guila calmly reaches for Sheppard's hand, a pocketknife glittering in one hand. Before Sheppard can do more than suck in a breath, she sets the tip to his finger, rubbing it over the patch. Dean pretends that he's not freaked out; Sheppard does too, but he isn't as good at it. Drawing back, Guila gives Sheppard a patient smile. "Light the candle."
Sheppard blinks, then shrugs, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a lighter. Dean's pretty sure Guila wanted something different, but she doesn't say anything as he leans forward, flicking the lighter on.
"Now," Guila says, eyes on the flame, "think of what you search for. Clear your mind of all but the thing you seek."
Sheppard frowns, but when she turns her gaze on him, he sighs, closing his eyes. Guila gives them all the same look, and Dean obediently does the same, wondering what he's supposed to be doing.
"Focus," Guila says softly. "You--Sheppard?"
Dean opens his eyes to see Sheppard hasn't moved, hasn't done anything really. The hazel eyes are wide open, watching the flame with an intense expression, like he's seeing something that he doesn't quite understand.
"Sheppard?" Guila says softly. "What do you see?"
"There were thirty-nine to build it, eight to dial it," Sheppard says softly. Teyla's head snaps around, one hand reaching out. Guila slaps it away, mouthing something to Teyla that Dean can't quite read. "Something's come out. Just a little. It's not doing what it's supposed to, but they think it is.
Dean fights down the shudder. Guila's gaze never leaves Sheppard's face. "Where are they?"
Sheppard licks his lips, eyes glazed. The silence stretches uncomfortably, Sheppard's lips forming quiet words without vowels, breath behind light and easy, body relaxing from tension into ease. For a second, Dean thinks he can see Sam in his face, the calm that his brother learned the hard way. "They're almost ready. It's told them how it can be done."
"Sheppard," Guila says, very softly. "Where are they?"
Sheppard shivers; Dean feels the temperature dropping, skin rising in goosebumps, teeth fighting the urge to chatter. "He says I won't remember."
Something nudges the edges of Dean's memory as Sheppard's eyes widen. "No. You don't want this. Don't-- stop."
The candle flickers, going out completely. Sheppard jerks, falling forward, catching himself on one outstretched arm. Teyla shifts, not daring to touch him, while Ronon looks like he's torn between helping and shooting Guila.
Guila watches, face pale and set. "What did you see?"
"North and east," Sheppard grates from between clenched teeth. He's staring at the floor, like he can melt through it if he only tries hard enough. "Hotel. They used the lobby." Pushing back, he gets smoothly to his feet. "There's something wrong."
Guila nods, unsurprised. "I thought as much."
Sheppard's eyes focus on Guila. "Did you?" he says softly. Teyla shifts uncomfortably, then seems to shake it off.
"John," she say softly, drawing his attention. "It's five hours until sundown. We must go now."
Sheppard hesitates, then nods. "Ronon, get the jeep. We'll pack up."
Ronon frowns, like he might argue, but Teyla nods sharply in counterpoint. Dean takes a breath as Teyla gives Guila a long look, then nods, as if to herself. "Dean, come with me to gather our things."
Dean doesn't want to--something about how Guila is looking at Sheppard worries him, and something in the way that Sheppard looks back worries him more--but Teyla has his arm and she's kinda strong. In fact, he's at the door before he's even registered she's dragging him along. "Hey, wait--"
"Come with me," Teyla says firmly, and Dean has a last look of Guila, watching Sheppard as he fingers the patch, before the door slams shut.
Dean's pretty sure Sheppard's getting used to his powers now.
Teyla would have made a good Marine; Dad would have loved her. She has the room stripped down and their bags packed well before Dean's finished zipping up his bag. "I showed her the sketches," Dean blurts out, because Teyla's not looking at him. "I thought--"
"It was a good thought, if you can trust her." Teyla gives him a long look.
"Yes. With my life."
Teyla nods wordlessly, getting two bags over her shoulder and one in her hand. "She is very--"
"She's got the sight," Dean says. "Practicing witch. Total do no harm to anything living type. No worries."
Teyla's mouth softens as she turns to the door, going out a pace that has Dean jogging to catch up. She's like a machine. He'd never have guessed she was close to dying only a week or so ago.
Sheppard, Ronon, and Guila are waiting outside--Fila hasn't emerged today except as a shadow, which Dean puts up to self-preservation instincts more than anything else. Opening the back of the jeep, Dean waits as Teyla puts their things in, then throws his bag on top. Sheppard, wearing sunglasses, watches them expressionlessly from the driver's side door before getting in, and Dean has a second to wonder if it's such a good idea for them to have a psychic driving.
Then he's in the backseat between Teyla and Guila, and the jeep pulls out onto the road with a squeal of tires that makes Dean wonder if Guila's packing any luck charms and if he should use one..
There's not all that much talk; Sheppard's pretty good at projecting a wide aura of 'shut the fuck up' around him like a bubble. Dean leans back in the seat, trying to get comfortable, and honestly, there are worse places to be. Trapped between two beautiful women in a wide backseat; he's had fantasies like this. Of course, one of them can probably break his neck with her pinkie and the other give him an embarrassing social disease without touch involved, but still. Leaning his head back on the seat, Dean stares up at the ceiling.
"How is Sam?" Guila asks suddenly, and Dean jerks straight. He can feel the disapproval radiating from her like heat and wishes he'd called shotgun.
"He's in Canada," Dean says shortly. Guila's eyebrows raise as if this is completely new information. "He's fine."
"You've gone to see him, then?"
Dean ignores the question, leaning forward slightly to see where they're going.
One broken building is a lot like another, so there's not all that much to see. From the corner of his eye, he catches Teyla looking at him in curiosity, Guila with barely concealed annoyance, but honestly, he just doesn't care all that much. Sam's not a topic, period.
After awhile, though, Teyla asks a question about one of the bracelets that Guila wears for protection, and suddenly, Dean's trapped in the middle of a Martha Stewart Supernatural special. In the front, Dean sees Ronon give him a commiserating look, but not commiserating enough to offer to trade places, as Teyla digs out a set of Ziploc bags from a satchel on the floorboard, using Dean's lap as a tray so she and Guila can compare.
It's kind of like hell, Dean thinks, staring at the ceiling hard and not thinking of the pretty female hands so close to his--
"We're here," Sheppard says briefly, throwing the car into park and turning it off, getting out before anyone has a chance to react. Teyla's faster--she gets her satchel over her shoulder, grabbing for a second bag behind the seat, while Guila slides out the door. Ronon goes around the back of the jeep--hopefully for more ordinance, because Dean's looking forward to some blowing up shit today. Getting out himself, Dean checks the sun from habit, then follows Teyla as she goes toward the front steps.
Dean takes a second to stare up at the high-rise, once a luxury hotel, now not so much but crumbling concrete and broken windows, too decrepit even for the most desperate to try and live in. Dean glances up briefly at the clean shear off the top of the building--God alone knows what did that--then back down, following Teyla across the front lawn. There had to have been grass at some point, but everything's sickly looking, pale greens and faded yellows, sandy ground going to greyish dirt. Dean puts a foot down on the first stair and swears he can almost feel himself sinking into the wood and stone before he takes the rest two at a time, going up to the wide front door.
Dean's stopped by Teyla's hand, inches from his chest. Sheppard's pacing the outside of a familiar circle of bodies of an unfamiliar color. Dean squints, wondering if the light is that bad in here. "What--"
Teyla shakes her head; beneath the caramel of her skin, she's ashen. Dean frowns, looking closer, then steps past her, following Sheppard's footprints--
Okay, wait. Footprints. "Dust?" Dean says slowly. Stepping past Teyla, Dean crouches to run his fingers over the shape of Sheppard's boots on the floor, wondering what the significance of the dust is. Smoothing it against the floor, he tries to brush it away, then scans the rest of the floor. Same thing: a layer of grey dust coats everything. Curious, Dean presses a finger into it, wondering how deep it goes before he hits floor.
His finger sinks to the first knuckle before he jerks it out. "What the fuck?" Standing up, he backs off a step, turning in a slow circle. The lobby is the same cloudy grey, a slow creep up the dingy walls almost ten feet up before the line of demarcation of jagged grey with dingy white, some continuing until it disappears into the ceiling, where fingers of grey are stretching across. "What is--"
"Dean," Teyla says, coming up beside him, and Dean follows her gaze, really looking this time. The neat bodies are the same dull grey as the floor, like sculptures carved on tombs. Dean jerks his gaze to Sheppard, then back down.
"No. You are fucking with me."
Sheppard shrugs, but even Dean can see the tension in him--something clawing beneath the skin, like fear and horror and nightmares combined, and if he was feeling this--feeling this--"You saw this. Back in Dryden. This is what you saw."
Sheppard winces. "Not exactly. Not--all of this. Just the--" Sheppard swallows hard, motioning toward the bodies. "It--I didn't know what it was."
Not until Las Cruces, anyway. Dean stares at him for a minute longer, then turns back to study the circle.
Teyla kneels by the closest body, reaching out with a wary hand, stroking a line across one limp arm. She leave a fingertip-wide furrow in it. "Ancestors," she breathes, jerking back to rub the dust away on her pants as if she'd touched something unclean.
"Is everything in here covered with dust?" Dean says, knowing it's not a covering at all. Licking his lips, Dean stares at the furrow. "They've been turned into dust."
Fumbling the sketchpad out, Dean checks the raised marks still visible on each forehead, noting the candles no longer have a space above the heads matching the address. Thirty nine bodies are set in a horrifically perfect circle, everything identical to the first set right down to what the slightly raised dust that must have once been chalk outlines. "So the other eight--"
"Here." Dean stands up, following Sheppard's gaze. Nine feet away, give or take, a neat line of bodies start, kneeling this time, dust knives still buried in their chests. If he looks carefully, he can even see where they bled, thicker dust creating raised rivulets on their necks and pooling beneath their knees. Each forehead bears one of the eight symbols that make up the address.
Dean swallows hard. "They were dead before--before this. Whatever it is." He thinks. Dust can't bleed rivulets of blood.
Sheppard turns away, looking over the lobby. The walls are the same uniform shade of grey now, no message, but logic--God, logic, applied here--would state if the blood turned to dust, so did the stuff written on the walls.
Dean sketches the scene as quickly as he can, while Sheppard takes out his camera, snapping picture after picture. At the door, Ronon hovers with Guila, who looks like she's stepping onto something filthy, staring around the room with wide, disbelieving eyes.
"Okay," Dean says breathlessly; anything to distract from what this could mean. "So this time, thirty nine for the power, and eight to--dial?"
"Yeah," Sheppard says, now taking pictures of the fucking wall, for God's sake. "Looks like it."
Eyes narrowed, Teyla gingerly steps between two of the bodies and slowly paces around the center of the circle. "Colonel," she says slowly, crouching. "I think something was written here as well."
Sheppard comes back over, head tilted as he studies the floor. Coming between two bodies, he stumbles slightly, foot coming down on a leg and going straight through.
"Jesus," Sheppard says, jerking back, eyes wide. Dean sees Teyla move, cat-fast, grabbing him before he falls over onto another. Dean stares at the crumble of grey dust that was once a living leg and feels something rise sweet and burning in his throat. "Jesus," Sheppard whispers, then pulls away from Teyla, turning to the floor. Dean wonders if he's going to get sick all over their supernatural crime scene, but Sheppard swallows hard and turns back to his camera, snapping picture after picture like his life depends on it.
Dean takes a deep breath. "So. Dust. Burning--"
"Will not be enough," Guila says slowly, coming in. Her eyes skitter over the circle, pausing on the eight kneeling in eternal supplication, then flicker up to Dean. "This is unclean."
Dean wipes his fingers on his pants leg again, still feeling the weird, oily texture of the dust. He believes her. "What do you mean?"
"Something came through. A little."
"So you recognize it?" Dean's seen that look on her face before. Her frown deepens as she comes further inside, crouching to run a curious finger over the floor, leaving furrows in what were once solid wood planks.
"A thing," she says slowly, then licks her lips. "Very old."
"And this is the part where you tell me something useful. Like, what it is, what it does, and my personal favorite, what kills it."
Guila licks her lips again. "It's never been alive, not--so it cannot die." She sits back on her heels abruptly, eyes flickering over the bodies. Sheppard's gone still, watching her with narrowed eyes, and Dean thinks he can almost feel Sheppard pushing her. She raises a hand, making an absent gesture, and Sheppard frowns. "This is--not of our world, Dean."
Sheppard covers the space between them so fast that Dean's pretty sure unfair psychic powers are involved. "Not of this world?" he says. Lowering himself, he looks into her face.
"It's--not common, this. To know of it. It's the place of madmen, of people--" Guila shakes her head. "The insane. The confused. Those who--you must understand. This is the equivalent of a boogeyman--"
"Been there, done that," Dean says, trying to sound more bored than tense. "What is it?"
Guila looks up at him, real fear on her face.
"It is called the Sleeping God." Guila looks like she'd rather be doing pretty much anything but keep talking. Dean gets that. Talking about gods is like that.
Sheppard just looks vaguely constipated. "Does anything in this world have a fucking normal name?" he asks, dropping back on his heels. "What is it?"
"It's called so because it's slept forever. It and its kind were sunk in their city beneath the oceans before we learned to speak in words," Guila says. Her eyes flutter closed. "There was a war once, between the gods. One-became-two: those that would leave this planet for we humans, who had just crawled into sentience; the others would rule us if they could. The world was split between them until the Old Ones were driven back into their city, trapped in space and time between its walls. They fell into eternal sleep as their city sank, depriving them of their human slaves. Depriving them of all humanity."
Sheppard's face drains of color. "Ancients." He looks like he might throw up. "In their city."
"No," Guila says, hand closing over Sheppard's wrist. The dark eyes hold his, something passing between them that Dean knows he's missing on an epic scale. "They set us free."
Something flickers between them that Dean can't quite read, but Teyla, who'd tensed during Guila's recital, relaxes infinitesimally, and Ronon nods firmly, like he knew it all along. Whatever the fuck it is. "Ancients?"
Guila starts. "Ancients. The first ones in this world. Some say they created us."
Very old then. Jesus. "They're gone? But this thing's still around?"
"They bound it to a place it cannot escape. It still tries to touch our world in dreams," Guila says, almost as if to herself. "It corrupts the minds of men, taking what is human in them and twisting it away. It--"
"Drives them crazy," Sheppard says with an intensity that makes Guila flinch. "Doesn't it?"
Guila nods slowly. "It's said a single look upon it can drive a man insane."
After a few seconds, Guila looks away from Sheppard. "It is unclean," she says firmly, glancing down at the floor as if she just realized what she's kneeling on. "This will take more than a fast burn."
"Salt it. Everything in this room." Dean looks at the grey lobby desk, the grey tables, the grey doors of the elevator, and wonders if there's any chance they can make it up the grey stairs. Instinct says they have to get all of it, and Dean trusts his instincts.
"We don't have enough salt," Teyla says, eyes traveling up the walls, then out the door, taking in how much it's spread. "It has infected the ground."
"I know." Those grey tinged, dying plants. Healthy earth, turned to dust. "Okay, new plan. We can--"
"Detonate it," Sheppard says calmly. Tucking the camera back in his bag, Sheppard paces the circle, flickering around the walls. "It's still growing."
Dean scans the walls. The line hasn't moved since they came in. "How do you--"
Dean takes a deep breath, trying not to imagine what that could mean. "It'll spread the salt everywhere." Dean's seen ground poisoned with salt, rookies who didn't know when enough was enough.
"And burn into the soil," Guila says, but not in disagreement. Dean stares at her. Earthwitches are better known for their preservation of the earth.
"Nothing will ever grow here again."
Sheppard snorts. "We can only hope." Blowing out a breath, Sheppard looks at Ronon with a thoughtful expression. Then he nods, almost as if to himself. "Okay, is there a reliable source of salt around here?"
Dean blinks, then nods slowly. "Yeah. I can find some--"
"Get all you can. We need enough to go straight down through this shit and to the earth beneath." Sheppard kicks at the floor, leaving a gouge from his boot. Dean's stomach turns over.
Guila nods approvingly. "That should work, I think. Dean, you will join me for the purification?"
"Yeah." A lot of purification; this won't be like Las Cruces.
"Colonel--" Teyla's pulled her bag up on her shoulder, watching Sheppard worriedly. "You are sure--"
"Salt," Sheppard says softly, and for a second, it's like they're the only two in the room. "I'll get everything ready in here."
Teyla hesitates, then turns to Dean as he stuffs the notebook back in his bag. "Could you show me where to find it."
Dean glances back; Guila's watching Sheppard; it looks like it's talking time again. Her eyes flicker to Dean briefly, a silent request. Whatever it is, she wants privacy to say it. "Sure. Let's go."
Guila invites them back to her house for the night, and Dean accepts on all their behalf. A witch's house is second to nothing when it comes to protections.
After settling their stuff in the one bedroom, Guila and Ronon go to make dinner while Teyla and Sheppard go out back with the bundles of sticks. Dean follows them out, sitting on the stooped back porch steps as Teyla and Sheppard draw some kind of parameters in the grass. Sheppard's still pale and his concentration is for shit; Dean can see Teyla's masked impatience like a neon sign. They go through the moves slowly at first, quarter speed as Sheppard starts to move through them a little less stiffly, mind obviously still trapped in that hotel.
It's not like he can blame the guy; even thinking of the thing Guila described makes him twitch.
Slowly, though, they warm up, stopping briefly for water before taking it to full speed, and Dean curls one arm around his knees, watching in interest as Sheppard relaxes more and more, losing himself in simply physical release, sticks flashing by so quickly that they're blurs of bodies, whipping edges of fabric, brief spaces of stillness, their ease together so great that they never have to pull a hit. Still slow, though, in a way Dean can't quite work out, like Sheppard's reaction time is still a breath behind what it should be. When Teyla whirls away with a final hit to his calf, Sheppard grins and steps back, wiping sweat from his face with one hand and looking about a hundred times better.
"Done," he says. The hazel eyes go wide and liquid as he rubs theatrically at one knee. "I think you broke it."
"Lazy," Teyla says with a smile as Sheppard goes to her without a limp, forehead touching hers. "But better. I am almost impressed."
"Besides," Sheppard says, voice suddenly mischievous, "I think Dean'd like a lesson."
Dean jerks, aware of two sets of eyes settling on him in amusement. "Uh--"
"You could use the workout," Sheppard says, pacing to the stairs and thrusting the sticks into Dean's helpless hands. "She's a good teacher. Really." Sitting down, Sheppard hip-nudges until Dean's ass is falling off the stairs. Getting clumsily to his feet, Dean sees Teyla's bright smile and wonders if certain doom's ever been that impossibly hot.
Sheppard drapes himself lazily over the stairs. "It's fun," he says earnestly, and Dean wonders why the hell he doesn't believe him.
It's not that much different than knife fighting--Dean's never been great at it, but the basics are about the same. Teyla walks him through a simple exercise, testing his reflexes as they go, speeding up slightly as he learns the pattern.
"Very good," Teyla says after the first repetition at full speed. Stepping back, she twirls a stick idly in one hand, head tilted. "Now something more complex."
Dean thinks he hears Sheppard groan but doesn't dare look as Teyla's smile curves up her mouth and she slashes out, hitting his knee hard enough that he feels it in his teeth. With a muttered curse, Dean pulls back, catching the second pass on the tip of his stick before body memory takes over, overhand sliding down the length of her stick as she kicks out, knocking him to the ground so fast he's still staring into the sky in shock as her stick comes to rest in the hollow of his throat.
"Jesus," he says, staring up at her. No one's that fast. No one can be that fast. Twisting his head around, he sees Sheppard smirking at him from the stairs. Asshole.
"Again?" she asks, stepping back, twirling that damn stick like a baton. Getting to his feet, Dean feels himself start to grin.
That night, Dean dreams of Canada.
It should be cold, with snow drifting up to his knees, thick and wet and heavy against his boots as he shoves through it, dampening his pants, but for some reason, he can't feel a thing. Evergreens reach long arms into the twisting grey sky, shot with pink like an open wound, and Dean finds himself keeping his eyes straight ahead, looking for--something.
"Dean," a voice says softly, a voice he knows as well as his own, the low, rich timbre vibrating gently through the wind. Dean turns his face into painless driving snow and imagines it's summer in Kansas, sun shining down on their little town, and he's no more than five and ready to start kindergarten. He imagines a world where this had never been inevitable.
The voice is richly amused. "There's no such thing as inevitable, Dean."
The wind stops. Wiping his cheeks clear of snowflakes, Dean looks at Sam in fur-lined parka--he'd really assimilated into Canada there, Dean thinks with a private grin--wearing heavy boots, flushed from cold, but with the same ageless eyes he remembers. "Sam."
Sam smirks. "Long time no see, big brother."
Brushing the snow from his hair, Dean takes in the difference. Same ridiculously long hair. Same stupid Sam-grin. There's a new scar above his eyebrow, though, that Dean doesn't remember from when he left him. Paler, too, tan washed away to pale gold. Powerful, like Dean had always known he'd be. "We need you."
"Yeah," Sam says, ducking his head with a grin. "You probably do."
Oh Jesus. Stomping the two feet between them, sinking into the grey snow like hot butter, Dean gets up in his face. "Oh don't you fuck with me, Sammy. There's shit going down here--"
"But it's not mine. And hey, back off. Breath mint much? Cause you're rank." Sam's mouth curves upward before long arms go around him, jerking him in close, warmth, God, warm the way Dean hasn't been in years. Dean breathes into it, not fighting it, just letting Sam hold him close, hold him up, and fuck the world and everything in it. It's been too long.
He'd forgotten this.
"You forgot a lot of things," Sam whispers into his ear. "Let's see if I can fix that."
Something snaps in his mind, memory twisting free. A meeting in a spring glade. Something's coming. And a voice that told him to forget. Dean pulls back, startled. "Jesus. How--"
"It's complicated." It's always complicated with psychics. "He won't be able to do that again, though. Neither of them."
"Later. I don't have a lot of time here." Sam's breath is hot against his ear, and Dean thinks he hears Sam's breath catch, uneven against his throat, then he pulls away, hands hard on Dean's shoulders. "It's--"
"Oracle shit." Dean hates oracle shit.
"Pretty much. We need cellphones."
"I'll fix the towers," Dean whispers. Sam looks paler, the grey of the day seeping into his skin. "I'll fix everything." I'll keep you safe, he'd say, but Sam already knows that. That's not a secret you can keep from a psychic.
"I know. You would. You thought nothing could. I know that now. I just--had to figure it out." Sammy blows out a breath. "And seriously, some brothers send cards to say I miss you. Not other psychics."
Dean smirks into the soft fur. "They found you?"
"Every fucking one of them. They say hi, by the way." Sam shivers, and Dean tightens his hold, digging his fingers into the back of Sam's parka. "Okay, it's taking all of us to do this, so listen up. Even this way isn't reliable. As you can see by the fact that we're no longer in snow."
Dean jerks back, looking down. He's knee-deep in grey dust.
"Jesus," he says, stomach rolling. Letting go, Dean turns around, staring at the grey evergreens slowly crumbling around them--living evergreens, still blowing in the wind, grey rot creeping upward as they die from the ground up. "Jesus fuck."
"Like I said, not a great way to talk." In horror, Dean realizes the grey of Sam's skin isn't the overcast sky. That's the dust. Reaching out, Dean scrapes into the parka's shoulder, coming up with a fingerful of dust.
"Dean," Sam says, lips bleeding grey. "It's not real. It's just supposed to freak you out."
Dean nods. He's freaked out. "What is it?"
"Older than anything this world has seen since we crawled out of the muck, Dean," Sam says. Dust flies from his hair with every breath of wind. Dissolving him. "Guila was right. It's old, and it wants to come back."
Dean nods, mouth dry.
"It's been everywhere, everywhen. This world--it's been fucking drooling to find a way. And it got one."
"Those guys Sheppard's chasing."
"Yeah." Sam hesitates, fingers brushing against his pants leg, and Dean watches three fingers break off, powdering into dust as they fall. "There's stuff I can't tell you--and I mean that literally, this fucking sucks--but--Dean, close your eyes if you have to, this isn't real," as two more fingers slip off, blowing away in the wind. "I need you to focus here. He's going to find us soon and I'm too far away to stop him."
Dean nods, licking his lips, tasting the oily-crumble on his tongue. Focus. "Is salt enough?"
"It'll slow it down." Sam's forehead creases thoughtfully. "I saw it--saw the edges of it. It's coming. They figured it out. They know what they're missing. It told them. It told them when it touched this world, what it needed to come through. The next time will be the last. They'll get it right. And no one can stop it if they do."
Dean makes himself watch Sam's face as the wind picks up, cracking the grey face, following the lines of cheek and nose, like a shattering statue. Dean watches the cracks lengthen, spread wide, Sam's face slowly crumbling even as he talks. "You saw it."
The entire clearing seems to hesitate. "I saw a lot of things," he says finally, voice thick. "I saw you. A mountain. Sheppard."
"Did we stop it?"
Again, hesitation. "I couldn't see that far."
Fuck. "How do they get it to work?" The future can change; he and Sam proved that, more times than he can count. "What do they need?"
"They need power. Someone with the old blood in them, the ones that locked them up." Sam's face crumbles away, words caught on a whisper. "They need--"
"Psychics." Sam's a grey lump, expression worn away like a face of rock exposed to the wind, crumbling more with every moment. "For the address, right? The eight?"
Dean doesn't get an answer, but he's not sure he needs one. He knows who they need for that last symbol, feel it in what Sam hadn't quite been able to tell him. "They need Sheppard."
Dean wakes up sandwiched between Guila and Teyla, both asleep. Sheppard's not--the space between Ronon and Teyla is empty.
It'd been a long day. Guila and Teyla had taken Sheppard off for another round of meditation while Ronon and Dean diligently pretended to be busy with important weapon cleaning duties and not hiding in sheer horror from another two hours of mindnumbing boredom. Sheppard had come back relaxed, though, looking less terminal-cancer and more simple-starvation, though Dean had spotted the bloody scrap of cloth he'd shoved in his pocket before joining them after a shower. His nose looked okay, though slightly pink, as if from vigorous rubbing.
Sitting up, Dean creeps out from between them, checking the small room Guila opened to them for the night. Warded and psychically clean, or at least, that's how he interpreted Sheppard's relief when they came in. He feels weirdly naked, even when he's armed, can still feel the oily grey on his skin despite a hot shower and scrub with Guila's loofah and shower gel. He smells like flowery shit, but it's a hell of a lot better than the dust.
Standing up, he goes to the door, knowing Sheppard couldn't have left the small house yet, not unless he's even more suicidal than Dean's beginning to think he is. He barely ate at dinner, hiding it behind moving food and too much activity. He's lost weight since Dean met him, and he couldn't afford to lose what little he had.
The bathroom is empty, and so is the kitchen. Dean goes into the living room, then, frowning, out the door to the enclosed porch that marks the boundary of the ward.
For a second, the shaggy dark hair fools him, and something clenches in his chest. But the figure curled up on the floor by the screen door, watching the silent street, isn't Sam--all bones and muscle, skin washed white by the heavy moon hanging outside.
"Even with wards, it's dangerous to be out where you can be seen." Dean tells Sheppard's back. Sheppard doesn't so much as shrug. Sighing, Dean goes back inside, getting an extra blanket from the closet by the bedroom and two beer from Guila's fridge, then comes back out, draping it over the narrow shoulders before sitting down beside him. "You'd better appreciate that," Dean says as Sheppard picks up the unmarked brown bottle with a curious expression. "It's not easy getting good beer anymore."
Sheppard nods a sober acknowledgement as he twists the cap off, eyes closing briefly as he takes a sip. Dean takes a drink of his own, watching the street, automatically scanning for threats.
"I should have sent him north," Sheppard says softly. Dean keeps his eyes fixed on the house across the street. "When we figured out what had happened. Your brother would have found him. He'd be safe."
"Who?" Dean asks softly, though he thinks he might already know.
There's so much in that word--it's like how he thinks of Sam, the twist of uncertain emotion that's resentment and terror and anger, but love too, that forgives everything, forgets nothing. Dean closes his eyes. "He was a psychic? Like you?"
Sheppard huffs a laugh. "He's--yeah. Psychic. Good at it, too." Sheppard shifts slightly, and Dean steals a quick look. His face is a blank screen, nothing reflected but moonlight. "Too good at it. I wasn't--" Sheppard stops, shaking his head. "I don't remember what happened at first. But it was bad. Rodney got over it faster."
Dean nods like he understands, but he doesn't. "What do you mean?"
"I wasn't really sane the first few weeks," Sheppard says calmly, like he's speaking of another person entirely. Maybe he is. "Ronon and Teyla didn't know what the hell to do. So Rodney--well, he found the others. And we knew them, or thought we did. By the time I could--" Sheppard shakes his head. "They said they could get us home. They said Rodney could show them the way."
Dean takes a slow breath.
Sheppard's head turns slightly, amused hazel eyes meeting his--and for the first time, Dean thinks he's seeing the man, not the construct Sheppard's been using to deal. "We're not from around here, Dean."
And--oh. Oh. "Not from around here." Not from around here. "Wait. You came through one of those--" Dean thinks of Sam's warning, Guila's story. Something coming in. Something that wants in. Something that--
A hand slaps his back. Hard. "Human. We're human. We're from a different universe, that's all."
Dean feels something clench in his chest in an entirely different way. "A different--"
"A universe with a slightly different set of rules, yeah." Sheppard grins, looking twenty years younger, tension stripped away. "We're explorers. Peaceful explorers. We left Earth on an expedition to a different galaxy. Short version good enough?"
Dean takes a slow, deep breath, letting it out. He'll freak out in the morning. "But you're human?"
"Pretty much." Sheppard stretches out his legs, bare feet brushing the screen door. "We were on a mission where everything went wrong. Per usual. We went through the Stargate--"
Dean thinks of the circle of bodies with a sick twist of nausea, but Sheppard goes on.
"--and ended up in Colorado. The wrong Colorado." Sheppard's mouth tightens, grin fading. "And--well, this." Sheppard shrugs, encompassing the world with a twist of his mouth.
Dean's still stuck on the gates. "Stargates--"
"In our world, they don't take human sacrifice to use," Sheppard says dryly. Shaking himself, he leans back on one hand, slumping a little. "I don't get how this works here, but obviously, it does. I don't know how we got here. I don't know how they're making gates work like this." Sheppard stares at the bottle.
Dean tilts his head enough to see Sheppard's face. There's a stillness that Dean can't quite place.
"I should have sent him north, when he started--" Sheppard stops short then shakes his head. "I knew something was wrong. We should have left. But I wanted to keep us together, and the people we were with told us they could get us back. They said knew how.
"The thing is, they didn't. They just wanted us. Wanted Rodney."
Dean glances over, but Sheppard's face doesn't reveal a damn thing. "You need to go north."
Sheppard takes a drink, tongue chasing a drop before he turns his head, hazel eyes meeting Dean's. "So should you."
Dean freezes. "Sheppard--"
"Why'd you leave him?"
That's not something Dean feels like talking about. "None of your business."
"It's dangerous," Sheppard says, voice changing, darkening, and Dean feels something slide against his mind, a deliberate mental brush that feels like sandpaper. "I can't let you--"
"It's gotta be this way. You'll be safe here."
"Shut the fuck up." Dean realizes his hand's locked around Sheppard's wrist, knuckles white with pressure. Sheppard stares back at him with sober eyes. "You have no fucking right--"
"It's always there, at the top of your head," Sheppard answers, looking back without a trace of guilt. "Since the first time we met."
Dean forces himself to let go. "Sheppard--"
"Okay, I know why you left him. I would have done the same thing." Sheppard's mouth quirks slightly, just daring him to stay pissed. "What I don't get is how you made him stay. Because from what I can tell? He wasn't exactly thrilled with your choice."
Jesus. Asshole. "Geas. Guila helped me cast it. Once he was across the border, it snapped into effect." Seeing Sheppard's frown, Dean wonders how to explain. "Think of it as a pretty fucking powerful compulsion."
Sheppard nods like he understands, but Dean can tell he doesn't. That's okay. Dean cast the damn thing and still isn't entirely sure how it works. But it does, which is pretty much all Dean asks of the universe these days.
"And he can't break it?"
Dean takes a swallow of beer and touches his medallion. "The only person that can break it is me." Or his death, which has always been the less pleasant but far more probable alternative. He knows Sam like he knows himself, knows Sam wakes up to test it every morning, wondering if this time he'll be able to cross the border, and knowing what it would mean if he could.
Dean takes another drink. He wishes Guila had enough in there to do some serious drinking, dangerous or not. Sheppard's shoulder leans into his briefly, warm and solid. "They want you."
Sheppard goes still. "They want--"
"The tinhats." Dean can't quite work out why yet, though he gets the feeling Sam knew and couldn't get it across fast enough for whatever was stopping them. "I don't know what--"
"How the hell do you know that?"
Always the hard questions. "Sam."
Sheppard pulls away, looking down at Dean. "How the hell did you contact him?"
Dean hesitates, and he feels that touch again, the pressure that's Sheppard's gift sweeping over him, knowing what it is now. "It's hard to explain." Because Dean has no fucking clue how the hell Sam did it. Dean reaches for Sheppard's hand, letting instinct and experience with Sam guide him, and the sweep eases into something different at the first touch of flesh on flesh.
"Oh," Sheppard whispers. Dean pulls each memory for Sheppard to see: Sam in springtime Canada, the voice that told him to forget; Sam in the winter forest turning slowly to dust. He feels Sheppard's start of recognition, flashing like neon across both their minds, then a slow pulse of rage, deep and festering, breaking the surface of Sheppard's thoughts so suddenly that Dean's pulled into memories before he can jerk away.
There are images, as fast and as real as his own memories--a brown-haired, impatient man in a blue and grey uniform, waving hands, the brilliant white clarity of a mind that thinks in symbols and numbers, the vast space contained between stars. He sees a city of metal and glass, glittering silver and white beneath an alien sun, tiny in an ocean the deep blue of a perfect day; a tiny ship that darts through velvet dark space; a galaxy that's huge and spreads out forever marked with the white pinpricks of stars. There are controls beneath his fingers, LCD screens that show numbers and the shapes of worlds he's never seen. People--a dark haired woman in red with calm eyes, black-jacketed Marines, blue-shirted scientists, Teyla, Ronon, Sheppard's people, the rich layers of need and hope and friendship that bind them, as close to Sheppard as blood could ever be.
He feels Sheppard's rage, carefully hidden, controlled beneath chill disassociation and practiced calm that's slowly ripping loose; it wants to strike out so badly that Dean can taste it like iron on the back of his tongue. Sheppard's gift twines with it, around it, through it, feeding it like something living. Every time Sheppard lets himself free, it's in hatred--of this world, of what it's done to him, to them; the things he's seen that he can never unsee; done that he can never undo; of the people who betrayed them. There's a blonde woman whose blue eyes glimmer with edges of gold; a man in glasses surrounded by books; people who promised them help and betrayed them. Over it all are the gates, built of human bodies and human lives that are anathema to everything that Sheppard is.
And Rodney: a complex knot of emotion that twists around the name, the person, regret and anger and love and frozen, implacable need--to find the group that --took him, hurt him, destroyed him--to kill them as slowly as he knows how, tear inside them and use what he's learned to burn out their minds and rip them apart from the inside out: nothing less, nothing else will satisfy him, nothing will ever clear the debt they owe, for the lives they've taken, the man they destroyed.
Revenge isn't the right word. It's an imperative that stretches beneath the skin, lives in Sheppard's mind and body. It wants them dead, every one of them. Burn their bodies and salt the ashes, spread the remainder until there's nothing left of them, even a spirit.
All in the second it takes for Dean to draw a startled breath.
Dean opens his eyes as Sheppard pulls away, eyes wide and startled; Dean feels the loss like a physical pain.
"No. I know." Getting a handful of soft cotton t-shirt, Dean gropes for bare skin, fingers brushing against Sheppard's throat, warm and prickly with stubble. Cupping Sheppard's neck, he pulls him back. "I know, you think I don't understand--" He thinks of Sam as hard as he can, letting Sheppard see everything.
Sam: bright and wonderful, this gift that Dean never took for granted, the brother that's closer to him than his own flesh; the years on the road together, fighting a world no one else knew existed. Easy camaraderie, sweet in memory, his brother's smile and slow laugh and implacable drive.
He shows Sheppard the day he left Sam in Canada, casting the geas that bound his brother to the north, knowing that Sam would hate him for it, giving up the one thing he loved most, the only thing that made this world something he could stand. He showed Sheppard childhood before; the mother who died pinned to a ceiling above his brother's head, the father that trained him and protected him and left him and his brother alone; the demon that dogged their every step, that they fought and never quite beat. Dean showed him the short years on the road with Sam, the world they fought for and bled for and sacrificed everything for, and somehow, it wasn't enough.
Dean watched the world fall apart and nothing--nothing--would fix what had been broken. The war should have been fought and never was, as the dark things crept from beneath the earth and took the world as their own; people hid in small warded rooms, trapped in fear and helplessness, turning on each other in their terror.
The world changed; a spell, a summoning gone wrong; fuck, maybe something like what they're chasing now. Dean's never known why or how.
The psychics feel the northern call and sometimes even follow it. Dean shows Sheppard the ones that don't: the ones he finds and takes there himself; the ones that he's killed who have gone too far to come back; the ones he finds too late to do anything but bury them. He shows him the cities he's searched, the people he's found, the lives he's taken when there was no choice left. He shows him the desert in Nevada, where he buries the remains in sanctified ground, hoping every time it would be the last. There's blood on his hands that nothing will ever wash away, that he can never face Sam while he carries, not when he's slaughtered Sam's kind, seeing Sam in every face.
"I know," Sheppard whispers hoarsely, fingers digging into Dean's shoulders. A stargate glitters Sheppard's memory, gleaming metal, and the pound of bodies into an invisible barrier; other deaths by gun and by knife and with bare hands around vulnerable throats, the deaths that Sheppard will never forget.
They're living, breathing weapons, both of them, doing what's necessary to protect what they love.
And--a man. A ship that smells of death. A creature-- Wraith--pressing a hand against his chest. Aging before Sheppard's eyes, shrinkng smaller and older with every passing second, eyes filled with horror and pain as it drains away his life. As vivid in Sheppard's memory as if it had happened today, was happening now, twined with regret so deep it felt like pain, guilt overlaying a single shot that ended a life and started a war.
Dean realizes from somewhere distant that he's breathing too hard, wet skin pressed against his, and comes to himself practically in Sheppard's lap, palms clutching an unshaven jaw, breathing in the scent of Guila's fucking flowery soap and clean night sweat and something beneath it that's painfully familiar: something that feels like Sammy.
Dean leans forward without meaning to; the brief brush of lips is like an electric shock.
You taste like home, like Sam, like wide open Kansas skies, the Impala, the journey from job to job with his brother at his side, the world when it was right, when what they fought still had to crawl out into the sun to find them. Sheppard tastes like the world before the end, McDonalds and grocery stores and motels in the deep south in lazy summers, where he'd lain a bed away and listened to his brother sleep, fans blowing hot air across his skin. When this world was all potential that had never seemed possible. Like every fucking thing he's missed so much that he forgot how to do anything else.
Dean slides his fingers into thick dark hair and kisses him again, looking for more--to remember, with Sheppard's body, a world that still saw the sun.
"Dean," Sheppard says breathlessly. Dean bites his lip, pushing him back on the smooth wood floor, night wind brushing over his back beneath his t-shirt. Sheppard feels like a different world--God, should have known, should have guessed--solid muscle and hard bone, the curve of his shoulder beneath Dean's hand, the scars on pale skin that match Dean's own, dark hair beneath his fingers when he runs his hands up Sheppard's chest. Unfamiliar scars, but familiar: the scars of someone who fights like Dean does, in a different kind of war, just as hopeless and just as endless, with enemies that steal life with a touch.
Dean can see them as Sheppard does--the Wraith--creatures out of myth, tall and pale and always hungry, always starving, hands pressed to human chests to drain life and leave nothing but a husk in the place of a breathing being. He sees the planets that bowed and broke before them, people huddled in tiny masses of humanity waiting to die like animals, human cattle culled and taken and killed, the survivors left to a world with no future but to watch, to wait, again and again and again--.
Dean sees their ships, things out of nightmares that steal people in white light, reads them in Sheppard's eyes, feels them on Sheppard's skin, a galaxy lost in darkness for ten millenia, and--
"Atlantis," Dean whispers, burying the word in Sheppard's throat, mouthing along his collar. "Sheppard--"
Atlantis is more than a place or a city; it's glittering hope built of metal and glass and blood, shining like a beacon in a galaxy that's forgotten light. He sees a war that they fight and lose and sometimes even win, where they compromise too much and sometimes not enough. It's a war John will fight until there's nothing left of him, of any of them, because they can do nothing less. Dean breathes out as John's thigh presses into his cock, hard and bony, perfect to rub against, pushing his own leg between John's, finding matching hardness, and takes his mouth again, breathing in John's hope, John's faith like air.
They don't fight because they think they can win. They fight because anything less would betray what they are.
Threading his fingers through John's hair, Dean stares into dilated eyes, riding out the thrust of Sheppard's body beneath him. "Yeah," he whispers, pressing their foreheads together, and comes, bright light like summer lightning, heat and warmth and everything he forgot how to want. "Me, too."
He wakes once to Sheppard--to John, sitting up suddenly beside him, staring sightlessly at the screen door before he shakes himself, looking down at Dean for an endless second.
"Vision?" Dean offers, too sleepy to be awkward. Reaching up, he jerks John back down, curling up against his warmth beneath the blanket. Nights are cold here, even in summer.
John huffs a soft laugh. "Just a dream."
"Bad?" Dean's drifting already.
John fingers brush his cheek, as light as air, before he answers, voice thick with sleep, words pressed into the back of Dean's neck. "Not this time."
Guila sends them off with Ziploc bags of things that Dean's only vaguely familiar with and admonishments to take care, pressing new charms into his hands and his pockets, breathing blessings against his skin when he bows his head. Her hands are gentle on his shoulders, his back, "Be careful, Dean. Please be careful."
He will be. It's John he's kind of worried about.
After Teyla and Guila go over something confusing and filled with many words that are either hybridized Latin or nonsense, she packs their jeep with holy water from a priest just down the street who comes by in tattered vestments, looking at them with calm, weary eyes. Dean has them kneel before him while the priest blesses them with warm, dry hands, chanting the familiar words of protection and safety. It slips into Dean's memory with such familiarity that he can almost imagine Sam here with him.
It doesn't hurt like it used to, and he wonders what that means as he gets up, stepping back with a respectful smile.
Guila takes John aside at the end, and Dean watches him lean into her, forehead pressed to hers like he does with Teyla, eyes closed as she wraps a tiny bag around his throat, tucking it beneath his shirt. She says something to him before raising on her tiptoes and brushing a quick kiss against his lips, darting back with a small, mischievous smile, and from the corner of his eye, he sees Teyla hide a smirk, Ronon looking away like he might want to laugh. Dean doesn't do either one, grinning openly as John comes back, flushed red and looking more human than Dean's ever seen him.
"Kirk," Teyla drawls playfully as John climbs in the driver's seat. John stiffens, eyes meeting hers in the rearview mirror, then he grins before starting the jeep.
"Right. Everyone's a comedian. We ready? Cool. Let's get out of here."
Out of here refers to Albuquerque. Where they're going, it turns out, is Colorado.
"Why?" Dean asks, glancing at Teyla and Ronon, happily ensconced in the backseat and therefore no longer forced to watch John drive. Dean really hadn't realized before, but John drives like he's on a racetrack, or floating in space--if there were other cars, it'd be fucking scary. "And we had time to go back for the Impala." Actually, they didn't, but Dean wants his car. God knows what the hell is happening to it out there, warded or not. Above and beyond that, Sheppard's a shitty driver.
Remembering that John's used to ships that move at the touch of his mind explains a lot of it; nothing can explain the strange, wicked smile on John's face when he tries to take potholes the size of small ponds at seventy miles per hour. Not that he ever hits one--he just looks like he really, really wants to.
"Because that's part of what failed it," John says blithely, curving dangerously around a lump in the road that looks mostly animal. "I think."
John shrugs, which curves them into the wrong lane entirely and almost off the road. "Colorado is where we came through. Literally." John must have told them at some point that he'd told Dean about them being all multiverse adventurers, because there's no noise from the peanut gallery. "And the location spell," John makes a face as he says it. Dean totally gets it. It still sounds nuts. "It drew that way."
Dean gives him a suspicious look, trying not to claw through the armrest with his bare nails as John speeds up. "Drew that way? What does that even mean?"
John shrugs. "Beats me. But they're thataway."
Dean gives up, going back to a few long minutes of breathless terror before relaxing, because honestly, a car accident at this point would be just icing. The universe works in mysterious and freaky ways, but even Dean can't see the stupidity of the universe screwing them over on the way to their epic battle.
Leaning back into his seat, Dean tries not to look at Sheppard--John--too much. It feels obvious, and stupid, and like he's broadcasting some kind of "I hit that, and it was hot, and kind of weird, but really hot," like a radio wave that everyone can pick up. He woke up this morning curled up against John's shoulder, fingers twisted in his shirt, and practically levitated away wondering what Teyla and Ronon would say if they could see him molesting their kinda-crazy psychic leader.
He's almost sure Ronon won't kill him. Almost. Teyla, he's not so sure of. For all he knows, the three of them are--something. Which is another place his mind shouldn't be going in a crowded jeep.
"Are you sure we should follow them?" Teyla asks calmly. Dean turns his attention to her, glad she's voicing what he's been thinking since last night, watching John sleeping neat and quiet beside him. John's fragile, the way that psychics are sometimes, but in a way that Dean doesn't think means he'll break. He's bending, though--they all do, and John came into this too suddenly--and that bend isn't good either.
John snorts. "If this is another try to get us into Canada--"
"Not all of us," Dean says, catching Teyla's eyes in the rearview mirror. "Just you."
John's mouth tightens. "We're not discussing this."
Dean sees Teyla frown. "From what you and Dean have--discovered," and Dean closes his eyes, hoping he's not turning as red as he thinks he is, "you are what they want. They must know you are following--"
"Or wouldn't have blocked the road to slow you down," Dean adds, getting a poisonous look from John.
"And if this ritual requires you to be there, and you're not, it would be impossible complete it, won't it?"
John's mouth tightens even more. "They need a psychic--"
"Yes, but they also need you." That Dean knows, felt resonate through Sam. John's needed for this, for whatever reason.
John frowns, staring out the windshield. "They have psychics there already. They'll try whether I'm there or not." The unspoken is clear; John's not letting anyone die if he can help it.
"Waiting, yeah. I get this is as good as a trap." John doesn't seem too worried. Dean wonders if he's always like this. He's getting the feeling that maybe, he really is. "But we're running out of options."
John does an off-road maneuver to get around a chunk of rock, making Dean grit his teeth, then comes back up on the asphalt. From habit, Dean checks the angle of the sun, then shakes his head, leaning back into the seat.
"John," Ronon says quietly, and the guy talks so little that he's got everyone's attention, "what if you're wrong? What if he's--"
"We're not talking about this," John says, and there's something in his voice that cuts the conversation off at the knees and leaves it dead on the floor. Silence settles uncomfortably, and Dean wonders who Ronon's referring to. A group they knew; someone they knew from their world, but different here, if the two people he'd seen in John's memory were any indication.
Which actually brings up something Dean thinks might be interesting. "Hey, are there versions of you guys here?"
From the corner of his eye, Dean catches John looking appalled, while Teyla and Ronon in the back seem thoughtful.
"Possibly," Teyla says, frowning slightly. "But it would be unlikely that Ronon and I would meet with our counterparts."
Dean twists around to look at them. "Why?"
Teyla's mouth curves up, eyes flicking to John. Curious, Dean glances between them, wondering why Ronon looks like he might start laughing if it didn't go against the entire silent-warrior thing he has going on. Dean goes through the flashes--ships, a galaxy, a city, other images, too fast and too brief. The obvious answer is way too-- "You are shitting me," he says, and turns on John, who looks decidedly uncomfortable and is suddenly driving conservatively. It's like a confession. "Aliens? Jesus, they're aliens?"
"Humans," John says defensively. "Just--you know. From another planet."
Dean can't help it--he swivels around, leaning into the back of the seat. Ungodly hot, that's Teyla, and ungodly hot, that's Ronon. Both smirk back, waiting for him to do whatever people do when they find out that they're aliens. "I don't believe this." Turning back around, he drops down in his seat, staring at John accusingly. "Not cool, dude."
John keeps his eyes carefully on the road and doesn't say a goddamn thing. His smirk, though, is answer enough.
In the better days of road trip travel, a trip from Albuquerque to Colorado Springs was a fairly fast drive--get on the highway, get off the highway, six hours if Sam was driving, four hours and fifty-eight minutes if it was Dean. However, the dawn of a new era re-introduced the common use of the farm road, and, to Dean's continued horror, the dirt road.
Which is why, instead of coasting along I-25 and seeing the sights, they're drifting along the New Mexico-Colorado border on a road that had to have been constructed for cows.
"I hate the country," Dean murmurs, even though it's not strictly true. Segundo to Romero, then back south again, straddling the state border and hitting more and more brush, roads so overgrown you'd need a tank to get through. They've been going an unsteady northish west for three and a half hours, and Dean's eyeing the sun. There's no way they'll make Colorado Springs before nightfall, and for that matter, he's not nuts enough to want to go into the town at full night, not if the tinhat's there. That's just asking for a quick and probably extremely painful death.
In the distance, the purple-black mass of the Rockies hovers over them, huge and heavy and thickly shrouded in grey-green mist, land gently sloping between. Dean doesn't know if Colorado has always been forest (God, does he miss Wikipedia), but it is now, thick deciduous and towering evergreens, baby oakes and elms that he's pretty sure aren't native. The underbrush is so heavy that Dean worries for the jeep as it arrows off the dirt roads to avoid the brush, driving over broken branches and shattered rocks.
"Okay, we need a town now," Dean states, pulling out his maps. Christ knows exactly where they are, but Dean's head puts them near Chimney Rock, which means wilderness, wilderness, wilderness--or rather, death trap, death trap, death trap.
John checks the horizon, them gives him a curious look from the driver's seat. "It's--"
"Barely three, yeah," and it's not like Dean needs a watch to know the angle of the sun. "But this is forest."
John looks blank.
"You know, I can't figure out how you lived this long," Dean says, and kind of means it. "Look, cities are the places that the things come into. The forest is where they live."
John eyes the trees warily. "So what should I be looking for--"
"I'd need a few days just to make a short list," Dean says, watching the ground. They're on a road, and from the looks of it, before it was flat dirt, it was definitely an actual road. Chances are, there's a town here. Somewhere.
"We could camp," Ronon says thoughtfully. Dean stares at the road for a second, then gives up.
"Next town we see, we stop. I'm not taking a chance getting lost in the forest." If they stop early enough, it'll be easy to cast a good ward.
John nods, reaching for his tenth piece of gum and chewing thoughtfully, eyes distant. Dean cranes his neck a little, glancing up to get a look at the sky. It's darker than he expected, even allowing for the dense foliage, and there's something odd and off-putting that he can't quite name.
Not name, maybe, but his instincts are waking up, a tiny shot of adrenaline like a warning flare. Spreading out the map, Dean stares at it and then closes his eyes, mentally mapping their position.
Chimney Rock, has to be. "Anything that looks like a right turn," Dean says softly, "take it." The boughs bending toward the road seem claustrophobic suddenly, the density of the greenery pressing in from either side. Dean stares to the right, feeling an itch in his palms and feet, an almost irresistible need to move.
Behind them, either on their own or picking up his mood, Teyla and Ronon are tense. In the rearview mirror, he can see them surreptitiously scanning either side of the road as well.
John's expression never changes. "Sheppard?" Dean says, realizing his hand has drifted down to his gun. John's head tilts in acknowledgement as he blows a bubble, letting it pop and retrieving the gum before he lazily turns his head. There's a suspicious blankness just behind his eyes that has Dean groping subtly for salt. "You here?"
"We're being called," John says, shrugging, head turning back to the road.
And--God. Dean stares out the window. They have to--what? Stop? Turn around? The narrow road is barely letting them pass.
"What is calling us, John?" Teyla asks softly, close to Dean's ear. She leans between the seats, eyes focused on John.
"Whatever's out here that wants to have a chat," John says dreamily. Dean turns, looking out the back window, and lets the breath hiss out between his teeth at the thick trunks of trees, grass and brush blocking their trail.
Then abruptly, John turns. Dean tumbles against Teyla, knocking into the headrest hard enough to see stars. From the back, Dean hears a muted thump, like Ronon just got acquainted with the floor, and John's lead foot drops, speeding them over an almost invisible road like he's practicing for the Indy 500. "Sheppard," Dean wants to shout, but it turns into a whimper as trees rush toward them, barely moved from their path in time for them to pass.
This--this is bad. Dean's seen possession, and psychic schizophrenia, and the ones that are just fucking nuts, but he's never seen anything quite like this. John gives him a disapproving look when he touches the gearshift, and Dean finds himself flattened into his seat. His hand tingles from the quick mental push.
So John's getting better at this psychic thing, it seems. "Sheppard," Dean forces out, unable to stop watching how very, very close they are to hitting something thick and wood, "where are we going?"
They're moving almost too fast too take in the road--but Dean thinks he can see things. Things with teeth that jump out for passing travelers, frozen in space and time; creeping vines pulling from their path like the road's made of fire; ghostly images not-quite seen, faded like mist into tree trunks and bushes. Branches that pull back from them, trees that fucking move for them, and suddenly there's a town around them as John skids to a stop, bringing the car up on a dirt street by--a post office.
John grins distantly. "Welcome to Chimney Rock."
Teyla stays by John, hovering over his every step while Dean and Ronon check the houses. Something small, easily warded, two entrances at most, which isn't hard to find. What's hard to find is clean.
Scavengers have been here. Animals ripping through walls, plants creeping inside with thin, glowing vines like snakes, lifting from their feet where they walk. The forest's moving in here, slowly but surely--in a few years, there'll be nothing but rotting houses overgrown with ivy and vines, invisible to eyes that don't know where to look.
Dean's so twitchy he doesn't dare touch his gun; he has no idea what he'd shoot if he had it in his hand. Ronon's not much better, starting at every movement they don't quite see, every time a door closes when maybe it shouldn't.
The sixth house, on the edges of what was once a fairly comfortable community, is the one John stops at. "Here."
Dean frowns. "The cool mysterious psychic shit gets old fast, Sheppard." Teyla raises an eyebrow but looks like she might be thinking the same thing. John shrugs, like the entire day is boring beyond words.
"No, I just--" John frowns, the slight blankness retreating. There's something in his face that Dean can see just below the surface--fear, maybe, or anger, but below it all, something calm and cool, thoughtful. It's John, not something else wearing his body like a suit, speaking with his voice. Somehow, that doesn't help.
"John?" Teyla says softly.
"It's not dangerous, whatever it is. It's just--it was supposed to be tonight." John pauses, frowning. "They were going to call it tonight, and they kinda had the idea we'd be there to participate."
Dean blinks slowly in complete unsurprise. "A trap. In Colorado Springs"
"Like I said."
John's eyes narrow. "I never said it wasn't a trap--"
"For you to walk into," Dean says, warming to his topic. He's got too much adrenaline and nothing to do with it, and the slow creep of plantlife in his peripheral vision is fucking with him badly. He's going to shoot something, and right now, John makes a really tempting target. "Like I said."
John crosses his arms.
"So it begs the question--why the fuck are we going to fucking Colorado Springs to hand deliver you like a present?"
"Because whether I'm there or not, they'll try," John says.
"And it won't work," Dean says, wondering what he's missing. "It won't work, because whatever it is that makes it work, it needs you."
"Or a viable replacement," John says, voice hard. "And they'll use him."
"John," Teyla says softly. "John, he could be--"
John turns on her. "Teyla--"
"You go north," Dean says, to Sam he doesn't say, but projects it at John so hard that hell, the fucking air can probably hear it, "you'll be safe. There's no way they can get over the border, not with who they have there to protect it." John goes still.
"And the forty-seven people who get to be a failed experiment? Do you really think if I'm not there, they won't try anyway?"
Dean stares back, trying to find the argument. "They die if you aren't there. If you are, whatever the hell that thing is, it'll come through. Forty-seven people's lives against the rest of the world. Do the fucking math."
John shakes his head, reaching into his jacket, coming up with a bag of salt. "Don't act like you can live with that kind of choice," John says softly. Hefting the salt, he turns toward the house. "Let's get the house ready," he says, sounding tired and completely unreachable. Dean knows the end of a conversation when he hears one, and he opens his mouth to force it before catching Teyla's eyes. She inclines her head sharply, following John into the house.
"Let's check the outside," Ronon says, a little too loudly, while Teyla murmurs to John. John raises a hand in acknowledgement as they go inside while Dean follows Ronon around the house and past it, into an overgrown back yard, a worn tire swing hanging from a weather-rotted rope. "We can stop him."
Dean stares at him. "You're kidding, right?" But the look on Ronon's face kind of makes him think they can.
Dean thinks of John at the hotel, in the jeep. "Do I even want to know how?"
Ronon does something that could, possibly, be a smile. "No."
Teyla drags John off for meditation in the abandoned kitchen while Dean and Ronon do a final sweep of the house, checking for any openings they might have missed. Outside the broken windows, pale faces watch them warily while vines rustle in the dimming light. It's impossible to see the horizon for the forest, but faint orange fingers spread over the tops of the trees. It's nearing dusk.
"All right," Dean says, digging into his satchel. "Ward time."
When Dean comes back in the kitchen after finishing the set-up (Ronon is wandering around outside, reconnaissance, or maybe just some time alone), they find John sitting cross-legged on a sleeping bag, a laptop on his thighs, typing intently. Teyla, sitting beside him, has the notebook out, flipping through the pages. "Hey."
John nods without looking up, plugging the camera into the USB port on one side.
"Where are you getting the power?"
John's mouth quirks. "Backup batteries." John taps the screen. "We have an hour or two of power, at most. Get over here."
Curious, Dean comes over, dropping by John's hip to be hit by a full picture of the Las Cruces scene. "Jesus," he says, jerking back. John frowns, flipping pictures, this time the Marriott lobby, so colorless it almost looks like a black and white photograph. "What are you looking for?"
John shakes his head. "I'm not sure. Do you know why there are eight symbols?" Dean gives him a blank look. John smirks. "Right, sorry. Each one is a constellation and location in space. These set the six coordinates on the x, y, and z axis." John taps his finger on the screen in illustration. "The seventh is the home symbol--where you are in the galaxy. Your galaxy."
Dean nods like this makes some kind of sense. He always hated geometry. "And the eighth?"
John grins. "Where you are in the universe. Specifically, which galaxy."
Dean blinks, looking at them. "This one is to your--um. Atlantis?" There's just no way he can say planet. It sounds insane.
"Yeah." John's forehead creases as he pulls up a picture of the eight people used in the dialing sequence. "This is the address I'd use to dial Atlantis from the Milky Way. What I can't figure out is why they'd need someone like me."
"For the power," Dean offers. John shakes his head. "No, really. Killing a psychic releases a lot of power. A lot of unused potential." Leaning back on one arm, Dean considers. "Though why they need you--I guess for a--" Dean stops, blinking slowly as something tries to flip on in his head. "John, you said you weren't psychic where you came from."
John hesitates, just long enough for Dean to start to get pissed off. "I'm not," John says finally, then rubs his eyes tiredly. "But I have the potential for something similar. It's not the same thing."
"But it acts the same when you get here."
John opens his mouth to argue, then stops. "It's a genetic--thing." John glances at Teyla. "It's called the ATA gene. It's a genetic marker that allowed the Ancients to restrict their equipment to only be used by themselves. Sort of. It also, in some individuals, is the prerequisite to Ascension."
That's more confusing words than Dean wants to deal with, so he goes with the parts that make sense. "So it's an alien gene."
"Not alien--well, yeah."
Dean slow-blinks his thoughts on that. John makes a face, turning back to the laptop, flipping through the pictures one by one. "What are you looking for?"
John flips to the Marriott scene, the blank space at the center of the bodies. There's something in his face that makes Dean hold his tongue as John pulls it into editing, studying it briefly before starting to work the contrast. Nothing changes, and after a minute or two, Dean gives up. "What are you doing?"
John leans back on one arm. "There's something here."
Dean squints, checking. It's still solid grey to him. "You sure?"
"Yeah." Pausing, John considers the image, then goes to another control. Suddenly, the grey flatness is a solid black with something just slightly lighter over it. Dean watches as John continues to manipulate the picture, enlarging slowly and steadily stripping away the black, leaving blotchy, uneven nonsense behind. Squinting, Dean thinks he sees numbers.
"In physics," John says as he reaches to flip the page on the notebook to the sketches from the first day, "these are the equations that express how a Stargate opens a wormhole."
Dean raises an eyebrow. "You recognize them?" Because in no universe does John strike him as a guy who knows this stuff.
"Friend taught me. Staff meetings with the science division and their whiteboard. Trust me, at this point, I could probably work them myself." Staring at the screen, John takes a deep breath, touching the air just above the screen. "These are new. And they don't make sense."
Dean tries to follow--yes, a number, yes, a letter, yes, some squiggles that might be something like something, but since Teyla's looking just as blank, Dean figures it's okay for him to look bewildered. "And?"
"No," John says, slowly, like he's speaking to a five year old, "you don't understand. These don't make sense because they shouldn't exist in here. It's like--someone came over and said, a triangle is actually 182 degrees, no, really."
"I didn't like geometry in high school." John snorts, giving Dean a sidelong glance. Dean shrugs, looking back at the paper. "So you're saying they're wrong."
"They'd be right if this was a universe where--you know, I have no idea. I just know they shouldn't work here." John's mouth tightens. "But they did work, because that's the basis for this entire thing. Right here." John lowers his head, dark hair covering his expression. "The person who did this doesn't make these kinds of mistakes."
"The blonde?" There'd been something in John's head about her and wormholes, but he hadn't been able to make it out. Too much wrapped up in the other guy, the way John thought of him with numbers and symbols and hope. When John doesn't answer, Dean leans forward. Numbers. "Not the blonde."
John takes a breath. "She's good. She might have--"
"But you're not thinking of her, are you?" Over John's head, Teyla's face reflects a second of guilt, overlaid with frustration--with John, with Dean, with the world, maybe. Reaching over, Dean grabs John's wrist. "Your friend, the physicist. The one you said died. He's doing this."
John's eyes move from Dean's hand on his wrist up to Dean's face. "Let go."
"The guy you said got taken--"
"He was taken."
"Is the one doing this. Not the blonde. Not some mysterious group. We're chasing him."
John twists his wrist in a neat little movement, moving out of Dean's grasp so smoothly that he's grasping air, laptop shut down and beneath John's arm. Teyla, still sitting on the floor, looks between them with unhappy eyes. "John," she says softly, almost in warning, then turns to Dean. "We believe that the group that first took us in is responsible for what has happened. They--persuaded Dr. McKay to assist them with the promise that with his help, they could return us to our universe."
Dean watches John's face. "So he's alive?"
"He's not doing this," John says slowly, too slowly, lying through his teeth. John thinks McKay's doing this, or he never would have lied. "They got Rodney to help them figure out how to do it, but he didn't--"
"You can still--after seeing that?" Dean points to the notebook in Teyla's lap, still open to that first sketch, the circle of bodies. "After the--John, your friend--that's his work, isn't it?"
John's arm tightens around the laptop. "Sam's--our Sam--was an astrophysicist. This one seemed to be, too. She and Rodney worked together trying to figure out how we got here."
"And then they vanished one morning?"
John goes still, eyes dark. "We wouldn't have left him." Involuntarily, his eyes flicker to Teyla, who looks away. "He got Teyla and Ronon to knock me out. When I woke up, they were gone."
"He made you do it." Dean stares at Teyla. "You just--"
"I gave John a tranquilizer provided by Dr. McKay," Teyla answers. "He could not--persuade John to leave as he could us, so he explained that we must take John away."
"But he stayed."
"Because he thought we would attempt to stop him," Teyla says. John's head snaps around, but Teyla keeps her eyes on Dean. "He said that we would not understand. He said when it was completed, he would come for us."
"Kinda sounds like a confession," Dean says quietly as John turns away. "John. Why are you chasing them? Because suddenly I'm not so sure it's to kill them."
"Kill them," John says shortly. "Not Rodney."
Dean wishes there was a chair in here. Something to throw at John. "Are you kidding me?"
"They're doing it," John says steadily. "You don't have to be a psychic to perform that shit, you said so yourself--"
"He created it. Those people cut their own fucking throats when ordered, and you're telling me that any of the others in that group were strong enough to control that many people?"
"And there's no way Rodney would consent to that." John points at the notebook, but even from where he's standing, Dean can see the tremble in his hand. "He--he can't even watch Teyla and Ronon hunt. He worries about his cat. He barely made it through Aliens. And he's--" John stops, shaking his head. "He's Rodney."
Dean sees Teyla's head lower slightly. "You think he did."
John turns on Teyla, and Dean can't quite make himself look at the man's face--pale and stark, emotion so close the surface that Dean can almost feel it himself. Teyla keeps her face blank, but Dean can read the answer in her eyes before she says the word. "If--if Dr. McKay felt there was sufficient reason--"
"If he felt that the danger of remaining was too great--"
"He wouldn't kill ninety-six people just to get back to the Wraith."
"But he might if he believed you were in danger here, John." Teyla lets out a slow breath. "The first weeks you do not remember. I do. If he believed he could find a way to spare you that, he might have--he would have considered this course."
John doesn't move for a long second, staring at Teyla blankly, and Dean wonders if it's as creepy to watch as to feel. "No."
"I remember how Dr. McKay behaved those last days," Teyla says, voice so soft that Dean can barely hear her. Her eyes never leave John. "He was--not himself."
Dean breaks in. "John, they go crazy sometimes. But that doesn't change what they do. What he's done. He's dangerous. He's powerful and he's dangerous and he's willing to kill--"
"I can stop him. He doesn't deserve to die for what this place did to him."
Dean pauses. "Even if he killed those people?"
John turns away from Teyla, looking straight at Dean. "Even if he killed a solar system."
Dean lets out a breath. "John--"
"The subject's closed," John says shortly. When he leaves, laptop under one arm, Dean sees Teyla draw in a shaky breath, lowering her head. Dean sits beside her, careful not to touch.
"Teyla?" Dean pauses, trying to find the words. "The first weeks--what were they like? For Sheppard?"
Teyla tilts backward, one arm resting behind her, head down. Dean can almost trace the pattern of her thoughts on her face. "The--visions, as you call them, came quickly. John was lost to us."
Dean nods encouragingly as Teyla's hands stroke over the notebook.
"He was--very ill. We could not draw him out. Dr. McKay attempted sedatives to help him sleep." She shivers, and Dean echoes it. Trapping a psychic in his own dreams is never a good idea. "He became--unstable. Dr. McKay--when we found the group that Dr. McKay knew, it was like a blessing from the Ancestors. They helped us care for Colonel Sheppard and promised they could find a way to send us home."
Dean waits as Teyla's face flickers through myriad expressions--anger, frustration, fear, then suddenly, hate. "Something happened to them during their studies. They changed. Ronon and I went to assist in gathering supplies. When we returned, Dr. Carter was--bleeding Colonel Sheppard. She had surrounded him with a circle and was performing some kind of ritual."
"Blood magic." There's lots of ways around sacrifice if you're squeamish. "What was she trying to do?"
"We do not know." Teyla's mouth goes tight. "Dr. McKay said it was to help find a way for Colonel Sheppard to control his visions. But he seemed--unhappy. With the direction of the research he worked with Dr. Jackson and Dr. Carter."
Dean frowns. "Who is Dr. Jackson?"
Teyla looks uncertain. "In our universe, he is a respected anthropologist and a member of an exploratory group for Earth's Stargate. Here, he is--not the same." She stops, staring at the notebook. "One night, Dr. Carter came for Rodney, excited about a discovery they had made in their books. When they returned, they were different."
Dean's eyes go to the bag by Teyla's side. "Jackson. He writes books?"
Teyla looks at him in surprise, then nods, reaching for her satchel. The book John had pulled from that house in El Paso, Dean would recognize it anywhere. Taking it, he looks at the spine, then flips through the pages. "Here it looks like he's an anthropologist, too--trying to prove the Egyptians worshipped some kind of beings--" Dean cuts off as he gets to the picture of the rock found in Colorado. It's hard to see in a picture, but the carving is familiar. "This is the address to Atlantis."
Teyla leans over his shoulder. "Yes," she says slowly.
And John had known it. Had realized as far back as fucking El Paso exactly where this group would go. Snapping it shut, Dean looks at Teyla. "Go on. What happened after you found them bleeding Sheppard?"
Teyla draws in a slow breath. "After that night, they became interested in Colonel Sheppard. He could not easily control his gifts, so Dr. McKay gave that excuse for us to stay with him constantly, since Colonel Sheppard would not harm us. Dr. McKay had very good control over his--abilities." Lifting her head, Teyla smiles wryly. "He has done this before."
Dean wonders what that means. God, does he wish he had time to find this shit out. "And?"
"He came to us the last night. He told us we must leave for now. That it would be better if Colonel Sheppard was farther away. We thought at first it was due to what Colonel Sheppard had begun to suspect they were trying to do. But--" Teyla breaks off, frowning. "He was afraid. When Colonel Sheppard would not agree, Dr. McKay attempted to use his--influence. When that did not work on Colonel Sheppard, he retrieved a sedative."
Jesus. Dean chews absently on his lip. "And then?"
"Dr. McKay supplied the jeep from the base in Colorado. He left specific instructions on how long and how often to administer the sedative. When the--influence eased, Colonel Sheppard ordered us back to Colorado Springs. But Dr. McKay was not there."
Dean nods slowly. "You think McKay did it to protect Sheppard."
"I believe he suspected they planned to use Colonel Sheppard in the ritual, yes." Teyla closes her eyes. "And then we started to follow."
Dean frowns. "You knew where they were going?"
Teyla hesitates. "Colonel Sheppard follows--a feeling, he calls it. At times, Dr. McKay is very--he could explain. Colonel Sheppard says this is because Dr. McKay's gene is artificial, and was created out of experiments which involved using Colonel Sheppard's DNA--"
Dean blinks slowly. "So--what? Dr. McKay wasn't born with the gene--"
"No. It was given to him in a medical procedure. It was--cloned, I think is the word--from Colonel Sheppard's DNA."
Dean knows just about enough biology to follow that. "So his abilities come from Sheppard's gene. The same one." And it fits. "That's why he wants to go to Colorado. To stop them from using McKay in his place."
Teyla nods slowly. "Colonel Sheppard is certain that whatever it is about him that they wish to use, they will use Dr. McKay if he is not there to stop them."
Dean takes a deep breath. "If he goes--"
"I do not believe Dr. McKay would willingly harm him," Teyla says slowly, but there's a flicker of uncertainty that makes Dean wonder. "I do not believe that Dr. McKay would deliberately harm anyone, before what happened that night. But he is a very powerful--psychic, you call him."
And none of them but John are psychics or even close. "And Sheppard won't kill him."
Teyla hesitates, then slowly shakes her head. "No, he will not."
Dean gets up, pacing the room. They don't have a plan--hell, they barely have an idea for a plan. "He can't go, Teyla. He goes there, and he's wrong about McKay--"
"And even if he's not--"
"There are far more of them than there are of us," Teyla says softly. "We could not hope to defeat them in combat."
From the doorway, Ronon makes a low noise. Dean turns around, looking between them. "Tell me you can keep him from leaving. If he goes...." Dean doesn't want to know what will happen, what will crawl out of that gate. Grey dust floats through his mind, and he imagines a world like that, crumbling bodies and crumbling life all around them. They have so little left now. They can't lose more.
Teyla nods slowly. "We can."
Dean doesn't dream at all that night.
Dean, wake up.
His head feels fuzzy and thick, mouth dry, and he realizes he's sweating despite the cool night. Sitting up, Dean pulls distractedly at his shirt, trying to focus on something besides the sleeping bag under his back. Teyla's curled up neatly beside him, hair covering her face. Beyond her, Ronon sleeps on like a large, loud log, and Dean wonders how in the name of God anyone could sleep through that. It's like a saw. A saw that's out of tune or something.
Blinking dry, scratchy eyes, Dean feels for his gun by instinct, but the metal's hot to the touch and he jerks his hand back, letting his weight carry him back down to the floor. Licking his lips, he gropes awkwardly for the water bottle, feeling the smooth surface slip out of his fingers, and turns heavily onto his belly, reaching out with his other hand. It's more effort than he's ever wanted to expend for anything in his life, and his hand falls hard on the floor before it touches the plastic.
Shit, it feels like there's lead sewed beneath into his skin. Dean closes his eyes, trying to focus, and feels the world start to shift away, lightening around him, warm and comfortable.
"L'ter," he mutters, reaching out to bat at Sammy. It's too early. Jesus God, he just got to sleep.
The room spins in lazy circles around him, even with his eyes closed, and the air feels thicker; breathing's almost too hard to bother. Sinking is better, warmer, fall back into sleep so heavy that even dreams can't find him--
Jesus, Dean, wake the hell up already!
"I'm 'wake," Dean slurs, jerking up automatically at the order in that voice, the heaviness turning into an active headache. Sitting back on his heels, Dean sways slightly, forcing his eyes open and rubbing away the sleep. There's a blank white wall staring back, not much to look at, Teyla murmurs as she shifts over on the sleeping bag, and Ronon's still snoring like the world's about to end....
"Sheppard?" he says uncertainly, fog clearing by degrees. The kitchen's silent around them, four sleeping bags and only three people; there's no way that math works. Dean reaches for his gun and closes his fingers around it as tight as he can, cold iron pressing into his skin, almost burning, and opens his eyes on a clear, vivid room. Moonlight splashes silvery across the floor, stopping at the edge of the blankets, revealing exactly what's missing. John's boots and satchel are gone.
Reaching over, Dean shakes Teyla's shoulder. "Teyla. Hey, wake up." She stirs, eyes opening blearily, glazed and disoriented before they close again. Frantic, Dean crawls over her, grabbing for Ronon, but he doesn't even pretend to wake up. On his other side, Dean sees a broken needle and vial, glinting slightly, inches from Ronon's hip.
Oh fuck. Checking his own arm, Dean sees the tiny mark of a needle, then touches his pendant, feeling the metal warm beneath his fingers. Magic versus sedatives. Who knew?
"Sheppard?" he says, though really, it's not like he's still in the fucking house. Crawling to the edge of the blankets, Dean jerks on his boots, hastily lacing them one-handed while grabbing for his bag with the other. His gun's fine, he never takes that off, but an extra knife never hurt anyone. Sliding it into his boot, Dean goes to the door, stopping short at the unbroken line of salt and the ward that John must have reset himself before going outside.
It's safe tonight.
Dean glares at the ceiling. "Okay, stop the oracle shit already." Closing his eyes, he steps over the salt, feeling the trickle of cold like a shiver, the difference between warded and unwarded. Taking out the bag, Dean murmurs the words beneath his breath, resetting it as quickly as he can. There are things that will hover for hours waiting for a broken ward, and safety's pretty much in the eye of whoever has the best weapons these days.
When it's up, Dean turns around, studying the small back porch, the overgrown yard, then steps into the grass, following the almost invisible tracks John left behind. Crushed grass. A broken twig. Barely visible even in daylight, but Dean's been a hunter since he was five years old; there's not much he can't track, human or not. Crossing the yard, Dean watches sage bend out of the path of his foot and pretends it's always been a few inches to the right, because he's seriously not up to a sentient garden tonight. Moving past a tangle of briar roses, twisting in on themselves in grey, he eyes the path opening before him like an invitation, just for him.
Or for John, maybe. Taking a breath, Dean steps inside.
The forest is thicker than he thinks it should be but eases open as he passes; thin vines crawl from his feet, bushes grind from his path as they drag themselves over bare earth; moonlight splashes like silvery water to light his path, leaving the shadows darker in warning of where not to go. It's muted, quiet, like swimming underwater. The things are staying away, hovering out of his way, though he can feel their eyes resting on him hungrily. They know what he is and know he hunts their kind.
But they don't come out.
It feels like he walks forever in the rustling silence, moving--no, herded, but his instincts agree with every turn, and he trusts his instincts like he trusts no one and nothing else. Left by this tree, wide enough to have lived a thousand years; passing a bush thick with berries as bright as blood. Ropes of ivy slither from just under his feet, fern bending away when he pauses. He dodges nightshade, steps over beds of dandelion and thistle, smelling crushed mint all around him. He listens to the sound of his own breath in the stillness, listens to every step that takes him farther from the safety of wards, small rooms, the spaces humans have carved out for themselves and never seem to leave; it's been too long since he's stood in an open forest with only a gun after dark.
It's been longer since he wanted to.
The shrubberies part like curtains, and abruptly, he's somewhere new, a wide open space of dark grass like carpet and a slim, familiar body kneeling in the center. Moonlight falls around John like a halo, and Dean watches eyes the color of new leaves open as he steps into the clearing.
Dean thinks of salt circles and sigils written into the skin, power in runes and charms, equations written in blood. Taking a breath, he pads over grass as smooth and soft as velvet, and John simply watches until Dean kneels before him.
The quiet starts here, Dean thinks; he can't even hear the wind, and behind him, the path's closed over, solid with leaves and thick, gnarled branches, like it had never been there at all. Dean lowers himself down cross-legged as John does the same, watching Dean from behind clear eyes filled with something like light.
"I can't believe you drugged us."
John shrugs, loose-limbed and easy, dropping a blood-stained handkerchief on the ground beside him, like Dean can't see the streaks of blood still dotting his lip, his chin. "I told you to stay asleep while I did it." John's mouth quirks, surprise or pleasure or both, Dean can't tell. "So you did."
Dean nods. "So what now?"
"I can feel it," John says softly, eyes falling half-closed. Dean shivers a little as blankness spreads across his face, turning a familiar page into a blank sheet of paper, lines smoothing into nothingness. "I remember this."
John's tongue touches his lips before he shakes his head. "Long story. A girl--it's always a girl--and a village. And a monster." He smiles. "You know the story."
Yeah, he knows. "Did you win?"
"Yeah." John's mouth softens; he looks surprised. "I think I did."
Dean settles on the grass, trying to find this as creepy as it really should be. Nice, soft grass clearings in the middle of a forest: perfect moonlight in starless circle of darkness overhead; this never leads anywhere good. This is the stuff fairy stories are written to warn against, for God's sake.
"It's safe," John says with a raised eyebrow. Dean glares back at him. "I didn't have to read it. It's all over your face."
"Why are we here?"
John shrugs. "They don't want that gate open anymore than we do." Shifting, John shakes his head. "So they're showing me how it could go. All the ways it could go. Maybe this is supposed to be motivation." A long second passes. "Sam's visions--did they all come true?"
Dean's the one who hesitates now, mind filled with image after image of the places he and Sam had gone, together, changing what Sam saw. It had been harder, at the end, but they'd always tried. "We changed it. Not always. But we tried."
John nods, but not like he believes anything Dean's said. "The thing they're calling--the Sleeping God, whatever." He looks away, all the humor faded from his face, like it had never been there at all "They're going to use Rodney."
"You saw it."
John closes his eyes. "The things that Carter's calling came back before. They found ways to slip through the edges; they couldn't come any closer. A few worshippers here, some cults there. A few failed attempts at an apocalypse. Trying to find a way back in."
"They waited a million years for jack shit. Then Jackson figured it out; a book, a vision, who the fuck knows. Figured out what I guess should have been obvious. The only thing that could set them free were the ones that locked them up, and they died out a millennium ago."
Dean feels something cold trickle down the back of his neck as John opens his eyes. "Who?"
"Elder Gods." John shakes his head. "We call them Ancients. They left. The stars, another galaxy, Ascended, whatever powerful beings do when they get bored. There aren't any left. Not here, anyway."
Dean knows where this story is going.
"Where I'm from? There's something left."
"The ATA gene." Dean takes a slow breath, letting it slot into place. "You think it called you here? Knowing that?"
"I don't know." John stares past Dean for a second. "It did something to them--Carter and Jackson and--the others." John pauses. "It might have been able to pull us here."
Dean thinks of every possession he's ever seen, the horror of those that had been captured, and pushes it away.
"If you're not there. If it's just Rodney. Will it work?"
John hesitates. "I don't know There's no line of descent for Rodney, just the gene he got from me."
"That's what your visions have been showing you."
"Yeah. In infinite fucking variation." John draws in a shaking breath, and he's human again, gripping grass between clenched fingers. "Everything. And that no matter what, it has a way in now. They created a gate."
Dean thinks of John waking up in Dryden, stumbling out of the jeep on the way to El Paso; the visions that Dean had seen him have and all the ones he hadn't. "You've seen all of this. Everything, haven't you?"
John hesitates. "Not--everything. Bits of it, pieces. Something interfered." Dean thinks of Sam's broken message and nods. "But I put it together." Finally, he doesn't say, but Dean hears it loud and clear. "And here--" John makes a circular motion with one hand. "It gave me the rest."
"What is it?"
John blows out a breath, looking uncomfortable and pissed, restless; the clearing blows with a cool wind, leaves rustling unhappily, branches grating against each other. Dean tries not to think what's doing it: if it's John or something else entirely. "Where I come from, there's--something like it. Not the same. But like it." John's fingers twist the edges of his jacket. "It takes everything there is." John frowns. "It pulls it out of us, what makes us--what makes us what we are. It's hungry. It's been hungry forever."
"What happens when the gate opens?" Dean hears himself say; his hands are numb, clenched around soft, velvety grass. John looks away. "If they use you. What did you see for after?"
"I don't know." John hesitates. "There's nothing after."
Dean takes a deep breath, tilting his head back to stare into the sky, clear and dark and starless. "Shit."
John huffs a laugh. "Yeah."
Dean lets the quiet stretch, settle, wondering what arguments he can make, if there are any at all. He can argue a lot of things, but he can't argue this. He'd do it for Sam. He'd do anything for Sam. "You're going."
"Yeah." Leaning back, John's eyes fix at a point just above Dean's shoulder. "I'm getting him out and taking him north. To your brother."
Dean thinks of the bloody circles and of Sammy, who's strong enough for anything, maybe even this. "You think--you really think...."
"I know." John's head tilts slightly, watching something that Dean can't see. "This world--he wasn't ready. None of us were, but he--his life's not this. Not like this. Nothing could have prepared him for it. I'll get him out and take him away. He'll be okay."
No one's okay after what Dean's seen, but Dean doesn't say it. John already knows. He has to know. "Assuming you can get away before you become the main dinner item."
John's raised eyebrow is all the answer Dean needs. Of course.
"They aren't written in stone," he says awkwardly, trying to feel his way to wherever John is. "The visions. Sammy's weren't. And honestly? I just don't think you're so special that you'd get the director's cut of the future."
"If we go and you don't--" Dean trickles off, remembering what Teyla had said. A whole bunch of true believers and one fuck of a powerful psychic against the three of them. Not good odds.
John looks at him like he just suggested ritual suicide. "Yeah, that would work. And by that, I mean, no."
Granted. Dean's not crazy about those odds either. "You go, they get you, we're fucked. You don't go--"
"Good chance that thing gets out." There's something bleakly certain about that; Dean doesn't want to know what he saw.
"If we all go--."
"No." There's something in John's face, tight and blank. "They can't." Dean flashes on memories of team nights, Ronon and Teyla and Rodney, the four parts that make a whole. The thing--the people that John can't give up. "I saw--" John swallows, white around the lips. "I've seen that, too."
Dean leans back, blinking into the sky, thinking of Sammy lost in Canada with his little team of psychics; Teyla and Ronon, asleep inside; Rodney; but mostly, he thinks of John, sitting here pale and calm and very, very sane. Dean's been saving the world in inches forever. There's nothing new here. "So. Those visions of yours. What if it's just you and me?"
This is nuts, Dean knows it, even as he sets new wards, packing two bags with basic necessities, wondering vaguely if Teyla and Ronon will kill him on sight when they find him or spend some serious time taking him apart first.
"They're going to kill me," Dean mumbles as John unpacks the jeep, dividing up the supplies. "Seriously. Kill me."
"You're assuming we'll survive," John says cheerfully as he throws Dean's bag into the backseat and starts taking the extra weapons inside. John's being careful, and fair--Ronon and Teyla will be safe enough here. Dean gets the bottled water and puts it on the floorboard in the front, suddenly aware of John's crazy smile. He's traveling with a crazy suicidal psychic. It's nuts. It's so fucking nuts.
Dean goes back in for one last sweep. Teyla and Ronon sleep on, wrapped in all the blankets, warded and protected with every spell Dean knows. They'll be okay, he thinks, tells himself. They'll be okay.
Outside, Dean can hear the jeep starting, pausing to look down at the two figures sleeping the drama away. "I'll keep him safe," Dean says softly.
When he leaves, he resets the ward and thinks of Sammy. He kept Sammy safe. He can keep John safe, too.
John is quiet in the passenger seat, wound up deep in his head--they changed it from what John saw, so the future's reforming and twisting, turning into something new. He's not sure he wants to know what John will see when it hits.
The forest parts for them like magic, or like pure will backed by raw power, the kind that moves a mountain but can't shift a single grain of sand. Or at least, that's what Sammy would say, while Dean just thinks there's no point in power that's that fucking useless. Dean keeps his eyes straight ahead, watching the road warily as it opens up for them, bare dirt, potholed from trees that move before they arrive, and somehow, that's just too fucking scary to think about too much.
"Left," John says abruptly. Dean spears him with a look, then turns into what was--he would swear to God and every saint in his mother's catalogue, that it had been fucking solid brush--but no, it's a road, arrowing them northeast hard and fast. Asphalt appears under the tires. An actual goddamn road.
"That's spooky," Dean tells John, who leans his head back on the headrest and smiles smugly. "Do it less spooky."
John makes a discouraging sound, closing his eyes again, but the otherworldly thing seems to have passed, and he just looks like a tired man who really needs a nap.
"You okay?" Dean asks when John sits up, eyes opening, looking almost surprised to find them on a road.
"Yeah. Just weird." John pauses, shaking himself. "If this is what Teer had to deal with when she saw me? I'm getting her entitlement issues."
Dean wonders if he should even bother asking. But still. "Girlfriend?"
"More like roommate with perks for six very long months," John says with a wry smile. "In a very Ancient way."
The sky's darker than it was, even the moon hiding, but there's something in it, kinetic, streaks of yellow-white light that flashes not unlike lightning, churning black behind it like the ocean during a storm. There aren't any stars.
"We gonna make it before dawn?" John asks. There's something urgent in his voice, and the long-fingered hands are clenched down on the arms of the seat. Dean pauses, thinking about it, letting maps unspool in his head.
"If we take the highways," Dean says slowly. He wouldn't--he shouldn't, that's death all around them--but something about John's edging him up, adrenaline sharpening on the back of his tongue, bringing the world into sharp focus. "Sheppard--"
"They'll start an hour before dawn," John says softly, eyes going wide and glazed. He's seeing something. "I can't--see anything else."
Dean takes a deep breath. "So we make it or we don't." Dean doesn't look at John's face, watching the road. It feels almost like he's being herded again, but it's not John this time. It's the sky churning in thick stripes of black on black, the starless, moonless night, his body alive to something just beyond his reach. It could be John, projecting fear and anger and need; could be the part of him that's Sam's, feeling the wrongness of what's around them; but mostly, it's a lifetime of this, the way it's bred into his bones. It's every instinct he's learned to hear, every mission he's ever failed, every second of a life after the end of the world--it says now. Now. Now. Now.
His foot's pressing down on the gas hard enough to push it into the floor, and the fucking road opens up as he rolls over broken concrete and greenery that doesn't move out of his way fast enough, knocking through piles of debris and hitting US160 at one hundred and twenty miles an hour, barely slowing for the curve.
"I can't see anything else," John says, sounding helpless and so angry, Jesus, Dean knows that kind of anger. He's lived with it since he gave up Sammy, never learned to let it go. It breathes with them in the jeep.
"Just let it come," Dean says, keeping his voice calm, level, like he's talking to Sam.
Mist forms around them--faces peer out, but they're going to fast to see them. Twisted hulks of rotting cars that Dean dodges so easily it's like he was born to do nothing else. Through the car, he can feel the chill of passing lives, people who died here and never found rest, never found salvation; never found anything at all.
"Fuck," John whispers suddenly, and Dean takes a second to see him wipe blood from his nose. "Fuck fuck fuck."
"Sheppard?" Dean dodges another car--pickup in a sixteen car collision, ghostly bodies floating around it like magnets drawn to a lodestone. Blonde hair whips in a windless night around a transparent face watching them as they pass, mouth open on a soundless scream. And that fucking sky, moving faster and getting darker as it reaches out to bathe the world in a night that will never end. John's right. It's coming now. "John?"
"It's--" John stops, folding over like origami paper, pressing the heel of his hand to his forehead. "It's what--Jesus fuck."
"John!" Dean almost stops--and God, such a bad idea, too much death here, violent death, people who died in fire and twisting metal, thousands and thousands, thick around them in a glittering fog of white hunger. They can't stop. "John, what--"
"It was too much," John says, digging an elbow into his knee. "Fuck it, I'm not ready, I'm not--" His body shudders through a convulsion, and Dean finds his foot lifting from the gas. "Don't you fucking dare stop, Winchester," John grits out, spitting blood onto the floor of the jeep. "Keep going. We don't have time."
John sits up abruptly, slamming back into the headrest. His nose is a mess of smeared blood and mucus, features twisted in pain. "Keep going," John says thickly, wiping away the blood.
"I'll stop this fucking jeep and let the fucking ghosts have your ass if you don't tell me what the fuck is wrong."
John laughs, blood bubbling up against his lips. "I used it too much. Stupid fucking meditation. I told her--I told her--"
"Cut out the fucking oracle shit!"
"It's not--" John coughs, hacking and deep enough to reach into Dean's own chest, an ache of bruised muscles and sore throat. Blood splatters John's hands before he tilts his head back. Dean tries to measure how much blood he's lost. Not much, but blood from the lungs is never good. "I'm not an Ancient. But this world doesn't see the difference."
"What the fuck does that mean?"
John laughs, spitting on the floor as he leans over. "I'm Ascending. I told you, not a psychic. This shit--this is what happens before you Ascend. And it's starting."
Dean rolls the word over in his mind, trying to get some kind of context. "And?"
"I die. Or I start a new plane of fucking existence." He convulses again, head thrown back in a neck-bend that hurts Dean to look at, lasting too long, soft wet gurgles, and Dean will pull over, pull over right the fuck now, his foot's on the brake, but as suddenly as it started, it's over, and John's gasping, bent double, but when he coughs, no blood.
"John?" Dean whispers as John pants into his blood-soaked knees. John turns his head, face blood-smeared, hazel eyes black, and anger like something that has a life of its own.
"I don't have a lot of time," John says slowly, voice thick but recognizable. Shaking his head, he sits up, blinking before he unfastens his seatbelt and leans over the seat, grabbing his bag from the back.
"Get your fucking belt back on," Dean says. He knows he's starting to sound hysterical, but he really doesn't care. "Were you going to tell me about this part? Oh, anytime before we're facing the psychos?"
"Shut up," John says, but he puts the seatbelt back on before he opens up the bag, taking out the first aid kit and a semi-clean towel. Using a bottle of water, John washes his face clean, coughing into the towel briefly before he scrubs his hands clean. "I'm okay right now."
"You're going to die?" Because higher plane of existence is usually preceded by, say, death. "What the fuck, Sheppard?"
"Probably." John grins a little, revealing blood-streaked teeth before he takes a drink of water, spitting it out on the floor. Dean's glad he's not the one cleaning out this jeep. Another drink, this time swallowed, before John takes a deep breath that sounds relatively normal and leans back again. "I'm not Ancient. And the way Rodney would have done it isn't--in the cards for me."
"You're dying." Dean stares at the road, controlling the urge to reach over and punch the shit out of the smug bastard. "Dying."
"Pretty much since I got to this place," John says wryly, without a trace of irony. "Jesus. No wonder Carson had Rodney on the good drugs. That fucking hurts."
Dean can't even be surprised. "How long do you have?"
John shrugs. "I don't know. Not going now, if that's what you're worried about." When he smiles this time, his teeth aren't bloody. "Just cool it, okay? I'm not doing anything until Rodney's safe."
Dean keeps his opinion of that to himself, focusing on the road so he won't be tempted to punch John on principle. His mind whirls back, remembering what John had shown him; Rodney, the team, Atlantis, and longing, so deep that it's like a gut-punch. He knew, always knew, he'd never see his home again. "You don't think you're getting back home," he says finally, putting it together. "That's why--"
Dean steals a quick look. John's eyes are closed, and it's like seeing him for the first time: too-thin face and too-dark hair, and all that difference that's like a aura around him.
"What happens if you Ascend?" Dean says, very softly.
"New plane of existence. I--saw it once." John's mouth quirks slightly. "It's the universe and everything in it. It's--"
John's head rolls tiredly toward him. "Some might call it that."
Dean hesitates. "Why don't you want it?"
John's eyes darken, growing distant. "Everything's here." Turning his head forward, John close his eyes. "There's nothing there I've ever wanted." John snorts softly, shaking his head. "Keep driving."
"Like I'll do anything else," Dean mutters. Mist flashes past and John's eyes open abruptly as a pile-up of cars skid from their path. "What did I say about doing that less spooky?"
John smirks tiredly. "I'll try."
They make it in two hours and twenty-five minutes, with John the not-really-psychic bulldozer just pushing things out of their path. Dean watches for another nosebleed, but other than the fine lines across his forehead and the tightness around his mouth, John skips the drama.
Dean's grateful. He's so high on adrenaline he's worried he's going to jitter out of his skin, and the jeep's the smoothest ride he's ever had. He thinks quick, apologetic thoughts toward the abandoned Impala.
Colorado Springs looks like a ghost town; way too run down for its size and the time it's been abandoned, houses rotted almost to the ground, apartment complexes collapsed on themselves. There's an unpleasant sensation of age and decay that Dean can feel even through the jeep's wards, bitter and unhappy and so old, God, and tired. Dean's hands shake a little as they make a turn at John's gesture, pulling up toward a mountain.
"Here?" Dean says blankly.
"They're underground," John answers. Turning into the parking lot, Dean looks at the ragtag collection of cars and RVs parked outside; a quick count says there's a lot of people here.
At least forty-seven, Dean thinks bleakly as he parks. It occurs to him, belatedly, that John's plan seems to be of the run in and stare them down variety, and while sure, Dean's done that a few times, it's not preference. "Okay, your game here. What are the rules?"
John braces a boot on the dashboard. "We wait."
What the fuck? "Excuse me?"
John shrugs. "Rodney knows I'm here. So Carter does, too."
For them to--"So they're going to come out?"
It's like Sammy at his most obdurately mysterious, and Dean doesn't put up with that shit from blood relatives. "Okay, Psychic Boy, give me an idea what we're doing?"
"We go inside, we're dead. So we wait for them to come out here." John scratches at his hair, and Dean sees dried blood flake into the air. "It'll take a while for them to get up here. Without elevators."
Huh. Dean stares at the wide open mouth of the mountain, like some mundane entrance to hell. "And then we kill them."
"Pretty much." John stretches fluidly, like a few hours ago he wasn't puking blood, then unbelts from his seat, climbing into the back. Dean watches in the rearview mirror as John starts pulling out some of the most beautiful weapons Dean's ever seen. "They need Rodney for crowd control down there, so we're getting the foot soldiers and the people stupid enough to die for that thing. We aim, shoot, and then we go down and finish up."
Dean turns around in the seat. "That's the stupidest plan I've ever heard."
John throws out a cocky grin while slamming a magazine into a semi-automatic. Dean hopes to God it's John getting him hard and not that gun. "You'd be surprised how often those work."
Dean keeps an eye on the horizon and fights not to fondle the AK-47 that John shoved into his hands, the smell of gun oil surrounding him.
"Carter and Jackson will stay down; Jackson's probably the one doing the summoning. They need Rodney to hold the victims, and probably five people whose only job is to worship darkness and tell Carter her hair looks good. When I left them, there were fifteen in the group."
"They might have recruited."
John shakes his head. "I saw twenty total, other than the sacrifices. They don't share credit. I'm kind of betting that a few of the followers are doubling as sacrifices."
This is nuts. But it's a weird kind of nuts. "You really think they're that stupid."
"They let Rodney sneak me and two people out of their camp by literally walking us right by them. These aren't soldiers. The only reason they got this far is that they've got Rodney." John pauses, checking his sidearm. He stacked a few other high-caliber weapons between them, which Dean is doing his best not to reach for.
The most obvious way to do this--if John's right, and Dean kind of thinks he is--is to take some of that supply of C4 and blow up the chamber they're in. "You said Rodney knows you're here."
John nods. "He has my gene. He's been pretty good at tracking us so far."
Dean's kind of pissed, and kind of glad he hadn't known that all along. "Right." Clearing his throat, he considers how to phrase the next question. "Is he going to be on our side here?"
John spends quality time checking out an MK-11, which would under normal circumstances be enough to distract Dean for the rest of his life, but he makes himself focus, watching John's face, peaceful and almost blank, going through motions so familiar that Dean wonders if back on Atlantis, John's zen was found in the armory a lot.
When he finally looks up, Dean stares at him until he turns his gaze out the windshield.
Dean takes a deep breath. "I want to make sure I understand. We're walking into a trap."
"Kind of." John leans back, putting a foot on the dashboard. "I can handle Rodney. You got Carter and Jackson."
"You said he's better at this than you."
John nods so earnestly that Dean wants to punch him. "Oh yeah. He's a natural. Once caused fifty guns to simultaneously jam. Floated things. Very telepathically inclined. And can heal people. Kind of the Renaissance man of the psychic world, you might say."
"But he's against us." Dean's not sure John's actually hearing what he's saying, and Dean belatedly wonders what the fuck he was thinking. He's outside a mountain full of dark power something-or-other worshippers about to perform a blood sacrifice, and he's with John.
Dean takes a deep breath. "You're not seeing a problem here."
"I know what I'm doing. I can handle Rodney. Just worry about Carter and Jackson." John stiffens suddenly, and Dean stiffens, following John's gaze to the gaping mouth of the mountain. Figures are emerging, and if Dean's eyesight is as good as he thinks it is, they look really well-armed. "Huh. Company."
Dean squints, trying to make out more detail. It's like a mirage in the desert--everything's that tiny bit blurred, and it doesn't feel quite right, like his eyes aren't focusing. "Are they wearing body armor?"
"Not exactly." John brings the carbine up, head tilted slightly as five come into view. "Rodney's kind of protecting them. So the first few bullets might not make it through."
Dean fumbles his gun up, trying not to love how it feels in his hands as he takes aim. "Okay, so you're saying shoot a lot."
"Pretty much, yeah All right: showtime." John opens the door and gets out, bringing the gun up in a single smooth motion and making the first shot before Dean has a chance to get out of the jeep.
"Asshole," Dean mutters, taking the next shot, watching as the bullets seem to pass right through the approaching men. Visually, it's fucking creepy. "Okay, what the fuck is that?"
"Rodney's been practicing," John says softly, almost sounding proud. Jesus Christ. "All right, buddy. We can play like this."
Dean watches John fire off another shot, wondering when the hell John lost his mind, but at least the man keeps shooting, perfect, bulls-eye every time, or would be if they every managed to hit someone. Dean ducks into the jeep long enough to grab the nine millimeter, shoving it into the back of his boot before raising the AK-47 again, narrowing his range to one person, letting the gun do it's damnedest to find flesh.
There are shots in their general direction, but John's right: these aren't soldiers. Dean's not even sure they've ever used guns before, judging by the way they jerk when they shoot, surprised by the rebound. "John," Dean yells across the jeep, glancing over to see John reloading one-handed, his sidearm still knocking off shot after shot.
"Nice job," Dean says, feeling a little punchy. John brings up the semi-automatic, eyes narrowing to slits as he concentrates his fire into a single approaching figure. The man drops like a stone "That's one," John shouts, and Dean feels a weird grin spread his lips. Ducking around the door, Dean comes around the front of the jeep, going to the ground as a bullet whizzes by. Someone just got something resembling aim. A few seconds later, John's crouching beside him.
"Can you do that?" Dean says, motioning with his left hand, trying to indicate cool psychic shield.
"Wish," John says sadly. Another one goes down, but that leaves--look at that, thirteen. "Okay. This is taking a little longer than I thought."
Dean glances up briefly, keeping up a steady barrage of fire in a sweep. "Whatcha thinking?"
"We need something a little faster." John says thoughtfully as they both shoot through two people who are gaining some ground. They're getting more comfortable with being invulnerable. "Or you know, for Rodney to lose his concentration. Spreading himself a little thin."
Dean kind of thinks a bullet to the head would take care of that, but he's not nearly stupid enough to say it. And it's not like he can get to the man anyway. "What about going around them and closing the door behind us?"
John drops flat as a bullet whizzes overhead. "You know, considering they want me for this, you'd think they'd be a little more careful--" John breaks off, eyes going distant, and Dean knows what that means. Grabbing John, Dean rolls onto him, using his own body as a shield. It's awkward and his right arm's screaming from using only John as a brace.
"They started," John says tonelessly, and Dean glances down once, seeing John's mouth's gone thin, hazel eyes green and flat, filled up with something darker and more painful than anger. "The fuckers--" John pushes Dean off him so easily it's like he's made of paper, getting to his feet, bringing up the carbine in a single fluid movement. Five precise shots kill five people before Dean's even scrambled off the ground.
Huh. Psychic shield against John's anger; apparently there's no contest.
Dean takes aim, watching in surprise as three more people fall before they realize that whatever was protecting them's gone now.
Dean has a second to see terrified faces, wide eyes-- people....
People who watched eighty-seven people die and didn't do a fucking thing to stop it. There are a lot of monsters in the world, and some of them are even human.
"Get the C-4," John says calmly, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. "And bring reloads."
Dean turns, going back to the jeep. The backseat has the reloads, already bagged, and popping the trunk, he pulls out all the C4 they have, working quickly and coming back around to see John hasn't moved but they're five more goons short.
The ones remaining are flat to the ground, weapons cast aside. John walks toward them, and Dean has a bad feeling as he goes to the first, kicking him over with one boot and turning the carbine on him. This close, it's a messy death, but John's not aiming for his head.
"Sheppard," Dean says breathlessly, hooking the bag over one shoulder. He starts running, feeling that urgency again, instinct over reason. There's something in John's face that Dean recognizes, knows like he knows his own. "John. Stop."
"They collect them," John says, staring down with a fixed expression. Dean gets a look at the guy's face, frozen in a rictus of terror, eyes wide and dilated. John's in his head. John's in his fucking head. "They bought them."
Dean breathes out through his nose to control the instinctive nausea.
"You worship something that crawled out of the filth of the universe," John whispers, boot coming down inches from the man's face. He doesn't even blink, lost wherever John's trapped him. "They locked it up for a reason. And you want to let it go. You sacrificed other people for it. You sacrificed your own family for it."
John swings the gun away, and Dean has a second--just a second--of relief before the man starts screaming. The screams double, and Dean jerks around, watching as each of the five start to twitch, blood bubbling up from wide-spread lips, teeth bared on the sky as their spines arch from the ground, seizing in the middle of the dusty parking lot. John drops into a crouch, eyes fixed on the man's face. His voice is almost gentle. "In a place far from here, they held me down and let a thing like the one you're calling feed off me. It reached inside me and pulled out everything I was, and it killed me.
"Then it brought me back."
Dean grabs for John, hand touching cold flesh--and he jerks back as brief images flashing across his eyes--a tiny room, a chair, something binding his wrists and a hand pressing to his chest--and pain, like something is being ripped out, over and over again. Rage, raw and focused, turned into a weapon in itself. Rubbing his hand on his jeans, Dean gives the convulsing body a brief glance before he reaches again, getting John's cotton covered arm. John doesn't even seem to notice. "John, you gotta stop."
"What did you think would happen? Call something with death, it only wants more. It'll take everything there is. And you--" John wipes away the fresh blood from his upper lip and three of the bodies jerk harder. "You're fodder. You're food. You're nothing. And that's all the fuck you deserve to be."
The five bodies convulse one last time, then fall still, heads lolling loosely on the dirt, eyes wide and unseeing as they drool blood into the dust. Dropping to his knees, Dean feels desperately for a pulse. Skin cold enough to burn, but Dean can still feel the sluggish beat beneath his fingers.
Sitting back on the dirt, Dean sucks in sharp breath. "They're not dead."
John stands up. "There are worse things than dead. Now they have something to remember." Turning away, he slings the gun over his shoulder. "Come on."
John seems to be following some internal map, leading Dean through the mouth of the cave, through an emergency door that Dean hadn't even seen set into the solid rock. Even with the ceiling high above them, the darkness makes it claustrophobically close, and staring into the unrelieved blackness inside the door isn't helping. Staring at John isn't helping either; the frozen anger's been turned off like a lightswitch, but that doesn't mean it's not still there, and Dean can feel it like an itch in the back of his mind.
Swallowing, Dean follows John, reaching out to grab a handful of cotton t-shirt, since he can't see a fucking thing. John reaches back, looping his fingers in Deans' belt.
"Stairway," he says as Dean's boots clatter on metal, not stone. Shifting his gun to his left hand, Dean grabs for the rail. Dean wonders vaguely if the stairs are safe; the rattling isn't reassuring. "They're safe enough."
Dean thinks hard at John, so you can hear me?. John snickers softly. Right. Great. Man's suddenly better with the telepathy. Just great.
"How far?" Dean asks warily as they start their descent.
"A really, really long way."
The only thing that proves the stairs exist is the rail beneath his hand, the shaky metal under his feet, sounds like quiet screams as the rusty steps bend beneath their weight. Dean wonders about the chances of the stairs collapsing beneath him, then wonders if he really wants to start that line of thought when he's way too far down to get back up to the top. In front of him, he can hear John's quiet breathing, with thick edges and furtive movement that tells him John's bleeding again.
Ascension he doesn't quite get; death he does. "You all right?"
John doesn't pause, but his hand tightens slightly in the loops of Dean's pants as he draws him down another step. Dean wonders how big this stairwell actually is--if he reaches out, can he touch the wall? If there even is a wall. Why in the name of God is he thinking this shit in the first place? He hasn't been this morbid on hunts in years; he can't afford to be.
Except this isn't Sammy; the man with him is about as forthcoming as Dad ever was, and he can't see a fucking thing. "John. You okay?"
"No spooky shit," Dean says, but he's not sure he means it. "Does it get worse when you do--that thing?" With the power and everything, Dean wants to say, but he settles for meaningful silence.
John pauses, considering. "Not much," he answers, voice huskier than Dean likes. "Just keep going."
It's not like Dean's gonna stop or anything. "So," he says after what feels like a hundred stairs, "do we have a plan?"
John sighs. "Yes, there's a plan."
"No offense, but your plans suck goat balls, my friend. Let's try a different question. Do we have a good plan?"
"We go in. You get Carter and Jackson. I'll disable Rodney. We free the people being held, then head north and learn to like saying aboot." Dean thinks he can hear a grin in John's voice. "Rodney's going to hate having to go back to Toronto, though."
Dean frowns; the rail feels rough beneath his palm. "He have something against Canada?"
"Just that he's Canadian," John replies, a little too thickly for Dean's peace of mind. Walking downstairs shouldn't make him sound that out of breath. "Hates the winters. His favorite part of Atlantis is that it's always summer."
Dean nods, then clears his throat. "You know each other a long time?" For some reason, he wants to keep John talking. Clutching at the rail, Dean thinks he can feel the rust, flaking loosely against his palm.
"A while," John says. There's a warmth in his voice that's been absent until now. "Saved my ass more times than I can count."
Dean thinks of John's images of the Wraith, but other images intrude, too, leaked from John's memories. Chess games in a bright, open room of long tables, people in uniform passing them with indulgent smiles. Movies shown in a lounge on a TV incongruously set against white metal and glittering glass in abstract designs. Thickly green forests on planets that smell of something not quite pine, humid, a voice bitching in the background. Glimpses of people in what looks like period dress, and Rodney with a disgruntled look surrounded by adoring children.
Home, laced through it all, home and family and unshakable faith, built in a galaxy a million miles away. Dean snaps out of it, aware they're still moving, wondering if John had done that deliberately from some fucked-up attempt to make sure Dean doesn't put his first shot into Rodney's head.
He gets it, he does. If it were Sammy--
"You wouldn't even think it," John says softly. "You thought sometimes that you should be ready to. You used to wake up from nightmares where you were putting a bullet in his head."
Dean swallows. "Sam didn't go this way."
"But he could have."
Dean jerks his hand from the rail, wiping the rust away. It clings to his skin, almost oily, and frowning, Dean stops, jerking John with him. "Sheppard," he says slowly, bringing his hand up to his face. No smell. Rubbing his thumb against his fingers, he feels it come off. "This isn't rust."
John pauses, hand tight on Dean's belt. Dean turns a little, bringing his gun down on the rail. It doesn't break, but suddenly, there's dust in the air, and Dean gropes with his free hand, feeling the jagged edge of the hole with the tips of his fingers. "Jesus," he whispers. "It's--" He grabs for John, sliding a hand from shoulder to wrist, pulling his hand. "It's started. They're--"
"Yeah," Suddenly, the stairs they're on feel terrifyingly unstable; Dean thinks of the way those bodies had crumbled at a touch, fighting the instinct to turn and run back up as fast as he can, before the stairs collapse beneath them like dry dirt, taking them down God knows how far. "So we go faster."
Dean wishes John could see him, just so the glare would be more effective. "How close are we to the bottom?"
"Too far to survive a fall." John tightens his grip on Dean's pants. "Okay. Double time."
It's like that for longer than Dean thinks his nerves can take; every step, every squeal, now strangely muffled, the dust coming up beneath his hand, making his hand damp on the butt of his gun, every muscle pulled tense and shaking. Once he reaches for the other wall, brushing hand leaving finger grooves in what was once solid concrete.
"Don't think about it," John says. Dean wonders how the fuck he's supposed to think of anything else.
Then suddenly, he's knocking into John's back. Blinking, Dean looks down into the darkness, tentatively pushing against the floor: solid ground. John abruptly lets go, and Dean has a second of irritation before harsh yellow light floods the stairwell, revealing a metal and concrete corridor. It reminds Dean uncomfortably of a bunker, which he supposes it must have been.
"Sheppard!" Dean hisses, dodging back against the wall, finger hovering over the trigger. John smiles back, covered with dust, dark crescents forming beneath his eyes, so pale that even the yellow light doesn't disguise a damn thing. There's a smear of blood on John's jaw, matching the stains on the cuff of his jacket. "Jesus, are you trying to get shot before we even get there?"
John smirks, gun lax in one hand as he checks the hall briefly before going in. "They're kind of lousy with security."
Cursing under his breath, Dean follows John, searching for crazy psychics or crazy followers, but it's empty, dimly lit with flickering overheads lights. John puts a hand on the wall, trying to look casual and failing miserably. Dean can see the concrete give beneath his hand just a little before he straightens, leaving the print of his hand sunk into the wall.
Dean eyes the lights. "They have electricity."
"Rodney probably got a generator working," John says, frowning. Dean wonders suddenly if John knows where they're going; there's a lot of hall in either direction. "Lights don't need a lot of power."
"So you know your way around here?"
John hesitates, then nods. "Pretty sure."
Crap. "And where they are?"
John checks his gun before he turns left. "They'll use the--well, for us, it was the gateroom." John stumbles, glancing down before stopping short; Dean follows John's gaze, tracing the footprints outlined in the floor.
Swallowing back the nausea, Dean's glad of the low lights, so he can't see the silvery glitter of the dust. "It's going faster this time," Dean says, forcing himself to look away, ignore the slight give of the floor with every step he takes, the clouds of dust that form with every step they take.
Dean can taste it, feel it all over him, hands and mouth and hair, greasing his skin beneath the sweat. They get fifty feet down before John stumbles, breath catching, reaching for the wall with one shaking hand. Dean watches his palm sink into it like sand. "Sheppard."
Shoving his gun into his belt, Dean comes up beside him, hooking the carbine back on John's jeans before wrapping a loose arm around his waist before his legs give out. He feels like cellophane, air-light, barely there. John's head hits his shoulder with an almost audible thump.
Dean can feel blood, streaking warm and wet against his neck. "John," he whispers, voice shaking. Helplessly, he runs a hand through John's hair, ignoring the dust. "John, talk to me."
"They're not dead yet," John breathes. One hand closes over Dean's arm, fingers like a vise; Dean ignores the pain, bracing them both against the wall, taking John's weight. "But they might as well be."
"Ride it out." John flinches, and Dean tightens his grip. "Tell me what you see."
"Thirty nine plus eight." John begins to shake. "It's--fuck." Dean grabs for his chin, easing his head up; the hazel eyes are flat with horror, blood staining his upper lip. Dean wonders if John even knows he's there. "We have to stop--"
John licks his lips with a pale, dry tongue, head tilting back against the wall as he closes his eyes. "One hundred meters," John says finally, then leans forward, spitting blood as he pulls away, swaying slightly as he straightens. "That way."
Dean nods sharply and starts moving.
A few things try to intrude. For a rescue force--or at least a force to stop the end of the world--they suck. One crazy psychic, two other crazy--people, and a whole bunch of victims up against his crazy dying psychic and him. This is not the kind of mission Dean's used to having. Or maybe it is, more than he wants to think.
John shudders, tripping, scratching a ridge in the floor, but Dean's ready for that, getting an arm beneath John's shoulderes. John's fingers leaves bruises on his opposite shoulder that Dean thinks he'll feel forever. John's not heavy enough to slow them down, like he's already half-way gone, made up of light and air, only dogged determination holding him to the earth by his fingernails.
"I bet you're a pain in the ass in Atlantis," Dean says, wishing this were harder, that he was a little out of breath; the ribs beneath his palm flutter as gently as a butterfly's wings. "Always running out to try to die or something. Bet you volunteer for the suicide missions."
John huffs a laugh. Dean thinks he can see a door now, not too far away. "You'd be--surprised."
"Bet I wouldn't be." He pulls John harder against his side, trying to feel him more, make himself feel a weight that isn't there. Dean picks up their pace to keep himself from stopping. "I know your type."
He doesn't have to look to see John's smirk. "Takes one--to know one."
Tou-fucking-che. Dean fights a smile as John picks up the pace. "So when we get in there, you'll fall over bleeding on them. I like that plan."
"Element of--surprise." Dean doesn't wince when John's hand tightens again; he wants the bruises. The pain is more real than the man at his side. The too-bright hazel eyes are fixed solidly ahead, burning with nothing but absolute determination. Takes one to know one. True. So fucking true. He needs Sam here like he needs air, and John needs--
John pulls away as they come to the door, wiping his lip with one hand patched with drying blood. Waving at Dean, John reaches for his gun, then pauses, shaking his head. "They didn't even ward it."
Dean frowns, finger itching for the trigger. "Whatever's in there--"
"Scares everything out here," John says with a ghostly smirk. Half-turning, hazel eyes meet his. "They started."
Dean swallows and nods, getting his gun from his belt. "Right."
John unclips his gun. "In the bag's C-4. You helped me set up, so you know how to use it." John pulls a fresh magazine, clicking it into the gun. "If it goes--if it goes wrong, you know how to set it off. Set it and run the fuck out. There's enough in here to bring the entire mountain down on top of you."
Dean shivers. "Sheppard--"
"You know," John says, voice as inevitable as dusk, as dawn, as the seasons turning the world. "You know if it gets out--"
"If that thing gets out, a mountain won't stop it."
John pauses, leaning into the wall. Licking his lips, he stares just past Dean's head. "You asked. What I saw. If it was just you and me."
Dean hesitates. "You didn't answer."
John closes his eyes, nodding. "It had to be you," John says finally. Reaching down, fingers slide through Dean's, twisting. Dean leans forward at the gentle pull, cupping John's jaw, pressing his forehead to John's. "This is what I saw."
It's too much--a fast, almost blinding flicker of images, too quick to understand, too clear to ignore, brilliant and merciless; the glade that had shown John a hundred futures at once, that had sped up whatever was happening to him, shown him--
"Oh," Dean whispers. "No." Jerking back, he stares at John, reaching to wipe away the trickle of fresh blood with his thumb. "John--"
"I saw every way it could go," John whispers harshly. "Every way. All the ways. This one we can change."
Dean nods, mouth dry. This is the one they can change. "Yeah."
There's dust everywhere.
Walls crumbling grey, piling like dunes on a beach at dusk. There are torches, not floodlights--so fucking traditional, Dean thinks blankly--orange-red swallowed up by the grey. Thirty-nine bodies stand in a circle toward the far wall, but this time Dean can see the equations on the floor around them, faded to pink; this time, Dean can see the way they stand, like they're growing from the ground, straight and motionless.
There's a voice chanting in the background, low and indistinct, like hearing the feel of an earthquake beneath your feet; Dean fights the urge to shift, move for cover, expect rocks to fall from the ceiling high above them, crush them to powder.
The room smells sweet, gardenia and lily and honey, syrup-thick and trickling over his skin, slowing him down as his eyes fix on thirty-nine pair of feet dusted in grey--turned to grey, crumbling as he watches, the line creeping up their calves to healthy flesh, heaving chests, breathing mouths. They're alive, and they're crumbling, and Dean can't think about it another second.
A man with short brown hair's kneeling only feet away, a small desk incongruous on the floor in front of him, glasses askew; he's that voice, growing steadily the longer that Dean listens. Across the room, a blonde woman like an unsheathed knife stands beside the brown-haired man of John's every dream, seven people kneeling in a row beside them, heads down.
Dean sees it all in a blink--bare, blank faces, smoothed of personality and life, graven images built of human flesh; the blonde's wide, satisfied smirk as she steps forward; Rodney--somewhere else entirely. Dean brings up his gun, intending to take that first shot, smooth movement from his side to bulls-eye, as easy as--
Dean hesitates, and the woman's smile widens. "I figured you'd respond to sufficient--persuasion," she says, stepping away from Rodney. Her eyes flicker over Dean, take his measure, and dismiss him all at once. "You're a hard man to find."
Find? Dean catches John in his peripheral vision. He looks like utter shit, as grey as the dust, shrinking. "Yeah, well, let's say it took me a while to catch on."
Sam crosses her arms. "It didn't have to be like this."
John shakes his head. "You can't possibly believe that bullshit." Bringing up his gun, John points it casually at her stomach. "Give me Rodney."
Carter raises both arms in a gesture of mocking helplessness. "He's free to do whatever he wants."
John's eyes flicker to Rodney for the first time, and it's like a punch to the gut. John's expression never changes, but everything else does.
"Rodney," John says, and there's time in that, time and places too numerous to name, a glittering city in the ocean and sleeping bags beneath tents on worlds that taste of alien air; there's chess and movies and comic books; there's arguments, more than can be counted, and friendship built on spilled blood and shared lives. It's everything, everything; this is the fourth person, the gaping wound in John that's never stopped bleeding, the empty space in the jeep.
This is who John's searched the southwest for, killed for, and would die for without a second thought.
"Colonel," Rodney says, voice like broken glass. Dean winces from the despair in that voice; regret and grief and the same anger he'd felt beneath John's skin. There's resignation there, maybe, and something deeper, darker. The thing that's taken Carter, taken Jackson, swirling behind expressionless blue eyes. "You have to leave."
"Not gonna happen, buddy," John says gently, and brings up his gun, firing a single shot into Carter's stomach.
It goes through her, burying itself in a rain of dust in the far wall, inches from Rodney's arm. Carter grins. "Come on, John. You didn't think it would be that easy, did you?" Lazily, she unholsters her gun, lining up a shot at John like she has all the time in the world. She aims for John's knee. "I need you alive, but no one said undamaged." Almost as an afterthought, she pulls the trigger.
The bullet doesn't even leave the gun. Frowning, she glances down at her gun, but she's not quite stupid enough to look in the barrel, or Dean suspects the bullet would make an appearance pretty fucking fast. Shaking it, she turns on Rodney, who watches her with the same expressionless calm, like he'll fall apart if he so much as moves. "What the fuck, Rodney?"
"That was me," John says, almost apologetically, as he lines up a second shot. "I think I'm getting the hang of this." Turning abruptly, he takes a shot at the man kneeling on the floor. The guy doesn't react, even with the bullet buried in the ground inches from his knee after passing through his chest "You're good at this, McKay."
Rodney doesn't look happy to be good at anything. "Colonel. Please."
"Come on," John says, voice gentling. Dean checks him for fresh blood; nothing yet. "There's this great place we can go. Remember? I was telling you about it. Great weather, all the popsicles you can eat. Check out some friends of Dean's here. You can show me where you blew up your elementary school. I'll bet there's a plaque up--Dr. McKay Was Here." He smiles, and Dean sees him lick his lip quickly, removing the trace of blood. "We'll have a blast. Just let it go."
Carter's eyes narrow. "He can't. He's part of it."
John doesn't spare her a glance. "Just stop, Rodney."
"No one can stop it," she says, voice dripping satisfaction like honey. Dean hears the guy's voice suddenly rise, the words separating into jagged syllables like a broken scream. Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn
A voice like that could shake California into the sea, Dean thinks dizzily, ground dipping nauseatingly under his feet. Rodney shudders, leaning back into the wall, eyes closed, like he can't bear to hear another word. Like maybe he understands what the guy's saying.
"Rodney," John says, and Rodney shakes his head. "Right. I know." Abruptly, John reverses the gun, slowly crouching to lay it on the ground. "Okay. Even trade. Him for me."
Dean turns so fast he's dizzy, all the blood in his body draining away in shock. Before he can try another shot--at Carter, at Rodney, at the kneeling man, hell, at John--the gun writhes in his hands, fighting him like an oiled snake, then jerks away, floating a few inches away in a bubble of peace before throwing itself toward the far wall. John's own gun follows, and Dean's standing there, panting as John takes a step toward them.
Carter's head tilts suspiciously. "I don't believe you."
She does, though. Dean does, too. He believes because he can feel it in John's head. Something closes around him like a vise, air as solid as stone, and he sucks in a breath like lead. "You need willing or you wouldn't have bothered burning their minds out," John says, gesturing to the seven kneeling figures. "Rodney and Dean get to leave and you get a volunteer. Win-win."
Beyond John, Dean sees the grey reaching breathing throats, sees the eyes of the thirty nine victims stare blankly into space. Their feet are slowly losing shape, becoming mounds of dust on the floor and they're still breathing, still feeling, but no one's home. Burned out. "John," Dean forces out between numb lips; he's so cold he feels like he'll never be warm again. "John."
"S'okay," John says, watching Carter. "You're letting Rodney and Dean leave."
Carter hesitates. "What's my guarantee?"
John laughs softly. "I'm dying anyway. The only thing I want is Rodney and Dean out of here."
Blue eyes flash gold briefly, something staring out that's not human and never has been. Something that's old, and hungry, starving, staring at John like a long-anticipated meal.
"John," Dean forces out, then concentrates, dragging up that bit of Sammy in him, the part that makes them brothers and best friends, the part that Sammy's owned in him since the day he was born. Winding it together like a bullet, he throws it at John, knowing John will feel it like a punch. You can't be that fucking sure--
John's head tilts slightly, eyes on Carter. "Your choice. You may be able to call it without me, but then again, you might not, and finding this many psychics again won't be easy without Rodney to control them. Let. Them. Go."
The kneeling guy's voice is shouting now, and it hurts to listen to it, like broken glass shoved into Dean's ears, shredding skin and bone and brain as it burrows inside. Dean thinks if he listens too long, he'll begin to understand, and God, he doesn't want to. He doesn't want to.
"Fine." Carter reaches back with one hand, grabbing Rodney by the arm, throwing him toward John. Rodney blinks blearily, like he has no idea what he's doing, stumbling in this cavern, and Dean can move again. John crosses the space between them, reaching out, hands resting on Rodney's shoulders, not noticing the way Rodney shudders. Leaning forward, John rests his forehead against Rodney's, eyes closing for a second of perfect peace.
"No," Rodney mouths, so quietly Dean can't quite hear his voice. John's hands tighten: comfort, maybe, or support. Helplessly, wide blue eyes stare up into John's. "Why did you--I blocked him. So he couldn't tell you where to find us. So they couldn't find you. I blocked you. I tried to stop you--"
"I know," John whispers, mouth softening. "Not too bad, either." John straightens, smiling crookedly. "Go with Dean. Take care of Teyla and Ronon, okay?"
It's too intimate to watch, too painful to look away. John presses something into Rodney's hand, glittering dull grey, before he steps away, giving Rodney a little shove toward Dean.
"Fuck that," Dean hisses, staggering as the weight vanishes and he's surrounded in sweet, rotten air. "Fuck you--"
get Rodney and this time it's a command, layered with power behind it, all of John's anger sharpened and honed. this is where it changes.
Dean's eyes flicker to the blood staining John's mouth, the thin body almost transparent in the dim light, eyes the incandescent green of a new spring. Something very old looks back at him, what he saw in the clearing only hours before, what he's seen all along. Like knows like.
Dean reaches for Rodney, taking hold of a too-thin arm, jerking him away. John and Carter stare at each other. "They don't leave before we've opened the gate," Carter says, grinding out every word.
"Of course," John says, turning away as his wipes another streak of blood from his nose. His eyes flicker to the seven people waiting for their turn. Dean can feel the flicker of power from John, edged in familiar anger. "Come here."
Soundlessly, they come to their feet like robots, hands loose meat swinging at their sides, crossing the space between them and John before dropping gracelessly to the floor. John watches them for a second, then kneels beside them, hands in his lap, eyes closing briefly before they open again, as dull and lifeless as those he's joined.
Dean backs up against the wall, dragging Rodney with him.
"No," Rodney says breathlessly, pulling weakly against Dean's hand. Dean slams him back into the wall with malice aforethought as Carter circles around, one of the silver knives between her fingers. Kneeling, she reaches up, pushing John's hair from his forehead, using the tip of the knife to draw the last symbol on his forehead, breathing out a series of guttural words that Dean can barely hear. "He can't--"
"Shut the fuck up," Dean hisses. His foot hits the wall, leaving a hole in what was once solid stone, and something rubs uncomfortably against his ankle. Right, gun. Using Rodney's body as cover, Dean puts a hand against the wall by his hip and starts to slide it down.
Then he looks up.
The kneeling man's standing now--Jackson? Dean thinks inanely. Jackson--arms raised, and Dean can see the shiver of the standing people, grey leeching up their foreheads, hair slowly dissolving as Jackson continues to shout. The mountain itself seems to shake, throwing Dean off-balance, knocking into Rodney, a motionless mound of flesh against his arm. Jerking away, Dean feels it strengthen, bracing himself against the crumbling wall as Jackson's voice begins to echo, words following each other too fast to understand, but suddenly, Dean knows what he's saying, feels his mouth trying to form the words he knows to his bones.
In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.
John's last vision slams through Dean like a truck, everything that John saw, that he was shown in that glade, condensed into a single, blinding second.
It's dead the way only something that can never die could be, sending its dreams through the world, looking for minds to touch, to bend, to fill with crawling darkness, spread with filth. Emptying them of what makes them people, what makes them human, coating them in promises of an awful kind of freedom that comes only with slavery of the most degrading kind. It's more than loss of humanity; it's the loss of self, of everything that makes self, the part that stands beneath wide open skies and sees the wonder in it, skinning joy away in bloody strips like skin, leaving them naked and shivering and hungry for everything they've given up.
And he sees Rodney, that last night before John was taken away, jittering and filled with horror, blue eyes flat and dark. Straddling John's body while he shot him up, whispering that John had to run, run as far as he could, don't come back, don't come back for me, "I can't stop it. I can't even stop myself. You have to go. I won't let them find you."
Rodney dropped the needle, cupping John's face, horror crawling across his face, twisted with desperation. "I'll never let them have you. Never."
The drugs were good, good enough to slow John down, turning everything honey-slow, incomprehensible except for this one thing, burned into John as vividly as brand. Rodney leaned down, brushing a kiss against John's mouth, the words breathed against his skin. "It's my turn to save you."
Dean snaps back into the room with a nauseating jolt, tasting Rodney's despair, the single purpose that had driven him as powerfully as the creature that lived in his mind. You can't have him.
Dean watches numbly as the circle of bodies topple backward, turning into shapeless mounds of grey dust as they hit the stone floor, as soundless as powder.
Food, Dean thinks, swallowing. Just food.
Rodney's horror is almost palpable, laced with the same despair from John's memory, the trade that Rodney would make this second if he could, anything to stop this, anything to save John.
A sudden chill slides through the room, slick and greasy, coating Dean like oil, reminding him of the mist that crawls out of nowhere and coats the world, filled with things that Dean has never quite seen and never wants to. He shudders, feeling Rodney do the same beside him.
"Start the sequence, Sam," Jackson whispers. Carter picks up a bag from the floor, coming around behind the first in the line of kneeling victims. Reaching out casually with one hand, she takes a handful of hair and jerks the motionless head back, swiping the blade across a vulnerable throat. Then the blade turns, burying itself in the body's chest, sliding straight through the heart.
Even knowing there's nothing left in those minds, Dean's body lurches toward them anyway, fighting the force holding him against the wall. Dead, he reminds himself sickly, making himself watch. Already dead.
The woman's mouth gapes open as Carter pulls back, the jagged syllables of Jackson's chant swallowing up all sound, echoing against every wall, shaking dust onto the floor. Carter moves to the second kneeling figure even as grey starts crawling up the first woman's knees, faster than the thirty-nine that first died, turning blue jeans into pewter. Another swipe and stab. Another. Dean finds his eyes fixed on John, still and unmoving and lifeless as the others. Four. The first woman's a statue of grey by the time Carter gets to the fifth.
It's too fast, and Dean wonders what the thing's promised Carter, or the thing inside her. Eternal hunger and no way to ease it. This pretty blonde woman with her sharp smiles, freed on the world above and spreading this wherever she goes, feeding a monster that will starve forever and take until there's nothing left.
"No," Dean says breathlessly, scrabbling down again, but his eyes are on Carter as she leaves her sixth bleeding body, going to the seventh. Dean can feel her anticipation like warm blood. His hand just touches the butt of his gun as she reaches for John.
Dean's got his hand wrapped around the butt when she jerks John's head back with a crack, and Dean sees blood soaking his mouth and chin, staining his shirt, before the knife slashes his throat into a wide grin before she buries it in his chest.
The room goes still and silent, so suddenly that Dean can hear his own panted breaths, Rodney's soft sounds beside him that could be sobs.
Carter turns around, smiling and triumphant, as the circle of dust glows blue and the floor it surrounds goes quivers like a mirage, rippling solid to something like liquid. Power flares up from it like a geyser in blue and white, so strong that even Dean can feel it. Dean narrows his focus just as she looks at him, satisfaction written into every line of her face, joy in what she's done, in the world she's given to something that will never rest, the power that protects her from harm.
Something fits itself around him, like a glove, like a weapon, and letting him draw on something that fills his mind with light, chanting easing to echoing, welcome silence. John, Dean thinks, and looks into Carter's golden eyes. Abruptly, whatever held him against the wall is gone.
There's power in a willing sacrifice. Guila was right.
Dean shoots her, feeling the bullet leave the gun, wrapped in something that glows briefly before it sinks into her forehead like a knife through butter, a round hole dripping dead black and sickly red. Her eyes widen as she reaches up, fingers brushing the charred edges in disbelief.
"No," she whispers, staggering, going down on her knees. She leans into a slowly crumbling mound of dust, falling as it gives way beneath her, tumbling her onto the floor. Jackson is staring at the rippling blue water, glasses reflecting something monstrous sliding through, huge in a way that Dean's mind twists away from comprehending.
Dean turns toward Jackson, still kneeling at the edge of the pool. Something dead white and huge slides just beneath the surface of rippling liquid the dark blue of the ocean, something that his mind tries to reject. A dust-grey something pushes through the surface, swollen like a week-old corpse, groping at the edges of the pool for purchase, leaving furrows in dust that had an hour ago been a living person.
He doesn't even know he's moved until the barrel of his gun is resting against Jackson's head. "You don't have eternal life yet."
Jackson looks up at him, blue eyes going gold. "I'm promised."
Dean pulls back the safety. "Then let the son of a bitch bring you back." Firing, he steps back, feeling the fine spray of hot blood like water, and looks down to see the blue liquid lipping at his toes.
Jackson hits the ground but doesn't die, and Carter's moving still, writhing like a maggot on the floor. It might be far enough in to save them. Dropping the nine millimeter, Dean goes for the carbine where John left it, turning it on Carter as she rolls over, staring up at him in shock.
"I can't die," she says, blood bubbling between clenched teeth.
"But I bet you can hurt," he says, and starts to shoot, rattling her body with shot after shot, watching in sick satisfaction as she shudders, convulsing with every bullet that buries itself in her body, one for every person that died for this. She's screaming until he aims for her throat, turning it into red paste before she stills, blue eyes slowly glazing. "I just want you to hurt."
"Dean." Rodney, somewhere behind him.
Dean lines up his shot for Jackson. "Shut up."
"We have to--"
Dean. Warmth settles over him, and Dean blinks at the feeling of an arm circling his shoulder, a hand on his gun arm, easing it down. Dean wants to lean into it-- John--close as his own skin.
it's time. I can hold it until you're done.
The warmth dissolves, but Dean can still feel him--glancing at Rodney, he sees the blue eyes glaze, softening. "I let it out," Rodney whispers, voice hoarse. His gaze is fixed somewhere over Dean's head, but Dean doesn't look; it's enough to feel the warmth. "I didn't--I didn't mean--"
we'll fix it.
Dean watches as Rodney sways toward the blue pool, coming to a sudden stop only inches from the edge. Rodney glances down, bewildered, before his gaze rests on empty air. "John?"
more or less. There's amusement in it, and wonder--wonder and so much light, even Dean can see it, hovering above them. Rodney relaxes beneath it, going vague and quiet, filled with peace. Rodney. help Dean set the charges.
Jerkily, Rodney turns to Dean, like he can't quite control his limbs. There's an edge of gold in the blue eyes, but only a little. "He--he says--"
"Yeah." Setting the gun down, Dean goes to the door, retrieving the bag and taking out the C-4 and salt, making a pile. "All four corners of the room. Salt around it so when it blows, it gets into everything. We have to break the physical binding and destroy the gate before it can get out. Got it?"
Rodney nods dreamily, picking up the first charge as Dean sets the second, hands shaking. He glances once at the grey John, head bowed with a knife in his chest, then looks away. John's not in that. Dean doesn't know where he is, but he's not there.
Licking his lips, Dean sets the third as Rodney comes back, bag of salt half-empty. This will take everything they have.
"Plans," Dean mumbles, forcing himself not to look at the pool. More of it has emerged, finger-like tentacles groping the edges of the pool, unable to get purchase. "Suicide missions, he means."
"Status quo," Rodney whispers, so close that Dean jerks away. Rodney's eyes are red-rimmed, filled with blank acceptance, with whatever John did to him, told him. Despite himself, Dean feels echoes of unwilling sympathy. "He's--like that."
"I hear you." Getting the fourth charge and the bag, Dean goes to the rough fourth corner of the room, keeping his eyes away from the thing slowly emerging from the pool. For some reason, it doesn't seem important--and that has to be John, fucking with his head. Weirdly, he doesn't care.
Setting the charge, he skirts the pool, pouring salt on the dusty mounds of what had once been people, words slipping between his lips that he's never heard before tonight, the cadence low and familiar on his tongue. Not Latin. Not any language he's ever learned, but he knows its meaning as perfectly as if he'd spoken it all his life..
He feels John like the man's beside him, murmuring in his ear. This is what it means: I cast you out. We cast you out. You can't have them.
Visions come with every word, chanted by a people who had ridden the stars before humans crawled into sentience; a world of towering ferns, mountains stretching into a purple sky in jagged points, and beings huge and horrible, reaching out with tentacles and round mouths filled with sharp teeth, breathing a guttural language that spelled out the fate of humanity. A war that ripped the earth apart, oceans boiling as humans hid in their tiny caves, small minds trembling in terror of what they could never hope to understand. Elder Gods (Ancients, John whispers) binding the last of the creatures into a city they sank to the bottom of the ocean, twisting them between dimensions so they could never escape. The Ancients willingly spilled their own blood to do it, sacrificed themselves to create the bindings that trapped Cthulhu in its drowning city, to make sure it could never touch this world, these people, again.
Bindings like the blood Carter had spilled with John's death, because there's power in a willing sacrifice.
Dean can feel the power he's calling on; each word flows like liquid, curving through the room like mist, floating between every syllable and turning into something solid and almost visible. Magic, real magic, is all about will, about knowing what you want it to do and wanting it with everything you are.
Distantly, he wonders if this is how Sam, how John, how Guila feel when they use their power; the rush of something huge through him like a tidal wave coming to shore. He's a door, a passage, shaping the power with each word. I cast you out, you son of a bitch. For every body you possessed, for every life you took, and for every person that died to set you free.
The thing in the pool stirs, more squirming whiteness poking out, coming up as leisurely as a man swimming in a pool, stopping short of the edges of the liquid like hitting a wall.
A tentacle brushes air inches from Dean's boot, and Dean looks down....
It's the world, before, his world when the sun still rose in the east and the monsters hid in the shadows. He sees himself with Sammy, driving long highways in spring, new life bursting from healthy ground. Men in combines tilting their heads in greeting. Cows dot pastures like snow in vivid green fields, spring flowers rioting color all around them. He thinks he can smell pie. Apple.
The vision swirls, stretching his mind like a rubber band, and the world flickers. Skies scorched black, churning flashes of sick white like lightning, arrowing across bare fields, the corpses of dead cities in the distance. Ragged people huddle in tiny camps, shivering around a dead fire, small and shaking, skeletal, prey.
Hungry. He's so hungry, a ripping hole inside him that needs easing like he needs to breathe; it's like he hasn't eaten in years, and he moves among them like death, hand reaching out to pull their lives from their shuddering bodies. Fierce satisfaction in what he takes, draining their pain like ecstasy, the dark things of the forests and the cities shivering at the fall of his shadow. He's their terror, their nightmare, the thing they run from when they run from nothing else, wrapped in a cold that steals heat from everything around him. Sammy's safe, will always be safe, because Dean can protect him from anything now.
It's his world now, the way it should be, where there's nothing that can touch him, touch Sammy.
Dean closes his eyes and tastes blood as sweet as chocolate. He doesn't roll his eyes, but he wants to. "You have got to be kidding me."
they're like that. they forget things. and this one's had a million years to forget.
Somehow, that's not a surprise. When he looks at the gate, Cthulhu's moving, slowly filling the pool with squirming, writhing things, feverish like maggots on a rotting corpse. It's hard to look away.
almost there. don't look at it.
A sense of peace is filling him from the feet up--it's summer in Kansas, before Mom died, when he was learning to ride a bike. Dad's behind him, pushing him, encouraging him, voice low and happy, growling joy in the simple, uncomplicated life they'd leave behind in only a few months. Sammy's only been home from the hospital for a few days. Mom watches from the window, holding up Sammy's chubby fist to wave hello.
Dean steps away from the pool, turning his back on the thing that he can feel watching him with eyes like black pebbles, dull and reaching, searching for its servants, its freedom, more life to destroy.
okay. time to go.
Dean pours the last bag of salt on the first of the eight victims, spreading it over their crumbling bodies, across Carter, pausing as the blue eyes flicker open, no trace of gold at all. Something like relief spreads across her face, human and real, like she must have been before the thing crawled inside her and took her apart.
Thank you, he thinks he sees her try to say before she closes her eyes. Thank you.
"For every person you destroyed," Dean murmurs, looking at the mounds of dust that don't resemble people any more than a pile of dirt does. Except for the last one.
Kneeling, he looks into a still grey face, sightless eyes, and something begins to rip inside him.
"No," Rodney says unsteadily. A hand closes on his arm, pulling. "That's not him. Not anymore"
Dean swallows, reaching out, but he can't make himself crumble John into a pile of featureless dust. One finger ghosts across the symbol raised on John's skin. Atlantis, he mouths, testing the word. Home. "He--"
"I know." When Dean looks up, Rodney's face is streaked with tears. Dean pours the last of the salt over the slowly crumbling shape, taking the last of the C4 and placing it gently on top so the salt-laced dust will spread and break the physical binding, and breathes the final words of a magic older than their world.
I cast you out.
"Come on." Something cold trickles across Dean's arm as Rodney pulls him to his feet, and Dean looks down to see metal dog tags looped over one wrist. "We have to go now," Rodney whispers. "It's ready."
Dean nods slowly, following Rodney, stopping only once to grab the carbine and the 9 mm from the floor, going out the door with John's calm filling him. Rodney's leading him to the stairs. He stops short at the door, looking into the darkness.
"I can hold them until we get up to the top," Rodney says unsteadily. Going ahead of Rodney, Dean reaches back, hooking his fingers in Rodney's belt, hoping to God that Rodney's right.
"Keep a hand on the rail. We're going to run."
They emerge into the pearl-grey of pre-dawn, the edges of the sun just breaking the horizon. Dean stares back at the gaping mouth of the mountain for a long moment, until a handless nudge turns him back toward the jeep. The warm peace is surrounding him again, filling him with light, and he guides Rodney away, past the unmoving, drooling bodies, pushing Rodney into the passenger's seat of the jeep before climbing in himself.
Rodney stares sightlessly at the mountain, fingers clenching around the dogtags like they're the only thing keeping him sane. It's not Dean's imagination; the mountain is haloed in pale gold light.
Taking the remote from Rodney's shirt pocket, Dean closes his eyes.
we changed it.
Dean opens his eyes at John's touch, a shimmering warmth that surrounds them like the first day of spring. He can feel John's smile like the heat of the sun. blow it, Dean.
Dean presses the button.
The mountain shudders--charge after charge going off, burying a portal beneath solid rock, soaking it in salt and the ashes of the people Cthulhu killed, the dust of the man whose blood bound it to a city that hovers forever between worlds. Dean thinks he can hear something far away, the ground shivering as the thing screams out its defiance, fumbling for the only living mind it still has.
Dean reaches for Rodney instinctively as the thing is forced to let him go, taking in each horrified shudder as the creature is jerked from his mind. Somehow, Dean can feel John, fingers of thought ripping the sickly tentacles ripping free one by one. Rodney's sobbing with it, the filth that it coated him with torn away, leaving him raw and alone and horrified before the blue eyes close, body going limp.
Free, too. Dean feels John's smile, the rippling affection that seems to settle over Rodney like a blanket, stilling the shaking. so long, Rodney, whispers through the cab of the jeep. Dean. Keep them safe.
"Like I'd do anything else." The mountain flares once more in brilliant white as John fades away. "I cast you out," Dean murmurs to the mountain, and watches until long after the halo of light fades into dawn.
When they drive up, Teyla and Ronon are just stumbling down the porch steps into the front yard, fighting the dissipating edges of the drugs and way too armed for people walking at an angle. Maybe Dean should worry when Ronon fumbles out his gun, but he figures at the speed Ronon's moving, he'll have plenty of time to move out of the way.
The afternoon sun is curving overhead, green-edged from the forest, brighter than Dean can remember it being in years. Soft sounds of birds and insects break the quiet, soothing on his raw-edged nerves. In shock, Dean realizes it's only been twelve hours since they left. He left.
Getting out, he tosses the 9 mm on the seat. Teyla sees him first, eyes wide, and she stumbles a few more steps toward him before she has to stop, leaning on the hood of the jeep. Ronon tries to raise his gun, but he gets it about forty degrees before he gives up, panting, one hand braced on his knee.
Licking his lips, Dean wonders what he can tell them. His hands are still shaking from listening to Rodney's shallow, hyper breathing beside him for the last few hours, silence broken with choked sobs that sounded like they were ripped from his chest. Vomiting out the jeep door, because Dean was good at predicting when Rodney's body gives up the fight, cradling his head while he threw up blood and bile onto the sides of the highway. Curious spirits flock around them, attracted to the magic they have to be emanating like a beacon but coming no closer than the length of Dean's arm.
Dean wonders if John was protecting them. He wonders if he should worry more, but the peace still fills him, making everything honey-gold, wrapped around him like a protective blanket. He knows it won't last.
Circling around the back of the jeep, he comes up on the passenger side door, pulling it open and gently easing Rodney out. His skin's cold and clammy to the touch: more rubber than human, nothing but thin flesh over heavy bone. Rodney crumpling like paper against Dean when he shuts the door, blank blue eyes fixed sightlessly on the house.
Teyla makes a choked noise, taking another uncertain step toward them. Dean watches her reach for Rodney with one hand, eyes automatically flickering to the jeep, searching for someone who's not there.
"Rodney," she says, voice breaking. Rodney seems to snap out of wherever he's been, flinching back from her hand and colliding with Dean, then scrambling backward from them both and falling against the rear tire, curling into a ball as he sinks to the ground.
Teyla drops to the ground beside him, hands reaching for his face. Rodney slaps at her helplessly. "No, no, I can't, you can't--I--I'm not--I'm not--"
"He's dead," Rodney whispers brokenly, cloudy blue eyes fixing on nothing. Teyla pushes herself across the space, taking him in her arms and trapping his flailing hands between their bodies. "I couldn't change it."
Teyla leans forward, forehead pressing to his, hands tight on his face. "He is with the Ancestors."
"I didn't stop it," Rodney whispers helplessly, "I tried to change what I saw, and I couldn't--I couldn't--." Curling tighter, Rodney checks out, going limp in Teyla's arms. Dean wishes he could do that. Ronon gets another three feet before he stops short, looking between Dean and the jeep with an expression that Dean can't stand to see.
"He changed it," Dean say bleakly, a splinter of something sharp slicing through his chest. "He saw--he saw all the ways it could go. He said this was the only one he could change."
Ronon's hands clench into helpless fists: wanting a weapon, wanting an enemy, wanting John. Dean closes his eyes, the peace slowly dissolving, shattering like glass.
"Are they dead?" Teyla asks, voice hard.
Dean swallows hard, thinking of the five people he left convulsing outside the mountain and nods. "Every fucking one of them."
Teyla licks her lips, resting her head against Rodney's, closing her eyes. Dean rubs a hand over his face, surprised when it comes back wet, and not with blood. Looking at them, Dean wonders what he can tell them; it's all fuzzy, fading into feverish images like sick dreams, edges unfocused and bleeding into nothingness. He remembers the blue pool of water and the thing that writhed inside; Carter on the floor, sightless eyes turned to the ceiling; Jackson twitching as he bled his life away. He remembers--warmth.
Somewhere hundreds of feet below the ground, John Sheppard's dust is mixed with salt and rock, with the bodies of the forty-eight others who died in that room.
"He--Ascended," Dean says, testing the word "When she killed him."
Ronon turns away, walking back to the house, fist coming up abruptly and punching through the siding, making a sound like cracking bones. Dean makes himself finish. "He bound it back in its dimension and we destroyed the gate. It's over."
We won, Dean thinks blankly, letting himself lean against the jeep as Ronon methodically destroys the rotting siding, hands reddened and bleeding and not seeming to give a good damn.
Dean hadn't expected it to hurt quite this much. "It's over."
Tilting his head back, Dean closes his eyes, reaching for his brother, that bit of shared DNA that binds them, needing to feel him like he needs to breathe. In Teyla's arms, Rodney's sobbing again, sound ripping out of his body like he's being torn apart; it hurts to hear, a hopeless grief and guilt going on like it will last forever. Wiping his eyes, Dean starts to move away from them--this stupid little group that he should have fucking left back at the border. Should have looked at John and known what he was seeing the first time they met. Should have fucking knocked him out and kept him here. Should have known--
Known that John's like Dean in this, too; he would never ask someone to do something that he can do for himself, to give up something he can't. Dean's so fucking, fucking tired of giving things up. "Stupid fucking son of a bitch," Dean whispers, hands clenching.
"Dean," Teyla says, one hand snapping out, wrapping around his leg below the knee, fingers tracing over the gun holster before pulling. "Dean--"
"He wanted me there because he knew I'd let him," Dean hears himself say, in a voice he doesn't recognize. "Because that's what we are."
"Yes," she whispers. Shaking her hair back, she looks up at him, eyes red and swollen, and all the energy passes out of him like water. Sitting down, he wraps an arm around her shoulders as she draws in deep, ragged breaths, shaking hands smoothing over Rodney's back.
The sounds of breaking siding finally ends. Ronon kneels awkwardly with them, looking helpless and angry and so lost that Dean finds himself reaching out, hand resting on one broad shoulder, invisible tremors running beneath his skin.
Come home, whispers across his mind, sweeping through him, through grief and rage, touching him with the same quiet John had. Dean breathes Sam in and closes his eyes, letting the familiar touch settle into him.
"It'll be okay," Dean whispers, settling himself on bare dirt, taking more of Teyla's weight. He has a plan. It's not a great plan, but he'll take a page from John's book and see if it works. He has people to take care of, a circuit north that he knows as intimately as his name, like all the times he's taken people before. "It'll be okay," he says again, but this time, he believes it.
It will be. Two thousand miles north, home is waiting, and Dean thinks that maybe it's time to stop running.
Sam's waiting for him, standing in new grass as green as a fantasy of spring. There's a nice middle-class house in the background, and people gathered around the doorway, looking at them in awe. There seems to be electricity, but Canada's like that. Dean hesitates, staring out the battered windshield, and it's like the dreams but nothing like them.
For one, Sam looks less lost in otherworldly bliss and more in the way of pissed.
The driver's side door is jerked open with no finesse at all and Dean's pulled out into a warm Canadian spring. For a second, it's a toss up whether Sam's going to hug him or punch him.
"Jesus," Sam whispers. "You fucking idiot." Dean braces himself, but he's jerked into big, warm arms--was Sammy always this big?--and he's practically drowning in his brother. "How'd you get across the border?"
It's nothing like a dream. Dean tries to smirk--seriously, border guards are cake compared to what Dean's been doing the last few years--but he finds himself reaching to pull Sam closer, hiding his hot face against Sam's shoulder, letting himself breathe for what feels like the first time in years.
"Dean," Sam whispers into his hair. Real. So fucking real. Dean digs his fingers in--he missed this. He missed this. He missed Sam so much he forgot, and it hurts so much he can barely breathe. Sam surrounds him with familiar warmth, family, love, yes, that too, he can admit it, family. "Jesus, Dean, took you fucking long enough."
"Yeah, whatever." Dean wipes his nose on Sam's shoulder, hearing his brother's snort of disgust, then pulls back. He's older than Dean remembers, new lines around his eyes and a steadiness there, wisdom learned the hard way, the way that Dean learned his. Dean's fingers grope to hold on even as he puts space between them, wiping his eyes as he glances back, watching Teyla help Rodney from the jeep, Ronon getting out, open suspicion warring with amazement. "Hey, I gotta--"
"Yeah," Sam says, keeping a grip on his arm as he pulls Dean around the car. Extending his free hand to Teyla, Sam grins. "Sam Winchester."
Teyla smiles back. "Teyla Emmagen." She shakes hands briefly, nodding at Rodney. "Dr. Rodney McKay. And this is Ronon Dex."
Ronon and Sam are about equal in height. Dean watches Ronon try to loom and doesn't smile at all. It's very hard.
Ronon grunts something an approximate greeting, hand hovering near his gun. "I'm so glad to finally meet you," Sam says gently, always a polite guy, but his gaze is fixed on Rodney. Teyla's arm tightens protectively around him, but Rodney's looking back at him, blue eyes wide and naked. "Hey," Sam says softly, stepping closer, one hand resting briefly on Rodney's shoulder. Something passes between them--Dean's not sure what, but he can guess--then Sam pulls away, smile widening. "Hey. It's okay. You're going to be fine."
Rodney leans into Teyla a little more, head turned away, Ronon hovering protectively over them both. Sam takes them in with a calculating look, and Dean wonders what Sam pulled out of Rodney's head. Probably a lot. "Okay, folks, let's get you inside. You have to be starving."
Dean is, definitely. He thinks he can smell something cooking, and it's possible it's not canned beans or the things that Ronon hunts down and skins politely out of sight of their camp. He can live happy if he never has to see non-evil-domestic-animal meat again. "Yes. Please."
Teyla nods in equal eagerness, while Ronon's eyes drift to the doorway, like he just might ram through everyone to get to the stove. Rodney doesn't react, but Rodney's still--not processing, not much. Dean understands. He's too thin, but it's a far cry from the skeletal guy he took back to Chimney Rock, and he responds to questions, at least.
The dogtags haven't left his wrist once, wrapped securely with the tag clasped against his palm, edges rubbed shiny from restless fingers. He doesn't talk, eats under protest, and stares into space more than Dean likes to see.
Late at night, Dean follows him to the window of whatever house they enter, sitting in a rain of silvery light while Rodney wanders in whatever place Cthulhu took him, trying to put together the pieces of the person he was before.
Sometimes, Dean closes his eyes and pulls up the memories that John gave him, of alien worlds and skies in a rainbow of colors never seen on earth, twin suns, and ships that span space in the blink of an eye. Of Rodney as John saw him, bigger than life, brighter than the stars. One day, he thinks he'll ask Rodney about it: Atlantis, alien planets, a universe where people traveled time and space in a heartbeat. About John, and the memories Rodney has of him. Maybe someday, Dean will share his memories, too.
Not yet, but he thinks someday he might.
Ronon's head turns curiously toward the house. "You been here long?"
"Ever since Dean dumped me," Sam says breezily, dodging Dean's not-subtle kick. "Come on." Keeping his grip on Dean's arm, Sam shepherds him inside, past the gaggle of little psychic trainees. "No reading anyone," Sam says sternly. "Go find something to do. I have to get them settled. Go on."
They scatter like birds--and they can here, Dean thinks in wonder. Go into the woods, or hang out outside, not watch their backs. It's safe here. It's safe.
"...things got complicated," Sam's saying, and Dean realizes he missed something. Led into a bright, sunny kitchen filled with the smell of good things, Dean tries to concentrate, but that could be brownies right there on the table. "Looks like you never got over your habit of sending postcards," Sam says to him, and Dean jerks his attention from the table.
Sam smirks, but his eyes soften as they flicker to Rodney. "Come on."
Dean swipes a few brownies, passing the extra to Ronon and Teyla. He can see Teyla shove one into Rodney's hand with a stern, "Eat," that Rodney's learned the hard way to obey.
"This one's kind of an ass, though," Sam's saying as they cross a surreally normal living room, with a TV and a Playstation 3 and video games, DVDs stacked around it. Past a couch where books are piled, into a plain white hall hung with pictures of Sam's little psychic network. It's so normal Dean wants to salt and burn on principle.
Sam pauses at a bedroom door, looking at them with a combination of mischief that once upon a time used to scare Dean to death and something warmer, softer. Rodney looks up from his study of the brownie, focusing on the door with startled attention. "He doesn't really have all his memories back yet. So don't freak out if he doesn't quite remember everything. He explained--kind of--but--"
Rodney jerks away from Teyla, so abruptly that she's thrown off balance. She reaches again, but her hand hits solid air, bouncing back as Rodney thinks the door open, and wow, been a while since Rodney used his powers at all. When the door opens, Dean sees an ordinary room, sunlight spilling from an open window, curtains stirring lazily in a light breeze, and a man sitting crossed-legged on the floor in old jeans and a t-shirt, cleaning--of course--a gun.
"John," Dean breathes.
"Just, you know, don't suffocate him," Sam says in amusement, but Rodney's already kneeling on the floor, shoving the P-90 from John's hands, straddling his lap and knocking over a mug of what smells like coffee, arms going around him so tightly Dean's body aches in sympathy. Teyla and Ronon push by him so suddenly that he almost knocks into Sam, the three of them engulfing John like the sea. Dean feels something hot prickle behind his eyes.
This is so totally fucking impossible, and so totally John that Dean has no idea what to do with it. "Do I even want to know how?"
"Naked. In the snow," Sam says in amusement, mouth curling up at both corners, looking so pleased with himself that Dean wants to punch him. Instead, he sags into Sam, feeling Sam's arm tighten around him. "Said something about not wanting to ruin his lucky black mark."
Rodney's leaning back now, cupping John's face with both hands, staring into his face with a look so naked that Dean's eyes skip away. Teyla leans against John's side like she can't bear to stop touching, Ronon staring at him like he's a miracle.
John's eyes flicker to the door, and Dean feels the searching gaze, wonders what John remembers. John's mouth curves briefly in a knowing smirk, and Dean feels himself grow hot before Rodney claims John's attention again, murmuring something that Dean can't quite hear. He looks away as Ronon roughly wipes his face, hand resting on John's shoulder.
There's a touch inside, golden warm. thank you for keeping them safe.
Dean grins and grabs Sam's arm, turning away and closing the door behind him, letting the team have their privacy.
"So," Sam asks as they go into the bright living room, forehead creased as he glances out the window at the jeep, "where's the Impala?"