When he’s sixteen, John Sheppard nearly puts the Apocalypse into motion.
The funny thing about it is that it’s accidental. He’s just left his mom’s hospital room one Friday evening after watching her fall asleep, listening to the reassuring beep of the heart rate monitor. When he turns around after shutting the door quietly, he collides with a man walking past.
“Whoa, son. You alright there?” The stranger reaches out to steady him with a friendly smile.
The hair on the back of John’s neck stands up. The man is of average height and build, dark-haired and dark-eyed. Wearing a tan flannel shirt over a white tee, jeans and boots, he’s overall a plain, normal guy. Which is why there’s absolutely no reason for the feelings of apprehension and wrongness crawling up John’s spine.
Without conscious thought, he backs up a step, dislodging the man’s hand from his shoulder.
It’s a wrong move, because the man’s gaze sharpens and focuses on him. John resists the urge to shudder, his instincts telling him to get as far away as possible.
“I’m fine.” He forces a smile. “Sorry about that.”
Without waiting for a response, he circles around the stranger and walks down the corridor quickly, trying not to be obvious about how creeped out he is.
While turning a corner, he glances back for a split second and sees that the man has moved to stand in front of his mom’s room, looking thoughtful.
A week later, John's mother decides to stop the chemotherapy. He watches silently from the doorway as his father speaks urgently to her in low tones. Mom merely smiles gently and shakes her head.
"I want to spend what time I have left with my family, Patrick, and not here in this room."
His father gives in, eventually, leaning over to kiss her forehead and touch her cheek with shaking fingers.
He leaves for a meeting soon after, leaving John to slip quietly into the chair by the bed. Mom's hand twitches in his direction and he immediately reaches to clasp it in his own.
"It'll be nice, being home again," she whispers. His heart clenches at how weak it is compared to her usual strength. "I miss looking out the window and seeing the horses."
"Mom -" his voice cracks, and he stops, blinking away sudden tears.
The hand in his squeezes lightly. "Oh, Johnny, we always knew this was a long shot, that it would only be a matter of time."
He nods wordlessly, too choked up to speak. Again, he stays until she falls asleep before leaving.
John's mind is a whirlwind of emotions clashing with one another when he walks into the elevator, so it takes him a while to notice that there's someone else inside with him. Someone familiar.
The man he met last week, the one who gave him the chills down his spine, smiles genially at him. "How're you doing, Johnny?"
His eyes narrow, spine straightening. “How do you know my name?”
The man waves carelessly. “I just know these things.”
They’re trapped in an enclosed space as the elevator descends to the lobby area. “Who the heck are you, and what do you want?”
His mom would be appalled at his manners if she were here, but fear is prickling at the back of his neck, and he wants out, to be as far away from the stranger as possible.
“I’m here to make you an offer, John Sheppard.” The man smiles again, gentle and reassuring, but John notes that he doesn’t give his name.
“Acting like a total creeper and stalker doesn’t exactly make me inclined to accept whatever you’re offering, mister,” he snarks, covering up his unease.
The smile morphs into a grin that reminds him of a shark in bloody waters.
“You have spirit, Johnny, and I like that. I like that a lot.” He spreads his hands. “I can cure your mother of her illness. Get rid of that pesky tumour, restore her to full health, and make sure she lives to a ripe old age. All I ask for in return is your soul in ten years’ time.”
“Maybe you should get your head checked while we’re in the hospital,” he suggests in response to that ridiculous statement. “And don’t call me Johnny.”
“You don’t believe me, child?” The man is still grinning. Grinning, as the chilly air in the elevator suddenly rises in temperature, becoming uncomfortably hot in the span of seconds, sweat breaking out over his skin.
Grinning, as John finds himself pinned to the closed metal doors of the elevator without knowing how he got there. He tries to move, but fear or panic or something else is holding him captive, and he can only watch with sick fascination as the man’s eyes flash a demonic yellow.
“You’re a very special child, John Sheppard, I don’t see souls like yours very often. You make for an excellent fall-back option.” The yellow-eyed creature stalks closer, and in this space it takes only two steps. “How about it, my boy? Your mother, hale and hearty, in exchange for your soul in ten years’ time?”
A primal part of his brain is shaking and cowering in terror, and if he weren’t trapped he would be running away with his tail between his legs. This is something that shouldn’t exist outside of fantasy, outside of wild imaginations. He wants to get away from this thing, and he’s almost tempted to say yes to the offer just so he can get free.
But he doesn’t, because he knows on an instinctual level that this is a Bad Idea, and his mom always says that he has a choice. Everyone has a choice, and no one can make him do anything he doesn’t want to. It’s a mantra that he takes too close to heart sometimes, especially when concerning his father and his idea of what the eldest son of the Sheppard family should be like. But he can choose. Mom made her choice, and he’s making his now.
Plus, he’s never liked being coerced into doing anything.
“No,” he grits out through the invisible force keeping him immobilised. “I don’t take candy from strangers. I refuse to accept your offer.”
There’s a long, tense silence where Yellow Eyes regards him with those eerie eyes, long enough that John starts thinking about those stupid horror movies and wonders if he’s going to be killed anyway.
“You mean that. What a pity.” Abruptly, there’s a release of tension, and John barely manages to catch and balance himself as his limbs start obeying him again. “If only I had found you earlier.”
The creature’s eyes return to normal, yellow retreating behind a mask. The air lightens and cools.
“Well, then, my boy, I guess I won’t be seeing you around.” The tone is dismissive.
The elevator dings and the door opens to the lobby of the hospital. Startled, John jumps and looks over his shoulder, and by the time he jerks his gaze back, the yellow-eyed man is gone.
He stumbles out, heart hammering and blood pounding in his ears, and for the second time that week runs right into someone.
There’s a moment of déjà vu, where his mind immediately thinks of Yellow Eyes, but this stranger doesn’t reach out to steady him, and lets John right himself on his own and take a hurried step back.
His newest run-in is wearing a tan trench coat with a suit underneath. He’s standing very, very still, and staring at John with the most intense blue eyes he’s ever seen.
“You did the right thing in refusing the abomination, John Sheppard.”
The hair on the back of his neck is standing again at the deep voice, but there’s a distinct difference in the vibe this man is giving off as compared to Yellow Eyes. Glaring in disbelief, because his life has just turned into the Twilight Zone, he hisses in a low voice, “You going to tell me you can cure my mom, too?”
The man in the trench coat looks back calmly. “No. Your mother has lived a full, happy life and will be at peace with the Lord when she passes on. Why should I interfere with that?”
The words are so similar to what his mom had once told him that he’s struck speechless, fumbling to find his tongue.
“Who are you? Who was that guy in the elevator? What was he?”
When he’s sixteen, John nearly puts the Apocalypse into motion, but he doesn’t.
Instead, he gets a guardian angel by the name of Castiel.
“So you’re counting on someone making a deal, and agree to being an angel’s vessel so that we can bring about the End of Days? I hate to break it to you, Castiel, but that’s probably not going to happen.”
John is sprawled on his bed, idly watching the fighter plane models dangling from the ceiling sway gently in the breeze coming through the open windows. Castiel is standing stock-still in the middle of the room, looking incredibly out of place in his suit and trench coat ensemble.
The angel stares at him. “Why do you say that?”
John sighs and considers taking a nap to avoid this conversation, but after a minute he sits up, eyeing his desk. “Hey, toss me my Rubik’s cube, would you?”
Castiel doesn’t move, only shifts his gaze sideways to the desk. John is about to describe the cube, when the object in question vanishes and reappears in John’s startled hands. “Not what I meant, but thanks.”
He starts twisting the cube to mess it up. “Look, whoever this guy is, he’s the Righteous Man, yeah?”
“Yes,” comes the gravelly response.
“Being righteous and whatever means that he’s most likely not going to let the world burn.”
Castiel frowns. “It is Written that it will happen.”
“Free will, Feathers,” John drawls.
“If you had made the deal with the demon, you could have become the Righteous Man. Would you not consent to the angels so that we may scourge the earth and bring about Paradise?”
“No-pe,” John drags the word out into three syllables instead of one.
The angel’s face remains emotionless, but the tilt of his head conveys his confusion, his unwavering stare silently pondering the mysteries of human nature.
John can’t believe this is his life. Angels, demons and Righteous Men, oh my.
Six months later at his mother’s funeral, Castiel stands at his shoulder as John stares at the freshly filled grave and gleaming marble tombstone. The mourners are dispersing, leaving for the Sheppard mansion only a ten-minute drive away for refreshments and another round of condolences.
John had stupidly thought he would be okay with this; that his mother’s soothing words and comforting smiles over the past few years had prepared him for this, but now he thinks back to the yellow-eyed demon and wonders if it would have been worth it.
“You know the answer to that, John,” Castiel says quietly.
And, yeah, he knows, but it doesn’t stop him from desperately wanting his mother back.
“She’s in Heaven, right? I’ll see her again, after everything is over?” He hates how small and young his voice is, but there’s no point in putting up pretences around Castiel.
“She is, and you will. Your mother has returned to the arms of the Lord, and she waits patiently in His house to reunite with her family.” Something thick and warm and incorporeal settles around his shoulders. Castiel’s voice remains soft, but there is power there, deep and resonating. “Your mother is at peace, so be absolved of your grief, John Sheppard.”
Castiel’s words are the most comforting ones he’s heard for the past few days. Anything his father or his brother or other well-meaning relatives had said had slid right off of him, but now something in the angel’s voice reaches into John and clenches around his heart. He’s reminded of the moment in the hospital room when his mother had stopped breathing, and he had looked up through blurry eyes to see Castiel standing in the corner of the room, unnoticed by his father and brother. The look in the angel’s eyes had been deep and fathomless, and he had merely dipped his head before vanishing. John hadn’t been able to process it at the time, but now – now he’s unbelievably grateful that an angel had been present when his mother’s soul had passed on.
Castiel is gone when John finally comes back to himself, and there are tears on his face that he doesn’t remember shedding, but the day seems a little brighter.
Castiel doesn’t offer an opinion when John mentions his intention to enlist.
“It is your choice that matters, John, as you have told me before.” The angel feeds an apple to a tan-and-white spotted mare as John pets the head of his favourite black gelding. The half a dozen horses wandering the field had gathered the moment Castiel appeared, seemingly fascinated by the angel. John snorts and holds back laughter as the horses lean their necks over the fence, sniffing and nudging the man curiously. A red mare starts chewing thoughtfully on the lapels of Castiel’s trench coat while a white one looks like she’s considering doing the same to the man’s hair.
Castiel doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care, watching the horse in front of him crunching through the apple. His gaze is unfocused, like he’s seeing something else other than the pasture in front of him. “Your family means well. Do not say something you will regret in the future.”
There’s a kind of finality in his tone, and John knows that it’s time. It’s a nice thought, but he never really expected the angel to stick around forever, not when there’re more important things out there in the world and a bigger picture to take care of.
They spend the rest of the afternoon in companionable silence with the horses, and that evening when the three Sheppards are embroiled in the biggest fight in his memory, John remembers Castiel’s words. His father is furious and disappointed, and John barely manages to bite back the vicious words that would have burned this particular bridge forever.
Later in his room, he packs everything he needs into a single duffel bag. Without looking up, he asks, “Am I going to see you again sometime down the road?”
Black dress shoes appear in the corner of his eye as he digs through his sock drawer.
“Yes, I believe so.”
“Great, that’s good to know.” He sits back on his bed, twisting a pair of socks between his hands. Clearing his throat, he looks up to catch Castiel’s eyes. “Thanks. For everything. Just – thank you.”
A tiny smile plays over the angel’s lips. It looks almost fond.
“Stay safe, John. I know you will be strong enough to excel in your chosen path.”
He doesn’t see Castiel again until more than two decades later.