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All Worlds Converge To Where You Are

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Chapter 1

A loud clatter jolts John awake. Immediately, he grabs his gun and pushes the comforter aside, listening intently. There is no other suspicious sound, but that doesn't mean that nothing fishy is going on. John gets up and slowly opens the door to Anna's room, glances in. He can make out her little form on the bed, sleeping peacefully, so he closes the door and decides to go investigate.

Bill should be downstairs, on guard duty; maybe he went to see what is going on. It can't hurt to double check, so John slowly makes his way to the kitchen, thinking that if it turns out to be another false alarm, he could go for a sandwich anyway. But everything is silent, too silent. Bill generally hums or plays with his Game Boy so John isn't surprised to see the kitchen empty. John draws his gun, checks towards the bathroom, but nothing. Something is definitely not right. John whistles softly the little tune they agreed on, but there is no answer.

He goes towards the back door and when he finds it unlocked, John pushes the curtains aside, and the moonlight makes the backyard almost as clear as day. The door is unlatched, meaning Bill went out and didn't tell him. John curses under his breath, he thought the guy had a bit more common sense and could respect the rules they have for safety. He opens the door, whistles again and hopes that Bill just got cabin fever and will come back with a bad joke, but no dice. John is furious and tempted to lock him outside to teach him a lesson; he'll stay right here to open if he comes back. But John can't help it, he has to go see if Bill's okay.

As silently as he can, John opens the door and slides outsides, keeping in the shadows. Once again everything is too silent, save for the crickets chirping. That's when John realizes that Bling didn't come when he whistled either, which is very bad. The guard dog is so starved for attention that he usually bounds to the door every time John opens it, hungry for a scratch behind the ears and someone to play with. If Bling isn't here to play and not barking enough to raise people from the dead, it's because something happened to him. Doubling his care, John's peeking around the corner when his eyes fall on a dark smudge on the ground, maybe 15 feet further, that looks awfully like blood.

John ducks and runs to have a better look, couching beside the wall of the flower bed next to the puddle, and isn't surprised to see there are parallel lines on the ground leading away, obviously from the feet of a body that has been dragged from its execution place. With the amount of blood, there's no hope for Bill, and John curses his stupidity. Bill knew better not to go investigate on his own, even if it looked harmless, and now he's dead. The question is: what are the Croats planning now? They've obviously targeted the Martin's house and planned their attack carefully. John once again thinks that it's just not fair that a fucking virus that turns people homicidal and psychotic doesn't even have the decency to make them zombie slow. They're fast, determined and way too smart.

It's obvious that they knew the Martin's house was guarded with hired help, and took time to take off the dog and the guard, so they're probably planning to get in the house tonight. But John didn't see a thing from the kitchen to here, so they're planning to get in elsewhere, which doesn't make any sense until he hears glass breaking, coming from the other side of the house, and most probably up on the second floor where the bedrooms are. His suspicions are confirmed when he hears Mrs Martin cry out in terror, and he's up and running before his next breath. John rushes to the kitchen, climbs the stairs four by four, and he's running towards the master bedroom. It opens up to reveal a man whom he's never seen, so without even wasting as second, he guns him down.

Mrs Martin is sobbing now, and John hears another gunshot but that doesn't stop him from barging into the room, ready to kill. What he sees is Mr Martin, still holding up a little silver gun, and a second Croat, sprawled across the bed with a new hole in the forehead. Mrs Martin is scrambling back on the floor towards the closet, and Mr Martin turns his gun towards John, eyes wild. Automatically, John raises a placating hand although he keeps his gun aimed himself.

"It's me. I got the other one. It's okay."

It's like the words jolt Mr Martin out of his shock state.

"How can you say that? Where the fuck were you? Is Anna..."

John looks back, but their daughter's door is still closed, with no suspicious sounds, so she should be fine. He starts to move that way to check when Mrs Martin beats him to it.

"Anna!" She cries out, getting up and running past John who steps aside.

His heart pummels when he realizes Mrs Martin has a knife wound on one leg, her nightgown spotted with blood. He swivels his eyes to Mr Martin, who turns white too, and they both look at the Croat across the bed and at the bloody knife that fell from his limp hand on the floor. The blade was probably contaminated. Shit.

"He got me, too," Martin tells John, showing him a cut on his forearm, visibly shaking from the enormity of what it means.

"Maybe the blade wasn't..." John starts, but it's token protestation and they both know it. Martin puts the gun down on the dresser and starts to take out the drawers, throwing the contents on the floor, and un-tapes thick envelopes from the underside of them, tossing them on the bed.

"There's a duffel in the closet," he says. "Get it, John. Quick."

The problem is that John knows what he's supposed to do. Eliminate anyone compromised, and visibly both the Martin's are. They only have a couple of hours and then they'll start to turn and it won't be pretty. On the other hand, there is a slight chance the blade was clean and if he monitors them closely... Maybe they could make it to one of the quarantine centers.

But when John turns back from the closet and meets Martin's eyes, he sees it won't be that easy. Martin's got a determined look, jaw tense and even if he's doing everything he can to keep a facade, John has seen despair and resignation before. Martin knows he's screwed.

"You're going to take Anna and find somewhere safe," he declares.

A shiver of horror goes down John's spine. He can't do it, it's too much. She's too small and he's going to fuck this all up. He starts to shake his head no.

"Come on, we can all go..." John protests.

"Shut up," Martin hisses. "I pay you to protect us, and look at this!" He says, gesturing at his arm and the dead Croat on the floor. "The least you can do is try to save my daughter!"

It's like a blow to the gut because the guy is right, he failed. He blinks, not knowing what to say to that and Martin grabs the duffel from John's hands and fills it with the money, can't be anything else, and then walks briskly to his daughter's room. John follows, reluctant to see Mrs Martin in tears and hysterical, but no, she seems calm now, rocking her little girl gently. Anna's the one sniffling.

"Shh baby, it's okay. Daddy and Mister John made sure we are safe now," she says, kissing Anna's head.

In the meantime, Mr Martin is pulling clothes from Anna's dresser and filling the duffel, before zipping it up. He deposits it on the floor and goes to hug his daughter and wife, and even from the room's threshold, and doing his best to not intrude, John can see him shake. They should be on the move already, gun shots attract Croats and there must still be a ladder leading right in. Oh and fuck, the kitchen door. John fidgets, but can't help but overhear Martin.

"You're so brave, princess," Martin tells Anna. "And you'll have to be really strong now, do you hear me?" Anna nods. Martin kisses her forehead, laughs shakily. "Yeah, that's my girl. Now you're going to go with Mister John, okay? He'll bring you somewhere where there are no bad guys."

Not able to take it anymore, John goes to pack his own backpack, stuffing in what's somewhat clean - the little he has anyway - and the gear he's accumulated in the last couple of years of madness: a couple of holsters and knife sheaths, a TAC vest to hold the ammo, his second favorite gun... He'd left behind everything from his past but his nickel-plated pearl-handled .45 and his ID, and that he keeps just because of the government's paranoia. He's surprised that they haven't all been implanted with chips that change color when people are infected by the Croatoan virus, for better extermination purposes.

When there's no way to delay it anymore, John goes back to Anna's room. John can see Mrs Martin take a deep breath and summon from somewhere a calm smile. She always was pretty, even if a bit too much on the tacky side, shamelessly trying to flirt with John when her husband was out. He didn't take it seriously as she was probably bored out of her skull, trapped in a house which had been turned into a bunker and having only a 6 year old and mercenaries for company. John had not really got into the game, as his flirting ways had been irremediably altered in Afghanistan, like so many other things. But right now, with her bloodied nightgown, no make up, and wild hair, saying goodbye to her only child and acting brave, Katia's heartbreakingly beautiful. John knows what will happen when he leaves with the girl, that the Martins will wait until they're out of earshot to end it. It's the thing to do, what he'd do himself anyway. He's just glad that he's not the one who'll have to pull the trigger; he'd been treated okay here.

The Martins whisper to Anna and kiss her repeatedly, and the kid's not stupid and knows something's really wrong. She clings to her mom when Martin tells her it's time to go, and John sees Martin doesn't have the heart to pry away her little fingers. But time is passing and with each minute, the danger ratchets up. If he wants to make it, John has to go right now. He takes a deep breath and goes to them, kneels on the floor near the bed and takes Mr Fluffy who had fallen on the ground. He nudges the plush white cat against Anna's shoulder and she turns her big black eyes towards him, her little fists still tangled in her mom's shirt, near her mouth.

"Hey Squirt," he says softly. "What about you, me and Mister Fluffy go for a ride? Huh? Ever gone real fast in a car in the middle of the night?"

She examines him and he stays serious, knowing a smile would not come out reassuring right now. She finally nods and then links her little arms around his neck so he hoists her to him and stands up, settling her on his hip. Katia follows, and gives her daughter a last hug and kiss, caressing Anna's hair.

"That's it baby. John will keep you safe," Katia looks at John with a confidence he doesn't deserve but he nods anyway.

"I swear," he says, voice rough, although he knows he should not promise the impossible. But he'll try, if it's the last thing he does.

After that it goes very fast, at last, hurrying to the garage where Katia takes back Anna to buckle her up on the front seat of the Cadillac Escalade as John and Martin put their bags in the back, with guns and rifles in the well behind the passenger front seat where John can reach if he needs to. The SUV's trunk is already loaded with food and jerry cans of fuel, prepped a long time ago for an emergency escape they all hoped would never have to happen. Then it's more brave goodbyes, John nodding gravely when he meets the Martin's eyes. He climbs in the vehicle and that's it, they are ready to go.

Anna is clutching Mr Fluffy to her chest, sitting square in her seat, eyes fixed resolutely forwards. She looks so much like her mom right now, being brave at all costs. John knows that there probably will be Croats in the street and that it's not going to be pretty. He has no intention of slowing down and figures he'll just plough his way through, and the girl doesn't need that trauma on top.

"Is Mister Fluffy scared?" He asks.

She nods, holding the stuffed cat even tighter.

"Then you should make him feel safe," John explains. "Protect him with your body, like that," he says, pushing her gently forward while arranging the security belt over her hips alone, until she cover the toy on her lap by being bent over her knees. "With your hands up like this," he places them over her head, in the classic position for emergency landing. "You okay?"

"Yes," it's tiny, but more than she has said since the Croats got in, at least.

"Perfect. Stay like that to protect Mr Fluffy until I say the coast is clear, okay? It may be real bumpy at first, there's a lot of trash in the streets. Stay down until I say so and hang in tight."

"Okay."

"Attagirl," John says, and he forces himself to rub her back gently.

He then straightens up, takes a deep breath and does a thumb up at Martin who's standing in the door leading to the house with the remote for the garage door in one hand, a sawed off shotgun in the other and Katia right behind his shoulder with a rifle. It hits John again unexpectedly, right then, how the world if so beyond fucked up, when people about to commit suicide will first try to gun down as many as possible of their neighbors - if not friends - turned psychopaths by a fucking virus. That's where they're at in 2012, everyone. God bless America. Shaking that weird dissociation feeling off, John snaps his attention back to the present and turns on the engine. As soon as he knows the top of the SUV clears the door, he stomps on the accelerator and the Escalade jumps forwards in the driveway.

It's as bad as he thought it would be. There are five Croats in the driveway, and John manages to clip two as the others dive out of the way. The sound as they crash against the vehicle is loud and John's glad that he hasn't put the headlights on yet. Anna whimpers and John coos, heart beating double time.

"It's okay, Squirt, told ya it would be bumpy. Stay down."

The tires scream as he turns on the street, going north. John figures that if he can get out of town as fast as he can, there will be less Croats roaming in the woods. If he's lucky, they haven't blocked the roads yet. There is some more dodging and he can faintly hear guns in the background, grimaces thinking of the Martins. Going down in a blaze of glory is not a bad way to go, in this day and age. That's what John wishes for himself, although he's not quite ready for that yet. He keeps the pedal down, the engine roaring and it would be thrilling if he was not totally terrified because he needs to take care of this tiny human being right next to him. He just can't take care of a child, no way. As soon as they're out of immediate danger, John will need to think of something, of someone he trusts to take her. Keep her safe.

It says a lot on the sorry state of his life that the first person who comes to his mind is a guy he's seen half a dozen times, max, over three years ago.

***

Anna doesn't talk much, gazing out her window at the ruined shell of rural Nebraska most of the time. John had tried to get some sort of conversation going, at first, but it had not been successful. Anyway, he didn't feel like talking either. John was starting to droop from exhaustion, which was not a good idea while speeding down winding roads in between small towns. He turns right when he reaches the farm he'd been pointed to as a safe place to spend the night by someone that seemed to give a shit, for once. Probably because the kid is cute.

He finds the key where it's supposed to be and soon enough John has Anna fed and settled for the night. She never asks for anything, does everything John asks her without complaining but he knows that there's no way he can keep her safe on his own. Anyway, being on the run is not a life, especially not when she's been ripped from everything she knew before. And not with him, a virtual stranger. John had been working for the Martins for six months or so, and yes, she'd seen him around and he even played with her a bit a couple of times, but that was it.

It's still early enough, 2130, but if John doesn't sleep soon he won't be able to be alert enough to stay in the game. They've been on the road for two days now, inching up towards the Canadian lines while avoiding Croat traps. He knows the borders are closed, but surely they won't turn down a six year old orphan. The windows are securely shut down, John made sure of it, and he pushes some heavy furniture to block the doors on top of the bolts and chains. Strolling by the phone fixed on the kitchen wall, John checks it by reflex. The tone is a total surprise: he hasn't come by a land line working out of major cities in months now.

Asking that it connects to anyone he knows is wishful thinking, but John tries. His first priority is Anna, and he thought about it a bit as the Escalade ate up asphalt. He hasn't talked with his brother Dave for years now, but by the last he knew, he still lived in the mansion in Virginia. John listens to the line ringing with a sudden need to know that Dave and his family are okay, at least. But the call doesn't connect and the recorded voice tells him there's no more service at that number, which makes a cold chill run down John's spine. Fuck. It doesn't mean anything but John can see it all, Croats decimating or turning them and he kicks the wall. He should have gone there months ago when they first heard about the virus and at least tried to protect them. Dave and him could have, who knows, talked and made up; maybe it's too late for that now.

John hasn't realized that he'd punched another number until it rings once and the line gets picked up.

"Yes, what?" Cutting, impatient. John blinks, surprised, and the voice, a man, asks. "Hello?" John has no idea who he called, and he's about to greet him when the rant starts. "I have no idea who you are, breathing down my line and wasting my precious time, but this is a private emergency number, and by occupying the line, you..."

"McKay?" John asks, as the image of broad shoulder in power suits and sharp blue eyes finally slot in to match the voice and the attitude.

"Oh, wow, it talks. Yes, yes, McKay here. And you are?" The ambient noise behind McKay changes and John has the sudden image of technicians being bullied into trying to track his number and location. John isn't quite sure if he wants to be on the government's radar anymore.

"John Sheppard. We met..." Fighting aliens three years ago, you saved my life that day in the desert he's about to say. But Rodney McKay remembers that too, it seems.

"Sheppard? I thought something had finally found a way to kill you, but I'm glad I was wrong. Are you okay?"

John smiles, shaking his head even if no one can see.

"I'm fine, still kicking. But I need a favor." John says.

"What kind of favor?" The tone doesn't seem closed off.

McKay had visited him in the hospital when John was recovering from his near death by Wraith, and even if they hadn't spent much time together, they had had a nice banter going on. John had been surprised that McKay took time to come over - he didn't have to after all - but each visit had been welcome and Rodney had always seemed to leave John's room in a better mood than when he had came in. They'd even played chess, once, when Rodney was allowed to stay more than 15 minutes. John supposes that if things would have been different, they could have been friends. They maybe even were in one of those parallel universes McKay used to talk about. But then Rodney had to go do something at the very top of top secret and John had been discharged from the hospital, declared fit to go, and he'd never seen or heard of McKay again.

"I was working security for a family, but the Croats got 'em. I'm with their girl," John says.

"And what, you need advice to console your girlfriend?" Rodney asks, bewildered.

John chuckles.

"Anna is six, McKay. You have to take her and bring her somewhere safe."

"What?"

John winces, because that doesn't sound like an open 'what'. Rodney continues:

"What have you been smoking, Sheppard? Does my card spell 'child services'? I'm pretty sure it doesn't."

"But I can't keep her, McKay," John pleads. "I swear she's a great kid, no trouble, but if she stays with me... You're the only person that can help me."

He's ready to beg, if it comes to it. Rodney had been his first idea for support, John was sure he could at least help him find a good refuge for Anna.

"For Pete's sake!" Rodney curses and John grips the phone a little tighter. He can convince him, he's pretty sure. There had been a spark between them, even if not well defined.

"Rodney..." John drawls, managing to make it last at least four syllables. It's the first time he calls him by his first name and it makes McKay fold like a house made of cards.

"Fine, fine, I'll see what I can do. But I can't promise anything," he says, and it's like a ton of bricks got lifted from John's shoulders.

"Thank you. Thank you so much," John says. He doesn't have an inch thick file on McKay, but John doesn't need it to know that Rodney can do the impossible. "I'll call you back at 0800 tomorrow morning."

"Fine. No pressure or anything, of course," Rodney replies, all snark and bluster and it makes John smile again. "Oh John?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm really glad you're okay," Rodney sounds like he means it, too.

"Same here. 'Night Rodney."

"Good night. Stay safe."

John hangs up and drags his ass to the bathroom, where he manages a short cold shower before he goes to check on Anna. She's fast asleep, holding Mr Fluffy close and John tries not to feel guilty that he's going to shove her at strangers as soon as he can. It's for the best, he knows, but the girl knows no one but him. He drags a mattress from another room to lay it on the floor, between her bed and the door, and places his guns in strategic places in case of an emergency. John's head barely hits the pillow when he feels everything fall away.

***

What feels like moments later, he startles awake when his mattress dips. Fortunately, he realises that it's Anna before he does something stupid and just fakes sleeping, to see what she's up to. She drags the covers from her bed down and curls up in a little ball by his side. After a couple of minutes, she's asleep again.

It takes John longer, his heart tight in his chest, but he falls back to sleep too.

***

John's making P&J sandwiches for breakfast while Anna sips at an orange juice box when there's knocking at the kitchen door, right next to them. There hasn't been any sound of a car approaching or anything to warn him and John reacts by gesturing to Anna to hide in the pantry as he takes his gun out of his holster and approaches the door. The downside of boarded windows is that you can't fucking see who's there. The voice that comes through is unmistakable, though.

"Sheppard? It's me; don't try to blow my brain out."

Rodney. Here. John glances at his watch as he pushes the heavy cupboard out of way before unbolting and opening the door. It's 0745. Somehow, John is not really surprised of this development: of course Rodney would find him.

"You're early," John says as he opens the door, and can't help but smile at how Rodney looks. His hair is not as sleek as John remembers and he looks tired, but his eyes are just as sharp. He grins back, and offers John a tall coffee, still steaming.

"Tell me about it," Rodney sighs, before raising his eyebrows. Oh, of course.

"Come on in," John says, taking the coffee and stepping aside, and that's when he notices how Rodney's dressed. No power suits this time but military clothes, all black with a Canadian flag patch on one shoulder, complete with a thigh holster and boots. It's surprisingly hot.

"Thanks." Rodney looks around the kitchen and spots Anna who's peeking from behind the pantry's door. He puts his own coffee on the table, then fishes a chocolate bar from his shirt pocket and extends it to her. "Hey there. I brought you something too. You must be Anna? I'm Rodney."

Anna's eyes are jumping from the chocolate bar to Rodney's face to John and back again to the chocolate, unsure. John looks outside and sees there are effectively no cars, in fact nothing or no one he can see, before closing the door.

"It's okay, Squirt. Rodney's a friend, you can take it," John says.

She calmly walks to Rodney, then snatches the chocolate bar before running to hide behind John's legs while Rodney let's go of a startled "Hey!" John laughs and hoists Anna up on his hip, and she hides her face in John's neck, before he goes to the table near Rodney who's looking at them with something hard to define.

"Stealthy," John whispers to Anna. "But what do you need to say to Rodney now?" John chides softly.

Anna looks up, and turns to Rodney.

"Thank you Mister Rodney," She says softly.

Rodney smiles, pulls a chair but seems to think of something before sitting down.

"You're welcome, Anna," He then holds a hand up, where there's a little device that looks like a pen. "Now I'm sorry, but this is just a formality. It doesn't hurt or sting."

He reaches forward and touches Anna with the pen, and a green led flashes, just as it does for John when he does it next, but with an additional very bright blue glow. Rodney hums, but he doesn't look surprised at all, and then sits down and puts the pen back in his pocket.

John takes a chair too, settling Anna on his lap who doesn't seem to want to let go anytime soon. It doesn't make this easier.

"Thanks for coming, Rodney. Anything you can do?"

Rolling his eyes, Rodney gestures in the air around him. John notices that he doesn't wear a wedding band anymore.

"What? Oh, no, I decided to come all the way over here just to visit." He sighs. "Of course I can. I have somewhere for you guys, you'll be safe."

Blinking, John realizes that it means he's included and he shakes his head.

"Oh no, not me. I'm fine."

"Yeah, sure you are! Running for your life, offering security for food, I can see how it's a living you just can't get enough of!"

John shakes his head.

"No, I'm done with that. I'm gonna go fight those things, try to help."

Rodney leans forward, intent, pleading.

"Okay, then, come with me. The Air Force will take you back. They are desperately short of qualified personnel."

The possibility that he could fly again hits John right into the solar plexus, but he shakes his head. He's heard the ads calling to all ex-military and he could have gone back months ago. But he knows what would happen, that he'd have to let bombs drop on American cities to try and surgically strike against the Croatoan epidemic and John can't do that. He can't face the idea of collateral damages and bombing here.

"Nah. There are other ways," John tries to make the dismissal casual but there's hurt in Rodney's eyes.

"What, disorganized militia? John, I told you about the stargates, we're working on something big," Rodney says with intent.

"What, evacuating Earth altogether?" John jokes but his face falls a bit when Rodney doesn't even try to deny.

"Not everyone, and not forever. But we can put people out of danger, while we fight the virus." It sounds ten kids of insane.

"Rodney..." John doesn't want to argue with him, but if fighting aliens in Vegas was one thing, once upon a time, he can't leave the planet right now as everything goes to hell.

"John, we need you," Rodney insists. "It would be great to have someone with a gene as strong as yours for Atlantis, and believe me, you want to go there. I'm pretty sure..."

He's got no idea what Rodney's talking about but John cuts him with a gesture. Rodney's mouth shuts with a click and he looks frustrated, as if John's denying him something big, as if it's not John's life they are talking about. John won't leave everyone on Earth behind to die in what some call the apocalypse for an adventure in space. Anna shifts on John's lap and he's suddenly reminded of what's important. She's observing Rodney with her big black eyes and John knows kids hear everything, even if they act as if they don't. He makes Anna bounces her on his thigh, and then nudges her face up to his with a finger.

"Rodney here has a very, very cool job," he says. "He knows aliens, and all. Very top secret stuff."

Her eyes go round and she looks at Rodney with wonder.

"Aliens are real?" She asks. Rodney summons a smile for her and for that John is grateful.

"Oh yes, yes they are. Don't say it to anyone, but we can travel in space now. In fact, just two days ago I was visiting another planet that was very pretty."

"No way!"

"Cross my heart," Rodney says, doing the motions. "Would you want to come and visit it with me? There are funny rabbits with six legs over there."

She squints her eyes and clings to John's shirt a little tighter.

"It's not nice to lie, Mister Rodney."

Rodney huffs, obviously not happy to be called a liar but instead of arguing with a six year old he fishes a small camera from one of his BDU pockets. He taps on some buttons and then passes the camera to Anna.

"There. I'll have you know that Doctor Rodney McKay is not a liar, miss," he says.

On the display, a beautiful blond woman in uniform - a colonel - is smiling to the camera, cradling a sort of rabbit that indeed has six legs. Anna giggles, pointing at the creature. It almost looks like that Stitch cartoon from years ago; John had liked that movie.

"Oh, wow, look at that Mister John!"

"That's pretty cool!" He says, wondering if the girl in the picture is Rodney's new girlfriend. "I think you should go with Rodney and visit that planet."

Anna loses her smile immediately, blinking.

"Will you come too?" She asks, voice a little thin.

John shakes his head.

"Not right now, Squirt. I need to go see if I can help more people against the bad guys first."

"But then you'll come?"

"I'll see what I can do, but I can't promise anything," he wouldn't do that to a kid, make a promise he can't keep. She looks about to cry but takes a deep breath and wiggles out of John's lap.

"I'll go get my bag, then," she says, leaving the room.

"Brave kid," Rodney says.

"Yeah, she's great. Thanks Rodney, for doing this," John says trying to show how much it means to him

"You really should come, too. We need you. Tell me you'll think about it," Rodney pleads, just as intent.

"I can't promise anything," John says again, looking away.

"I'm not always here to answer the phone, but if you leave a message, I'll get back to you as soon as I can," Rodney says, sounding a bit more resigned.

"Not enough coverage, huh?" John quirks, trying to lighten the mood.

"Not nearly enough, no." Rodney sighs. "You're set into joining the para-military blooming all over the country, is that it?"

"Thought I'd try that, first," John confirms.

Rodney grabs a pen and a paper from the table and jolts down something. He pushes it to John and it holds two names: Camp Chitaqua and Dean Winchester.

"Some are worse than vipers nest, but those guys seem vaguely organized. The leader has an unconventional background, but he's not half bad at what he does. He refused to join the light side of the force, too. You guys will surely bond over issues with organized authority and everything."

John snorts, but puts the paper in his pocket. He had no group in particular chosen, he can check them out. Anna comes back in the kitchen, Mr Fluffy under an arm and the strap of her bag slung over her shoulder. She wavers a bit and then runs to John, hugging him fiercely. John's heart almost breaks, and he wishes he could go with her.

"You're such a good girl, Squirt. I'll miss you," the words come out way raspier that John wishes.

"I'll miss you too, Mister John. Don't die," Anna says solemnly.

"Okay. Okay," he kisses her brown hair and catches from the corner of his eye that Rodney has snatched a picture. He almost scowls but Rodney raises his chin defiantly, mouthing "for her, idiot!" So John lets it go.

"Ready to explore new planets?"

She nods.

"Yes. Will there be other kids, there, Mister Rodney?" She asks and John is struck at how it must have been months or even years that Anna has been with adults almost exclusively. He feels a bit less like shit for letting her go.

Rodney smiles.

"Yes, Anna. You'll make friends there. And do you know how we're going to go there?" Rodney points up as he speaks.

"In a spaceship?"

"Well, we'll go on a spaceship, yes, and then through a gate that will bring us directly on the other planet. And do you know how we'll go on the spaceship, first?"

She shrugs, as if it's not that hard a question.

"We drive where they send the spaceships up."

"That's where you'd be wrong, little miss." Rodney grins at her. "Have you ever seen the Star Trek movies?"

Anna smiles right back.

"Yes. Captain Kirk, and Bones and Spock..."

"Exactly! And do you remember what Scotty is good at?"

She purses her face in concentration.

"Machines? Energise?"

"We're going to get along great, you're very smart. Are you ready to go?" Rodney says gesturing her to come closer. She nods, and takes two steps closer. Rodney fishes a talkie walkie from a pocket. "Daedalus? McKay, almost ready to board. Taking only one passenger, though, the closest to me. Copy that?"

"Yes, Doctor, on your signal."

John's jaw drops open. Rodney can't be serious.

"No way!"

Rodney smiles, crooked but still really attractive. John has always liked brains and wit.

"How do you think we got to you so fast in the desert, after your western showdown with the Wraith? You had your turn."

"Well it doesn't count, I was too busy dying," John says, petulant. He vaguely remembers a white light, but he had just thought that it was it, the end of the tunnel, game over. He feels cheated, somehow.

"You better get your head out of your ass soon, Sheppard. I'm not kidding. The Atlantis mission needs you, call when you are ready," Rodney tries again, obviously not used to being refused when he really wants something.

John shakes his head. He can't promise anything.

"We'll see."

Rodney fishes the pen he used earlier from his pocket and makes it roll towards John on the table.

"I probably dropped this somewhere. I'm not usually that careless with top secret equipment. If it goes red, there's nothing to do for that person. If it goes blue for anyone, have them call me." He sighs and John takes the device, realising how priceless a gift it is. "So long, Sheppard." Rodney looks very disappointed, which irrationally makes John want to follow him. Then Rodney cuts his eyes away and says to Anna. "There's going to be a very bright light, and then we'll appear on the spaceship. Don't be scared, okay?"

She's smiling, excited, and grips Rodney's arm. He looks at her fondly and John knows he'll do everything he can. She turns to John one last time and says.

"Come when you have saved enough people. And I'll have a rabbit and you can pet it, okay?"

He can't say anything, choked up, but he smiles, then nods at Rodney who clicks his radio.

"Want to do the honors, Anna?"

She grins and speaks close to the speaker.

"Beam us up, Scotty!" Very excitedly.

John laughs and Rodney and Anna are being enveloped in white light and disappear. Shit. Expecting it is one thing, seeing it a whole other level of crazy. He's left clutching a coffee that's still warm, alone in the kitchen.

Well, John thinks. That explains how he had not heard a car when Rodney got here.

His life, really.

***

Chapter 2

 

John decides to report to Camp Chitaqua even without doing research. If McKay says they're effective, it's enough for him. Turns out that you can't get in as easily as you want over there. The guards at the gate are brusque and make him wait in a little house in the side of the entrance of the camp, saying that someone will come to see him soon, but they're all busy so he just has to deal.

John sits down and waits, and after a couple of hours it's clear that he's quarantined. He has to admit that it's a good idea, as the first stages of the Croatoan virus infection are barely noticeable. Just for that, Rodney's magic pen should make his life way easier, even if John doesn't plan to share that little secret right now. After two hours, John's asked to put his hand through a trap in the door and he's not surprised that they draw blood. John cooperates, knowing a good first impression is vital. By now the Escalade must have been searched through and through.

Another twenty minutes passes, and a blond guy with an easy gait enters the room, holding a pad. John was leaning his chair on its two back legs and he almost falls down in surprise at the visit. It means that John's most probably been cleared already and he scrambles up. The man smirks, dimples showing and he's really pretty hot. Huh.

"Hey," he says for a greeting and John walks to him, extends his hand.

"John Sheppard."

The guy does a weird face at the name but it's quickly covered up and he shakes John's hand.

"Jim," he says and gestures to the chairs. "So, what brings you here, Sheppard?"

John shrugs.

"I wanna help."

"Why now?"

"Tried other gigs, didn't work out for me. I want to fight those things," John says.

"Why here?" Jim asks, pen over the paper. He's not even taking notes.

"You were recommended to me," John says.

Jim smirks, doesn't ask by whom though. John's waiting for the grilling on whether or not he has any experience in combat or security when two men come in. The first one's well built, but not overly so, short brown hair and hard green eyes and he would be extraordinary pretty if it was not for the scowl he's sporting. The second man is a bit smaller, more subdued with dark hair but when he looks at John his blue eyes are assessing and John feels like a moth pinned to Styrofoam for a second. He's also very attractive and John has a moment of wonder at how this camp seems to hold a plethora of hot men. Not that he's going to complain or anything.

"Hey, boss," Jim drawls, looking at pretty boy. "We were just starting."

The guy nods, extends his hand to John.

"Dean Winchester, this is Castiel."

John wonders for a second at what kind of name that is, but they shake hands firmly and when Castiel does it too he holds John's hand at least two beats longer than it's really needed. John wonders what his problem is, because he's definitely fixing him with that unwavering sharp gaze again and it's kind of creepy.

"John Sheppard, Sir," John says addressing Dean. He doesn't make the sir too formal, almost borderline cheeky out of habit because it's a bit like kissing ass and he's never really been into that. Dean snorts but doesn't comment on the title.

"Ex-military?" He asks John, looking marginally more interested now.

"Yes Sir, Air Force. But it's been a while. I've been in the police force after that, Las Vegas," John hopes it's taken as a good point for him and not against.

Dean turns to Castiel, who has his head cocked to the side a bit. When he finally talks his voice is matter of fact, clinical.

"Used to be a Major, dishonourably discharged after a rescue mission gone wrong, that killed civilians," as Castiel spouts out his history, John feels the blood drain out of his face. How the fuck can he do that? It's not like they could have had Intel on him yet, unless they're really well wired with the authorities. "I question the pertinence of his disgrace as he didn't want to leave his friends behind, did what he thought was right and in the process disobeyed a direct order, which got him out."

Dean has a small bark of laughter at that and nudges Castiel with his elbow.

"Oh, relate much, Cas? Anything else I need to know?"

"McKay sent him over. They've fought... evil together before. From outer space," Castiel says and wow... creepy doesn't start to cover what this guy can do.

"You've got to be kidding me, Cas!" Dean exclaims. "Aliens? Why haven't you ever told me about the aliens?"

"It was unnecessary,"

"Boy howdy, and I thought we had it bad already," Jim adds, finally jotting down things on his pad.

John stays mute as it seems he's not needed in this conversation.

"He would be an asset, I pledge for his values and motivations to join. Oh, Dean, by the way, you guys should relate while sharing about daddy issues and stupid self sacrificing tendencies," Castiel says to Dean, clearly ribbing back for the earlier jab, before turning towards the door and leaving.

"Who's he? A mind reader?" John asks, still a bit flabbergasted. But with everything he's seen in the last years? It's not even that surprising.

"Something like that," Dean says with a smirk. "Now before I offer you a job I just want to make sure we're clear on a couple of things."

John nods.

"I call the shots, no matter what rank you used to have. If I put one of my men in charge, you follow, no question asked."

"I can live with that." John's military record might not show it, but he can respect a chain of command. Sometimes.

"We're not doing this for the money, so you won't get paid. But we'll board and feed you. Do you understand?" Dean asks.

"I do. I just want to get rid of those sons of bitches," John answers.

Dean nods, pleased.

"Welcome to Camp Chitaqua, Sheppard. I'll have someone brief you on operations tomorrow and Jim will give you a tour."

"Thank you, Sir." John says, straightening up.

Dean goes and before he closes the door behind him he turns.

"Oh, Sheppard. Just to be clear, I don't like people disobeying direct orders. But I try to be fair. Talk to me before doing something stupid."

"Will do. If I have time," John can't help but add and Dean has a small smile - as he already figures John will be trouble - and he leaves.

Jim gets up.

"Quite a neat parlour trick, ain't it?" Clearly referring to the mind reading.

John doesn't reply because he senses that Castiel is way up in Winchester's close circle and it would do no good to disparage him. He shrugs.

"We live in a fucked up world."

"No shit," Jim agrees. He then gestures towards the door. "Come on, I'll show you around."

***

Two months later and John has dropped the 'Sir' when addressing Dean Winchester. Even if the guy is a decade, if not more, younger than him, John respects his leadership and admits he makes a better CO than five sixths of the brass John had to deal with in his time in the Air Force. Whatever unconventional background he has - and John asked, he's never been in the armed forces - Dean is at heart a soldier. Probably raised by one, John figures. There is barely any weaknesses in the guy save a slip here and there guarding his 4. Dean's sharp, fast, dangerous at hand to hand, a great shot and generally comes up with decent plans.

Getting used to the almost military drill of living in Camp Chitaqua has been as easy as putting on old slippers. John took his place without pushing for more, proved his worth under pressure and let his actions speak for him. He felt on trial for several weeks, but after a couple of raids in hot zones to get supplies John managed to get a nice reputation with the others. Being in a crisis brings out of John all of the old instincts that never really betrayed him apart from that last big fuck up in Afghanistan. He pulls off a last minute rescue of a couple of men that had been stupid enough to get cornered by Croats and then run out of ammo, and John feels the tide shift in his favor.

The gang of mismatched survivors who make up Camp Chitaqua start to consider him like one of the gang, even if John generally still keeps his distances, apart from shooting the shit while on patrol or in the common areas. He's learned not to get too close to anyone, though, since acquaintances are easier to lose than friends and like any group involved in a war-like environment, it happens a bit too often. John's careful not to be caught using it, but the gadget Rodney gave him proves its worth when they're coming back to camp with a bunch of people asking for asylum and one makes the red light flash. John isolates the young man who immediately knows he's been found out and turns berserk, although luckily he doesn't hurt anyone else.

When he's not focusing on god knows what plans he's working on with his command staff, Dean's a surprisingly funny guy. One morning, Dean chooses John and two other guys to fetch a new diesel generator to help power the fridges and freezers where they keep the perishables - it's that or the inventory guy, Chuck, is going to blow a fuse. Going to town, and all through the mission, they end up talking about TV and movies in between running for their lives. When Dean starts talking only by quoting Lethal Weapon and John doesn't miss a beat and replies with lines from the Die Hard movies, they keep it up all day long in between laughing fits and John muses that he hasn't smiled this much in the last 9 years combined.

"Man," Dean says when they're back with two generators and Chuck does a dorky dance of glee, "that was awesome. At last I meet one of my people," he tells John with a wink.

John grins.

"Yeah. Guess I was wrong about you. You're not such an asshole after all," John says, wondering if Dean got this one. He didn't have to worry, though, because Dean quotes Die Hard 2 back without even missing a beat and with a smile of his own.

"Oh, you were right. I'm just your kind of asshole," Dean says.

As he goes back to his bed, in a room he shares with 4 other guys, John thinks he doesn't have it so bad over here, after all.

***

"Sheppard? You're coming with me," Dean says, before walking briskly to the Escalade John brought to camp months ago. He knows it's now common property, but John figures he can sit shotgun none the less. Cas and a guy named Bob climb in the back and they're on their way.

"Where to, boss?" John asks after half an hour, because surprises are one thing, but he'd prefer to know what is going on.

"California," Dean says, as if the state personally offended him once in his life.

Thinking of better days and surf perfect mornings, John relaxes in his seat. The ride is silent, Cas never being one to talk much, at least not if he's not asked a question, and Bob seems to be catching up on some sleep. John only voices his next question hours later, after the Led Zeppelin IV CD has finished playing, knowing Dean should be a bit mellower.

"What are we looking for?"

"A gun. A Colt made in 1835 by Samuel Colt himself," Dean says.

Well that's weird. Why go through all the trouble to find a piece that maybe used to be worth something, once upon a time? John doesn't see the art market offering possibilities for a profit on an old gun anytime soon.

"Didn't take you for a collector," he tells Dean.

Dean smirks.

"Always good to have well honed tools."

Seriously? John keeps his mouth shut, because there is nothing to say. Dean may run a camp where at first glance there is the illusion that everyone can voice their opinion in the decision making process, but it's just a neat cover up because Dean's the one who has the last word, every time.

The plan today is to raid this mansion where a guy named Crowley lives and to get the Colt from him. For some reason, Cas takes a look at the house and declares that he can't get inside the walls circling the propriety, which Dean doesn't seem to think weird at all. After conferring a little, they decide to go in by force. There's a scuffle at first, where they unfortunately lose Bob before overpowering the guards and they're in.

The big house with its foyer made of marble and mirrors is quiet, apart from the faint hum of a television that comes from behind a sturdy wooden door that probably leads to the living room. John puts a hand on the handle, gesturing to Dean that he's going to open in 3 but Dean stops him.

"Wait a sec," he whispers, rolling a rug from the lobby's floor until it's out of the way.

Perplexed, John watches Dean draw a circle on the ground with a can of black spray paint he just took out of his backpack, and then add squiggly symbols inside and across creating something esoteric looking. Dean doesn't hesitate, as it's something he did countless times before, and then rolls the rug over his handy work, which is completely hidden now. When he straightens up, Dean looks at John with a cocked head. It's easy to realize that it's some sort of test for John. He doesn't know what to do to pass it, exactly, but he's going to keep his questions to himself for now. Listening to orders, doing what he's told: John knows that's what works with Dean.

"We'll lure him out here. Until he stands right there," Dean says, pointing at the middle of the rug. "Got that?" Dean says.

"No problem," John answers.

The rest doesn't quite go as planned. Dean breaks a vase, the sound meant to attract Crowley out of his den, but a couple of guys that must be more security show up instead: a lean blond guy with a revolver and a stocky man with an impressive blade. A bit more and John would call it a machete. There is a standoff, with a lot of pointing guns at each other in a way John can see going down into a whole lot of trouble really fast, and Dean demands to see Crowley.

"He just left. He told me to say he sends his regards, Dean Winchester," the blond thug says with a half smile. "Oh, and that he'll see you downstairs, eventually."

Whatever it means, it makes Dean snarl and jump forward, and he manages to disarm the guy although not before he gets shot in the left shoulder first. John uses the sudden confusion that follows to fire at the other goon, who's steadily advancing towards him. The weird thing is that the guy recoils from the hits, but the bullets don't stop him at all, even when he gets a bloody third eye in the middle of the forehead. He's no Croat, Croats have the decency to die when you brain them, but the guy only smiles at John, eyes turning oily black in a way that sends a shiver down John's spine. It's like shooting at the fucking Terminator - or a Wraith, his mind supplies - and he's coming closer with his big ass knife.

Dean managed to push his guy on the carpet and the idiot turns his back on the blond guy to come and help John. Walking backwards, John knows there's just one or two bullets left in his gun, for what good that does anyway. The blond guy climbs back to his feet and tries to jump on Dean's back. John shouts in alarm but it's like the guy flattens out on thin air, before reaching Dean. Obviously Dean knew the guy wasn't a threat at the moment, and he's taking out a knife from his boot before grabbing John's dance partner by the hair and slices his throat. There is blood, of course, but also sparks that seem to come from within the man, lighting him up as if there are fireworks going off in him before he crumbles to the floor, dead at last.

"You okay?" Dean asks John, who nods. He has no idea what just happened here. "Good. Now."

Dean turns to the blond guy, who hasn't moved from the carpet and now looks a lot less cocky and a whole lot more afraid.

"Where's Crowley?" Asks Dean. "You're going to tell me, one way or the other, so why not make it sooner rather than later?"

"You're going to kill me anyway, so no. I won't make your life any easier, Winchester," he snarls with an air of defiance that is mostly for show.

"You know, I can use this," Dean says, showing the knife, "in more creative ways than killing you, scum."

The blond is trying to stay away from Dean as much as he can, and John realises that he makes a perfect circle, on that would match the drawing under the carpet. Dean looks determined to get info out of him, but John's starting to worry about the gun wound in Dean's shoulder. The front of Dean's shirt is soaked with blood and some is dripping steadily down his arm not holding the knife, making him scatter blood everywhere he moves like a crimson trail.

"Dean, we need to put some pressure on that," John tries, hoping to reason him. Dean frowns, as if he's got no idea what John is talking about and John gestures towards the wound. Looking down, Dean makes a face, as if losing all of your blood is just a pain in the ass when you have other things to do.

"Yeah, in a minute. Scumbag here was just about to talk, right?" Dean says, with a smile that's so sharp that even John recoils. Winchester can be one scary son of a bitch when he wants.

"He didn't tell me, okay? Didn't trust me with the info," blond guy says.

Dean sighs.

"Worst thing is? I think you're telling the truth. Fuck."

Then, from one moment to the next Dean jumps in front of the guy and plants his knife directly into the man's heart, which sets up a new bout of kind of fireworks before the guy crumbles to the floor, dead. Dean heaves, wiping the blade on his thigh before putting it back in his boot. John is next to him in an instant, trying to see how bad the wound really is. Up close, it's even worse than he thought. Dean finally goes to sit on the staircase, as the adrenaline drops and most probably the pain kicks in. John tugs on decorative curtains from an alcove, rips a good piece of the material and bunches it up to press against the hole that's still bleeding copiously. The artery must be nicked.

"We gotta go get you stitched right now," John says, tensing. Fuck, Dean's going to bleed to death.

"I'mma gonna be fine," Dean grumbles, and John realizes he might be going into shock. He's got to move fast, because it's going to be way easier to get Winchester out of here if he can marginally help with at least staying upright.

"Ok, now, I'm going to help you up in three. Ready?" John says, trying not to sound as worried as he feels. Dean nods and at three he hauls him up. The fucker is way heavier than he seems, all muscle and nerves and he lets out a pained growl before he's settled with an arm over John's shoulder. "Okay, buddy, got you. Let's get the hell out of dodge." John says between clenched teeth.

"'kay."

Luckily, Dean's either very resilient or more stubborn than a mule, because he manages to drag his feet all the way out of the house, and then to the outer wall where Castiel is pacing, upset.

"Get him here, now!" Cas says, looking thunderous and John's taken aback at the intensity. At best, he always saw Castiel a bit spacey or lost in thought, apart from their meeting where he was all focused; John's sort of come to the conclusion that the man shows all signs of depression -something he's quite aware of- but now that Castiel sees that Dean is hurt it's like he's practically glowing from within. The wind has picked up and clouds suddenly gather, as if matching his mood.

"Why don't you come and help me? Doing my best here!" John protests.

"I cannot get in! Wards! This place is protected!" Castiel replies, frustrated.

"S'okay Cas," Dean mumbles. "Don't get your feathers in a tuff," he says, before snickering.

But they're finally outside the cast iron fence and Castiel basically wrenches Dean from John, with an ease that's more than surprising, and lays him down gently on a patch of grass.

"It's not funny, Dean," Castiel says softly, but he's ripped the bandage and the shirt away and puts both hands on the bloody bullet hole, closing his eyes. That's not going to do a lick of good, John thinks, not with the gravity of the wound, but he can see the pain ease from Dean's face. Not knowing what to do, John kneels by the both of them and tries to soothe Dean by petting his head lightly. Castiel is almost vibrating, as if straining for something and when he finally drops his hand away, obviously drained from all energy, John looks at the shoulder and sees the wound is closed. No, more than that, that there is no wound at all, just blood from before. The wind, whipping angrily just seconds ago has died, too. John's jaw mostly drops open and he looks at Castiel with wonder.

"What are you?" John whispers.

Castiel briefly looks at John before a pained look passes over his face and he glances away.

"I don't know anymore," he says, voice rough.

Dean grasps one of Castiel's sleeves and forces him to look at him.

"Hey. You're my goddamn personal guardian angel, Cas."

Castiel has a little snort of derision that is half way to a sob.

"It took everything to heal you, Dean. Soon I won't be able to. I'm barely an angel anymore, and you know it."

Seems like they are talking literally about angels from heaven here, and what John just saw is nothing short of a miracle. But it's still a though one to swallow.

"An angel," John blurts out, without meaning to. Dean looks at him and smirks.

"Yep. And those black eyed son of bitches inside? Those were demons." When John pulls a face, Dean smiles a bit more. "Welcome to my life, Sheppard."

John looks around and even if the street is quiet and there is no movement, they just caused a ruckus inside and who knows who or what will come looking. Now is not the time for a theological debate.

"Okay. Why don't we just go?" John says.

He tries to help Dean up but Castiel has him, and he's really surprisingly strong, so John opens the back door of the Escalade as the two men climb in. He runs for the driver's seat and immediately starts his way back to camp, since it seems they don't have any leads for the famous Colt anymore. In the rear view mirror, John sees that Dean has slumped on the back seat until he has his head in Castiel's lap and he seems asleep already. Or passed out.

"Will he be okay?"

Cas is treading his fingers in Dean's hair, a gesture that is surprisingly intimate.

"Yes, he will recover," Castiel says with a sigh. "He won't listen to me and rest as he should, but he is going to be fine. Until the next time he goes and does something stupid."

John stays silent as he drives and Cas is certainly not one to start conversations, which suits John just fine. He can't help it and glances at the pair of them back there, and the love from Castiel is so clear for anyone to see that John breaks a self imposed rule and asks.

"Um. Are you two together?" As soon as the words leave his mouth, John regrets them. It's none of his business, after all.

Castiel keeps petting Dean's hair and has a little wistful smile.

"No. Dean doesn't see me like that."

It figures he must know, since Castiel can read minds - although only when he touches someone, John has learned since that first day at camp.

"Oh. Sorry I asked. None of my business."

They're back to silence, but John has learned that it's never uncomfortable with Castiel. He has dozens of questions, but doesn't quite know how to ask them; this time John just drives and hopes someone will soon tell him what the hell is going on.

***

Chapter 3

 

When they finally make it back to camp, it's early morning and there's the usual to and fro of people milling about their business. Castiel shakes Dean awake who insists on getting into his cabin on his own power. On the other hand, John knows how appearances are important for morale, so he approves even if he stays two steps behind just in case Dean faints or something.

Already there is a bearded man in a wheelchair that watches them come in with a scowl.

"Oh, looksie, the idjit didn't manage to get killed," he says gruffly but John hears the concern under the insult and Dean grins when he sees him.

"Hey, Bobby!"

Dean goes to wrap the old man in a fierce hug. When he lets go, Bobby's frowning at all the dried blood on Dean's shirt and spots the hole on the shoulder but Dean bats his hands away before he straighten up.

"I'm fine, Cas took care of it," he says

Bobby shakes his head, chagrined.

"Goddammit, Dean. You know you can't count..." he pauses, gets eye contact with Castiel and seems apologetic. "Sorry Cas, but..."

"Oh, believe me, I keep saying the same thing. One day soon, I won't be able to do anything," Castiel says, slumping in a chair.

Dean huffs.

"And what, we do nothing because we're too chicken shit to risk it? That's not the way to stop the apocalypse, and you know it Bobby."

John can't help it, he raises his eyebrows in disbelief. The apocalypse? He's seen the front pages of rags like the National Enquirer and TV programs with fanatics all over the world shaking scriptures and singing along to that tune. He laughed at it all, to be honest. But then, if Cas is an angel - and what he saw clearly needed the intervention of some power - and he's fought demons today, who knows what's true or not? Bobby has seen John's reaction and is watching him intently. Clearly, he's an old fox and not much goes under his radar.

"Now, Dean, what did I tell you about using big words around strangers?"

Dean frowns, then sees Bobby's looking at John and rolls his eyes.

"Sheppard? He's okay. The cat is pretty much out of the bag for him, with seeing Cas use his mojo and fighting demons today. Anyway, I was going to brief him after..."

Dean winces. Probably after they'd get the Colt, John figures.

"Oh, yeah," Bobby smiles but it's not amused. "How did that plan to go get the Colt without proper backup and a decent plan go, genius?"

Dean scowls at his turn, and fixes a point over Bobby's right shoulder.

"Crowley got away."

Bobby throws his hands in the air.

"Jesus Fucking Christ, Dean Winchester! The one lead we had..."

"I know, okay?" Dean says, then kicks a chair that sails across the small room and bangs against the wall. "We had to move fast, so I grabbed Cas and my two best men and went. It didn't work out as planned, end of story."

"Okay, so if I got this right, not only is Crowley definitely clued into the fact we're looking for the Colt and that we know he has it, he got away, and you almost got yourself killed?"

Dean flops on his bed and throws an arm over his eyes.

"Pretty much," Dean admits. "And we lost Bob."

"Fuck," Bobby curses. "Okay, so what now?"

"We keep our ears open until we find a new lead on Crowley," Dean says.

"Yeah, like that will fall into our lap just because we need it," Bobby snarks.

If he's totally honest, John is pretty tired of not knowing what is going on.

"Okay, so guys? Mind telling me what is going on? If not I'll go get some shut eye."

Bobby turns to him, assessing.

"How long have you been here, boy?"

John hasn't been called 'boy' for a while now, so he can't help the raising of eyebrows. He'd think the gray in his beard would be clue enough that the boat sailed a long time ago.

"Four months, Sir."

There he goes again, old habits die hard. But he can gauge an authority figure when he meets one. He considers Dean to be what amounts to his commanding officer, and obviously Dean thinks what Bobby says matters, so it's only normal John goes for a show of respect. As with Dean in the early days, the 'Sir' makes its effect. He's scrutinized for a second and Bobby has a wry smile.

"Ex-flyboy?"

And that's more than people usually get at a first glance, so points there.

"Yep. John Sheppard," he offers, with his hand.

"Bobby Singer." Bobby's handshake is firm, no bullshit. John figures it's a lot like the man. "What do you know of the mess we're in right now?"

The ten million dollar question.

"It's deep shit?"

Bobby snorts and Dean sits up on his bed, smiling too.

"There's a brain under the stupid hair," Dean says.

"Hey!" John protests, thinking it's totally unnecessary to bring the hair into it.

"Funny how that happens," Bobby says. "Speaking of, I've heard that Sam..."

"Bobby," Dean cuts him, suddenly not smiling at all. John doesn't know who that Sam fellow is, but it's a sore subject.

"Dean, dammit!"

"We're not talking about Sam, and that's it," Dean raises his voice, pissy as hell and Bobby almost fumes.

"Be like that, stubborn little shit," he says, before rolling towards the door. He calls to Castiel who still hasn't moved from his chair. "Cas, I need to speak with you. Alone."

"Cas..." Dean says, as if he's about to order him to stay. That doesn't go so well with Castiel, who's standing up and goes to open the door.

"I can speak with whom I want, Dean. And right now, it's not you. See you later."

Dean's grinding his teeth so hard, John wonders if he's not going to bust a molar. If looks could kill, there would not be anyone standing right now. John eyes the closing door and takes a step towards it, even has a hand on the handle and can taste freedom when Dean stops him.

"Wait. We need to talk"

Somehow, John figures that those four dreaded words will not lead to happier results than every other time he's heard them in his life. He sighs, and closes the door. Dean smirks and points to a chair.

"I think you better sit down."

***

The worst thing is that with everything Dean just told him about his brother Sam, angels, demons, the goddamn Devil rising and all the trimmings – including how it seems the brothers Winchester should be front row center for the apocalypse, in or out of Michael and Lucifer – John's pretty sure he got the executive summary only. The world is a way more fucked up place than he ever thought, if what Dean says is true. Because no matter what, it's a whole lot to digest and John's not entirely sure Dean didn't get a couple of blows too many to the head.

"Still with me, Sheppard?"

"Yeah, yeah," he avoids looking at Dean directly though. What do you say after a story like that? Your life sucks? "And I thought I'd had a bad couple of years."

Dean laughs at that.

"You'll have to tell me about the aliens, one of those days."

Well that's true, Dean shouldn't think John's totally crazy after having seen that much shit himself.

"Ugly life sucking space vampires with white dreads and a fondness for Goth clothing. I don't miss 'em at all," John says, making a face just to make Dean smile some more.

"I can imagine," Dean grins and John should not feel validated because he succeeded.

They've been back for over an hour now and Dean wrinkles his nose as he pokes at his shirt.

"Fuck, I'm overdue. One of the perks of running this place is that I got my own bathroom, and, on good days, hot water. When I'm done, feel free to take a turn."

John raises an eyebrow.

"Are you implying I reek?" Dean smirks and shrugs in a 'if the shoe fits' way and John shakes his head. "I was perfectly fine until someone bled all over me."

"Yeah yeah. Hazard of the job," Dean says, disappearing in the bathroom.

He might have dozed off for a couple of minutes because John's jerking awake when the door reopens and Dean appears in a cloud of steam. Fuck, hot water, it's a luxury he hasn't felt since the Martin's. John rises and steps towards the door, planning to take Dean up on his offer because he's definitely not crazy. Dean must have seen the look on his face because he gestures in a definite 'be my guest' fashion.

John takes a piss and when he looks at himself in the mirror he winces. He's let himself go lately, hair too long and beard untrimmed; with the way his eyes are sunken into his face because of the exhaustion, he's definitely not looking sharp. He eyes the razor on the sink and figures that he'll buy Dean another one if he minds. There are scissors on the vanity so he chops off a couple inches or so of his hair, which of course immediately makes them stick up everywhere. He then cuts as much of the beard with the scissors that he can before hopping in the shower with the razor for the rest. The hot water is as blissful as he thought it would be and John is tempted to linger, but figures there must not be that much left. He cleans up as effectively as he can, washes his hair twice then starts on the shaving, using soap to make it glide better. When he finishes and rinses off, the water is already starting to cool. Once patted dry, when John checks the mirror it's almost as if he took off 10 years.

To be honest, John hasn't cared about how he looked for a long time, definitely not since his spiral out of control after Afghanistan. The Las Vegas police department didn't mind scruff if he did his job half way decently, and since the Wraith incident and almost dying in the desert it just wasn't something he even thought about. John's always been kind of a loner and he had no interest in making the effort into knowing anyone in a way that could morph into a relationship. Sex, most of the time, is just too much of a hassle for the little good it does. As for now, John's been staying at the same place for four months, and he's slowly been forging a comrade bond with the men and women forming Camp Chitaqua. People do pair up, sometimes only for a night and other times for more than that, and if John definitely had a couple of offers himself, he didn't follow them up. Yet.

He wonders if Dean swings both ways, because he would tap that, given the chance. The guy's so good looking, John's pretty sure that 90% of the camp has a crush on him –and the rest are hardcore lesbians or have already slept with him. John has heard about a couple of hook ups, always female, but a guy can maintain a bit of a fantasy about those plump lips around cock, if it stays between him and his right hand. Okay so now his dick is getting totally inappropriately interested in things it should not think about and John wills it down as he wraps a towel around his hips.

His clothes are so filthy and caked with Dean's blood, and maybe some of the demon's too, that getting them back on would undo all the good the shower did. John opens the door and leans on the frame; Dean's lounging on his bed in sweats and no shirt, reading a magazine or a comic, it's not obvious from here. He has a tattoo of what seems like a pentagram with flames on his chest and it's really easy to fantasize about licking it. John only lets himself look for a couple of seconds, because he's pretty sure Dean knows he's being observed even if he plays it casual.

"Sorry, would you mind if I borrowed a change of clothes? Mine are good to burn," John drawls.

"Sure," Dean says, before looking up. When he does, he lets his eyes travel appreciatively over John. "Whoa, you clean up nice, Sheppard."

A compliment by a guy ten years younger than him should not make John blush, but it's almost what happens. John rakes a hand in his hair self consciously and smirks.

"It's been known to happen."

Dean grins, and he keeps looking openly which causes John to cock his hips even a bit more in invitation. Heck, if there's an opening, he'll take it. John does a bit of looking of his own, detailing the nice muscles and planes of Dean's naked torso before he raises an eyebrow.

"So? Clothes?" He asks, making sure it sounds like it's totally optional if Dean is so inclined.

"I'm not so sure anymore that I wanna lend you clothes," Dean says with a leer, getting up and prowling over.

"Is that so?" John says with a teasing smile of his own, letting Dean invade his personal space all he wants, feeling his heart beat skip up to be the focus of Dean's interest in that way.

Dean raises a hand to brush his knuckles along John's now smooth jaw.

"You've been hiding," he declares, which now that John thinks of it is pretty true. He can justify to himself it's simpler not to shave, but it's also because he gets less attention.

"Easier that way," John says with a shrug. Dean smiles at that, mischievous.

"No need to carry a stick to keep suitors at bay?" He says, sliding his fingers into John's hair.

"You tell me, since even angels would like to get into your pants," John counters.

Blinking, Dean looks puzzled for a second.

"What? Cas?" As if it's the most inconceivable idea ever.

Now's not the time for Dean to have an epiphany, though, so John takes Dean's face between his hands and kisses him. Those damning lips are as soft and plump as they look from afar and Dean groans and opens up immediately, the kiss turning deep and dirty on the spot. A hand still in John's hair to keep him in place, Dean slides the other one down his back then tugs the towel away. It's been months since John's been touched by anyone, and it feels fantastic, arousal spreading through him fast and making him hard. Dean steers John from the door frame towards the bed, walking him backwards until John sits down on it, only then letting the kiss break.

There's something predatory in Dean's expression that makes a shiver go down John's spine. Whatever comes next, John knows it's going to be a ride to remember.

"Preference on how we do this?" Dean asks, as if riffling through possibilities.

Heck, handjob, blowjob, and if more, that it's top or bottom doesn't matter to John as long as it's soon. He grins as he looks up at Dean, running his hands up and down Dean's thighs over the sweat pants.

"Whatever, I'm flexible," he says, agreeable.

But now that he's at the right height with the goods, he slides around and grabs Dean's ass, then hauls him closer, nosing Dean's erection tenting the thin material. He smells fantastic, manly and clean but still musky and John mouths the hard length of his cock.

"Fuck yeah," Dean says, gripping John's shoulder. "C'mon, c'mon."

Happy to oblige, John lowers the sweatpants and underwear, helps Dean to step out of them and then looks his fill of a naked Dean Winchester. It's a sight to behold, just has he had imagined, and his hands roam on legs and ass, before John pulls him close again and licks Dean's dick from root to tip. Dean groans when John sucks him in and yeah, it's been way too long since he did this. The little tricks to make a blowjob as good as he can make it come back pretty fast, so he uses his hand and tongue, noting when Dean reacts in the best ways and using that too. John's really getting into it, and even if it's been years since he left the Air Force, sucking cock and fucking men still has that little thrill of danger that makes it even more enjoyable. So when Dean pulls him off by the hair, John grunts and looks up, a bit miffed. Dean laughs.

"Jeez, Sheppard, don't pout!"

"What's the problem?" It's been a while, and a guy like Dean must have had his dick sucked enough to get difficult.

"Oh, no problem at all," And Dean does look pretty far gone, breathing hard and pupils blown wide, so maybe John's not doing so badly, after all. John licks his lips and eyes Dean's cock again. "Jesus Christ, you love sucking dick, don't you Sheppard?" Dean adds and he drags his thumb on John's lower lip. John captures the finger and sucks it in, doing lewd things with his tongue. So yes, maybe he does love to suck, he doesn't think it's a bad thing. "Do you wanna fuck, too?"

A spike of pleasure at the way Dean says it like a promise of all that is good in the world makes John growl and suck harder on Dean's thumb, nodding eagerly.

"Yeah, yeah, I thought so," Dean says, carding the fingers of his other hand in John's hair. "I love the strong silent type as much as anyone, but you've got to tell me what you want."

"Anything's good," John says after letting go of Dean's finger, and he means it.

"That won't do, Sheppard. C'mon. Tell me, you must have a preference."

"You know, at this point you could call me John," John says with a smirk. Dean makes a funny grimace at that.

"Sorry, no can do. John was my dad's name and..." he makes a little weird face that makes John laugh. He can imagine how that would be a turn off.

"Got it. S'okay. Why don't we do it your way? That'd be good."

Shaking his head, Dean kneels on the side of the bed, between John's legs and kisses him hard and deep. When he pulls off he looks into John's eyes intently.

"My way is what makes you get off the hardest. I have a feeling you never ask for what you really want, Sheppard. Flip a coin, anything, but say it."

It's true that it goes against John's nature to voice his needs, especially on a first fuck, but he'll be damned if he can resist that offer. He's fantasized about this and if he's honest, John knows exactly what he wants.

"Okay, okay. Suck me while you get me ready, then fuck me hard," just saying it makes John's dick twitch and Dean has a wolfish grin.

"See, that wasn't so hard?" Dean says, then kisses John briefly before tapping on his thigh and getting up. "Get comfortable," he orders and goes to the bedside table to get lube and a condom. John scoots on the bed, sitting against the wall and lets his thighs fall open and Dean kneels in between them. He's so fucking gorgeous, John can't help but reach out to touch his chest, fingers tracing the tattoo he noticed earlier, and then his attention is drawn to a mark burned on Dean's shoulder, a full hand print.

"Tat's against demon possession and that's a souvenir from Cas, when he lifted me from the pit," Dean says, answering the questions John didn't even voice.

All questions about if this epic story about heaven and hell is true vanishes from John's mind when Dean kisses John before licking and nipping down his neck and torso, slowly but surely making his way towards John's aching cock. When he finally grabs John's dick and swirls his tongue around the head, John's panting, clutching at the bed sheets. He wants to see Dean's mouth around his dick so much he's making little helpless sounds and Dean grins.

"I'll make it good for you, Sheppard. Move all you want, I don't mind."

Making it good won't be hard with the way John's desperate for any touch that brings him closer to release. But frankly, all of his expectations are blown to smithereens when Dean starts to blow him with a level of skill that's pretty heart-shattering, soon joined by fingers that know exactly what to do to stretch him out thoroughly and make him see stars. John clenches his jaw in order to stop the babbling of how good it is coming through, but it's hard, so very hard as Dean takes him apart and makes his nerves sing. He stops fighting the urge to fuck Dean's luscious mouth when Dean growls, pleased, every time he does so and if that's not the hottest thing John's seen in decades, nothing is.

"God, please, come on, enough. Fuck me!" John manages to beg, when he thinks he's going to go out of his skin with need.

Dean let's go of his dick with a grin that must be illegal in more states than it's not and he bites, hard, at John's hip, making him shout and almost spill on the spot.

"Impatient much!" Dean purrs, voice shot to hell by the way John's been ploughing his throat and god, it's almost enough to send John off the edge again.

John scrambles on hands and knees, then decides to put his hands on the wall and there's a blur of more lube and the condom, then the sharp pressure of Dean's dick pushing inexorably in.

"Fuck. Shuh," Dean soothes, caressing John's lower back; it's a tight fit.

"Been a while," John manages to hiss, breathing as deeply as he can to try and relax enough so it doesn't hurt quite as much.

Dean stops moving and drapes himself over John's back, and they breathe together for a while.

"You sure?" Dean asks.

John just needs to let go, to stop thinking so much but that's when Dean reaches around, starts to stroke John's flagging erection, which jolts everything back into pleasure territory. He arches back against Dean as pain shifts into need, and starts to move by himself when it seems that Dean's just going to stay there and do nothing.

"C'mon, c'mon, I'm fine," John's says, trying to get him to hit that perfect spot. Dean kisses between his shoulder blades.

"You're tighter than a virgin, holy shit."

John laughs, the embarrassing braying laugh that he can't control, because that's far from his first rodeo.

"Just been too long. I'm fine, wanna feel it, come on, kid, move."

Dean snorts, then twists his hips in an exquisite way.

"Kid? Kid?" Dean finally starts a slow but maddening rhythm that has John's eyes roll back into his skull, Dean hitting all of the right places as John bucks back for more. "I'll have you know that I'd be over 70 and even more with what I've been through. So take it, buckaroo."

Taking it is pretty much all John can do at this point and he pushes back in counterpoint to every thrust from Dean, then fucks forward into his tight fist. He gets lost into the sensations while it builds and builds until his orgasm takes John almost by surprise, making him shake apart and curse in Pashto. It's deep and all encompassing, makes him light up like a punishing strike over enemy lines, pleasure making blood roar in his ears as much as it is all through his body as he comes for what feels like minutes. Dean groans, riding it out in the most exquisite way, then just slams home for what seems almost too long before coming too. John's arms just give up and he falls face first on the bed, exhausted and sated. Dean kisses his shoulder, then pulls off before flipping on his back beside John.

They pant for a while, getting the heartbeats back to normal. John feels bone tired, even more than he was before, but now it's with the satisfying edge of being well fucked like he hasn't been for years. Once again he wonders why he doesn't indulge more in this, especially with someone who definitely knows what they're doing. He manages to flip his head around on the pillow to grin at Dean, who's breathing hard while looking at the ceiling. Ha. Dean turns his head to smile at him too, making the side of his eyes crinkle and not for the first time John has the feeling that Dean used to be a lot more carefree that he is now.

Dean's eyes are mesmerizingly green right now, and his flush makes those damn freckles of his stand out. John's tempted to count them with his tongue.

"That was great," Dean declares.

"Yeah." Yes it was. John stretches, knowing it will burn in places tomorrow but doesn't care. Dean slides a hand down his back.

"You're fucking gorgeous," he says and John's tempted to burrow his face in the pillow. He's never been at ease with compliments. He blinks and Dean gets a thoughtful face on.

"You know, John..." As soon as he uses his first name, John knows what's coming. A don't get your hopes up, pal, speech. "It was great and I'd love to do it again, but..."

John manages to get some motor control back and slaps Dean's thigh.

"Great sex, no strings attached. Just like I like it, boss," and John means it. He certainly doesn't want to have feelings come into play.

John manages to sit up, then bends to kiss Dean chastely on the lips, who frowns up at him.

"You don't have to go just now."

With a wink, John shrugs.

"If you don't mind, I'll hop real fast in the shower again." He doesn't need to enter his cabin reeking like sex with three guys who probably didn't see action in months and would probably frown at gay sex.

"Sure," Dean says and John goes before he's tempted to linger.

He puts the water as hot as it can manage to go and soaps away any evidence of what they've just done, although John can't help but press on the teeth shape bruise on his hip, his cock twitching at the reminder. In three minutes he's done, dries off with a new towel and dresses up in his blood-caked clothes. Oh well. Dean would probably lend him some, now, but he doesn't want to ask.

When he gets back in the main room, Dean's covered, at least. He smiles at John, a bit awkward and John's tempted to reassure him that he won't be clingy, that this doesn't change anything.

"Shit, I should have brought you clothes..." Dean says with a wince but John waves him off.

"S'okay." John grabs his coat and he's almost out the door when Dean stops him with a question.

"Hey. Um. You weren't serious with Cas, earlier, huh?" Again Dean looks completely puzzled and John laughs.

"C'mon. I'll admit not being good at figuring these things out either, but... he fell from grace for you, didn't he?" John asks.

Dean frowns, tries to protest.

"Not for me! Okay, so I convinced him that..." He gestures and John raises his eyebrows, which makes Dean stutter to a stop.

"He fell for you, buddy. Should have seen him when you almost bled to death, he was desperate. Trust me on this."

Again Dean looks confused. He tilts his head to the side and asks John,

"Why would you tell me this?"

Meaning if you want to sleep with me, why bring someone else in the equation? John sighs, because yeah, he's not helping his chances of sex happening again between Dean and him anytime soon with this conversation.

"You and me? Sex. Castiel is head over heels for you, probably has been for years. I think you deserve to at least know about it."

Letting Dean mull over this would be enough, but John can't help himself; with a hand on the door he turns to Dean.

"Permission to speak freely?" He asks.

Dean laughs.

"Dude, you're weird," the 'I just came in your ass' is implied. "Of course."

John winks at him.

"You might not like what I'll say just now." He leans against the door. "Sometimes, a plan that's great at one point might not be so good after things change, right?"

Squinting, Dean nods.

"Yeah?" He already looks more closed off.

"You have all this," John says, gesturing to include all camp, "people willing to follow you 'til the end. Might have been that you and your brother were better apart, but who does Sam have to resist the devil, now? Do you know?"

Dean is clenching his jaw and John figures he probably just struck out and will probably never be invited for fun sexy times again, but heck. He got from Dean's story that the Winchester brothers were once close, something he always wished for Dave and himself. He can't imagine leaving someone alone when faced with such a feat, real or not, and it would be hypocritical of him not to say anything.

"Just sayin'," he adds, before slipping out.

While going to his cabin John gets a couple of double takes because of his new and improved look and can't help the shit eating grin in return. He won't say it to anyone, but he thinks that they can all eat their hearts out, the suckers, because John Sheppard just got into Dean's pants like they all wanna.

***

Chapter 4

John's cleaning his gun, pieces all spread out on his bed, when there's a knock on the door.

"Come in," he shouts, wondering if someone's looking for one of his roomies because he sure had nothing on his schedule this the morning.

It's Castiel, who looks intently at John for a moment, and John feels suddenly guilty of having outed the poor guy. He's almost ready to apologize when he realizes that Cas is most probably looking at him like that because he shaved and cut his hair.

"Dean asked that you'd be present for strategy meetings. Follow me," he says, and is about to go out again when John stops him.

"Wait a sec," he can't leave his favorite gun in pieces. "Just a second, I'll just..." He reassembles his gun, sliding the pieces in place before loading it and putting it in his chest holster. He'll polish the chrome later. Castiel waits patiently while John puts on a long sleeved plaid shirt on top of his tee.

"I don't think I'll ever understand the love of firearms," Castiel says as they get out.

John snorts.

"Well, when they've saved you a couple of times, you get attached to the things."

They're walking towards Dean's cabin, and John wonders why he's now asked to attend planning. He supposes it has nothing to do with the extracurricular activities he's had with Dean but more that he's now privy to what's going on, or at least the fucked up apocalypse version those guys believe in. And an angel came to get him. John wonders how his life got so weird that even fighting aliens doesn't seem that much of a deal anymore. But still. A bona fide angel, which means...

"Hey Cas... I don't wanna twist the knife or anything," John starts, making sure he doesn't speak too loudly as to be overheard, "but did you have wings?"

He's half afraid his question is going to get Castiel mad or sulky – he would certainly be heartbroken if he once had wings but didn't anymore – but to his surprise, Cas turns to him and grins. It's unexpectedly dorky and makes his whole face light up.

"I knew that would be the first thing you asked me."

Is he so predictable? John fakes a pout.

"Hey! No fair, you can read minds."

Castiel is still smiling, and he shakes his head.

"I just do it when I have to, Dean says it's an invasion of privacy. I only read you once, but I got, loud and clear, your love to fly."

True, he misses it every day, like a phantom itch. John knows his smile must be wistful, but he nudges Castiel with his elbow.

"So?"

Castiel's own smile turns wicked as they climb the stairs going to Dean's door.

"My wings are awesome," he croons.

Which means he still has them and man, talk about cool. As they get through the door, John feels like he's 8 years old, and he tugs on Castiel's sleeve, intent.

"You'll show me, right? Pretty please?"

The way Castiel grins back at him, pleased, makes John beam right back, because who knew that making an angel look happy for a second would feel so good? Cas nods and John has to repress a fist pump, then realizes that they're the focus of the room's attention. Dean's looking at Cas and him with his eyebrows raised, wondering what the fuss is about and possibly with a hint of annoyance. John tries to school his expression in something more serious, and nods at Bobby, Jim and Chuck who are also in the room.

"Hiya, boss," he drawls at Dean. "Sorry if I kept you waiting."

"We were just about to start," Dean says. "I've asked John to join us because he can be not totally useless on occasions," he adds with a smirk.

John smirks back and puts a hand to his heart.

"Flatterer."

Dean winks at him in return and John knows they'll be alright. He's had awkward morning afters before, and this is not even pinging on the radar.

"If you boys are finished flirting..." Bobby grumbles and John almost chokes in surprise while Dean rolls his eyes.

"Please," Dean says, as Jim chuckles and Cas does his little head tilt of confusion, squinting at John. "I'll cut down to the chase. We lost trace of Crowley and the Colt. Again. What's the latest Intel on the infection and Lucifer? Bobby?"

Rolling his chair near the table where a plastic covered map of the United-States is laid, Bobby grabs a marker and draws X's and O's as he talks.

"Canada and Mexico have officially blocked all frontiers tighter than a bull's ass at fly time. The virus has spread to a couple more major cities: Chicago, Cincinnati and Indianapolis," the O's are drawn almost viciously around the towns, in black. "We've lost almost all means of communication and the government is monitoring the rest closely. Last I heard, Lucifer is closing down on his target pretty fast. Again," he adds a big X mark right over Detroit.

At that Dean has a tiny shudder, but now that John knows that what the Devil wants is to possess his brother Sam as some kind of vessel, he doesn't miss it. He's the first surprised, though, when Dean takes a deep breath and asks, while passing a hand on the map on the table, as if trying to smooth it when there's not even a crease.

"Any news of Sammy?" He asks, as if it's a regular question. Just because of the altercation the night before, John knows it's nothing but, and the way everyone gapes would be a dead giveaway none the less. Bobby's the first to react.

"Oh, what? We're talking about Sam today?" He asks.

"Yeah," Dean says, jaw tense as he raises his eyes so they look at each other, stone faced. "Got a problem with that?"

All the fight seems to go out of Bobby at once and he makes a face, before looking at the map intently himself. His hands are closed tight enough so his knuckles go white around the wheelchair armrests. When he finally talks, his voice is rough.

"Of course not, idjit. When his cell phone still worked, Sam used to call me every couple of weeks, and since that went to shit it's been once in a while when he caught a phone. And mine happened to work. Haven't talked to him in 3 weeks now, and I'm worried. Kid's exhausted and at the end of his rope."

"Fuck," Dean says, racking his fingers in his hair, as if the enormity of the situation just made itself bleaker. "How do you know he's in Detroit?"

"Because the weather patterns and omens have been stuck around there for two weeks now, while they used to follow on Sam's heels. I don't think Lucifer lost him."

"Sam has stopped running. He doesn't have the will to fight anymore," Chuck says and they all turn to him.

"You knew something and didn't think it was relevant to share?" Dean asks, voice cold as much as there seem to be pure fire underneath. Chuck recoils in his chair, blushing and putting his face in his hands.

"I didn't know, okay? I thought, I thought it was a regular nightmare, I haven't had a vision in years. It's also possible that I was a little bit drunk and it's just when Bobby... that I realized it fits, and, and..."

This, John thinks, is something he should have seen coming, that Chuck was more than the guy in charge of inventory and logistics. Clearly, Chuck's known Dean and Cas for a while, so John had figured that's why Chuck had scored the relatively prestigious position of supply tech – always be chummy with the supply guys is the thing every grunt learns really fast. Chuck is an all around nice guy and efficient at his job, that's for sure, but looking at how the camp was run from the outside of the command circle, John had always wondered why the inventory guy was always present in the rumoured big meetings, and not just when logistics and camp maintenance were discussed. But on the other hand... visions? Really?

"You are still hearing the Gospel!" Cas says, as if it's the best news he's heard all month.

"Where was he?" Bobby asks, and if he could get over the table to get at Chuck, it seems he would.

"Is he okay?" Dean says, over them all, and yeah, another one that would rattle Chuck for answers if he could.

Chuck is shaking his head, pulling at his hair a little.

"Let me think, let me think!" He takes a deep breath. "Shit, I haven't done this in years. Okay, so I saw Sam, he was arguing with a girl. Well not really, Sam was sitting on a bed and the girl was yelling for him to get up his ass and move, that Lucifer was near and he had to get away."

"And?" Dean says, when Chuck stops talking, as if he'd love to be able to extract the words right out of him.

Chuck finally meets his eyes, but looks torn. He shakes his head.

"He just stayed there. Looking at nothing, not moving and she stormed out. That's it, I woke up. I really thought it was a normal dream, Dean." The poor guy is practically wringing his hands.

"Shit," Dean says, hitting the table which makes the markers skittle. "Okay. Okay."

"Maybe I could try to help Chuck remember details," Castiel proposes and Dean gives him such a grateful look that the tension in the room goes down a notch.

"Yeah," Dean nods. "Thanks Cas, get on that right now."

Chuck and Castiel leave, one speaking of booze and the other of meditation but Dean seems comforted that someone is doing something at last. He asks Jim, who's been observing everything since the start without a word - and John knows by now that's a feat - to go prepare a vehicle, gas and food for the long drive to Detroit.

"Got it," he drawls, before leaving. It leaves John, who thinks he's been forgotten but won't mention it, Bobby and Dean, whom are staring at the X on Detroit as if it's going to tell them its secret.

"Do you think we can locate Sam?" Dean asks Bobby.

"I've been thinking about that. With the runes that Cas carved on you boys, he's pretty much undetectable with the usual stuff. But maybe we can reach him otherwise. At least give him a message." Bobby looks a bit weary, though, which must mean it's not a fail proof plan.

"Shoot," Dean says, intent.

John can't help it, this is fascinating, even if way over his head. It's like he's living in an episode of the Twilight Zone, with extra religious content. He wonders if it's only their reality that is fucked up and if the alternate universes that McKay used to talk about are a little less rock and roll. In his humble opinion, space vampires were already quite a bit to deal with to begin with.

"The dream root," Bobby proposes and Dean gapes for a second.

"You want us to go traipsing into Sam's mind? Do you have any idea how fucked up it must be in there? How powerful he'd be?"

Okay, so John's missing a piece here again and he can't help himself.

"Dream root?" He repeats and both Bobby and Dean turn to him, surprised to see him there. Okay, so maybe he should not have brought the attention on himself.

"With a bit of Sam's DNA, we could make a potion and go walk in Sam's dreams. Not the easiest experience at the best of times. But if we die there, we're toast," Dean explains. He sags down in a chair and sighs.

"I don't like the idea any more than you, boy, but do we have another option?" Bobby asks.

"I guess it's worth a shot." Dean looks at Bobby. "Who goes? Me and you? Cas?"

"I'm not sure Cas would be a good idea, who knows how the root would work on a half angel, too dangerous. I say we go, and hope Sam believes it's really us."

"Why wouldn't he?" John asks.

"A dream walker can take or summon any shape." Bobby says.

It makes sense that for Sam, seeing Bobby or Dean in his dreams would seem normal, so he could dismiss them as not real.

"Maybe I should go too," John proposes. "He doesn't know me, maybe he'll let me talk."

"No," Dean says just at the same time that Bobby declares "I've heard worse."

Turning to Bobby, Dean shakes his head.

"No way. He's got nothing to do with this."

Raising his eyebrows, John cuts over him.

"Hey, sorry, but I do. The fucking apocalypse concerns me, Dean."

Dean crosses his arms and glares.

"It's too dangerous."

That's rich. John knows it comes from a good sentiment, but John doesn't like to be babied. He's starting to get pissed off.

"I can take care of myself."

"This is nothing like you've ever dealt with before, Sheppard," Dean argues.

"So what? I've seen fucked up shit, Winchester. I'm still here." Yeah, so the deference to authority is starting to go out the window as they eye each other, metaphorically puffing up for a confrontation. It's Bobby who diffuses it.

"Stop it, morons. We'll think about it. But before anything, we're talking for nothing if we don't have a bit of Sam's DNA."

With a sigh, Dean lets the budding fight go and pinches the bridge of his nose.

"Fuck, I don't know. Maybe. Yeah, I think I might have something. Do you have the dream root with you?" He asks Bobby.

"Not here, no. But I still have some at the house."

"Maybe Chuck and Cas will know how to find Sammy without..." Dean gestures near his head, making his fingers walk in the air.

"Dream walking's a last resort, but we should be prepared," Bobby says, bending over the map some more, tracing roads with his index.

Putting on his coat, Dean goes for the door.

"I'll check the Impala. If I have what we need, we'll get the root."

Bobby nods and John decides to follow Dean. He's right on his heels when they get down the stairs and as soon as John sees they're out of ear shot, he hisses.

"Don't you fucking dare treat me differently because..." He starts and Dean turns to him with raised eyebrows and a pinched mouth, as John gestures crudely between the two of them. Dean rolls his eyes.

"That I fucked you has nothing to do with this," Dean declares, and John's not used to hear the words being said out loud, not where someone could hear, even if it's not like it would be of consequence like it once was. John feels the tip of his ears go hot. "Sam's a true Winchester, therefore what's inside his head won't be a picnic," Dean adds, sardonically. "I've dream-walked a couple of times and believe me, it's not a good trip and really, really dangerous. I'm afraid to go there. I won't risk Cas, and if I could, Bobby wouldn't do it either. So I'm sorry John, but a noob like you? A really fucking bad idea. No disrespect to you."

Said like that, it's a bit better, so John just nods, showing he understands and anyway they're nearing their objective. John had noticed the black Impala near one of the fences as he walked around camp, thinking it was a pity that such a car was going to waste like that but didn't know it was Dean's. When they reach the car, Dean caresses the black top, as he walks to the trunk.

"Shit baby," he murmurs, as if pained.

The car is on 4 flat tires, and it's dull and with several dents and a twisted front bumper. One of the windows is broken, so obviously it got in some kind of a crash. Still, it's easy to see that it was once a beast to recon with, which makes John think of his beaten up Camaro, who definitely died in the desert that day with the Wraith, even if he survived. That car might have looked as bad as John felt at the time, but it still had power under the hood, which is why he had kept it then, knowing he was riding a very bad metaphor about his life. John stays a couple of feet away, circling the Impala. It wouldn't take that much maintenance to bring it back to a very nice shape, but give nature free reign for a while still and it's going to be too late.

"What happened?" John asks.

"The Apocalypse," Dean says with a sigh, popping up the trunk. "Should have seen her, best car ever. Got smashed a couple of years ago, and I didn't have time or the parts to repair her. And now..."

"A shame," John says as he goes to see what Dean's doing in the trunk. It had a fake bottom with leather straps that must have been used to hang weapons, and Dean's pushing aside junk, among others wooden stakes, shovels, salt, tin cans and finally he brings forward a small duffel. Old clothes and what looks like cheap suits and ties get pushed aside as Dean ruffles in it.

"Pretty sure I put it in here somewhere," he mumbles, before finally he extirpates a small hairbrush with a victorious flourish. "Ah ha! Knew it!"

"Sam's hairbrush?" John guesses, as Dean observes it and nods, satisfied.

"Yeah, one I hid in one of our stupid prank wars," Dean says, then grins. "He was so pissed." This obviously seems to have been a good point in Dean's book. "Sammy's hair has always been one of his weaknesses," he says to John seriously but with eyes dancing with mirth, as if it's top notch Intel.

"I'll keep that in mind," John says to humor him, but he does like this playful Dean. He supposes that he must have been a handful as a kid.

Dean closes the Impala's trunk way delicately for a car looking like it's half way to the junkyard, pats the car with a promise of doing something for her soon, then starts walking back to his cabin.

"How does it work? Going into dreams?" John asks.

Funny how he doesn't even doubt this shit is real anymore. John figures that after you reach your weird quota, you start to roll with it. Dean doesn't seem to mind explaining it.

"There's a disgusting potion, made with an African dream root and the DNA of the person you want to visit. As soon as you drink it, you fall asleep yourself but get into the dreams of the person you spiked the potion with. Once in, what you get to see depends on the dreamer, and if you die, it's for real. To get out, the person who's dreaming must wake up, or someone shake your body so you wake yourself. The tricky part is to hang on until then."

"And you think Sam's going to try to kill you? Or me if I go?"

"Who knows what shit lurks in Sammy's head. You sure wouldn't want to take a stroll in mine," Dean says with a grimace. "Anyhow, maybe Cas will save us the trouble."

***

It turns out that even if Chuck managed to remember enough with Cas' help to at least have an idea of where Sam is hiding in Detroit, Dean and Bobby decide that warning Sam by dream walking that they're going to go get him is still worth a shot. They make the detour to Sioux Falls to get to Bobby's for the potion's ingredients, and decide to do it that night, past 3am, to have the best chance to catch Sam asleep. After much argumentation, it's decided that Cas will stand vigil as Dean, Bobby and John will go dream-walk. Dean's still not convinced that bringing John along for the ride is a good idea, but he's out-voted and he decides after a couple of hours that it's no use to scowl anymore.

John takes a stroll into Bobby's house while the others check out old mouldy books - and there's a shitload of mouldy books all over the place, that's for sure. John notes those circles with symbols drawn in several places in the house, on ceilings and floor, and sneaking into a file left on a desk he sees notes about monsters and clippings from newspaper reporting deaths or missing persons. When John is sent to the kitchen for a beer run for everyone, he notices a row of telephones labeled with 'police', 'CIA', 'FBI' and wow, there's trouble in the making right there. John supposes that since most landlines don't work, those phones probably aren't in use anymore. He tries, for fun, and the police one is still working for some reason, for today at least. He's dialling McKay's number before he can think properly why he'd want to. After a couple of rings, a message starts.

"If you have at least two brain cells, you've noticed that you've reached my voice mail. I'm either too busy to answer or the signal can't reach me." John smiles at how McKay the message is. "You can leave a message, and I'll call you back as soon as I can. Or not. Oh and if it's you, I hope you're ok and came to your senses."

The last words make John gape, because he's 90% sure that they're meant for him. Surprised by the beep, John leaves a silent blank of a couple of seconds before hanging up. Heart beating hard, John curses himself, knows that McKay will trace the number and somehow will know it was him - which will make him look like a fool - so he dials the number again and when it beeps this time he speaks.

"I'm fine. If I ever change my mind, you'll know. Stay safe, Rodney."

Upon hanging up, John sees Dean who obviously overheard from the kitchen's doorway.

"That snotty Doctor wants to enroll you in whatever he does, too?" He asks.

John frowns, then remembers that Rodney said something about Dean not joining the light side of the force. Maybe the last part of the message was not for him, after all, and John half regrets calling back.

"McKay's an okay guy," John says with a shrug.

"He called me, you know," Dean says.

"Yeah, he said something about asking you to join his program or something."
Shaking his head, Dean precises.

"Yes, a while ago, but that's not what I meant. Must be 10 days ago now? Well McKay called, offering some supplies as if he does that every other month. I didn't quite get why until he tried to be casual about telling me how he spoke of us to this guy he knows, who was looking for a place to fight the Croats a couple of months ago."

"Rodney called to check if I'd made it?" John's surprised at this. He knew there was some concern about his wellbeing involved, but John would never have thought Rodney would check on him.

"Yeah. Then he sort of implied that I had a responsibility to keep you alive," Dean says, amused. "Why does he show such an interest in you, Sheppard?"

"He wants me to go back in the Air Force and all," John says with a shrug. "Thinks I'd make more of a difference with them." Which is not a lie, just not all of the truth.

Dean goes to the fridge to get the beer, eyeing him as he passes.

"Why don't you?"

John sighs.

"I don't wanna do bomb runs on Chicago."

Twisting the cap of his beer off, Dean visibly shudders. John thinks it's about the idea of bombing civilians, but then Dean mutters:

"Ugh, planes," before taking a couple of swallows.

Heresy! John goes to help him take out a couple more bottles and leans in to whisper in Dean's ear, getting just close enough to feel body heat.

"I'll have you know that doing barrel rolls in a jet is better than sex," John teases.

"Then obviously I did something wrong," Dean replies with a snort.

Grinning, John shrugs and goes back to the living room. They play cards waiting for the right time and it turns out that both Dean and Bobby are twice as devious at poker than John ever thought he was, even counting cards. Cleaning out poor Castiel is way too easy, though, especially when they gang up on him. Although at one point, John's pretty sure Cas cheated by "accidentally" touching him, the sneaky son of a bitch. When the hour gets near, Bobby prepares the potion and they all go in the living room to be in the same place while doing this.

Castiel is pacing around, which is pretty out of character for the guy; he's usually pretty mellow.

"I don't think I'll be able to know if you are in trouble. Maybe I should wake you up after 10 minutes."

Dean and Bobby look at each other, considering.

"Thirty?" Dean says and Bobby nods. Cas doesn't look too happy at the extended period of time, but agrees.

They all drink at the same time and the mixture tastes even fouler than John imagined. It doesn't help that he knows there are human hairs in there. John closes his eyes and when he opens them up again, they're still in Bobby's living room but Cas isn't there. They look at each other and John wonders why the angel suddenly left when with a look of determination Bobby stands up from his wheelchair. Bobby can't quite help the way the emotion washes on his face, longing and heartache, and John can't quite look at him, giving him a moment. Dean's face is not a safe place to look at, either, so John observes his blue jeans and wonders if he could have thought about wearing something else. When they turn black, he lets out a little 'huh' of surprise, then does the same with his shirt, changing it for the soft black one that used to be his favorite. When he looks up, Dean's observing him with raised eyebrows.

"Pretty cool," John declares.

"C'mon, we don't have time to accessorize," Bobby says, and he's walking to the door, peering outside by lifting a curtain. "Let's go find Sam."

If the house is safe and somehow familiar, as soon as they pass the threshold, it's a whole new ballgame. It's dusk, veering towards night time, and they're on a street in a city that is so destroyed, there is barely a structure left standing intact, which makes it hard to recognise. They walk for a block and finally see a man, standing still but with his back to them. Bobby and Dean don't say anything, slowly walking past him without paying him much attention apart from a courtesy glance that makes Dean scowl. When John passes near, a step behind the others, he looks back too and sees the man's eyes are pitch black and fixed on a point ahead. The more they advance on the street, the more bystanders they cross and they're all demons, all still and all looking towards the end of the street, as if waiting for someone.

Dean's fidgety, walking faster and faster, and John wonders if he's not going to start to run when he suddenly stops short. They've reached a curve and can see a crossroad in what seems to be the center of the desolate city, the street now packed dirt, and demons all around, maybe fifty of them. John can see a black Impala, Dean's Impala John realizes, beautiful and shining, stopped there in the middle of the crossroad and there's a man lying on the car, back against the windshield, long legs crossed on the hood and an arm thrown over his face to block out what's around. They have to slalom between the demons to make their way out of the small crowd and Dean finally speaks.

"Hey, Sammy," he says. Dean doesn't have to raise his voice because the place is silent, which makes it extra creepy.

John stays a bit behind, figures he better let them handle the thing if they can. Sam tenses up, it's noticeable even from 30 feet away.

"Son, we don't have much time, we just want to tell you..." Bobby starts, but immediately Sam sits up on the car and raises his hand, stopping him. It's like he blocked Bobby's ability to talk altogether, as his lips move but no sound come out. He doubles up, as if he's having trouble breathing, too.

"Oh, shut up. A double whammy, now? Dean and Bobby?" Sam says with a cruel little smirk.

Funnily, at that moment John can only think that he hadn't thought Sam would look like this: pretty in a way but with a very hard set to his jaw, a pointy nose and longish brown hair falling into his eyes. He doesn't look much like Dean physically, apart from the way he seems to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Dean seems to be stuck in non-talking mode, too, which doesn't please him at all. He takes a couple of steps towards Sam, gesturing angrily the universal sign for timeout, but that just makes Sam flip his hand some more and both Dean and Bobby end up tied up and lying flat on the dirt, with gags, trussed up like sausage.

"I told you that I didn't appreciate you taking my brother's appearance. I told you I've had enough," Sam says it softly, as if he's said it again and again, and from one moment to the next he vanishes from the car and appears crouching down right next to Dean, looking at his brother, vibrating with rage. "Why won't you leave me alone?"

Sam waits for a second, as if Dean should be able to answer even tied up like this, and seems a bit disappointed when he doesn't. John wonders if he should say something.

"You're really doing a fine impression of a pissed off Dean, I must say," Sam muses as he looks at his brother arching and twisting on the dirt, shooting glares. "I'm in no mood to play, I haven't been in a while. C'mon. What do you want me to do? Prove once again that I won't hesitate mock-killing you, even when you're wearing Dean's shape? Metaphorically kill Dean and Bobby at the same time, all that is left of my family? So I prove to myself that I'm just that gone? You know I am. Heck, I dream of being surrounded by demons, hearing the blood pulse in their bodies, remembering the rush..."

The scary thing is that Dean and Bobby writhing on the ground won't be able to stop Sam, if he ever decides to stop monologuing and get to the killing part, which might be under way with the way the two of them are starting to change color. John figures he should at least try something, maybe even now.

"Um. I advise against the killing, if that's alright with you," John finally says.

Sam does his ninja move thingy again and whoa, he's looming over John now, a lot taller than a little brother named Sammy has any right to be. His eyes are a bit crazy and John takes a step back, raising his hands in a placating fashion.

"Who the fuck are you?" Sam says, head tilting. "And why should I let you live, here or otherwise?"

So this talking thing is not going so well. John takes a deep breath.

"I'm John, Dean's friend," he says, trying to sound as non-threatening as can. "You should let us all live because Dean said if we die dream walking, we die for real."

At the mention of dream walking, Sam frowns and looks at Dean and Bobby, who are nodding with pleading eyes. He squints back at John.

"Doesn't make any sense. Dream walking? What for?"

"The only way to reach you, to tell you..." John starts to say.

Deep suspicion passes on Sam's face and suddenly John can't talk either, absolutely no sound coming out even if he forms the words. Air is pretty thin, too, so bad he has to fight to get enough oxygen. John breaks out a cold sweat, terrified and wonders how they're going to get out of this if Sam won't even hear them out.

"Bullshit. It's mind games again. To play with me, as if Dean gives a shit anymore." There's so much resignation and sadness in the guy, the way he truly believes he's all alone and surrounded with enemies that it's heartbreaking. John wishes he'd just let them speak, clear it out. "Anyway, Dean wouldn't bring along a civilian. It's all a ploy."

A civilian? John might be out of the Air Force, but he knows deep down he'll never be a simple civilian. All of a sudden, things get even darker, although he sees Sam raise his eyebrows in surprise. In a flash, John realises he's wearing his aviators and takes them off, looking at himself now dressed in his desert fatigues complete with name tag. Holy shit, that's so weird. His bewilderment must show on his face because Sam has a half smile.

"Creative. Okay, so maybe not a civilian," Sam says, and snaps his fingers. "You can talk. What's the message?"

John gasps, his throat freed. He puts his hands on his knees, takes a couple of breaths and straightens up.

"We're coming to Detroit." Sam looks suspicious again, and behind him Dean disappears. For a second, John's terrified Sam obliterated him, but he looks totally surprised at the turn of events himself, especially when Bobby follows suit.

"What's going on?" Sam asks, agitated, starting to get mad again.

Fuck, John doesn't have much time left.

"Castiel must be waking us up! Hang in there, Sam, don't give up. In two days. Dean says to find us like your Dad..." He doesn't manage to deliver the rest of the message that he's being shaken awake. He tries really hard not to let go, but it's like the link goes with a snap and John groans. The sudden change from dream to reality comes with nausea and a massive pounding headache, and judging from the two sets of pained groans coming from across the room, he's not alone. Castiel hovers over him, and probably satisfied John's breathing on his own then goes to Dean's side, helping him to sit up.

"Fuck, Cas," Dean says, voice wobbly. "I don't know if you have the best or the worst timing ever."

"Your bodies were not breathing well, Dean, I could not take the chance..." He's agitated and the lamps in the room do their change in intensity dance John noticed the last time Castiel was worried for Dean's life. Dean pats him on the arm.

"It's okay. Thanks for pulling me out," he says, and gradually the lights go back to normal as Castiel flops on the sofa beside Dean, looking shaken. Dean turns to John. "So?" He adds with a pleading look and John winces.

"I think I got through to him. But I'm not sure." If he only had had a couple more seconds to speak to Sam. "I could go back," he offers.

Bobby shakes his head.

"He probably woke up too. And not twice, not so close," he says and Dean nods, resigned. Bobby adds: "You did well, John."

"Yeah, thanks," Dean adds.

It wasn't much, and he could have done more, so John smiles tightly.

"I told Sam we'd be in Detroit in two days," he says.

"Oh, don't worry, we're leaving now and I'm not stopping 'till I get there," Dean declares, getting up and making a bee line for the kitchen. "We'll need coffee. Where's the good stash, old man?"

When Bobby starts to roll after Dean, John has to avert his eyes. Fuck. Must be hell to have walked again, even less than 30 minutes, and have it taken away again. Although, John figures, maybe Bobby dreams of walking every night. John sure still flies, sometimes, when he's lucky.

***

Chapter 5

 

They make it to the outskirts of Chicago in 12 hours. With the state of the roads nowadays, it's pretty impressive. They try to circumvent the city the best they can, but the circulation is dense with people fleeing, having thrown random possessions in their cars. For half a mile they follow a station wagon that has something wrapped in a carpet roped not that securely on the top of the car. John can't figure out what it could be until they finally pass the little family, a couple of babies and suitcases jammed in the back, and a piece of the carpet flaps, showing an old mirror. It just doesn't make any sense that they'd want to bring a mirror, he thinks. Then again, not many things make sense anymore. At one point Dean has to pull over to let a military convoy pass, with kids heavily armed with automatic weapons and a grim set to their faces. John looks the other way, but sends a thought for the safe return for as many of them as possible, thinking it can't hurt.

The atmosphere is pretty heavy in the SUV, and there's not much talking going on, but then again John doesn't mind. That he can keep the silence seems to be appreciated. Since they left Bobby's, they've rotated the driving between Dean, Cas (who's a good driver but insists on respecting speed limits no one enforces anymore), and John in about 4 hours shifts. When he's not driving, John watches the scenery whiz by, fields in disarray after being hit by tornadoes and floods inter-spaced by farms - that are burned down more often then not – and the shaky rumbles of little towns. Near Kalamazoo there's a pack of dogs near the road snarling at their vehicle as they pass, and John thinks it doesn't take much to go back to the wild, when necessity or disaster hits.

Detroit has long lost any semblance of organization, the crime rate having reached record levels in the last two years. While civic rights and freedom to assembly have been revoked all over America, here wannabe crime lords pop up every four blocks or so, soon followed by extremist vigilantes groups, who in the name of justice hit first and ask questions later. It's all about power. The last couple of weeks have been harsher, riots every night that are not deterred by an extreme weather vortex that seems to be circling the city. People have been blaming climate change, but the three men traveling with John talk of omens, the apocalypse and Lucifer. Both explanations make about the same amount of sense to him, to be honest.

When they make it to Detroit under the deadline, Dean insists on going to the motel he's sure Sam will know about, if he got the message right. The problem is that the place in question is smack dab in one of the worst neighborhoods to want to be in right now (which Dean actually thinks is not such a bad thing), but also that it's just a lot of rubble right now. Yes, there's a sign advertising the 243 W was once here, but the place itself burned down what looks like months ago.

"Okay, so that's a bust," John says, finally seeing it.

It's not just a bit damaged, it doesn't have a roof anymore and all.

"Whatever, I'm staying here," Dean says, determined.

"What?" Bobby asks, looking at him with disbelief. "There's nowhere to stay, Dean!"

Rolling his eyes, Dean gestures a bit.

"We'll find a place for you guys to stay close enough, and I'll come back here and sleep in the car."

"Of course, a two year old Escalade with all the trimmings" – because, they took John's car, again – "won't attract any unwanted attention," Bobby says as if he's going along, but yeah. Seriously. Just driving here made more than a dozen shady guys eyes shine with want, and it's plain day. John wonders if they're not in danger to lose their wheels while in the car as they speak.

"If this one is not standing, wouldn't the sane thing be to follow the Yellow Pages listing until the first motel that DOES, indeed, rent to customers?" John suggests, trying to be constructive while respecting, if possible, the John Winchester rule of finding your family when forced apart and living under aliases.

Castiel has a little laugh.

"But that would imply being sane..." he says with a sarcastic smile.

"Oh, shut up," Dean says, glaring at him. "Would take too long to drive around town and all."

"Let's find something close and think of something else," Bobby suggests and Dean scowls but does so. They end up two streets over, at the Motel 8, with two double rooms that must not have seen customers for a long long time. In fact, the big man with the out of control sideburns who lives out of unit 1 seems pole-axed for a second when they ask who's the owner, before shoving them the keys in exchange for 30 bucks and telling them there might not be running water. Great.

Bobby glares at Dean and tells him he's going to shack up with Castiel, who'll be able to not sleep and prevent Dean from slipping out, which of course pisses Dean off but he ducks in his room nonetheless. By default, John's rooming with Bobby which even if he likes the man for his no nonsense attitude, is a bit disappointing. John would have appreciated another chance at Dean and an orgasm or two before possibly meeting the Devil. Odds being what they are, this could be his last night on Earth. But John's not even stretched completely on his bed before Dean is popping his head in the room to say there's no way he's staying here doing nothing and that he's going to spend the night at the burned down motel anyway.

"Dean..." Bobby says with a groan and what seems a life full of exasperation pushing it out, "John told Sam we'd arrive tomorrow, he won't show tonight. There's nothing over there but trouble."

"What if..." Dean starts, obviously angsty that something finally gives.

John gets it, that Dean just wants to get this over with as soon as possible, and if all goes well, grab his brother and run. He doubts that it's going to be that easy. John hates to gang up on the guy, but rest would not be a luxury, for anyone.

"Bobby's right. I'll go get you at 0500, we'll be there at sunrise."

Dean shoots him a look that's half pissed, half betrayed and then he sighs.

"Okay, fine. You wusses. I'll send Cas for the first shift to watch the car. Sheppard you're second," he says, then leaves making the door close hard, and John can hear him stomp to the other room.

At least they'll have time to rest, John figures, although his night will be cut in the middle by the guard shift (John always hated the middle spot). But it's true that if they wanna keep the wheels, someone must be in it, or lying against it, with a gun. John goes to check the bathroom, bringing his duffel: there's water, although the pressure is anemic at best. Better than nothing, so John fills the sink and does a courtesy wash up, then brushes his teeth. When he goes back into the room, Bobby's already in his bed so John turns in too. Bobby's not sleeping, John doesn't think so, but John doesn't know what to say. He's about to settle for a good night when Bobby speaks up.

"Will you do me a favor, John?"

"Sure."

"Whatever happens tomorrow, stay close to Dean. He's going to try a stupid stunt, I know it," Bobby says.

"And I'm supposed to what, hold him back?" John wonders; he's sure done his fair share of stupid stunts himself.

"Maybe. Calm him down. Tell him to be careful. He listens to you, which, let me tell you, is as rare as the Pope's shit."

John wonders why that is, since he appeared out of nowhere four months ago, and yeah they've worked together fine and generally get along, but what... then he grins.

"Must be my first name," John says.

Bobby has a surprise laugh at that, and that's a first. He doesn't look like a man who has laughed much in the last years.

"Could be. He sure listened to Daddy Dearest." With that, Bobby sighs and looks at the ceiling. "John Fucking Winchester was one tough son of a bitch. I nearly offed him myself because he was a pain in the ass, but I'd give anything to have a dozen like him with us now."

There's a contemplative quality to the silence that follows.

"What's gonna happen tomorrow, Bobby?" John finally asks. Is it going to be as bad as you guys lead me to believe, he doesn't dare to voice.

"It depends on Sam, I guess. If Lucifer or his minions show up. I don't have a clue. But Dean's going to try to bring Sam back no matter what, kicking and screaming if he has to."

It doesn't make much sense, if you ask John.

"Why did he leave him on his own that long, then?" You just don't do that, you don't leave anyone behind, all on their own!

"Because he's one stubborn little shit. He really thought he was protecting Sam by them staying apart. I guess it just finally dawned on him that he was wrong. Those two, really..."

"Is it all true? The deals? Hell?" John's been wondering about it while sitting in the car for hours. All he's got that's concrete enough is witnessing some serious mojo from Castiel. Dean, on the other hand, could be delusional, and have made up an intricate sob story. He could easily be lots of fries short of a happy meal.

"'Fraid so," Bobby says. "Look outside, listen to the news and try to tell me this isn't the end of the world."

"Point." If he'd imagine the Apocalypse, this wouldn't be far from it. Maybe with added brimstone.

On the other hand, Bobby could be missing some marbles too. Still, all of this, the fact that if Dean, Bobby and Castiel are to be believed and what's turning the World upside down and inside out is a biblical apocalypse? It makes John wonder if it's not all way over his head. He's been in (and thrown out) of private catholic schools all through his childhood, but the faith he was taught about was never backed up at home so John never really believed in organized religion. Right and wrong, doing your best so the scales tip on the good side, sure. God and Lucifer, archangels and the four horsemen? Not so much.

"Just be careful tomorrow," Bobby says gruffly.

"I'll do my best."

"Those idjits are... they're all I got left." Sons to me, John hears loud and clear.

"From what I've seen and heard, they're worse than cockroaches, so..." John says, which is a pretty awful thing so say now that he thinks about it. Thank god Bobby doesn't sound offended.

"Got that right."

"Night Bobby," John says.

"Yeah, you too."

John's been trained to fall asleep at the merest opportunity to do so, but it's harder tonight. He doesn't hear anything from the other room, so he supposes Dean's not exploring his chances at sexing up an angel, yet, which gives him a small sense of satisfaction. At least he won't be the only one to not get amazing sex before death.

***

The burnt motel looks even worse when they walk to it at dawn, probably because they inspect it closer and are hit with the smell of it. Obviously it's been used as a dump and a couple of rats scuttle away when John kicks at rubble. Dean is as tense as a bow, has been up for hours now because he took the last shift watching the car. Castiel is looking around, skittish like John's never seen him. Bobby stayed at the motel where they slept with the SUV, and Dean has a radio to call him in case of emergency. How Bobby could either come and get them or get away on his own is glossed over and John just shuts up because he doesn't want to bring it up.

They've crossed the path of five locals who eyed them speculatively, but then noticed Dean's rifle and blood-shot eyes and decided wisely to carry on. John sits down on the cement slab of what must have been right in front of the motel's office and watches the windows of the apartment blocks across the street, quiet still at this hour, no one stirring. Dean paces, movements fluid and restrained, while Castiel stays still, now, eyes closed as if he's trying to smell or sense something.

There are no cars, no one walking by and everything but Dean is still. John starts to think that this could be it, really, they could be the last 3 human beings left in the world. A crow decides to break the silence before flapping away. There used to be a store at the first level of the block across the street. The windows have been shut by plywood, but the door is ajar, which means whatever was in it - there's no sign that John can see to tell him what it was - has been looted long ago. John happens to be looking at it when there's a tiny movement: the door moved. He focuses his attention there, always coming back to it after sweeping the perimeter, and after a couple of minutes there is definitely some movement inside. John turns to Dean, about to discretely inform him, but it hasn't escaped his notice either. Dean's still pacing but definitely keeping the door in his line of sight at all times.

There must be a way to go check it out and keeping at least a tiny advantage in the surprise department. The way John sees it, they're pretty much sitting ducks, here in the open. What's annoying is that there is no way to know if it's only one person in the closed up store, if they're in any way related to the Sam situation and even if they're armed or not. These days, though, pretty much everyone who wants a chance to survive is armed, even kids. John gets up and stretches, turns his back to the street to shield his movements as he tells Dean just loud enough that he'll go take a leak while describing what he intends to do in a couple hand gestures. Dean nods, and John turns the corner by the motel, then sprints in the alley between the motel and a decrepit old 4 apartment block, weaves between the cars parked at the back of it before running back to the street on the other side of the block.
John glances rapidly to the store, now a bit out of the way, and Dean is still pacing, although he has changed his path so it takes him to and fro from the motel to the street now obliquely. Only a couple of feet closer, but he's anticipating John's move. When Dean turns his back and starts waking away from him, John hopes that whoever is in the block is following him with their eyes. John runs rapidly across the street, before plastering himself against the wall. When Dean turns around again, John starts advancing as silently as he can, but still as fast as he can, towards the door that is slightly ajar.

There is no safe way to do this, and John hopes whomever inside doesn't shoot out of nerves. When Dean is as close as he used to get with his pacing, John kicks in the door, yelling as he does so:

"Police, everybody down!" He's not been in the police in a long time, but he knows that for some people it triggers a moment of confusion that can be enough. There is a startled yelp and John aims at a shadow who jumps back. "Don't move or I shoot!"

The damn store is dimly lit, and although the early morning sun outside was weak at best, the contrast is bad enough that John can't really assess in how much trouble he could be. He moves fast to take cover by an old desk and Dean's barging in, gun at the ready, sees where John is aiming and does the same.

"Who's there?" He asks, voice low and dangerous. It's all fine and dandy to be two against one, or so it seems, but the problem could be someone who shoots first and tries to talk later. Luckily for them, it's not the case.

"Whoa there, cowboys," a definite feminine voice says, although those days it doesn't mean it's safer, if anything the ladies are more of the 'better safe than sorry, let's shoot first' school. "Everyone breathes and no one will get hurt."

Slowly John can distinguish more and he's pretty sure now that there's no one else in the store.

"Sure sweetheart," Dean says, although his tone is anything but seductive. "You come out nice and slow and we'll all play nice."

There's sigh and effectively the shadow in the back raises her arms, holding a pistol loosely by the barrel as a show of good faith before walking around from behind the counter where she was hidden, then takes two steps forward.

"Put the gun on the floor," John says, and she complies, before pushing it towards him.

As soon as she does, John gets up from his crouch and advances rapidly on her, wary that she could be hiding another weapon. She doesn't move from her non threatening pose and John does a thorough frisk. The girl is maybe five foot eight, lean and toned, pretty in a non conventional way with very dark eyes and longish curly black hair in a ponytail. She's wearing a flannel shirt over a tank top with skin tight jeans, but not packing any more apart from a big knife John takes from her left high boot.

"Why are you here?" Dean asks. John knows Dean wants to ask about Sam.

"Why are you guys here?" She counters, crossing her arms and tilting her head. "All I saw was three armed strangers who seemed to be waiting for trouble."

"None of your business," Dean replies, then squints. "Cas?" He then calls up.
"Is everything okay?" The angel says, appearing in the doorway. He was just outside it seems.

"Yes."

Dean gestures to John, who instead of pulling on the girl's arm to make her go forward, casually shows the way with his hand, although he's ready for any sudden movement. The young woman seems to appreciate not being manhandled and isn't difficult, walking until she's in the small patch of light given by the door. With a guesstimate, John figures she must not be much over twenty, probably of Latino heritage. She's a proud one, for sure, holding straight and keeping a you-don't-phase-me attitude as Dean watches her critically.

"Is that her?" Dean asks Castiel.

"What?" She says, puzzled but Castiel is nodding.

"Yes, it's the girl in Chuck's vision," he confirms.

That seems to appease Dean a little.

"What?" the girl asks again. Then she frowns. "Who's Chuck?"

"Ah, well see, I don't have time to explain right now," Dean says with a small smile that's not really pleasant. "Where's Sam? Can you take us there?"

Suddenly, the girl doesn't seem so bullet-proof anymore and she recoils a bit, only to bump into John, which makes her jump.

"I don't know what you are talking about."

Dean scratches his feet on the door's threshold and scatters salt around. John had noticed some at the motel, too, and Bobby had said it was to keep the demons out. Which... yeah.

"I think you know exactly whom I'm talking about," he sighs, bows his head and when he looks up again he looks way more vulnerable. Surprised at the sudden show of emotion on a guy that usually just radiates anger and nothing else, John wonders if it's an act. "Look, we're not the bad guys here. Sam's my brother, I just want to see him."

The girl still shakes her head.

"Look, I can't..." and she shuts her mouth. Opens it and then shuts it again, looking frustrated. "Even if I wanted," she then says with a shrug. Dean looks impressed.

"The sneaky son of a bitch. He cursed you?"

She nods, smirking.

"But you could lead us there, right?"

Once more she seems to hesitate.

"Look, I know you guys have been on the run for a while, and you don't know us," John starts, taking his reasonable voice. "I swear we just want to talk to him."

She sighs and Dean, who is definitely losing his patience, just snaps.

"Cas."

With the air of a guy who doesn't like to be asked to do it, Castiel steps forward with a small apologetic smile.

"I'm sorry but..." He takes her hand. She tries to pull away, but Cas is griping it tight, looking at her intently.

"Hey!" She protests but after a couple of seconds Castiel lets her go.

"I'm sorry Dolores," he says. "This will save time for everyone. I can take you to Sam now, Dean, it's not very far."

The girl's eyes are huge.

"Shit! What was that? and please, don't Dolores me. Only my mom used... I'm Dee," she says, rapidly landing on her feet and starting to give them a you-don't-impress-me attitude, but John knows she's shaken. He tries to sound as friendly as possible.

"I'm John, this is Dean, Sam's brother, and our friend here with the super powers is Castiel."

Dean rolls his eyes but he's already shooing Cas in motion, who instead of going back on the street starts to cross the store, going for the far wall. The back door, of course. They all fall in step and John keeps Dee in front of him, since no one knows what she could try. Cas didn't specify that her intentions were bad, but he prefers not taking any chances. The back exit leads into a dark alley that smells of piss and garbage, and they follow it a bit, then Castiel starts leading them in the streets, the neighborhood here completely in ruins. There doesn't seem to be anyone living in what used to be apartment buildings save from animals that used to be pets. It's lucky that the Croatoan epidemic hasn't reached Detroit in a big capacity yet, because it would be the perfect place for an ambush. John thinks of Chicago, which just got two thirds of the downtown area quarantined, and wonders just how much time Detroit still has.

"Sam might not be there. He could be gone for good," Dee says after five minutes.

"Bullshit, you're a scout. You have to report," Dean counters.

"Not until noon," Dee says with a sigh. "And he usually finds me, not the other way around."

At that Dean looks back, with a frown.

"And what does that mean? He moves all the time and you trail?"

Dee scoffs, and her pony tail swings with her head.

"Well, he used to. Now I'm not so sure. It's like he's just waiting to be found," she sounds bitter. "Might as well put a neon sign, make it faster for that bastard to find him."

"Then we'll find him first," John says, to redirect Dean's focus towards him. "Would Sam try to attack us, like the other day?"

He still remembers having his wind pipe crushed and how it hurt even when he woke up.

"If he believed you for the dream walking, I don't think so. Not the old Sam. But who knows." I don't know him anymore seems to hang in the air.

"It's here", Castiel says, stopping before a building that's in even worse shape than the others. Normally, John would not even set a foot in there, too worried to fall a couples of floors lower unexpectedly. "I can't go in," Cas announces, kicking rubble.

"He angel proofed it?" John asks, as Dean follows a weird graffiti with his fingers. "Why would he..."

Castiel looks at him with disappointment.

"Lucifer is a fallen angel, John," Cas says.

Oops. Yeah, right. Although seriously, not remembering things like that from school should not be held against him.

"Oh. True." He didn't know that the Devil being an ex-angel still held, he'd thought leading Hell would rip you of any or all angel characteristics and/or obligations to respect squiggly lines on the wall.

So Castiel stays out, and it seems Dee decided it's no longer necessary that she tags along, so she just stops right there too. Dean and John enter the building and it's really a big heap of crap, walls bashed in, trash everywhere, and graffiti on the walls. Dean glances down at a heavy line of salt by the threshold and makes sure to walk over it, so John does the same. It stinks in here and John can't wait to get out. Since there's two ways to go, either downstairs in what promises to be a creepy basement or upstairs into the unstable unknown of whatever still stands past the lobby, Dean stops and considers. After all, years apart or not, they're still after his brother. Personally, John would go up, where fire exits and windows exist for your convenience, because who knows if there's a way to get out from the basement.

Dean hesitates, and just when John is about to nudge him to take a decision, he bellows.

"Sammy!" Said as Sammeh, familiar and heartfelt.

John almost jumps out of his skin, as he was totally not expecting that. Way to go on the stealth department. On the other hand, they're not trying to surprise Sam but to prove him they are who they said they were in the dream. So if that's the way Dean used to look for Sam? Good idea to use it. It sure sounded like something Dean had shouted a million times.

If anything, it's what saves them because there's a chuckle from the side of the room they're in. It comes from behind an armchair where John would never had thought someone would be hiding, it's so hideous. Seriously remiss on his part, because when he swivels towards it, they have a rifle aimed at their head. Well at Dean's head. Sam, because it's definitely the same guy as in the dream, hair even wilder and looking worse for wear with exhaustion, is looking at them with a smirk.

"Hey Dean." Eyes fixed on his brother, as if not completely sure it's not a dream. "Sheppard," he says, acknowledging his presence and John wonders for a second how he knows his last name before he remembers the name tag on the uniform in the dream. Sam might say John's name but does not even spare a glance his way. It's like being completely dismissed and John figures it gives him a tiny advantage, as he trains his own gun on the guy's head. Who knows how far gone he is.

Dean seems just as fascinated, eating up Sam's appearance and frowning at the result. He doesn't lower his gun, neither does his brother.

"Hey," Dean says. "You look like shit."

That makes Sam's lips curl in an approximate of a closed mouthed smile.

"Thanks. What are you doing here, Dean?" In Detroit, in this building, talking to me, in regards of the apocalypse. It's a question that obviously has many levels and meaning.

Dean looks pained, winces.

"It can't go on like this, Sam," it's soft, an apology in itself.

"I know," Sam says, and all of a sudden he sags, lowering his rifle and puts a hand on the ugly ugly armchair as if he needs the support. "I know." When he looks up, it's with a flicker on his face that almost looks like hope. "You've got the Colt?"

Dean lowers his gun too, and takes a couple of steps forward, as if called to Sam but forces himself to stop half way. It doesn't look easy for him to do.

"No." Shameful, Dean looks down.

"What?" Sam looks confused and lost once more. "You found another way?"

Shaking his head, Dean admits the cold hard truth.

"I didn't find anything at all, Sammy. I'm sorry."

If possible, Sam crumbles even more unto himself, his face falling. But it lasts only a second and he composes a bland mask, then straightens up. God the man is tall. John had thought maybe it was exaggerated by the dream.

"Okay, okay," he says. "But you still have Ruby's knife, right?"

At that, Dean looks confused.

"I do, but... it didn't even tickle Cas, back then, why..." John isn't sure what Dean is talking about but he does see Dean's face as he somehow gets why Sam asked. "Oh no, no way. No no no." Dean actually steps back.

"I can't by myself," Sam says softly.

"You tried?" Dean squeaks, getting flustered. "Jesus Christ, Sammy!"

Throwing his arms open wide, Sam raises his voice, suddenly pissed off.

"Seemed like a good idea at the time, what do you think! A way to end it all, small price to pay! Obviously it didn't work, but the knife..." Sam says with seems like longing.

In a flash of insight, John figures they are speaking about the knife that makes the demons sparkle. It kills them dead, Dean had explained later, do not go to Hell, do not collect $200. And then it adds up, what Sam's asking and why Dean looks pole-axed and doesn't even reply.

After a bit of a stare off, Sam hits the chair, then passes a hand on his face before combing his hair back.

"Jesus Fuck, Dean, you promised me." He sighs. When he talks again it's resigned and dispassionate. "If that's not why you're here, what do you want?"

The way Sam is pretty much listless puts in contrast the nerves humming below Dean' skin, all kinetic energy ready to burst out.

"Well first, we've got to leave this place, he's close. Too close."

Sam shakes his head.

"I'm tired of running, Dean. I can't do it anymore."

He does look exhausted, worn out. But the mere idea to wait and see doesn't cut it with Dean, who gestures at their surroundings.

"And what, you'll stay holed up in this dump until he finds you? Give up?"

Sam straightens a bit, tilt his head to the side.

"I never said anything about giving in to what he wants. I'm just done running."

It makes Dean pause, considering.

"What, you want to fight Lucifer? Do you have anything that might work?"

Jaw clenching, defeat gives way to anger again on Sam's face.

"No, that's kind of why I was hoping you were bringing the fucking Colt!"

It generates a similar reaction in Dean, who kicks at some rubble, probably feeling even guiltier that the plan to get the Colt backfired so spectacularly on them.

"Well I don't have it. What a fucking stupid plan. He's gonna trick you, or else kill you."

"He won't trick me," Sam declares.

"You can't outsmart the Devil, Sam," Dean says.

Sam shrugs, showing he knows that and is prepared for it.

"He's hoping Lucifer will kill him," John spells out, because obviously Dean doesn't want to hear all of what Sam is not saying, but is still there, loud and clear. Dean gapes at John, then scowls at Sam.

"Tell me that's not your plan," Dean asks Sam.

Shrugging again.

"The vessel he's wearing is holding up with duct tape at this point," Sam explains. "He's desperate for a change, but I won't give in. He's vulnerable like he probably never was before. If I can get him angry enough to waste his other option..."

"And by that you mean you," Dean points.

"If he wastes me, his days are numbered, I'm sure of it," Sam says.

"What a shitty plan. He found one temporary vessel, who says he won't do it again?" Dean counters.

"Waited 3 years, didn't do it."

"And if he captures you, then tries to wear you down?" Dean asks.

The wince in Sam's expression is clear enough. He knows that's one of the weaker points of his plan.

"It would... suck." Probably the understatement of the millennium. "I won't say yes," Sam affirms.

"No," Dean says. Definitive, in a 'do not even bother to argue with me' tone. He even has the face to go with it.

"What, no?" Sam says, blinking.

"I veto this plan on the grounds that it's insane. You're obviously delirious and not in your right mind," Dean declares, with expressive gestures on the side of his head. It makes Sam roll his eyes.

"It's my decision to make, Dean."

"The hell. You're coming with me and we'll look at whatever comes next when we get there," Dean declares, as if it's all settled.

"What happened to the fire and oil of the Armageddon, how we're supposed to stay as far as possible from each other?" Sam asks, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Well that's over," Dean says simply. "World is ending anyway, so fuck it all. You're coming with me and that's it."

A twitch makes the corner of Sam's mouth curl up. "That's it, huh?"

Dean nods.

"Yup. Got anything to say against that?"

Sam sighs, then with a tiny jerk of a shoulder he shrugs.

"I guess not."

He might try to play nonchalant, but Sam can't quite hide the sudden way his body relaxes. Dean sees it too and the grin on his face is nothing like John has ever seen before. Reassured at his welcome, Dean briskly walks forward and Sam stumbles towards him until they're crushing each other in a hug so tight John wonders about breathing capabilities. It's so out of the range of anything he'd ever experienced himself that John felt uncomfortable even witnessing it. He turns his back to the brothers, who just don't seem to want to let go anytime soon, and walks out of the building.

***

Chapter 6

 

Back on the street, John comes face to face with an angel and a young woman with round eyes, looking at him expectantly.

"So?" Dee asks. "I didn't hear any gunfire..."

John snorts.

"As family reunion goes, I've seen worse," John says, which seems to make Castiel relax. Obviously they couldn't hear what was going on inside.

"I am glad," Castiel says.

It takes a couple of minutes before Dean gets out himself and he's pulling Sam along with a strong grip on his brother's forearm. To be honest, Sam looks a bit disoriented while Dean is smiling with what seems like genuine happiness for once and he looks years younger by doing so. Upon seeing Sam, Castiel smiles at him, one of the rare ones where he shows teeth at all.

"Happy to see you, Sam," he says while stepping forward and Sam smiles back.

"Hey, Cas," he lets Castiel come in for a hug, then looks him over. "Wow, I never thought I'd see the day that you'd be out of that trench coat."

It doesn't make much sense to John but Dean laughs out loud.

"You have no idea how hard it was to make him give it up." Dean fakes being annoyed but his lips are twitching.

Castiel rolls his eyes.

"It was a comfortable and practical garment," he says, but then smiles again, winks at Sam. "I kept it."

Sam laughs, surprised and John is struck at how beautiful it makes him. It seems like a crime that it must be rare.

"This is all fine and dandy, blah blah, lovely reunion and all," Dee says, "but I think we should get away from here."

Sam frowns, looks around and now that John is paying attention, he realizes the sky that has been so clear just moments ago is covering up, fast, as the wind picks up. He doesn't know if all this talk about demons and devils are making him paranoid, but it's like they're being observed. John raises his gun and sees from the corner of his eye that Sam and Dean are doing the same. Castiel is not smiling anymore and he turns to the south of the alley.

"You must all go. Now," he declares. "I'll try to slow him down."

Dean doesn't seem to be really on board with that plan.

"No way, Cas. You're coming with us."

"I'm so going," Dee says, starting to walk backwards, ready to flee as soon as they decide to move. She looks terrified and John wonders how many times she outran the Devil since she's been hanging out with Sam.

"Dean, if we want any chance to get out, we need to..." Sam says but Dean is grabbing Castiel by this jacket.

"Cas, come on, man. A couple of minutes won't make a difference," Dean says.

It might and they are losing those precious minutes right now, John thinks, but he can't imagine leaving Cas behind either to be slaughtered, or whatever Lucifer has in store. Castiel clenches his jaw and he's about to shake the hand on him when Dean pleads.

"Please, Cas. I need you with me." That does get to Castiel, who scans Dean's face before relenting.

"All right," he says. "But if..."

Dean taps him on the shoulder, smiles.

"We'll see about it when we get there. Let's go children!" He barks and they all start to run.

"Where's your car Dee?" Sam shouts, as they weave through the small alley roughly in the direction they came from earlier.

"Just next to the place you asked me to check out, genius," she says, and it makes John smile. Girl's got spunk, that's for sure.

The streets are not as empty as they were, as people start their day, and at one point they are about to cut near a building when 3 people round the corner. Castiel hisses, much like a pissed off cat and he grabs Dean who's in the lead and was about to go that way to stop him.

"They found us."

Dean swears and makes them change course. John figures the 3 strangers are demons a moment before their eyes turn black, and then they grin and start to run towards them. John supposes they were sent to slow them down and if possible capture them. It's like the word got out and after two or three blocks running and seeing their escape routes being cut, John wonders if they'll have to fight their way out. Too bad John remembers that bullets didn't stop that demon in Crowley's house, so he doesn't see that particular idea going so well. When once more they have to turn around from the path Dean was trying to take and start sprinting towards the other side of yet another alley, John muses out loud.

"There's always clear path for us!" He shouts. That's not normal, they've turned around so many times, they'd have to be surrounded by now.

Dean doesn't pay him any attention but Sam throws John a quick look over his shoulder, frowning.

"Fuck, he's right, they're herding us like sheep," Sam says.

The problem is that with the little group of demons hot on their tail, they can't afford to stop and chat about the best way to lose them while not going exactly where Lucifer wants them to go.

"We have to go across!" John says gesturing perpendicularly to the alleyway they've been following, which is easier said then done. They all start looking up, trying to find any escape possible and Dean points to a busted window on the second floor of the next block over.

"Over there, hurry."

Without more explanation Dean hauls himself up on an overflowing dumpster and jumps on a metal emergency exit ladder. It unfolds jerkily, coming down, and Dean climbs it like a monkey, soon clearing the rest of glass off the window sill and peering in. Sam is next up on the ladder and John holds it in place as Castiel helps Dee to reach the bottom by boosting her up, then following suit. John keeps his gun trained on the entrance of the alley, expecting the demons any second. Maybe they are overconfident because he can hear them laughing and coming closer, as John finally makes his way up and into the empty apartment, Dean having opened what used to be a kitchen door. John hurries to close it behind him and he peers down, wondering if they've been seen entering. The demons appear, walking briskly and by the way they just head for the end of the alley and don't look up, John figures they are, for now, hidden. At the very least, if they can't get out on the other side, this will be a way better defensive position.

Dean's looking into the mostly unhinged cupboards, while Sam looks inside what must have been a pantry but they come out with nothing but matching scowls.

"No salt," Dean hisses.

"Same here," Sam replies.

"Maybe we just should, I don't know, get the fuck out?" Dee says, obviously not impressed by the lack of condiments.

"They won't be fooled for long," confirms Castiel.

"Okay, okay, let's go," Dean shushes and he makes clearing signs at Sam, who falls in step behind him. John makes Castiel and Dee follow as he takes their little party's six.

The apartment seems abandoned and no one came to investigate the glass breaking when they got in, but who knows who or what could be squatting here or next door. John looks at how Sam and Dean clear each room before they pass through, textbook procedure and maximal efficiency if he ever saw it. They don't even have to make eye contact, it's like they've done it a million times over, even if they haven't seen each other in what, three years? The ease of it is like pieces slotting into place and John understands that the little flaw he had noticed very few times in Dean in previous missions - not always checking his right - was in fact just because he was so used to have Sam there that he sometimes didn't immediately remember he had to cover that angle. John used to have that chemistry with Dex after a couple of months flying the Black Hawks in formation in Afghanistan; there's nothing quite the same as knowing a buddy's got your back.

They rapidly leave the apartment by its front door, run down the stairs to the ground level and regroup in the lobby, on the other side of the building now.

"Where now?" Dee asks.

"Is your car near?" Sam counters.

She shrugs, apologetic.

"Not sure, everything looks the same, we turned around so much."

"I think we should do it again, go through the warehouses over there." John points to the old factory on the other side of the street. "They'll check this street pretty soon, whichever way we try to go."

The brothers nod, both trying to sneak peeks outside almost in sync and it would be funny if they had the luxury to laugh at little things like that.

"Ok, on three, we cross and go to that garage door over there," Dean points where a door is opened but where no one is in sight, at least for the moment. Whoever stays or does business there must not be far away because no one ever leaves doors wide open, unless they want to invite trouble right in. "Ready?"

On three they run to the other side of the street, and John glances to each side but doesn't see anyone looking at them with intent. Of course they raise attention because five people running across a street does that, especially in a city like Detroit and a neighborhood like this, but it's early still and apart from a couple of teens and an old man smoking on his balcony, a rifle by his leg, they don't seem to care. If the demons ask, they'll tell though, so they need to get going. They're barely completely inside, in what used to be the loading section for merchandise that was ready to be shipped when they're hailed and come to a stop.

"Hey hey hey, where the fuck do you guys think you're going?" A guy closer to 7 feet than to 6 - and with the weight to back it up - yells at them, accompanying his question with a handgun steadily trained on Dean's head.

One guy, even a mammoth, wouldn't be so bad, but in the following seconds, John can hear the snick snick snick of several safeties being pulled off guns from all around. They are easily outnumbered and that's just the ones John can see. He doesn't quite know where to point his own gun until he follows Dean and Sam's example and raises it over his head, letting it dangle between thumb and index. He really doesn't want to drop it, though. John loves that gun.

"Sorry, we're just passing through," Sam says with a smile that's a little strained. "We didn't mean to bother."

The Big Guy snorts.

"I don't think so."
"Look, man..." Dean starts but the Big Guy's friends start to come out of the shadows and some look way too twitchy for John's taste.

"Shut up and put your fucking guns on the fucking floor, right the fuck now," their new friend says, with a slightly maniacal smile, eying them in a way John's not really comfortable with. They are in so much shit right now, John can't count the ways. The demons are surely bound to appear soon, on top.

"We don't have time for this," Castiel says, getting agitated.

"Cas..." Dean tries to shush him, making a sheepish smile at their audience.

"Dean, we can't let Lucifer catch Sam. We have to get away right now," Castiel says.
And yeah, that was a bit too loud and a bunch of eyebrows rise in response. Maybe a couple of lips twitch too but Dean really doesn't seem amused.

"What? Enough nonsense, boys and girl, the junk goes on the floor right the fuck now and it's the last fucking time I say it," Big Guy says, taking a couple of steps towards them and boy, John hands twitch with the need to take his gun properly and play all or nothing.

Castiel, who doesn't look impressed one bit, walks towards the Big Guy and straightens up.

"No. We're going to pass through this building, and get out on the other side. With no problems."

It takes balls of steel to do that, walk to a gun in the hand of an enemy and the Big Guy seems to respect it, if anything. Doesn't mean he won't put a hole in Castiel's forehead in the next minute though.

"Oh yeah? And who are you to say that, pretty boy?" He says with a menacing smile.

The neons in the joint start to flicker and then raise in intensity, something John has noticed when Castiel is about to demonstrate angel mojo, but what comes next literally takes his breath away. Cas looks at the Big Guy right in the eyes and declares:

"I am Castiel, an Angel of the Lord."

And with that comes the coolest thing John has ever seen. Enormous black wings, intangible as if made of smoke, open behind Castiel. They are still real enough to strike wonder, though, as they deploy in the bright artificial light for a handful of seconds before folding back again towards Castiel. On top of the wing effect, there's some weird bluish light that seems to aureole the angel and peer out of his eyes and mouth. When he stops glowing, Castiel tilts his head to the side and asks.

"Any other questions?"

As everyone else in the room save maybe for Dean and Sam, the Big Guy is gaping like a fish.

"We're going, now. May God protect you," Cas says, turning with a flounce and he starts to walk towards the back of the room.

Sam tugs on John's sleeve as they all get in motion behind him. No one moves to stop them, the place now alight with whispers and they soon manage to get trough the building and find a way out.

"Jesus Christ, Cas, what are you trying to do? Why not a fucking laser show pointing that we're here, while you're at it?" Dean says when they're relatively alone.

"It's the only way Sam will escape," Castiel says, unperturbed.

When they get out in the alley, that is even narrower than the ones they've been running through earlier, Cas takes a little flask out of his shirt pocket. John has seen the angel drink and even touch a bit of drugs, but now's not really the time... although now that he thinks of it, John would take a stiff drink right now too, 7 am or not. But it doesn't seem to be alcohol - too syrupy - when Cas pours it as he makes a circle on the pavement around himself that takes almost all the width of the alley, which makes Dean frown.

"The hell?" He mutters, then his face changes as he obviously gets what the heck Castiel is doing. "You knew Lucifer would sense that. You did it on purpose."

Castiel puts the flask back in his pocket and turns to them.

"Yes. And now you all get away," Cas says, pointing to one side of the alley.

"Not without you," Dean says, squaring his shoulders.
John can relate with the sentiment, although by the set of his jaw, Castiel doesn't seem to want to budge.

"Aww, how touching," someone says, making John jump in surprise. He could have sworn there was no one in the alley beside them, but now there is, a tall dude with a nice build, but once John reaches his face he has an involuntary recoil movement - every inch of the man's face is covered with bad burns, the skin peeling. John notices that Sam and Dee take a step back too, Sam especially who's eyes get round enough to see the white.

"Fuck," he breathes.

Dean and Castiel spin around to face the newcomer who's chuckling.

"Still trying to delay the inevitable, brother?" He asks Castiel.

The angel takes a half step to get slightly in front of Dean, protective.

"Lucifer," Castiel salutes stiffly.

John had a doubt but when it's confirmed, he winces. The big bad wolf in person, then. At least he doesn't have his demons with him, yet.

"Wow, you're one ugly son of a bitch," Dean says, always so fantastic with the PR. "And me who thought Lucifer was the most beautiful of the Angels."

It makes Lucifer grin, which looks frankly disgusting, teeth and gums showing through mangled flesh.

"Why do you think I will only settle for Sammy?" He jibes back, then looks at Sam intently. "Hey there."

"I won't say I'm happy to see you," Sam tells him, but that's it, he doesn't move or try to get away. In fact, he just looks defeated again.

Lucifer puts a hand that's more bone than anything on his chest.

"You hurt me, Sam," he mocks.

"Leave him alone," Castiel all but growls. "He won't be your vessel."

Sam seems rooted in place and John is not quite sure what to do, Dee on the other hand decides to act while Lucifer's attention is not on them anymore.

"I'm so not staying here. I know where my car is, now, I'll be at the burnt motel. Although if he comes close? I'm outta here," she whispers, then takes a couple of careful steps away before breaking into a run. Lucifer doesn't even deign acknowledging the escape.

When Lucifer steps forward, he gestures and Cas falls to his knees with a pained gasp.

"I'm tired of your guard dog routine, Castiel. You know you don't have what it takes to fight me. That you used all the power you had left for that little stunt just now," he says lightly.

The casual way Lucifer says it doesn't soften the blow: if Cas doesn't have mojo anymore, John figures they're pretty much screwed. He wonders if he should run like Dee, maybe save his sorry hide, especially when Sam looks at him and jerks his head towards the end of the alley, encouraging him to do so. But if here's the big showdown, it would be pretty pointless to delay death when the literal end of all things for humanity takes a step forward, so John shakes his head and takes a step forward himself, now in between the Devil and his prey. It doesn't seem to please Sam all that much, but it's how it's going to be. Where the action is really happening, though, Dean grabs Castiel by the upper arms and tries to make him stand up again.

"Shit, Cas!" He curses while Castiel is still hunched on himself. "You leave him alone," Dean all but spits at Lucifer who's reaching to Castiel, as if he'd want to caress his face but it would probably be the kiss of death.

With what seems to be an all or nothing move, Dean twists and shoves a stumbling Castiel behind himself and - for a reason John doesn't understand as it happens - lets himself fall to the ground using the momentum to roll away in one smooth motion. A second later Dean's standing back up and between him and Lucifer is a foot high wall of fire that rapidly closes a circle around his really ugly shape. It's the stuff that Castiel poured earlier, which he obviously just lit up and turn into a trap of some kind. John can't help but be impressed especially since Lucifer doesn't step right across it and actually looks astonished.

"Well I'll be damned," he says, putting his hands on his hips. "You surprise me, Castiel."

Straightening up, Cas shrugs.

"Everyone always underestimates me," he says but doesn't seem too bothered. He taps the shoulder of a grinning Dean and gives him a big smile before looking back at Lucifer and frowning. "Sadly this won't hold long."

Nodding, Dean agrees.

"Let's go."

As if it's a spell breaking signal, they all start to run towards the end of the alley, and the only thing they hear as they turn the corner is Lucifer yelling.

"You can't escape fate, Sam! I'll find you again, and again, and again!"

They don't look back.

***

After that it's surprisingly easy to get out of Detroit. They finally catch some kind of luck because they make it to the burnt motel without running into the demons, and Dee has found her car - surprisingly still in one piece, John thought it would be gone to be honest - and is waiting for them on idle. She refuses to give up her place at the wheel, which is pretty inconsiderate of her: fitting all in her Hyundai Accent would have been easier if she'd agreed to sit in the back. Bobby's in the Escalade when they get back at the Motel 8, with everything packed. His face in seeing all of them return unharmed, especially Sam, is something to see. Sam goes to wrap him up in a hug that lasts a long while. Figuring it's better to get out of town sooner rather than later, they split in the two cars and it feels natural to give Sam, Dean and Bobby their chance to regroup while John and Castiel climb in with Dee.

After Dee's couple of false starts at small talk that fizzle out pretty quickly, John dares to finally broach a question that's been nagging at him.

"Hey, Cas. Can I ask you something about Lucifer?" he asks.

"Yes, although I can't promise I'll have the answer," Castiel says while looking out of the window at the almost deserted suburbs they're driving through. Lawns get pretty wild relatively fast when no one takes care of them and most of this street seems to be in a savanna.

"Why did he look like that?"

It makes Dee snort.

"Of all the questions..." she muses.

Castiel sighs.

"I think... No, I am sure that he was too arrogant, and thought he'd break Sam sooner. In the meantime, he neglected to find another vessel. The one he's in right now isn't strong enough."

"But demons jump in anyone, right? Why didn't he do the same?" John says.

"Lucifer isn't a demon, he's an angel, or was one. He has to be let in willingly," Castiel explains.

The notion that Castiel is not really the personality that goes with the body in the back seat suddenly makes John uneasy. He had never considered that.

"That's what you did?" John forces himself to ask. Wonders if whoever is in there wants out.

Castiel finally looks at John then nods.

"Yes. Jimmy Novak prayed for it. Unfortunately, he was killed when Lucifer rose, torn to pieces. But somehow, someone brought me back in this human form again." Cas breaks eye contact to look out the window again and says, more softly. "He's gone now."

Oh, well that sucks, John thinks. There's a silence of a minute or two, but still, what was said doesn't answer John's question so he turns towards the back seat again.

"Wouldn't Lucifer be able to convince almost anyone to let him in?" he insists.
Castiel nods.

"Pretty much. But not everyone is strong enough to receive an angel, especially an Archangel or Lucifer. Dean and Sam are. You would be."

"What?" John blinks. "Why me?"

He's not so sure he likes that idea.

"Lucky you!" Dee snarks.

"The vessels have a special constitution, a heritage of long ago and it's rare and of variable intensity," Castiel looks back at him. "You're lucky Lucifer had to use so much energy keeping whole and was distracted by Sam, because you'd be an even better choice for him."

"Fuck," John breathes out. He then remembers how the blue light on McKay's pen shone bright for Dean when he had tried it, a while ago, although a bit less than for him. Curious, he pats his pants and finds it in a pocket. Could it be that the two are related? He nudges it against Dee's forearm, which makes her jump and swerve to the left with an outraged cry.

"Hey, what the fuck?" She says, glaring at him.

John grins. On the pen, the green light shines, but not the blue one.

"It's nothing. But you're officially not infected by the Croatoan virus, congratulations."

Dee looks at John with an expression that suggests she definitely challenges his sanity.

"Duh, you don't say. Well thank you, doctor," she says with an eye roll.

Turning towards the back, John twirls the pen in his fingers.

"Can I try something Cas? Give me your hand."

Without asking why, Castiel complies and when the pen touches his hand it glows blue so bright it seems white and totally drowns out the green one. Dee yelps again, distracted and John hurries to take it away and it shuts off.

"Okay, so there's something there, I'd say," John says taking a deep breath.

"Yes. This kind of technology reacts strongly to angels and to people who are descendants of those you might call the Ancestors, or the Ancients," Castiel says.

"Ancients were sort of angels?"

Castiel laughs at that.

"Oh no, definitely not. Humans of Earth were not the first... the first creatures with conscience created by our Father, only his latest and favorite project. Before, he created the Ancients who could aspire to a higher plane of existence if they worked enough on themselves. But they turned out to be a difficult bunch, arrogant and often immoral. They brought their own version of the apocalypse on themselves by creating the Wraith, then the remaining ones escaped and took refuge here on Earth for a while."

John winces.

"I guess Earth Humans disappointed too." Kids do that sometimes, John figures, thinking about his own father. "Those Ancients mixed with humans, here?"

"Yes, and their descendants can hold the conscience of angels. The closer to the Ancients they are, the better they are suited to be vessels," Castiel says.

So that means that he's got some sort of alien or inhumane ancestry, John thinks, a bit weirded out.

"And I'm close?" John asks.

Castiel tilts his head and considers him for a second.

"Yes. I thought the Winchesters were the strongest manifestation in generations, but you're even stronger. Something I haven't seen in centuries."

Centuries said as if it's years, and that's another thing that's hard to grasp.

"Is it considered rude to ask an angel how old he is?" Dee asks.

Castiel smiles.

"In my true form, time doesn't flow the same. But in human measure, it would be tens of thousands of years."

John whistles in surprise and Dee laughs.

"Well you have to give me the brand of your anti-aging cream," she says, winking at Castiel via the rear view mirror.

Bizarrely, Castiel's smile wavers, then. He has a big sigh.

"I'm afraid my days of eternal youth are gone, sorry."

Earlier, in the alley, Lucifer did mention something about Castiel using the last of his power.

"For what it's worth, I think what you did was awesome," John says, turning around in his seat to make sure he has eye contact. "You saved us all."

Cas shrugs, but there's a little smile playing at the corner of his lips again.

"You're just happy you got to see the wings," he teases.

Man, the wings. John shivers just thinking of them, and he decides he can file witnessing that into a religious experience. He grins at Castiel.

"Yep. You have no idea the things it made me want to do to you."

Okay so John maybe didn't want to say that last part out loud but he realizes he did when Dee laughs and Castiel gives him a goofy grin that makes his eyes crinkle. Sort of embarrassed, John turns around feeling the tip of his ears burn and notices that Dee is pulling off the road, following the Escalade into the parking lot of a little restaurant.

"And what, exactly, would you do to Castiel, John?" Dee asks with amusement and John opens his door to get out while the car is not entirely stopped, followed by their combined laughter. It attracts the attention of Dean, Sam and Bobby who are getting out of the SUV. Dean takes a good look at John, who's trying to look as unperturbed as possible, plastering on a smirk.

"Are you blushing, Sheppard?" Dean asks, with a little smile of his own.

Of course, John won't get a break, not right now.

"He just admitted having impure thoughts towards an angel," Dee ribs as she closes her door.

"Wing fetish," Castiel adds, tongue in cheek and that's it, John knows he's beet red. He puts on his aviators, grumbling.

"Thanks a lot, guys."

Sam seems to think it's funny, Bobby all but roll his eyes out of his skull as he settles in his wheelchair and Dean eyebrows raise up to his hairline.

"Is that so?" Dean asks, but there's a slight edge, there, if John's not imagining things. He'd like to think that it's because Dean doesn't like the idea of John having impure thoughts about anyone but him, but the way Dean glances at Castiel puts it in a different perspective. He doesn't like the idea of people having impure thoughts about Castiel.

"I never said anything of the sort, perverts," John says, turning towards the diner and he hopes that the food will at least be edible. No he's not fleeing.

The place looks decent enough, although what's on the plates all seems to be a variation of eggs and toast. John can live with that, no problem, but he goes to the bathroom first, hoping to get his composure back. He lost the manual of how to react when he's being teased, of feeling any kind of camaraderie and it rattles him more than he thought it would. At the same time, there's a deep feeling in his gut that he's totally in over his head with all of this literal Apocalypse business. John's not sure he wants to be dealing with the Devil and demons, no matter how cool angels are. Croats are to be put down to save the uninfected, but this is saving humanity from damnation big. John's not sure he's strong enough, that he's righteous enough to fight that war.

John's still musing about his place in the big scheme of things when he gets out of the bathroom and sees a man at the payphone. As usual, when faced with a phone, John thinks of McKay, and this time he has a thought for Anna, too, who if she's on another planet maybe will avoid it all. At least he saved her, even if he let her parents die. A hand on his forearm makes John startle and it's Castiel, looking at him with compassion.

"Hey. I can't see anymore..." He gestures towards John's head, indicating that his mind reading is gone. "But I know you used to think about it, if you should follow Doctor McKay."

"Should I?" John asks, and maybe it would be easier if someone would make the decision for him.

Castiel bites his lip, thinks about it.

"You're a fighter, John. A soldier. No matter where you choose to go, you'll help. Dean needs men like you, but McKay does too. The Wraiths are a formidable foe, and if they'd find Earth it would be as bad as Lucifer. On the other hand, if Lucifer destroys Earth, there's nothing left to protect from the Wraith."

True, but wow, way to make it look like the future of humanity is resting, in part, on his shoulders. John's not sure he likes it, strength of character once alluded to by McKay notwithstanding.

"Who's protecting the people from where the Wraiths are from?" John says, leaning on the wall. Life sucking space vampires surely feed in one way or another.

He's hit a nerve there, because Castiel sighs.

"They are predators, but still living creatures. We never got orders to get rid of them. The focus has been put on Earth for a while now."

"No one, then," John says, shaking his head. Seems pretty unfair. "When McKay says he needs people like me and others who can make the blue light shine, it has to do with the Ancients?"

"Yes. Maybe they found the Flying City," Castiel agrees. At John's raised eyebrow he precises. "Atlantis."

"Atlantis?" Rodney did mention way back then that he was usually on Atlantis in Pegasus, tried to convince John to go there himself the time with Anna. "What's that?"

The smile Castiel has is wistful.

"It's a beautiful city, built by the Ancients and their greatest achievement," he pats John on the arm before going to their table. "She would sing for you."

John's left in the little hallway, with thoughts of cities that fly and fighting either demons or space vampires. Frankly, one doesn't seem better than the other, or less worthy. The man left the phone minutes ago and John fishes a couple of quarters from his pocket, decides it can't hurt to call. He's got barely time to think of what he's going to say when the line is picked up, after only a ring.

"Yes, what?" McKay says, as gracious as ever and it makes John relax instantly, that there are constants in life. He smiles.

"Hey Rodney," John drawls on purpose, knowing how it riles McKay up. "Wassup?"

***

Chapter 7

 

John's studying some meteorological information that is sadly not as fresh as he'd like and trying not to tear his hair out while attempting to calculate patterns and trajectories when the radio on his desk chirps. He hits the button.

"Sheppard."

"John? Visitors at the gate," Neal says.

Great, just what he needs. Although a break right now is not such a bad idea, he's not seeing clearly anymore, figures blurring before his eyes.

"How many?" John asks, getting up and putting his coat on, making sure he has his Luminator. Yes, he's named Rodney's gadget, and it's been serving him faithfully for almost two years now and it's now normal procedure that John does visitor screening. Croats are sneaky, but the Luminator never lies.

"Thirty two."

Holy shit, that's a lot of people at once, and they haven't seen that in months. It necessitates more organisation to check everyone and makes sure it's safe for them to enter Camp Chitaqua, but often all the trouble amounts to nothing because they have to send them on their way. They can't afford to take in families, this is not a refugee's camp. Thank god Neal does a good job screening and is usually able to charm everyone into keeping calm and waiting for their turn.

"I'll be right there," John says, before cutting communications.

It's a nice spring day, the sun finally strong enough to give an impression of heat on John's skin, which puts him in a better mood until he almost collides with Castiel, who's going the other way.

"Watch out, man!" John says, and frowns as Castiel just chuckles while gripping John to stay upright. When John sees his eyes, Cas pupils are tiny.

"Sorry, sorry, I'll get out of your way," he says, grinning.

"Jeez, Cas, it's not even noon."

John sighs then whistles to get Dean's attention, who's right next to the depot with Chuck. Both men turn to him and John points to Castiel.

"Someone should keep an eye on Cheech, here," he shouts and Dean lets his head fall backwards, looking at the sky with something like despair.

The thing is, Cas is easier to deal with when high and he just laughs.

"Nah, no worries. I'm perfectly fine," he says. "Just needed to relax a little."

"You do that, buddy," John says, patting his shoulder and getting on his way.

Losing all that was left of his powers at once, save from tiny little abilities, had been extremely hard on Castiel. He'd soon fallen into a mix of depression and substance abuse to get through his days, the latter he somehow managed to hide long enough that it became serious. Dean had huffed and puffed, which had made things even worse for a while, but slowly Castiel had gotten out of it. He was now a lot different from the slightly stiff half-angel John had first met, but at least he was not stoned every day anymore. They'd had very stressful skirmishes with Croats and demons lately, where Cas got frustrated once again at not being able to do more, and everyone was on edge. Must have led to today's episode.

At the gate John spots the little group of people standing around on the outside, and immediately notices there are no children. Maybe a late teen or two, but those are definitely not families, too diverse and they don't stand in units that would make any kind of sense. Neal cheerfully waves at him from his spot as sentinel and John scoffs. A sneaky one, this Neal, charming the pants out of everyone without even trying too hard. The leader, or whomever those people have chosen to plead their cases, has been put in the little house to the left, the same one where John himself waited to be cleared when he arrived here. He opens the special trap on the door and sees that their guest is sitting down, tapping his fingers restlessly on the table but stands up as soon as he hears the sliding mechanism. The guy is relatively short, brown hair and beard and seems pissed. He scowls at John.

"Where's Dean?"

John puts on his most charming smile. It's not unusual for people to wave Dean's name around, but in reality it's often a bluff.

"Hi, I'm John. Dean can't come for the moment, so..."

The guy scoffs.

"Well go tell him that it's important I see him in person right now. And that my name is Gabriel."

Writing the name on the pad he took right by the door, John does his habitual deflecting move.

"Sure thing, Gabriel. Just before though, could you come here a sec? Won't hurt, but with the infection, you know we can't take any chances."

"I don't have a stupid demonic virus," Gabriel says, but he's coming towards the door anyway. John perks up because everyone knows about the virus, yes, but the demonic origin is not something much talked about in the general population. Maybe this guy really knows Dean, probably a hunter.

"I'm sure you don't have it, but I don't make the rules, so..." John says with the shrug that makes him one of the good guys, annoyed by the endless paranoia. He makes sure to watch their visitor's every movement, though, not to be surprised. Once, a Croat had tried to spit blood in Jim's eyes.

"You know, I'm asking nicely and following your stupid procedure out of courtesy," Gabriel says, sliding his hand through he intended hole. From up close he looks up to no good at all and John's immediately more on guard. "A show of good will on our part."

That sound ominous, and John decides right there and then that he doesn't like Gabriel much. He's a possible threat, acquaintance or not, and John's prepared to strongly disagree that the newcomers stay at Camp Chitaqua. In a move made so many times he can fool almost everyone, John uses one hand to pinch one of Gabriel's finger with a needle for the redundant blood sample while he grazes the Luminator hidden in his left shirt sleeve against Gabriel's forearm. This time, the surprise is on him, though, when there's a sudden flash of white and the Luminator grows instantly hot. John jumps back with a yelp and Gabriel raises his eyebrows in surprise.

"Well look at that. Cool gadget you got there, Sheppard," Gabriel says, eyes crinkling and John's mind is reeling. Angel, this guy's a fucking angel, and he just read his thoughts on contact, shit. John tries to compose himself, smirks back.

"I know, I kinda like it. So, Gabriel..." And fuck, that must be the archangel himself. John had heard a couple of stories about other angels and archangels, although never specifically Gabriel. "Are you here to deliver a message to a lady on the premises?"

Gabriel laughs at that and John feels he scored some points there.

"Nah, definite lack of pious virgins, and even Dean's not pretty enough. If you don't mind, my brothers and sisters and I are pretty busy, so if I could see Dean now that the introductions are out of the way..."

Once more, John has to school his expression because if the 31 other ones outside are also angels and archangels, John really doesn't want to make them wait. Also, as Gabriel said, with his mojo he might decide to just get out and go get Dean himself. John decides that detaining him here is pointless, so he unlocks the door. He knows that some of those archangels are dicks, but if they're here and want to speak to Dean, there's not much John can do to stop it.

"Sure. Let's go find him."

Satisfied, Gabriel falls in step beside John and glances with curiosity at the surroundings as they walk.

"I wish I could say I think you did something nice with the place," he says, but lets go of that train of thought when he spots Dean who's still with Chuck, although Castiel is out of sight. "Hey, Dean!" He shouts and Dean turns with annoyance at the distraction before his eyes widen a bit in recognition.

"What the fuck, why did you let this asshole come in?" Dean growls at John.

"As if I could have stopped him," John says. "I thought it was better not to cause a scene."

Reluctantly, Dean nods, then stalks over, pointing a finger at Gabriel, then towards the general direction of the camp's entrance.

"I don't know what the fuck you're doing here, but I don't want no Trickster in my camp. So turn around and go, before I find a stake."

The little diatribe confuses the hell out of John, but makes Gabriel roll his eyes.

"Oh shut up," he tells Dean. "The time for games is over, let's forget all of that," he adds with a hand wave.

Dean's jaw falls open.

"What? You killed me like 200 times and let's just forget about it?"

Another eye roll from Gabriel and John definitely has no idea what is going on. He remembers reading about a mischievous Trickster in Chuck's books - he won't tell the brothers, but that character is among his favorites- but doesn't see the link between the two. Why would an archangel kill Dean so many times? He thought Zachariah was the dick to watch out for. Castiel, who had been slumped behind a couple of boxes it seems, perks up from behind them and is looking at Gabriel with a frown, totally sobered all of a sudden. He's spotted immediately by their visitor who grins at him.

"Hey bro! I wasn't sure if you were still around," he exclaims, then squints at Cas. "Whoa, I hadn't heard..."

Cas cuts him with a gesture.

"Yeah, whatever. Hello Gabriel," he greets, and John's relieved that at least Cas kept his Angeldar.

"Gabriel?" Dean says, his turn to be confused. "What, this douche is the angel Gabriel?"

"Hey," Gabriel frowns, "that's Archangel Gabriel to you, bozo."

It's confirmed by a nod of Castiel and John shakes his Luminator at Dean who doesn't looked thrilled at this turn of events.

"Fuck, I just... what the fuck. Why the hell would an archangel kill people for fun?" Dean says, bewildered and still pissed.

Bowing his head and pinching the bridge of his nose, Gabriel heaves a long suffering sigh.

"I knew I was not the one to send in, but do they ever listen to me? No." After his little muttered monologue, Gabriel looks back up. "Look, I can either tell you all about my otherwise fascinating story of the last thousand of years or so, or we could get to work and figure how we, and in we I include the 3 dozen of my kind I brought, could stop the Apocalypse. What will it be?"

Looks like it's as fun as pulling teeth, but Dean nods, jerking his head towards the cabin where they hold their meetings.

"Okay, fine. Chuck?" Dean calls, and look at that, Chuck was trying to subtly make his exit. He's written the damn books, so he knows about what this guy can do, too. Stopped by Dean, he swivels around and looks up from his inventory pad as if he's suddenly aware that they have company. The act is not quite believable.

"Um? Yes?" He blinks, throws a small smile and a nod Gabriel's way

"Go find Sammy, meeting in five," Dean orders. He then turns to Gabriel. "This better be good."

***

John's loading the truck with the few supplies they managed to trade with a farmer when there's a loud whistle. Raising his head, he sees Sam who's gesturing for him to come closer. He has a little smile, which makes John wonder what's going on, so he ambles over.

"Yeah?"

"Roger's phone is working," Sam says, waiting for his reaction.

John tries to play it cool, even if his heart just jumped in his chest. Even since he's contacted McKay to make sure Anna would be safe, John's been in the habit to call Rodney every time he finds a working phone. Sometimes he'd connect and chat for a bit - or more often he'd listen to Rodney and make a couple of smartass remarks to make him laugh - and sometimes he'd get the voice mail where he'd leave a message or not, it depended. Of course it couldn't stay unnoticed for long, especially since in the last year John had been checking phones more and more regularly and been in a pissy mood afterwards as a result.

Eleven months ago now was the last time he'd reached Rodney in person. They hadn't had time to talk for long, as John was pressured to just get moving, but there had been something definitely weird with McKay, who was shiftier than usual. He had hinted at something big to come and his "Goodbye and take care, John." had been way more solemn than usual.

Since? Nothing. John had hung up at first, shrugging it off, but after a couple of months he'd started to worry because the message never changed. They had gone over 3 months without talking to each other before, but slight changes in the voice mail message always meant that Rodney had made it back alive, at least, before going back out there. Now it had been 11 and a half months with the same exact phrasing and every time John reached it, he'd curse. Maybe Rodney had died, and John had not been there to protect him. And want it or not, John had been forced to face the fact that he was not ready to let their weird friendship go at all.

Reaching the little house's porch, John finally responds to Sam.

"Lucky him," he says, because there's no denying that it's getting harder to find working phones. The main problem is that the service is so spotty, it doesn't really mean you'll be able to use it as you want.

Since Sam just gestures him in, not pressing the issue, John enters and reaches for the hand held phone. He punches in the numbers, and realizes he's holding his breath as it rings. Once again the message is, to the last syllable, the same as 45 times before and John, frustrated beyond belief, hurls the phone towards the living room. It bounces off the sofa and seems to land on the floor pretty intact, which John feels grateful for belatedly. He's still pissed, though, and worried sick so he's not in the best of head space when Dee wraps her arms around him from behind for what is surely meant as a comforting hug.

"I'm sorry baby," she says and John can't take it, not now, so he jerks away.

Dee looks hurt and John feels like a dick but he just can't be around people in this state and he goes back out, and walks a little way towards the corn fields. One of these days, he's going to have to come to terms with the fact that just like so many people in the last years, Rodney didn't make it. John knows he's taking it hard because no matter how many times he'd told Rodney that he was not ready to leave Earth yet, it was still a possible way out. Maybe after the Apocalypse was over, or if there didn't seem to be any hope left. After a couple of minutes of deep breathing, John bottles up all of those helpless feelings, pushes them way down until all is left is the cool facade.

Later that night, back at Camp, John follows Dee back to her cabin and she lets him in. They've been friends with benefits on and off almost since they've known each other. In this day and age, most people seek comfort where they can find it, and they are no exception. John had a crush on Dean at first, but he realized pretty fast that a couple of nights would be it, especially when Dean slowly got closer to Castiel. Dee had came to terms with the fact that Sam was not going to love her back, and somehow John and her had turned to each other.

That they even hooked up was one of those circumstantial happenings, since they're so different that they wouldn't work in a normal setting. They've had several huge fights, sometimes long weeks passed where they are barely nodding at each other, and then something brings them together again - usually one or the other almost dying - and they have epic make up sex. She's a great girl, beautiful and funny, but she's also young and John's convinced she deserves better than him. In the dark, John apologizes for his earlier brush off the only way he knows how: letting his hands, mouth and body talk. Afterwards, with her head pillowed on his shoulder and her fingers tracing idle patterns on his chest, she speaks softly.

"I'm jealous, you know. It's obvious you care about that Rodney guy, enough to get in a snit. But here? Everything always seems to glide over you like water on a duck."

John sighs.

"I care," he says, and it's true, he does and it's frustrating that she can't see it, feel it. When Dee stays silent, he adds, "I care about you, and about everyone here. You know that, right?"

She burrows closer, hugging him sideways.

"Yeah, I guess so," she murmurs.

He holds her back and kisses the top of her head.

"I do. I swear. But I hate not knowing."

"I know, baby. I'm sorry."

Sorry for Rodney missing or sorry she brought it up, he's not sure. Maybe both. They stay silent after that and eventually Dee drifts off. It takes longer for John, and he wonders once again how things would have turned out if he'd agreed to go explore the stars. Probably, out there, there's a universe with a John Sheppard who made a different choice and he wonders if that Sheppard is better off. Sometimes, John feels the pull of the stars like something physical.

***

"Is everyone ready?" Sam says, standing up on a crate in the front of the room, Dean right by his side, standing straight and battle ready.

The approving cheer in return is loud, and John can't help but feel exhilarated as he shouts along. This is it, their Hail Mary to defeat Lucifer: roughly a hundred people, 40 angels or so and half a dozen demons who no one trusts as far as they can throw them. Among those is the infamous Crowley, who explained that he'd prefer the status quo without an evil overlord ruling it all and gave up the Colt as a proof of good faith.

Even after two years, Sam Winchester remains an enigma to John. He had kept quiet for a while at first, with a tendency to disappear in the cabin he shared with Dean. One day, he'd started working on restoring the Impala, and Dean had joined him whenever he had time. The old girl had soon regained all of her past glory, and from then on, Sam would regularly take her out of Camp Chitaqua, going who knows where for often days at a time. It drove Dean completely crazy, but what was important was that Sam always came back. Gabriel and his merry gang of angels had given a new breath of hope to this fight and after scheming and arguing and dealing with egos the size of small planets for months now, they had designed this plan that had absolutely no guarantee to work at all. Still, it was their best shot, and they intended to succeed or die trying.

They were back in Detroit, and, in one of those weird twists of fate, in the same warehouse where they had been two and a half years previously. The Big Guy in charge, Shorty, remembered Castiel's little show and had agreed to let them work in his domain for several days, not knowing it was in preparation of the big showdown. Over the years, the Croats had made life more difficult for everyone all across the country and Detroit had been hit hard, which made everyone either a bit wearier or, on the contrary, ready to help when someone said they had a possible solution.

John was in charge of the iron and salt network that had to be set very carefully across the main room to let the Devil and his minions in, but then cut the demons off from their leader when it would be time. He knew that there were various other designs intertwined, traps for Lucifer himself and other stuff that he had not even tried to understand. Even with several years being confronted with the occult, it made John uneasy, so he left it to others.

In the last weeks, Sam had taken more and more place in the planning stages, which at first didn't sit well with certain angels. On the other hand, it had seemed to agree completely with Dean, who had stepped back, although always supporting his brother. The archangel Michael had finally showed up to Camp Chitaqua, in a body that wasn't Dean's, and he'd been butting heads big time with both Winchester's since. Surprisingly, Gabriel had been a good mediator and here they were, with Sam leading the show (and Michael sulking about it).

When Sam gives the signal, John makes a quick survey around the room, checking everything and it's all set, so he gives the official thumbs up to Dean. The angels who still can teleport -and frankly, how cool is that?- then disappear, so do the demons (hopefully not to go sell them out) and everyone else goes in position. Sam then uses candles and chalk to summon Lucifer himself, and admittedly, this is the weaker link in their plan: and what if he doesn't show? Castiel is convinced that it won't be a problem, that Lucifer is confident and arrogant enough to walk right in.

The Latin seems to last forever for John, whose heart is beating double time. He still dreams of the first encounter in the alleyway sometimes, the mere presence of Him, skin falling off but still inexplicably charming when you thought about it. The silence, when Sam stops, is deafening. No one moves, waiting, and waiting some more. Just when John is about to move and look Dean's way for further instructions, the door opens slowly, making his breath catch.

Slowly, very confidently, a guy walks in. He's tall, but kind of skinny, and even if it's not the same vessel John has seen Lucifer in the last time, there's something revealing about the way he walks in the place still cocky. They have no doubt that Lucifer knows he's getting into what is intended to be a trap, and it's his nonchalance that just shows everyone that it's indeed the guest of honor. Plus, when you look closely, the man's face is starting to peel in places, which drives the point home. The Devil might have changed skin, but once more it's not strong enough to perfectly hold him in. On his heels come four men, walking behind in a sort of half circle: the angels had predicted he'd have the four horsemen with him for a final showdown. After that, there's maybe 20 other demons who follow in, soon fanning out in the building. John assesses the way they move and sees with satisfaction that they follow mostly the predicted paths, avoiding devil traps - the ones meant to be seen- and walking between iron. The design is intricate, and if it's done correctly and all goes according to plan, the demons are trapping themselves without realizing it.

Lucifer walks directly through the center towards Sam, who's standing proud even if a little pale. Dean's tense as a bow right next to him, and behind, also in a half circle, are Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Zachariah - Dean had protested loudly and for a long time about that one, but in the end he'd caved since Zach was really frigging powerful. There is elegance in the symmetry of the two camps facing each other like that, like an image/mirror. The horsemen stop when their boss does too.

"So, that's it, I guess," Lucifer says.

"Yes," Is Sam's only reply.

"It cannot go on," Michael says, projecting his voice so it sounds loud and clear in the whole room and possibly beyond. Everyone at the strategic meetings had known he'd try to take control of the situation and get in the spotlight.

"I see your brother Winchester was as stubborn as mine," Lucifer says, eyeing Sam and Dean almost fondly before turning to the archangel. "You can't defeat me in this form, Michael."

"Stubborn doesn't even begin to cover it," Michael sighs. "I might not wear the most powerful vessel, but you aren't either."

"No luck, Sherlock," Dean says with a smirk. "We're betting we have more firepower than you do."

"That's where you'd be wrong," Lucifer says, flicking his hand and Dean is thrown way in the back if the room, hard, where he lands with a sick thud. They knew something like that could happen, but it makes John heartbeat spike until he sees Dean move faintly. A couple of the men posted on that side of the room for that purpose alone rush to his side.

Sam and the archangels, on the other hand, don't even look back, as if unconcerned, although John's sure that Sam needs all of his self control not to do so. Lucifer smiles.

"I'm strong enough to take you all. Come on, Sam. You know resisting is stupid. Let me in, Dean accepts Michael and we do this properly, according to the rules."

"You don't respect the rules," Sam declares. "And no is no."

A flicker of what looks like rage passes on Lucifer's face, but when he tries to toss him, Sam doesn't move an inch. John knows that Castiel painted runes on Sam's skin everywhere they're hidden by clothes, which took hours. Nothing that will work more than 5 minutes under attack, but enough for the diversion they plan. When Lucifer's attempt fails, the horsemen look on curiously and it's on their distraction that the plan is based. Gabriel snaps his fingers, which is the cue for the 33 other angels to teleport at their respective positions and push the demons they're the closest to into the devil traps if they can, the visible and subtle ones, and there's at least 4 angels by the horsemen.

The appearance of the angels makes John set in motion the movement of the iron beams on the floor by the volunteers from Camp Chitaqua, each end of the beams touching over a prepared patch of salt on the floor meant to seal the gaps in the 5 point star design the thirty pieces of metal form on the floor, covering the whole warehouse. John's barely done moving his own beam, which took less than a couple of seconds, when other volunteers pour a big ring of salt all around the star with the stocked rock-salt. It's not a true devil's trap, but it's an obstacle enough for the lesser demons, which now can't get away and are being practically slaughtered by the angels.

Of course the four horsemen are not that easy to get rid of, and as for right now, Lucifer doesn't look particularly worried.

"Very creative," he says, nodding. "But not enough."

Lucifer starts to walk towards Sam and the archangels, easily stepping over the design on the floor. He's no demon, so they had predicted it. It seems that to use their powers, at least the destructive or restorative ones, the angels have to touch their target. Zachariah and Raphael circle towards the horsemen, going in as backup because if Famine seems to have fallen, War, Pestilence and Death are fighting like... well like demons, armed with half swords, and angels are dying right and left.

Sam, waits until Lucifer is all but five feet away and takes the Colt out of the back of his pants where it was hidden, and aims it at the Devil's forehead. John thinks of all of the time they spent scheming at Camp Chitaqua and on the road to try and find that fucking gun, about all of the good people they lost, too. They used to think it could kill the Devil, but learned rather recently by Michael that it won't. But at least they're prepared for what will happen next.

"Sam, Sam, Sam," Lucifer sighs. "I don't want to disappoint you, but..." He starts, but Sam pulls the trigger, giving him a third eye. Seeing someone getting shot directly in the head is not something you ever get accustomed to, so John flinches as Lucifer falls on the floor in a heap. He won't be knocked out for long, so Gabriel and Michael drag him where Castiel is busy putting the last touches on an actual devil's trap design with all the trimmings but done in Holy Oil. John's glad to see that Dean's back up, even if his knees look a bit wobbly. Once Lucifer is in the center of the design, already stirring while the hole on his forehead is closing as if he's Wolverine, Dean's the one who lights up the design.

"Now, if you stay put one fucking second," Dean tells Lucifer who's rubbing his forehead with a pout, "We'll trap you for good."

The problem is that the four horsemen don't seem okay with that plan, and the angel casualties are getting pretty high. Even Zachariah has bitten it, it seems, not that it will make John cry. He was really kind of an asshole. War is still standing, fighting in a way that is truly phenomenal, full of deadly grace for what seems on the outside to be an ordinary middle-aged man. War all but howls with rage when Pestilence and Death, who were back to back, are burned down to a crisp by the touch of Raphael and a dozen or so other angels crowded around them. Once that is done, War is soon cornered and even if he never stops trying, he's overcome by the numbers and he's toast too.

It all took but two minutes since Lucifer regained consciousness but he's back up on his feet, hands on his hips. He shakes his head at Sam and Dean.

"Now, boys, don't go thinking you saved the world of misery. They were just the poster boys."

"We know," Sam says. "But you're going down in your cage again, and this time with triple locks."

The brothers step back and the angels that are left make a circle around the flaming devil's trap. Michael looks especially majestic in the flickering light, power barely concealed by the human he's wearing and for a second John tries to imagine how wonderful a sight it would have been with Dean. It's time to get on with the plan while Lucifer tries to talk his way out, cajoling at first, then growing more concerned and snappish. John knows there's some chanting to come, plus intricate rituals, but also that the angels should soon revert to their original shapes and that mere humans can't be privy to that. John whistles to his squad to evacuate the premises, and Dean, Sam, Castiel and him make sure that no one is being left behind by accident.

"Man, I just hope there's not an angel in there who plans to double cross us," Dean grumbles as they take cover, while Castiel shouts for everyone to protect their eyes.

Sam scoffs.

"Nothing much we can do at this point."

John buries his head in his folded arms and shuts his eyes, closed very tight. The ground starts to shake more and more violently, debris falling on them, which makes a couple of people around him cry out in surprise and something close to panic.

"Cover your eyes! Do not move until I say so!" Castiel shouts again.

Everything goes still for one, two, three seconds, then there's a bang so loud it's like a physical body slam and John loses consciousness.

***

Life post Apocalypse is not that different, after all. The Croats are still a problem, but the infection is at least spreading slower now. There are less extreme weather hazards since the angels have spread out to exorcise as many demons as possible back in the pit, which is a relief for everyone. Since a lot of politicians and decision makers had been possessed, and now either died because of it or came back to themselves once freed, decisions start to make a slice more sense. It's certain the world will take decades before getting back to a semblance of what it was in 2009 before the start of the Croatoan infection, but at least it seems to be heading the right way.

John can't believe a civil organization like they have here has so much paperwork. He coordinates several anti-Croat teams, who go to towns all around to help the armed forces who don't have enough personnel to be everywhere they need to be at once. Each team reports to John, who then does an executive summary for Sam and Dean. He hates it with a passion. He'd prefer to go out in the field himself, but somehow he got roped into this and is responsible to screen everyone who comes back to camp on top. The paperwork wouldn't be so bad if the teams would all fork in decent reports, but they are usually pretty vague which leads to a bit of creative interpretation on his part. The screening, on the other hand, has a couple of times led to decisions that had made him sick to his stomach, when the Luminator's light had turned red. Just today, he's had to condemn two of his newest recruits.

John's considering taking a couple of days off, which he hasn't done in months now, when the radio on his desk chirps. He hits the button.

"Sheppard."

"Come over. Now," Dean says, before cutting the communication.

Sighing, John gets up and stretches, wondering what the fuck happened again. He sure hopes it has nothing to do with the angels. Since Dean's tone was pretty urgent, he doesn't waste any time and is soon knocking on his cabin's door.

"Come in."

Dean looks up and when John comes in he grins, which John didn't expect.

"I'll leave you to it," he says, with a wink, getting up and grabbing his coat, which confuses John even more.

"Leave me to what?" John says, as Dean walks past him, giving him a playful hit on the arm. "Ow!"

Still smiling, Dean points to the table next to the bed in the back.

"Seems my phone resurrected from the dead. The call's for you."

Flabbergasted, John sees that the phone is indeed unhooked and there's only one person it could be, who could manage to make a phone work out of the blue and knows where to reach him. He's so shocked that he doesn't move until Dean pushes him towards the back of the room.

"Go on now." And he leaves, closing the door behind him.

Dean was smiling, and he had talked to Rodney before, so everything points to the conclusion that it must be him on the phone, but still John doesn't dare to hope even if his heart rate has increased. Maybe McKay had left instructions for someone to warn him in case he was declared dead, something like that. But there's no way to know for sure apart from answering the damn phone, so he walks over, sits on the bed because his legs are suddenly made of jelly, and finally picks it up.

"Sheppard," he says, willing his voice not to crack and holding his breath afterward.

"John? Finally! Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a hold of you?" Rodney says and the bone deep relief that floods John all at once makes him fall back on the bed and laugh. "What? What?" Rodney asks, visibly not understanding what can be so funny.

When he can stop laughing long enough to speak, John finally answers him.

"I've been trying to reach you without success for over sixteen months now, Rodney. I think I know."

"Oh."

"Yeah, oh," he says. There's a couple of seconds of silence, which is pretty unusual with Rodney.

"I'm sorry you were worried. You were worried?" He asks, and from anyone else John would think it's fishing for reassurance, but McKay's always been clueless like that.

"Yeah. Are you okay?" John won't admit he thought he was dead, and how much it had affected him.

"Me? Yes, yes, I'm fine. I've been... I've been away, you know? Something big happened and I really had to go back and we were not sure we'd be able to return, ever. But we had to take the risk... She's home now." Rodney is so passionate about it, that even with the careful phrasing John knows that he's talking about Atlantis.

"Glad you still managed to make it back," John says, and he's waiting for it, this time, this invitation he knows is going to come.

"I just thought I'd call, because I'm going there again, and I don't know for how long. It's no picnic, though. I have to save the day way too often," Rodney says, serious and bragging a little.

Why isn't he asking? John wants him to ask.

"Appreciate it. You'll have to be careful, then," John says, twisting the phone cord. Maybe Rodney realized he didn't need him to come along anymore. Maybe they have all of the Ancient descendants they need.

"I will, I will. Hey, it was nice talking to you, I'm glad you're... you know, still fighting the Croats. I heard it's getting a bit better now?" Rodney says, visibly reluctant to end the call.

"Yeah, it is." We trapped the Devil, it helped, he doesn't add. Doesn't know what to do to keep Rodney on the phone.

"Well, I guess that's it," Rodney murmurs, which John barely hears. "Take care, John," he declares, stronger, and it's like John's heart is plummeting. He's pretty sure that if he hangs up on Rodney right now, he'll never hear from him again. The thing is that he doesn't know how to stop it, so he doesn't speak up, throat closed.

There's a couple of seconds where no one talks but neither of them hang up, until Rodney says, pretty rapidly.

"You sure you don't want to come?"

"Yes!" John blurts immediately, then hearing Rodney's sigh realizes he didn't understand him right. "I mean yes, I want to go. With you."

"Really?" Rodney gasps, visibly surprised and elated and John can't help grinning, certain it's the right decision.

"Yeah. I think it's time."

***

Epilogue

 

John stops after a couple of minutes - well at least he thinks it's minutes - slowly touching base with reality and notices the complete silence around him.

Of course, that doesn't last.

"Happy now? Yes, hot shot, you're the best. I'm just this close to a heart attack, now, thank you so much." Rodney's voice is shaky.

Grinning, John turns to him, notes how pale he is but that he's still smiling so it must not have been so terrible.

"It wasn't that bad. We couldn't even feel the G's," John tells him.

It makes Rodney snort.

"Ah, well, thank god for small favors!"

Now that he's got the piloting with his mind thing covered, which is definitely the coolest thing he's ever done, John starts pulling screens on the HUD of the Gateship by asking it to show him what its got, just checking what's available and flipping through them rapidly.

"What? Wait, hey, are you're doing this, John? Come back a few, I've never seen this interface!" Seeing Rodney geek out, which he does if given the chance and there's no audience to discredit the smooth and composed facade he usually shows the world, is one of John's favorite things, so he dutifully goes back until he reaches the screen that makes Rodney snap his fingers and point.

They're on a stable geocentric orbit around Lantea, so John just lounges back on his seat, flipping screens when asked and he rides the last shivers of adrenaline and endorphins from his earlier flying stunts. He still thinks barrel rolls have very little to envy of sex. The thought makes John remember telling it to Dean, and he wonders what's going on with him, Sam, Cas and Dee. Being in the Pegasus galaxy makes it hard to check up on friends, even if Earth is slowly building back its communication infrastructures.

John doesn't regret leaving Earth one bit. Sure, Dean hadn't understood why John now wanted to leave, but it's not like John had something keeping him in Camp Chitaqua. Dee had taken it relatively well, especially since they had been in one of the "off again" parts of their relationship. She'd been seeing Chuck, and for some reason -a mystery, if you asked him - they clicked, so John wished them all the best. Sam seemed to be gaining more confidence since their victory over Lucifer, and Dean, now that the Apocalypse had been averted, spoke more and more of taking a bit of time off. With Castiel. So frankly, he had nothing to say about John leaving too.

"Hey." John startles out of his reverie, as his knee is being patted on. "How far were you just now?" Rodney asks, looking at him with a bit of concern.

"Many light-years," John admits, leaning into the touch and satisfied when Rodney leaves his hand there.

That's another unexpected turn in John's life, being with Rodney. After a couple of phone calls and probably even blackmail, Rodney had arranged it so John could join the Atlantis expedition as a glorified light switch - the papers said 'consultant', John still thought it was hilarious - for the civil crew. John had refused to re-join the Air Force for a variety of reasons, one being that he didn't want to live with the regulations and restrictions of the military again. To be perfectly honest, John hadn't been so sure he could respect a chain of command without asking questions anymore, or that he'd be comfortable pretending to and having men rely on him as an officer. He has to play with the geeks instead, and frankly it's fine with him.

As Castiel had predicted, Atlantis had immediately taken to John, lighting up for him in ways she didn't for anyone else, and she had settled like a low hum under his skin. McKay and him had been almost inseparable from the moment John had set a foot in Cheyenne Mountain and then on Atlantis. They'd worked together, even sometimes going off world through the stargate where John got to wear a gun and carry explosives, but they also hung out in their free time, playing chess or computer games.

John had found himself falling for Rodney almost immediately - honestly, it had been a long time coming - but it had taken nearly a month before John made a move. He'd been uncertain of his reception because all signs pointed to Rodney being irreducibly heterosexual, with a focus on hot blonds. But at his first harvest festival, tipsy on sorta-corn alcohol, the three moons hanging in the bright night sky had made John feel adventurous. He had leaned down in the middle of a rant about whatever to kiss Rodney chastely on the mouth. It had shut Rodney up, alright. The kissing had gone on for a while, after that. Turns out Rodney had been crushing on John since Vegas.

This thing between them is new, but it feels right, and John smiles at Rodney, wants to tilt that crooked mouth upwards.

"Thanks, Rodney," he says. "I've been dying to fly one of these babies since I've got here."

It works, makes Rodney's eyes shine with joy.

"Oh, believe me, I sort of got that the gazillionth time you asked. Or made soul crushing sighs while riding in the back. If you'd came as Air Force, you'd have been piloting since day one."

True, that had stung, having to wait until Caldwell caved to Rodney's argument that they'd need all gene personnel, especially ex-pilots, trained on the jumpers in case of an emergency. But it was done now, and he'd just had his first ride so it was okay.

"Yeah, but if I'd been back as Air Force, I wouldn't have risked doing this," John says.

He puts the Gateship on autopilot and slinks out of his seat to kneel in front of Rodney, sliding his hands up Rodney's thighs. As a civil consultant, he can though, and doesn't pass an opportunity to do so. Rodney rakes his fingers in John's hair and chuckles.

"Admit it, the flying got you horny, you pervert."

John fakes innocence up at Rodney, trying not to laugh.

"Who, me?" John says with a hand over his heart.

"Yeah, right, and that was just a gun in your pocket. I'm on to you, John Sheppard. Should I get jealous of a spaceship?"

John starts to undo Rodney's belt, eager to get this party going. He shrugs.

"Nah. Unless the Ancients included really really cool gadgets," John says, waggling his eyebrows, and laughs when Rodney cuffs him behind the head.

"Oh, shut up and blow me," Rodney replies, more fond than anything.

John gropes Rodney through his BDU's, eliciting a moan and he grins up at him. Rodney's so easy to please, always eager for sex. He does his best to look imperturbable and jaded, but Rodney hides a deep need for human contact. Or, as John likes to imagine when he gets a bit possessive, maybe it's just John that Rodney can't get enough of.

Right now Rodney's looking at John with a bemused expression, wide eyed and hungry for him. John always had a pretty low sex drive in general - he often had long periods of time without getting any and never was particularly miffed about it - but since they've gotten together they've been fucking like bunnies. Rodney is insatiable, or so it seems. It works out well because there's something visceral in John that wants to please Rodney, give more, all of himself in a way he hasn't felt for a long time with a partner. To say they're compatible in bed is an understatement, sparks fly, but it's the never ending want that claws at John's insides that surprises him every single time, how he can barely keep his hands off the man.

It's a well known fact that Rodney has an out of proportion ego, but as far as John is concerned, he's fully entitled to it. When Rodney had said casually to John on their first time "Don't worry, I'll figure that whole gay sex thing soon enough," he wasn't lying. John had been the first gay experience to previous closeted guys before, but he'd never known someone who jumped into everything with such gusto and lack of fear. Practice makes perfect seems to be Rodney's motto and frankly, after only a couple of weeks, Rodney is already a pro at giving head and reduces John to jelly as often as he can. On the other hand, John has his pride and a bit of a competitive streak, so now that he's kneeling on the floor before Rodney and about to give him a blow job, he's going to make sure it's one to remember.

"I can see you plotting my demise by sex overload, you know," Rodney says, breathy and combing his fingers through John's hair.

John hums his agreement as he unbuttons Rodney's fly, then drags pants and boxers down when Rodney obligingly slightly lifts his ass from the co-pilot seat.

"You know me so well," John says, smiling up once more, stroking with loose fingers up and down Rodney's beautiful cock, thick and solid just like the man.

"I'll lower myself to express one of the oldest cliché in the book, but that would be a good way to go!" Rodney says. "Sure beats Wraiths, Replicators, hostile natives or..."

"Shut up Rodney, you're killing the mood here," John says, which is a lie but he loves when Rodney splutters and gulps, trying to bottle up all of those words that want to spill out. It's a losing battle, every single time.

John finally closes his mouth over the tip of Rodney's cock and slides down, sucking just a little and tries to relax his jaw. He wants to make this last, slow and careful, bring Rodney slowly towards release. He's got all day if that's what it takes. John barely moves his hand, keeps Rodney's dick angled just right as he licks and sucks lightly, teasingly, which makes Rodney moan and gasp. As John thought, Rodney starts talking again after a couple of minutes, praises him, tells John how good it is, how beautiful he looks, how he could do this all day, all the time.

The floor is unforgivably hard under his knees but John tries to put it in the background and concentrates on the feel and taste of Rodney, how he moves slightly, not daring to fuck his mouth. Rodney scratches his nails on John's scalp, following a pattern that goes from his nape to behind his ear in a way that seems mindless at first but there's a rhythm there, following John's movements. Once he has noticed it, John cannot stop focusing on it and it's like it sends a continuous loop of sensation from his brain to his dick, back and forth, just like fucking and it makes his whole head tingle. Combined with sucking cock, which John loves, it makes him suddenly all hot and bothered and wanting to come nownownow when only a minute ago he could have blown Rodney for hours.

John groans around Rodney, a sound that even to his own ears is desperate and hitching. Because he must do something, anything, John lowers a hand to undo his pants. He needs to jack off, come on the jumper floor if that's what it takes, and god, just the idea that he's having sex in a space ship makes him uncoordinated and clumsy.

"Jesus, you're so fucking hot. Look so good sucking my dick," Rodney says, making John moan some more and Rodney tugs gently on his hair. "Hey, hey, up here, I'll help you."

John let's go of Rodney's cock with regret, but it will be more efficient if he just concentrates on the damn BDU buttons with two hands and whatever is left of his brain cells. Rodney, who's strong as fuck when he decides to be physical, all but lifts him off the floor, and John grunts at the pain as his knees unlock. Rodney props him on the Gateship sort of dashboard before starting to undo the reluctant fastenings himself. He doesn't stop at freeing John's erection, though, because as soon as it's out of his pants - John crying out when Rodney's strong hand closes around him - Rodney bends forward on his seat and swallows his dick whole.

"Holy fuck!" John says at the sensation overload of Rodney's mouth that's hot and wet and perfect, going from desperate to right the fuck there, pulsing into Rodney's throat in no time at all. Rodney's humming, pleased that he managed to get John totally undone in less than fifteen seconds. It's good though, so good and John wonders if his bones will rearrange so he fits perfectly over the console, leaning down and looking out, seeing nothing but the darkness of space and the pinpricks of stars. It's beautiful.

Rodney lets him enjoy his afterglow, resting his head on John's thigh and absentmindedly runs his palms lightly on John legs as he soothes him down. When John finally manages to stop looking outside, he cranes his neck up a bit to look down at the top of Rodney's head and combs his fingers in the fine hair. It makes Rodney roll his head into the touch like a cat and look up at him: Rodney's eyes are sparkling and his smile is happy, not even smug like John expected to see. He straightens up only to sit back in his seat, smile turning sly now.

"You kinky son of a bitch," Rodney says. "Don't imagine we'll be able to borrow the Gateships for sexcapades whenever you feel like it."

John laughs and he props himself on his elbows, looking at the scene before him. Waist up, apart from his mussed hair and the flush high on his cheek, nothing is really out of the usual as far as Rodney is concerned. But respectability goes out the window at the whole picture, with Rodney's pants and boxers still bunched around his shins, cock hard and dark curling to his belly.

"It wouldn't it be a thrill if we could do it all the time, anyway," John says. But they are doing it now, and things are not over yet. "None the less, the christening of this puddlejumper should be done properly."

Rodney rolls his eyes at John's name for the little spaceships but he smirks right back.

"Oh really?" Rodney says. "I thought I made you see stars. In my book, that's pretty good."

John laughs and sits up, toeing off his boots - good thing he never laces them properly. Then he loses the pants and boxers, and takes the little travel size bottle of lube he put in one of his pant pockets this morning. Yes, he had hoped for something like this, John never denied that he has a spacecraft kink. Rodney looks at him with renewed hunger and John marvels at his calm; Rodney must be aching from being hard without coming through all of this.

"It was great, but nothing says it can't get even better." John says, picking up the conversation again and climbs on Rodney's lap, glad that he can put his knees on either sides of Rodney's thighs at the very least. If possible, Rodney's eyes become darker, and he raises John's t-shirt until he's able to pull it off, throwing it aside, then skids his hands on John's chest and ribs, before licking at one of John's nipples. John groans, and while Rodney licks and kisses to his content, he opens the little bottle of lube, leans back and start to stretch himself, doing a fast work of it since he's still pretty relaxed from the fucking they did that morning and his recent orgasm.

"I've never, ever, seen anything as hot as this. Fuck," Rodney says, pulling back to watch him avidly.

John caps the bottle and tugs a bit at Rodney's hips so he moves closer to the edge of his seat, until John has room enough to position himself while Rodney holds his cock up. The seat is a bit too narrow and the position is not the most comfortable in the first place, but all of those points are rendered moot when John starts to lower himself on Rodney, slowly but surely getting down with increasing rocking motions. It's good, very good, Rodney's thick cock breaching him in the perfect way. John's resting his forearms on Rodney's shoulder, and they are both looking down at their laps, cheek against cheek, entranced by the view. Rodney's breath is coming in short hot gasps against John's jaw and he's desperately trying to lift his hips up for more as John slowly takes him in. It's hot as hell and Rodney's hands are skidding on John's rib cage, sometimes stopping to grip him at the hips, but then they are in motion again.

"Jesus, so good John..." Rodney all but slurs, pleasure drunk and hoarse.

The whole situation and Rodney's cock now nudging against his sweet spot makes a zing of pleasure shoot up John's spine as his own dick starts to fill again. He moans, and if John didn't expect to get another orgasm out of this, now that it seems a possibility, he wants it bad.

"Fuck yeah," John says with a forceful push that takes him the rest of the way down.

Once there he stops for a while, getting his bearings back. Rodney grunts, obviously restraining himself from moving while John adjusts, but to be patient looks like an effort. To be honest, being patient is always hard for Rodney, in everything.

"Just a sec..." John says, and just as he's starting to push on his leg to lift up, a voice startles them.

"Gateship 2, come in."

John freezes, heart hammering and Rodney makes a sound that's mostly a squeak that John will never let him live down. Since John's supposed to be piloting and he thinks that he's got the best chance to sound close to normal, he reaches back to push a button on the controls, which makes Rodney's eyes squeeze shut at the change of position and a sharp new burst of pleasure travels right through John.

"Atlantis, this is Gateship 2. Is there a problem?" John says in a mostly steady voice.

"No problem, Mr Sheppard. We've noted that the gateship has been in orbit with no apparent activity for more than an hour now. " The are you in difficulty? is implied.

He grins at Rodney, but fuck, what a scare. John's pretty sure there are no cameras putting their little show on display in the control room, thank god. Rodney has gained a bit of his composure back and, while kneading at John's thighs a bit compulsively, he pipes up.

"That's ridiculous." Rodney says. "We might not be doing acrobatics, but that doesn't mean we're doing nothing or are dead in space! We've been running diagnostics on a slew of all new systems Sheppard has managed to make appear with his magic gene."

John straightens up again, and then sinks down fast on Rodney's cock, making him do a strangled sound as he bites his hand not to shout. John barely resists crying out himself, and his dick is now back to full mast, throbbing at the unexpected thrill of being possibly overheard. He takes a breath as the technician on the other side of the comm line makes a vague apology.

"No problem, we're doing fine. Right, Rodney?" John says, amenable.

Shooting him a murderous look, especially as John doesn't stop moving to let him reply, Rodney does a dirty move of his own by wrapping his big hand around John's cock and pulls at it in exactly the way John didn't know he needed right now.

"Yes, yes, we're doing awesomely. Of course we are." Rodney says to the tech with a little smirk as John almost chokes on the sounds that want to spill out.

Rodney's definitely not playing fair now, jacking John in earnest with a delicious twist of the wrist every time he reaches the tip. John is all but vibrating with the onslaught of pleasure from Rodney's dick in his ass and the fist he's fucking into. There's a couple more words exchanged between Rodney and whomever is on the radio, but John's not paying attention anymore, focused on the rhythm they've fallen into, prefect and oh so good. He's careful with the sounds though, up until he realizes that Rodney's not holding back anymore and is praising him again, which must mean they're back to only the two of them.

"God, John, yeah, come on, come again, I want to feel you..." Rodney croons, not missing a beat, tweaking one of John's nipples with his free hand which almost does it.

It's not that John doesn't want to come right now, he does so much, he can't think of anything better, but it's good, so good, building up like waves upon waves. He closes his eyes and lets his forehead fall on Rodney's shoulder, nose in the crook of his neck, riding Rodney's cock hard and feeling every inch of him. Rodney's hand has left his chest and is resting on John's lower back now, hot and comforting at the same time and the solidity of it, the certainty that Rodney has him and won't let him splinter apart is the nudge John needs to finally let go. All of the energy that has been slowly building is ripped out of John at once, a rapid shift of potential and he's coming, crying out and then biting Rodney's shoulder as his body seizes and convulses in the best way possible.

It's no black out, but a quick wash of light and when the bulk of it has passed, John's forcing himself to straighten up to look at Rodney, wants to see him fall apart too. He's almost as limp as a noodle and can't really move anymore, so Rodney, who'd let him roll with most of his climax, grips John's hips solidly and he's manhandled up a bit. The next thing he knows, Rodney's bucking up into him hard and fast. He's not talking anymore, jaw clenched with the exertion of fucking John properly in this position, panting and making little growly noises that are sex incarnate. John's hanging on the best he can, gripping Rodney's upper arms.

John wants to tell Rodney how great he looks right now, how good this is, the sex of course but not just that, how John's pretty sure he's in love with him. But he just doesn't know how to, and the words get all jumbled as they come out, cheapened into becoming banalities and animalistic sounds that would not be out of place in bad porn.

Rodney's movements become more forceful and erratic and he finally tenses up and comes, throwing his head back hard against his seat which barely seems to register at all. John forces his eyes to stay open and focused, greedily taking in every detail, tremor and expression of bliss on Rodney's face. He's drinking it all in and John can't help but feel it too as after-shocks of pleasure still pulse through his body at any minute movement inside him. After stilling for a couple of seconds, Rodney slumps down like a puppet whose strings have been cut, panting hard. When he slowly slits his eyes open afterwards, blue eyes unfocused but still almost all pupils, John can't help but grin at him.

"That was awesome," John declares, bending forward to link his arms around Rodney's neck, kissing him softly on the lips. He's about to pull back when Rodney puts a hand on his nape to keep John in place and kisses him some more, licking into John's mouth slow like molasses.

It's pretty rare that Rodney's quiet, but he is now and John feels the need to fill the void when they part to breathe.

"So good, Rodney," he whispers against Rodney's cheek. "So good to me, with me."

And that's about all he can manage, it's the best he can do, and John hopes that Rodney gets that it means more.

Since he's crushed into a strong embrace for his effort, he's hopeful that the message got through.

***

He tries to hide it, but John is so tense, he's afraid that he's going to snap like a rubber band. Oh, he has experienced the nerves of meeting past girlfriends families before, but it's been a very long time since he's done it and somehow it had never mattered all that much before. He'd always charmed the moms almost effortlessly and if the dads were generally a lot more skeptic of the boy their precious little girls brought home, John knew how to say all of the right things with appropriate deference. But Rodney's sister? John didn't quite know how he'd deal with her, especially since he worried that he'd forever be the man who turned Rodney gay in her eyes. He usually loved being Rodney's first boyfriend, but right now it made John nervous.

"Are you worrying again? Oh, please," Rodney says, rolling his eyes.

That's another thing that annoys John. Since when has Rodney gotten so good at reading his moods?

"Oh shut up," He grumbles. He's worried Jeannie's not going to like him, sue him.
"I don't know why you're even nervous about this. She'll love you, everyone loves you," Rodney says.

That makes John snort laugh.

"You're projecting, there, Rodney," he says fondly.

Rodney gives him a sidelong smile, which has John grinning in return. They're following a well worn dirt road, the planet reminding John of a little place in Kansas, soft hills covered with high grass and wild flowers with forest in the middle distance. It's a gorgeous day, in the late seventies and the sun is shining. He can understand why this planet had been one of the ones chosen to evacuate some people from Earth while the Croatoan infection got dealt with.

"I like the place," John says.

"Walking to town was a stalling tactic, right?" Rodney asks, sighing as he adjusts his backpack. "It would have been just as pretty seen from the nice Humvee."

"Quite whining, McKay," John chides, even if it's kind of true. "You said it was just two kilometres, will only do you good."

They do the rest of the trek mostly in silence, interrupted here and there by Rodney randomly thinking of something he'll need to check or try when back on Atlantis. They might be technically on vacation, but Rodney's work brain never totally shuts off. Mainly, John just enjoys the sun and the fresh air. It's something still new and exciting, visiting alien planets. Maybe he should ask to be put on rotation in a gate team more. Rodney usually complains that field work takes him away from his important work, but he likes it too, it would be fun to be part of a team, together.

Soon enough, they reach a little town almost entirely made of identical little prefab houses, which gives it the feel of one of those mushroom villages that sometimes pop up near a mine or an industry in the middle of nowhere. The streets are perfectly crisscrossed like a grid, with the stores and services in the middle. A couple of army vehicles are parked here and there, but most people seem to be using bicycles to get around, sometimes with those big baskets to carry the groceries or whatever. From what he can see, the power comes mostly from solar panels on the houses and John wonders if starting over with a clean slate on a new planet is not a good idea, after all.

Rodney doesn't stop to chat with anyone, even if they're being looked at with curiosity. John figures that most people are avid to have news from Earth, and whenever someone manages to catch his eyes he nods and smiles slightly in greeting. Suddenly he can't wait to be in a house and not be looked at like the novelty of the day. When Rodney finally points to a little house just like the others, saying that's it, John's more relieved than nervous.

Immediately as she opens the door, Jeannie squeals and then wraps Rodney in a hug. It makes John smile, especially to see how it makes Rodney splutter but then hug back just as fiercely. Proving that things are constant when you're a McKay, she then proceeds to show how much she cares and was worried by insulting her brother.

"Finally, oh my god, you idiot, would it kill you to send news more often? I've been dreading opening a door to a guy in uniform who would tell me you died out there," she says, letting go of Rodney to hit him behind the head. She then hugs him again.

"Sorry, sorry, I tried, but it's not as easy as you think! I'm in another galaxy, for god's sake!" Rodney mutters, with less vehemence than he'd normally use.

Once Jeannie seems to have hugged her fill of Rodney, for now, she takes a step back, examining him critically, then her eyes slide to John who feels himself grow tense under the laser blue scrutiny. It's quite unnerving how much she seems to see right through him, like Rodney sometimes does.

"You're lucky I'm happy to see you. You brought a friend?" she says, smiling at John, being friendly and curious, but the tone of her voice seems to imply that she's surprised, as if Rodney doesn't normally bring friends over to visit.

"Um, yes, yes. Jeannie, this is my boyfriend, John Sheppard," Rodney blurts out, no pussying around and John didn't quite expect it to be said that way. He hopes he's not blushing too much as her eyebrows shoot up and then she assesses John in a whole new way, giving him a once over that would make marines proud.

"Boyfriend, huh?" The good thing is that she looks more amused than anything. "Well that's a surprise."

As one could expect, Rodney kinds of bristles at that.

"What's that supposed to mean?" he says, frowning.

By habit, John puts a hand on Rodney's lower back, trying to calm him but Jeannie just rolls her eyes.

"I didn't say it was a bad thing, moron. I don't care who you fuck," she says, before smiling brightly at John, whose ears must be bright red by now. "Hi John, I'm happy to meet you."

"Same here," he manages to say, at least, and doesn't quite know if he should reach for a kiss on a cheek or something when Jeannie takes the matter in her own hands and hugs the hell out of him. It's pretty unsettling and he pats her lightly on the back, but smiles as she lets him go. Do not show fear, or they'll get you. That's his motto for the moment.

"Come in! The girls will be thrilled to see you. Mer!" She then cries out, as they enter the living room. "Girls! Your uncle Mer is here!"

There are squeals of delight that make Rodney look a bit panicky and from the back of the house comes the sound of little feet stampeding as 3 little girls, two blonds and a brunette, appear and aim for Rodney like Scuds. But as soon as she sees John, the one with brown hair just stops short. John doesn't know who's the most surprised, him or Anna - because she might be taller but it's definitely her - big black eyes opened wide, pink little mouth in a perfect 'o' and curly brown hair. Her hesitation lasts only a second, and with a high pitched scream of "Mister John!" Anna launches herself at John who manages to catch her without falling on his back. Somehow, she jumped high enough so she's got her legs securely around his waist and she's hugging him so hard around the neck John's got problems breathing. Okay, so the breathing problem might not be all because she's cutting off his airways.

"Mister John, Mister John! I knew you'd come, I've told everyone!" She babbles and John laughs, rubbing her back and kisses her hair.

"Hey Squirt! Yeah, sorry it took so long." If his voice is a little rough, it's out of his control.

He turns to Rodney, who's going to have a piece of his mind later for not letting him know in order to prepare for this. Seems Rodney's got his armful of a little girl too, plus a bonus one clinging to his leg like a koala which should not be such an adorable look for him. He's grinning, visibly proud of his little surprise and John cannot quite manage to be mad at him for it. When John had started calling Rodney after getting in Camp Chitaqua, he'd asked if Anna was safe, which he was assured of, but he'd never wanted to know more since he still felt guilty for abandoning her.

"It's okay," Anna says, way too seriously for a girl who's what, 8? 9? She's gotten so big, although she's light as a bird. She slacks her embrace a bit, then looks at him. "So, did you kill all of the bad guys?"

John shakes his head.

"Nah, not quite. But it's getting better, and pretty soon they'll be gone." He hopes so, at least. The last reports were encouraging. "So, you live around here, Squirt?"

Anna frowns as if confused.

"Well yeah!" she says, as if it's a stupid question. Then her face lights up. "Oh you mean my room? It's upstairs! Come, come, I'll show you!"

With that she wiggles to get down and John puts her on the floor, mind reeling at the implication. If she lives here, with Jeannie, that means Rodney didn't just put her out of harm's way, but confided her to his own sister, which is frankly amazing. He looks at Rodney again, flabbergasted, and hopes he'll manage to show him later how much this means. Smiling fondly, Rodney makes shooing motions so John goes with Anna, who's tugging at his hand towards the stairs.

John follows Anna, half listening to her babbling,

"I have my own room, and I chose the colors and the decoration myself! You know, it's not easy to.."

John doesn't mean to drown her out, but his other ear catches Jeannie as she teases Rodney.

"Really, Mer, The Mister John?" She says, putting emphasis on 'the' as if she's had earfuls about him, "how do you dare steal your niece's future husband?" which about makes John trip on a stair.

"Oh, shut up," Rodney says. "She's going to have to let go of that stupid crush, anyway. He's mine mine mine," Rodney sing songs, making Jeannie laugh and John smile.

It seems that Anna was too busy telling him all about her room to hear that, and is now proudly opening her door, showing her frighteningly purple domain. She lets go of John's hand to run towards the back wall, bending down to what looks like a cage. Curious, John goes near.

"Who's that?" He asks, as she opens it, then grabs a big ball of black fur.

She turns to him, and he sees that it's one of those six legs rabbits, like in that picture he'd seen that one time and it makes him smile. Anna grins in return.

"His name is John."

He can't help but laugh.

 

The End