Maybe it was the change in the sound of the engine, the low rumbling purr of the Impala downshifting to a roar, that woke Sam. Maybe it was the sudden jolt of velocity pressing his face against the window. Either way, Sam shook himself awake and looked over at Dean first-saw the tongue in the corner of his mouth, green eyes lit up with that little smug smile as he leaned forward, eager-and knew they weren't being chased. A glance out the window told Sam they'd also left ninety miles an hour in the rearview mirror.
It was a sign of their life that he looked behind them for demons (or cops) anyway.
They switched lanes, blazing through the tumbled red rocks and scraggy pines of rural Colorado. The road disappeared around the curve of a mountain. The other car, a red TransAm, seized the advantage and edged a nose ahead of them, engines whining. They swept by a sign that read forty-five miles per hour.
"What-?" Sam said blearily. He'd been pretending to sleep, to avoid his brother's razzing about his sex life, and must've drifted off. He reorganized his shoulders against the car door, bracing himself. Neither of them wore seatbelts, a lesson from their father in a childhood spent hunting evil. Vengeful spirits loved seatbelts: as a garrote. "Hell, Dean..."
"Oh no, you don't…." Dean muttered, eyes narrowing as he shifted again. The engine gunned and they caught up, moving alongside the red car long enough for Sam to catch a glimpse of a guy in a bomber jacket and Aviator glasses, his generous mouth in a hard line – until the guy smirked, and cut Dean off at the next turn. The mountain road fell away into a dusky valley to Sam's right. They were coming up fast on a bus and a couple of trucks.
"Drag racing?" Sam said. The road arced left.
"Sonofabitch!" Dean stomped on the gas as he fell behind, managing to stay even with the TransAm's back wheel. Then the TransAm dove around a truck, using it like a rock in the stream, forcing Dean to fall back behind him. Sam swayed and knocked his head against the window.
"Are you kidding me?" Sam said.
"Not now, Sam." Dean growled, crawling over into the right lane. The Impala's engine thrummed. The Greyhound logo was dead ahead and growing larger, but Dean seemed determined to pass the TransAm first. "C'mon, baby…."
"Not now, Sam!"
The TransAm sidled right and straddled the centerline, blocking both lanes. Then it swerved into the left lane just before the bus, forcing Dean to fishtail into the lane behind it.
"You motherfucker!" Dean said, riding up the guy's ass-the guy looked up at Dean in his rearview mirror, smile showing teeth this time. They were forced to follow with two widely spaced trucks filling the right lane.
"Dean, has it occurred to you this is stupid?" Sam said.
"He started it!" Dean said, red-faced. "With his fruity little chick mobile. That's not a real car, that's a babe magnet."
"Well, it looks like he's winning to me," Sam said, heedless of the consequences.
"Dean, look out!"
The TransAm had swung right and slowed. It spun around and rolled like a dropped domino. Dean threw the wheel hard left to avoid it, driver's side riding up on rocks, two of four tires off the ground-then they landed, the weight of the Impala holding them level. The impact slammed Sam into the dash, completely off his seat. Sam gripped the dash and the door as Dean swerved and swung about like a fun house ride. He finally regained control.
Sam picked himself off the floor to look back. There was a break in the railing where the TransAm had broken through.
Dean found the nearest overlook and pulled over. As they rolled to a crunching stop Sam's heart still raced and the ground still seemed to be moving beneath them. That could have been us was his first thought. His second: no way the driver of the TransAm survived.
"We weren't even going that fast," Dean said, open-mouthed, his eyes glazed with astonishment.
Sam got out of the car and trudged back towards the broken rail. He had the jelly legs of too many hours driving. The late afternoon sun outlined the mountains, casting stark golden shadows as Dean slammed his door to fall into step behind him. The Greyhound whooshed past in a gust of hot wind, not even slowing down. One of the truckers had pulled over and put his flashers on.
The TransAm had caught on a rock ledge about fifteen feet below, nose-first into a cluster of dry pines. There was no sign of the driver.
"He got thrown out?" Dean asked aloud, making a spiraling rag doll motion with his finger.
Sam flashed on that glimpse of the driver and shook his head. "He was wearing his seatbelt." A photographic memory was good for more than just law school.
The trucker, a large man in blue jeans with pink skin and a double chin stood with his thumbs hooked in his belt loops. "Damndest thing I've ever seen. One minute he was there, the next he wasn't. If someone told me I wouldn't believe them."
"What do you mean?" Dean asked, giving the trucker a sharp look. He and Sam exchanged a meaningful glance. Sam wandered over to check out the vehicle letting Dean handle the trucker. He was good with the blue-collar types.
"Well, I saw him racing. We've been on the radio talking about you idiots, no offence, for the last several miles, warning folks ahead. I had twenty bucks on you giving up, though Marksman won the pool."
"Won?" Dean said.
iMarksman?/i From his vantage point Sam couldn't see any blood on the vehicle, though the interior was black leather. Of course.
"He bet one or both of you'd wreck within the next five miles." Sam rolled his eyes. "He drives this stretch every week. Anyhow, the TransAm was fixing to pass me, I saw him in my mirrors. Then he just … wasn't there."
"You mean you didn't see the car," Dean clarified.
"No, I mean I saw the car. There was just no driver," the trucker said with the excited gleam of a man who was going to be eating out on this story for years. "He was gone. Disappeared into thin air. Then the car flipped over and there it is." He pointed. "You're not going to find any body. I saw what I saw and there was no one on board."
Another truck rolled in behind the first, its hydraulics hissing to a stop. The driver, a smaller man in plaid with a day-old beard, hopped out. Their trucker abandoned Dean to tell his incredible story to his friend. The familiar sound of a siren indicated that one of the truckers must have called it in.
Time for them to leave the scene of the accident. And switch their license plates again. They'd have to steal a new one, Sam thought with an inward sigh. No doubt the truckers had taken both plates down.
The last thing they needed was the FBI to find out Dean wasn't dead after all. They couldn't afford attention. They had enough problems trying to avoid the demons and angels that meant to use them for the coming apocalypse. Without rancor, Sam recalled how back at Stanford in Psych 101 he'd diagnosed Dean with every psychosis in the book, from multiple-personality disorder to pathological risk-taking. Now he knew the truth: sometimes his brother was an idiot.
As they walked back to their car, Dean hunched his shoulders against the wind, flipping his collar up. He glanced backward toward the cops. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"
Sam sucked air through his teeth. "That we've got a ghost drag racer on our hands."
"Yeah. And he's an asshole."
The Valhalla Canyon View Motel was nowhere near a canyon, nor did it have a view. Instead it had a dirty white sign that promised low rates and "free HB in very rm." They were missing a few magnetic letters.
It was nominally part of the town of Clontarf, Colorado, a mile or two down, one of those mountain villages that were more a widening of the road where the ridgeline intersected a valley. Most of the activity there revolved around the gas station, though the residents had managed to fit a triangle-shaped park in front of a single row of stores ... Viking Laundry ... Odinn's Antiques...
Above and to the left of Sam, the police scanner on the dresser squawked about a 10-52, a domestic dispute. A woman threatened her husband-armed with a cast iron pan. Caution was advised. Earlier the police had reported a 10-53: a vehicle had gone over the railing. Someone had left the scene of the accident, though so far there were enough witnesses that the TransAm's driver appeared to be at fault.
Sam tugged at the cord to his laptop where he crawled under a shaky desk. He hummed inwardly as he set up for an old-fashioned ghost hunt. It would make a nice change of pace from being the hunted. A return to simpler times, when it was all about "Saving people, hunting things-the family business." Ghosts had logic to their actions, once you understood them, a sort of distilled humanity. Revenge, fear, warning, love-it was all there, just without a conscious mind. Demons... destroyed wantonly. One psych class wasn't enough to psychoanalyze a demon, but they used terms like father, daughter, not to indicate familial attachment but to describe their power and place in a hierarchy. Sam had gotten close enough to learn how human they could seem.
Sam flicked dark bangs out of his eyes and settled on one of the queen beds, long legs stretched out. He hacked the wireless from nearby Peterson Air Force base, laptop too warm on his thighs, as he dug up all he could on the driver of that car. He wasn't crazy enough to steal from NORAD, although it was closer. Best not to test the aerospace command's motto: Deter, Detect, Defend (the "Destroy" was implied).
Hours later, the room had grown dark except for the blue of the computer screen. Sam was weighing turning on a light against the effort of disentangling himself when the door rattled. Dean blustered in, smelling of cigarettes and beer. He flicked on the lights, neatly solving that problem.
"Checked the local watering holes," Dean announced. "'Get hammered at Thor's Hammer,'" he quoted, his voice loud and brash, as it always was fresh from a bar. His baby-faced cheeks were red, eyes too glassy. Oh yeah, he sure had.
"Yeah, I noticed the theme. Did you leave any booze or is this now a dry state?" Sam smirked.
"Ha-ha, I'll have you know that's all there is to do in this town so that's where everyone goes." Dean pulled off his leather jacket and threw it on a chair. "Saw a few guys who might be your type," he shot back with a wink and grin. "Young college frat boys."
Sam's jaw worked. "It was a threesome, not some gay hook-up." Proof that he wasn't 'uptight' had only given his brother more ammo.
Dean's grin widened. "I mean, I knew college was wild, but hey..."
"The job, Dean," Sam said with infinite patience, glaring at the computer. He just had to ignore it, not let Dean get under his skin.
"Sure thing, party animal." Dean clicked on the TV, muted the sound, and bounced onto the other queen bed with a grunt. He crossed his ankles. "They've got a million ghost stories, all the usual crap, but no one's ever heard of a ghost drag racer."
Sam shook his head in agreement. "Nothing in the library archives either, and no news stories of a drag racer dying out there. Though I'll have to check the old microfiche files tomorrow to be sure. The computer archives only go back to the late 80s." He peered over the edge of the laptop. Dean was busy running his hands through his hair and flipping through channels. "Had better luck with the plates. The car's registered to a Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, U.S. Air Force."
"You mean was."
Dean sat up, brightening. "You think our ghost joyrides? Stole some Colonel Geezer's midlife-crisis mobile and sent it over a cliff?"
"Don't think so." Sam turned the laptop so Dean could see the license photo. It showed a man in his late thirties with deep hazel eyes and out of control brown hair, even with the military cut. The guy had managed to stare at the camera warily, at a slant, like it might bite. Sam gestured between Dean and the screen. "Dean, meet Colonel Sheppard. Sheppard, Dean."
"Oh, that's dickhead all right." Dean pursed his lips. "Think we missed a body? It was a ways down."
"That trucker seemed pretty sure of himself," Sam said with a wince.
Dean smiled ruefully. "Truckers have great imaginations…."
"I saved the best for last," Sam said. "I used Steve's back door into the Department of Defense-"
"They still haven't discovered that? Man, their IT sucks." Dean got up to have a look, leaning over Sam. He reeked of alcohol but the vagueness had gone out of his eyes, which were now sharp and present.
"-Your Colonel Geezer is listed as active duty. Get this. In Antarctica."
Dean shrugged, not getting it yet. "Okay. So he's state-side."
"No, what's weird is that there's nothing on him for the last few years. No officer fitness reports. No evals. He hasn't even kept his pilot's license up to date."
"A pilot not making sure he can fly? Something's hinky," Dean said.
"Black ops?" Sam said.
"In Antarctica? Yeah right. What's he doing-bumping off penguins?"
"Could be a cover. Or maybe he's dead and the military's covering it up. No one's going to visit Antarctica to find out," Sam suggested.
"Point." Dean bobbed his head approvingly. He read the record over Sam's shoulder. "Oooo. Hey. Check that out. Divorced ten years." His eyebrows shot up. He licked his lips and turned to Sam. "So who lists the ex-wife as next of kin?"
Sam met his glance with the pleased glint of a hunter who's found the scent. "Someone who doesn't want you contacting his family."
"Well, well, well," Dean said, with a self-satisfied smile. "Let's give …" He squinted closer to read the name. "… good old Dave a call."
"He should at least know his brother's missing."
"Not to mention that with the military? There's nothing like family to stir shit up."
It seemed every hunt included a trip to the library, or a museum, or the local morgue. Dean was grateful it wasn't the morgue this time. Bodies stank.
"Huh." Sam paused in the library atrium.
Hung beneath a carved wooden sign that read "Welcome to Clontarf" was a wall-sized parchment under plexiglas. In tiny hand-written lettering was a vast genealogy chart, ink brown and faded at the top, fresh and dark at the bottom.
"Um," Sam thumbed toward it, turning to the librarian. "What's...?"
The librarian had a wrinkled face and dimples. She smiled with the calm air of a very relaxed job. "That's our family tree."
Dean's eyebrows shot up. "Big family."
"Oh, most of them are long gone. This town was founded by the last survivors of Clontarf," she explained. Her chin lifted a little.
"Excuse me?" Dean said, blinking.
"Clontarf, Ireland?" Sam asked, sounding surprised.
"You know your history," she said with a pleased nod.
"Famous place." Sam nodded back, then took a breath and explained to Dean, "Clontarf was where the last battle between the Irish and the Vikings took place. Legend has it supernatural beings fought on both sides."
"Really?" Dean said.
"But, excuse me for saying this..." Sam leaned on the librarian's desk. "I didn't think there were any survivors."
"Not from the battle, no. But Irish families are large and our memories are long." She gave him a sparkling wink. "Legend says to us that the battle will be fought again, at the end of time. And this time Ireland will win."
"Sounds like the Irish. They never give up," Dean muttered.
She led them to the back wall where the microfiche files were located. As she left, Dean ducked his head and suggested in an undertone, "Think it's connected?"
"It's weird but..." Sam quirked an eyebrow at him, forehead rumpled. "A drag racing Viking ghost in a red TransAm?"
"Yeah, okay, when you put it like that."
The key to any hunter's investigation was to turn every reply into a question. That way you weren't tempted to make things up that you later regretted (or forgot).
"iHe's missing?/i" asked Dave, clearly shaken.
"When did you last see your brother?" Dean asked.
He and Sam had a system. Sam played the FBI agents, priests, and government wonks-the uptight folks-while Dean did the cops, and now, military men. Colonel Masterson to be exact.
"iDad's funeral. A couple years back. God, we were just patching things up…./i"
"Patching things up?"
"iOh, nothing different from what I said in the background check. Dad and John never saw eye to eye, especially with John joining the military. But John always had to do things his own way./i"
"Yeah, I bet." Dean snorted.
Dean cleared his throat, coming back to the topic. "So, the background check. You mean when he joined?"
"iNo, the one a few years ago./i"
Dean's eyelashes fluttered. "Right. That one. I see it now, uh, listed right here." He gave a cringing embarrassed smile and tipped his head as he glanced down at an utterly imaginary computer screen. In truth, he was sitting in his car outside the Quickie Mart at the gas station. "Well. Thanks for your help."
Oops. "Gotta run. Busy with meetings and, stuff." Dean forced a chuckle and knew immediately it sounded wrong. "You know how it is."
He hung up quickly before he could blow it. Fortunately most people were pretty trusting of authority figures.
Trouble was, Dean was a fundamentally honest person, which made him a terrible liar, even with years of practice on hunts. On the plus side, he'd always enjoyed the play-acting, even as a kid learning the trade from their dad. Sam for his part could justify anything with a higher purpose and lied as smooth as glass. It worried Dean sometimes.
Sam rapped on the window. Dean rolled it down and Sam tossed a steaming hot paper bag onto his lap.
"Ow, dude," Dean complained, snatching it up. He swiped at his jeans.
"There's nothing," Sam said, getting in on the passenger side. He tossed a folded newspaper on the dashboard like it had personally offended him. He slid into the front seat and shut the door. "No obit, no mention of the wreck, zip, nada."
Dean shrugged, his mind on breakfast. Mmmm. Greasy bacon burgers. Juice dripped down his chin.
Sam gave him a pained look, scrunching up his nose. "Try a napkin," he said, throwing a wad of them at Dean. They fluttered to the floor.
Dean deliberately made loud chewing, smacking noises, humming his pleasure as crudely as he could. He didn't even finish his bite before he said, "The local paper might not have anything, Sam. One car accident…."
"Right. This place is so small, they ran a full page story about the weather," Sam said, sipping his veggie shake or whatever it was. He held up the newspaper. "They're not going to run a story about a car going into the canyon? Not even as a cautionary tale to scare the local teens? It's a total cover-up."
"In Colorado the weather's always freaky," Dean considered. He took the Valhalla Bee-the type of paper written by volunteer grannies, articles about the high school band, etc.-while he seized a handful of fries from the bag with the other hand. He sucked down the ones that didn't fit in his mouth and chewed broadly. Sam rolled his eyes.
"The story's about electrical storms," Dean noted, his eyebrows raised. "Unusual ones."
"Yes, I know. Possible demon sign," Sam said.
"Or possibly Colorado," Dean countered. Although actually he agreed with Sam. Demons seemed to be everywhere Sam was these days. His fingers touched something plastic in his bag.
"Hey, look, I got a prize," Dean said. He gave a broad beaming grin as he fished out a little blue gun.
Sam rolled his eyes. "Only you could get excited over a plastic toy."
"You know what your problem is?" Dean grabbed an open bottle of beer that had gone flat and started filling the little pistol's reservoir. "You never learned to take your pleasure where you can."
"You mean I'm not totally immature," Sam said.
Dean squirted him for that, right in the face. Sam flinched away. Then he sniffed himself, giving Dean a disgusted glare.
"I'm going to smell like beer! Hand it over," Sam said, holding out his palm like a teacher reprimanding a child.
"Make me," Dean said, pointing it at Sam.
Sam made a grab for it, but Dean was faster. At the end of the wrestling match, Dean still had possession of the gun and Sam got a lot more beer on him. Though now the water pistol was empty.
"More maneuvering room and I'd have you on the floor," Sam said, fuming.
"In your dreams." Dean grabbed another handful of fries and reached toward the back seat. He wiggled his fingers in the direction of the laptop. "Gimme your computer."
"No way, you'll get grease all over it." Sam sat with his arms folded.
"Well then fire it up, princess," Dean said, more than happy to have his little brother do all the work. "I want to check something. I think that Sheppard guy's black ops."
That got Sam's interest. Amazingly, distraction worked as well as it had when Sam was five.
"Seriously? I was half-kidding last night," Sam said, grabbing the laptop.
"They did a background check a few years ago," Dean said, peeking over as Sam returned to Sheppard's military record, the public one that would be available to anyone at the Department of Defense.
"They'd do that for a promotion," Sam said.
"Yeah, but check this out." He stabbed a finger at the screen. Sam pulled it out of the way of greasy fingerprints and shot him a cross look. "He was a Major when he disappeared. Then while missing, he got promoted to Lieutenant Colonel? At thirty-nine, too. That's young-scroll down, will you?" Dean said, gesturing with a fry. Sam complied. "Yeah. And he's a got that big old black mark on his record … ignoring orders, reckless endangerment, destruction of government property … okay, the guy's got his good points."
"So how does someone like that get promoted, hmm?"
"Battlefield commission," Sam said.
"Has to be." Dean nodded.
Sam shut the laptop with a snap. "Which tells us exactly, oh, nothing about our ghost," he said.
"Yeah, I hate that. None of it makes sense."
"So far we've only got the trucker's word that he even disappeared," Sam said with a slanting sideways glance.
"I'm inclined to believe him." Dean started the Impala, its engine rumbling like a satisfied lion. "C'mon. Let's get another look at that car."
Sam and Dean stood at the railing where the TransAm had gone over. Or at least where they thought it had. The overlook was the same, and white wood showed where the pines had been dented. But the break in the railing was gone.
"It's been repaired? Already?" Dean said. He let the EMF detector fall. There was no point in checking a brand new railing for traces of electromagnetic frequencies. "In this backwater?"
Sam slid his fingers along the inside of the metal until he found the welds. Yep. "Even railings on the Autobahn take years to get fixed," he said.
Dean did a double take. "How do you even know that?"
"Trivia games." Sam shrugged. "Or friends, I don't remember. Look." He laid a heavy paw on Dean's shoulder and pushed him toward the car. "The wreck had to go somewhere. The junkyard's next on our list. It's not like there's anyone to claim it."
"Or if there is, I want to know who," Dean said.
Several miles away at Cheyenne mountain, in the lowest levels officially listed on NORAD's website-below the last stops listed on the elevators-lay an insignificant looking keycard slot.
Rodney McKay stepped in and slid his card through that slot. His badge read he was an astrophysicist, exactly the sort one would expect studying deep space telemetry at NORAD. Except two Air Force pilots followed him and gave him respectful nods, which he haughtily accepted as his due. He folded his hands in front of his lap and rocked back on his heels as the elevator doors slid shut.
It picked up speed and zipped past all the NORAD levels, opening into a busy military base below.
He turned down a hallway to rap on a door. "Lunch, and don't make me late because I'm a very busy man."
Receiving no answer, he barged in.
In his windowless office, Colonel John Sheppard sat slumped, feet on his desk, head propped on one elbow, a hand buried in messy dark hair. His uniform was unbuttoned and, as usual, his five o'clock shadow had started sometime around noon. He paged through satellite photos of the remains of a red TransAm on his laptop, blue light highlighting his face.
"This again," Rodney said, rolling his eyes. He reached over and shut down the screen.
"Hey!" John said, clicking it back on with a glare.
Rodney huffed. "Stop torturing yourself! I find it disturbing that the head of a base in another galaxy has a crush on an inanimate object."
"Former head. And everyone mourns in their own way, Rodney," John said.
He opened to another photo, this one showing the wreck dangling on a skyhook from a military chopper.
Rodney made a helpless gesture. "Come on. It's a car, vroom, vroom. You fly spaceships for a living! I still can't believe that instead of investing in securities you went for the teen dream." He paused to take a breath, blinking. "Though actually, given your usual behavior, not such a surprise."
John said through gritted teeth, "It had a iblue-printed engine/i. Police grade sway bars."
"Operating word: had," Rodney said. "Not to rub it in or anything, but I still own a small island in the south pacific where I shall retire at leisure in my old age." He gave a little bounce, smiling at the prospect.
"Not to rub it in," John echoed. His phone rang softly, the tone set to its lowest setting.
"Ignore it," Rodney instructed. He glanced at his watch. "Your maudlin moment has cost me ten minutes of an all too brief lunch hour."
John shook his head and snagged it, dangling from two fingers. He sang out in a casual tone, "Hel-lo." Then sat up, his feet sliding off the desk. "General."
He listened for a long moment, frowning. "My brother? An inquiry? ... No, sir, I have no idea why he thinks I'm-yes, I'm ... I know he doesn't have clearance. I'll handle it."
John let the receiver drop. He locked eyes with Rodney's. "My brother thinks I'm dead."
Rodney paused. He held up a forefinger. "You probably should have sent him that Christmas card."
Bob, the owner of Bob's Junkyard, was blond, sunburned, and as friendly as Santa Claus, if Santa wore ripped coveralls. He rubbed his hands on a grease-stained rag. "Sure! Pretty red TransAm. Right back there. If you fellows are interested in buying it I think it'll make a great parts car."
"Oh yeah, I'm looking for parts for a red TransAm," Dean said with a bright disingenuous smile.
Sam elbowed him.
Dean's smile faltered then recovered. He motioned with his head. "Can I-?"
"Be my guest," Bob said, leaving them alone with the car. The entire front end was crushed in and the sides were dented like balled up tin foil.
Sam wasted no time in running the EMF detector over the remains of the smashed driver's seat while Dean leaned on the folded hood, keeping a lookout, and not incidentally himself between Sam and the junk man. Behind him, the EMF meter squawked and protested, then began to give a slow, steady whine.
"It's got EMF," Sam said in a doubtful tone.
"Yeah?" Dean perked up.
"But it's weird. It's all wrong."
"Let me see that. You're probably doing it wrong." Dean grabbed the device from Sam, who gave him a disgusted look. The steady whine continued. "Okay, that's…."
"Different, yeah." Sam frowned. "There's some kind of electromagnetic trace but it's more consistent than a ghost…."
Dean waved to the junk dealer, palming the device off to Sam behind his back. "Hey!" he bellowed. "Can you tell me anything about the owner?"
"Sure!" Bob called back. He returned at a waddling trot. "It's sad. Kid didn't make it."
"Kid?" Dean asked with a wide blink.
"Some marine from Peterson Air Force Base. Named, what was it? Aiden Ford." The man smiled ruefully. "Hard name to forget, for a car man like me. He went over a cliff. Cars like that, they tempt people to drive too fast." He wagged a finger, the Santa sparkle in his eyes not dampened for long.
"Yeah, yeah," Dean said. "I understand."
That afternoon they highjacked wireless in the park triangle outside the grocery chain. While Sam typed away, Dean leaned his head back, gazing up at the blue bowl of the sky. Colorado seemed to have more sky than anywhere else, dwarfing even the Rockies. When driving you couldn't help but look up. It was a brilliant clear day, cool in the shade, and the locals went about their business. A dark-haired woman in sweats walked her dog back from a dog run. An old man on another bench scattered birdseed. An over-dressed woman weighed down by a wrist full of bags left the grocery store, waving off help from the teenager in a red apron who held the door.
It seemed idyllic, like a lot of small towns, which invariably struck Dean as surreal compared to his and Sam's life. Innocent, maybe. Ignorant? Definitely.
Sam's lips sealed in annoyance. He dropped his hand to the bench and huffed a sigh. He rolled his head toward Dean. "The motor vehicle record now reads Aiden Ford. Sheppard's been completely erased."
"So whoever helped Sheppard disappear, they want him to stay gone," Dean said, squinting at his surroundings. His shoulders itched. He felt uncomfortable all of the sudden. Maybe the silence was starting to get to him.
Dean's eyes wandered to the woman with the dog, appreciating the curves of someone who obviously took care of herself, even if she was just in sweats. The obnoxious dog yapped and tugged at its leash. He liked women who liked animals. The dog sat down and she dragged on the leash, scowling. The dog hacked.
Dean stiffened. He moved, slow and deliberate, with a feigned casual look over his shoulder. "Let's get out of the open."
"What?" Sam asked, smart enough not to be obvious about looking around. "What's wrong?" He snapped the laptop shut and stood right away though, towering over Dean. Their father had trained him well, even if Sam would argue all the way back to the car.
"Can't you see it?" Dean said, walking alongside Sam, his head down.
Sam spread his palms in a gesture of frustrated confusion.
"You're too much of a city boy," Dean said. "The animals, Sam, the animals!" He nudged his chin in the direction of the woman with her dog. The pooch was straining on its leash, trying to get away, backing away from the woman as it barked and whined. "And look at the old man," he said under his breath, not looking in that direction.
"What about him?"
"That's a ton of bird seed," Dean said.
"So. Where are all the pigeons? The squirrels?" Dean asked.
Sam looked up at the sky. "I've got another question for you." He squirmed his shoulders under his jacket. "There's not a cloud in the sky. So tell me-why aren't we casting shadows? Where's the shade coming from?"
Dean followed his gaze.
"There's something up there," Sam said, grim and certain.
"And it's bigger than a breadbasket," Dean agreed. He stood and made to saunter away casually. "Let's get back to the motel. I'll feel better behind a locked door, and with that demon-killing knife in my hand."
"And a Devil's Trap on the ceiling?"
Moments after they left, the woman let go the leash and let her dog run away. The dog scrambled to escape, its tail between its legs. She turned her back on it, and slowly, inexorably, followed Sam and Dean's car.
At the hotel, intermittent blue light flashed under the door. The mutter of an over-loud commercial could be heard in the hall.
"You leave the TV on?" Sam asked Dean.
Dean shook his head. Without a second thought, both drew their weapons.
"Didn't think so," Sam said.
Dean found the door unlocked, met Sam's eyes, then kicked it open, gun pointed. Sam flipped on the lights.
Colonel John Sheppard, with a scruff of five o'clock shadow and dark hair longer and messier than his photo, sat on Dean's bed, a bag of potato chips in his lap. Dean's potato chips. His narrow eyes stared back at them coolly, as if he had guns pointed at him every day.
"Hope you don't mind." Sheppard gestured to the TV, dipping his chin. "Got a little bored waiting."
"Those are my chips," Dean said, aghast. And kind of pissed.
Sheppard wrinkled his nose. "You can have them. They've gone stale." He threw the bag at Dean, who let it fall. Chips scattered across the floor. A waste of good chips, Dean thought mournfully, but he knew better than to let it distract his aim.
"Who are you?" Sam said, apparently deciding to play dumb. Dean silently approved.
"I thought you knew," Sheppard said with dry sarcasm. "Given you're getting all cozy with my family." His taut smile didn't seem at all friendly. "Put the guns down. The kind of guys who check in under assumed names-are you Mr. Joe Elliot? Was always more a Van Halen fan myself-well, let's just say I doubt you want draw much attention."
Dean decided to lower his weapon. After all, this was the man they'd been trying to find, lucky them. "Van Halen, huh? Goes with the wannabe car."
Sheppard gave him a snide stretch of a smile in answer. Dean watched him for signs of ghostly movement-appearing and disappearing, that sort of thing-but Sheppard seemed real enough. He'd known the chips were stale. Also, the EMF device in Sam's pocket wasn't squeaking and going crazy.
"How did you-?" Sam began.
"Get in here?" Sheppard supplied.
"No, I figured you used the door," Dean said, with a 'how stupid do you think I am' snort. "Since it was iopen/i."
"How did you get out of that car?" Sam demanded, stepping closer in a complete about-face from playing dumb. It threw Sheppard off balance-his brother was good.
"I wasn't in the car," Sheppard said after a pause, a sly half-truth if Dean had ever heard one. "But that's not what we're here to discuss," he recovered, the sarcasm returning.
He slinked, there was no other word for it, off of the bed and approached Dean, standing in his space. Which was pretty ballsy since Dean had only pointed his gun at the floor, while Sheppard's gun was still holstered. His voice turned low and mean. "Thanks to you guys, my brother thinks that I'm missing, possibly dead." He tapped his chest with his thumb. "But as you can see, I'm very much alive." He leaned closer. "So I'd thank you to stay out of my business."
"Is that a threat?" Dean asked, smirking. A black ops colonel could probably cause them trouble, sure, but it paled in comparison to most of what they faced every day. Demons. Creatures that would make this Sheppard cry like a little girl. Not to mention, oh, the apocalypse.
"Does it sound like one?" Sheppard asked, with a sharp smile.
Yeah, Dean had known he was a jerk, destruction of U.S. property or not.
"Yeah, as a matter of fact," Dean said on a laugh.
Sheppard folded his arms. "Then I think you should take it in the spirit it was intended." He waved his finger in Dean's face, which inexplicably made Dean want to bite it. "And leave my brother alone. He's had enough grief."
"You were in that car," Sam said, brow lowered with determination, bless his stubborn little heart. "I saw you."
Sheppard cut between them and turned back. For the first time Dean noticed he was wearing some kind of black BDUs with an insignia Dean didn't recognize. A horse with wings, whatsit, a Pegasus. "Leave me alone and I'll leave you alone. Trust me, that's the way you want it."
He opened the door and stalked out, with the soft step of a soldier more used to moving through brush than marching in formation.
A moment later a flash of light in the hall blazed under the door, and Sam's EMF detector gave out a low whine. They ran after him, but the EMF cut out as quickly as it started. Sheppard was nowhere to be found. Not in the hall, not in the parking lot. When Sam ran the EMF detector along the floor and it gave that long steady whine again.
"He wasn't a ghost," Dean said, wide-eyed.
"Nope. I don't think so," Sam agreed. "But that was definitely not normal." He turned to Dean, his eyes intense. "However he just left, I'm sure that's how he escaped the crash."
Dean returned to the room, motioning Sam out of the hall. He locked the door behind him. "If he's not dead and not a ghost, it's not my problem," he said philosophically.
"Aren't you the least bit curious? Whatever he did set off the EMF," Sam insisted, gesturing back towards the hall. "In some form or another, that's paranormal."
Dean picked his bag of chips off the floor. Sheppard had spilled most of them. Dean tried not to pout and took a handful. "I'll tell you what. When he does die, I'll track him down, burn and salt his bones. Just to be sure I never have to see him again."
Sheppard rematerialized mid-stride, stumbling as if he'd missed a step on a stairway. He looked around to get his bearings. By the steel planking and expansive view through the window, he was on the deck of the Daedalus. The massive spacecraft, property US Air Force Stargate Command, hovered fully cloaked over the little Colorado town. Or he assumed it was cloaked, since they were close enough to count heads in the street, and people just went about their business completely innocent of what lie directly overhead. The tests of the new cloaking technology seemed to be going great.
Techs in the gray coveralls of the Daedalus uniform, with the star and lightning bolt insignia on their sleeves, tapped at curved computer consoles. One or two gave John a quick glance.
"Got him," Novak said. She sighed and slumped back in her chair, visibly relieved.
"And not a moment too soon," said Colonel Caldwell from the captain's chair. John spun around.
"I had to wait until he was out of direct line of sight, sir," she explained.
"Yes, yes, I'm aware of that." Caldwell brushed off the explanation. "Good to see you still alive and well, Sheppard."
Sheppard gave him a squinting look. "Good to be alive," he answered, slowly. "Was that ever in question?"
"We got information on the two who contacted your brother," Caldwell began. He brandished a computer tablet, which displayed a set of mug shots. "Sam and Dean Winchester. Supposedly dead, though it looks like that's been exaggerated. They've both got records. Or rather, a record, since they work as a team."
"A record?" Rodney cut him off, the only one who did so and got away with it. He pointed to the picture of the guy who'd whined about the chips. "You were sharing a beer with a serial killer!" He rounded on Novak, who flinched. "And you should have beamed him out of there immediately, never mind what Winchester saw! Nobody's going to listen to a psychopath anyway." Rodney gave a dismissive wave. "He probably hears little green men who tell him to chop people into cat chow."
"Oh, come on," Sheppard said, taking in their worry with an easy-going smile. "He struck me as some kind of survivalist, sure, strutting around like he thinks he's important, but I didn't get any kind of scary nutcase vibe."
"Dean Winchester peeled the skin off a girl in St. Louis and left her to die, a quivering pile of flesh and jelly," Rodney said. "They have pictures. Would you like to see them?" He held up a forefinger. "Oh, and don't eat beforehand. Personal experience."
Sheppard shook his head. "I don't buy it. Why call my family to say I'm missing?" He shrugged. "That guy, whatever you said his name was—Dean?—most likely has a talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Look at what happened with me and my car. Some people have that kind of luck. And speaking of which-" Sheppard leaned his elbows on Novak's console. She tucked her chin in and swallowed. "—thank you for checking before you beamed me out. This time. You still owe me a vintage TransAm. In mint condition. With a blueprinted engine."
"I'm sorry, sir." Novak blushed. "I was told to pick you up right away, and not to worry about where you were." Her eyes flicked involuntarily to the command chair behind her.
"I liked that car," John said petulantly.
"I think saving the planet takes precedence." But Colonel Caldwell's bald head had turned pink. His staff kept their attention carefully on their tasks, eloquently silent. He looked at the ceiling with a long-suffering sigh. "Look, if we're done passing the blame I'd like wrap up any remaining loose ends on this little misadventure," he said. "I've sent a couple of men to pick Winchester up."
"Is that really necessary?" Sheppard winced. Technically, even though, yeah, Novak should have checked where he was before she beamed him out, this was all his fault. He shouldn't have been drag racing in the first place. Winchester had cut him off … and looked back with a cocky grin. John had decided to teach him the difference between owning a hot car, and knowing how to drive one. "I kind of suggested that if he left us alone, we'd leave him alone."
"He's a fugitive, Sheppard. If he's innocent I'm sure he'll have a chance to sort it out at his trial."
"All right," Sheppard said, shifting his feet. "But let me brief my men first. Those two are armed but they'll put down the guns if you talk nicely." He wrinkled his nose. "They strike me as more the paper target crowd, you know what I mean? I doubt they've shot anything bigger than a two-point buck. But things could easily get out of hand."
Novak said, "Too late, sir. They're already there." She pointed to the green screen of the subcutaneous tracker. Two circles of light, one for each soldier, moved down the hall of a two dimensional representation of the Valhalla Canyon View motel.
The lights stopped outside Winchester's room. Then, one at a time, winked out.
Sheppard and Rodney exchanged a stunned look.
"Those were my men," Sheppard said.
Sam stuffed his laptop into its case, slung it over his shoulder. With his forearm he swept the contents of the top of his dresser into his duffle bag. He paused to unplug the police scanner to let it fall the rest of the way in. Behind him, Dean slid a .44 revolver into the back of his pants and pulled on his leather jacket. He tossed balled up socks into his bag before heaving the strings tight and hauling it up.
"Move it, Sam!" Dean said over his shoulder, even though Sam had been packed first. "If the colonel knows we're here, so does Uncle Sam. The Feds won't be far behind."
Sam grabbed his semi-automatic from the dresser.
The sound of a man screaming, more animal than human, cut though the walls. Sam and Dean froze. There was a spatter of automatic weapons fire, then another terrified yell, long and drawn out. It dwindled to a moan.
"Demons!" Dean cursed.
"And they want us to know they're here," Sam said.
They stared at each other. They hadn't put the Devil's Trap on the ceiling. The demon-killing knife was still in the trunk. They'd forgotten, thanks to Sheppard. Sam dug in his duffle and held up a silver flask of holy water and offered it with a rueful tilt of his head.
"Thank God for small favors." Dean sighed.
"If there's only one..." Sam began, hopeful.
"We just need to get past it, yeah," Dean said.
Trouble was, like school bullies, demons tended to travel in packs.
The door smacked open with a howling wind that made both Sam and Dean squint, hair blown back from their faces.
In a flash of light, crouched with their weapons drawn, Sheppard, Rodney and four Stargate marines appeared in the motel parking lot. They'd decided not to walk into the same trap the last team had.
With the barrel of a Zat stunner, Sheppard signaled two marines to cover their flank outside the building. And keep back any civilians. John cleared the door, then slunk forward into the hall, Rodney and two marines right behind him. He glanced up at the flickering panel overhead. A plastic cover to the florescent bulbs swung loose.
Already the place didn't smell right. A metallic tang of blood and urine hung in the air, familiar from war zones (and one memorable visit to Guantanamo Bay John didn't talk about).
Rodney edged close, pressed against the wall. "Remind me why we didn't just report them to the local authorities," he complained under his breath.
"You want to explain why we have two dead soldiers out of NORAD hunting criminals?" Sheppard said.
"No. I mean initially," Rodney said.
"I was trying not to escalate things." John squirmed, hunching his shoulders.
A metal Venetian blind clattered, rippling in a sudden wind that made Sheppard squint. He wrinkled his nose against a rotten egg stink.
"Notice a bit of a draught?" Rodney asked lightly, looking around, openly worried.
"Yeah, I think we should book another hotel," Sheppard said. They were coming up on the spot where his men had died.
On the count of three he whipped around the corner, stunner at ready. No one in the hall. At least not any more. But the stench here was much stronger. There were two piles against a dark-stained wall, unrecognizable. Then Sheppard noticed the wet reddish gleam of fresh bones, the flesh stripped away, and they resolved into man-sized shapes. Intestines, when pulled out of a man who'd been gutted, looked like a long, alien worm piled next to the body.
Sheppard caught his breath. "You said that Winchester liked knives." It would have taken two men, very strong men, to have done this.
"Apparently," Rodney said, his eyes wide and shocked. "The blood's splashed," he said, glancing over the wall. "He was conscious when..." His voice trailed off.
Sheppard hadn't needed to know that. His knuckles went white where he gripped his weapon. He felt the silence grow from the marines behind him.
Sam tossed Dean the flask of holy water as a dark-haired woman, the one they'd seen walking the dog, sauntered into the room.
She paused to look up at the ceiling then down at the floor. The most likely places for the interlocked sigils and pentagrams of a Devil's Trap. Then she smiled. She stepped aside and behind her followed the teenager in the grocery store apron, moving easily, arms at his sides. They separated, heads bowed, and a little girl about ten years old stepped in. She had puffy cheeks and long wavy brown hair, and wore a dress over her jeans.
She tilted her head at Dean, ignoring Sam, and then broke into a dimpled grin. "Not since the battle of Clontarf have I seen such sheep," she said in a lilting accent. "You best pray the Valkyries love you."
"The what?" Dean said.
"Viking lore. The Valkyries choose who live and who die based on their valor," Sam said.
Dean gave them a cocky grin. "Well, then. I guess I have nothing to worry about."
Yeah, little demon girl didn't like that. Her lips drew up in a snarl, black pupils expanding to fill both eyeballs.
Sheppard crept closer. The door to the motel room was open, spilling light into the hall. In a semi-circle around Dean Winchester stood a woman, a teenager, and in the middle, a little kid. Winchester's brother, Sam, had backed up against the wall. From the intimidated look on his face, Sheppard figured he wasn't really part of all this.
Dean had a fist-sized gun pointed, threatening the little girl to keep the others in line, jaw tight with all the bravado Sheppard remembered. Sheppard took aim at Winchester's head, wishing he had his P-90 instead of a stunner. But he didn't have time to draw his nine mil.
Sam Winchester's eyes moved up from the three civilians and spotted him, just as he fired.
"No!" Sam said, a hand stretched toward Sheppard.
The arcing blue light of the stunner hit Dean Winchester square in the chest. He dropped first to his knees and then slumped sideways. The three locals turned as one unit, their eyes pupil-less and jet black. Skin crawling, John was reminded of insect eyes.
Winchester's tiny gun clattered across the floor with a sound too dull to be metallic. It was a blue plastic water pistol.
Then the locals attacked.
The little girl pounced on Dean Winchester like she was a puma and he was a meal. She sat on his chest and held up a knife. The other two slammed Sam Winchester to the wall.
Sheppard didn't know what the hell was going on, but he shot the locals with the stunner too, just for good measure. It didn't even slow them down.
The little girl started chanting something, knife held high as she straddled Dean. She pushed his shirt up, stomach exposed.
Sheppard had a sneaking suspicion he knew who'd killed his men.
He drew his nine mil and shot the teenager holding Sam. It-Sheppard was no longer calling these things 'people'-flinched at the bullet, its head jerking back in his direction. But a bullet did no more than the stunner. That didn't stop his men behind him from opening fire, raining down a hail of bullets on both things holding Sam. Pockmarks appeared where the bullets hit, spreading red, but the things ignored the barrage.
Sam Winchester struggled but seemed to have trouble breaking the grip of a spindly nineteen-year old and a rather small woman in sweats. And Sam was at least six foot three.
Sheppard took a chance and stepped into the room-even as his conscience screamed iwrong, wrong, wrong!/i-he shot the little girl through the heart. She flinched, lowering the knife. The front of her blue print dress stained red. Then she raised the knife again. She drew a gurgling breath and continued the chant, all consonants and high lilting syllables. Under her, Winchester groaned, coming to.
But Sheppard had gotten the attention of the other two. The teenager, who'd lost part of an ear in the attack, pinned Sam to the wall. Sheppard kept firing as the woman advanced on him. He slapped in a new clip as he backed away, hoping to draw her out to the hall and into a crossfire. It may take dismembering the body completely but they would take her down. Rodney and his men separated, clearly recognizing the maneuver.
On the floor in the middle of the room, Dean Winchester was now awake. He shook his head, blinking hard, mouth open. He fumbled for the water pistol and turned it on the woman after Sheppard ... and spritzed.
Her skin smoked and melted like she'd been hit with acid. Which for all Sheppard knew was exactly what was in the water gun. He then turned it on the little girl but she smacked it out of his hand. The plastic gun slid hard against the doorframe. Dean grabbed the kid's knife hand instead. His face turned red with the effort of holding it.
Rodney, smarter than the average bear, leaped on the toy, the only effective weapon they had so far. Eyes squeezed shut, crouched well into the room, he sprayed the woman. She writhed in place, staggered back, palms to her face. She fell forward, sinking to the ground. He kept on spraying-spritz, spritz, spritz-Rodney didn't know the meaning of overkill, and then ran out. Rodney first looked down at the gun in horror, and then at the two remaining opponents.
Sheppard was tempted to tell him, no, don't worry about it, we needed to take one of them down, when the woman threw her head back. Black smoke came pouring out of her mouth. They'd killed it!
Then, as Rodney stared in slack-jawed fear, the smoke billowed around Rodney. It poured into his mouth, his eyes, his nose. Sheppard shot uselessly at the black smoke while Sam shouted, "No!" and managed to flip the teenager around.
Eyes inky black, Rodney turned to Sheppard, his best friend, and gave him a wide slanting smile. It was the look he gave to scientists whose theories he was about to decimate. Sheppard couldn't help it, he lowered his gun. Whatever it was, the creature was smart. They wouldn't shoot Rodney. Not even with a water pistol.
The key to this was the little girl. Sheppard leaped sideways, tackling her. Only, he got immediately thrown, like he'd jumped on a bronco. He landed on his back, legs up against the wall.
"She's not a little girl!" Dean bellowed over the round of cover fire his men rained down, giving their commander a chance to get up. The little girl's chant flowed over them.
"I figured that out!" Sheppard said, struggling to right himself.
"No, I mean she's probably hitched a ride on the Midgard serpent!" Dean said. John gave him a blank look. "It's a Viking thing."
Sheppard couldn't form a reply.
"Think boa constrictor, wrapped around the Earth-never mind, just get the knife!"
That, John understood. In the background, one of John's men had resorted to hand-to-hand with Rodney. And Rodney was winning. Sam Winchester's trouble with the teen suddenly made sense.
"I've got a better idea," John said.
He dove on the little girl again, only this time clapped a hand over her mouth. With one arm wrapped around her neck, he held on for dear life as the ground swayed and thrashed under him, feeling like an earthquake though nothing else in the room bounced. The slow flood of chanting was cut off.
Dean wrenched her knife around and plunged it into her chest. Sheppard had the ridiculous thought, I pre-drilled that hole-but then she bit his hand, gnawing into the bone. With a yell of pain, Sheppard held his ground.
Dean ripped the knife out of her chest. She wailed, light exploding out of her eyes. A reek of rotten eggs choked Sheppard as she fell limp.
Winchester then threw the knife away, shouting, "Heads up!"
Sheppard watched astounded.
-Sam Winchester caught it. He slit the throat of the teenager. Smoke poured out of the gash and the kid stood a moment, gasping, knees shaking visibly. Then he collapsed.
Meanwhile Sam scrambled for Rodney and landed on him, arm around his chest, knife at his throat.
"No!" Sheppard said.
The two marines got up from the ground. Confused, they pointed their weapons first at Rodney, then Sam, then back again. The room fell silent.
Rodney smiled at them. "Go ahead. Shoot me."
"Don't. Shoot," Sheppard said, palms out.
"You leave him right now," Sam Winchester said through gritted teeth, panting.
"You kill me, they'll kill you. It's such a fair world we live in," Rodney, or rather the thing inside him, said nonchalantly. Sheppard got a sudden sick feeling that the three attackers had been civilians, held hostage like the Goa'uld parasite held a host.
Dean picked himself off the ground and fetched a silver flask from one of the beds. "Yeah? We can make it real uncomfortable for you." He splashed Rodney's face. His skin smoked and he twitched.
"Don't!" Sheppard said.
"It's holy water." Dean gave John a disdainful look.
"Oh. Well, then, go right ahead." Sheppard waved a hand. Though he figured some of Rodney's coworkers would be unsurprised he reacted badly to holy water.
Even so, Sheppard's eyes widened when Sam drew a thin red line across Rodney's throat. Rodney squealed. "Sorry about the shaving cut."
"How's about a little salt in the wound?" Dean suggested, twiddling the flask between his thumb and forefinger.
Rodney opened his mouth like he was about to throw up, and black smoke poured out. Sheppard couldn't help it, he aimed his gun at it even knowing bullets did no good. But the smoke sank into the floor.
His eyes his normal blue again, Rodney sagged in Sam's arms.
"That was arguably the worst experience of my life..." Rodney said. His mouth worked like a dog given peanut butter. "Ugh. It tastes like I've been eating spoiled food." He tipped his head back. "And I've got a bloody nose, how did I get a bloody nose? Someone get me a tissue." He flapped his hand at the two marines.
Sheppard took a moment to look around to assess the damage.
Blood sprayed on the window and wall where the bad guys had held Sam. Two dead near the door. A little girl with a hole in her chest in front of the TV, eyes open to the ceiling. A spatter across the farthest bed. Sam and Dean were both covered in blood, and there was a brown-red smear across Rodney's face and neck. Sheppard glanced down, realizing he probably looked just as bad.
Bullet holes peppered the walls. Though one of his men righted a chair, human instinct, as if that would make any difference.
"So. I'm guessing there's an alternate explanation for that girl in St. Louis," Sheppard said to Dean.
Dean licked his lips. "Shapeshifter," he said, his gaze steady. Daring John to believe him. "It just looked like me. But the police didn't believe me when I explained in plain English."
"Can't imagine why not," John said.
Dean spread his arms. "I know! I've got an honest face."
"Right," John sighed. "Thing is..." He glanced at the ceiling. "...my boss probably won't be very understanding, even if he buys my explanation. He's kind of a law and order type."
"Bosses are like that," Dean said, sticking out his chest. "That's why I'm self-employed."
"Doing...?" Rodney asked.
Dean gestured at the room. "Someone has to fight the bad guys."
Sheppard said. "What I'm saying is, well. I'm not due to check in for another four hours. And I hear you have a pretty fast car..." He let the sentence finish itself.
"Yeah," Dean said. "How did you get any real power out of that chick mobile?"
Sheppard smirked. "It's never the car. It's always the driver."
Dean folded his arms, hip cocked, and gave Sheppard a doubtful look.
"A blueprinted engine doesn't hurt," Sheppard admitted, grinning.
"Oh, sweet! That must've cost a mint," Dean said, arms unfolding.
Sheppard shrugged. "When you fight bad guys for a living, you've got to treat yourself."
Dean slapped Sam's shoulder and pointed to Sheppard. "See? That's what I always say."
"Dude, that's why I'm the brains of this operation," Sam said. "Are you paying attention? We've got four hours to get very lost, maybe less if the colonel's boss has already contacted the FBI. And three more bodies to deal with." He looked at the little girl sadly.
Sheppard hadn't realized he'd been still withholding judgment on these two until that moment. His shoulders relaxed. "Don't worry about them. We can make things disappear," he said.
Sam gave him a sudden sharp look. "We noticed."
"Could we..." Sheppard hesitated, nudging his chin in the direction of the bodies, though he was not sure he wanted to know. "...could we have saved them?"
Sam and Dean exchanged a dark look. Sam cleared his throat. "At a price we can't afford."
Sheppard's eyes narrowed at him, wondering what the rest of his story was.
"So one question," Sam asked. "Where have you been the last few years?"
Sheppard gave them a broad smirking grin. It was the perfect straight line. He'd always wanted to say it.
"In a galaxy far, far away."
Rumbling over a dirt road that wound deep into a pine-scented wilderness-getting lost was more about where you went rather than how fast-Dean had been quiet and thoughtful. He didn't even have music on. The world had faded to just the sound of rocks kicking up under the car, the pool of their headlights, and the night sky. On this side of the mountain, away from light pollution, the stars dominated the horizon, huge and close. They seemed almost to touch the trees.
Dean broke his silence. "You don't think he was telling the truth, do you? Sheppard, I mean."
Sam did a double take. And laughed. "Come on. You saw that grin. He was pulling our leg."
Dean cocked an eyebrow at Sam. "But the soldiers behind him didn't look too surprised."
"They didn't." Sam blinked.
Dean shook his head, smiling. "And that would be why I'm better at this job than you."
Sam scowled but pointed out, "Or maybe he just makes that joke a lot."
"Maybe," Dean acknowledged. "Doesn't matter. It got me thinking."
"Shut up a minute! I was wondering," Dean said, turning to Sam. "Do you think the apocalypse affects just this planet, or the whole universe? Stars, planets, everything we know-gone."
Sam froze, bug-eyed. "Thanks, Dean. Just when I thought our problems were manageable, you drag the whole universe into it."
"You thought the apocalypse was imanageable?/i"
"Well, now it's less manageable!"
"What changed in the last five minutes?" Dean asked.
"I don't know." Sam sighed. "Maybe nothing. " He frowned in confusion. "Though what did he mean by 'fighting the bad guys'? What bad guys?"
"Caught that, did you?" Dean nodded. "Who knows. Maybe they're fighting our bad guys. It'd be nice. We could use the help."
"Somehow I doubt that."
"Or maybe ... space aliens from Mars?" Dean beamed.
Sam rolled his eyes. "Everything devolves to a B-movie plot with you."
"They're not B-movies, they're classics," Dean defended himself, shoulders hunched, clearly ruffled.
Sam smirked. Sometimes he got one in. He'd caught on years ago that Dean was embarrassed about his lowbrow tastes. Anything their dad had mocked was fair game.
Dean reached over and clicked on his music, turning it up loud. AC/DC screamed-Sam wouldn't call it singing- "You! Shook me allll niiiiight long!"
He gave Sam a sly glance. "You know, that Sheppard..." He winked. "He's pretty good-looking. Had that whole Air Force cool going for him. If you're into the daddy thing... "
"Would you leave it alone?" Sam said, finally losing it. "I'm starting to wonder about you because you're the one who keeps noticing these guys."
Dean laughed and laughed. "I got his phone number if you want it."
"You what?" Sam forgot about being mad.
"Don't worry, I gave him dad's old number. He can leave a message-I'm not stupid."
"Why-what?" Sam boggled.
"Hey. He likes classic cars, his taste in music sucks but we can work on that, and he's pretty good in a fight." Dean shrugged. "I told him I'd stand him a few rounds."
"I don't understand," Sam said.
"There's nothing wrong with having friends, Sam," Dean said.
The words wouldn't come out.
"Pen pals?" Dean suggested with a quirk of a smile.
Finally Sam managed, "You're the one who's always telling me we can't have ties, that you're the lone wolf. "
"Yes, but he knows all that shit and he can deal."
"He knows about the apocalypse," Sam said, eyebrows raised.
"Okay, that would take a few drinks." Dean sighed. His shoulders sagged. "Look. I figured if we survive we might, I dunno, want a life. Not like marriage and kids-okay, maybe that-but I mean people who know you, know where you've been."
Sam stared across the dashboard, considering it. He admitted, "I can't look that far ahead."
One of the good things about Dean was that he could hear something like that and not try to fix it. It was what it was.
Then Dean got an impish look in his eyes and the dimples showed. "That's why you lack a sense of humor. You need per-spec-tive!" He ruffled Sam's hair.
"Stop." Sam shook him off and shoved his hand away, hard. "Go call your boyfriend."
"Whoa, he's a buddy!" Dean swore.
"Fuck buddy then," Sam said.
"It's nothing like that!"
"Uh-huh, that's what you say. But you got his phone number," Sam said. Dean was going to pay for every gay comment he'd made over the last week.
Dean responded with a leer, draping his arm across the back of Sam's seat. "Just looking out for my little brother. Wouldn't want the good ones to get away."
"Good ones?" Sam noted.
"Shit." Dean looked away with a snort of disgust.
"Pull over," Sam said, still smiling. "I've got to take a leak."
"Hey! Maybe we can camp out here. Roast marshmallows, have a fire." Dean had perked up. "Just like we used to with dad."
"Aside from the fact that we don't have any marshmallows..." Sam began.
"It's a figure of speech. You know, symbolic."
Sam barreled on. "...If I recall, dad left us to go chase Bigfoot. He gave you a .45 and instructions to shoot anything that came within our perimeter."
"Yeah," Dean said with satisfaction as he pulled into a clearing. "Good times."