The Closer We Are to Danger
By San Antonio Rose
The closer we are to danger, the further we are from harm. – Peregrin Took
The Wraith was in prison. Again.
He understood. The humans had no reason to trust him, and he had fulfilled the purpose for which they had brought him to their home planet, the legendary Earth that so many Wraith now wished to find. But it was getting old, being alone and shackled, kept away from the stars. And while the prisoner John Sheppard had so kindly provided to keep him from starving to death had helped, he still needed to feed again. His years of captivity under Acastus Kolya had damaged his metabolism—not that he would admit as much to Sheppard or McKay.
He was so lost in his own thoughts for a moment that he almost failed to miss the approach of a most unusual presence.
Most Wraith could not sense a human's soul once it had left its body. This one could on rare occasions, but usually only as the soul fled to whatever awaited it. But somehow, at this time, in this place, a single human soul was coming toward him... and a remarkable soul it was, too, though his knowledge of it came only through senses other than sight. It bore the marks of suffering greater than any the Wraith had known, yet it felt proud and strong, like many of the Earth humans he knew. And it seemed to be looking for him particularly.
Can I help you? he thought curiously.
I hope so, the soul—the man—replied. I've been waiting for something like you... didn't know exactly what, but you'll do.
The Wraith blinked. Indeed? May I know to whom I speak?
There was a pause, and then the temperature in the cell dropped suddenly as the soul found entrance. Then it dropped again as the figure of a man appeared, a tall, dark-haired man with haunted eyes and a greying beard.
I need you to help me save my sons, the man said.
"Huh," said Sam two days after Christmas.
Dean glanced over at him lazily from his spot on his bed. "What?"
Sam looked up at Dean from the laptop. "There's this... really weird news report out of Guernsey, WY. Dehydrated body turned up last week, almost mummified—dental records identified the victim as a vagrant who'd been seen, like, two days before."
"Like all the fluids had been sucked out of the body—all the life, even. Apparently there were signs of premature, highly accelerated aging; they were expecting the victim to be something like 90, but he was barely 50. No family, no fixed abode." Sam frowned. "And no bite marks, but there's this strange mark on his chest, almost like the fingerprints of a handprint, but with a gash where the palm should be."
Dean also frowned. "Huh. That the only disappearance in the area?"
Sam performed some Google-Fu and finally replied, "Looks like there's a string of 'em, starting about six weeks ago in Colorado Springs. All vagrants, homeless types, people nobody will really miss except maybe the cops... and maybe not even them, considering one guy had, like, six outstanding warrants for assault and armed robbery. Police got a complaint one night, went looking for him, found signs of a struggle but no sign of the guy. This is the first body that's showed up, though."
"Any other patterns you can find?"
"Whatever it is, it's not following the moon. I mean, it's very careful not to attack on the exact night of any moon phase."
"Huh. That's weird."
"Yeah." Sam paused. "Almost like it wants someone to know what it's not."
"What do you think it is, then? Djinn on a roadtrip?"
Sam shook his head. "Wouldn't explain the aging or the handprint."
Dean sighed and pulled out his phone. "Guess we can stop at Bobby's on the way."
"You sure, dude? I mean, the weather—"
"Outside is frightful, but people are dyin', Sam. We've taken hunts with less to go on than this."
Sam rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah. I guess."
"I just... I can't shake the feeling that it's a setup. I mean, why one body, and why now? Is this thing getting sloppy, or... does it want to be found?"
"If it's killin' civilians just to get our attention, that's all the more reason to go after it. Expect a trap, yeah, but if it wants us..."
"Dude, I get it. I've got, what, five months? I'm not lookin' to cut it short. But we can't let people get killed, Sam. Even if they're nobodies. Especially if they're nobodies."
Sam sighed unhappily. "Okay. We research at Bobby's first, though."
Dean nodded. "Deal."
He'd been on ice planets that were more pleasant.
No, that wasn't quite true. Any world the Wraith typically visited was one capable of sustaining human life, and the humans on it tended to live away from the places with the worst weather, close enough to the Stargate to be able to leave on trade missions but too far to be culled easily. Moreover, Wraith commanders tended to spare themselves the indignities of dealing with bad weather; were he to approach a world where a storm like this one was raging, he would take a Dart and fly to his destination.
Oh, he hadn't walked all the way from eastern Wyoming. Even after feeding ten times in six weeks, he wasn't invincible, nor did he have the patience to walk that far. Plus, he knew that even though his subspace transmitter was currently masked by means he dared not question, Stargate Command would be quick to investigate the one body he'd not hidden; hunters weren't the only ones who read newspapers, after all. He had stolen a car in Colorado Springs and driven as much as he was able, doing his best to make his trail seem aimless—just a Wraith on holiday, seeing the sights and sampling the wares.
But the worthless vehicle he'd chosen had given out on him five miles from his destination. And the Earth clothes he'd acquired upon escaping were not sufficient to insulate his colder-blooded-than-human and starvation-damaged system from the biting wind and snow. He found himself letting a surprisingly human thought cross his mind: he was getting too old for this.
He had perhaps a mile left to go when the cold finally overcame him. He stumbled, fell, and could not rise to continue. He was wavering on the edge of consciousness when he heard two humans approaching him from behind. Bright minds and warm bodies dropped down beside him, hands touching him—full of concern, not fear. Like Sheppard, then. Even if he had the strength to resist, he wasn't sure he would have.
"He's still alive," said a man's voice.
"C'mon," said the other human, also male. "We'll get 'im to Bobby's. Hey," he continued, addressing the Wraith, "do you think you can stand?"
The Wraith barely managed a grunt. He wasn't sure if it sounded like the negative he meant.
"Okay. We're gonna get you some help. Hold on."
And then they were lifting him, carrying him to their own vehicle, piling blankets over him, as if... as if he were human.
He didn't understand.
Bobby called them idjits, of course, but by the time Sam and Dean got the black-clad guy into the house—passing over salt lines and under devil's traps, of course—and settled him near the fireplace, Bobby'd poured a cup of coffee with a dollop of holy water in it, and Dean pressed the mug into the guy's hands, noting the too-thin gloves that had probably barely kept his hands warm. The guy just stared at the mug like he didn't know what to do with it.
"Drink that," Dean told him. "Gotta get your core warm first."
The guy grunted his understanding and lifted the mug to his grey lips, angling the mug so that it hid his mouth. Dean wondered if he'd done it on purpose—he was wearing shades and a ski mask, after all, and his lips were about the only patch of skin visible on him. By the time he'd finished the coffee, without any reaction to the holy water, he was beginning to shiver again, although his lips hadn't gotten much color back.
"Hot shower?" Bobby suggested.
The guy seemed to consider the idea a little distasteful, but he didn't actually say anything.
"We're about the same size," Sam noted. "I've got some sweats you could borrow."
The guy shivered hard for a moment and then nodded. Bobby got him another cup of coffee while Sam dug his sweats out of his duffle and Dean got the bathroom presentable. Then Sam helped the guy up the stairs, and they left him to get himself cleaned up and warmed up.
"Talkative guy, ain't he?" Bobby said dryly as they came down.
Sam snorted. "Yeah, well. Guess bein' half-frozen does that to people."
Dean waited until the water had turned on to ask, "You found anything yet?"
Bobby shook his head. "Doesn't sound like anything we've seen before. I've got friends who have friends, though, and they're tryin' to see if it's something that suddenly decided to immigrate."
The three hunters went into the kitchen to compare notes, but Bobby was right; the little they had to go on didn't add up to much. They were so engrossed in the puzzle that they didn't hear the water turn off. Sam simply looked up, saw something, and drew his gun with a curse. Dean and Bobby turned to look and did likewise.
Now Dean knew the reason for the ski mask and sunglasses.
It was the same guy, he could tell by the build and the fact that he was wearing Sam's sweats. But greenish-grey was apparently his natural skin tone, broken by prominent veins and a big star-like tattoo around his left eye, plus some kind of holes or slits on his cheeks. White hair, white goatee, and yellow eyes like a cat or a snake. And the damn thing was amused by their reaction.
"I believe the customary greeting on this planet is 'I come in peace,'" it—he—it said in the weirdest voice Dean had ever heard, and if there wasn't an undercurrent of laughter in that voice, the Impala was a toaster.
"Who the hell are you?" Dean snarled.
"My kind do not give names," it replied simply. "Humans in my galaxy call us Wraith."
"Your galaxy?" Bobby repeated.
It nodded once. "I am from... 'a galaxy far, far away,' is that not the phrase? I can't tell you how, but I was brought to Earth to assist your military with a technological matter—a device created by our enemies that I knew how to disable."
"Then what the hell are you doin' in Sioux Falls?"
"Coming here, as it happens."
"To see me?"
"No." It looked at Dean. "I have business with them. Our meeting on the road was most fortunate."
Dean frowned. "What business, and how the hell did you know we'd be here?"
"I was asked to contact you. And I was assured that you would come here first as soon as I... left a calling card for you." And it raised its right hand, palm outward.
A palm with a slit in the middle and muscles around the outside of that slit that made it look like it was made for sucking the life out of someone, and fingers with long dark nails that would make exactly the kind of mark found on the victim in Wyoming.
Sam swore. "I told you!"
A muscle in Dean's jaw twitched. "You killed those people just to get our attention?"
The Wraith wasn't laughing now. "No. You must understand, Dean Winchester, that my kind survives only by feeding on humans and that I have had no choice but to feed. Before I came to Earth, it had been several months since I last fed, and for years before that I had been subjected to starvation after I was captured by a human of my galaxy and forced to feed slowly on other humans he wished to torture. We are not accustomed to spending long periods of time in such cold weather, either." It took one step forward. "I assure you, I fed only out of necessity and took only those whose lives would otherwise be wasted—a true culling. Not only because I was instructed to do so, but also because it would be difficult to evade your military for long if I killed indiscriminately. The only exception I made was for a young man who was drawn to me because he sought death; I made his end as swift as possible. I simply left one body to be discovered—for the rest I chose more dignified methods of disposal."
"Burned. With salt, if you must know, as I was informed that this method was preferable to you."
"Lose the passive voice," Sam growled. "Who sent you?"
The Wraith looked him in the eye. "Your father."
"That's impossible. Our father's dead."
"I know. Believe me, I found the thought of working with a—ghost, do you call it?—as disturbing as you do. But John Winchester was most insistent."
"How would he even know to look for you?"
The Wraith shrugged and made an uncertain noise. "I know only that he had been sent to the place where I was held here on Earth after his escape from Hell and told to wait for someone who would help him to save his sons. He approached me on the chance that I was that individual. And no, he did not tell me who had sent him to me, even when I asked. He said that he was sworn to silence."
Dean frowned and let his gun drop a little. "You're sure he said sons, plural?"
"Did he say why?"
The Wraith took another step toward Dean. "He told me himself that his intelligence might not be trustworthy, since it was information he received from demons while in Hell. But he suspects that your deal may put your brother's soul in as much danger as yours, perhaps more."
"How do we know you're telling the truth?" Sam demanded. "How do we know you've really seen Dad?"
"He told me to apologize to both of you on his behalf for not speaking to you after Azazel's death, to apologize to Dean for putting such a burden on you with his last words and to Sam for not explaining himself and sending you to get coffee when he knew he had only minutes left to live. It was not a proper farewell, and he regrets it to this day."
Sam paled and lowered his gun.
Dean swallowed hard and lowered his own gun the rest of the way. "You can get me out of the deal? Without risking Sam's life?"
The Wraith tilted its head. "If the information your father received is reliable, then... yes, I may have a solution."
Dean looked at Sam. Sam looked at Dean.
"How do you propose to find out if the information is reliable?" Bobby asked.
The Wraith responded with a sharp-toothed grin.
When Ruby showed up, the Wraith was waiting.
Exactly why the Winchesters had taken him with them to investigate this string of deaths that they said was beginning to look like witchcraft was hard to explain. They couldn't exactly let him out of the motel room. As it was, though, when they told him that Ruby was in the area, he talked Sam out of going after the coven with the Colt once Dean started bleeding internally. He suspected, rightly, that she'd come by to break whatever spell had been cast on Dean.
He hid in the shadows until the demon had finished with Dean... and then he pounced.
Feeding on a demon wasn't nearly as pleasant as feeding on a human, in part because she seemed impossible to drain and in part because she was laughing at him the entire time. But the mind was far more open to inspection during feeding, and it took less than a minute for the Wraith to find what he sought. A few seconds more gave him the time he needed to steal the knife she kept ill-concealed. Then he broke off, pretending to feel ill.
As he expected, she continued to face him, laughing, just long enough for the feeding mark to heal. Then she turned her back to him. "Really, Sam, you gotta be more care—" The taunt broke off in a gasp as the Wraith slit her throat, fire flaring along the cut. But she didn't fall, so he switched the knife to his right hand and plunged it into her heart from behind. This time she fell, burning from the inside, and died.
"What the hell, dude?" Sam exploded. "Did you not just hear me tell Dean..."
The Wraith hissed at him, shutting him up, then cleaned the knife and tucked it into his own sheath, hidden in his sleeve. "I will explain everything in due time," he said then, "after we have stopped the other demon. For now, I will tell you this: your father was correct."
"She saved Dean's life!"
"For the moment, yes. But she could not save him from Hell. She had plans for you, Sam Winchester, and they required the death of your brother... just not today."
Sam was plainly shocked and just as plainly didn't want to believe what he'd just heard.
Dean cursed and grabbed a shotgun. "Let's get this over with, then."
The Wraith pulled on his mask and followed Dean to the car, leaving Sam to follow with their bags and the handgun that was supposed to kill demons. He did so, but he was clearly confused and wavering once more on whether or not to trust the Wraith.
On the way to the house where the coven met, the Wraith outlined his strategy. Sam went in first, pretending to be distraught over Dean's illness. Dean followed a few minutes later, after Sam went flying, and the Wraith followed a few moments after that. The demon was holding both brothers against different walls with some kind of telekinetic force.
"Impressive," said the Wraith appreciatively and pulled off his mask. "But I must ask that you let them go. Good help is... so hard to find, as I'm sure you know."
The demon frowned. "What are you?"
"I'm new," he replied with a smile, strolling around her to make her turn her back to the brothers. "My stars are getting too crowded. I decided to relocate, and the Winchesters are very kindly introducing me to the various species populating this planet. In fact, we recently met one of your servants... Ruby, was it?"
The demon laughed. "She was one of mine, once, one of my best. But that was a back when she was a witch... when she was human."
The Winchesters' surprise was palpable.
"She didn't tell you?" The demon chuckled. "Pretty mortifying, I guess. But I turned her out a long, long time ago. Don't think you can use her to get into my good graces. Nobody's taking over this planet but us." And she threw him against the wall and began to chant something.
Yet before any effects became obvious to him, she faltered and began to cough, and the three males in the room dropped to the floor. The demon coughed out some pins and used them to kill the other woman who was hiding under a table, but by that time the Wraith had gained his feet and plunged the knife into the demon's heart. By the time the Winchesters were standing again, the demon was dead.
"We should not linger," said the Wraith as he retrieved and cleaned the smoking knife. "I am sure you wish to spare the families pain, but we are all wanted by your government. And we have work to do elsewhere."
Sam was still stunned, but Dean steered him out to the car, and they sped away into the night.
"I don't understand," Sam finally said after they were well out of town. "Tammi said something about 'a new power' being out to kill me... Ruby was a witch, she used to be human... what the hell's going on?"
And that was the Wraith's cue. "That 'new power' must be Lilith."
Dean frowned at him in the rear-view mirror. "How the hell do you know that?"
"Because Ruby was her servant."
"What?" Sam gasped.
"Your father overheard the plan while he was in Hell, and I confirmed it when I fed upon Ruby and read her mind. There are many seals binding the cage in which Lucifer is confined; sixty-six must break for him to be released, but two are most important. The first is that a righteous man shed blood in Hell; the last is that Lilith be killed over a certain hellmouth. Dean was to be the righteous man, and Ruby was instructed to prepare Sam to kill Lilith by means of his powers. Lilith holds Dean's contract; no other demon may release him."
Sam buried his face in his hands with a curse. Dean pulled over and got out of the car, pacing a short way in front of it as he grappled with the knowledge that he'd been manipulated just as much as Sam had. The Wraith got out and waited by the front of the car until Dean came back.
"You said I was to be the one to break the first seal," Dean said as he returned. "That mean you really can save me?"
"I believe so," the Wraith replied carefully. "But I require both you and Sam to agree to my plan and to trust me completely. We must take drastic measures to catch Lilith's attention, but I believe I can force her to release you with those same measures."
Dean drew a ragged breath and let it out again. "Okay. Let's talk this over in the car."
The Wraith bowed his head in deference, and they both got back in the car.
"So. What's the plan?"
Sam turned to look at the Wraith, who regarded both brothers solemnly. "First, I must warn you that there will be no way to do this falsely. It will be painful. But it will be less dangerous for us all if you will trust me and if you will resist only as long as it takes for Lilith to find us. I believe you are both strong enough to survive the process, even were I to force you to the breaking point—which should not be necessary. And... there may be some residual benefits from the process as well."
The brothers exchanged a look. "We'll need more details," Dean replied.
The Wraith nodded and explained as much as he could.
The Wraith had been right. This was not awesome. In fact, it was up there with Cold Oak in terms of experiences Dean never wanted to repeat.
They'd had to detour to get Bobby out of the clutches of a dreamwalker, an adventure that would have ended with Bela stealing the Colt had the Wraith not been there to play watchdog, but now Sam and Dean and the Wraith (who so needed a real name) were holed up in a cabin in Minnesota that was completely off the grid. The Wraith had tied them up expertly and was putting them through the "conditioning" it said they usually used whenever they wanted to convince someone to become a Wraith worshipper. Said conditioning involved being fed on until just before he was about to croak and then having that life returned in a rush that beat adrenaline all to hell but was still not Dean's idea of a good time, then watching Sam go through the same thing and screaming himself hoarse, then resting for a few hours while their bodies recovered. They were just getting set for Round 3, and Dean's only consolation was that at least he'd been warned about what was coming, even if the warning had been too clinical and vague to really prepare him. He could understand why people would break after going through this cycle enough times; his mind was already starting to feel foggy, and he really hoped Lilith showed up soon so they could stop.
The Wraith had gone into full-on evil overlord mode, too, which was disturbing. Dean didn't know why he'd trusted the thing more than he did a demon; maybe it was the experience the previous year with Lenore, plus the fact that the Wraith had leveled with them as much as he could. But right now, he wasn't so sure it had been a good idea.
Especially since the Wraith was standing over him and hissing softly.
"Hell, no," Dean ground out.
"Leave him alone," Sam moaned.
But the Wraith didn't respond. He just slammed his hand down on Dean's bared chest, and Dean screamed as the torment began all over again.
This time, though, just about the time the sucking sensation stopped, he heard a little girl's voice. "Hey! What are you doing to him?"
Dean's eyes were completely clouded over with cataracts, but the Wraith had some kind of telepathic connection with him. Lilith, it thought. You must "break" as soon as I restore you.
Uh-huh, was all the reply Dean could manage before his life came flooding back. And this time he let his eyes stay unfocused as the Wraith backed away from him.
"Please," Sam sobbed. "Just leave him alone."
"That is his choice," the Wraith replied, running a finger down the side of Dean's face. "What do you say, Dean Winchester?"
Dean let his head loll into the Wraith's hand. "Yes," he replied dully. "I submit."
The Wraith hissed in satisfaction. "Sam?"
Sam sniffled. "You... you promise..."
"Okay. Okay, yes, I submit, just please..."
"What are you doing?" the little girl—Lilith—shrieked.
The Wraith finally turned then. "Ah! You must be Lilith. So glad you could join us."
"What are you doing?"
"Taking what is rightfully mine. I have served the people of this planet long enough; it is time for them to serve me."
Lilith stomped her foot. "Dean Winchester's soul is mine."
"Not any longer. And you have no claim on Sam, either; Dean did nothing to get out of his contract."
"I'll kill them both!"
"And I shall restore them to life," the Wraith replied calmly.
Lilith scoffed. "You can't do that."
The Wraith raised its right hand and strode toward the demon possessing the little girl. "Release them, or the life I feed them next might be your own."
"I don't know what you think you are, but you can't kill me."
"Perhaps not." The Wraith kept walking. "But a demon as powerful as you are should sustain all three of us for a thousand years or more, more than enough time for my kind to claim this planet, this galaxy, for ourselves. And if Lucifer learns that his precious seals will never be broken..."
"You wouldn't dare."
The Wraith grabbed Lilith and threw her into a devil's trap the brothers had painted in a corner of the cabin. It had found that trap itself in one of Bobby's more obscure demonology treatises; supposedly it was strong enough to not only hold Lilith but neutralize her powers. And apparently it worked, because Lilith threw herself against the edge of the trap and bounced, then shot some kind of energy beam at the Wraith, only to have it dissipate harmlessly in mid-air. The Wraith raised its hand again with a sharp hiss.
"Wait!" Lilith yelped.
"Release him!" the Wraith roared.
Dean gasped as some kind of band around his heart snapped. And a second later, Sam was on his feet with the Colt in his hand. Before he could fire, though, Lilith fled her host, who collapsed into the Wraith's waiting arms. It quickly carried the girl over to the cabin's only bed.
Sam stowed the Colt and hurried to check on Dean. "You okay, Dean?" he asked as he quickly untied Dean's bonds.
"Yeah, dude," Dean replied, dropping the drugged-into-submission act. "Pretty tired, but yeah." He rubbed at his bloodied chest. "I... I felt something give. I think it's over."
Sam sighed in relief and pulled Dean into a hug.
"The child lives," the Wraith reported. "I suggest we return her before she wakes."
"Return her where?" the brothers chorused.
The Wraith shrugged. "Perhaps a hospital?"
One trip to the nearest ER later, wherein Sam took the girl inside with the story that he'd found her out in the woods, and Dean fell asleep with Sam at the wheel and the Impala pointed toward Sioux Falls. They spent another two days at Bobby's before heading to Colorado Springs to return the Wraith to the military installation he'd escaped from. By that time, Dean had not only recovered physically from the ordeal he'd faced but also discovered that several of his old injuries no longer bothered him, and so had Sam. They didn't exactly know how to thank the Wraith, but it seemed to understand what they couldn't say.
They never made it to Colorado Springs, however. They stopped for gas in Sterling, Colorado, and the Winchesters had just gotten out of the car when a voice they had never expected to hear again called, "Hey, guys!"
The brothers spun and yelled, "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Saving you a trip," replied the Trickster, then knocked on the window to get the Wraith's attention. When it rolled down the window, the Trickster said, "Sorry, kid, McKay needs your help." Then he snapped his fingers... and the Wraith was gone.
"Hey!" Dean roared.
The Trickster held up a hand. "I can and can't explain. Yes, I am behind all this. Yes, it did really happen. Yes, it really was your dad I sent to Colorado Springs. No, it's not a trick; you really are free, Dean. And no, I can't tell you why I did all this. But no, you're not in any worse trouble with the FBI for picking up that Wraith—the military didn't even know he was gone. There's a little trouble back in his home galaxy, though, so... instant wormhole. And in his absence, you mooks are officially under my protection, which means Lilith can't touch you unless she's feeling especially suicidal."
Sam and Dean both blinked. "Uh, thanks," ventured Sam.
"Oh, I'll collect eventually, don't worry. And speaking of the FBI, your pal Henricksen is about to be in a world of hellish hurt. You two better head over to Monument and let yourselves be captured." And the Trickster vanished.
Seconds later Dean's phone rang. It was Bela, taunting them about something she supposedly stole and dropping hints that she was in Monument.
Sam looked at Dean. Dean looked at Sam.
They had just finished drawing the last sigil around the outside of the Monument Police Department when Henricksen caught them. A few hours later, they were up to their ears in demons. Sam broadcast an exorcism through the station's PA system, and Dean rigged the sprinkler system to spray holy water; between the two measures, they managed to save Henricksen and two or three other people from the department and not let on that Bela hadn't stolen the real Colt. And before they took Henricksen up on his offer of escape, they painted the Lilith-stopping trap at all of the doors, which Henricksen later informed them had kept Lilith at bay long enough for him to broadcast the exorcism and send her back to Hell.
May came and went with no sign of hellhounds, except for the ones that eventually claimed Bela. There were several more attempts on the brothers' lives over the next year, none successful. There were a lot more conversations about ethics and rules of engagement in motel rooms and on the hood of the Impala. But for the most part, life went back to semi-normal for the Winchesters—just two brothers who lovingly annoyed each other while fighting monsters and trying to stay off the radar.
And then, in early 2009, there were reports, quickly squashed, of a giant fireball over the Pacific. Shortly thereafter, San Francisco Bay and the area just offshore were placed under naval quarantine, and Sam had a feeling the reason given was a cover for something else weird. There'd been a lull in hunts lately, so Dean suggested they head that way just to see what they could see.
While they were on the road, Henricksen called. "This is weird," he said, "but I've got a guy from one of our sister agencies, the NID, who has a message for you and swears the sender knows you're not dead but can't tell me how."
Dean frowned. "Who's the sender?"
"Only name given is 'Todd.'"
Dean's frown deepened, and he looked over at Sam. "Do we know a Todd?"
Sam blinked. "There was that kid in Concrete, Washington—y'know, with the wishing well."
"Wouldn't be sending messages through the NID, though, right? Kid didn't exactly like us."
There was a murmur of conversation on the other end of the phone, and Henricksen said, "My contact says something about this individual having a tattoo around his left eye?"
Dean's eyes went wide as a curse slipped out. "White hair? Weird sense of humor?"
Sam's eyes went even wider than Dean's.
There was another murmur on Henricksen's end before: "He says his hand is healed and he would like your opinion on bacon cheeseburgers."
Dean swore loudly and almost drove off the road. "His hand is healed? How the hell is that possible?"
"WHAT?" Sam exploded.
Henricksen sighed heavily. "Look, Dean, the NID man says he can't say any more until you've signed a non-disclosure agreement. Where are you?"
"We're just about to Fresno." Dean paused. "Don't tell me Todd's in Frisco."
"Not in, but that's exactly where you need to go. The NID man will meet you at Union Square."
Dean repeated that for Sam, who wrote it down and started looking up the directions.
"He'll be standing by the Dewey Monument."
Henricksen lowered his voice. "And Dean—you two be careful."
"Gee, Victor, didn't know you cared."
Henricksen laughed and hung up.
"Todd," Sam said thoughtfully. "Not the name I would have picked, but... huh. Guess it fits."
Dean glanced over at him, amused. "What would you have picked, Lando Calrissian?"
Sam shrugged. "Beats Ziggy Stardust."
Dean laughed heartily at that.
They had surprisingly little trouble finding parking in downtown San Francisco reasonably close to Union Square. But they were still halfway across the square when Sam froze in mid-step and said, "I don't believe it."
Dean followed his line of sight and swore as the Trickster, the only individual standing anywhere near the giant monument in the middle of the square, waved to them.
The brothers crossed the ground at a fast walk and exploded at exactly the same moment, "What the hell are you doing here?"
"I came to collect," the twerp replied smugly.
Sam snorted as Dean retorted, "So what, you work for the NID now?"
The Trickster scoffed. "Please. Like I could stand life as a stuffed suit. But your buddy Henricksen is none the wiser, and that message really is from Todd. And I really do need you to go see him as part of the favor I'm calling in."
"A hunt. I'll explain when we get there. First things first." The Trickster produced two clipboards and handed them to the brothers. "We're headed to a top secret military installation—more secret than Area 51. There are things that I can fake, but this non-disclosure form is not one of them. Read it and sign it, or you'll be arrested the second you step on the base. Capisce?"
Frowning, the Winchesters read carefully, and Dean occasionally looked over at Sam to see if any of the legalese raised any alarms for him. It looked legit to Dean, but he waited to sign until Sam gave him an eyebrow shrug and picked up the pen.
Once they'd handed the clipboards back, the Trickster didn't snap them away, as Dean had expected. Instead, he tucked them under his arm. "We should take your car. Where'd you park?"
"Lead the way."
With a shrug, Dean turned, and the three of them made their way back to the parking garage.
"By the way," Dean said as they were just about to the car, "what do we call you? Clearly, we can't just say 'Trickster' in front of the military."
"Well, in this getup," the Trickster replied, "I'm NID Agent Gabriel Tigerman. But to you mooks? I'm Loki."
Dean, perhaps wisely, kept his unimpressed opinion to himself.
Once they got out of the parking garage, Loki gave Dean directions that eventually led them down a blind alley. "Stop here," he said then.
"This is a top-secret military installation?"
"Nope. This is where we leave for it." Loki pulled a radio out of his pocket. "Daedalus, this is Tigerman. We're in position."
There was a chime and a flash, and suddenly the Impala was in what looked like some kind of hangar bay. Startled, Sam and Dean swore and looked around in confusion.
"First stop," Loki explained as he rolled down the window to speak to the balding, flight suit-clad man who approached the car. "Col. Caldwell, here's the paperwork."
The man, who was evidently Col. Caldwell, took the clipboards from him. "What am I supposed to do with this?" he asked, indicating the car. "I thought you were going by Jumper."
"It needs to come with us. My experts here have a lot of specialized equipment, and it would take a lot of time and hassle for them to unload it all."
Caldwell made a considering face as he nodded once. "'Specialized equipment' wouldn't happen to include weapons usually considered illegal, would it?"
"Why, Colonel, I am shocked that you would suggest such a thing."
"You do know who you've got there."
"Two men who are legally dead and also the best men on the planet for tracking and stopping this Trust operative, plus anyone else who might have been affected by the Trust's scheme."
"Of X-Files stuff. Not humans. The FBI was wrong."
Caldwell stared at Loki for a long moment. Then he sighed. "All right. I'll alert Atlantis, see if they've got a space for it."
Loki nodded. "Thank you, Colonel."
As soon as Caldwell was out of earshot, Sam and Dean turned to Loki and whispered, "What's the Trust?"
"Shhh," Loki replied. "I'll explain later, promise. It's a long story, and Todd needs to be in on it. I'm reasonably sure who's not involved, but Todd's in a better position to help you find out who is."
"What, don't you know?" Dean snarked.
Loki looked annoyed. "I'm not—I'm not Yahweh."
Dean's eyebrows shot up at that.
Before they could continue bickering, Caldwell came back over to them. "We'll beam you down to the South Pier—there's a storeroom there that'll hold the car. Sheppard and Woolsey will meet you there."
Loki nodded. "Thank you."
Caldwell backed away, and Dean barely got out, "Wait, who's—" before the chime and flash happened again and they were in the aforementioned storeroom. It was empty aside from two men, one about Dean's height with spiky dark hair and a black uniform, one shorter and balding and wearing a suit. The uniformed man's eyebrows shot up at the sight of the car; the balding man stared nervously at the brothers.
"Now we're here," said Loki and opened his door.
Sam and Dean exchanged a look and a shrug and got out.
"Nice car," said the uniformed man with undisguised admiration. "Had a '79 Camaro back in college, but it wasn't in nearly as good condition."
Dean grinned. "Thanks."
"Where'd you go to school?" Sam asked.
"Stanford," replied the uniformed man. "Aeronautics and Astronautics."
"Really? I was pre-law, Class of '05."
"Class of '91, but mine was..."
"Co-terminal, right. I had a couple of friends in that program."
The balding man was finally shocked out of his silent staring, and he rounded on Loki. "Agent Tigerman, do you know who these men are?"
"Sam and Dean Winchester," Loki replied. "This is Mr. Richard Woolsey, leader of the Atlantis expedition, and base commander Lt. Col. John Sheppard."
Sheppard, the uniformed man, nodded stepped forward to shake hands. "Welcome to Atlantis."
Woolsey was still looking at Loki in shock. "You brought serial killers—"
"We're not," Dean interrupted. "St. Louis was a frame. Only thing I'm guilty of is credit card fraud."
"—onto one of Earth's most closely-guarded secrets to deal with a member of the Trust?"
Loki looked Woolsey in the eye. "The individual in question isn't just a member of the Trust. Whoever it is is possessed."
"You mean Goa'uld."
"I mean Exorcist."
"These men aren't priests."
"No. They're hunters. And I'll explain what that means as soon as Todd joins us."
Sheppard let Woolsey continue staring at Loki for another thirty seconds before rolling his eyes and beckoning to the Winchesters to follow him. They did so, out into a hall and into another room.
Sheppard then looked to make sure they weren't followed before saying quietly, "Look, I don't know what Woolsey's talking about. Must have been something that happened when he was on Earth and I wasn't. But if I thought he had real cause for concern, you two would be on your way to the brig, no questions asked."
The brothers looked at each other. "So why aren't we?" Sam asked.
"Todd asked for you. Before Tigerman showed up." Sheppard sighed. "You should know that Todd's word doesn't count for too much around here. But he vouched for you. Told me what happened, off the record. And he said you remind him of me. Again, maybe not the world's best character witness, but... we've got history. So unless you give me a reason not to, I'm gonna trust you—for now."
Dean nodded and chewed on his lip for a moment. "Todd said his hand is healed. How..."
"Gene therapy. We can't let him leave Atlantis anymore, but we can't let him starve. So he and a couple of our geneticists found a therapy that enables him to eat normal food."
Dean nodded again. "Good. 'Cause to be perfectly honest? If he'd showed up again snackin' on hobos, I woulda ganked him on principle, even though he did save my life."
Sheppard snorted in amusement as Sam breathed an indignant "Dean!"
"A human life is worth more than my gratitude to some damn alien, Sam. But it's kind of a moot point now, since he's done killing humans."
Sheppard actually laughed out loud at that. Then he reached up and tapped the earpiece he was wearing. "Lorne, this is Sheppard. Bring him in."
And a moment later, several armed guards escorted Todd into the room. The Wraith looked almost exactly the same, except that he was dressed all in black—the robe-like coat and trousers he was wearing looked like leather, but Dean had a feeling he didn't want to know what they were really made from.
"Liked you better in the ski mask," he said before he could stop himself.
Todd made that weird noise Dean had figured out was laughter. "Dean and Sam Winchester! I am glad to see you." Grinning, he spread his arms expansively. "Welcome to my ship!"
Sheppard rolled his eyes, but he was clearly trying not to laugh.
Loki walked in just then with a visibly unhappy Woolsey hard on his heels. "Col. Sheppard..." Woolsey began.
"Relax," Sheppard interrupted. "We've talked. They're fine. Let's just let Agent Tigerman give us the briefing, all right?"
Woolsey's jaw twitched, but then he sighed. "All right."
Sheppard looked at one of the guards and nodded, and all of the guards left the room. As soon as the door closed, the six individuals remaining in the room took seats around the plastic-looking table that seemed to have been brought in to turn the space into a makeshift conference room. Loki snapped his fingers, but nothing obvious happened aside from Todd suddenly twitching like he was having to stop himself from looking around the room.
Dean frowned slightly at Loki, who mouthed Wards.
"Now," Woolsey said with obviously forced calm. "You said you would explain when Todd arrived."
Loki, for once, was all business. "First, for Sam and Dean: The Trust is an organization devoted to making sure that Earth remains the galaxy's lone superpower, by hook or by crook. They've been manipulated by aliens before. They've tried to destroy Atlantis before. But this time it's a little bit different. Our Trust operative, as I said, is possessed, and while on one level he or she is up to the Trust's usual tricks—steal alien technology, create havoc for the Stargate program, etc.—there's a deeper level at work... one that involves you personally. You and Todd did, after all, thwart the plan to jumpstart the Apocalypse. Somehow this demon has concluded that Plan B is hiding somewhere in the Atlantis database. And there is a very good chance that it has made sure a few of the other new kids are no longer human, just for a diversion."
Todd made a face that was probably the Wraith equivalent of a frown. "Do you speak of more than one demon?"
"Probably not. Plenty of other humanoid monsters out there—vampire, werewolf, skinwalker, ghoul..."
Dean leaned back. "Man. Haven't seen a skinwalker since we were kids."
"Couldn't hide a djinn in a place like this," Sam said thoughtfully.
"Tattoos," they chorused.
"Wouldn't expect a wendigo or rugaru, either."
"Gods wouldn't work with a demon."
"Too hard to control."
"Mm, maybe... dunno how long they can go without feeding, and it'd be pretty hard to smuggle a fridge full of brains into someplace like this."
"Unless they have some on hand."
Todd snorted. "Not likely."
Sheppard had one eyebrow raised, and Woolsey looked like he was two seconds away from a full-blown freakout.
Loki smirked. "Like I said. The Winchesters are hunters. This is what they do best."
Sheppard leaned back. "So how will you be able to find any or all of these... non-humans?"
Todd looked smug. "My DNA has not been altered that greatly. I will be able to tell if a being that looks human is not. And... if I may say so..." He looked at Dean, who guessed his drift and shrugged. "The Winchesters have some... unique weaponry, even for your kind. They will be able to ensure that the only lives lost are those that are not human—and that this demon will not return to Hell to reveal what it has found."
Woolsey turned that unusual color civilians usually turned before either passing out or making a grab for the Scotch.
Sam smiled at him in gentle amusement. "Don't worry, Mr. Woolsey. That's a pretty normal reaction for a civilian."
Sheppard snorted, and Woolsey spluttered a little, but that seemed to jolt him out of his shock.
Dean leaned forward. "So how do we want to do this? Just... start going up to people at random to let Todd sniff 'em or what?"
Before anyone could reply, some weird noise that sounded like a cross between a chime at the bottom of a well and a starving cat started up. Woolsey, Sheppard, and Loki all swore.
"Is that what I think it is?" Todd asked quietly but nervously.
"The self-destruct," Sheppard replied as the door opened, and he and Woolsey ran out of the room.
Loki met the Winchesters' incredulous stares with a startled look of his own. "I didn't expect this, guys, I swear. The hunt's legit—but I gotta get out of here. I'll get you home as soon as I can." And he vanished.
Dean looked at Sam. Sam looked at Dean. They both looked at Todd.
And all three of them bolted after Sheppard and Woolsey.
Four months passed after Bobby got the last phone call from Sam and Dean saying they were on their way to San Francisco. He checked with every hunter he knew; Rufus checked with all of his contacts, Ellen with all of hers. No one had seen hide nor hair of the Winchesters or their car. GPS gave no results. Bobby even got desperate enough to call Henricksen, who relayed all he knew about where the boys had been headed... along with the fact that people last seen with the NID were often never seen again, though they were seldom classified as legally dead. However, Henricksen noted that most of the people who did return from meeting with the NID were none the worse for wear, so whatever classified mess the boys had gotten themselves into wasn't likely to have been fatal.
Bobby and Ellen still worried, though.
But then, a government courier turned up at Bobby's house with a CD-sized envelope addressed to both Bobby and Ellen. The label wasn't in either boy's handwriting, but the return address field had their names and an APO address. Confused, Bobby called Ellen and Jo, and together they opened the envelope to find a DVD labeled "Winchester Message to Singer and Harvelle." Bobby and Ellen cursed quietly.
"This is good, though, right?" Jo asked hesitantly.
Bobby sighed and put the disc in his DVD player. "Reckon we'll find out."
When the video started, it showed both Sam and Dean crowded together in front of an Art Deco-looking turquoise and copper background. Both looked well, but it wasn't until Bobby and Ellen saw the timestamp—just a few days earlier—that they were able to relax at all.
The brothers waved. "Hey, Bobby, Ellen, Jo," said Sam.
"Hey," Dean echoed.
"Listen, sorry for not getting in touch with you sooner. We're fine. We've just been... really tied up."
"Yeah. You remember our white-haired friend, Todd?" Dean traced the bottom of the Wraith's tattoo under his own left eye.
"We got word of a hunt where he was staying, and it's been kind of a big mess trying to deal with it all. Plus, there was a major unrelated emergency that... really threw things off."
"Let's just say the werewolf was a whole lot easier to find."
"Among other things. We pretty much had the whole zoo on our hands. Need to stock up on silver when we get back."
"Good news is, the Colt still works, even in parts unknown."
"But long story short, that unrelated emergency meant we had to evacuate back to Todd's neck of the woods so we wouldn't get killed, and... we..."
"Ran out of gas."
"Right. So we're kind of stranded out here. If you're watching this, it means they finally got enough power to make contact with the States. But we don't know how soon there'll be enough fuel for us to be able to get home."
"Probably be another six weeks, at least, before a transport could get us back."
"Yeah. But—we're fine. Honest. The hunt's taken care of. There've been a couple of other attacks, but nothing these folks couldn't handle. People are friendly. Food's pretty good—"
"Well, that's debatable. But seriously, Bobby, Ellen, we're fine. And we'll get back as soon as we can."
"When we get back, yeah."
"Oh, and if Loki shows up, tell him we're okay."
Dean looked over at Sam. "Anything else?"
"Don't think so."
"All right. You guys take care."
They waved again, and the video ended.
All three hunters sat back with a sigh of relief, and Ellen patted Jo's hand. Then she looked over at Bobby. "Loki?"
Bobby snorted. "With these idjits? Who the hell knows?"
Jo frowned. "I don't understand why the evacuation would make a werewolf easier to find."
"Todd ain't from Earth," Bobby explained. "Didn't say too much about where he is from, but it ain't in this galaxy. You put a werewolf on another planet, 'specially if it's got more than one moon, you've probably got trouble."
"Oh." Jo paused. "But if they're not on Earth... that means they're out of danger, right?"
"I dunno, baby," Ellen replied. "Might be trading one kind of danger for another."
"'Least the world ain't gonna end while they're gone," Bobby observed.
And really, that was all any of them had ever wanted.