LANKEER

By Enola Jones



CHAPTER ONE

If there was one thing that earthbound souls knew about space, it was that it was huge. And cold. There was no air to breathe, and it was nearly empty.

There were a hundred million stars out there, but in between them there was nothing. Nothing at all. Just vacuum.

All the earthbound knew this to be fact.

Their scientists had told them so long ago.

But those who lived out there knew that the earthbound scientists had gotten it wrong.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

There was no regular sleep cycle aboard a spaceship. And it was rare when the entire crew took a rest all at the same time.

But at this time, the red-and-silver cruiser designated the MaryJohn glided silently through the vacuum on autopilot while her three crew members all dozed. It was a truly peaceful scene. Restful. Calm.

Too bad it couldn't last.

When they had set up the controls to the MaryJohn, they'd hit a quandry on the alerts. One or another of the brothers would sleep through any alarm at any given time. It was a little unpredictable as to which one would. So, they'd programmed them all differently.

So when the lights snapped abruptly on in their sleeping quarters and their father's voice bellowed out an alert, the Winchester brothers were instantly awake.

"What the hell?" Sam gasped, bolting upright in his overlong single bed.

"I don't know!" his older brother Dean yelped from his bottom bunk, struggling to untangle his legs from the covers.

Suddenly there was a blur of black and tan in Dean's peripheral vision and he turned his head as he heard the "THUMP!" of bare feet hitting carpeted floor from several feet up and saw the back of Cas as he raced for and through the door after having jumped from the top bunk.

Finally extricating himself, Dean muttered something about ladders as they strode out the door. Sam looked behind them and his brows drew together in brief concentration before the pneumatic doors closed. "Why'd he skin outta here so fast, anyway?" Sam asked.

Dean looked up, thinking Shut up! The alarm obligingly shut off. "Proximity alarm, that kept saying."

"Shit, that's a collision alert!" Sam cursed, and after a quick glance at each other, their fast walk became a full-fledged run the last hundred yards to the MaryJohn's bridge.

They arrived to hear Cas bellow, "Sit down before you're thrown down!"

Dean raced to the seat behind Cas and Sam vaulted into the navigator's chair.

Cas's cobalt eyes were narrow and his tanned knuckles were white on the controls. "Here we go! Evasive in three -- two -- one!"

The MaryJohn lurched and pitched. The effect reminded Dean of one of those huge roller coasters he'd splurged and taken Sammy onto for his thirteenth birthday.

It also reminded Dean that he'd been the one to puke up his internal organs after those huge roller coaster rides.

"There, we're past!" Cas turned in his chair to study Dean. "You okay back there?"

"Peachy," Dean ground out through clenched teeth. Cas got up and went over to the covered sink in the corner, getting a glass of water and bringing it to Dean before collapsing back into the pilot's chair. Dean shot him a grateful smile and after downing half the glass in one long gulp, asked, "What the hell was that?"

"I don't know," Sam said, his fingers flying over the equipment. "But we're going to find out."

"I was too busy trying to...." Cas was interrupted by a huge yawn, which brought Dean's attention back to him. "....to avoid getting hit by it to pay attention to what it was." He glanced over, noticed Dean's scrutiny, and frowned. "What?"

Dean couldn't help the smile. Cas -- he had dropped the '-tiel' from his name about the same time he'd stopped introducing himself as "a former angel of the Lord" and started just saying a simple, "I'm Cas Winchester, ma'am" -- looked much younger than the 20 or so Gabriel had aged him to when he had turned him human. "You look like a kid."

Cas looked down at himself, at the rumpled black sweatpants and faded "AC/DC" tshirt. He and Dean were the same size and shared clothing. There wasn't so much 'Dean's clothes' or "Cas's clothes' anymore, as there were 'our clothes'. Sam's oversized frame, however... Cas finally figured it out. Wiggling his bare toes, he looked up and smiled. "There wasn't time for shoes."

They shared a short laugh, and even pre-occupied Sam cracked a smile. Then Dean asked, "Seriously, are you okay? That was a hell of a jump for just being awake two seconds."

"I'm all right. The soles of my feet and my ankles don't like me very much right now," Cas grinned, "but honestly, I'm all right. You're the one with gooseflesh."

"Huh?" Dean looked down at the tiny bumps raised on his arms and bare legs. "S'what I get for sleepin' in shorts and a t-shirt and barrelin' through the halls in 'em." He wiggled his own bare toes in emphasis, and Cas chuckled softly.

Sam made a soft growling noise, and Dean got up and walked over. "Problem?"

"I can't get a lock on the damned thing," Sam groused. "I got a general size and direction, I got a sense of the speed of it -- but I can't get a lock on it!"

"Give it a rest, then." Sam started to protest, and Dean curled his hand on the back of Sam's neck. "I'm serious. We're all just woken up. Hell, we're all still in our pyjamas. Let's go get changed and -- at the very least -- caffeinated, and then we'll track the damned thing. Okay?"

Sam didn't so much sigh as he did blow the air out of his cheeks, but he nodded and stood up. As they got to the doorway, Cas erupted in another jaw-cracking yawn.

"Correction," Dean said. "Sammy and I get dressed and fed. You get some more sleep."

"I'm fine," Cas shot back. "Seriously, I just ---" A third yawn was met with two nearly identical 'Really?' glances, and he shook his head. "All right, perhaps a little more wouldn't hurt."

"That's my boy," Dean chuckled and they filed out of the bridge.

Behind them, a single light on the navigation console started to blink.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Having two bathrooms off their quarters sure saved a lot of time, Dean mused as he sat on the edge of Sam's bed and tugged on his boots, before running a hand over his damp hair and smiling. He'd not cut it since the day he and Sam had gotten their tattoos, and it was starting to curl slightly over his forehead when he left it ungelled.

He decided today he'd leave it ungelled. His brothers were the only ones who'd see him, anyway.

Dean made up Sam's bed and then his own, before retreating back to Sam's bed and sitting, looking up at the top bunk. Dark messy hair and a lax left hand drifting over the side was all he could see, but his lips drew up in an amused smile as he heard the soft sighs punctuated by an occasional sharp snort.

Cas snored. Who would have thought?

In Dean's wildest dreams, he never would even have thought anything remotely like this could possibly be his life. Never -- not even in his wildest science-fiction movie fueled fantasies -- had he ever dreamed he would be living in space, hundreds of light-years from Earth, with his Gigantor of a brother by his side.

All because he had made a deal with a Crossroads Demon for Sam's life.

Once that deal had been found to be a trick to get Dean into Hell and start the Apocalypse by torturing him until he broke and started torturing others -- and that rogue angels were working together with demons to make it happen too early and without the approval of God -- things had changed fast and furious for the Winchesters.

Removed from Earth by a race called the B'Shain -- befriending a ship full of them -- and having Bobby and the Harvelles Removed for their protection as well. Sam got a bit of marrow from Dean and the demon blood issue was solved.

As a permanent result of the Deal, Sam and Dean each carried a sliver of the other's soul. They were soulmates in the most literal of senses. And that manifested itself in some interesting ways that were still making themselves known.

And then, there was Cas. Castiel, the guardian angel of Thursday. Castiel, who became Cas Winchester -- human being, with all its slings and arrows -- so he could travel the stars with the Winchesters. Cas, who was older than they could imagine, but so much like a child in other ways that he'd been adopted by them as their youngest brother.

Cas still had something of an angel's Grace. He healed faster and had wings that he could actually use. Because he'd had them all his life and he'd been able to fly all his life, it seemed only natural that he was the MaryJohn's primary pilot. The difference was, being mostly human, when he chose to use them the wings were now visible.

They were all happy in their new lives. The only drawback was -- because of the Deal that had necessitated all this in the first place -- the Winchester brothers could never return to Earth. The minute Dean's feet touched Earth, the terms of the Deal would restart where they had left off. He would have that much of his year left, and no more.

Nobody had ever told them this, but Dean could sense that would be what would happen. His brothers and Bobby told him he was being ridiculous, but he knew what he knew.

And right now, sitting on Sam's overlong bed and watchng Cas sleep while the MaryJohn cruised through the blackness of space, he knew that Sam was taking way too long in the shower.

He got up and pounded on the bathroom's pneumatic door. "You gonna be in there till we have another proximity alert?" he called.

"Bite me!" came the instant retort, and Dean smiled. "Cas still out?"

"Snorin' away!" Dean called back. "Dude can sleep through anything but alerts!"

He heard the shower cut off and seconds later the door slid open to reveal Sam with a towel around his waist and another working on his long hair. "I noticed that. Next time we have him in the medical bay, maybe we need to shove him under a scanner and see if Gabriel really did restore all of his hearing."

Cas had been beaten badly by his former brothers when he had become human. They had tried to use their true visages and voices to blind and deafen him. Because of his residual Grace, they had only been partially successful. Gabriel had healed Cas's eyes and ears shortly before they'd been given the MaryJohn, but there were times when Sam and Dean wondered how complete the healing was.

Gabriel was, after all, a consummate Trickster.

Dean scowled slightly at the top bunk. "You think he might not have?"

"I don't know." Sam crossed to their shared chest of drawers, something he hadn't had since Stanford, and got out clothes. He dried off and dressed before he finished, "But I know sometimes the alerts are all that wake him and I've noticed him looking at our mouths when we speak."

Dean's scowl turned into a worried frown. "But he would have said something--"

"Dude," Sam interrupted, giving him a pointed look as he slid on his boots. "He's a Winchester."

"True." Dean sighed. "Okay, so how do we go about finding this out?"

The Winchester in question suddenly yawned and rolled over, yelping as he rolled completely out of the top bunk and into the slightly wider bottom bunk.

Dean and Sam instantly burst out laughing, and Dean called over, "Dude, you okay?"

"I am uninjured," Cas growled as he sat up and fruitlessly tugged his hands through his hair to get it in some measure of order. "And I have found a side-effect to dreams."

"Bunk-diving?" Dean quipped.

"No." Cas scowled up at him, then stood. "I think I might know what that was that nearly collided with us earlier."

"Cool!" Dean said, sitting down on Sam's bed. "So what was it?"

"It was a space-based virus," Cas said, spreading his hands. "Grown to enormous proportions. It was headed for Earth." He frowned suddenly, lowering his hands. "Though that makes no sense, because we are light years from Earth and even if it was, how could a virus grow that large and ....." He blinked. "Dean, why are you laughing?"

Dean just shook his head, unable to speak. He waved a hand languidly and keeled over backwards onto Sam's bed, laughing until he had tears leaking from his eyes.

Sam chuckled. "Cas, that's the scenario of one of those novels we were telling you about a few weeks ago."

Cas frowned. "Then why would I dream it?"

Sam and Dean looked at each other, and Dean howled with laughter as he gestured at Sam. "All yours, kiddo!"

"Thanks," Sam sighed. He came over to sit beside Cas. "You know what dreams are, right?"

"Yeah, they're the human subconscious's way of working out things the brain immediately can't."

"And they're also tied to our imaginations," Sam said. "It's like a storehouse of everything a human sees and hears and experiences. And it pulls them out in sometimes random order and plays it like movies in your mind."

Cas nodded slowly. "So I'm dreaming about enormous space-traveling viruses because --"

"Because we narrowly avoided colliding with something," Sam said.

"Great flying, by the way," Dean managed to put in, which made Cas grin proudly.

Sam shared the grin. "--and your brain latched onto the memory of that plot because that's close to what we went through and you were trying so hard to figure out what it was---"

"--that my brain supplied an answer," Cas finished. "But not the answer."

"Considering those things aren't even remotely real...." Dean gasped out, wiping his eyes. "I'd say not!" Then he sobered. "Uh -- they aren't real....are they?"

Cas shrugged. "Your knowledge of life-forms out here is approximately the same as mine."

Sam got to his feet, swearing curtly as his head impacted with the bottom of the top bunk. Massaging the impact site, he moved to the door. "Bobby might know."

Dean sat up. "You gonna give him a call?"

"Might as well. Time we checked in, anyway."

Cas stood up. "Say hello for me."

Dean frowned. "Aren't you going to be there with us?"

"Depends on how fast I get showered and dressed." He headed for the bathroom.

"Don't fall asleep in there," Dean called.

Cas glared after him. "That was one time, Dean! One time...."

They left him spluttering. "Dude," Sam laughed. "That was mean."

"Yeah," Dean grinned. "I got two brothers to torment now."

"You're loving this."

"Every damn minute."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
*~

Exiting out on to the MaryJohn's bridge, Sam frowned. "Huh."

"What is it?" Dean asked, pouring himself a drink of water as Sam settled himself in the navigator's chair.

"There's a light blinking here." He tapped in a series of commands as Dean settled into the pilot's chair.

"Any idea why?" Dean drained his water and checked the controls. They had been drifting ever since their near-collision, and they were now off-course.

Sam huffed slightly. "We're off-course."

"I just saw that," Dean said. He shut down the autopilot and nudged the controls until they were back on course. "Did that make the light go out?"

Sam studied it. Blink..... Blink...... "Yeah. It went out."

"So that was telling us that we were off the programmed course." Dean grinned. "Okay, that's a new one. I wonder if we're even close to learning everything about this wonderful ship of ours."

"Are you kidding?" Sam grinned back at him. "Then what would be the fun of things?"

"You're a weird one, Sammy." But Dean's words were punctuated by a wink.

Sam just grinned and called up a display, studying where they were heading. "You gonna contact Bobby?"

"Working on it." Dean glanced over. "Where are we heading?"

"Huh."

"I get nervous when you say that." Dean got up and leaned over Sam's shoulder, studying the display as well.

"Sorry." He traced the display. "The thing that nearly hit us? It headed this way. And our path veers here -- taking us on the same track."

Dean frowned. "And we're heading for a world."

"We are." They had taken to using 'world' for the inhabited planets and 'planet' for the uninhabited ones. "I don't recognise the co-ordinates, though."

"But it's definitely a world?"

"Yeah, it's a world. See? The computer puts the planets as red and the worlds as blue."

Dean frowned at the blue sphere, then retreated back to his seat. "I'm dialing."

Sam sat back and waited while Dean activated the communications channel.

Bobby's voice came ringing into the cabin a few minutes later. "Which Winchester's this?"

"Dean and Sam," Dean said. "Cas is in the shower. Why don't you have the video link on?"

"Cause I can't get used to these damned things!" Bobby snarked at him. "You got yours on?"

"Always," Dean grinned. "It's the red button next to the--" The screen leapt to life and Bobby's sleepy eyes suddenly appeared. "You're too close."

He rolled back, his office chair swiveling as he did so. "Better?"

"Better," Dean said. "We've had quite a morning. We had a near-miss with a bogie and now we're heading for a world where we think the bogie's gone as well."

Bobby scratched his beard. "That means your bogie's probably something intelligent. Like you've got a ship on your hands. What world?"

"We don't know. It's in the database as a world, but we don't recognise the co-ordinates."

"Fine," Bobby said. "Send 'em here."

Dean glanced over at Sam, who was already preparing the packet. He nodded as he pressed the final buttons.

Smiling, Dean turned back to the screen. "Sent."

Bobby studied the information packet for a moment, and his eyes narrowed. "You're heading to these co-ordinates?"

"Yeah," Dean said. "Why?"

Bobby let out a soft growl. "Well, shit."

CHAPTER TWO

Dean sat back and frowned. "Okay," he said slowly. "It's never a good sign when your first reaction to something is 'Well, shit'. What's up?"

The pneumatic doors opened behind Dean and Bobby said, "Oh, good, you're all here and I only have to say it once. Hi, Feathers."

"Hey, Bobby." Cas sat down behind Dean. He was dressed now, in jeans and a green flannel shirt, and his hand was carding through still-damp ebony curls, futilely trying to finger-comb them into a semblance of neatness. "Say what once?"

"We've got something intelligent on our hands," Sam filled him in. "And our paths converge on a world. We sent Bobby the co-ordinates to the world and he just cursed about it."

"And then you walked in," Dean finished.

Cas nodded. "Okay, so what's with the colourful language? What is it about that world?"

"You've read the records," Bobby said. "It used to be called Lankeer."

Cas frowned as he thought back. As an angel, he had perfect recall of everything he had ever seen and heard and read. As a human, his memory was still better than either of the human born Winchesters, but it took more work to access. And when he was trying to access his memories was when he looked the most like the "humanoid bird" they'd once called him.

His head tilted and his frown deepened, then his eyes widened and his head raised. "Lankeer was one of the outlying worlds, yeah? Wasn't in the Alliance of Seven?"

Dean leaned over and whispered, "Why do they call it the Alliance of Seven when there's fifty worlds in it?"

Sam grinned back, "Why do they call it the Big Ten when there's sixteen teams?"

"Aah," Dean nodded. "Gotcha."

"Big Ten what?" Cas asked.

Dean opened his mouth to explain, then blinked and shut it. "It...It doesn't matter any more, Cas. Don't worry about it." When Cas opened his mouth, Dean finished, "Tell you what, I'll explain later, okay?"

"Okay." Cas turned back to the screen, waiting for Bobby to answer his question.

Bobby seemed to be pulling something up on his computer. "Yeah, here we are. Lankeer was one of the outlying worlds, you were right. They were going to join the Alliance of the Seven Systems, but then something happened."

"What happened?" Sam and Dean chorused, and Cas couldn't help but smile.

"Now, see, that's the problem," Bobby answered, scratching the back of his neck. "Nobody knows for certain. About three months before they were scheduled to join the Alliance, all communications to and from Lankeer simply -- stopped."

"Stopped?" all three Winchesters gasped, and Sam shook his head. "That can't be right, Bobby -- communications don't just stop. Not without a reason."

"Oh, there's reasons," Bobby nodded. "There's a whole pile of reasons. But nobody knows for certain what's real and what's rumour."

Dean was shaking his head now. "Well, hasn't anyone ever gone to Lankeer to figure it out?"

Bobby fixed him with a steel glare. "The Bermuda Triangle mean anything to you?"

Dean sat back in his chair. "Well, shit."

"Told you."

Sam blew the air out of his cheeks. "So, basically, once we get there we're going to be on our own."

Bobby shrugged. "Probably. Make sure you're well-stocked."

"We loaded up at the last Alliance base," Cas put in. "We're fully stocked."

Bobby nodded, then leaned forward a little. "I don't hear from you boys in a standard week? I'm comin' after you."

"Thanks, Bobby," Dean began, "but--"

"And I'm bringin' Ellen with me."

"We'll find some way to contact you," Sam put in hurriedly. Ellen's wrath when they were out of contact awhile was something they had faced a couple of times and never wanted to face again.

"See that you do. And boys?" Bobby reached for the video feed controls. "Take care of yourselves."

Then the screen went dark.

"So," Sam said in the sudden silence. "Two days till worldfall. Anybody got any ideas?"

Dean swiveled the pilot's chair to face them both. "I say we make certain we're prepared for anything. Get the Impala's armaments and defenses charged and ready."

"And once we get there," Cas put in. "I suggest we do a cloaked sub-orbital fly-by reconnaisance before we roll in on the ground." His eyes quickly cut to Dean. "I'll do the flying, so you don't need to worry."

"Thanks, man," Dean sighed. The fly-bys were necessary evils of their jobs, but they still made him nervous. Not quite as nervous as plane rides used to, because he trusted Cas completely at the MaryJohn's controls. But nervous enough.

Sam turned his attention to Navigation for a moment and made certain they were on-course and would stay on-course this time. "Two days out," he confirmed, turning to the others. "I don't know about you, but I could go for something to eat."

"Sounds good," Dean said, standing up. "Who's in the mood for BLTs and potato chips?"

"I'll make the drinks," Cas said as he stood up.

"Is it real bacon this time?" Sam asked, following them out. "Or the lranya meat?"

"The lranya meat," Dean said. "The last of it until we get back to the Roadhouse."

"Good," Sam nodded. "Tastes about the same and you won't be gas-bombing me and Cas out of the bedroom!"

"HEY!" Dean roared, and their laughter followed his grumbling down the hallway to the mess. "Remind me to remind you that you said that the next time Cas gets hold of some asparagus...."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The next 48 hours were a blur of preparation and research. Bobby had sent them an information packet with all the known records of Lankeer, and they had split it up into three parts to digest and discuss.

Lankeer, it seemed, was one of the first worlds colonised by those who had been Removed. In their case, they had been Removed from what appeared to be Egypt around the time of the Pharoahs. "If this architecture and artwork are any indication," Cas finished when he discovered that.

"Egypt, huh?" Sam said, sitting back against the wall and crossing his legs underneath him. Though the MaryJohn had a conference room -- or two -- they preferred to use their bedroom as a planning session room. For Dean and Sam, it was just the way things were done, having grown up in tiny apartments and motel rooms. For Cas, it was a novelty that he still enjoyed.

"That's what it says," Dean nodded. "Why?"

Sam sighed and thudded the back of his head softly against the wall. "Then we might have a problem. A huge problem."

"What kind of problem?" Cas asked.

Sam looked at him steadily. "There's a theory about Lingual Drift, how languages can change over time. But if these people were Removed from Ancient Egypt? There's no way in hell that ancient Egyptian would sound anything like modern English."

"Language barrier," Dean growled. "Shit." Then suddenly, his face lit up. "But wait a second -- the ship has a translation device!"

"And I can speak all human languages, past and present," Cas said with a wave of his hand. "I'll translate."

Sam shook his head. "You could speak all human languages. Now you have a human brain and it can't hold all those languages. I'll lay odds that you've forgotten over half of them."

Cas shook his head and opened his mouth -- and his eyes went huge and his mouth slowly closed. He ran a hand over his nose and mouth and leaned forward a little. "Well, shit," he breathed.

Dean grinned and rubbed a small circle between his shoulderblades, feeling the tiny bumps beside them that indicated that their new brother did, in fact, have actual wings -- even if they were hidden most of the time. "It'll be okay. We don't normally need to know more than one or two at a time."

Sam spread his hands. "Except now we do. We're not going town to town in America anymore -- we're going from world to world. And people who speak English are going to be the minority." Dean looked at him in confusion, and he shook his head. "Simple statistics. English is a relative newcomer on the linguistic scene and--"

Dean shook his head. "Okay, I get the point. Gimme a second to think." He turned the small massage into a light scratch down the first few bones of Cas's spine, and the former angel's shoulders rolled in pleasant relief as a tension knot eased and Dean removed his hand. "So...the MaryJohn's got a translation program."

Sam nodded and opened his mouth to reply, but then he noticed Dean's expression. "Okay, you're plotting something."

With a sly grin, Dean stood up - using Cas's shoulder as a brace and earning himself a quick azure glare. "Maybe," was all he'd admit. "Cas, how long will the reconnaisance flight take?"

"Uhm...." Cas's eyes unfocused as he thought. "Perhaps 36 hours."

"So," Dean nodded. "We've got 48 to get to Lankeer, plus another 36 reconnaisance." At Cas's nod, he said, "That gives me just over 80 hours to do this."

He headed for the door as Sam sat up and called, "To do what, Dean?"

"You'll find out!" Dean called over his shoulder as the door closed behind him.

Sam rolled his eyes and blew the air out of his cheeks, leaning back against the wall.

Cas looked over at him. "Does this mean we will have to remind him to eat and sleep and perform his normal bodily functions again?"

"Probably," Sam sighed.

Cas shook his head and yes, that was definitely sarcasm lacing his voice. "Well, doesn't that just make everything fantastic...."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
*~

Six hours passed without a peep from Dean. That was a little unusual, so Sam left Cas in charge of making sure the systems were running fine and went to the Mess. Making a sandwich and some fries, he went in search of his silent brother.

He found Dean in the Infirmary, of all places, with a notebook in his lap and a pen tip being nibbled away to nothing while his eyes scrolled screen after screen of information on the computer console. "Hey."

Dean looked up and smiled. "Hey." He sat up. "Oooh, I smell fries."

"Yeah, figured you were getting hungry." As Dean set the notebook and pen aside, Sam burst out laughing as his brother's stomach gave a very loud grumble. "And it seems I figured right."

"Yeah, yeah, gimme." As Dean ate, pausing only to go to the sink in the corner of the Infirmary and pour himself a glass of water, Sam picked up the notebook and frowned at it.

"What's this?"

"Schematics," Dean said around a mouthful of sandwich.

Sam frowned. "What language is this?"

"English."

"Looks like Sanskrit."

Dean shrugged. "There's a little bit of Greek in there -- electronics are usually marked by Greek symbols, so...."

Sam suddenly understood and nodded, putting the notebook aside. Dean was worlds better at electronics than he was. "So whatever you're plotting has something to do with electronics."

"Nope, not something. It's got everything to do with electronics. And it's complicated, but I think I'm just about there with the theory." He looked at his watch. "Gives me about 72 hours to put it all together, give or take a few."

"Can I help?"

"I don't know, Sammy." And it didn't sound like a tease. Sam looked into his eyes and saw he was being serious.

"Why don't you know?"

"Because I don't know yet what I have to do. If I need an extra set of hands, I'll let you know, okay?"

Sam smiled. "In the meanwhile, how about I keep making sure you take care of yourself?"

Dean frowned. "Huh?"

"You get so wrapped up in your projects that you forget to eat and sleep. A couple of times, we even had to remind you to take a bathroom break!"

"Oh, come on! I'm not that bad!" He got a strange look on his face and put the food aside, standing up.

"Where are you going?"

"Bathroom! That reminded me!" And Dean rolled his eyes as Sam burst out laughing. "Yeah, yeah...."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Sam was tired. He'd worked on theory while Cas worked on the trajectory and kept the autopilot on course and while his body wasn't physically tired, his mind could sure use a rest.

So, after a side trip to the mess for a turkey sandwich -- Sam loved the tryptophan, put him to sleep faster than warm milk -- Sam yawned his way into the quarters, and froze in the doorway, arrested by the bizarre sight of Cas half-dangling over the bottom bunk. "Cas?"

Cas looked up, his eyes bleary with sleep. "Dean's not here."

"I can see that."

"Dean hasn't been here. His bed's not mussed."

Sam nodded. "He's probably still in the lab."

"If he's still in the lab, he's been in the lab or the infirmary for twenty hours straight."

Sam sighed and walked over. He grabbed the belt of Cas's sleep-pants -- causing an undignified squeak to erupt from the former angel -- and bodily hauled him out of bed, turning him right side up and setting his bare feet on the floor. "You'll give yourself a headache hanging over the side of your bunk like that. Get dressed and let's go haul his ass to bed."

"Again," they sighed in unison, and Cas headed for his dresser. He made a soft noise that might or might not have been a curse and palmed his forehead as he did so.

"Told you," Sam said, rolling his eyes.

"Is this why they call sobering-up headaches hangovers? Because that's what it feels like after you hang over the side of a bed for too long?"

Sam blinked, his eyes going wide for a second before he frowned. "I really don't know, Cas."

"Okay." He headed into the bathroom as Sam sank onto his own bed and looked at the bunk beds, his ever-active mind slotting Cas's theory into place and trying it out for size.

"Huh," he said, shaking his head and looking ruefully at the bed that it seemed he would not be sleeping in for awhile. ".....waste of good tryptophan...."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Sure enough, they found Dean in the infirmary, a gone-cold soldering iron held loosely in his right hand and his head pillowed on his left arm. It was plain he'd been working very hard on something very small when he'd just simply conked out.

Cas gently took the tool from his hand and Sam worked the magnifying goggles off of his face. "Wonder what he was working on so hard," Cas asked as he steadied the bench as Sam pulled Dean's chair back.

Dean made a noise and opened his eyes slightly as he felt himself being moved. Sam smiled. He knew that his brother's sleeping mind could sense the part of his own soul housed inside Sam and wasn't afraid or concerned, because he knew who had him. "It's me," he said anyway. "Back to rest, all is well."

Dean's jade eyes closed completely as Sam lifted him into his arms. "Bed for all of us, I think," Sam replied.

Cas nodded. "We've got another 30 hours before we're there and another 30 of reconnaisance flight, so yeah, we could all use some rest." He touched the wall and the lights in the infirmary went off with a thought. "You get him settled and I'll be there once I make certain the autopilot hasn't suddenly developed a mind of its own again."

"That autopilot gives new meaning to the term 'artificial intelligence'," Sam quipped softly, and Cas grinned back at him before jogging toward the bridge. "Okay, you," he said to his sleeping brother. "Time for bed."

Dean made a noise that might or might not have been agreement -- he was too asleep to be articulate -- and Sam got him changed into his pyjamas and tucked into the bottom bunk just as Cas came in and immediately climbed the ladder to the top one.

Sam smiled and changed his own clothes. "The autopilot behaving itself?"

"For now." Cas made a satisfied sigh as he climbed underneath warm blankets. "You able to rest after the jolt I gave you with Dean not being here?"

"Yeah, dude, I'm fine." And he was. He still felt the tryptophan in his system and he knew he was going to sleep very well once he dragged the covers over him and closed his eyes.

Sam turned out the lights with a thought and his dreams took him away seconds later.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Three hours into Cas's reconnaisance flight over Lankeer, Dean walked onto the bridge all smiles. Sam looked up from Navigation and returned the smile. "What's got you looking so smugly self-satisfied?" he asked teasingly.

Dean held up a pair of single-use syringes. "I did it, man." The smile lasted until he happened to glance at the viewscreen and instead of starfield, he saw clouds and flashes of farmland. Dean swallowed hard, feeling his stomach roll.

Sam stood and walked over to Dean, hauling them into the hallway outside the Bridge. When Dean was through swallowing hard and looked like he was regaining some colour, Sam asked, "Before I congratulate you, what did you do?"

Dean laughed softly, feeling worlds better already. "I found the translation program and used the MaryJohn's computers to help me copy it and miniaturise it. These are universal translators -- I just need to inject you and Cas with them and they'll be working in no time."

"Wait -- inject me and Cas?" His eyes scanned Dean's arms, finding the bandaid on his bicep exposed by the t-shirt. "You've already injected yourself."

"And they work fantastic!"

"And who did you talk to to prove this, since the three of us all speak English?"

Dean's grin only grew. "I radioed Bobby."

"Bobby?"

Dean nodded. "Did you know he speaks perfect Japanese?"

"No!" Sam started to grin. "And now, do you?"

In reply, Dean rattled off a sentence in perfect Japanese.

"Guess so. Showoff."

Dean laughed and held up one of the syringes. "Yeah?"

Sam pulled his arm out of his shirt and held it out. "Go for it."

As Dean injected him, Sam winced and said, "Hope it works as well on Egyptian as it does on Japanese."

"Yeah," Dean sighed. "Me, too."

Cas's voice suddenly rang through the doors. "Better come in and strap down. We're landing!"

As they walked in, Dean asked, "Already? I thought we'd be going for another day!"

"So did I," Cas said. "But things changed."

CHAPTER THREE

Dean frowned. "'Things changed'? What do you mean, 'things changed'?"

Cas frowned at him over his shoulder. "Is something wrong with your hearing, Dean? I said exactly what I meant. I found something that changed everything." He turned back to the controls as Sam went to the copilot's chair and Dean sat behind Cas, who completely missed the look of shock that passed between them as they strapped in.

Cas was asking about Dean's hearing -- when Dean and Sam both were worried about his hearing.

There was some kind of poetic irony in that.

"Where are we going?" Sam asked, one eye on the readout that automatically mapped and plotted courses for the autopilot.

Cas nodded toward the display, not taking his eyes from his own instruments except to glance at the viewscreen to visually check his position. "On the other side of those hills. We're still high enough that we won't be easily seen by any of the local popul-- oh, you have got to be kidding me."

Sam let out a chuckle. "No, it ain't kidding you."

"What?" Dean snarled, feeling blind since he couldn't see the instruments for himself.

"The autopilot came on," Sam informed him as Cas fought with the MaryJohn's controls. "It apparently didn't like that Cas is doing the flying himself."

"....swear, this thing hates me," Cas growled and it was obvious that he hadn't intended to be heard. ".....gonna rip its guts out and have Dean rebuild it as a toaster...."

Dean snickered softly at that image.

"There!" Sam cried out suddenly. "Autopilot disengaged!"

Dean felt the shift -- the MaryJohn suddenly flew a little straighter, the winds in the atmosphere being better compensated for. "Wow, it feels a lot different when you're flying her!"

"At least in atmosphere," Cas said, tilting his head in that strange manner he still sometimes did when he was concentrating intently.

"I get it," Sam said, turning to smile at Cas. "The autopilot was programmed to fly in vacuum."

Dean nodded, suddenly getting it as well. "And Cas, here, has flown most of his life in atmosphere. Technology versus being created with actual wings and knowing how to use them."

"Okay, this ain't gonna cut it," Cas suddenly said, showing just how close of quarters the brothers now shared. "You two, shield your eyes. It's about to get very bright in here." With that, he reached over his head, and shut off the viewscreen completely.

"Cas?" Sam questioned, frowning.

Cas just smiled at him for a second, then began pressing a series of buttons. There was a low rumble, and then three partitions began to raise. One was at the front of the bridge, and one was on either side of it.

Dean gasped as natural sunlight flooded the MaryJohn's bridge. "Windows and a windshield?"

"Windows and a windshield," Cas replied. "Not very practical in the vacuum, but absolutely essential to see where you're going when you're traveling in atmosphere. Or when you're landing." He gestured to a small valley between two jagged peaks. "We're putting down there."

"Is that a river?" Sam asked, leaning forward for a better look.

Cas nodded. "I think so. Which is going to be very helpful. We can store some water while we're here, and...." A sudden sound made him turn his head slightly. "Uh... Sam?"

"Yeah?"

"Check on Dean, please."

Realising that Cas needed to focus on landing them safely, Sam turned in his chair to face his older brother. He nodded slightly, unable to keep the fond smile from his lips.

Dean had curled slightly in on himself, as best as the restraints would allow. His face was buried in his hands and slight but persistent tremours wracked his frame.

Now that they could see where they were going, Dean's fear of flight had returned with a vengeance. "He'll be fine once we're on the ground," Sam said, turning back around and already plotting mild sedatives to administer on their return trip through the atmosphere.

Vacuum didn't bother Dean, because there was no "high" in space. There was no "up" or "down" or "falling out of the sky". Those things only existed on worlds, so traveling in vacuum didn't trip Dean's persistent fear of flying.

Traveling in atmosphere, however, was entirely another story.

"How soon is that gonna be?" Dean groaned into his palms.

"Till we're on the ground?" Sam asked and at the bent head's jerky nod, he waited for Cas to answer that.

But Cas didn't seem to have heard the question. "Cas?" Sam asked him. "How soon till we're on the ground?"

"About ten minutes," Cas replied. "I'm slowing us down now."

Exactly twelve minutes later, the MaryJohn landed with a soft sigh in the small valley, beside the river.

Exactly thirty seconds after that, Dean lost the battle with nausea he'd been fighting since the windows had opened.

As he recovered from that, Dean looked blearily up at Cas, who had brought him some water while Sam took care of the mess. "Hey, Cas?" Dean asked in between sips of water. "You never did tell us what you saw that made you land so quick."

"I found what almost hit us in the vacuum," Cas informed them. "And it's nothing natural."

"Nothing natural?" Sam asked, frowning. "What does that mean?"

"Our kind of job?" Dean asked, eyes narrowing. "Out here?"

Cas blinked. "No! Well.. maybe, but it's too soon to tell. I mean that it's not a natural rock formation like an asteroid or a meteor or.... or a plain old rock. I mean that it's something that's been made."

"Like a ship?" Sam and Dean asked in unison.

"Exactly like a ship." Cas frowned slightly as Dean stood up and walked over to him with the last syringe. "What's that?"

"The translator." He pushed up the arm of Cas's bright blue t-shirt.

Cas shook his head. "It is not necessary, Dean. I told you, I was an angel. I should still have access to the languages I spoke when I was-- OW!"

Dean smiled at the look of combined shock, betrayal and slight pain Cas turned on him -- the same look he'd seen on Sam's face when he'd trick the little boy into having his vaccinations. "All done," he said in the same tone he'd used with his brother back then. He rubbed the spot with the heel of his hand to encourage the tiny translator to be on its way, and at the glare Cas shot him he asked in the same tone, "You were a very good boy. You want a milkshake?"

Sam barked a laugh at hearing the same words in the same tone turned on someone else.

"We'll call it a rain check," Cas growled, standing up and clamping one hand over his wound. "For now, let's focus on finding out what that ship is and why it's here."

"What it wants on Lankeer," Sam nodded, shooting a glare at Dean when he snickered. "What?"

"You two just rhymed."

"Oh, for the love of--" Sam threw up his hands and followed Cas off the bridge.

Laughing, Dean followed. Any day he didn't irritate his little brothers was a day wasted.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

This was the part of their new job that Dean completely and utterly hated.

All banter and teasing was long forgotten, now, as he watched his youngest brother -- the one that was there by choice instead of by birth -- strip off his shirt and strap on a pair of holsters. One held a gun and the other a knife. "Are you sure this is absolutely necessary?"

"The ship makes too much noise this close to the ground," Cas said calmly, keying in the sequence that would lower the MaryJohn's main ramp. "And we don't want to risk all of us going in with the Impala until we know a little more about what we're facing instead of just 'it's a ship'."

Dean sighed, unable to keep the slight scowl from his lips and helpless to stop the twitching of the muscle along his jawline.

Sam curled a hand over his shoulder. "Dean -- we know you'd take his place if you could."

"Doesn't make it any easier," Dean growled. "Don't like sendin' either one of you out into the unknown all alone."

Cas smiled at him. "I'll be careful, Dean. I always am."

"That ain't the point, Cas."

The smile faltered. "I know."

After a long moment, Dean raised his chin. "Be safe."

"As I can be." Cas turned to face the landscape stretching out beyond the hatch. He walked down the ramp and they all saw him take a huge breath.

Then another. His shoulders rolled.

Another. His head rolled, now, taking some of the tension out of his neck.

Then, Cas's shoulders snapped back and then forward like he had been hit. At the same instant, his wings unfurled from their hidden nubs, reaching for the horizon on each side of him.

Dean and Sam's breath caught at the sight, as they always did.

Cas's wings were huge -- easily a twelve-foot wingspan. They were light grey with darker grey and white stripes that gave them the appearance of actual birds' wings.

They had been pure white, once, Cas had told them. Back before he'd chosen to become what he now was -- more human than angel. The wings had altered colour to reflect his new self. They could also now be seen with human eyes in safety.

But they were still as functional as they ever were. Dean and Sam watched as they beat slowly, exercising just a second, before Cas crouched down and the wings stilled, curled against his back and down onto his hips and thighs.

Then, with one powerful stroke of the wings and straightening of Cas's legs, the booted feet left the ground.

Cas was airborne.

They watched him vanish over the lip of the valley and Sam squeezed Dean's shoulder. "C'mon. Let's get the Impala ready to roll."

"Yeah," Dean said, still staring after Cas.

"He'll be fine."

"I know. It's just that...."

"Yeah, I know. He's a Winchester, now. He's family. And you hate to send family out without backup."

"Yeah," Dean sighed miserably.

"Which is the entire reason he didn't go without backup this time."

Dean frowned and turned to look at Sam. "What?"

Sam grinned and held up his left wrist. On it was a very familiar device -- one Dean had been tinkering with for weeks.

Dean felt his eyes go huge. "I didn't even think of that."

"We tested them out while you were sleeping off your translator miniaturisation migraine. They work."

Dean grinned. "Of course they work. I designed them."

Sam laughed. "C'mon, Mechanical Man, let's get ready to roll."

As Dean followed, he asked, "Hey, Sammy? You did remember to get the third one of those wrist-radios, didn't you?"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

General Ferri was at her desk doing paperwork when a knock sounded on her door. She looked up and smiled. "Enter, Ateno. What can I do for you?"

Ateno, her second in command, smiled as he walked in. "Well, there is always the offer of dinner...."

"Ateno," she chided. It was an old argument that now had the flavour of a gentle tease between friends.

He laughed slightly then sobered. "All seriousness, General. Patrols have spotted something odd in the sky over the outlands."

"Odd like how?"

"Odd like a flying man."

Ferri frowned deeply. She finished the paper she was working on swiftly and all but slammed her pen back into its holder. "What exactly are they seeing and where exactly are they seeing it?"

Ateno nodded as she stood and grabbed her jacket. He closed the door behind them and led her down the hallway. "As I said, in the outlands. To the west of Thebes-Mut."

Ferri hummed as she pondered this. "Very well, then take me to the monitoring station. Because, Ateno -- flying men do not exist. They can not exist."

"What if it does exist? What then?"

She whirled onto Ateno and her glare seared him like fire. "A flying man? A Ba-bird?"

Ateno's eyes narrowed. "A soul-demon? There are other explanations for a man in flight. A flight-pack. Mechanical wings."

Ferri smiled, her anger tempered by his logical words. "Then we shall assume it is that."

"What else can it be?" Ateno shrugged. "People can not have wings like birds."

"No. That would make them Ba-birds. Or worse -- freaks of nature. Abominations."

They walked into the monitoring station and someone yelled, "General on the premises!" The entire room shot to their feet.

Ferri laughed. "Stand down, people. Captain."

"General," the head of the monitoring station told her.

"I hear you've found something strange."

"Yes, ma'am. Right this way." She turned to the monitors. "Corvan, bring up the tape for the outlands west of Thebes-Mut."

"Yes, Captain Tujon." The named technician pulled up the footage.

Ferri frowned. "There is nothing there."

"This is a loop, ma'am. Watch, here." Corvan put a finger on an area of the screen.

Nodding, Ferri watched the indicated area.

They had all seen birds fly in front of the screen before, and when the wings came into view Ferri thought for a moment it was another bird, though one with strangely coloured plumage. But then the wings canted and the figure banked, and she gasped as a slim man wearing dark blue leggings of some type of coarsely-woven fabric and black boots was revealed to be attached to the wings. The wind seemed to ruffle his dark curly hair like a pair of gentle lover's hands as he soared.

Ferri's eyes narrowed.

"Well," Ateno murmured. "Not a pair of mechanical wings."

"He is armed," Corvan pointed out. "He carries a pistol and a knife."

Ferri ordered Corvan to print out a still picture of the flying man. Once she had it in her hands, she moved to a strong light source and studied it closely.

Ateno followed her. "Well?"

"Well, it is definitely not a Ba-bird."

"And you can tell this how?"

She tapped the photograph. "He is smiling. Ba-birds do not smile, do not enjoy their flight. He is clearly enjoying himself. He clearly enjoys flying."

Ateno was silent for a long moment, then he turned to her. "Then what is he?"

There was not one second of hesitation. "He is an abomination. And he will be treated as such." She spun on her heel and headed out of the room.

Ateno stared at the picture for a long moment, feeling a ribbon of ice slither down his spine like a serpent.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Cas soared over the city and headed back toward the MaryJohn. He had seen a city very reminiscent of both New York and Cairo. He had seen a population nervous and on edge.

He had waved at a little boy who had spotted him and had waved back with a huge grin on his face.

Cas grinned as he glided over the long desert. He glanced down and saw the Impala cruising below him.

Suddenly the Impala's running lights blinked twice in rapid succession. Laughing, Cas banked left and right -- waggling his wings as if waving at them.

The Winchesters had seen each other.

Cas banked again, coming around for another pass and falling into position over the Impala. He guided it toward the city, keeping his brothers from getting lost.

His wrist radio crackled. "So tell me," Dean cracked, "how many hot chicks did you see?"

Laughing, Cas put his wrist to his mouth and spoke into the radio. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

He could hear Sam laughing, which made his own grin grow.

"Ass," Dean shot back. "What did you see?"

"A recogniseable city. I saw a child. There's some cars, there's some flying machines....I'd say that we could blend in well once I join you and hide my wings again."

"Hey, Cas, meet us over the ridge over there," Sam put in. "I think we can join up there in privacy and I have your jacket and shirts."

"Thanks, Sam. I appreciate it. Do you mean the ridge that looks like a woman's profile?"

"Yeah, I noticed that," Dean said. "Looks like a woman's --"

"Yeah, Cas, that's the one," Sam interrupted, with a slight laugh. "Ten minutes?"

"Ten minutes," Cas agreed and banked again, sliding a little ahead of the Impala and gliding toward the indicated ridge.

Inside the Impala, Sam rolled his eyes and huffed out a laugh as he glanced over at Dean.

-"What?" Dean asked with a grin, scanning the sky and nodding in satisfaction when he saw Cas glide in front of them, heading for the ridge where they would reunite.

"Just glad that, no matter what, some things don't ever change," Sam grinned.

Dean shook his head, chuckling. Then the smile dropped off his face as a small flying machine glided over the horizon. "Hey.....Sam?"

"I see it," Sam said, lifting his wrist. "Hey, Cas? Bogie at four o'clock."

"I see it," Cas replied. "I'm going to check it over." He began a turn that would take him closer to the machine.

Dean saw the sunlight glint off a piece of metal that wasn't there ten seconds before. "Cas!" he screamed into the radio. "Evasive! Now!"

They watched Cas suddenly shift position again, going higher as if to get above the danger

They watched the craft discharge one single shot.

They screamed denials in unison as they helplessly watched their former-angel brother topple from the sky, his right wing a mass of smoking feathers.

On To Part Two




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