I'm gonna hit the highway like a battering ram/On a silver black phantom bike/When the metal is hot and the engine is hungry/And we're all about to see the light
The Impala goes out in a blaze of glory in 2014, when they're out of belts and hoses and down to the last three cans of scavenged gasoline, and trying not to think about what's coming soon. They finish what she's started, Dean putting two bullets into the head of the last of the gang of human jackals she'd smashed through, and then he staggers around back to open the trunk. The two of them wrap their hands in rags and pull out everything they can: their one duffle, the knives and the guns and ammo. Then they stand back and just watch her burn, thundercloud black smoke rising in a pillar straight to heaven.
Dean scrubs the back of his hand over his face. Sam pretends not to see the pale tracks winding through the coating of grime and ash on his cheeks. He's crying openly himself as much in gratitude as grief, because this hurts, but it's a clean straight cut, not the sick gut-stab of leaving her on the side of the road and walking away.
The gang's cache-trailer is a treasure trove, full of ammo and fuel cells: useless for the Impala, but perfect for the modified cycles the thugs were riding. Sam carries them outside while Dean picks over the wreckage, and then he helps Dean stand up the bike that's in the best shape, a big heavy-weight touring machine, dirty and crusted with what looks like dried blood besides. "No rust, though," Dean says. He looks at Sam. "There's another one good enough to fix up."
It wouldn't be a bad idea. There are enough hand-crank generators sprung up around the country now that they should be able to recharge pretty regularly, and they've got a dozen fuel cell spares right here in their hands. Two vehicles would give them flexibility, backup, more power.
"No," Sam says, because none of that's worth the separation. Dean only shrugs, casually, but his shoulders relax a little with relief.
They spend the rest of the day working on the bike, scraping it clean and washing it down: they don't trust the gang's water enough to drink, so they use it for this, freely. They're not worried; the smoke is still rising, a beacon warning people away until it stops. The kind who'll be lured by it instead won't come during the day.
Dean straddles the bike finally, and the engine coughs to life with a deep-bellied roar. Sam looks down the side and sees the speakers mounted over the wheel: the noise is synthesized. He finds the switch and flips it, and the engine itself is barely audible at all, only a low faint purring not loud enough to drown out even the sound of the wind. With the dirt cleared off, the bike's wearing lurid mismatched panels of red and yellow, like a demented circus. Dean runs a fingertip over the handlebars, dissatisfied.
"Can you get those off?" Sam asks quietly, touching the painted panels.
"Yeah, with a little work," Dean says, after a pause. He swallows and makes himself say it. "It's not worth it, Sam. It runs fine."
"Just take them off for me," Sam says, walking over to the wreck. Dean brings the panels to him one at a time, while Sam's hands hover over the wide wings of the Impala's doors and carve matching replacements, hot metal splitting open under his tracing fingers like he's opening up a seam. There are seven panels in all, and Sam's pale and shaking by the end of it, eyelids stuttering over his unfocused stare while the sweat rolls down over his brow and into his eyes. He vomits twice, barely turning his head aside to do it: he's learned to function through the pain.
When they're all done, Dean helps him away to the shoulder and eases him down to the grass, makes him drink more than his share of the water ration. Sam swallows thirstily and then waves Dean back to work, wordless, eyes closing.
It feels a little bit like handling the bones of the dead, but Dean's used to that, and when he's got the bike put back together, silver chrome gleaming and the panels from the Impala blackened with smoke where the paint cracked, the bitter ache's eased off, and the smoking ruin by the side of the road doesn't feel like his heart anymore. He puts his hand on the bike's frame. Her engine mutters quiet and low but still answering, and he rubs his fingers over her curves, getting to know her.
She's got saddlebag compartments big enough to hold the guns and ammo, the fuel cells, the sleeping bags, and one big top box for their water and food and the tent. Dean packs her up and fills in the corners with their socks and underwear. They keep extra clothes for Sam when they can because it's so damn hard to find stuff in his size, but there's no room left over for his spare jeans and his third shirt. Dean scavenges a couple of helmets from the corpses and sets them aside, then starts doing a final pass over them and the rest of the wreckage, tossing anything really valuable into a separate heap. They'll want to be back on the road before the sun sets.
After a little while, Sam rouses up and starts helping, dragging the stripped corpses to the side. Not too near the Impala: she's not sharing her pyre with these scum. There's enough dry scrub and dead wood around the side of the road to make them burn. He uses his knife to cut the pentacle symbol into the trees on either side of the pile, and into the sod, and uses some loose rocks on the side of the road to draw it on the surface of the pavement, thin white lines on black asphalt, a message and a warning to anyone who comes along.
It's been three years since the world ended, in fire and ice and plague, and the scary thing is that they won. Dean wonders what defeat would have looked like sometimes, when they're in a New Mexico market bartering for supplies and he looks up and sees a string of dirty, exhausted kids on the block; or when they're navigating a ruined city, the stench of rot just starting to fade. Dean doesn't understand why the earth isn't groaning under restless spirits, but they haven't seen so much as a flicker since the final moments of the final days, when Sam opened his eyes, clear and human again, and reached out a crawling hand to him over the debris, with the tendons traced in blood.
Maybe they were all scoured away by the same wind that took the demons, scraped everything unholy and unforgiven off the earth, and left humanity to its own fucked-up devices. Sam thinks it's more that so many spirits left the earth, so many places lost their meaning, that there was nothing left for old ghosts to cling to. All the monsters they meet now are human, people twisted up by too much disaster or just unleashed by the collapse of society. It's better in some places, worse in others. The open slave markets haven't broken out of the Southwest yet, and they've heard some talk in Colorado of going in and shutting them down.
People are starting to get organized like that again, the first groups that huddled together in desperation for survival finally beginning to settle in and reach out tentative fingers to one another, wanting to get back something like the normal lives they remember. Dean's always considered himself a cynic, and if you asked him he'd have expected the gangs, the slavers, the human animals feeding off the weak and the helpless; but weirdly it turns out those are the exceptions, lurking in the dark while most people open their doors and share what they have, and give each other their hands.
But there are enough exceptions to worry about out there, especially with Sam nearly down for the count and Dean feeling the effects of whiplash and a day spent working hard on pavement. Dean wipes out the helmets with some of the moonshine in the trailer and tosses one to Sam, ignoring the disgusted face Sam makes at the smell. "Come on, time to get back on the road," he says, and tosses the match into the heap of corpses, salted down out of habit.
Sam props open the trailer cache door and draws the pentacle there too, and carves into the door: take what you need and share. They pile up the valuables just inside. Dean picks out a few small things that'll fit in his pockets and make good barter, and then Sam hesitates, getting a feeling, and bends down to grab one more: a silver chain with a pendant on it, cheap turquoise shaped like a heart. Dean gets Sam on the bike and climbs on in front of him, and they're back on the road with the sun slip-sliding behind them, wind pressing in their faces and the headlights breaking out through the night.
They didn't have a lot of attention to spare for the other people in the first days after the cataclysm. Sam was sick and feverish, down fifty pounds from his fighting weight and barely coherent. Dean talked to Bobby and to Ellen before the cellphones finally died, so he heard what had happened: the people who'd gone crazy and started killing each other, all over the world in millions and billions, and how they'd all disappeared in that final moment, a hand passing over the earth and sweeping it clean. But the finality of it hadn't touched him, not right away: he'd gotten Sam through in one piece, so the world hadn't ended for him.
He put Sam in the car and drove away from the smoking battlefield down back roads until he found an abandoned house with a stocked pantry, and they huddled there like rabbits in a warren, not quite sure they weren't dead, eating old canned food and shivering together under heaps of blankets even though it was summer outside, like twenty years of trauma had caught up with them all at once, compound interest included.
Dean still doesn't know how long they stayed there and never will. They kept the curtains drawn and barely crept out of the bed for anything except to go three steps to the bathroom, door left open, and once or twice a day Dean would venture as far as the kitchen to grab another couple of cans and a glass of water, then hurry back into bed and curl up around Sam again. They went through maybe two dozen cans, three, before that first morning when Dean woke up with Sam asleep peacefully on the pillow next to him, the covers kicked off during the night, and let himself have the terrifying thought, we won.
They finally came out of their cave the next day, blinking and dazed, and there was nobody around to tell them what day it was. The power was dead, the phone lines too. It was a few weeks of blurring days before they found their first cluster of survivors in Fredonia, and learned that it was the middle of October, and a Thursday.
They stayed for a while. Those were the bad early days, when panic was making even decent people do sick things to each other, and the two of them and their guns meant life instead of death for the town, a small farming community that had a chance to make a go of it if they could just get through the crazy times. Things did calm down after a couple of months. By then, Dean thought they were settled for good. There was a girl Sam talked to a lot. Dean can't remember her name now, but the third time she and Sam slipped away from the evening fire together, Dean got himself a bottle of whiskey and walked away in the opposite direction. He wasn't going to be able to sleep, not alone, so he spent the night sitting on the hood of the Impala, staring out at the neighboring fires flickering in the distance, and tried to get used to the idea of staying in this one place for the rest of his life, learning how to plant corn and take care of cows, forgetting the feel of a gun in his hand.
Sam found him sometime after midnight and stood there looking at him for a while. Then he came and took the bottle out of Dean's hand for a drink. "I think we've done everything we can here," he said, and in the morning they packed up their gear, food and clean water, spare cans of gas, said their goodbyes to everyone before they left. Ten miles out on the open road, Dean finally let himself look over, his throat tight with sorry, but Sam was just sitting back, his arm stretched out over the back of the seat, smiling.
Their plan was to get back to their job, hunting down the supernatural evil that people couldn't deal with on their own. It was a lot harder without newspapers, though, and trying to follow word of mouth just sent them on one wild-goose-chase after another, until they made it all the way across the country and stopped on the shores of the Pacific, a thin beautiful slice of yellow beach, deserted, and Sam stood looking out at the ocean and said, "Dean, I don't think there's anything left."
"We could find someplace," Dean said, after a little while. "We could go back to—" He groped for the name of the town, and couldn't find it again. "We could settle."
"Not until you're ready," Sam said.
"I'm not going to drag you around risking your neck for no damn reason," Dean said. "You have a right to—I know you want—"
"Dean," Sam said gently, "I don't want. Not until you do too."
Sam's the one who came up with the idea of turning peacekeepers, road patrol, trying to keep the lanes open for ordinary people. It's weird, because he was always the one who insisted on not killing people, and these days that's all there is to kill, but Dean's the first to grant that things have changed. There's no order left, no cops out there protecting people, and those who've turned themselves into monsters to survive need to be put down by somebody.
And they were still warriors, even though their personal war was over, both of them hardened in a way most people can't understand even in these days when life is hard for everyone. Dad didn't do it on purpose, Sam's made his peace with that by now; it was just that the only way he knew how to keep them safe was to train them the way he'd been trained. When you start living Marine boot camp at the age of six, though, it does something different than when you start at age eighteen. Sam's long since given up wanting it to be undone, even if it took Dean a while to believe that.
Dean pulls into Clinton, Oklahoma, an hour and twenty slow miles away from the scene of the highway tussle. He doesn't like stopping this close to a job, especially not one this big: the chances were too high that whoever they'd taken down had pals nearby ready to resent it. In the Impala, he'd always put a good hundred miles of road down, but today his shoulders are aching from learning how to control the bike, and Sam's hunched up behind him stiff with headache.
The town's big enough to have modified the exit with a sign for its market, Travelers Welcome, and what catches Dean's eye is that it's got a pentacle on the sign, next to the arrow. He figures it for a good omen, so he takes the exit and scrubs the bike to a stop outside the big yellow-painted barn. The barbeque smell coming out makes his stomach growl louder than the engine.
"You up for this?" he asks, looking back. The odds are it'll be okay, but there have been a couple of surprises on the road before, and if Sam's really out of it, it'll be safer to just bunk down in the wilderness. Not much fun, but they've lived through it before.
But Sam lifts his head off Dean's shoulder and says, "Is that barbeque?" so they get off and push open the door together.
The men sitting near the door with shotguns look up with wary faces, but the room's nice and busy, people eating at long tables, and Dean relaxes as soon as he does the first sweep. There are plenty of women and kids around, even a couple of babies, and there's a bunch of trade booths lined against the wall in the open: this is a place that hasn't seen trouble in a while. They show their hands, smile, and Dean says, "Just passing through. We've got some road goods for barter."
The room eases up in turn, and then even more after Sam and Dean finish a trade of a good spare knife for plates loaded with honest-to-god pork barbeque carved right off the spitted hog, and two glasses of homemade draft beer apiece. It would be a ripoff if it hadn't been a week since they'd had meat besides jerky, and months since anything like a real sit-down meal: there's potatoes and gravy and salad with tomatoes, and even the beer is good, not the usual bathtub wash-water.
People respect hunger these days, and nobody bothers them until they've finished inhaling. When they're done, Dean sits back and smiles at an older woman with grey hair and a little kid on her lap: it's a good way to signal they're open to conversation, a safe way. There are some young women at the tables farther to the back of the building, but he's careful not to look that way. He's thirty-four and his face is starting to show the mileage, but he's learned the hard way that he's still too good-looking to look at the local girls without the local guys deciding he's got something in mind. Which is fair enough, since he damn well would have something in mind, if it wasn't the quickest route to a fight. Here he hasn't looked, and even so one of the fellows on door-duty is looking a little scowly; there's some stage-whispering and some giggling plainly audible from back there.
Sam grins at him unsympathetically from across the table and reaches out to rub his thumb across the back of Dean's wrist, which dampens down the back-of-the-room enthusiasm really quick. Dean kicks him idly under the table, by way of grumbling at the situation, and then turns his smile up to the people coming over: a couple of men and a woman, dressed in work clothes but clean and neat ones.
"Glad to see you like the cooking," she says. "Mind some company?" Her name's Caitlin, and when they invite her to sit, she offers them a couple more beers and a drink of good whiskey, one part of roadside etiquette Dean appreciates a lot: travelers bringing news don't usually have to stand their own. She keeps their glasses full, and Sam recites her the news he picks up in every town: births and deaths and marriages, sicknesses to look out for, what's running short where, what's available where.
"You're coming from Hobart?" Caitlin says abruptly. "Along Route 9?"
"Yes," Dean says, rousing up again. He doesn't let his expression change, but he shifts his weight enough he'll be able to get his gun out of his waistband quicker than those shotguns can come up; it wouldn't be the first time they'd found a nice smiling town feeding off the proceeds of a gang.
"You're lucky to have made it through," she says. "We've had some trouble along that stretch lately." She presses her lips tight.
"You should have less now," Sam says, after a pause. He hopes this isn't about to go south; not least, he ruefully realizes, because he hasn't felt this good and full in a month. With two shotguns and a room full of potential enemies, he'll need to go for the telekinesis if they have to get out of here, and his dinner will get wasted by the side of the road.
But Caitlin stares at them with only honest surprise, and then Sam feels that little itch at the back of his skull again. He slips his hand into his pocket and brings out the little turquoise heart on its silver chain. "They had this on them," he says, and she reaches out a hand to take it that trembles, just a little, when it's laid across her palm.
"Jenny Dreyfus gave that to my son, before he left with the shipment down to Vernon," she says, staring down at it, dry-eyed and hard-faced. "Couple of months ago. He just never came back."
"I'm sorry," Sam says quietly. "No, it's okay, keep it," he adds, pushing her hand back, though the law of the road is finders-keepers. "There might be more back where we left them, if you go after it in time. It was about twenty miles back."
She looks up from the necklace, frowning a little. "You two—took them out, and you left goods?" There's suspicion in her voice, but Sam says gently, "We don't take more than we need. They've been stealing from you, from the people around here."
"Take what you need and share," she says, low, like she's quoting.
Sam blinks. "Uh, yeah," he says, throwing Dean a puzzled look. Dean twitches his shoulders up; he has no clue how that managed to spread either.
"You two had any help?" one of the guys says, still cool.
Dean tilts his head back and gives him back a hard, steady look. "We didn't need any," he says, hoping the guy takes it as a warning and not just bragging. He'd like a bed for Sam tonight, and he wouldn't mind one himself, not to mention a cooked breakfast in the morning. But that's starting to look less likely, and he'll settle for getting them out in one piece.
The door opens, and a couple of men come in. A few of the kids go running across to one of them to be hugged, the other waves a general hello to the room and says, "Y'all aren't going to believe this, but that gang down Hobart way? They got taken out today, the whole frigging lot of them. And the Marshals' sign was there, cut fresh."
The room goes quiet as anything, and then everybody's heads turn to stare, and Sam and Dean look at each other and realize that they have no idea what to do.
They've been doing this three years now, and maybe it shouldn't be so much of a surprise. Rumors are still the one thing that can spread quicker than lightning. And really, Dean doesn't feel like complaining, not after they've been given pie, honest-to-god coffee from a secret holiday stash, and shown to a guest room upstairs with a big king-size bed that even Sam doesn't hang off of. Dean puts his jacket over the back of a chair and thinks wistfully that he might even have been able to get laid after all, except they spent the whole evening talking to the local sheriff and militia. Life is good enough here that the locals have time to think about making things better still, restoring wider order, and the gang nearby has got them talking with the next towns over about putting together some kind of road patrol.
Then there's a knock on the door, and he opens it to find a young woman standing outside with a bunch of towels and a smile. Sam props himself up on his elbow, and Dean thinks oh yeah and wonders if he can talk her into giving them both a turn, and then she distracts him right the fuck out of that and all the rest of his extremely impure thoughts by saying, "We've got a bathhouse, if you—"
"Where," Dean says, before the words are halfway out of her mouth. Sam's already off the bed; he grabs the towels from her and they practically run. It's a low domed building out back behind the barn, obviously built in the last year or so with a lot of pride, a victory over disaster, all clean white tile, shiny new taps in the walls, silver dishes for the slimy brown homemade soap. The water comes cold out of the taps, but there's a big pit of hot coals in the middle of the room and it's baking-hot, making it something like a cross between a sauna and a steam room.
It's the middle of the night, and they've got it to themselves. There are some old rags in a basket by the door outside, to use as washcloths; they come away black from Dean's skin while he lathers and rinses, lathers and rinses again.
"Oh, God," Sam says, almost drunk with pleasure, pouring jugs of water down over his shoulders.
"Here," Dean says, and they take turns scrubbing each other's backs, bending over the drain to rinse their hair, and then they just collapse on the wooden benches by the coals to soak up more heat for a while.
Dean stares at the ceiling and thinks about what's changed tonight. The easy answer is nothing—they got a bed and a hot bath and a good meal, and tomorrow they'll get back on the road and keep moving, on to another job, saving people from each other instead of supernatural freaks. But at the same time, the whole world feels different.
He's always thought of himself as a hero, a good guy, but somehow that's been easier to do because nobody else did. Not that he ever minded a thank-you, somebody making them lunch or handing them a fistful of cash after a job; it happened once in a while. But that wasn't the same thing at all. It wasn't like standing up in the middle of a hundred people who'd all pulled together out of disaster and kept themselves human, decent, who'd built something worth having, and feeling their stares on his skin like worship. It wasn't like finding out that the next town over has its own stories about the Marshals, and the one after that too; hearing their own memories turned into folk tales that aren't even too crazy-far off the track.
"It's a good thing, Dean," Sam says softly. "We can use this, you know? That patrol idea, if we could get more towns on board with that, build a network, it could really change things. A lot faster than we can do on our own."
"Yeah," Dean says; still feels weird, though, and then he works it out; it means they're not really nomads anymore—that they've gone and gotten themselves rooted after all, but turns out it doesn't mean having to stand still.
Sam can't help smiling over at him, soft-eyed and happy, and Dean reaches out and tugs on his long shaggy hair. Then he swallows and deliberately, slowly, runs his hand down Sam's arm and laces their fingers together. Sam's hand curls up around his, and Sam rubs his thumb over Dean's hand gently. That feels good, too, and Dean thinks maybe he's been scared of the wrong things for a while now, trying to hold on to the last of what he knew. "Hey," he says. "In the morning, you think—you know, long as we've got this bed—"
Sam's hand tightens, and he shivers. "Okay," he says, hoarsely.
It's been a long day. The barn is quiet when they slip back inside, the common room downstairs emptied out, and climbing into the bed with its soft clean sheets, naked and warm, is like taking a step back through time. Except not really, because they never did have anything like this, someplace truly safe: no more demons, no more spirits, nothing to be afraid of in the dark.
Dean lies back with one arm behind his head while Sam blows out the candle, feeling the quiet friendly night settle down close around them. Sam puts his hand on Dean's chest, over his heart. Dean grits his teeth suddenly, swallowing hard, and then he feels stupid; like there's anything Sam can't see, doesn't already know, and he turns and pushes Sam flat and drapes himself over Sam's chest and presses his face into Sam's shoulder, and lets himself cry for his car, their car, their beautiful sleek growling car, who carried them all this way into this new world that's slowly growing its way up to the light, out of the ashes of the old.
= End =
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