Warnings/Spoilers: Post-apocalyptic AU, spins off canon at "Jus in Bello"
Author's note: Written for the 2008 spn_j2_bigbang challenge. Beta-ed by maisfeeka, mara_sho, and tinylegacies, with art by mithborien (available on via my LiveJournal). This story is complete -- five chapters will be posted over the course of five days.
It is an absurdity, it is laughable, to speak of such a pending disaster as
"The End of the World." We are discussing the end of Humanity, or we are
discussing the end of Civilization, or we are perhaps even discussing the
end of some this or that Empire that we mistakenly believe to identify with.
The end of the world will come when the sun expands and engulfs it.
-- Takici Kaneko, 1934
* * *
So. She says, as she pours you your first drink. She has that way of talking and telling a story that always frustrates you, as though you should know exactly who and what she's talking about without her ever really explaining it. You didn't ask her for a story, just for a whiskey. You've had a long, hard ride this morning, and a great deal of work to do before you can go to bed. But she pours the whiskey and isn't charging for the story, so you simply nod, take your glass when it's full, and settle into the seat at the bar. So here's what you have to realize: Dean never got rid of that car. Even after it was all over, he refused to give up on her. If there was no gas, he reasoned, he'd just have to get her to run on something else.
It was slow going, of course. No easy task, retrofitting an internal combustion engine with just whatever equipment you could cobble together on the fly, especially not when you didn't have access to anything resembling the proper equipment.
Sam tried to talk him out of it. Said they had to focus, adapt. Said it was a waste of time. Said it was "pointlessly nostalgic".
"Your face is pointlessly nostalgic," Dean said, his expression unreadable behind a pair of large, circular, welding goggles.
And Sam had no comeback for that.
Because Dean was right.
* * *
Dean had once put together an EMF meter out of an old Sony walkman, a trashed microwave, and an alarm clock. Up until everything went down, he'd been pretty sure it was going to be the greatest thing he ever made. One of the only things he'd ever make. Tinkering with things, unless the end result would be helpful on the hunt, wasn't a past-time that John Winchester approved of, and all of Dean's past-times had to be John Winchester approved. Sawed-off shotguns were fine, salt rounds were excellent, but the EMF meter, and anything higher tech, was extravagance, especially when it only took a phony credit card or a couple nights' hustling to get the cash to buy a "real" one.
Still, there was no more John Winchester around now to disapprove, and Dean wasn't letting his baby go. Adapt Sam said. So Dean adapted, by adapting his car.
Personally, he thought the caterpillar treads were kind of hot.
* * *
They holed up in an abandoned high school in Northern Georgia that first summer. It wasn't hard to find; all the rural schools were abandoned. People were as into the idea of education these days as they were into the idea of anything that wasn't a requirement for direct, gritty survival. Which was to say: not at all.
They wanted to keep moving, of course, but gas was becoming almost laughably scarce, and Dean's first idea for the new Impala involved steam, which was hot as fuck, as he put it. That didn't matter to Sam, these days, but they both agreed that they wouldn't get far if Dean was constantly passing out behind the wheel from heat exhaustion, and air conditioning wasn't something Dean felt qualified to tackle, yet.
They pulled the Impala in through the loading doors of the school's theater and parked her center stage. The scene shop had lots of glue and paint thinner, which made Dean happy. Sam didn't pretend to understand and mostly left his brother to his own devices.
He freaked the first time he came in on Dean in those green, bug-eyed goggles and the heavy apron over his t-shirt and jeans. Dean grinned, which only tripled the creepy, and struck a pose with his hands on his hips.
"Awesome, right?" He reached up and pushed the goggles up onto his forehead. His eyes were crinkled nearly shut with the force of his smile. "Found 'em in the dressing rooms back there. Found you a hat, too." And he leaned over and dug out an old fashioned aviator's helmet, probably circa WWI. He twirled the thing on one hand with a waggle of his eyebrows.
Sam didn't wear hats, even before. But he showed up in that aviator's thing from time to time, just to make Dean smile.
* * *
Dean didn't know what Sam got up to when he wasn't in the theater, watching Dean work on the Impala. He wasn't always entirely certain whether or not Sam existed when he wasn't around Dean.
It didn't bear thinking about. Much more important was working out how to counter-balance the extra weight from the new rear-mounted engine for his car. A "frunk" was clearly the way to go; they still had to transport all their weapons, after all. Even if it did make his baby sound like one of those ridiculous old punch-buggies.
Speaking of which, he wondered if he should work out how to make the Impala float.
* * *
Sam came into the theater their second day in the high school, fresh from scoping out the food situation -- all vending machine junk food, most of the chocolate and chips already snagged, leaving them with the pop-tarts and CLIFF bars -- to find Dean bending over the Impala's hood, humming Cole Porter.
"Dude." He leaned over next to Dean, looking at the mess of metal and tubing and belts and wires that despite Dean's efforts to teach him, he still couldn't understand. "Is that 'Anything Goes'?"
Dean whistled a phrase, then straightened, wiping a rag over his sweaty forehead. He didn't bother pushing the goggles up. "Nah, man. That song from Indiana Jones. Can't get it out of my head."
Sam shook his head. Dean grinned suddenly.
"Dancing girls are nice, though."
Sam was afraid to ask.
* * *
Most of the theater was coated in a fine layer of white powder that piled up in seemingly random spots. It was all over the stage and the dressing rooms, tarnishing the undersides of the instruments still lying in the pit. It was thickest through out the audience. There were a few scattered piles of the stuff in other areas of the school: the hallway that lined the theater, of course, and the bathrooms closest to it, a set of five in the gym, two in the main office.
Neither Sam nor Dean wanted to talk about what it was, or where it had come from. But Dean swept up what was on the stage with great care, filling a five gallon bucket and placing it at one corner of the stage with a bright bouquet of fake lilies on the lid.
* * *
Welding was hot, sweaty, hard work, especially when one was working with a rigged up torch that ran on paint thinner and trying to work with trumpets and tubas as well as mufflers. Dean kept the exterior doors to the theater propped open most of the time during the daylight hours. There was this weird sense that that was when it was safe. It was stupid -- for most of his life, he hadn't actually been any safer in daylight than in the dark, but the theater was at the back end of the school, overlooking the football field at the end of the parking lot. There was no way in, not through the loading bay or the emergency exits, without crossing a shit load of open ground. He could see what was on all that open ground a lot better in the daylight than he could at night.
* * *
They were there four days before Sam spotted the first teenager. He was maybe fourteen years old, wearing the remains of a letter jacket and filthy cargo pants, with no shoes. He didn't see Sam. Sam followed him through the empty hallways, watching him skitter from doorway to doorway, his eyes always wide and almost fever bright. He never went near the theater.
There were five of them in total, the youngest about twelve, the oldest, nineteen. All of them gritty and wild-eyed, Lord of the Flies feral and holed up in one of the chemistry labs on the second floor. They kept a fire burning under the ventilation hood, fueled by old text books and handouts. This, then, was where the chocolate and bags of chips from the vending machines had gone.
The twelve year old noticed Sam first, and once she had, they all did. They screamed, and when Sam lifted his hands and tried to reassure them that he wasn't dangerous, that he was here to help, they threw empty chip bags and Milky Way wrappers at him until he left.
He returned to the theater to find Dean on his hands and knees on the stage, back bare and sweaty despite the cross-breeze coming in through the open emergency doors. He had the goggles, now as ever present as his amulet, pushed up high on his forehead, and he was scratching out a sketch of his plans for the Impala on a full sheet of painted plywood. Sam couldn't make heads or tails of it.
Dean was singing this time, softly, under his breath:
Once I was headed for hell,
Once I was headed for hell;
But when I got to Satan's door
I heard you blowin' on your horn once more,
So I said, "Satan, farewell"
Sam had no trouble interrupting him.
"There's kids in the school."
Dean shrugged. "It's a school."
"They're living here."
Dean sat back, wiped at his chin, and stared at Sam.
". . . I'll go talk to them."
Sam didn't follow him.
* * *
Dean didn't say anything when he came back, just walked straight through the theater, pausing to give the Impala a quick rub on the roof, and headed out the loading bay, across the parking lot, and down the street to the abandoned shopping center a mile away.
He returned an hour later with a shopping cart full of bottled water, soda, goldfish crackers, and cans of spaghettios. He rolled it in through the theater and out into the hallways.
After that, he split his time between working on the Impala and talking with the kids. Sam never followed him.
* * *
The kids weren't bad, Dean decided, once you got past the combined weight of their general twitchiness. Still, considering what he knew they had seen, who he was pretty sure they'd lost, the twitches were understandable. Really, they were getting along remarkably well.
"Mr. Dean!" Tabitha, the twelve year old with unfortunate, mousy hair and braces, was always the first to notice him when he came. She'd latch herself onto the hem of his shirt and wouldn't let go until he headed for the door. None of them ever followed him very far into the hallways. Tabby was the one who'd started the nickname, but the older ones had taken it up quickly. Mr. Dean, like he was some kind of authority figure. He supposed maybe he was. There certainly weren't a lot of other people lining up for the job.
"Heya, Tabby. How's it going?"
Mark was the one Sam had seen in the hallways, the bravest of the bunch. Just now he was seated on one of the lab tables, one leg folded up underneath him, the other swinging idly back and forth over the edge. He looked okay to Dean.
"Mark?" He stepped over, hands held carefully lose by his sides. The kids always flinched when he moved too quickly or hid his hands. "What's up, man?"
"It's nothing. Tabby's overreacting."
"It's not 'nothing'," Tabby insisted. "Show him your hand."
Dean lifted an eyebrow at Mark, not moving forward until he got permission. Mark huffed a heavy, teenaged sigh and held out his hand. A long blister covered the side of his palm. Dean let out a low whistle.
"How'd it happen?"
"He was trying to cook." This from Kathleen, the oldest of the group. "I told him we could eat it cold."
"Shut up, Kathleen."
"You shut up."
"No, you --"
"Okay." Dean interrupted quickly. This back and forth could last awhile if he let it. "That burn's pretty bad, man. You gotta put something on it."
Mark shrugged. "I know that. I'm not an idiot. I ran it under the tap."
"I wasn't saying -- look. You did pretty good, but there's some cold creme down in the theater, we could --"
"No." Scott, fifteen and built like a bear, stepped up in between Mark and Dean. Dean took a step back, raising his hands.
"I'm not saying you have to go. I could bring it up here."
He hated their fear of the theater, but he understood it. Scott, for all that he looked like he should have been a wrestler or a line backer, had been a theater geek, before. He'd been in the lighting booth the night that everything changed. Paul, the scrawny seventeen year old with a face straight out of Dawson's Creek or some other teen drama, had been on stage. Between the two of them, they'd quickly convinced the other three that the theater was not to be trusted. Dean planned to fix all that, convince them that it was safe. But it wasn't going to happen overnight.
"No," Scott said again, quietly and simply, and Dean sighed and let it go.
"How you guys doing on supplies?"
Kathleen shrugged. "We're okay."
"We're running out of toothpaste," Mark said. "I was gonna go get it, but Tabby thinks I can't walk."
"I do not!"
Dean sighed, grabbed a chair, and sat down. "If you go, make sure you get some burn cream from the pharmacy. I can get it, if you want."
"We don't need you to." Mark tucked his hand under his arm again. "You don't have to take care of us."
"Not sayin' I do. Just offering."
"I don't mind when you offer," Tabby said, dropping into her usual position, crosslegged on the floor by Dean's legs. Dean settled in for the long haul. This was what he did, when he wasn't working on the Impala. He sat with the kids, offered his advice, and tried to take care of them as much as they'd let him. It was the least he could do, really.
It was his fault they were here.
* * *
There were two lofts on either side of the stage in the school's theater. Both were accessed by spiraling, black iron staircases, both were thickly cluttered, as though waiting for the students to come back from summer vacation and work on another show. The lower loft was maybe twelve feet from the stage floor and contained six double rows of dusty costuming, from Elizabethan and Victorian dresses to military jackets of every variety. One of the racks towards the back had collapsed under its own weight at some point, leaving a thick pile of velvet, cotton, and satin. It had easy access to the lighting grid over the audience, the guide-ropes for the curtains and backdrops, and the stage itself, and provided a decent view of the exterior doors. This was where Dean spent his nights. The costumes, while dusty and slightly moldering, were at least more comfortable than the stage floor.
The higher loft was probably twenty-five or thirty feet up, too high and too dark for its contents to be easily visible from anywhere but in the loft itself. It was connected with the lower one by a catwalk and a series of ladders. It was filled with antique phones, plastic fruit, and paintings of dogs. Rubber chickens, giant gold keys, and stuffed animals. Wrapped, empty boxes, hardbound books of plays, and old copies of "TIME" magazine. Things that did nothing but take up space.
"Props," Sam called them.
"Steam engine fuel," Dean called them, though secretly, he was fascinated by the old manual typewriters and wind-up clocks.
This was where Dean planned to stick the kids, once he coaxed them out of their chemistry lab and convinced them that neither Sam nor the theater was evil.
And, you know, cleared out the ghosts.
* * *
Sam didn't notice the cold, and he hadn't been able to smell anything in months, so the first hint he had that things in the theater weren't totally copacetic was walking in on Dean working on the Impala and noticing that his brother wasn't damp. Dean was constantly damp, these days. When he wasn't coated in sweat, he was fresh out of a shower in the boy's locker room next to the gym. The fact that there was running water was a minor miracle neither of them bothered to question. The electricity had cut out weeks ago.
"Dean," he said.
"You're not sweating."
"It's cold in here, sometimes."
It should have occurred to him why. But things like restless spirits seemed somehow too mundane to worry about, these days.
"Stick around for a bit, bro." Dean looked up at him, his expression masked by those damned goggles. "We'll probably get a floor show, soon."
Sam stuck around. But nothing happened.
* * *
It never happened when Sam was around. Dean didn't notice at first, just because neither of them was ever really around, these days. Dean was always focused on the Impala and the new engine and the kids, and Sam was, well. Sam was something, anyway, somewhere else for most of the day, and Dean didn't want to know what or where. But when Sam stuck around that day, the air kept getting colder, never leveling off the way it usually did. The temperature dropped until Dean's jaw clenched and his shoulders shook. He put on his leather jacket, which helped a little, but his breath still clouded the air, like tiny puffs of steam, and Sam's didn't.
Sam's never did.
It wasn't just the cold. The air seemed to grow heavy around them, crisp but dense, like the static buildup just before a lightning strike. Dean felt it prickling across the skin of his arms, and the back of his neck. His hair, which had been half-weighted down with sweat and half-spiked with grease, tingled against his scalp as it strained to stand up on end, individual follicles repelling each other. The energy built until he could scarcely breathe, couldn't touch anything conductive for fear of electrocuting himself. Then, finally, Sam sighed and said "I'm gonna -- I wanna check something out" and then "see you later" and then was gone.
And the air was hot and damp again, the charge dissipated, and Dean could breathe.
* * *
That evening, when the sky was a deep, muted purple and the last of the pink on the horizon started to fade, Dean went to close the stage doors, and the temperature dropped again. Dean crossed the front of the stage, saw his breath and felt the eyes. He turned slowly to the right, facing the audience. He took a breath that tasted of maple syrup and grease paint and felt his chest lift and fill with something more than just air. It was a charge, though not like before. An electric singing that somehow didn't burn. He felt, for a moment, like he could do anything. Like he could fly without fear or blow the roof off the whole theater with the sound of his voice alone. It was a high of a successful hunt, just before he sent the creature or ghost or demon to its maker. The feeling he got just before a woman led him back to her bed (or, you know, her car, or maybe a convenient wall). It was exhilarating, and it was terrifying. Because it came from them.
The audience was full.
He couldn't exactly see them -- the light from the battery powered-lamp he kept by the Impala at night didn't reach that far. But their anticipation and the sound of them shifting slightly in their seats or whispering filled the theater. They were waiting for something from him.
A light came on with an audible snap and a hum, a spotlight high in the grid, bright white and filling his vision as it trained on him. Dean lifted his hand and squinted his eyes, baring his teeth with a soft, hissing exhale.
The electricity had shut off weeks ago.
"I'm gonna need a helluva lot of salt."
* * *
It wasn't that Sam didn't exist when he wasn't around Dean. It was that it was harder. Not just without Dean, but without someone else there. He was the tree falling in the forest, he thought sometimes, in his more abstract moments. The thing was, as far as he could tell, he'd always been that way. For all their differences, Sam and Dean had one thing in common: neither of them did "alone" well.
Still, though it was easier to locate himself when he was near Dean, Sam spent a good deal of his time away from him. He had no explanation for it, and it wasn't as though he was accomplishing much. He called it "scouting", which probably explained the aviator's helmet. Either that or Dean just thought that Sam looked absurd in it. And Sam did "scout"; he'd explored the small town around the school thoroughly in the weeks that they spent there, and knew every building and every tree as though he'd lived there all his life. It was their usual division of labor: Dean handled the physical work, while Sam did the information gathering. It worked well for them. They were a team.
Perhaps that was how Sam knew something was happening. It wasn't as though he was anywhere near the theater. He couldn't hear Dean, and he couldn't feel him. He just knew.
And so he went back.
* * *
Something rattled amongst the lights above the stage. That was Dean's only warning. He jumped back, and the spotlight jumped with him. The rattling object missed his head by inches and struck the stage with a solid *thwack*, then rolled noisily into the white circle of the spotlight. It was a can of hair spray. Dean stared down at it as it rolled to a stop in front of his boot and then, because he had to, because he'd always had the driving urge to touch and taste everything around him, he nudged it with his foot.
The stage exploded with light and sound as a musical number erupted into full swing around him. The dancing girls and the horns, which before had only been soft shadows and half-remembered shades, surrounded him, larger and brighter than life. Spotlights reflected off white sailor's uniforms and seemed to stab directly into Dean's corneas, and every blast from the pit orchestra and the singers collided with his eardrums with the force of a train. Dean's legs folded beneath him and he dropped to the stage boards, the spot light following his every move. He pressed his hands over his ears and squeezed his eyes shut, but he couldn't block them out. It seemed to last for hours. His ribcage rattled with every beat of the music. Something warm and vital seeped through his fingers where they clutched at his ears. The lights blinded him through his eyelids, and though his goggles pressed against his forehead, he couldn't reach up to pull them down and protect his eyes.
The air began to grow hot. Not the damp, smothering heat of the day, but drier, baking into his skin. He hissed and grunted -- could feel the sounds in his throat and on his lips, but couldn't hear them over the chorus.
I've gone through brimstone
And I've been through the fire,
And I purged my soul
And my heart too
"No," he said, though that sound, too, was lost. "No, no, not again. Please, not again, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, not again, please. . . ." Over and over as the tempo of the music increased, the crashing of the cymbals almost continuous, the high notes of the song climbing higher and higher, until they became screams.
* * *
Sam's fastest, though faster than it had ever been before, wasn't fast enough. He reached the theater to find Dean on his knees, folded over on himself and rocking. Blood seeped through his fingers from his ears, starkly scarlet in the bright light that filled the space. Semi-transparent forms circled him, spinning and reaching out in a choreographed horror, each measure bringing them closer and closer to his brother, and Dean shuddered in time.
No. This shouldn't be happening. It couldn't.
Sam wouldn't let it.
The song picked up its pace, and the dancers in their white costumes began to glow as Sam made his way onto the stage, his mouth opening in a scream. They bent and twisted away from him, their wide, singing mouths warping as the light grew brighter and brighter until Sam couldn't make out where it ended and the spirits and his brother began.
And then it ended. Just. Like. That.
* * *
The light cut out, but Dean couldn't see anything through the after-images. The sound stopped, but Dean was still deafened by the ringing. The pain ended, but it left behind a hollow space between Dean's eyes that ached almost as furiously.
But he was Dean Winchester, so he blinked until he could make out Sam's face through the splotches of green and orange. He shook his head to dislodge the ringing, and he pushed back the ache until it was bearable, and he forced himself to function.
Faint, glistening specks of light floated through the darkened, dry air of the theater like falling snow, like ash, and settled on Dean's hands and Sam's shoulders, then vanished. The theater was empty, save for Sam, Dean, and the Impala, huddled together on the black stage in the dim, bluish light of the battery powered lantern.
Sam reached out to brush his fingers over Dean's temple. "You okay?"
Dean nodded, then swallowed, then didn't trust himself to speak so he nodded again. Sam settled back a little, giving him space, then huffed a soft laugh.
"Floor show sucks, man."
Dean swallowed, managed a croaked "yeah," then slid slowly sideways until he lay half-curled on the warm, black stage.
* * *
The kids were gone.
The fire under the ventilation hood still burned, but it was smoldering, now. Scattered wrappers from candy bars and flavored chips circled five piles of fine, white powder.
Dean threw up in the eye-wash station.
"We're leaving," he said, when he got back to the theater.
Sam frowned. "Is the Impala ready?"
Dean looked at the car, at the tangled mass of brass tubing and copper wire that spilled every which way from the trunk. He looked back at Sam, his expression blank.
"We're leaving," he said again.
A week later, on the first of August, Sam found a tow truck that still had half a tank of gas, and they left.