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VIII. Impala

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     Dean should have known from the beginning that it would be that kind of day. After he rises, adjusting the Impala’s keys on his dresser, his morning starts by coming face to face with three rowdy hunters and a testy Man of Letters as he sleepily opens his bedroom door. He freezes, brain trying to catch up to this strange arrangement.

     “Absolutely not. It’s inhumane,” Cesar says, only two feet away from him, and speaking at a volume that would be more appropriate for five.

     “Are ya some kind of idjit?” Bobby exclaims, even louder. Dean winces. “What it the world would that solve?”

     “I’m not saying it would solve anything, but at least it would stop the suffering,” Ketch replies haughtily.

     Even groggy and sleep deprived, Dean can work out that Jesse, Cesar, and Bobby are all against Ketch on whatever issue they’re arguing about. He assumes that he’s probably against Ketch on whatever they’re discussing too, but he really isn’t in the state of mind to care.

     “We’re not ending the world if this all goes south,” Jesse growls, and oh, that’s what this argument is about. A perfect 9 AM discussion. “At the very least, people should have the choice to fight for their lives.”

     “You can’t make that decision for them. It’s not right,” Cesar chimes in.

     “I’m just saying, it’s something to consider as a last resort. A ‘Plan B,’ if you will.”

     “I don’t think so,” Bobby says. “Find a better Plan B, than one that stands for ‘bomb.’”

     Dean decides he’s had enough. “Uh guys, maybe save the ethics of 'ending the world if it goes totally to shit' for after noon? Come on,” he grumbles, and shoulders past them.

     He doesn’t move fast enough to escape Ketch’s comment of, “Well, isn’t he a regular Sleeping Beauty?”

     Nor does he miss Bobby’s, “Mmph,” of agreement.

     He pushes that intense conversation out of his mind and heads to the kitchen with a singular goal. As usual, Cas is there already, at his usual spot at the table despite being crowded by five other people, bustling about. Jody is at Dean’s elbow within seconds. “Dean, just so you know—”

     “—Five minutes, Jodes. Please,” he responds, not unkindly, but exhausted all the same.

     She purses her lips, but backs off, moving to speak with one of her hunter friends in the meantime, an older gentleman named Greg that she worked a few vamp cases with, if Dean is remembering correctly.

     “Cas,” Dean greets wearily, sinking into his seat across the table. “Please tell me there’s coffee.” He notes that it’s a bit odd for Cas to not be ready with a mug, but hey, the guy’s not his personal maid. It’s just a habit they’ve fallen into.

     Cas’s responding expression, however, can only be described as terror.

     “Oh, no. No, no, no. Really?” The realization is almost enough to wake him.

     “I’m sorry, Dean. There were maybe ten grounds at the bottom of the bag. Not even enough for an eighth of a cup.”

     Dean buries his head in his hands with a groan, fighting the urge to jump into Baby right now and search the ends of the Earth for some beans. “Fuck. The universe is conspiring against me today.”

     “No, just God,” Cas jokes, and Dean can’t help a little snort of laughter at that.

     He sits up again, rubbing his eyes. “What a day to run out. You’ll never guess the argument I had to hear first thing this morning.”

     “Destroying the world to save it?” Cas asks with a raised brow. Dean nods. Cas’s expression turns annoyed. “When I said, ‘take it outside,’ I really meant, ‘stop.’ Not, ‘go into the hall and continue.’”

     “S’not your fault,” Dean mumbles, head propped up on his hand, failing to keep the misery out of his voice.

     Cas considers him for a moment, apparently taking pity before revealing, “There’s one more can of Coke in the back of the fridge. Would that help?”

     “Please,” Dean says, as if it’s his dying wish. And it just might be, in these times. As soon as the soda is out front of him, he pops the tab and downs half the can in a few gulps, reveling in the last caffeine he’ll get for a while. “Damn, Cas, I’d be dead without you.” His face heats up a bit at that admission, and he turns his head, not wanting Cas to see.

     “Well, then, I’m glad I’m here,” Cas says softly.

     Dean clears his throat, hoping to change the topic to something less… touchy-feely. “So, where’s Sam? Gym as usual?”

     “Uhhh, no, he came upstairs a few minutes ago. I think he’s in the showers now,” Cas says. Dean risks looking back at him, face finally cooling. He’s not sure whether Cas’s ears are a bit pink, or if he’s just imagining it. Either way, the extra color doesn’t last long.

     “Can I steal your attention for a second now, Dean?” Jody asks, returning from her conversation. Donna has joined her, jotting down something on a pad of paper.

     He downs another sip of cola. “Yeah, go for it,” he rasps through the thickness of the sugar, combined with his morning voice.

     “I just wanted to remind you that Max is coming today.”

     “And whoever he’s bringing with him,” Donna adds, not looking up.

     “And we still don’t know who?” Cas asks. Jody shakes her head no.

     “We just know it’s a woman,” Donna says, looking up. “He said, ‘she.’”

     “New girlfriend?” Jody suggests. “Men can be weird about that.”

     “Nah, he doesn’t play for that team,” Dean says. He runs a hand down his face. “I have my suspicions of who it is. I’m just hoping I’m wrong.”

     “You’re thinking Alicia?” Cas asks. “Well, not Alicia.” Dean nods.

     “Alicia?”

     “Dead sister,” Dean explains. “Long story short, there was a witch killing people and putting their hearts into stick dolls. Essentially cloning them with their thoughts and memories, but she could control them. We killed the witch, but not before she killed Alicia. We didn’t even think of it until after, but Max was alone with Alicia’s body, and the dolls, and the witch’s ring. And right after that case, he pretty much dropped off the map and started being really sketchy. That’s when we started to wonder.”

     Jody and Donna look rightfully horrified. “So you think he turned her into one of those creatures?” Donna asks.

     “We think he couldn’t let go,” Cas corrects, voice controlled with tact and sympathy.

     “So what do we do if he shows up, and it’s her?” Jody asks.

     Dean sighs. “Honestly, I won’t be able to look at the kid if he pulled that shit. Not at first. Eventually, he’ll get an earful from me, but… until we solve this whole Chuck situation, it’s not a top-tier problem.”

     “I’m in the same boat,” says Sam, suddenly behind him, looking freshly showered, ends of his long hair damp. “As much as I don’t like it, it’s not an immediate concern.” Dean nods, and decides to leave it at that.

     As if on cue, Jody’s cellphone rings. “They’re here,” she says with a grimace. “Moment of truth, I guess.”

     Jody and Donna open the door, with Dean, Cas, and Sam trailing close behind. Max stands nervously on the other side. Dean peeks around him. Sure enough, there is Alicia. Well, not Alicia.

     “Fuck’s sake, Max,” Dean says, just loud enough for Max to hear without not-Alicia catching on.

     “Dean,” says Max. The rest is nonverbal, but his eyes clearly ask, “Please, don’t say anything in front of her. Please.”

     “Alicia,” Dean says, forcing as much warmth into his tone as possible. He can see Jody catch on out of the corner of his eye, but she doesn’t comment.  “Long trip?”

     “Fought a few zombies along the way,” she says, “but not too bad. It was definitely exhausting, though.”

     She sounds, looks, and acts just like her, enough that he almost forgets that this is not the real thing. “Hey, Claire,” Dean calls, down the stairs. Claire gives him a thumbs up to indicate he’s been heard. “Can you get Alicia set up in a girls’ bedroom?”

     She gives another thumbs up. “You got it, old man,” she shouts. She waves not-Alicia down to meet her.

     Dean frowns at the quick hug that not-Alicia gives him. Sam does the same, but neither says a word. “Thanks, guys,” not-Alicia says. “Catch up later?”

     Sam forces a nod with a grim smile. “You got it.”

     Not-Alicia gives no indication of being put off by this. She shoots them one more smile and follows Claire.

     “Should she be alone with Claire?” Donna frets.

     “She’s not her, but she’s not harmful,” Dean says.

     “Not unless Max orders her to be,” Sam adds.

     “I won’t,” Max insists, immediately taking on a defensive stance. “Promise. I haven’t given her a single order, and I can assure you I won’t start now.” He deflates a bit. “I just wanted — no, needed my sister back. I did the only thing I could.” Dean’s only response is a hard stare, and the others follow suit. “Look, I just want Alicia. Not a servant, a monster, not anything but a sister.” Max shifts uncomfortably. “So what happens now?”

     “For now,” Dean says, “you go somewhere quiet with Donna and Jody and explain exactly how this whole thing works. No secrets, no details left out, no more surprises. If you neglect to tell them anything, and I mean anything, you’re out of here, and she’s done. Whatever she is. Capiche?”

     Max nods, trembling a bit. “Please, don’t tell her.”

     “We’ve talked about it,” Cas reveals. “We suspected this is what you’d do.” He sighs, a bit too soft in response to Max’s pleading eyes. “No, we don’t think revealing the truth to her would help. Not with everything else going on right now. We’ll leave her alone.”

     “For now,” Dean corrects in a manner that is harsh, but not undeserved.

     “And… me?”

     “We don’t really want to be around you right now, Max,” Sam admits, and Max at least has the decency to look ashamed at being scolded by the more patient, understanding brother. Dean’s eyes lock in on Max’s hand as he anxiously twirls the witch’s ring.

     “Oh, you’ll get an earful later, believe me,” says Dean. “But for now, stay out of our way. I mean it.” With that, he shoulders past him and heads down the stairs. Cas and Sam follow.

      There’s nowhere to turn without bumping into another hunter in the crowded Bunker, and Dean suddenly feels claustrophobic. He almost heads down into the Dean-cave before remembering that his last sacred space has been converted into another sleeping place for their growing number of hunters. “Shit. I can’t do this anymore.” He pushes past everyone to get into his room, apparently Patience and Alex’s new hangout place when he’s not occupying it himself. He grabs his keys off the dresser.

     “Dean?” Patience asks in concern, but he simply turns on his heel and walks back out. Sam and Cas are close behind, shooting quick reassurances that they’ve got it handled.

     “Dean, what are you doing?” Sam asks nervously. Dean yanks open the door to the garage. “Dean!”

     “Dean, don’t,” Cas says, quickly running out ahead of him. “Dean, give me the keys.”

     It’s all practically white noise to him. He unlocks Baby and climbs in. Cas jumps in the back, and Sam runs around to the other side. 

     Before Dean can protest, Cas lunges forward into the space of the front seat and snatches the keys from his hand. “Cas!” He puts as much danger into his eyes as possible as he swerves his head around to look at the angel. “Give ‘em back.”

     “No,” Cas says, the phrase imbued with as much sass as possible. “That’s the last thing I’m going to do.” His expression softens after a moment, but he is still firm as he says, “I know this is hard, Dean, but it’s still not safe to go out. Especially not in this mindset. Please, don’t be reckless.”

     Dean slumps back against his seat in defeat. “I can’t fucking deal with it. God, there’s no room to breathe in there, nevermind all this Max-Alicia bullshit.” He scowls further, now upset with himself for his “God” slipup.

     If Sam or Cas notice the G-word, neither bring it up. There’s a warm hand on his shoulder, Cas’s. “Stay here,” he says, as if Dean has a choice. “I’ll be right back.” Cas slips out of the car, taking the keys with him.

     After a moment, Sam breaks the silence. “Are you okay?”

     “Not really, but I can’t afford not to, can I?”

     Sam looks at him with a bit too much sympathy for him to stand. “We’ve each had a breakdown. First Cas with the whole wing thing, then me with the new hunters, and the overcrowding, and all the baggage from before. We’ve never lived like this before, Dean, not even with the hunters who…” He swallows. “The hunters from the other world. It’s a lot of people. It was bound to happen to you, too, eventually.”

     Cas slips back in with three beers and a bag of chips. The last one, Dean thinks, if he’s counting correctly. Cas smiles, a slight sparkle in his eyes. “I thought the situation called for comfort food.”

     “Thanks, Cas,” Dean says, voice heavy with gratitude. The beer is refreshing, and indeed, comforting as it goes down, and the chips almost sate his craving for something more substantial than canned soup and vegetables. With the beer, and the chips, and the familiarity of the Impala, he can almost pretend that life is normal again.

     They eat in quiet for a few minutes. “Were you really gonna go out?” Sam asks, grabbing a few chips himself.

     Dean sighs around a mouthful of chips. “I dunno,” he says, swallowing. “I mean, I miss Baby, I miss the road. As much as it feels good to just sit in here, it’s not the same.” He runs his clean hand along the dash, not even a speck of dust coming up on his fingers. He’s been spending more and more time out here lately, doing maintenance and keeping her clean in order to stay connected to his beloved car.

     “Plenty have made the drive,” Cas suggests cautiously. “Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take a quick spin. To shake off the, what’s it called? The ‘cabin fever,’ as much as we can.” He takes a swig of beer, not bothering with the chips.

     Sam glances nervously at the two of them. “Guys, it’s not a good idea,” he says, even though Dean can see clearly that he’s itching to get out as well. “Those trips were made out of necessity. I know the roads aren’t too bad out of the heavily populated areas, but… we have people relying on us. We can’t just run out for no reason. What if the worst happens?”

     Dean frowns. “I know. You’re right, Sam. It just sucks.”

     “I know,” Sam commiserates. If Dean’s being honest, neither of them can shake the idea of fresh air coming through open windows as they speed down back roads.

     He tries to push aside this craving with his lesser salt craving, only to find the bottom of the bag all too soon. “Ah, shit,” he says dismally, coming up with one measly piece. “No more coffee, no more Coke, no more chips. Beer’s gotta be running low too, huh?”

     “We have a few more cans hidden around,” Cas says. “But yes, it won’t last much longer.”

     “Mmph,” Dean comments, melting the last chip on his tongue. It’s gone in a few brief seconds.

     He’s a bit flustered at the way Cas watches him place the chip on his tongue, eyes following it into his mouth and watching it slide down his throat as if his digestive process holds some deep, greater meaning. “What?” he asks, a little annoyed despite himself. It’s not fair to Cas, after all he’s done, but he doesn’t like the way his heartbeat picks up when Cas scrutinizes him like that.

     “How much food do we have left?” Cas asks, eyes still sharp on Dean’s windpipe in thought.

     “Uhhh…”

     “Maybe a week and a half’s worth?” Sam says. “Probably less with Rowena on her way, and now Max and Al — you know.” He pulls a face. “Does she even eat?”

     “She must,” Dean reasons. “I mean, she’s not dumb, Sam, even if she’s literally made of sticks. She’d know something was up if she didn’t eat.”

     “You sure?”

     “Do you really think she wouldn’t notice never being hungry?”

     “So, a week,” Cas interrupts, eyes coming back up to meet Dean’s briefly. He looks out the front window, considering something. “It would be a good idea to have a buffer. What if…?”

     “You can’t be serious,” Sam says, picking up on Cas’s train of thought before Dean can.

     “Why not?” Cas says. “We need more food. Why not go now?”

     “Now?” Dean asks, heart suddenly thudding with anticipation. “You want us to do a food run right now?”

     “What’s stopping us?” Cas asks, a rare bit of playfulness present in his features. Dean can’t help the laugh that booms out of him.

     “Just the three of us?” Sam asks hesitantly. “Shouldn’t we get some backup?”

     “For grocery shopping, Sam?” Dean asks. “Impala only holds five anyways, maybe six if we squeeze. Come on, we’ve got this handled. How’re we on weapons?”

     “Trunk’s still loaded,” Sam says, warming up to the idea. “I’ll get ‘em.”

     Dean drums happily on the wheel as Sam gets out. “Man, if I knew today was the day we’d be getting out of here, I wouldn’t have even minded the lack of coffee.”

     Cas smiles. “You still would have.”

     Dean gives him a mock frown. “Ouch, clocked.” The garage door raises behind them.

     “Okay,” Sam announces, passing the duffel back to Cas. “Good?”

     “Blade,” Cas says, taking that out for himself. “Shotguns?”

     “Please,” says Sam.

     “Hit me,” says Dean, less eloquently. They do a quick check to make sure they’re properly loaded. Sam gives him a thumbs up, and Dean shifts into gear.

     Weapons ready, they pull out into the driveway. Sam hops out once more to close the garage behind them, and soon enough, they’re leaving the Bunker for the first time in months.

     “So… Walmart?” Sam asks. “Open aisles, huge selection. Seems the safest.”

     “Yup,” Dean says. Longer drive, too, he thinks to himself. It’s a tactical hindrance, but a personal bonus.

     Dean turns out carefully. They start driving, and the world doesn’t look all that different than he remembers. A little emptier, but far from a wasteland. Without a single zombie in sight, he rolls down the windows, and breathes in the fresh air of the breeze.

     They turn onto a wider street, finding it to be equally empty. Dean breathes a sigh of relief and finally allows himself to lean back a little. Sam smiles beside him, and Cas leans forward, settling his face in the gap between their seats.

     Dean grins at both of them and lowers his foot.

     It feels good to be back on the road.