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This story is No. 6 in the series "Province". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: SLASH. Dean/Xander. Sequel to Ten Years Gone. Xander hits the road with the Winchesters.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Supernatural > Xander-Centered > Pairing: Dean WinchesterChessMFR151268,57734411,8314 Jan 127 Feb 12Yes

Goodbye Babylon

Author's Note: Story title from a song by Interpol. Chapter title from a song by the Black Keys. No specific spoilers to speak of. These characters are not mine, I make no profit from this, and didn't mean to infringe on any copyright.

This story is the sixth in a series; you probably need to read 'Set The Fire To The Third Bar', 'Standing In The Doorway', 'And All That Could Have Been','Kashmir' and 'Ten Years Gone' first.






Dean was driving down a back road somewhere in California. It was a highway, sort of, an old one, winding through arid hills. The car was warm and growling under the sun, miles and miles of blue sky stretching overhead. Anticipation built in his gut as every twist of the road brought him closer to Alex.

The car passed a mile marker, and Dean judged it close enough. He pulled his phone out, unable to keep a grin off his face as he dialled Alex’s number.

“Yeah?” The voice on the other end was gruff, but Dean wasn’t deterred.

“Hey there, how you doing?” He was blatantly flirting, and he felt so goddamn free about it. “You wouldn’t happen to be available this weekend, would you?”

There was one last moment of sweetness before the voice that answered turned his guts to ice.

“Well, gee, Dean. I think I’ll have to check my calendar.”

It wasn’t Alex. Dean froze in horror, even as the coyness in the demon’s voice turned his stomach.

“You son of a bitch,” he managed, too shocked to make the insult sound anything other than automatic.

“Aw, you’re such a flatterer,” it said, voice still warm like it was teasing, what the fuck. “And I’m afraid I’m gonna have to take a rain check, Dean-o. I’ve had so much fun playing with your precious Alex, I’m all tired out.”

Horror swept over him again. The world spun, and for a moment there was nothing but white noise. Dean swallowed bile, and gripped the phone so tight it almost snapped.

“Although,” the demon went on thoughtfully. “I don’t think it was too much fun for Alex right at the end there.” Its voice was still mocking him, playing at sincerity and concern.

“Oh my God,” he said faintly. He distantly realised his hand was shaking.

“No God, boy, just me. It’s always been me, it was always going to be me,” it hissed. The thing’s accent and halting diction made the words sound strange and unreal, even as they carved themselves into Dean’s brain. “It was always going to be like this. You were always going to be too late to stop me.”

The phone fell from Dean’s numb fingers. He wanted to scream but he couldn’t quite manage it, couldn’t quite think with pain crashing through him so hard.

His vision had narrowed to the slice of empty highway directly in front of him. He stared at it without really comprehending what he was seeing.

Suddenly he did comprehend, and realised he was staring at a bend in the road, a sharp curve where the ground on the other side dropped away into nothing.

The car swallowed asphalt as it hurtled forwards, but he couldn’t turn, couldn’t stop it.

He didn’t want to.

He let it happen, let it all unfold around him in slow motion. The car flew off the edge of the highway, and as it arced up and came crashing down again, the world around him splintered. Glass flew, everything was up-ended. He was sure he wouldn’t survive.

The terror and destruction felt fitting, though, felt inevitable. Alex was gone, that warm spot inside Dean’s chest was going to be cold and broken forever, and it seemed right that the world should end.

The moment yawned, and then suddenly contracted. Dean woke with a start. His vision swam a little while his brain adjusted to consciousness, adjusted to the reality that his nightmare hadn’t happened.

The first thing he noticed was the rain spitting on the window next to him, and how dim the light in the minivan was. It was different enough from the saturated sunlight of his nightmare to be an immediate relief. He looked over – Alex was asleep against the other window. The sight of him didn’t totally dispel the clench in the pit of Dean’s stomach, but it helped some. He could see Alex breathing, which was good, and he knew that if he reached over he’d be able to feel warmth and skin.

He didn’t, though, didn’t want to wake him up. It was dark, probably too late or too early, and Dean was content to watch quietly just for a minute, let his brain catch up and the last of the nightmare fade away.

It was the first time he’d woken up before Alex, the first time he hadn’t woken up alone. Which, sure, this time Alex had nowhere to go until the car stopped. But whatever, it was better when the first thing Dean saw was Alex, right there in front of him.

Then Dean sighed and tried to sit up a little straighter in his seat. He popped his neck, trying to ease the crick he’d gotten in it from sleeping crammed up against the window. Alex was there, the nightmare wasn’t real – he should have known it wasn’t, because his goddamn car was already trashed, and man, he didn’t want to think about that – and he needed to get over it.

He cleared his throat, trying to wake himself up a little more. John was slumped down in the front passenger seat, apparently also asleep, and Sam was behind the wheel. They probably switched at the last gas stop, and Dean hadn’t been awake enough to notice.

Outside the van it was dark. The headlights barely illuminated anything, just rain and the reflective strips on the road that divided the lanes. When Dean peered out through the window, he could see that the highway was bordered by trees, lots of trees, but he had no idea where they were or what time it was.

“Where are we?” he asked Sam, keeping his voice low so as not to wake the others.

“Missouri,” Sam replied, voice also soft. He didn’t sound surprised, so he must have noticed when Dean woke up. “We just detoured around St Louis and got back on the highway about ten minutes ago.”

Dean hunched down a little in his seat. Then he thought about it and felt stupid, because the chances of a cop spotting him in the back seat of a minivan in the dark on a highway outside the city and remembering that he looked like a dead guy wanted for murder were pretty slim.

After a moment, he asked, “What time is it?”

“Around three,” Sam said, yawning a little.

“Want me to drive?” Dean offered. Sam might not have been driving that long, but late night and early morning driving shifts always sucked the most.

“Nah, I’m okay for a while longer. Plus, you were recently in a coma, so no,” he said pointedly.

“Okay, okay,” Dean replied, rolling his eyes. Silence fell over the car for a moment, but Dean didn’t really want the conversation to end. The only alternative was thinking, and he wasn’t really awake enough yet to have the required amount of control over his brain for that. “How’s everything? The drive, how’s the drive, I mean?” he stammered. Wow, that really hadn’t worked. He probably should have stuck to thinking.

“Fine,” Sam replied, and Dean didn’t have to be able to see his face to know he was smiling at Dean’s total lack of smoothness. “I mean, the van’s a piece of shit, or we’d be making better time,” Sam went on. “But, you know.”

“Maybe we can get something better somewhere, if it’s going to crap out before we reach LA,” Dean suggested, trying not to think about the Impala. His eyes strayed sideways, to Alex. Who was still fine, still asleep. That was good.

“Maybe,” Sam agreed softly. Another moment of silence, then Sam said, “How about you, Dean? How’s everything with you?”

The question startled Dean a little, mostly because it sounded like Sam was actually serious. There was enough sincerity in his voice, and when Dean looked, enough tension in his fingers around the steering wheel, to tell him Sam was worried.

“Fine, Sam,” he said, and maybe it was the remnants of his dream, but he couldn’t quite shrug the question off like he wanted. His eyes slid over to Alex again, and he had to make the effort not to think about yellow eyes and crashed cars under blue sky. “I mean, what’s coming will either turn out alright or it’ll be my worst nightmare, but there’s not a whole lot I can do about it right now.”

Then he cleared his throat, and added, determined, “We’re gonna be fine.”

“He still hasn’t thrown you out,” Sam said.

For a second, Dean wondered why Sam was worried Alex would throw Dean out of the car. Then he realised Sam was referring to their earlier conversation – which seriously felt like it happened weeks ago, not just a day and a half – and he tried to get his brain back on track. God, he was not awake yet.

Anyway, whatever Sam meant, it was a little off the mark, a little to the left of what Dean had been thinking about, and it also wasn’t as reassuring as Sam probably meant it to be. Dean couldn’t quite bring himself to read too much into the fact that Alex hadn’t said no, because all it meant was that he hadn’t said no yet. He shrugged it off, though; he didn’t want to think about all of it right now.

“No, he hasn’t.” When in doubt, change the subject, he decided. “So, hey, did you read anything else interesting before we left? Any random witchy voodoo shit you can entertain me with?”

“I’m the one driving, dude, you’re supposed to entertain me,” Sam replied. “And not with another Jack Nicholson impersonation, please, Dean, seriously.”

“Jack’s the best in my repertoire, man, I gotta play to my strengths.”

“God,” Sam muttered, and Dean could practically hear his eyes rolling. “Tell me about hunting with Alex instead,” he suggested. “Did you guys ever take on anything interesting?”

“Well, the reason I’d go over to San Francisco wasn’t usually to hunt. We didn’t really get out of the motel room a whole lot, if you know what I mean,” Dean leered.

It surprised a soft laugh out of Sam, and Dean could tell he was still smiling when he whined, “Oh, gross, Dean, don’t talk about having sex. I’m your brother, I do not want to think about it.”

Dean ignored the complaining and huffed a bit, still too sleepy to actually laugh. “Honestly, dude, the point was never to go hunting together. The point was that we didn’t hunt, that we would take a break. We were each others’ vacation, I guess,” he said, feeling just a little nostalgic. Looking back, it seemed simpler, holing up in the motel room, shutting out the rest of the world. Even though, at the time, it’d felt like anything but.

“The few times we did hunt some stuff, it was usually because we accidentally stumbled across it, you know? We dusted a couple of vampires in bars, and once Alex got a call about a semi-harmless demon they thought was in the area and we checked it out, but that was about it,” he added, then broke off thoughtfully.

Sam didn’t comment, and seemed to be waiting.

“I did take him on a hunt with me once,” Dean finally admitted. He hesitated, thinking back.

“There was this hospital up in San Rafael, and employees kept turning up dead and covered in alcohol. I was thinking of cutting the weekend short to go up there, but then Alex had the whole week off work so I just...invited him along.”

Sam was about to ask something else, Dean could tell, so he went on. “And the case, the case was crazy. It turned out this dude had died on the table when the surgeon was drunk, and he was all pissed off about it. I mean, it made sense because this surgeon, I swear, it was enough to make you never want to go to hospital ever, ever again.”

“The ghost was buried instead of cremated, so at least that part was easy. But while we were there, this guy, an orderly or something, who’d been getting epically, epically drunk on his night off, was dragged in and we had to get him out. It got a little messy, believe me, and not just because of the ghost. Drunk people are really, really not helpful. Only up side was that the amount of alcohol the guy had put away meant we didn’t have to worry about him remembering anything in the morning.”

Sam chuckled. “Man, that sounds crazy. How’d Alex do?”

“Good. He’s really good, and I ain’t biased when I say that. He’s inventive and fucking clever, and he’s got really good instincts. Good skills, too, and he hadn’t even been properly trained back then, not like you and me.

“Must be down to where he lived, and all the stuff that happened in high school,” Sam suggested.

Dean shrugged. “Yeah, well. A lot of weird shit goes down near the hellmouth, and Alex is usually right in the middle of it.” He’d meant it to be light, like it was amusing or whatever, but there must have been something in his voice that Sam picked up on, something serious.

“Must be hard,” Sam said quietly, and Dean winced. He hesitated before he spoke, unwilling to agree even though Sam was right on the money.

“What he went through last year—“ He stopped, shook his head and closed his eyes. He felt sick again, thinking about Alex’s year and how badly he needed to not have done what he did. Or something. “Can we talk about something else?” He just couldn’t wake up enough, and he couldn’t have this conversation while he was still half asleep.

“Yeah,” Sam said sheepishly. Despite his agreement, though, the awkward pause that followed gradually stretched into silence, as they both tried to think of something to say.

Dean filled the gap with some more staring at Alex. He knew watching someone sleep was creepy, but hell, he was right there. What was Dean supposed to do, not look?

Sam kept quiet, kept driving. After a while, John woke up. Dean wasn’t watching – he was still giving his gaze about equal time on Alex and the window – but he noticed when John cleared his throat and shifted, lifting his head and sitting up in his seat. He cleared his throat and stretched out his arms and then his legs as much as he could in the cramped front seat.

It was still fully dark, and they weren’t passing any road signs, so Dean wasn’t surprised when his father’s first question was, “Where are we?”

“Somewhere in Missouri,” Sam said. “About an hour out of St Louis.”

John nodded, then yawned. He glanced into the back, and saw Dean was awake. “Alex still asleep?”

“Yeah,” Dean said. He didn’t offer anything else. He didn’t really know what to say.

They lapsed into silence again, a silence that reminded Dean of back at the apartment. Not too aggressive or angry, not as tense as it could have been, but far from comfortable. And a little bit like they were waiting for something.

Dean tried to ignore it. He couldn’t go back to sleep, he’d woken up too much, and he didn’t want to have another nightmare, anyway. So he sat, and he waited, distracting himself with everything from counting fence posts in a roadside field to trying to remember all the street names of the houses and buildings he’d cleaned out over the years. There were a lot.

And if he spent a lot of time staring at Alex as well, watching the way the shadows played over his face and listening out for his breathing, that was no-one’s business but his own.

When they eventually pulled off the highway for more gas, John started pestering Sam to switch with him. Dean kept his eyes on Alex while they bickered, but he only twitched a bit. He didn’t wake up, and under the lights of the fill up area, he looked more tired than anyone who was still asleep should. It made Dean frown, concerned, but it wasn’t like he was about to wake Alex up to ask him about it.

As the bickering dragged on, Dean thought about reminding Sam of his own offer to drive, but his father seemed determined and Dean could let it go. Finally, John settled into the driver’s seat, and they pulled out. Dean went back to watching Alex and the view out his window.

After a while, Dean added the back of his father’s head to the rotation of stuff he was staring at. He glanced between Alex and John, and it struck him how completely and utterly unlikely his current situation had been, and how weird it was that John and Alex were sharing air like this. Who would have imagined it? With everything that’d happened, all the fights and abandonment, all that shit, who would have imagined it? Dean never had, not like this.

He mulled it over, staring out the window again. Was it even a good thing? Did Alex’s willingness to put up with Dean’s family mean they were closer, that Alex was actually really going to give him another chance?

Or was it just the easiest way to get to the weapon? Well, not the easiest, but probably the path of least resistance, the easiest way for Alex to get the demon – and the Winchesters – off his back and out of his life?

Dean was still frowning over that, when suddenly headlights flashed in his eyes and a horn blared too close to him. It was truck, going in the opposite direction on the other side of the road, and abruptly the memory of the last time the three of them had been in a car together slammed vividly into Dean’s brain. His recent nightmare made it worse – all the sensations of crashing, impact, breaking glass were magnified – and Dean had to struggle to control his breathing.

He’d been in the back, and Sam and John in the front, when— And now Alex was in the car, that made it even worse, holy shit—

No, he wasn’t going to think about that, he decided, and shoved all thoughts of crashing out of his mind. It had been just a nightmare. And the three of them had been in the car together heaps of times before and nothing had happened. There was no reason for that last trip to sweep all the others away.

Dean also couldn’t afford to get freaked out like that. He needed to be able to drive, flinching every time he saw a truck would be such a bad habit to have.

Concentrating, he tried to focus. When had they been in the car together before that? When was the last time, before they’d been injured, before that motherfucker had trashed his Impala? It used to be his version of home, with the three of them in the car and John driving. It was how he’d grown up, it should feel as familiar and comfortable as breathing.

It wasn’t. It didn’t, and that was what had him so unsettled, he realised. He stared at the back of his father’s head in shock. That sense of home was gone, wiped away like it’d never been there, and it was almost more unsettling than the crash fantasies.

His childhood – such as it was – had been over far longer than he realised. The last time he could remember, the last time the three of them had done this, had been some time before Sam ran away to Stanford. They’d travelled to Idaho about a dead father haunting his wife and kids, and then driven across to New York. Then Sam left.

And okay, Dean had known that after that everything had changed. But he must have been holding out some hope that things could be okay, that they’d get back on track when they were all together again.

Apparently, you really couldn’t ever go home again.

Dean stared blindly out the window, allowing himself a single moment of wishing he could, wishing for home. But it was probably a lie anyway, he realised, because no-one else in this damn car had ever understood or felt the same about their family, and they never would. The loss was all his.

He managed to shove the feeling back down, trying not to let it make him feel cold. Then he felt his gaze drifting towards Alex, and he snapped it back to the window.

Alex wasn’t home, he told himself. There was no point even going there, because Alex might not even be around tomorrow. There was hoping for something, and then there was setting himself up for suicidal disappointment.

God, he needed to stop thinking about all of this crap. He shifted in his seat, pissed off that there were so few distractions in the van. He tapped his fingers on his thigh and silently hummed a few bars of Battery. Maybe he could try to remember all the lyrics to that Def Leppard song he’d caught a snatch of last time he’d listened to the radio. It had to be better than waiting for a feeling that was never going to come back.

After a few miles, he started mulling over the lyrics to the Sabbath b-side he could never remember properly. It would keep him from thinking about any of the important shit for a few more miles. Not that Sabbath wasn’t important.

Dean’d been glancing at Alex on and off, but he was looking out the window when Alex suddenly started to twitch and shift. Not much, and not so anyone who wasn’t hyper-aware of every move he made would notice. It was just a few shivers, but it made Dean turn to look again.

He watched, careful and wary, not sure if this was sleeping or waking up. Before he could decide, Alex’s eyes flew open and he inhaled sharply, jerking awake in a way that could only mean nightmare.

Dean froze. John and Sam stayed quiet and still, too. No-one said anything.

Alex breathed hard for a couple of minutes, staring around himself like he was remembering where he was. Dean watched confusion, worry and then resignation cross Alex’s face, and kept his own face calm, even though he was desperate to ask what was wrong, what the nightmare had been about, whether Alex was okay. He figured it wouldn’t help if he freaked out and started asking questions.

He didn’t glance at Alex’s shaking hands, either.

Alex met Dean’s gaze briefly, and Dean tried to look steady, calm, all that shit. Alex took a deep breath and looked away, started staring out the window. Dean told himself Alex was fine, he was going to be fine. It was just a nightmare.

Even if it was one that apparently took a few minutes to recover from. He listened to Alex take deep, deliberate breaths, watched him clench his hands to stop them from trembling. Dean recognised the controlled movements from when his own heart was rabbiting in his chest and he didn’t want anyone else to know about the heaving panic.

And he couldn’t ignore that. He couldn’t even pretend to, so he didn’t try. Alex was staring out the window so hard it was like he’d prefer to be out there in the dark, and he had one hand pressed against his mouth while he breathed carefully through his nose. His other hand, though, was down on the seat, clenched into a fist and resting on the upholstery in between them.

Before he could talk himself out of it, Dean dropped his own hand and inched it over until his fingers touched Alex’s.

Alex flinched, but he didn’t look over. He didn’t pull his hand away, though, either. Dean felt like a fool, but he kept his fingers there, lightly touching the side of Alex’s hand.

Then Alex’s fingers relaxed slightly, uncurling. He shifted them tentatively until they curled around Dean’s. He didn’t meet Dean’s eyes, just kept staring out the window, but when Dean took over the task of lacing their fingers together so they had a tight, secure grip on each other, Alex let it happen.

Dean felt more than saw Alex finally look over again, and he looked up from where he’d been examining their intertwined hands and trying to ignore the lump in his throat. Alex was studying him, looking for something, and just like that Dean felt pinned. All he could do was look back, though, take in the haunted look in Alex’s eyes and try not to flinch from it.

He wasn’t sure how long Alex stared at him, but eventually he must have found what he was looking for. He turned back to his window, but he didn’t pull his hand away.

Dean tried not to read too much into it. It was probably just about reassurance for Alex, having something warm and solid to hold onto, Dean told himself, and tried to ignore the way his heart was pounding. Another second to study the slant of Alex’s cheek and the back of his neck, and Dean went back to staring out his own window.

As they drove on in silence, the sky slowly started to lighten. The rain stopped, and clouds slowly cleared away until there were patches of stars between the streaks of grey.

They kept driving, stopping once at a diner for caffeine and bathrooms before the sun rose fully. Everyone was tired, so conversation was minimal. Alex hadn’t fallen asleep again and didn’t look like he was going to – not that Dean could blame him – but when they pulled out of the gas station and Dean dropped his hand nonchalantly back down onto the seat, Alex took hold of it again, no nightmares necessary.

Dean had to look away, to look out the window in the hopes of hiding the involuntary smile that he couldn’t quite keep off his face. It seemed insensitive; this was about reassuring Alex, giving him something to distract him from the bad dreams or whatever. Alex didn’t need to know he made Dean giddy like a twelve year old girl with a crush.

After a while, he managed to get control of himself and looked over at Alex again. The minivan must have been on a southerly stretch of highway, because the weak winter sun was coming in through Alex’s window. For a second, he was haloed, and Dean’s breath caught. It caught again for a different reason when the light shifted and harshly illuminated the dark circles under Alex’s eyes, and the way his brow furrowed in thought. He looked cold, too, like the early morning light wasn’t enough to warm him.

Dean turned away, went back to looking out the window. After a while, they passed a sign for an upcoming town, and Sam suggested pulling off to get some gas and something to eat. John seemed reluctant, but Dean hoped he’d change his mind because he’d just realised he was starving. Alex didn’t really respond, but he didn’t seem to care if they stopped.

He didn’t let go of Dean’s hand, though.

***

Dean was watching him. Again. Or still was probably more accurate.

Xander stared out the window and flexed his fingers a little where they were held in Dean’s grip. He thought about the scrutiny, waited for the itch that had always come when he realised Willow or Giles or someone who knew what’d happened to him was staring at him.

And they had. Often. He’d never been sure if they were even aware of it, of how frequently they’d stared at him like they were waiting for him to crack, or have a total breakdown, or suddenly be magically ‘fixed’. But he’d noticed them doing it more times than he could count.

Dean’s watching, though, for some reason wasn’t having the same effect. It wasn’t making his skin crawl, wasn’t making him feel like he was doing something wrong or behaving some way Dean didn’t want him to.

It was more like Dean was just looking.

Xander didn’t shift his gaze from the window. He wasn’t sure how to feel about that, about Dean looking and wanting to look. But he could probably ignore it. He had enough other shit to worry about.

Like the nightmare that he was pretty sure everyone had noticed. The total lack of reaction other than Dean had been a relief, but god, he shouldn’t have fallen asleep while it was dark; he knew better than that. He had nightmares if he slept during the day, too, but when it was dark it was always her, without fail. He was lucky it hadn’t been worse, that he hadn’t deafened them all when he woke up screaming.

And now it was morning. He’d survived the first night with them all, and if he kept perspective, a nightmare was on the lesser end of the scale of shit that could have gone wrong.

It didn’t hurt that Dean had been holding his hand ever since he woke up.

He flexed his fingers, warm where their skin touched. Dean’s grip was like an anchor, a relief after the way his nightmares made him feel like he was drowning. Having something solid to remind him that she wasn’t real was actually kind of amazing, almost like Dean had read his mind, and when Dean had met Xander’s gaze the look in his eyes told Xander that everything she said was a lie.

Dean doesn’t love you, Alex. It was a lie.

It wasn’t okay, not yet and definitely not so soon on the heels of another dream. Except maybe someday it would be.

He shifted in his seat, and pushed that thought away. It was too soon to go there. He needed to work off the rest of his list first, and then maybe he’d feel capable of dealing with that. The warm spot in his chest might be getting warmer, but he was going to ignore it as long as he could. Dean wasn’t going to push, he reminded himself.

He believed it, too, but even taking the him-and-Dean problem out of the equation, there was still the weapon and the demon, and he had no way of knowing if he could handle any of it. Last night, he’d spent hours and hours while they were driving thinking about all the ways this whole situation could go wrong. He’d imagined everything from a huge argument, to all of them getting killed by the demon, to Xander killing himself because of course the magical weapon had to be a goddamn knife.

He’d finally succumbed to nervous exhaustion and fallen asleep. And then came the nightmares.

And now he couldn’t quite shake that feeling of dread. It was like, the further they got from Cleveland, the less certain he was, the more that feeling of purpose he’d had when he talked to Faith had dissipated. He’d lied to her, he was a liar, and his goddamn list felt like a lie, too. He didn’t know what the fuck he was doing, all of his decisions were going to get him and probably everyone else killed, and then it’d just be him and his nightmares left. Only he’d be dead.

He wanted to flinch from the thought, wanted to get away. He stared blindly out the window, trying to hold in the panic. He couldn’t let anyone else see it, he didn’t want them to know. Especially Dean. It was important that Dean didn’t know what a fuck-up Xander was, even if Xander wasn’t sure why he even cared.

Xander was used to failing people, to letting them down. To lying, to deflecting attention. He was used to not getting what he wanted, but it was harder when what he wanted was so close he could feel it looking at him. So close it was still holding his hand.

The sun finally rose, and Xander could look out at something other than darkness. The view itself wasn’t that fascinating, sometimes forest, sometimes fields, sometimes towns off away from the highway. But it kept slipping past, helped him focus on nothing. His panic slowly receded, leaving him feeling exhausted and brittle, more than usual.

Dean’s hand stayed in his, though. Xander figured he could let himself, that it would be okay just this once. He was too aware of how close they were, of how Dean was barely an arm’s length away, too aware of Dean’s body when he shifted, or his breathing when he wasn’t moving. But the comfort of it bolstered him against everything else, against the leftover fingers of his nightmare, against the demon looming on the horizon, against the way being in a confined space with John Winchester was a constant, low-grade irritation no matter what else was going through his head.

Dean’s presence was probably the only thing keeping him from going totally off the deep end, and that in itself was a problem. But hell, he decided, when had his feelings about Dean ever not been a problem? At least it was something familiar.

He held in a sigh, and tried to relax. He’d be fine, or he’d keep telling himself he’d be fine, and whatever happened would happen. He had a list – it wasn’t a lie – and he’d manage. He’d survive. And maybe grim determination would be enough. He couldn’t let her win, after all.

“Did you decide whether or not to pull off?” Sam suddenly said from the front, jarring Xander out of his thoughts. He looked around, surprised to see a mid-size town just off the highway.

“Yeah, I figure it’s time for breakfast,” John said, and Xander looked out the window again as the van headed towards the exit. He caught a glimpse of a sign that seemed to indicate they were somewhere in Missouri, and it wasn’t a hugely inspiring-looking place but it did make him think that he should probably pay more attention to exactly where they were on the map. It’d be ridiculous to wind up in the middle of nowhere with literally no idea where he was.

It would probably also be good to keep track of exactly how close they were to California. He hadn’t been back since Sunnydale, but that was a problem he wasn’t going to think about until it slapped him in the face.

They drove through town, trawling what looked like a main road until they came to a gas station. It didn’t have a diner or restaurant attached to it, so when they’d filled up and paid, they pulled out looking for somewhere to eat.

What they found was the tiniest pancake place Xander had ever seen. It was crowded, the menus were kitschy, and apparently the place hadn’t kept up with the non-smoking trend because the air inside was grey and a little bit stifling.

Without warning, Xander’s long-abandoned desire for a good old-fashioned road trip came back to him. Once upon a time, places like this had been what he’d wanted most; anonymous, a bit dingy, and most importantly one of hundreds of stops he made as he drove. He’d never had a destination, back when he used to plan it out in his head during math class or on patrol. He’d just wanted to leave, and keep leaving, town after town, place after place.

He felt Dean’s eyes on him again, and tried not to care.

It was almost ironic, really. Dean was what had happened to him on his first ill-fated attempt at a road trip. And now he was what brought Xander out here on the actual road, finally, five years too late.

Xander distracted himself with choosing a calorie-laden pancake fest to consume. They were served pretty quickly, and Xander tried not to notice Sam’s look of amazement, then relief, as Dean tucked in hungrily.

After breakfast, Dean offered to drive, but Sam refused to let him.

“You were in a coma. Co. Ma. Don't think I've forgotten that you were supposed to go back to hospital," Sam bitched. "There’s no way I’m letting you drive.”

“Willow does good work, Sam, come on. I’ll be fine,” Dean wheedled.

“Forget it,” Sam said, sounding final. “It’s not going to happen. Try again tomorrow.”

Dean looked irritably to John for back up, but John just looked amused and didn’t say anything.

“Fine, have it your way,” Dean said, throwing up his hands. “Me and Alex will just sit in the back and sing the Song That Doesn’t End until your ears bleed, how does that sound?”

Xander snorted. He was too sated on pancakes and the way the smell of cigarettes was clinging to his jacket even though he hadn’t smoked anything to care about driving. And he’d almost forgotten how funny Dean was when he was irritated. They piled back into the slightly ripe-smelling van, Dean still muttering under his breath.

Xander took a moment, though, before getting in the car, to stare up at the wintery blue sky. His nightmare felt far away, he realised.

All he could do was hope it stayed that way.
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