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At first I was afraid

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Michael didn’t eat. Angels don’t. By the time Sam and Cas rescued him, Dean hadn’t so much as scented a cheeseburger for four months. Now he’s been binge-eating for almost three. He finds himself waking hungry in the night, making his way to the kitchen on socked feet like he used to, sometimes, as a teenager ravenous from growing. There was rarely anything in the fridge in those days; the leftovers of a takeout from the night before, the congealed remains of whatever exotic macaroni he’d been making last. Things are a little better now, and he’s thinking as he walks down the corridor of the lasagne that they didn’t finish last night.

The kitchen is dark, of course; but when the light flicks on it reveals Sam at the table, solid and silent and huge. Dean jumps half out of his skin.

“Christ, Sam, warn a guy,” he says.

Sam has his back to Dean but he half-turns towards him, enough that the ski-slope angle of his nose is outlined in light. “I didn’t exactly know you were coming.”

Dean, right now, is not light on his feet. He’s surprised Sam didn’t hear him. He’d have thought-- but he lets that one slide and crosses past his brother to the refrigerator. “You want anything?”

“No, I’m good.” Sam has the coffee pot beside him on the table. It’s empty.

“You need more coffee?”

“I’m good.”

Dean scoops himself a generous helping of lasagne, looks at the plate and adds another half a scoop. He sits down at the table opposite his brother and begins to eat. Sam wrinkles his nose. “Dean, would it kill you to close your mouth?”

“Don’t see why it bothers you,” Dean says through a thick mouthful of cheesy sauce. “Not like you can--”

“It’s disgusting,” Sam says, clipped. He stands up, coffee pot in hand, takes three steps to set it on the sideboard and turns towards the door.

“Hey, man, don’t be like that,” Dean says. He swallows his food. “I’m sorry. That was a dick comment.”

“Yeah,” Sam says. He hesitates, his fingertips resting on the sideboard, before he steps forward to sit back down. Dean’s not sure whether he’s pleased or not. He is pleased. It’s just that things have been weird since he got back. Sam has a beard now, for one thing.

“You not sleeping?” Dean says.

Sam laughs. “When am I ever?” He taps his fingers across the edge of the table. “No. I did wonder, with Lucifer gone, but no.” He raises his head. “Neither are you.”

“Yeah, well,” Dean says. “I was hungry.”

At least Jack seems to be sleeping okay. One of them should be all right, after all of this.

Sam clears his throat. When he speaks his tone is artificially light. “I, uh, I found a case.”

“You found a case?”

“Yeah. You know, like a job. Work. The way that we occupy our time.”

“All right,” Dean says. “Simmer down, princess. You found it where?”

“Online,” Sam says, in a tone that doesn’t invite questions. (Dean has questions.)

“What kind of case?”

“It’s in Montana. People are turning up calcified. They’re saying it’s some kind of snakebite.”

“Okay. Tell me again why that’s not a job for the wildlife service?”

“Tell me again what snake turns people to stone?”

“Stone snake,” Dean says vaguely before tailing off. He’s not super-up on his biology. Sam’s always been the nature nerd. If Sam thinks it’s a case, he’s probably right. But there are a lot of parts of Dean that don’t feel great about taking a case right now.

“If you’re not ready,” Sam says.

Well, that’s a reliable button to press. “Of course I’m ready.”

“Great, then. I’ll tell Jack when he wakes up.” Sam’s jaw is set in that stubborn line familiar from a lot of not-quite-fights. Usually Dean would rise to it with a snarky remark. He’s not sure they’re there quite yet.

“Actually I, uh, I’ve been doing some research of my own.” It’s true. He has almost as many books in his bedroom as Sam does. It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes at night he feels like he can’t breathe.

Sam raises his eyebrows. “On what?”

Carefully, without looking at his brother, Dean scrapes the last of the lasagne from his plate. He chews it and swallows it, feels the refrigerated chill at the back of his throat. “It’s a ritual, actually. Healing ritual.”

“No,” Sam says. He pushes back his chair and stands up. “I’m going to bed.”

“Come on, dude,” Dean says. “At least listen to me.”

“No,” Sam says. “Absolutely not, no.”

“A year. One year, it would take, Sam, and then you could see again. Isn’t it worth it?”

“It wouldn’t work,” Sam says. “My eyes are dead, Dean. Everything. Back to the brain.” He shakes his hair back from his face and turns towards the light. It illuminates the shiny pink skin of the starburst scars in Sam’s eye sockets, the pearly white of his eyes. Dean can’t stand it. He drops his gaze to the table. “Look at me,” Sam says, with a strain in his voice. “Get real, Dean, okay?”

“It’s my mess,” Dean says. “I need to fix it.”

Sam draws in a long, slow breath; then he pushes his chair back under the table and walks to the door. He stops once he gets there, his hand clutching the frame. “It’s Michael’s mess, or my mess; not yours. And I don’t need fixing. Let it go.”

Here’s the thing: Dean is no good at letting go. That’s why he’s still got the same box of cassette tapes he’s been playing in the car since Dad gave it to him when he was 18. It’s why he’s been making the same jokes for the last twenty years, taking the same shortcuts and ordering the same meals from every shitty takeaway in the lower 48. And it is his mess. Sam doesn’t get to take that away. Dean thought he could make a deal with an archangel-- thought he could keep Michael reined. It was dumb and it was arrogant and it left Sam blind. Sam can’t cope with being blind. He likes to know everything. Seeing is part of that. So Dean needs to put it right.

“We should leave early tomorrow,” Sam says. “Good night.”

 

~~~

 

Sam gets it. Dean isn’t good at fucking up. Well, he’s pretty good at fucking up, at that part of it, if Sam’s honest. What he’s less good at is the aftermath. Something about apologies seems to scare the shit out of Dean. He’d always rather slide past it, move on. Failing that, he takes on too much responsibility, a weight of it so big that it threatens to crush him, and labours under it conspicuously until everything somehow becomes about how to get Dean to stop feeling so guilty about shit he didn’t even do. The stuff he actually did gets lost in the static. “I’m sorry”? That just doesn’t happen. “It’s my mess,” instead.

The bunker is big. Sam can negotiate the major routes pretty well by now, but he’s stopped straying off track. There are rooms in the bowels of the building he’ll never go into. Probably half of the place he calls home he’ll never even look at. There’s a metaphor in that.

When he gets to his bedroom, he turns on the television. He’s not watching anything, or whatever you’d call it. He used to have a night light. This is the next best thing. The darkness he can cope with, mostly, but darkness and silence together can be too much. It leaves him floating. And so the TV.

He still doesn’t sleep.

He half-expects an argument with Dean in the morning but this case seems to come under the heading of Things Dean Is Letting Sam Have. He takes a wrong turn on the way to the garage and spends ten minutes blundering around the hallways, so he gets there feeling grumpy and on edge, but Jack greets him cheerily enough and Dean grunts, at least, before slinging Sam’s bag into the trunk of the car.

Sam gets into the passenger seat and Dean eases the car up the ramp to park it outside the Bunker, then runs back to get the garage door. When he comes back to the car he doesn’t start the engine. Instead, they sit there in silence while Dean tries to frame whatever it is he has decided to say.

“We’re going to go right past Sioux Falls. You wanna look in on Jody and the girls?”

“No,” says Sam.

“That would be great,” Jack says at the same time from the back seat. “I want to see Claire.”

Dean doesn’t usually give much of a shit what Jack wants, but of course he takes this moment to take Jack’s side.

“Exactly,” he says. “It would be good to see them, see all of them. Right, Sammy?”

“Don’t you mean let them see me?” Sam says drily.

Dean huffs out an exasperated breath. “Come on, man. Fricking Jody. What do you think, she’s gonna judge you? She’s gonna feel different about you? Alex is a nurse, man, she sees this shit all the time.”

“Great,” Sam says. “So she can do without me.”

“Why can’t we go and see them?” asks Jack.

“Yeah, Sam. Why not?” Dean says.

Maybe Sam is doing Dean a disservice. Maybe he isn’t intending to drop Sam off - probably drop Jack off, too - and drive away while they’re at dinner to deal with this thing on his own. Maybe he wants some emotional support, a hug. Jody is good at those. And Dean was possessed for four months. He probably needs a hug from someone. God knows he hasn’t touched Sam since he got back. It’s like Sam’s infectious.

Maybe Dean just wants to unburden himself, to tell Jody his woes. It doesn’t seem likely.

“Let’s just press on, okay?”

“But--”

“Will you just  leave it , Jack?” Sam snaps. He feels bad immediately. He’s been on the wrong end of Dad’s tongue enough times in similar situations: wanting to stop and say goodbye to a friend before they pulled out of town; begging for a pit stop with Bobby or Caleb or Jim, a night in a house with a proper kitchen and a bedroom he and Dean didn’t have to share with Dad. Jack barely spends any time with people his own age. He likes Jody’s girls. It’s not his fault.

He can practically hear Dean’s eyebrows rising, but at least his brother doesn’t push the point any further. Instead, he clanks the car into gear and cranks the stereo loud, pulling out to start the long drive north.

When the music is at this volume, Sam can’t hear what Jack is doing on the backseat or what Dean is doing next to him. He’s able to orient himself only through the soft leather of the Impala beneath him and the air coming in through the window, the scent of it and the temperature on his skin. He might as well be alone. The feeling is unsettling, but he’s not about to mention it to Dean. He’s fine. He leans his cheek against the cold glass of the pane.

Dean nudges him and the music dips momentarily. “You got to have the window open?” he says. “I’m freezing my nuts off here.”

Sam tightens his lips and rolls up the window, tipping his head back against the glass. The thrum of the engine climbs up through the pane and into his skull, vibrating. He can see the shape of the Impala in his mind’s eye but everything around her is fuzzy, like static on a television. She could be driving through space.

The drive to Montana takes thirteen straight hours. They stop three times for food; once in Nebraska, once in South Dakota and a final time just as they cross the state border into Montana. Dean fuels up on coffee every time. Another inconvenience: Sam can’t drive, not even the boring stretches on highways which Dean used sometimes grudgingly to cede. One driver. It’s not good. Sam was teaching Jack for a while, during Dean’s absence, but Dean still thinks he can fix Sam’s eyesight. He doesn’t want to plan around it. And whatever he says about it, he still doesn’t really like Jack. So, one driver.

On the third stop, Jack says to Sam, “Will you buy me some snacks?” Sam’s pretty sure he’s only saying it to get Sam out of the car. Dean is not known for his snack-related discernment. But when he stops to think about it, he realises that his legs are aching and his back is tight, so he follows Jack obediently into the gas station and holds out his credit card at the appropriate moment. They pay for the gas, too, and buy some food for Dean as well as the coffee.

“Thanks,” Dean says shortly when they get back to the car. As they drive away, he turns the volume down on the stereo for the first time since Kansas.

They stop, finally, at the Big Timber motel outside Colstrip. Dean gets them a room on the ground floor, which Sam appreciates. Stairs are still a complication. It smells like every other motel; laundry soap and air freshener and mould, stale cigarette smoke still clinging to the plasterwork.

“Got a triple,” Dean says, and Jack takes Sam’s hand, leading him across the room to show him the bathroom door. Once Sam has the room layout established in his mind, he sets his bag down on the bed nearest the window. No sense crossing more floor space than he has to. Dean and Jack are both getting better at remembering, but he doesn’t altogether trust them not to leave their boots out on the floor, and he could do without sustaining any more head injuries for a while. The last time he got badly concussed, the doctor had asked him if he had a history in contact sports before making disturbing noises about CTE. Sam can just about cope with being blind. Losing any more of his cognitive function might tip him over an edge.

Sam’s pretty sure Dean’s out tending the car when he takes the opportunity to apologise to Jack. “I didn’t mean to snap at you,” he says. “We can probably go see Claire soon.”

“That would be great,” Jack says, seriously. “Thank you.” He’s quiet for long enough that Sam thinks that’s it, but then he says, “I’m sorry that I upset you.”

“It’s okay,” Sam says. “Really, it wasn’t you. It was--” Dean, he’s going to say, but of course it wasn’t just that. Everything.

“It’s okay,” Jack says.

“I know,” Sam says. “But you’ve been-- you’re really patient with me, Jack.” More than patient. Thoughtful. Considerate. Kind. The least he can do is offer patience in return.

The air turns cold. Dean’s in the doorway. “It’s late,” he says. “You want to hit the bar?”

“Oh, yes.” Alcohol is still a novelty for Jack. Sam might have drunk a fair amount during the months they were looking for Dean, but it wasn’t social drinking; late-night whiskies that he tried to kid himself might be soporific. He’s trying to make sure Jack sticks to beer.

“Not for me,” he says.

“Come on, man,” Dean says. “I can’t drink with just the kid.”

“Sure you can,” says Sam. “I’m tired.” He is, bone-tired. Nowadays it’s like everything takes twice, three times as much effort; once to do it, once to do it without falling over or hurting himself or breaking everything around him, and, last and most exhaustingly, the additional layer of pretending that it’s easy, that he’s got everything under control. More to the point, drinking is another nudge into unreality. Sam’s down one of his senses. He needs to keep the others in hand.

“Whatever,” Dean says shortly. “Come on, Jack.”

“Um,” Jack says.

“Or don’t.” The door slams.

“You can go if you want to,” Sam says. “I’m only going to sleep.”

“Have you got everything?” Jack says. There’s a rustling sound and then Sam feels a toothbrush being pressed into his left hand, the plastic give of a toothpaste tube against the palm of his right. There’s water running, somewhere, and then the clunk of glass on wood. “Your sweat pants are on the bed.”

Sam would object to being babied but he’s too exhausted and grateful. He follows Jack to the bathroom, brushes his teeth, and waits until the kid has left before he takes a piss and gets into bed. There must be a television in the room, but he forgot to ask Jack to find him the remote control. It’s okay. The motel is just off a busy highway and he can hear cars passing by. That’ll have to do for white noise.

 

~~~

 

Dean’s already a whisky and a half into the hole when Jack appears at his elbow. For a moment he’s irritated. There go his chances with the chick behind the bar. On the other hand, he’s been drinking alone for weeks now so this is probably a positive change. And there’s a certain easy satisfaction in getting the kid drunk. It makes him think of the time, years ago, when he used to do the same to Sam; drag him to a bar when Dad was out of town and surreptitiously top up his drink all night.

“So,” he says to the kid, oh-so-casual, after they’ve played a couple rounds of pool (at which Jack sucks, by the way) and retreated to a table at the back of the room. “Your powers. You ever think about trying to get them back?”

Jack side-eyes him warily. Dean doesn’t altogether blame him. His relationship with Jack’s powers has always been ambivalent (if he’s honest, ambivalent to kill-it-with-fire). But since Cas failed so completely to fix Sam’s eyesight, he’s started to consider them a little differently. Archangel trumps angel, apparently. Dean’s pretty sure that nephilim trumps everything.

“No,” Jack says eventually, with some finality. “I can’t get them back. Lucifer took them, and he’s dead. They’re gone.”

“You never think they could be useful? For Sammy?”

Jack frowns. “Is that what Sam wants?”

“I don’t know,” says Dean.

“They hurt people.” Jack’s getting louder, his voice wobbling. “I don’t want them back.”

“Okay. Keep your hair on,” Dean says. He lets it drop.

Like with Cas, Jack’s lack of social sensitivity is sometimes a blessing. After a pause, the kid starts talking about-- something, some book or TV show, like nothing ever happened. Dean smiles and nods and tunes him out.

Sam might be tall but he’s always been a lightweight. Jack, smaller, is lighter still. Dean’s drinking at double the speed and he’s still only mildly buzzed by the time Jack stands up to go to the bathroom, stumbles on the edge of the booth and ends up sprawled giggling on the dirty concrete floor.

“Yeah, you’re done here,” Dean says, throwing a twenty on the table and hauling Jack up by the arm.

“That was fun,” says Jack, his breath fumy-thick with alcohol.

“Sure it was.”

The motel is so close by that they can see it when they leave the bar; just a short stagger over the highway (mostly deserted at this time of night) and a shuffle up a non-existent sidewalk. Jack’s hiccuping drunk, still giggling, and Dean’s holding him to keep him upright as much as to keep him out of the road.

“Sometimes I think you don’t like me,” Jack says, “But I like you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Dean says. “Just keep walking, all right?”

“Can you teach me to drive your car?” Jack says.

“No way, sunshine,” says Dean.

Dean goes to fill a glass of water at the bathroom tap when they get in, but in the thirty seconds it takes before he’s back out in the bedroom, Jack’s crashed out face-down on his bed - the middle one, the one next to Sam. Dean tugs half-heartedly at Jack’s boots but the kid isn’t moving and really, it’s not worth the effort. They’re only going to sleep.

It only feels like five minutes before the alarm on Sam’s phone goes off. Dean groans and rolls over. Across the room, he can hear the creak of springs as Sam sits up in bed.

“Hey,” says Sam, quietly. Dean half-opens an eye in time to see Sam sitting up in bed, turned in towards the room. Jack is sprawled on top of the blankets, exactly as he fell asleep. From where Dean’s laying, he can see that Jack is drooling onto his pillow. There’s no way Sam’s going to wake him.

“Think he’s pretty hungover,” Dean says. Sam jumps.

“I thought that was you, in the middle bed,” he says. “I can smell the liquor from here.”

“Kid wanted to have fun,” says Dean. “Don’t blame me.” He closes his eyes. Usually, at this point, he would bully Sam into going out for coffee. In fact, usually, Sam would already have gone out, jogged five miles, and come back with breakfast. It’s a bit more complicated now. That’s fine. Dean can get the coffee. It seems like a suitable penance. He’s just going to sleep for ten more minutes.

Half an hour later, he drags himself into the bathroom to find his toothbrush damp and minty.

“What the fuck, Sam?”

“I don’t know what you’re mad about,” Sam says, wearily. He’s sitting on his bed, wearing dress pants and a T-shirt. Dean strides over and scrubs the toothbrush over the back of his neck. Sam jumps.

“You used my toothbrush, asshole.”

“Come on, man. I thought it was mine.”

Well how come, Dean wants to say, this has never happened before? Then Jack snorts in his sleep, murmurs something. Sam’s eyebrows perk and he turns towards him but the kid hasn’t woken. Sam sighs. “Can you pass me one of my shirts?”

As Dean gets dressed, he watches his brother. Sam keeps making tiny movements in Jack’s direction, turning involuntary like he’s going to ask for something. Dean wants to say, “How can I help?” But he’s seen Sam and Jack together and it’s seamless. You don’t even notice it, Dean hasn’t noticed it until right now when he’s starting to think. Jack’s just… there. He knows what Sam needs. Which-- well. Dean can’t do both, can’t work on finding a cure and also spend all his time with Sam. That’s what teams are for, right? And with Cas out of action while he’s making up the numbers in Heaven, this is it. The team. Everyone’s got their job.

It still feels fucked-up.

“How can I help?” he says, in the end.

“I think I’m good now,” Sam says. He stands up. “Do I look okay? Did I miss anything?” Then, “Can you pass my glasses?” Dean does, reluctantly. They’re this dorky pair of Ray-bans that Sam’s adopted. They make him look like Stevie Wonder; like a blind guy. Sam thinks they’re less conspicuous. For somebody who’s never seen what he looks like - what he looks like, now - he’s certainly sensitive about his eyes.

Jack wakes up, looking green, just as they’re about to head out. “Do you need me? Sam?”

“Stay here,” Dean tells him. “We got this one. We’ll come get you after.” He casts an eye over the rack of leaflets on the motel table and throws a takeout menu onto the bed. “You might want to order some eggs.”

 

~~~

 

Dean takes Sam’s elbow as they cross the parking lot towards the morgue, guiding him around the parked cars. Sam hates how conspicuous they must look. He finds himself holding back from slapping Dean’s hand away, which is stupid. Dean’s right. He can’t do this by himself.

He’s on edge. He hadn’t realized how much he depends on Jack for his morning routine-- for everything. It sucks. Dean, grumpy and hungover, wasn’t much of a substitute, which just makes Sam feel even shittier because this is the kind of thing Dean would have lived for, once; flapping around making sure that Sam had whatever he needed. Honestly, Sam would probably resent it or at least pretend to resent it, coming from Dean. But now it feels like he’s nothing but an inconvenience. All Dean cares about is finding a cure, fixing him, getting things back to normal. It’s not unprecedented. Dean doesn’t deal well with change, especially in the people he loves. 

It’s not just Jack’s absence that has left him feeling off; not just the anxiety that Dean might have given him some conspicuous novelty tie to wear, that his jacket doesn’t match these pants. No, on top of that, they still haven’t figured out their new schtick. Blind, Sam can’t really play FBI. It’s funny, really. He used to worry about getting busted for his non-regulation hairstyle. Now he has a full beard and it’s the least of his worries.

“Agent Stradlin, FBI,” says Dean as they get to the desk. “And this is, uh, Professor Rose. My associate. An expert.” He doesn’t say what Sam is an expert in.

Luckily, the woman working reception doesn’t appear to be too concerned about their motives, or about what this mysterious blind guy could possibly do for the FBI. In fact, it seems like she goes for the helpless type.

“So, Professor,” she says as she hands them their security badges. She’s wearing perfume, a sweet fresh floral scent. “Will you two be in town for long?”

Sam’s blind but he’s not stupid. He knows a pick-up line when he hears one. “No,” he tells her. “Not long. Just until we finish this case.”

“That’ll be a few days,” Dean says. His elbow digs sharp into Sam’s side. “I’m sure we’ll have a little time for fun, right, Prof?”

“I don’t think so,” Sam says. The woman forces a laugh.

The morgue is cold and chemical-fresh, and the tray rolls out of the locker with a smooth metallic whirr. Shoulder-to-shoulder with Dean, Sam shuffles forward until he feels the chill hard line of it against his thighs.

“Nasty,” says Dean, and the mortician hums in agreement.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. Path said it was snake venom. There are bites in the legs and hands. But I know-- I hike. I know wildlife. I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s rock solid. And I mean literally, like a rock.”

“The police--” Dean says, and she says, “Well, they called you boys in.” Then the phone rings in the outside office, and she leaves them to it.

“I wonder--” Sam says, and leans forward slightly, reaching out to touch the icy fingers of the corpse. Panic constricts his chest so tightly and immediately that it’s as though the body has reached in through his ribs to grasp a fist around his heart. He gasps, can’t help it, and steps backward.

“Sammy?” says Dean.

“I’m okay,” Sam says, and moves back again, extending his hand to hover over where the body must lie. He can feel it, even here, like a forcefield; a palpable cloud of fear thrumming electric around the corpse. “Dean,” he says quietly, “do you feel anything weird?”

“Yeah, Sam,” Dean says, heavy-sarcastic. “Dude seems to be made of granite.” There’s a dull knocking sound, then a metallic chink. Car keys, maybe, against the flesh. “That’s weird enough for me.”

“No,” Sam says. “In the-- the air, I guess.” He reaches out to take Dean’s hand, holds it at the point where the atmosphere shifts. “Right here.”

“I don’t know, man,” Dean says, wiggling his fingers. “No.” He tugs his hand away and lifts it to Sam’s forehead. “You feeling alright?”

“I’m fine,” Sam says slowly. “It’s just cold in here, I guess.” It isn’t just cold.

“Tell you what was cold. That hot receptionist tries to chat you up and you shut her down. Come on, Sam.”

“Come on, what?”

“Live a little. It could be good for you. And you know… you could be getting, like, freaky. Next level. You know?”

“We’re on a case.”

“Right,” Dean says. “Remind me of the last time that stopped me having some fun?”

“What do you mean, next level?”

“You know. Extra sensitive. That kind of--”

“Oh good,” Sam says. “I wondered if this was just regular-level dickishness but no, of course, you have to make it about that.”

“Fuck you, man,” says Dean.

 

~~~

 

By the time they leave the morgue, Dean has the receptionist’s number. He’d usually be above taking Sammy’s cast-offs but she looked so genuinely crestfallen when Sam brushed her off that it feels like the gentlemanly thing to do.

They swing by the motel to pick up Jack before they drive on to their next port of call. He’s still looking fairly pale, and Dean can smell the alcohol he’s sweating, but the extra couple hours of sleep were definitely a good idea. Truth told, the exhausted, hungover look actually makes him look older, more convincing as a fed. Dean did the right thing for the team, getting Jack drunk. A tactical move.

Lucy Bentley lives in a scruffy apartment in an old house in the middle of town. It’s pretty obviously a girly flat; there are postcards hung all around the kitchen with motivational messages on them, and a cat appears from under the couch when they arrive, making Dean sneeze. Lucy herself is pale, with white-blonde hair and watery blue eyes, and she’s still clearly shaken by the events of six weeks before.

She makes coffee for everybody and offers them cookies and they sit down in her mismatched living room and she talks to them about what happened. Lucy had been out hiking with her friend Michelle - a college buddy and not-quite roommate, who lived in the apartment upstairs - when Michelle made a misstep that left her in the morgue, by all accounts in the same condition as the dude who they saw this morning. They’d got lost, Lucy tells them, up on the trail in the hills above town. “I guess it was really winter already,” she says, “so it got dark quickly, faster than we’d expected.”

“We were, uh, we wandered around for a while up there.” Everything about her is trembling; her hands, her posture, her voice. “Then we finally figured out the route back.” Sam leans forward, frowning earnestly above the stupid sunglasses. “We saw the lights from the building site, the new housing estate. We could see the cranes. We were so relieved.” She sniffles. Dean’s looking at her. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Sam extend a hand, but his brother stops at the last moment and draws back, uncertain.

Dean reaches out instead, settling his fingers over Lucy’s. She smiles at him.

“That’s when Michelle went on ahead?” asks Sam.

Lucy’s face clouds over as she turns in Sam’s direction. “Yes. She was, uh-- my feet were hurting, so she said she’d go up ahead and check that we were on the right path. She-- she was only just around the corner.” A tear spills over, tracking down the pale skin of her face. “I heard her screaming. I ran, but it was-- by the time I got there, she was--”

“Frozen,” says Sam softly.

Lucy nods.

“Did you notice anything else unusual about the scene?”

“I don’t know. I told everything to the guys at the time.”

“Oh, yes,” Dean says. “We have that information. But we need you to tell us again.”

“People can remember things that they never even mentioned before,” Sam tells her. “You understand.” He clears his throat. “Now, what about this, uh, track? The burning?”

Lucy nods. “That’s right. There was… all around where she was lying, in front of her, the grass was burned, and the trees. Everything was dead. Not like, fire burned. Chemical burned. A big pathway of it, right back deep into the woods.”

“Thank you,” Sam says. “That’s really helpful. Is there anything else?”

 

~~~

 

Sam starts talking before his butt hits the passenger seat. “Okay, as I see it, there are three possibilities. Gorgon, basilisk, cockatrice. All of them - first two especially - associated with snakes. And all of them are going to turn you to stone. You just look them in the eyes and--”

“Zap,” says Jack.

“Exactly,” Sam says. “Zap.”

Dean interrupts. “Okay, enough with the zap talk, all right? Enough with the, the, the eyes.”

He can still see it, what it was like from his point of view; trapped inside his own skull as Michael bloomed out of him and Sam’s eyes began to burn. That sight had brought him as close as he’d ever come to taking back control-- taking it back on his own. Close, but not quite close enough. Two days later, when Sam, Cas, Jack, and Mom had come after him again, done the spell and made it stick, he’d passed out as soon as Michael left him. He’d come to in an anonymous motel bed, shaking and sick and barely able to control his limbs. When he remembered what had happened - when he saw Sam’s face, still raw with the scars unhealed - he’d almost fainted for a second time. It wasn’t exactly the reunion he’d been imagining.

“It’s fine, Dean,” Sam says. “This isn’t the same.”

“It’s not fine,” Dean says. “None of this is fine.”

Sam clears his throat. Jack shifts uncomfortably in his seat. For a couple of minutes, the only sound in the car is the rumble of the engine.

“Look,” Dean says. “Sorry. That was-- that was good. Useful. Hey, uh, Sam. The bit about the burnt vegetation, how did you know that?”

“It was in the newspaper.”

Dean read all four of the articles Sam found, the ones that put this case on their radar. There was nothing like that in any of them. He looks sideways at his brother.

“Can we stop at the library?” Jack says.

Dean drops Sam, Jack and half a ton of esoteric literature off at the motel room and goes out to get food.

When he gets back to the motel, he sits in the car a little while before he goes into the room. He closes his eyes. His baby still smells the same, still feels solid underneath him. Like this, he can pretend just for a moment that things are normal; that he’ll go back in and find Sam with his nose in a book, and they’ll eat the whole bag of crappy takeout before they hit the bar across the street and hustle the locals at the pool table. Just for a moment, it could be true.

He allows himself five minutes of that imaginary life before he leaves the car and walks over to the room. Cracking open the door, he can hear the low tones of conversation. Jack is speaking.

“In Ancient Greece they typically guarded prophetic shrines.”

“No,” says Sam. “Try the next one.”

Dean edges a little further into the room. Sam’s bed is spread with plastic-covered library books, stacked in sliding piles over the blankets and down on the floor. Jack is sitting at the end of it, cross-legged, with a volume open in his lap. Sam’s lying beside him on the floor, his knees bent and his forearm slung over his face, listening as Jack reads aloud.

“The Basilisk’s venom may be used to convert copper into gold.”

“No,” Sam says. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay,” Jack says.

“Can you find anything that says Magical Bestiary in the title?” says Sam. “I think it’s green, maybe.” Jack sits up, meerkat-tall, and looks around.

Dean can see the book Sam’s talking about. It’s up on the bed, between the pillows. It’s the only green one there.

“There’s a lot of blue ones,” Jack says uncertainly. He’s sorting through the stacks at the foot of the bed. “ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ?”

Sam laughs. “No. But you want to keep that one.”

“It’s up here,” Dean says, stepping into the room. They both jump, and Jack turns to look at him. Sam drops the arm that covers his face but otherwise, his position doesn’t change.

Dean picks up the book and looks at the spine. “Yeah.”

“Thank you!” Jack holds out his hand for it. Dean looks at it, back at Jack, and then at Sam, who of course is oblivious.

“No worries,” he says. He gives the book to Jack and sets the plastic bags full of takeout on the table. “Dinner’s here. I’m, uh, I’m heading out. Date.”

“With the morgue lady,” Sam says. “Have fun. Go wild.”

“You know it!” Dean says, forcing cheer. He lets the door swing shut behind him.

 

~~~

 

The Chinese food Dean brought is cold and congealing by the time they break to eat. Jack snarfs a bagful of egg rolls and two containers of chow mein while Sam picks through a box of beef in black bean sauce. His head is spinning with lore. He’s always had a good memory but he’s still working on processing everything aurally; he finds himself groping for visuals that aren’t always there.

Lately, though, they are sometimes there - even when they shouldn’t be. That image today of the burnt vegetation in the woods. It must have been in the articles he downloaded. But he couldn’t have seen a picture-- and yet he did see it, saw the blackened earth and the dry leaves and even smelt the deathly, rotten stench of it.

Jack is chomping happily, or rapidly anyway. “Hey,” Sam says. “Jack. Do you ever miss your powers?”

One of the things Sam likes about Jack is Jack’s commitment to whatever he’s saying or doing. He doesn’t half-ass things. When you ask him a question, he doesn’t deflect, or make a joke. He thinks hard about what you’re asking him and he gives you a real answer.

“No, I don’t miss them,” Jack says. “I’m still getting used to living without them, but I’m glad I can’t do those things anymore.”

“Yeah?”

“I hurt too many people.”

“You helped a lot of people, too.”

“Do you wish I still had them?” Jack says. “Dean asked me the same thing, the other day. I know I can’t help you guys now the same way I used to.”

“No,” Sam says. “No, I don’t care about that.” If he’s honest, he’s more relieved than anything else. He’d like to think it’s because Jack didn’t like the powers but it’s not, it’s because they terrified Sam. Even after almost a year of knowing Jack, trusting him-- when Jack put his hand on Lucifer’s head and compelled truth from the Devil himself, it made Sam nauseous. Apart from all the alarm bells that sound when Sam thinks about anyone getting inside his head, it’s probably-- definitely a good thing, right now, not to have that in the bunker. Both he and Dean do better when they’re not forced to say things straight out.

“Do you miss, uh,” Jack says, and Sam’s chest does something funny but of course, Jack’s not asking about that. “Do you miss being able to see?”

“Yes,” he says. “Of course.”

“Yeah, of course. Sorry,” says Jack. “I-- um.”

“What is it?”

“I think Dean thinks I could make it better. Your eyes. If I could get my powers back, I mean.”

Sam finds himself suffused with a familiar rage. “Is that what he said to you?”

“I don’t think I could get them back,” Jack says, “but if you want me to try--”

“No. You don’t want them. That’s up to you. And anyway, I don’t-- you don’t have to try and fix me. It’s not-- not great, but I’m coping. Dean’s just messed up about that.”

“Okay,” Jack says.

Sam knows Jack. He likes to stew on things. He likes to blame himself.

“Did you bring Harry Potter?” Sam asks. “We’ve done enough research. You can read me a chapter before bed.”

Dean likes to pretend that Jack’s an adult, who can go out drinking and get teased about women and make grown-up decisions about his life. He’s kidding himself. Jack’s a teen, an adolescent who likes sci-fi fantasy and who’s crazy about JK Rowling since Sam introduced him to her a month before.

They read three chapters, in the end, but Jack’s still long asleep by the time Dean gets in. Sam’s awake, of course. He has a podcast playing on his iPod, a silly true crime thing where two women share the salacious details of their favourite morbid stories. Sam likes them. Sometimes he imagines appearing as a guest on their show. He could really blow their minds, some of the shit he’s seen. Maybe he should start his own podcast. My favourite hunt. Podcast host is probably a good job for a blind guy. Nobody would even have to know.

Anyway, he’s been listening a lot and he’s maybe four or five episodes deep when the door creaks open and Dean creeps in. It’s not that Sam hears him; more like the pressure shifts inside the room. There’s a tiny gust of fresh air from the parking lot outside. Sam pauses his podcast.

Dean is tiptoeing unconvincingly on booted feet. He smells… odd. Like sex, which is pretty much a given; like sweat. There’s a floral note which Sam recognises from the girl at the morgue this morning, freesia-lily scent that’s mixed in his mind with the formaldehyde air that followed it. But there’s something else, too; a grapefruit sharpness that tickles a memory at the back of Sam’s brain. He blinks, thinks, and then the memory solidifies in his mind, the Southern vowels of the second girl, Lucy, the witness they spoke to this afternoon. Her house had smelled like that.

Dean sneezes. The cat.

“Did you hook up with two different women tonight?” asks Sam.

“No,” Dean says, too quick. Then he laughs, too late.

Dean likes sex, obviously. But he has certain rules. Sam knows about these because Dean had a habit of delivering them to him over the course of their adolescence, Teachable Moments that made Sam (virginal and gawky and absolutely deprived of any kind of privacy) want to shrivel and die. “Always make sure she finishes first, Sammy.” “No glove, no love.” “Make sure she knows she has your full attention.” That last one implicitly means one girl at a time. Dean’s vanilla. He likes to feel like his sex might be meaningful, even when it isn’t. Yeah, he talks big game about threesomes and that shit, but the last time he acted this way, he’d just sold his soul to Hell.

Sam wants to say to him, “I get it.” He does get it, kind of. He knows precisely what it’s like, the absolute, breathtaking disorientation that comes with losing faith in the connection between your body and mind. Okay, so Sam’s reaction hasn’t looked much like Dean’s, but too many of the forces colonizing his body have been less than ascetic. Azazel had a demon possessing Sam’s prom date. Soulless, Sam slept with hookers and strangers and men. For Sam, getting control of his body has always been about deprivation, about choosing what to put in it. But from what Sam’s gathered, Michael was big on discipline. It makes sense that Dean wants to let go.

Sam gets it, then. And he should talk to his brother about it. Dean was possessed for almost four months. That’s messed up. Soulless was longer, but Sam wasn’t there for that; Gadreel was longer, too, but he wasn’t there for that either. Gadreel and Dean were careful to keep him in the dark. He’s pretty sure Michael wasn’t concerned about secrets; that Dean spent the whole time butterfly-pinned with his eyes wide open. That would fuck anybody up. Sam should talk to him about it.

He can’t.

It might be that this has given Dean a new perspective on what happened five years ago. It should be that now he’s felt what it’s like, he might be able to apologize for Gadreel in a way that makes sense. But it might not. After all, it was technically for him (was it? wasn’t it?) that Dean said yes to Michael this time around. “Last time we got between Lucifer and Michael, you died.” That probably wasn’t meant accusatorially. It’s just that Dean caring about Sam can feel like a standard to meet. In any case, Michael was something Dean did for Sam. Gadreel was something Dean did for Sam. At least this round only left him blind.

He can’t talk about it.

“In the morning,” Sam says, “we should go check out the worksite, the place where Lucy and Michelle were hiking.”

“Sure,” says Dean.

Sam puts his podcast back on.

 

~~~

 

The site office has a row of hard hats hanging by the door, blueprints unevenly covering the walls and a grumpy, alpha-male foreman who categorically refuses to let Sam onsite.

“Can’t do it,” he says. “Can’t do it, wouldn’t want to do it.”

Dean bristles. “Hey, assclown, you want me to call my regional manager? Want me to get building standards in here for a pop inspection?”

“It’s building fuckin’ standards that I’m worried about, bud. I got health and safety regs to comply with, here. I can’t have a blind guy wandering around.”

“It’s fine,” Sam says, low. “Don’t make a scene. You and Jack can go. I’ll go back to the motel and research.”

“Yeah? How are you gonna do that?” Dean says.

“He can--” Jack interrupts, though he stops when Sam touches a warning finger to his elbow.

“Just go,” Sam says, and they do. “Be careful!” he yells after them, too late. He’s left standing in the office, cradled by the clang and the whirr of heavy machinery outside.

“Want me to call you a cab, honey?” the receptionist asks.

 

~~~

 

Hangover-free, Jack is way too perky for Dean’s liking. This morning, he’s gone full Veronica Mars, making copious notes in his little book and using his cellphone to snap photos of everything they see.

“Dude,” Dean hisses as inconspicuously as possible, hanging back from the foreman as he strides ahead, “Taking pictures of the fricking wildlife is not part of the job.”

“Sam’s not here,” Jack tells him, “so I need to take photos for later. And I like birds.”

Oddly enough, the closer they get to the edge of the site where Michelle got frozen, the fewer birds they see, fewer bugs, butterflies, anything. Everything is quiet. It’s like there’s a layer of insulation in the air.

“We can take it from here, pal,” Dean says eventually. The foreman is opening his mouth to object when his walkie-talkie crackles into life. He holds it up to his ear, then frowns.

“Okay. I gotta go handle something. But don’t touch anything, don’t go near any machinery. Especially work experience here. You understand?”

“Look, man,” Dean says, “I’m the fuckin’ FBI.”

The guy sighs. “Whatever, jackass.” Finally, he’s gone.

Dean whips out the EMF detector, just to be on the safe side. No ghost. Fair enough. He wasn’t expecting one anyway, not really.

It doesn’t take long for them to find the trail of dead vegetation that Lucy described. It’s maybe three feet wide, but its presence is glaring; a winding path of destruction in which everything, really everything, is dead. It’s not just the plants, their leaves curled up unhappily, brown where they aren’t scorched black. The soil underfoot is spongy here, mushroom-ripe, and when Dean knocks the toe of his boot against a rock it crumbles into sandy dust. Whatever came this way is nasty.

As they trace the path back into the woods, they both fall silent, almost without thinking about it. Under the trees, it’s gloomy, even at mid-morning. Everything is still.

That’s why Dean about jumps out of his skin when a small brown creature runs across the path in front of him. “Christ!” he says, undignified.

“Wow!” Jack says. “What was that?”

“How in the hell should I know?”

“I caught it, Dean! I got a picture! Will you look?”

Dean scowls at him. “Just put the fricking camera away.”

The trail vanishes between two large rocks at the base of a hill. The gap between them is too low and too narrow even for Jack to squeeze through, and whatever decomposing power killed off the vegetation isn’t strong enough to have destroyed the heavy limestone boulders. Whatever they’re hunting, Dean has a feeling that it lives in there.

 

~~~

 

Sam’s hunched over his laptop when they get back to the room, the computer perched on the little table next to the window. He’s shed his jacket and tie; his shirtsleeves are rolled up and his collar is open. He looks so pale that for a moment Dean’s brain short-circuits and he panics. Maybe Sam is getting sick. Who knows what else happened in his brain, to his body, when he looked at Michael? Sam should be dead. He drops his hand to Sam’s forehead, carefully careless.

“I’m fine,” says Sam irritably. “It’s this piece-of-shit software. Actually, no, it’s whatever inconsiderate son of a-- whoever designed this website. All these websites. It’s not--”

He presses a key and an electronic voice, female, deadpan, begins to read. “Greek Myth and Legend Reader. The legends and stories of the Ancient Greeks--” Sam taps a key. “Click through. Here. Click here. Read more.”

“Okay?” Dean says.

“No, not okay,” Sam says. “I don’t know what any of the stuff is linking to. I have to sit through the whole thing. It’s taken me an hour and forty-five minutes to scan two sites. This is bullshit.”

“Find out more,” says the woman.

“Fucking Christ,” Sam says, and his hands are fists now and his knuckles are white. He makes a jerky gesture and the laptop skids sharply across the table. Sam loves his laptop. This is bad.

“Sam?” Jack’s been waiting in the doorway but he moves forward now to crouch at Sam’s side. “I can help. What do you need me to read?”

Dean should say something. He’s more use than Jack. He’s got a hell of a lot more history doing this kind of thing. But Sam can’t even research now, not really. Sam can’t research, and even thinking about what that means has Dean feeling congested. He needs some air.

He’s outside the motel room before he knows it, pacing through the parking lot with his cellphone in his hand.

He dials Rowena.

This isn’t the first time he’s called her since he got back. It is the first time she’s picked up.

“Dean? Did something happen to you? Is Sam all right?”

Well, that’s okay. Dean can take that. Sam always did better with the supernatural chicks. And he knows, too, that Rowena helped Sam out when they were looking for Dean-- for Dean’s body. She helped them get him back. Dean’s pretty sure that she and Sam text .

Which means-- “You know he’s not okay. Come on, Rowena. He can’t do anything anymore. This is fucked up. I need to fix him. You need to help.”

“Dean--.”

“You know Sam. Okay? You know him. You know how much this must be killing him.”

“May I talk to your brother?”

Dean sighs. “No. He’s not here.” He swallows. “Please. There must be something you can do about this. You brought yourself back to  life , more than once. You can fix Sam’s eyes. It’s only his eyes. It’s not so much to ask.”

“Dean--,” she says again. It’s not a yes tone of voice. “There are costs to the kind of magic I do. It would have to be Sam’s choice to take on that burden.”

“I can pay it, carry it, whatever,” Dean says. “Sam doesn’t have to know.”

“No,” Rowena says. That’s all she says.

“Please. He was-- he did all kinds of shit for me when I had the Mark. You know that. He killed that kid you were so stuck on.” Dean’s words are falling over themselves, he’s talking so fast. “It’s not like his hands are clean. You know? Whose are? Come on, Rowena. When did you develop a conscience?”

“The Mark was different,” she tells him. “You know that. Sam’s… condition isn’t hurting anybody but himself.”

That’s not true, Dean wants to say. It’s hurting me. Every time I look at him, it’s hurting me.

He doesn’t say it, but he might as well have done, because the next thing Rowena says to him is, “Dean? How are you?”

Here’s how Dean is: pretty fucking shitty. He’s shit. Sam’s blind, and Jack’s-- everywhere, and Cas is up in heaven; Mom’s off in some alternate reality rather than stay here with him. He can’t shake the feeling of Michael’s grace out of his bones and somewhere in the back of his mind, to be dealt with sometime, is a sickening new understanding of what he did to Sam with Gadreel. Here’s how Dean is: not good.

“I’m fine,” he says. “And if you won’t help me with Sam, I’m done.” He hangs up. For a split second, he contemplates throwing his phone into the wall. Instead, he leans his shoulder against it and presses his forehead hard into the rough surface of the brick. It’s okay. There are other options. He can figure it out.

There’s an emergency bottle of whisky in the glovebox of the car. He stops by to gulp a mouthful - just one mouthful - before he goes back in. After that, the bottle’s almost empty anyway so he sticks around to finish up. Then it only seems sensible to go replenish the supply. You never know when you might need to clean a wound, or to numb some pain.

He drives a long way out of town to the big liquor warehouse he noticed on the way in, three exits back. Having made the trip, it makes sense to get two bottles. Just to be on the safe side, he tries them both, sitting in the parking lot in the front seat of his car.

He’s going to go back. He will.

There’s a knock on the driver’s side window that startles him almost out of his skin.

“Excuse me, sir?” It’s the kid who sold him the alcohol, a spotty adolescent with a squeaky voice. “I’m going to have to ask you to give those bottles to me.”

“What the fuck,” says Dean, evenly.

“I can’t let you drink and drive, sir.”

Dean closes his eyes. He has had enough  of know-it-all kids.

“Look,” he says. “I have a gun. Okay? I have a gun, but you’re a kid, and I don’t want to-- I’m not drunk. So please, just leave me alone.”

The kid backs off. “I’m calling the police,” he yells, shaky, and takes off back inside.

Dean starts the car and guns it down the freeway. Nobody follows.

Somehow, it’s already dark by the time he makes it back to the motel. Evidently, though, he hasn’t been missed. He opens the door to find Sam and Jack sitting on their beds, talking excitedly.

“We’ve got it, Dean!” says Jack. The kid’s practically bouncing. “Sam figured it out.”

“Course he did,” Dean says, rough.

“I was telling him about the animals, at the site, you know? The little brown one? The fast one!”

“A weasel,” Sam says. “I’m pretty sure.”

“Where are we going with this?” Dean asks his brother.

“It’s a basilisk. Because, uh. They kill everything around them, like they ooze poison almost. And for some reason weasels are immune to them. I don’t get it either. But I know that, I know it and uh, Jack checked it out online so, yeah. Basilisk. Like an enormous snake, basically, though some legends give it a head more like a bird.”

“A basilisk! Like in the Chamber of Secrets!” Jack says.

Dean chooses to ignore this. “How do we kill it?”

“Either a mirror, to reflect its own gaze back at it, or a, um, a cockerel.”

“Say what now?”

“A rooster. Rooster’s crow kills it.”

Dean frowns at his brother, whose expression remains blandly sincere. “Are you kidding me?”

“I’m serious. Mirror or a cockerel. And I guess some night vision goggles for you two. Something to filter your sight so you’re not looking at it directly.”

“Will that work?”

Sam’s mouth twitches anxiously. “I hope so.”

“Great. I’m on my way.” Dean’s in the mood to kill something.

“Hang on a minute,” Sam says.

“I know, I know,” Dean says. “Where am I going to find a chicken at this time of day?”

“A rooster,” Jack chips in. “And actually, I saw--”

“No,” Sam says. “What’s with the, ‘I’m on my way’? Last time I checked, there were three of us.”

Dean sighs. “Come on, dude. It’s in the woods. It’s not exactly accessible. The guy wouldn’t even let you onsite. I can’t look out for you and look out for some kind of giant, poisonous, weasel-hating snake at the same time.” He gestures pointlessly at Jack. “And the kid should stay with you.”

Sam’s mouth sets into a tight little angry line. “I don’t need you to look out for me, Dean. I can manage just fine.”

“Oh, sure,” Dean says. “You can manage so fine that you can’t even surf the goddamn internet without throwing your laptop across the room.”

Sam opens his mouth, closes it, and sighs out through his nose in the exasperated noise that never fails to make Dean mad. “If anybody is going to stay at home, it should be you.” He stands up and steps forward, into Dean’s personal space. Dean doesn’t back down. The skin around Sam’s eyes is pink and shiny, the scars’ starfish arms extending down to his cheekbones and up to his brow. “You’re angry,” Sam says. His nostrils flare. “You’re drunk.”

“I’m not drunk,” Dean says. “I’ve just had a drink.”

“Oh, do me a favour. You’ve been getting messier and messier since we got you back.”

“Fuck off, Sam.”

Sam swallows. When he next speaks his tone is level, carefully controlled. “I know that it’s not easy for you, with me like this. But that is how it is now and if we are going to work together, then you need to deal with it and work out how we can make it work.” He pauses. “And I know-- I get why you’re feeling messed up lately. I do. I-- I’ve been possessed. I know how it fucks with your head. But the answer is not to get drunk and go out into the woods by yourself to kill something you know next to nothing about. Jack and I have been doing the research--”

“Could you maybe give it a rest with you and Jack?” Dean says. “You and Jack are living in some crazy fantasy land where you think you’re like Mr Miyagi or some shit to a kid who doesn’t even have powers any more. You and Jack can’t just pretend like nothing has happened. He’s a kid and you’re a blind guy. That doesn’t make either of you a proper hunter. Both of you together don’t make one proper hunter. I am trying to fix  this, Sam, because I am the only   person who is keeping it fucking real!”

There’s a sharp, explosive noise. Every light bulb in the room shatters into tiny pieces.

“What the fuck,” says Dean. “Jack, was that you?”

A piece of the flying glass has cut Sam’s face, his cheekbone just under his eye. Sam lifts his fingers to the wound, touches the tips against his thumb.

“I’ve got to clean this up,” he says, choked, and vanishes into the bathroom.

 

~~~

 

Sam fumbles his way to the sink, twisting the knob on the faucet until the water runs cold. He lets the icy stream run over his hands until they’re tingling, then splashes it over his face. He hates this. All he wants is to get away, but he can’t leave the room without making himself ridiculously vulnerable. He doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t know how to get anywhere. Even around the bunker, he’s still nervous going outside unaccompanied. Here, on the side of some foreign freeway, it’s just not possible.

He grips the edge of the sink tightly with both his hands, hanging over it as water drips from the hair around his face. Okay, he thinks. Okay. Deep breaths.

The room door slams and from outside, he hears the roar of the car.

Even if he didn’t inevitably waste precious seconds grasping for the door handle, he’d be too late. As it is--

“I’m sorry.” Jack is panicking. “He just went. He went. He took the mirror off the wall, and he went.”

Shit. Okay. Shit. Sam sways.

“Sam?” Jack says, tentatively. “What did you do to the lights?”

 

~~~

 

The good thing about Sam being blind--

The thing is, now that Sam’s blind--

Jack and Sam can’t--

Here’s one thing: Dean’s the only one of them who can drive right now. That was a pain in the ass when they were crossing three states and he’d only managed four hours’ broken sleep the night before. Now, though, now that he’s powering down the highway towards the basilisk’s lair, he’s feeling pretty good. Nobody’s going to be following him, that’s for sure. He can get in, kill the monster, vent a little frustration; remind himself that there’s still something he’s good for.

Sam’s stupid blind-guy sunglasses are sitting on the seat beside him, the ugly, pleather-framed mirror from the motel propped in the footwell behind. He has no chance of finding night-vision goggles anywhere round here, not immediately, so the glasses will just have to do.

When he pulls up beside the office at the building site, it’s dark and everything is locked up. Perfect. He slams open the trunk with a creak and rattle of metal, shuffling through the weapons. The mirror should do it but Dean’s hunted long enough not to go into a dark forest without a knife and a gun at minimum. He balances a machete in his hand but ultimately decides he can’t carry it, not with the mirror’s awkward weight.

It’s hard to hurry when you’re carrying a heavy, breakable object and the ground below your feet is uneven. It’s even harder when you’re wearing dark glasses and it’s pitch-black night. Dean shakes on the flashlight function on his phone, clamps it between the tips of the fingers that are holding the mirror, and makes his way as best he can through the equipment and excavations of the site. The trees grow taller around him as he reaches the spot where the basilisk caught Michelle. Not much further now. He pauses, hoisting the mirror to grip it more firmly. His muscles are burning. It feels good. It feels good, to be in charge like this, to make decisions, take action. He’s doing the right thing.

The trail of dead vegetation is pitch-black in the darkness, clear amongst the navy-blue of the trees. As he follows it, the ground almost bounces underfoot. The same heavy silence that he noticed in the daytime hangs in the air around. It’s as though the sound of his footsteps is being absorbed into the earth.

When he gets to the big rocks, he realises that he doesn’t really have much more of a plan to locate this thing. That’s okay. He’s pretty sure that these things don’t travel too far. (That’s bullshit. He doesn’t know the first thing about them; what they do, where they live, how they hunt. But he needs this. So he’s choosing to believe they don’t go too far.)

Dean gently lowers the mirror to the ground and reaches up to push the sunglasses more firmly onto his nose. He waits.

Time passes. Fifteen minutes, twenty, half an hour. It might be longer, could be twice as long. He’s not sure. There’s nothing but him and the silence and the faint light of the moon above.

Finally, there’s a noise somewhere in front of him. It’s a hissing sound, but it’s not the sibilant hiss of a snake. There’s a wet, green scent on the air and Dean realises that what he’s hearing is the plants, the sigh of their moisture evaporating as they die.

Okay. Okay. Dean tightens his grip on the mirror, bends his knees to hoist it up to his chest. He’s got this. It’ll all be okay, just as long as he doesn’t--

Straightening up with the mirror in his hands, Dean finds himself transfixed by a pair of orange-red eyes. Below them are two dark nostrils and an impressive set of fangs. Behind them, he has a vague sense of an undulating scaly body extending back into the dark.

Oh shit, he thinks in a tiny voice at the back of his mind.

He thought that this would be instantaneous. It sounded from the accounts, from what Sam was saying, that it should be. So maybe the sunglasses are working. He’s still alive, after all. But they’re not working enough . Maybe he could move, if he wanted to. But the part of him that could do it is shrinking, edged out by the terror that’s taking its place - that’s taking the place of everything, anything, all the thoughts in his head. It’s like being dropped into a bucket of ice. And he’s caught in a feedback loop because it’s the paralysis that’s feeding the fear, that’s feeding the paralysis. He can’t move his own limbs. He can’t move   his own limbs and that’s exactly the nightmare that’s been waking him every night since he got back.

The frozen feeling is creeping up into his chest and he isn’t sure that he’s breathing any more. He can feel the change to the muscles in his face, feel them stiffening. The mirror is still in his hands. He just needs to lift it. But he’s going to die here instead, frozen, trapped inside his body. All over again.

Then somewhere to the right of him, in the trees back towards the building site, there’s a crashing noise. The basilisk’s eyes flicker for a split-second and Dean feels his whole body relax. There’s just a blink of it, but it’s enough time to suck in a shaky gasp of air, enough time for his muscles to tingle briefly back into life. It feels like time bought.

From the corner of his own eyes, he sees-- it’s Jack. Jack, with a flannel shirt bound over his eyes and a black metal cage in his hand. There’s a bird inside it, frantic and fluttering but it’s silent. Jack’s shaking the cage. “Sam,” he’s yelling. “Sam, I can’t make it crow.”

And then Sam himself, a miracle, is at Dean’s side, prising the mirror from his hands. “I’ve got you,” he says. And he steps between Dean and the snake.

Sam lifts the mirror. The basilisk issues an unearthly shriek, something that shivers Dean’s bones, and then the hissing sound from the plants is amplified, echoing. Beyond the frame of the mirror, Dean sees the thing’s tail thrashing wildly from side to side. Within seconds, it disappears from view and the mirror shatters into fragments with a splintering crash. Sam drops the empty frame. He turns back towards Dean.

The movement returns to Dean’s limbs so quickly that he almost falls.

“Fuck,” he says, “Sammy, I--”

“Get down!” Sam says, and shoulder tackles him to the floor. Inches away from Dean’s face, another long scaly body slides past.

“Sam?” calls Jack from the other side of the clearing. “Sam?”

“It’s okay,” Dean whispers. “He’s wearing a blindfold.”

“No,” Sam says, gasping. “Poisonous.” Of course. The vegetation beside them is already wilting.

Dean cranes his neck and he can see Jack, spinning frantic on the spot. The second basilisk is speeding towards him.

“That fucking chicken,” Dean says. “Why won’t it--”

“Put your head down ,” says Sam, and his big hand is on the back of Dean’s skull, pushing his face down into the earth. There’s a crackle, a flash of light that Dean can just make out and then the rooster is crowing, panicked, a long series of high-pitched cries.

“Oh, thank God,” says Sam. He relaxes his grip and Dean pushes himself up onto his elbows. Jack’s still standing there, still clutching the cage carrying the now-hysterical bird. The two bodies of the basilisks are entwined on the ground in front of him, the head of the second one only feet away from Jack.

“You can take the blindfold off,” Dean yells, and Jack does, yanking the shirt down his face with one hand.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Dean says. He hoists himself to his feet and extends his hand to his brother before he remembers that Sam can’t see him. “Sammy,” he says.

Sam grips his wrist strong and firm and pulls himself upward. There’s an unpleasant plasticky crunch from underfoot.

“Oh, man,” Dean says. “Your glasses.” He bends to retrieve the twisted frames.

“Whatever,” Sam says. He’s still breathless, his chest heaving.

Jack stumbles towards them. “That was scary,” he says.

“You’re not wrong,” says Dean. He looks at the both of them. Christ, that was close. “Thanks.”

“No problem!” says Jack. Sam nods, but he doesn’t say anything. He looks exhausted, but Dean doesn’t really feel like he can ask if his brother’s okay.

“Car’s back at the office,” he says instead, turning to lead the way.

Two minutes later, something hits him and he turns back to look at the pair of them. Jack has his arm through Sam’s, guiding him over the roots and stones.

“How’d you get here?” Dean says. “Who drove?”

“Really?” says Sam. Jack grins at him.

Right.

“And, uh, in whose car?”

“That one might have been more of a team effort,” says Sam.

“Figures,” Dean says. “Fricking criminals.” He turns to Jack. “Don’t get any ideas. Some stolen banger is one thing. No fucking way are you driving my car.” The kid’s expression wavers, just a little.

Dean thinks about the thirteen-hour drive back home; about the fact that any time he drinks, now, he’s gotta drink and drive. He thinks about Sam sitting there on the bed that morning, desperate for Jack to wake up. He sighs.

“Not until you are a fucking… stunt-driving fucking pro, okay? I’ll teach you on something else. Something from the garage.”

Jack beams.

 

~~~

 

On the way back to Kansas, Dean comes back from a quick fuel stop humming under his breath. Sam wonders for half a second if his brother managed a hookup in the bathroom, but even for Dean five minutes would be pretty quick work.

“Got a present for you boys,” Dean says. Sam hears the click of the tape machine and then an English voice starts up.

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

“Oh,” says Jack, “But we’ve already--”

Sam coughs. Jack shuts up.

They listen to Harry Potter the rest of the way home.

 

~~~

 

Two nights later, Dean wakes up gasping. He shakes out his limbs, flexes his fingers, tries to shake off the dream.

He’s hungry. Or empty. Something. His phone blinks the time at him. 2:00 AM. It’s late, but not necessarily too late for a booty call. Dean picks it up to flick through his contacts. Even though he tries his best not to play too close to home, there are a couple of people he could get in touch with.

He wipes the back of his hand over his eyes. First, food. He doesn’t bother to get dressed, just pulls his robe around him and heads for the kitchen.

Sam’s sitting at the table, back to the door. “Boo,” he says quietly as Dean enters the room.

Dean switches on the light.

“You want a coffee?” says Sam.

“I was looking for something to eat.”

“We’ve got cereal,” Sam says. “That’s all.” Dean huffs in displeasure. “Sorry, dude,” Sam says lightly. “I can’t exactly do the grocery run.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. He stands for a moment considering his brother. He has something he’s been wanting to say for the past couple days. Right now, in the middle of the night, seems as good a time as any.

“In the woods, that snake.”

“Basilisk,” Sam says.

“Whatever. Both snakes. You saw them?” Dean can still remember it, the speed of Sam’s movement as he reacted to the second creature coming up from behind.

“I didn’t see them.” Sam’s head is lowered, his hair hanging over his face so that Dean can’t see his expression. “I just knew they were there.”

Dean absorbs this. “Okay.” He makes his cereal and pours himself a cup of coffee. He sits down.

The teaspoon next to Sam’s empty cup rises maybe two inches into the air. It hovers above the table, wobbling slightly, then floats unevenly forward until it drops with a rattle onto the table beside Dean’s coffee cup.

Sam’s breathing is fast. It isn’t heavy but it’s all Dean can hear. He looks at the spoon, lying at an angle close to his hand. He looks at his brother. Sam’s cheeks are flushed pink and his fingers are clutching tight together.

“You missed,” Dean says eventually.

Sam breathes out, an uneven wash of sound that might be a laugh or something more desperate. “Yeah, well, cut me some slack. I’m blind,” he says.

“Jack’s gonna help you?” asks Dean.

“Yes,” says Sam. “I hope. I think he can help me. But this isn’t... this is me.”

Dean thinks about it.

“I’m not evil,” Sam says. “I’m not. And this… it’s not evil. What I can do.” His voice is shaking. “I’m not drinking blood, or anything.”

“When I was out there,” Dean says. “When I saw that thing.”

“Yes.”

“I was, uh. I felt like I was. It was like having him inside me again. Michael. I couldn’t move my arms and legs.”

“Okay,” Sam says.

“I couldn’t do anything,” Dean says. “I couldn’t--”

“I know. It’s okay, Dean. I know.”

“No,” says Dean. “No. I-- it was like, it was the same as that whole four months. I was trapped inside my own body and I couldn’t move . I just had to-- I had to watch it happen. There was nothing I could do. That was what was killing me, Sammy, I couldn’t--”

“I’m so sorry,” Sam says, “that you had to find out what that’s like. I’m sorry.”

“That’s not my point.” What is the point? Dean thinks about it. This matters. There’s a lot of stuff he should have said to Sam but at this point, will never say to Sam. Stuff that he understands, since Michael. So this matters. “It’s your body, Sammy. You do what the fuck you like with it.”

Sam tilts his head. He doesn’t smile, but his whole body relaxes. “Okay,” he says. “Yeah. Okay. I will.”