“Why are we doing this?”
McJones sighs heavily from where he’s crouched. “This is literally going to be the third time I’ve told you. Are you actually gonna listen now, or are will you just ask me again in another twenty minutes?”
Apparently there is, in fact, a point when McJones gets tired of explaining shit. Dean files this newfound knowledge away for later.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” he says through a mouthful of apple. “I just—I want to hear it one more time. Do your thing, Professor. Drop some sick knowledge on me.”
McJones rolls his eyes way, way back in his head at that, but surprisingly, he lets it go without a retort.
“We’re doing this,” he begins instead, his voice taking on that tinge of grandeur he reserves for times like this, “because none of us have been able to find any sugar cane growing anywhere. As you should know by now, without sugar cane, we can’t make paper, books, or bookshelves. And that means we can’t enchant, ‘cause you can’t get any good enchantments without the bookshelves. But—”
“So we’re fucked, basically?”
“No! Can you please shut up for two seconds?” McJones aims a sharp look at Dean over the rims of his glasses. Dean holds up his hands in mock-surrender, and McJones continues after a moment. “But. There’s a village about half a day’s walk from here, and lucky for us, one of the villagers is offering bookshelves for three emeralds apiece. So if we can get enough emeralds, it won’t even matter that we can’t find any stupid sugar cane. We’ll be able to enchant like normal and move on with our lives.”
The two of them glance down at their spoils. The meager, unimpressive result of hours and hours of mind-numbing work, arranged in neat rows:
“How many do we need again?” Dean asks, taking another aggressive bite of his apple.
“Do the math yourself.”
“Hey, I’m not the smart one here.”
“It’s just basic multiplication, Dean. Three times fifteen. Forty-five,” McJones mutters, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Yeah, fuck that, dude. We’re never gonna find enough.” Dean shakes his head roughly. “We’ve been in this hellhole mine forever, and we haven’t even gotten half of what we need.”
“Well, don’t forget that the others are out mining too. So it’s our seventeen plus whatever they’ve got.”
“What’re the chances that they’ve found any more than we have?”
“Considering there’s three of them and only two of us, I’d say pretty good.”
“Yeah, but still. I really doubt they’ve been having much better luck than us, and ours has blown this entire time.”
McJones’s mouth twists. “Yeah, I’m with you on that one. This really sucks. But we don’t exactly have a choice; going into the End without good enchants is suicide.”
He’s right, and Dean knows it. Dean chews contemplatively on the apple’s stem for a moment. “...You’re sure there’s no sugar cane anywhere?”
“Not that we could find,” McJones replies wryly. “Barry and I spent three days searching, but we didn’t even see any rivers, let alone sand for the reeds to grow on.”
This time around, they’d settled in the middle of a sparse taiga forest, all dark wood and mossy boulders and ashy dirt. A beautiful and rugged place to live, but apparently not particularly useful resource-wise. Dean tips his head against the cool, bumpy surface of the mine’s walls.
“God, I hate this,” he mumbles.
Slowly, McJones tucks their emeralds back into his bag. He grabs his pickaxe from the ground and stands up, stretching. “Well,” he says, “we’d better get back to it.”
So Dean pushes himself off the wall, and they split away from each other, returning to the cramped, uneven tunnels they’ve been digging for the better part of eternity. They work in relative silence, the only sound being the dull clang of iron on stone. Way back when they first got started this morning, Dean tried to get McJones to sing some mining shanties with him to keep up morale, as Dean had said. McJones didn’t go for it, though, ‘cause he’s totally lame.
They did talk for a while early on as a way to pass the time, but as their energy and patience dwindled, so too did the conversation. And by now, they mostly don’t speak at all. But just a few minutes after they take up their picks again, Dean hears McJones’s voice echoing over to him from the end of the other tunnel, dug perpendicularly to his:
“Found another one.”
“Sweet. That makes eighteen,” Dean calls back, cupping his hands around his mouth. “At this rate, we’ll be dead of old age before we ever find these damn emeralds. Better notify your next of kin, McJones.”
McJones wheeze-laughs in response, and Dean gets a small burst of pride in his chest for managing to make a joke McJones does more than just sigh at. But then neither of them says anything for another who-knows-how-long, and the weariness sets back in.
Despite the chilly temperature outside—well, at least, it was chilly when they first set out on this godforsaken emerald hunt. The entire surface of the planet could very well have been scorched to ash in a fiery apocalypse, but Dean wouldn’t know, because he’s been underground for the whole fucking day—it’s stuffy down in the mines. Dean’s back and armpits are all slick with sweat, and his hair is stuck to his forehead, and his arms hurt like hell, and he’s completely exhausted, and—
Look. Mining is fun. Dean likes mining. At least, he likes it when their goal is something easier, like gathering coal or finding a cave or something. And he likes it when it’s a whole group of them working together, chatting and laughing and listening to PBG try to tell a story but get distracted fifty times and end up flusteredly talking himself in circles.
But when it’s six fucking hours of nothing but digging through blank stone in virtual solitude, the whole thing kinda loses its appeal.
Maybe they should’ve sung those damn shanties.
It happens somewhere between ten minutes and two hours later—Dean isn’t sure; time starts to get melty and run together when you’re down in the mines for too long. With each bit of rock he chips away, he’s praying to every god out there that he’ll uncover the tantalizing glint of emerald. He’s not actually paying attention to what he’s doing, though. At this point, he’s just going through the motions—grab, lift, swing, grab, lift, swing—mentally already having gone home and passed out in bed.
But when Dean breaks into the wall in front of him and a huge mass of loose rock instantly gives way, crashing backwards to reveal a dark, gaping cavern, his mind snaps right back to full alertness.
“Oh shit,” he whispers to himself, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand and blinking a little. He had no idea he was two feet from falling into head-over-heels into a cave. Usually, the muffled squeals of bats or groans of zombies alert you way before you get that close. But this particular cave is as still and silent as the dead. It’s a little disconcerting, honestly.
Dean lights a torch, then, and takes a step forward, moving gingerly in case any of the stone beneath his feet is unstable as well. Slowly, he holds the flame through the rock and into the cave, illuminating a little area around him.
As soon as his eyes adjust, he realizes that it actually isn’t a cave after all. No, the hollow he’s dug into seems more...manmade than that. It doesn’t look like a dungeon or a stronghold—from what he can see of it, the walls are just more stone, not cobble or brick, and the floor is made of pure dirt—but it’s way too smooth and perfect-looking to be natural.
Dean’s skin prickles. This feels like the exact kind of situation where he’ll get himself killed in an amazingly moronic fashion. So instead, he turns and yells out again:
“Dude, McJones! I found a thing!”
“Found what?” comes McJones’s distant reply. “Emerald, I hope.”
“No, it’s—well, it’s a room.”
After a pause, there comes the sound of running footsteps, and a few seconds later, McJones is worming in beside him, nudging his pickaxe out of the way with a boot. “A what did you say?”
“I dunno. It’s weird. See for yourself.”
Dean gestures to the jagged hole in the rock behind him. McJones takes the torch from him and peers through. But he only gives a cursory glance before he turns away again, looking significantly less impressed than Dean had hoped.
“That’s just one of those abandoned mineshafts, Dean,” he says in a way that suggests he thinks Dean’s a colossal idiot. “The railway passages always branch off of dirt entrances like this.”
“You should be able to dig around it no problem; they’re not that big. Be careful, though, ‘cause you might mine into one of the—”
“I’m gonna go check it out. Later, dude!”
“What—no, no, no, don’t—” McJones starts, but it’s too late. Grabbing his pickaxe in one hand, Dean lowers himself to the ground and drops off the edge into the dirt room with a hup. It’s a bigger jump than he expects, and the landing knocks the wind out of him, sending him reeling sideways.
When he gets his balance back, he first thing he notices is that it’s a helluva lot cooler down in the mineshaft. He grabs the hem of his shirt and flaps it, sighing appreciatively at the air that sweeps over his sticky skin. The second thing he notices, when he sticks a torch on the wall beside him, is that there’s a narrow, dimly-lit passage lined with broken minecart rails right across the room from him, just like McJones said.
McJones is glaring at Dean from about seven feet up, hovering at the edge of the tunnel. Dean beckons to him with both hands. “Look, it’s fine. We’ve explored, like, a bazillion mineshafts before. We know what’s going on.”
“We’re supposed to be finding emeralds!” McJones squawks.
“Yeah, but I think we both deserve a break.”
“We just took a break!”
Dean only cocks his head up at McJones and offers a shit-eating grin. McJones groans, sucking in his cheeks. One of these days, Dean thinks, McJones is just gonna say fuck it, I’m done babysitting you. Your recklessness isn’t my problem. But clearly, today isn’t that day, because after a second, McJones hops down into the room as well, grunting.
Still, he looks halfway to furious, so Dean shoulder-bumps him as they start towards the opening of the minecart passage. “C’mon, don’t be a pissbaby,” he says. “We’re literally being handed a pre-dug mine. Why would we not explore it? We could find hella emerald down here, dude. You don’t know.”
McJones scratches his mustache and gives a taut raise of his eyebrows. “Or we could just be wasting even more time.”
“Well, fine, be like that. But we’ll see what you have to say after we run into a whole vein of that sweet, emerald-y goodness.” Then, Dean jabs his sword forward, bellows, “Onward, men!” and leads the way into the passage.
At first, McJones trails behind like some kind of sullen child, but after a few minutes, he jogs forward to fall into step with Dean. They walk at a leisurely pace, zigzagging around rusted-over minecarts and ducking under cobwebby support beams. It actually wasn’t true, what Dean said: We’ve explored, like, a bazillion mineshafts before. It’s only been a handful of times, if that. They’re not super common, and really the only reason to ever go looking for them in the first place is if you need melon seeds or something. Mostly, all you find in them is a bunch of monsters and maybe some okay loot.
Dean likes it here, though. It’s even colder than the dirt room was, cold enough to make goosebumps pop out on his skin. Plus, he really digs the whole abandoned vibe. There’s just something about it—about all of the leftover minecarts and railroad pieces and long-burnt-out torch nubs—that gives him a sense of excitement. A sense of promise. A sense that he could stumble across something cool at any moment.
And then he does. The two of them turn a corner, and there’s a chest sitting right there in a minecart shoved against the wall.
A grin splits Dean’s face. “Oh, hell yes!” he exclaims, rushing forward. “That’s what I like to see!” He drops to his knees in front of the chest and reaches for the worn, metal clasp, but McJones jerks out a hand to stop him.
“Dean, wait. It might be boobytrapped,” he says, because nothing can ever be fun with him. You always gotta worry about what ifs and other bullshit like that. Dean rolls his eyes.
“God, are you for real, dude? Look at this place! Nothing’s in working order anymore, so why would a dumb trap on a minecart chest be either? Relax.”
Without giving McJones any more chance to protest, Dean fumbles with the clasp and pushes up on the lid. It sticks at first, the hinges obviously tight with age, but with a bit of tugging, it pops right open, releasing a cloud of dust into Dean’s face. He coughs, splutters a little, but it doesn’t stop him from immediately leaning in to check out the spoils.
The chest is about half full with boring old minecart rails—albeit those fancy, redstone-powered ones—and there’re a few gold nuggets and a broken nametag scattered around. It’s really not much, and Dean feels a stab of disappointment. There’s no point in taking the rails or the nametag, but they can maybe use the nuggets to make a golden carrot or something, so he reaches in to grab them up. And that’s what he sees it, half-hidden under the stack of rails: a faint, turquoisey shine.
“Wait, hold the fuck up!” he cries. “Yo! Yooooo! Is that a fucking diamond? Oh, gimme that!”
He reaches into the chest with both hands, prying the minecart rails up with probably more fervor than needed. He can’t really see what he’s doing, and he accidentally scraps his palm on a sharp piece of metal, sending a flash of pain through him. He’ll probably get tetanus and die a horrible death, but he doesn’t even care, because then he’s fishing the diamond out and cradling it in his hands like a baby bird. It’s a little on the smaller side, truthfully, but a small diamond is a hell of a lot better than no diamond at all. Dean springs to his feet, throwing his fist into the air with a triumphant whoop.
“We’re so fucking awesome, McJones!”
“How do you figure?” McJones says from where he’s settled himself against the wall in a resigned sort of way.
“Because! We just found diamond without even looking for it! You think the other scrubs are that badass? No way!”
“Maybe I should remind you of my brother’s freakish luck with diamond.”
“Touché.” Dean looks down at the diamond again. There’s some dirt smudged across one of the facets. Nothing that a little wash won’t take care of, though. “...But! We didn’t even get it while mining; we just looked in some random chest in an abandoned mineshaft, and there it was! You gotta admit, that’s pretty goddamn incredible.”
“I can’t wait to rub it in the others’ faces as soon as we meet back up with ‘em. They’re gonna wish they were as cool as we are!”
Dean’s kind of yelling at this point, but he figures it’s pretty justified. Contrary to popular belief, he doesn’t actually try to be loud; it’s just kinda something that happens whenever he gets super amped up. Which is ninety-five percent of the time, because that’s who he is, take it or leave it. He can’t help being hype.
McJones is staring at him, looking vaguely amused. “Really, Dean? One diamond.”
“Hell yeah!” Dean grins back, flashing the diamond before tucking it away in his bag. “Think of all the shit we can make with this little guy! Like—like—”
He stops. Thinks for a few moments. Runs through his mental list of crafting recipes. “—Uh. Tell me again, what can you make with one diamond?"
“Well, a shovel,” McJones supplies.
And Dean just fucking loses it.
He erupts into hysterical laughter, half-collapsing into the wall and burying his face in his hands. It’s loud in the confined space of the mineshaft, and he can feel McJones staring at him curiously. But he can’t speak—he can barely breathe he’s laughing so hard—and he’s pretty sure there’re actual tears coming out of his eyes.
“Fucking diamond shovel,” Dean eventually manages to gasp between peals of laughter. “Have you ever heard of anything so useless in your entire life? Some asshole likes digging in the dirt so much that he wants a shovel made of—”
He can’t even finish the sentence; the thought of it sets him off all over again. It’s really not that funny, and Dean knows that, and yet he can’t stop fucking laughing. He’s delirious, probably. All that emerald hunting must’ve broken something inside of him.
And maybe it also broke McJones, because suddenly he busts out laughing too, wheezing, “Yes, you’re right, that’s such a waste!”
The two of them proceed to stand there for a good minute straight, just laughing their heads off like goddamned idiots. McJones has a good laugh, Dean thinks. It’s high and quick and kinda bursts out of him like he doesn’t expect it. Whenever he smiles real big, his eyes smile too, crinkling up into half-moons, and he’s got this downturned, pouty kind of mouth that always gives his grins a really pleasing shape. It’s a nice change from the usual look he wears—a tired kind of exasperation that stems from being the only person on the team who ever knows diddly.
“Wait, wait, Dean,” McJones blurts, flapping his hand to get Dean’s attention, “I thought of something worse!”
“A diamond hoe.”
Dean splutters into his palm. “Oh god, you’re right. That’s—fuck, why would you even make that?”
“The only benefit over an iron one is that it lasts longer! Who needs to till that much dirt all at one time? No, no, a hoe is definitely the most pointless way to use diamond,” McJones declares.
And a joke starts to form deep in the folds of Dean’s brain. Something about McJones’s mother and the word hoe. He can tell it’s gonna be a good one, even though McJones’ll probably haul off and punch him in the nose because he has no appreciation for humor. With a sly grin, Dean leans forward. “Hey, McJones—”
But he never gets to say it. Right at that moment, there comes a harsh, sibilant noise from behind him. A noise that drives a knife of fear into his gut. And he whirls, muscles tightening, just in time to catch a spider on the upswing of his sword.
The spider hisses in pain and rage, and Dean yelps as it launches itself at him once more. He shoves his sword forward in a blind panic, goring the thing through the middle. It gurgles wetly, leaking dark, thick blood all over the mineshaft floor, before its legs curl inwards and it goes still.
“Holy shit,” Dean breathes, his heart pounding with adrenaline. “I almost got murked! Fucking kamikaze spider, dude. What the fuck?”
He stares at the crumpled body, and an involuntary shudder rolls through him. Fuck spiders. Seriously. They’re the worst goddamn monster here. Zombies; skeletons; blazes; zombie pigmen; even endermen with their violet pupils and waxy, black-as-the-abyss bodies—he can deal with. But giant spiders? Fuck. That. Fuck all their hairy legs and all their blood-red eyes and the noises they make and the way they skitter—god. He ought to be used to ‘em after this long, but they still scare the shit out of him.
And—it’s not a regular spider, he realizes abruptly, snapping back. No, even worse; it’s one of the deadlier ones, the smaller ones with the blotchy-blue skin and the long fangs that drip poison. The ones that subsist only in underground areas, weaving their webby nests in the pitch darkness.
Right then, two more cave spiders skim around the corner, and Dean sucks in a sharp, startled breath. He charges at one of them before it can get too close, and suddenly McJones is beside him, taking on the other.
“There’s probably a spawner nearby!” McJones huffs mid-combat.
“Yeah. There’s no way—” a third spider pounces in from out of nowhere, McJones only barely managing to knock it away in time, “—there wouldn’t be this many otherwise.”
Dean jabs a spider through one of its eyes, his sword coming back blood-spattered. “I’ll go look,” he says, and he slips past the shriveled corpses, ducking into the adjacent passage that the spiders came from.
He gets a mere two steps around the corner before freezing in place. The entire passage is filled with spider webs so thick he can barely see. But through the milky-white strands stretched across the walls like a net, he can just make out faint embers glowing in the dark.
“Oh, yeah, there’s definitely a spawner!” he hollers over his shoulder. Right as the words leave his mouth, another spider darts out from behind the webs, fangs bared and glistening. Dean jumps back. “Fuck!”
The spider scurries for his leg, and Dean kicks at it, driving his sword through its stiff exoskeleton with a crack that makes him feel sick. He’s sweating again, hot all over from stress and exertion. God, of course the sweet loot they found just had to be located right next to a fucking cave spider quinceañera. Their luck is just incredible.
Dean leans back around the corner, lifting his chin at McJones. “Hey, imma try and break the spawner. Can you cover for me?”
“Sure. But—” McJones’s eyebrows knit, and he adjusts his grip on the hilt of his sword, “—be careful. Don’t get yourself killed for something as stupid as this. We can just block the den off, you know.”
But he follows Dean back towards the shithole anyway, lingering in the intersection between tunnels, ready to play backup if the need arises. Dean tries to slash through a few of the webs in his way, but it’s way too slow-going. So he settles for just squirming his way through, trying not to get any in his mouth. He’s maybe a few feet from being within pickaxe-reach of the spawner when another cave spider pops out of it.
“Oh, goddamn it.”
“Shield up,” McJones calls.
“Yeah, yeah, I got it.” The spider scrabbles at the wood of Dean’s shield, but he pushes back against it with a grunt. A moment later, when it’s slain and cast off to the side, he storms up to the spawner and whips out his pick. There’s a fire in his chest now as he starts hacking away; he came down here to relax, not to fight, and he just wants these spider fuckers to die already.
With a well-aimed swing of his pick, he smashes through one of the metal bars forming the spawner’s cage-like exterior. But as long as the embers within continue to burn, it’s still completely functional, churning out spiders by the minute. Dean heaves his pickaxe up, poised to go at the spawner again, but then something occurs to him.
“Can’t you—isn’t there a way to, like, neutralize the spawner without breaking it?”
“…Oh.” Behind him, Dean hears McJones take a shuffling step closer. “Yeah, you can, actually. You have to put torches on all sides of it, I think. On the top too. The light disables it.”
Quickly, Dean lights a torch and sets it on the very top of the spawner, the flame dancing in his eyes. He moves to make another one, but he moves too carelessly, and the stick he grabs for slips right through his fingers. And in the time it takes him to snatch it up again, three spiders lunge out from the darkness—two from somewhere deep within the webs and one from the spawner itself.
“Ugh, fuck off!” Dean yells, slicing out with his sword and catching one of them on the foreleg. It gives a low growl, its eight eyes swiveling rapidly, and lurches around Dean, closely followed by one of its friends.
That leaves only a single spider for Dean to take on—a fair fight. It dodges Dean’s first strike, scuttling up one of the larger webs stretched across a support beam. But when it moves to dive down onto Dean’s head, he blocks it with his shield and drives his blade up into its fleshy underbelly. The ensuing spray of blood lands several fat drops onto Dean’s face, which he scrubs away with the back of his hand. The spider writhes beneath him in agony, and Dean raises his sword to put it out of its misery. But a sudden, sharp gasp from behind him snags his attention. And a second later, McJones’s voice bursts out:
“Crap! I’m poisoned!”
Dean’s pulse quickens. “What?!” He risks a brief glance back, and out of the corner of his eye, he catches the sight of McJones backed into the corner by the other two spiders. “You—no!”
In an instant, he kills the spider beneath his feet and whirls, fighting his way through the webs over to McJones. He forces the spiders away with his shield, making just enough space for McJones to trip away and dart out of the den with Dean right on his heels.
And the spiders are too. Dean shoving them aside only bought a few seconds at most; they don’t give up on their prey nearly that easily. Now, their legs clatter harshly against the stone floor in pursuit, and their hissing makes the hair on the back of Dean’s neck stand up.
Moving quick, he walls off the narrow entrance to the den with cobblestone. One of the spiders tries to wriggle through a hole near the top, but he fights it off and shoves a loose chunk of stone into the gap. They claw wildly at the other side of the rock, spitting in a blind fury, but Dean’s not even paying attention to them anymore. McJones has sunk to his knees beside the chest they discovered not five minutes earlier, and he’s clutching his left arm to his middle.
“Dude, what the hell happened?” Dean demands, wide-eyed, and McJones looks up sharply.
“I—I’m not sure exactly,” he says in a tense voice. “I tried to use my shield, but one of them got past it and bit me.”
He grabs at his sleeve, torn almost into rags, and hikes it roughly over his elbow. Then, he holds out his forearm for Dean to see. Two nasty-looking puncture wounds are dug into his arm a few inches apart, both bleeding steadily. The raw skin around the punctures is already turning a faint greenish-yellow from the spider’s venom. Dean’s no expert on injuries, but he can tell just by looking that this is really, really bad. He drops down to the ground as well, tearing open his bag with shaking fingers.
“Okay. Fuck. Uh—” He licks his lips. “H-how do you cure poison again?”
“Either a potion or milk.”
A wave of relief courses through Dean’s veins. “Oh, milk!” he breathes, the tightness in his chest unwinding. “We have that!”
It was just last night that Jeff went out to milk the cows. When he came back, he took his brimming bucket of milk, filled up about a dozen little glass bottles, and handed them out to anyone who wanted one. I dunno, he’d said to Dean at the time, it might be useful. And he was right; his bottle o’ milk is about to literally save McJones’s life.
…That is, it will if Dean can actually find it.
He’s practically turned his bag upside down at this point, but it’s nowhere to be seen. Wood planks, loose lumps of coal, even a handful of pumpkin seeds he didn’t know he had—sure. But no milk. Nada. Nil.
“I know I have it,” he mutters more to himself than McJones, rummaging through his stuff for the third time. “Jeff gave a bottle to me, and I put it away in the food chest so I wouldn’t lose it.”
So what the hell did he do with it after that? Dean frowns hard and sits back on his heels. He stretches his tired brain all the way back to this morning, when he and the others were getting ready to set out on their emerald-gathering expedition.
He was smelting some iron to make a new chestplate, he remembers faintly. He was planning on making a helmet too, except for then PBG started bugging him to hurry up and trying to steal his iron and generally being a huge pain in the ass. So Dean escaped to the food chest in the corner to stock up on provisions instead.
“God, I just saw the milk this morning! I—where the fuck is it?”
Frustrated now, Dean screws up his face and thinks even harder. At the chest, he’d pulled out a couple of baked potatoes and tucked them away in his bag. Then, he picked up a small loaf of bread to inspect it, and—oh, right! Below the bread, in the very corner of the chest, sat his bottle of milk, right where he’d left it the previous night. Immediately, he’d reached for it, and he—he curled his fingers around the neck of the bottle and—
—pushed it to the side.
He pushed the milk bottle to the side and grabbed an apple instead. And then he stood up, closed the food chest, and walked away without looking back.
Dean falls still. A numb feeling slowly descends over him, his vision going fuzzy around the edges. He breaths in, out. In, out. And finally, he twists to look at McJones.
“I don’t have the milk.” His voice comes out wooden. “I left it at home.”
McJones processes this.
“Oh balls,” he says.
Dean stares at McJones. McJones, whose chin is tucked into his chest, whose face is stony and unreadable. Who’s bleeding a dark crimson all over his skin and his shirt and the ground and everything.
In that instant, the numbness lifts, and the full gravity of the situation slams into Dean like a boulder. His fingers dig into his knees through his pants. “B-but,” he starts, his tongue feeling like lead against his teeth, “but it’s probably still fine! Spider poison doesn’t actually kill you, right?”
McJones doesn’t respond. And that says more than any words ever could.
Dean’s blood rushes deafeningly in his ears, and for a heartbeat, he’s paralyzed. Then, jerking his head down, he paws frantically through his bag and yanks out a loaf of bread, which he then nearly throws at McJones. “Here. Eat this. Keep your health up.”
“I have my own food,” McJones says.
“I don’t care. Just eat.”
McJones opens his mouth like he’s about to reply again, but maybe he sees something in Dean’s face, because just he sighs softly through his nose and takes a small bite of the bread.
For a few minutes, they don’t talk. Dean feels every second that goes by like a cold hand squeezing his windpipe, and he’s so high-strung that when McJones suddenly bursts into a coughing fit, it almost sends him jumping out of his skin.
“Jesus fucking Christ, are you okay?!”
McJones nods faintly, hacking into the crook of his elbow. “Bread down the wrong pipe, I think.”
“I…h-has the poison worn off yet?”
Dean has no idea what to do. His fingers tangle together in his lap, and his eyes jump all around the small passageway before finally landing on McJones’s arm again. The sickly yellow blotch around the puncture wounds has grown, and it’s now about the size of two fists put together. McJones also, Dean notes with a fair amount of alarm, seems to be bleeding faster than he was before.
“Um. Your—your arm.” Dean points with a trembling hand. “Should it still be bleeding that much?”
McJones looks down at his arm, like he’d forgotten it was there or something. After a moment, he remarks, “No, probably not.”
“Shit. Just keep eating.”
There’s a vague kind of irony in the fact that, even though it’s McJones who’s losing a metric ton of blood, Dean’s the one who’s freaking out. It might actually be kinda funny if it wasn’t horrible.
Dean jumps up and starts pacing back and forth to maybe calm his nerves a little, give himself something to do besides sit there and watch McJones like a hawk. It doesn’t work, but he stays on his feet anyway, rocking back and forth like a kid. And he thinks, How the hell did this happen? How did everything turn to absolute shit so quickly? It wasn’t even a half-hour ago that he was exploring the mineshaft with McJones and laughing over dumb stuff and just having a good time shootin’ the shit. His guard was down—both of their guards were down, really. They weren’t prepared at all for this. And now…
McJones speaks up, snapping Dean out of his thoughts.
“Dean,” he begins carefully, as if he hasn’t quite figured out what he wants to say even though he’s already saying it.
“Yeah? What’s going on? Do you need more food? Or are you better now?” Dean asks, his voice coming out louder than he intends.
McJones lowers his eyes, his shoulders rising as he takes in a deep breath. “When I die—”
Dean goes cold.
“Oh no. No, no, no. Not like this. You’re not fucking dying on me like this. You’re not. You—you’re gonna be fine.”
He jabs a finger at McJones. “No. This damn poison is gonna wear off any second now, okay? You just gotta keep eating and ride it out. And then we—we can get the hell outta Dodge and find the rest of the emeralds and go home and have a nice, long sleep. Doesn’t that sound good?”
“And—and—and then tomorrow we can go on an enderman-killing adventure together. And then we’ll make a bunch of ender pearls so we can find a stronghold, and we’ll go there and kill the dragon and live happily ever after, and it’s gonna be so great, McJones, just me and you and Barry and—”
McJones’s voice is hushed but startlingly urgent. Something about it makes Dean’s throat constrict, and he goes silent, swallowing. McJones clasps his hands in his lap almost regally.
“Listen to me,” he says, looking up at Dean. “I’m gonna die, and you know it.”
“I…” Dean’s eyes sting, and he blinks hard. “What if I run home and grab the milk?”
“You can’t. We’re way too far away. You wouldn’t make it in time.”
“I could try.”
But McJones just shakes his head. “Dean, it’s fine, I’ll be back next time. But right now, I have a lot of things I need to say and not very long to say them, so I need you to be quiet and pay attention.”
Dean hesitates, his mind scrambling for some way—any way—to un-fuck this situation. But when it comes up empty, he nods slowly, resignation and misery coiling together inside of him.
“Good.” McJones rubs his cheek with the back of his fist. “First of all, when I die, you need to stay right here. Wait for the others to come get you. Don’t try to get out of the mineshaft by yourself; there might be more spiders close by, who knows, and we really don’t need to lose two people down here.
“Also, don’t forget to get as many chicken feathers as you can before you head out for the stronghold. You guys’ll need a ton of arrows to take out the dragon and its healing crystals without getting too close, and you gotta have enough feathers to make the fletching properly. Get, like, twice as many as you think; running out in the End would be tantamount to death.”
He goes on, explaining how many ender pearls are needed to find a stronghold and activate a portal and what kinds of potions they might need and other things like that. Dean tries his best to focus, but that same, tight-chested nausea from before is back with a vengeance, splitting through his concentration. And the feeling only gets worse when he realizes that McJones’s words are starting to slur, running together into a slightly garbled soup. Like McJones physically can’t make his mouth work properly anymore.
Dean feels lightheaded.
After a minute, McJones breaks off his monologue to cough raspily again. “Oh, by the way,” he says, then, “I should probably give you my emeralds to hang onto, just in case. I mean, we worked so hard for them. I’d hate if they somehow got lost in this mess.”
McJones shifts forward onto his knees, and bracing his good arm on the wall of the mineshaft, he carefully pulls himself up to a stand. He reaches for his bag, undoing the clasp and holding the whole thing out with both hands. Blood spills down his left forearm, leaving red trails like war paint across his skin. “Here, take ‘em. And whatever else you need, I guess.”
He takes a step towards Dean. Two steps. Three steps.
And then he just pitches forward, falling like a ragdoll.
It’s sheer instinct that propels Dean in time to catch McJones around the middle, stopping him before he smacks face-first into the cold, hard floor. For a moment, they’re both frozen where they are, equally stunned. Then, Dean whispers, “Woah-ho-ho there, buddy. Holy shit.” And, his eyes wide, he gently steadies McJones back on his feet.
McJones draws back as soon as he regains his balance, a strange shadow crossing over him. “I—I don’t—” He presses his lips together. “Sorry. I don’t know what that was. My legs just...gave out.”
“A-are you good now, though?”
“I’m kinda dizzy, but I think so...”
But his voice is nowhere near confident, and face is all twisted up with shock and confusion. It’s the first time he’s seemed genuinely distressed by what’s happening to him, which is a million times worse than the vague apathy he had before. If McJones—one of the most levelheaded adventurers in their whole group—is this uneasy over something, then that means it’s even worse than Dean thought.
And the way McJones looks up close only confirms this theory: His skin is sallow, and his eyes are glazed over and sunken. One of his eyelids seems like it’s drooping lower than the other as well. He sways unsteadily in front of Dean, staring somewhere off into space, and a knot of dread settles in the pit of Dean’s stomach.
Finally, McJones pushes his bag into Dean’s arms. “The emeralds,” he says quietly.
Dean doesn’t move to open the bag, though. He just lets it fall to the ground beside him and stands there, hollow. McJones is right; they spent so fucking long finding those emeralds. But Dean doesn’t care anymore. Screw it. Screw everything. They’re just a bunch of green rocks. He’d happily throw every single one of them into lava himself, if only it would save McJones. But that’s not how this works.
Lowering his voice to match the hush McJones had, Dean asks, “Do you...do you wanna eat more, dude? I have potatoes.”
McJones puffs out his cheeks, his gaze flickering back up to Dean. But before he can say anything, his shoulders jerk, and suddenly he’s doubled over in another choking fit. His coughs have a gravelly hoarseness to them now that makes Dean’s spine tingle. The cool air down here doesn’t feel nice to him anymore. It’s just too much. Too confining. Dean wraps his arms around himself.
McJones’s coughing trails off into silence once more. He moves to drag a hand across his face. But then, abruptly, he stops. Stiffens. And Dean sees the strangest expression come over him. His mouth falls open, just a little. He makes this quiet, ragged sound in the back of his throat.
And then his face flashes white with pure, undiluted terror.
“Oh my god. Oh my god.” Fear rises like a flood, and Dean falls back into panicked babbling. “What’s wrong now? Are you okay? Oh my god.”
Impulsively, he reaches out for McJones, and McJones grabs at him, fingers digging vise-like into his elbows. McJones’s pupils are huge and dark behind his glasses, almost taking up the whole of his irises. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Dean’s reminded of what wild animals look like when they’re in danger. He’s never seen McJones quite this scared in his life.
“What’s going on? What’s wrong?” he says again, loud. He shakes McJones a little bit, which probably isn’t the best thing to do, but he isn’t thinking clearly.
McJones gives another strangled noise. “Dean,” he croaks.
“I—I can’t breathe.”
Time slows. The words cut through Dean like a dagger.
Oh no. No, no, no.
Dean stands motionless as McJones crumples. He’s coughing again, but the sound has gone weak and gurgly now. He’s clinging to Dean so hard it hurts. And Dean’s brain, his muscles, his everything screams at him to fucking do something.
But Dean can’t move. He’s powerless. Absolutely powerless.
McJones is still choking. Gasping futilely, making these horrible raspy noises. Pleading for a breath that just won’t come. His hands snap away from Dean and up to his mouth. He makes a wet sound, and suddenly there’s blood. Blood. Blood dripping from his lips. Blood on his hands. Blood pooling in the holes in his arm. Blood staining Dean’s shirt. Blood everywhere.
McJones’s chest is heaving in desperation, but he’s not even making any noise anymore. He’s shaking so hard he seems on the verge of splitting apart. His nostrils are flaring. His hands are scrabbling at his face, at his throat, leaving scratches along his skin. His fingers are turning blue at the tips. His eyes are red and watery and shot with horror so impenetrable it seems to swallow everything.
He can’t breathe.
Dean can feel his mouth moving. He’s saying something. Shouting something. but he can’t hear himself over the roar in his head.
He can’t breathe.
It screams in his thoughts over and over and over again. He’s tipping, verging on hysteria.
McJones collapses into Dean.
And all is quiet.
For a painful moment, Dean’s petrified. McJones is limp in his arms, heavy and still as stone, and it’s all Dean can do to not drop him in shock. Dean’s heart is beating so fast he can barely feel it anymore. There’s a distant buzz in his ears.
“...Stewart?” he says. His voice is small. Pitiful.
No answer. Not even a glimmer of movement. Dean knows—god, he knows what this is. But he can’t quite make himself believe it.
Slowly, rigidly, he lowers himself down to a sitting position, carefully supporting the whole weight of McJones’s body. He lays McJones down on the ground, tucking his bag behind McJones’s head like a pillow. And after a long breath of hesitation, he presses two fingers to the squishy part of McJones’s neck, right beneath the curve of his jaw.
Dean waits, pleading silently, begging to just please, please—
But there’s nothing. No kick of a pulse pushing back against Dean’s fingers. No flutter of McJones’s eyelids. Nothing at all.
A shudder rocks through Dean, and he yanks his hand back. For a second, he flounders, his thoughts scattered all around him in shards. He’s still so tangled up with threads of panic, even as he feels his pulse begin to slow. Slowly, he tips his head forward to rest against the pads of his fingers, breathing out a quiet “Fuck.”
What the hell is Dean supposed to do now? Just sit here and wait for the rescue brigade to find him? That’s what McJones told him to do, but it’s easier said than done. McJones’s goddamn corpse is staring him right in the face, and he’s practically jumping out of skin with anxiety. But it was McJones’s literal dying wish for him to not get his sorry ass killed as well, and besides, his limbs are too leaden for him to move if he tried. So that’s that.
But it doesn’t answer the bigger question, which is what the hell are all of them going to do now? McJones is gone. He’s dead and he’s gone and he’s not coming back until they’re finished with this world and starting all over again in a new one. This whole mining expedition wasn’t supposed to be dangerous; it was just meant to be downtime in between periods of high stress. They didn’t plan to lose one of their most valuable members in the midst of searching for fucking emerald.
And right at that moment, a horrible realization blows Dean sideways. It hits him in an instant, like a pickaxe to the skull, that this—this whole situation?
It’s all his fucking fault.
All the pieces are coming together in his mind, laid out like a neatly-drawn map. It’s so obvious now, so painfully obvious that it hurts. Dean was the one who insisted they go explore the mineshaft, even when McJones protested. Dean was the one who rushed headlong into the spider den instead of just blocking it off. And, of course, Dean was the one who decided to not bring the milk with him like a stupid fucking idiot.
And now McJones is dead, and the blood is all over Dean’s hands.
The numb feeling from before comes back in a rush, settling over Dean like a curtain of steel. His breath rumbles loud in his ears. After a moment, he closes his eyes, burrowing his face into his palms.
If only he’d been smart enough to grab the milk.