Actions

Work Header

Only Human

Chapter Text

On a sticky June night in Philadelphia, an old gray van pulls over in the shadowy domain of a dead streetlight, followed by three cars in varying states of disrepair. Though the rest of the city buzzes with life, these cars have chosen to park beneath towers dark and empty against the night sky, its brick faces clinging to the worn-down glamor of an earlier age. Trash bags billow through the broken glass of its high, arched windows, an echo of the fine curtains that once hung there. Some of the graffiti covering the lower walls has been there so long that it too has chipped away with time.

Quickly and quietly, the cars’ occupants pour out like water, feet crunching on summer-dry grass—all except for two, still crouched in the back of the van. White chalk in hand, one of them finishes drawing a circular symbol on the van’s ceiling, checking it against the piece of paper he holds. "Does that look right to you?" he asks his companion.

She glances over, uncaring. "Close enough."

"'Close enough' could get us killed."

Her laugh is low and humorless. "I don’t intend to die on one of the First’s milk runs. I don’t give a damn about the cambion unless he can find me Dean Winchester."

"Not so loud," he hisses, but the others are too absorbed in their own conversations to have heard. "This isn’t a milk run. The cambion is dangerous, and if anything happened to you—I couldn't—"

Some of the harsh lines in her face soften. "Hey, I’ll be fine. You and me, we survive."

"We survive," he repeats, very seriously. "And that means playing the game. Doing what we’re told. We'll get nowhere without the First's favor, you have to remember that. Everything else comes after, even Dean Winchester." She huffs, but he touches her arm and says, "Promise me. We stick to the plan."

”You just keep the engine running 'til I get back.” She rests her hand over his, briefly. "I'll stick to the plan. Promise."

 

 


O N L Y     H U M A N


 

 

Ben has just finished saying “Well, that’s all taken care of,” when the rickety doors of the Divine Lorraine Hotel burst open again. He curses, sure that the poltergeist somehow managed to undo their hex bags, but no: a full dozen people walk into the once-majestic dining hall, all heavily tattooed, and all instantly focused on Jesse.

“Cambion,” announces a muscular man whose tattoos extend all the way up his bare scalp. Jesse stands up straighter, his hands still slightly upraised from keeping all the chairs and crates and assorted trash pinned down while they fought the poltergeist. Behind his back Claire and Ben exchange a look: cover him. Ben readies his flask of holy water.

“Um, look,” says Jesse, and he sounds much more like an ordinary, vaguely Australian twenty-one-year-old than the semi-omnipotent Antichrist he is. “Whatever you’re going to ask of me, I think it’s best for everyone if we could just not.”

Ben, sizing up these new threats, accidentally makes eye contact with a pale curly-haired woman in the back. She starts, then frowns like she recognizes him. That’s not a good sign. Ben keeps his eyes on her, though he can’t remember ever seeing her before in his life.

The man in front ignores all of this, gesturing to the rest of his crew. “Dispose of the others. The First only wants him.”

“Least they don’t take their time about it,” Ben mutters. The lackeys rush forward, and Ben dodges in front of Jesse, flinging holy water right in the first one's growling face.

But the man isn’t a demon; the water rolls off without a single sizzle. Ben swears and fumbles for his gun. The man's tattoos start to writhe and burn blue, and instead of slowing down, he uses his forward momentum to bodyslam Ben to the ground. Wheezing, Ben struggles away from that blue fire, but there's nowhere to go—

Before the man has a chance to touch him, Claire darts forward and stabs him in the back.

“Get silver!” she pants, heaving the body off him. “They’re djinn!” She doesn’t pause to help him up; the next djinn lunges at Jesse, and Claire intercepts her with a deep slice across the midsection.

“Shit,” says Ben, wincing his way to a crouch and grasping for a weapon. He shoots one djinn just to get it to slow down, but he’s not packing silver bullets; he’s hardly been carrying silver at all since he found out Jesse was allergic. Instead he digs out the silver knife in his boot that Dean gave him for his fifteenth birthday. He stands, holding the blade to meet his next attacker, but the djinn all seem focused on getting to Jesse, who’s holding them at bay with...a dining chair.

“Now would be a great time to use those powers we keep hearing about!” Ben yells, wrestling a djinn away from the pack and stabbing him in the throat. Honestly. One little poltergeist wants to throw some rotting crates at Ben and Claire, and suddenly Jesse can control a roomful of heavy objects; when monsters are actively trying to kill him, he decides it’s time to go mano a mano.

“You two get out of here!” Jesse shouts back, and the chair shatters in his grip. He tosses the pieces aside. “I’ll deal with them.” His brow furrows, and then the djinn’s leader is thrown twenty feet through the air and smacks against the far wall hard enough to dent it. The rest of the ones circling him draw back, hands all flickering blue, suddenly wary.

“Attaboy,” Ben says under his breath, and stays right where he is.

If someone had told him three months ago that he'd be encouraging a half-demon to use his powers in a fight, Ben would've started rehearsing exorcisms. But it’s thanks to Jesse's powers that Dean and Sam escaped Purgatory, and despite the untold amount of new demonic power that Jesse inherited from the Queen of Hell, Ben owes Jesse his trust. He'll gladly deal with the accidental fires and hours of extra training rather than watch Jesse curl back up into that hunched-over kid he'd been when they met, whose defensive sarcasm was never enough to paper over the whole half of himself that he hated.

However, he does wish Jesse would choose a slightly more effective method of dispatching these djinn than just flinging them around like ragdolls. While Ben sympathizes with Jesse’s stance on not killing anyone or anything unless he absolutely has to, it only takes a few minutes for whichever djinn he’s just tossed into a wall to come crawling back for another go. Even Ben and Claire aren’t killing them permanently—they’d need lamb’s blood for that—but at least the silver keeps them down longer. That woman, the one who was watching Ben earlier, she’s hanging back from the fighting, but she hasn’t taken her eyes off him this whole time.

"Hit the deck!"

Ben ducks just in time for the next djinn to fly over his head.

"God damn, Jesse," Ben says, and Claire has to lunge across him to stab the djinn at his flank.

"Pay attention," she chides as the body drops to the ground.

"I am paying attention," Ben says. “You’ve got splinters in your hair.”

Claire flicks her braid over her shoulder. "Grab your knife, hotshot."

Ben looks at his empty hand, then down. His knife glints on the floor where he dropped it. Embarrassed, Ben steps away from Claire to fetch it, twirling it a few times before he looks back up at her.

But Claire has made the same mistake as Ben, watching him instead of the battle. Before Ben can even shout a warning, a heavyset djinn grabs Claire around the waist and twists her knife hand behind her back. Ben hefts his own knife, ready to throw, but the djinn is using Claire as a shield and Ben's just a little too far to reach around her. Claire’s wild backward stabs must hit their mark, because the fire around the djinn’s fingertips flickers out, but she hasn’t dealt enough damage to stop the djinn lifting her up with that crushing grip and throwing her bodily into a pile of wooden crates, which topple around her. She doesn’t get up.

“Fuck!” Ben tries to run after Claire, but the djinn goes for him next. For all that muscle the man is remarkably quick on his feet. Ben slashes at him, anger making him sloppy the way Dean always warned against. “A little help here?”

Jesse must be losing his patience, because instead of harmlessly tossing aside the djinn Ben’s struggling with, a flick of his wrist snaps the djinn’s neck a full 180˚, dropping him instantly. Ben’s adrenaline spikes and it’s not all fear.

But Jesse’s in trouble of his own. The djinn’s leader has recovered, and while Jesse’s attention is on Ben, the djinn swoops in to wrap one meaty hand around Jesse’s throat and slams his head back against one of the large metal columns holding up the ceiling. Blue flames twist to life out of the patterns on his skin.

“Jesse!” Ben yells, and the djinn’s palms flare brighter as he squeezes, drawing out a choked noise that makes Ben's own breath catch in sympathy. Jesse's eyelids flutter shut and his head rolls forward. Ben has just enough time to panic.

Then Jesse's hands fly up to lock around the djinn’s wrist. The djinn screams and jerks backwards, and Ben catches sight of angry red burns where Jesse's hands were.

“Here’s what I don’t get,” says Jesse, advancing on the djinn, and the look on his face is scary but also kind of awesome. “You knew what I was when you came in here. What exactly made you think that anything you’ve got was gonna work on me?”

The djinn is chanting something very fast in a language Ben can’t identify, the pressure in the air building with every word. Ben raises his knife to throw—and that’s the only reason he’s able to ward off the person who tries to grab him from behind. When he turns to face his attacker, it’s the curly-haired djinn he sees, hissing protectively over her sliced palm; her fire’s gone out, at least for the moment.

Then the chanting crescendos, the whole room flares blue, and Ben spins around to see the djinn’s leader unleash a wave of fire that washes over Jesse’s body, burrows into his eyes, and drops him like a puppet with cut strings. Ben’s heart seizes.

That distraction leaves the curly-haired djinn the perfect opening to knock Ben to the ground with a well-aimed elbow to the temple. He goes down hard, face-first on the dirt-caked floor, head spinning. There's a loud crack from beneath her heel, and pain explodes in his ankle.

"Fuck," Ben gasps, but before he can so much as catch his next breath, the djinn whirls so the steel toe of her boot collides with the side of his face. The force of the kick sends Ben rolling onto his side, arms curled around his head, mouth filling with blood. He can’t breathe. Claire’s still nowhere to be seen, and Jesse—

“Get up,” the curly-haired djinn snarls. The other djinn have descended on Jesse, but for some reason this one wants Ben. Ben scrabbles for his knife, but he's pretty sure his ankle is broken, and with his jaw on fire and the wind still knocked out of him, even rolling onto his hands and knees is a struggle. The djinn snatches the knife before he can reach it, pointing the blade at him, then drags him upright and starts herding him towards the doors.

A tall djinn near the edge of the fight catches sight of them. "Brigitta! What the hell are you—"

She stops speaking when the commotion in the center of the room falls silent. The other djinn are backing away as the thin figure in their midst gets to his feet.

When Jesse looks up, his eyes are black.

"Move." The djinn named Brigitta grabs Ben's bicep and hauls him backward, clearly aiming for the doors. Ben's sleeve protects him from the blue fire flickering around her hands and eyes, for now, but it would be a matter of seconds for her to decide Ben's stumbling is slowing her down more than his unconscious body would. With a broken ankle and his jaw throbbing almost too painfully to think, Ben's afraid even to try breaking her hold.

But when they reach the door, which was in fine working order on their way in, Brigitta can't budge it an inch. Ben’s seen this before: no door will open once Jesse Turner decides it should stay closed. She yanks Ben in another direction, but he stumbles on his bad ankle, and with a curse she shoves him to the floor and takes cover behind a pile of detritus. Ben struggles to get back to his feet, eyes streaming with the pain of it, but even Brigitta’s not paying attention to him anymore; all the energy in the room seems to be drawn into the black pits of Jesse’s eyes.

Jesse raises his hand, and the djinn that threw fire at him goes up in a blaze so harsh that Ben has to shield his eyes. When he blinks and looks again, there's nothing left but ashes.

The others panic, stampeding for the door, but neither the doors nor windows are any more accommodating than the one that stopped Brigitta. And yeah, Ben knows they're monsters, but the djinn sound human and terrified when they scream, and Jesse takes care of them one by one like they're nothing, fire flaring up and then dying again, leaving only the smell of burnt meat and sulfur behind.

Only one other djinn remains when Brigitta darts out of her hiding place and raises Ben’s knife high. Just as Jesse burns away the last of her companions, she throws.

The knife hits Jesse squarely in the chest. He staggers forward with an angry, hurt noise, and the pain must have loosened his grip on the doors because Brigitta is now able to wrench one open. With one last glance of pure loathing for Ben, she flees.

Jesse pulls the knife free from his chest with an awful sucking sound. It clatters to the floor. Blood drips from his lips.

"Jess?" Ben croaks, though moving his jaw at all is agony. He'll be okay. He's always okay. He'll be fine.

Jesse drags his arm across his mouth, smearing blood on his cheek. He takes one step towards the door, eyes still black, and Ben knows he intends to pursue. To kill.

"Jesse," Ben says, stronger, and God it hurts, but he's afraid if he loses sight of Jesse now he might never see him again. Claire’s hurt, and Ben too injured to reach her, and the only thing he can do is turn to the demon-eyed boy standing in the ashes of his enemies and beg, “Help.”

Jesse looks back at him over his shoulder, empty gaze trained on Ben. Ben's pulse stutters, but almost at once the black drains away into a familiar hazel. "Ben?" he asks, face shifting into concern.

Thank God, Ben thinks, but what he gets out is, "Claire." The R is almost lost under a wash of blood in his mouth. He points at the rubble she’s buried under.

Jesse goes to Ben first, though, helping him up much more gently than the djinn had. Jesse's body is uncomfortably warm to the touch, but Ben can feel the tiny tremors passing through him as he slings Ben's arm around his shoulder, as though all that fire left him cold. "D'you want me to get that?" Jesse says, jerking his head down at Ben's ankle.

"N' me," Ben says, trying to move his jaw as little as possible. He limp-hops toward the stack of crates, tugging Jesse along as much as he can while using him as a crutch. When he hears a familiar groan, he sags in relief. Jesse's still on the right side of sanity, and Claire's alive. Everything's going to be fine.

"I'm okay," Claire calls, but follows it up with a wet cough that puts Ben's nerves right back on edge. When they round the corner, Claire's even managed to get upright, though she's leaning heavily against the wall with one hand and clutching her midsection with the other. Only now does Ben let himself feel the adrenaline rush, retroactive shock at the thought of losing her which he can only allow now he knows he won't. He drops onto a nearby crate.

"You look worse than I do," Claire says, visibly struggling to pull herself straighter. "What the hell happened?"

"Broken ankle," Jesse answers for him, and Ben adds, "Jaw." Jesse leans in a little closer, inspecting the damage to Ben's face.

"Her," Ben insists, even though he can feel the pieces of his jaw grating against each other.

"I'm fine," Claire says again. The words make her wince and hold herself tighter; clearly, they're a lie.

"Let me just—" Jesse presses his palm against the forming bruise on Ben's cheek, drawing the pain away and leaving blissful numbness to filter through his jaw and the knot of tension it formed at the base of his skull. The damage isn't fixed, he can still feel pieces of bone askew, but it doesn't hurt anymore and Jesse’s own wince of pain is gone within moments. Ben tries a tentative smile.

"That should keep you while I do this," Jesse says, slightly pink in the face. When he turns to Claire, though, neither of them miss her flinch.

Now Ben, he doesn't mind being touched. His mom was always pretty handsy, hair ruffles and hugs on the daily, and Dean too, shoulder-squeezing and back-slapping. Through nature or nurture or both, Ben's the same way. After only a few weeks he found himself habitually touching Jesse all the time, a friendly elbow to the ribs or cuff on the back of the head. Eventually, skittish as a feral cat, Jesse had started reciprocating.

But with the lingering phantom sensation of Jesse's hand warm against his cheek, he can't help thinking that even that little contact would be enough to make Claire tense for the rest of the day. Jesse's gonna have to get awfully personal with her to heal those ribs—he knows she'd rather let everything heal naturally, but days of bed rest when they have a cambion on their side just isn't reasonable.

"Claire?" Jesse tries.

"Yeah, yeah." She jerks her head at Jesse, get over here. "Let's go, I'm starving."

Ben used to be the one person Claire would reluctantly let near when she was injured, but extra-strength aspirin and a bad joke to take her mind off the pain can't measure up to one touch that'll make the injury like it never was. Cambion painkillers make Ben just woozy enough to resent the way Claire leans back against the wall to let Jesse come close to her.

Jesse has to slide her shirt up a few inches to get his hands on her skin, offering a muttered "Sorry." Claire doesn't respond; her eyes are unfocused, gazing somewhere beyond Jesse's shoulder, and she makes no move to help him. Her body looks vacated. Empty. Ben shudders.

"So fine means punctured lungs now, hm?" says Jesse, but he doesn't seem to expect a response and Ben stays silent too, heart in his throat. Jesse moves his fingers, and Claire gasps, pain drawing her out of whatever mental fortress she'd retreated to, though she squeezes her eyes closed the next moment. When she coughs, flecks of blood drip from her mouth.

Watching Jesse's mouth firm into a determined line, Ben is struck anew by how far he's progressed in the last couple of months. It wasn't so long ago that Jesse refused to use powers on either of them, afraid that the slightest slip might leave them in ashes like he did to those djinn. Now he’s figured out how to leech other people’s injuries into his own body, even accepting the pain it costs him until his powers erase the damage. Jesse's said before that of all the people he could've met when he came back to this country, he's glad it was the two of them; Ben can't believe they've been lucky enough to keep him.

The ribs under Jesse’s shirt move and twitch out of alignment. Very faintly Ben can hear bones grating against each other as they pop back into place; louder is Claire's breathing, getting faster as Jesse frowns in concentration and grips her torso a little tighter, bracing her up. Her eyes stay closed, and Ben tells himself guiltily that he should stop watching. Claire's hands flex and close around nothing. She could have died tonight. He doesn't look away.

"Have you been feeling all right?" Jesse asks suddenly. "It feels like you've got, I dunno, some sort of fever."

"It's nothing," Claire says, eyes still closed. She sucks in a breath. "Look, if you're almost done—"

"It's hurting you," Jesse murmurs. "Can't I just—"

Then Claire's eyes fly open, fully present this time, staring straight into Jesse's. His eyes have gone wide too, and his mouth parts ever so slightly. The next moment Jesse reels back and Claire slumps against the wall, her lips pinched tight together.

"'Kay?" Ben asks, but Claire just nods and walks a few paces away, back ramrod-straight. Jesse rubs his forehead, looking dazed—as if controlling his powers wasn’t enough of a challenge, he has to deal with the backlash whenever he accidentally gets too close to Claire’s grace.

Ben looks down, letting them both have their belated privacy. The pain in his jaw is beginning to filter back in, and he grips the crate under him a little tighter. He'll give Jesse whatever time he needs.

Jesse's dirty workboots enter his field of vision, and Ben looks up. "Sorry," says Jesse, "I just—needed a second, there, but I can fix you now."

Ben raises one eyebrow, but opens his arms to mean, go for it. Jesse half-laughs, throwing one anxious glance in Claire's direction before kneeling by Ben's side. "Don't move."

Ben closes his eyes. He has a moment of vertigo, either from pain or its absence, but then Jesse's hand presses against his cheek, steadying him.

Something pops, followed by the weird tingling feeling of his skin knitting back together, the deeper crawling sensation that's the mend of his bones. He can't tell if the sensation is hot or cold, only that waves of it are rolling through his skull and down his spine. He shivers a little, and Jesse's hand twitches. Ben doesn't want to open his eyes, to see his bruises forming on Jesse’s skin, to know exactly how close Jesse's face must be for his breath to be mixing with Ben's like this.

Some indefinable time later, Jesse mumbles, "There." Ben blinks, and by the time his eyes focus Jesse has retreated to a respectable distance, holding his own now-broken jaw to be sure the bones set correctly.

Ben grimaces and spits to get some of the blood out of his mouth. "Thanks." He opens and closes his mouth a few times, testing his jaw, and he's distracted enough by the ease of its movement that he tries to stand up. His ankle informs him otherwise.

"Son of a bitch," Ben swears, falling back onto the crate.

"Shit, sorry," Jesse says, but he's laughing, the bastard. His mouth is already back to normal.

"Some doctor you are," Ben grumbles, but he's pleased to see Jesse approach him again with no hint of awkwardness. "You don't even give out lollipops."

"Only the good kids get lollipops," Jesse answers, failing to hide a smile. He sits, arranging himself so he won’t fall over when his own ankle breaks, and unlaces Ben's sneaker to ease it off. Pain shoots up Ben's leg, and he curses. "Sorry," Jesse says again.

"It's okay." Ben rolls up his pant leg; Jesse rolls down his sock and wraps his hand around the swelling joint. His eyes flick up to Ben’s and then away.

"Dude." Ben ducks his head down to catch Jesse's gaze. "What?"

"I kind of lost my head back there," Jesse says, shoulders hunched. “I burned them. If you hadn’t—”

"They wanted to kill you," Ben says forcefully. He knows why Jesse doesn’t trust himself, knows who Jesse’s thinking of when he says I burned them. He doesn't mention how much it scares him, always wondering if this will be the time Jesse can't pull himself back. "C'mon, man—if it weren't for you, we'd be fucked." He closes his eyes when Jesse's palm squeezes a little. It doesn't hurt at all.

"You shouldn't have to watch your back for your own teammates," Jesse mutters. The bones of Ben's ankle pop back into place under his fingers, each one sending a spike of sensation along Ben's nerves, and Ben hears Jesse's ankle snap even as the pain in his own fades. Jesse hisses.

"That’s why we’re training you up, champ," Ben says. "You're way better at directing it now; you snapped that one dude’s neck like it was nothing. And last week, with the vampires? That was just awesome."

"Pyro," Jesse says, a reluctant grin coming to his face. "Try your weight on that."

Ben rolls his cuff back down and gets slowly to his feet. Jesse, meanwhile, sits back and gingerly prods the bones into place in his own ankle. Then he uses his hands like a cast, biting his lip while he waits for the joint to set. For someone with no actual medical training, he’s remarkably good at putting himself back together. Ben supposes, with a tiny pang of guilt, that that's partly his and Claire's doing. Their line of work is a dangerous one, after all, and the more serious their injury, the firmer Jesse is in his insistence he take the damage instead.

“Good as new," Ben says, shifting his weight back and forth, and he looks up in time to catch Jesse's tiny pleased smile. He looks around for Claire. "Claire? You good?"

"Let's go," she says, which is not a real answer, but she's still alive and breathing so Ben will take what he can get.

 


 

Of course, as soon as they make it outside, Ben discovers he lost his phone during the fight. He checks his pockets twice, but it’s the middle of June and there aren’t that many to search. “Probably dropped it when that chick stomped on me,” he says, mostly to himself. Claire is still silent and Ben’s not gonna make Jesse go back and look at the evidence with all that fresh guilt hanging over him, so instead, he hands Jesse the keys to the truck.

“I’m not driving,” says Jesse, appalled. Apparently he learned to drive on the other side of the road back in Australia from someone who'd been a truly terrible teacher, and now he’s convinced he’s going to wreck the truck if he so much as touches the steering wheel.

Ben rolls his eyes. “Just wait in the truck, man. I’m gonna go find my phone and come right back.” He makes eye contact with Claire just to check in, and she nods but doesn’t say anything. Ben claps Jesse on the shoulder and trots off, calling behind him, “You wanna make yourself useful, try calling it!”

The front door opens smoothly, but Ben props it open with a brick just in case. The faint lingering smell of sulfur hangs in the air, stronger the closer he gets to the dining room. SOMEONE IS TRYING TO SET THE JOINT ON FIRE, warns a piece of graffiti on the wall. Ben pretends not to see it. Everything from the creaking floor to the piles of boxed-up junk manages to seem spookier than it was ten minutes ago. Never go in without backup, yells Dean’s voice in his head, but Ben shushes it; he's just here to find his phone—

The tinny chords of "Hell's Bells" echo off the bare brick walls.

Perfect; that must be Jesse calling. Ben follows the sound through the rubble, trying to recreate the fight and figure out where he fell. His boot crunches down on a slippery pile of ash, and Ben suppresses a shudder. Just as well he didn't bring Jesse, then. Did they have time to feel themselves burn, these djinn, or was it over so fast that they only knew what was happening because they'd seen the others go first?

The ringing stops.

"Oh, come on," says Ben aloud. He turns in a circle—there, those are the crates Claire knocked down. He rounds the corner to where they'd found her and there it is, there's his phone, propped up on one of the crates like someone wanted him to be able to find it.

Like someone—

"Welcome back," says the djinn named Brigitta, and then Ben sinks into blue fire.

 


 

Monsters aren't real, Ben.

Yes they are, Marie, and they've got Dean, I need to go find him—

Monsters aren't real!

Ben wakes up slowly. There's a woman sitting in front of him, watching him, her dark hair curling over her shoulders. "Marie?" he slurs.

"Marie?" She raises an eyebrow. "Guess again." Then Ben sees her tattoos, and remembers that his mother's twin sister is still in Cicero where he left her three years ago.

"Ah, shit," he says, struggling for his knife, and that's when he notices he's tied to a basketball pole in what looks like a high school gym. This isn't the Divine Lorraine. How long has he been out?

"Remember me now?" Brigitta uncurls from her crosslegged position and stalks forward to crouch in front of Ben. "You're taller than the last time I saw you. Lost some of that baby fat." She jabs his stomach.

"Who the hell are you?" Ben growls, twisting away. He hasn't hunted any djinn he can remember—there just aren't that many around—but Brigitta seems awfully familiar with him.

"The important question here, Ben, is who are you." Something flashes in her hand and Ben flinches, thinking it's a knife, but it's not. Brigitta gives Ben's phone another little shake. "Dean Winchester's son."

Ridiculously, Ben's first instinct is to argue that he doesn't actually know that for sure, seeing as how his mom died before she could answer any questions of biology. But he does know that if she calls Dean right now, Dean'll walk into this setup with guns blazing no matter what the paternity tests say. "Dean?" he tries. After so long with Claire, he’s out of practice at lying. "I haven't spoken to Dean in years. Think he disappeared off the face of the planet."

"Nice try," says Brigitta, scrolling through Ben's contacts. "We all know what happened at Purgatory's gate. Our First is very interested to make the acquaintance of your cambion friend."

"First what?" says Ben, confused.

Brigitta looks sidelong at him. "The Winchesters weren't the only ones you let out of that place." She puts the phone on speaker so Ben can hear it ring.

Ben squirms, trying to remember how this usually goes on television. She'll tell Dean who she kidnapped, and then make Ben yell something about don't do it, right? But if Ben just stays silent, maybe Dean won't actually believe her; maybe he'll stay away. Ben clenches his newly-healed jaw and resolves not to scream no matter what she does to him. The phone clicks.

"Ben? What's up, kid?"

"Dean Winchester," says Brigitta, a horrifying sort of smile twisting her face. "Nice to hear you're back."

"Who is this?" Dean demands, switching instantly to hunter mode. "Where's Ben?"

"Oh, he's right here," Brigitta replies. Ben pinches his mouth shut, but instead of cutting him or slapping him, she touches his temple with another little spark of blue, her tattoos reaching hungrily toward his skin.

Ben shakes his head and stares at the ground, trying to fight off the sudden woozy feeling in his ears. Why is she putting him to sleep again? What part of the script is this?

Monsters aren't real, Ben.

When he looks up, he sees Marie on fire.

"No!" he yells, and the picture wavers back into Brigitta, laughing into the phone. Ben hears threats and panic from Dean's end, and he's already given himself away so he shouts, "Dean, do not come get me, Jesse's gonna find me and he can take care of these sons of bitches—" But there Ben falters. Jesse burns people, remember? And then he’s looking at Marie on fire again.

"Maybe you remember from last time, Dean," says Marie, which doesn't make any sense. He's not Dean. Dean is lost. "A djinn's nightmare poison is fatal."

Because she's not Marie, she's a djinn. This isn't real. Ben yanks at the ropes tying his hands together and tries to fight down his nausea.

"Wheaton High School. New Jersey." She touches him again but her fingers feel like rotting meat and Ben can't help it, he screams. "Better hurry."

He never does fall unconscious; she doesn't grant him that kindness. Brigitta turns into Marie turns into his mother, eyes black, asking him why he had to go and fuck up her life by being born. She too catches fire and turns to ash, only to begin again.

During a half-lucid moment Ben notices that someone else has joined them, a tallish young man whispering urgently with Brigitta. "—you promised! What were you thinking?"

Brigitta whirls, baring her teeth, and now she's a snake coiled to strike. Ben gasps and tries to pull away, heart pounding, but she has other prey at the moment. "What was I thinking? I'm thinking it's about time I finish giving Dean Winchester the payback he deserves after what he did to my family."

Family. Now he sees Marie again, snake-bit and choking on bile.

"You need to go to her, beg for her forgiveness," the other djinn says, and Ben tries, but his tongue swells up to suffocate him because he can never talk when it matters. His heart races louder and louder in his ears and he groans to drown it out, but it's breaking his ribs and he can't possibly live through this—

"After what he did to the others?" the newcomer is saying when Ben can hear again. He means Jesse, Ben realizes, and as soon as he thinks it, the djinn takes on Jesse's face. "You need the First's protection, Brigitta, your revenge is going to get you killed!"

"So what!"

She's Claire now. Ben starts to hyperventilate.

"Don't. Don't say that." And Jesse leans in close, whispers to Claire that he—no, it's not them, it's not real. But Ben's careening pulse won't slow down.

"Silver hurt the cambion before," Brigitta murmurs when the kiss ends. "I can fight him, with the knife this one brought." She gives Ben a kick and he feels his side burst like bloated corpses. Maybe he's dead already and just doesn't know it.

"Silver hurts you too," says the Jesse-djinn, and he cups the place where her neck meets her shoulder. Don't touch her she'll burn you, Ben tries to warn him, but he's gotten it mixed up, hasn't he? "If the cambion shows up here, we run, okay? Even if it means losing your bait."

"I want him to suffer," she hisses, holding onto him like fire. "I want to see Dean Winchester's eyes when his son dies. I want to rub his face in the blood."

The other djinn draws back, his eyes flicking black-blue, black-blue. "And then what?"

Every window in the room shatters.

Someone yells “Run!” and maybe they do, the two with changing faces, but all Ben knows is the sound of his own scream and the all-consuming fire. It eats up the floor and the walls and the roof and the world, and the only thing left is the boy walking out of it, walking towards him.

Jesse. Now that he’s here, Ben doesn’t know how his imagination could ever be fooled by a duplicate. It’s not just the eyes, their steady unending darkness; it’s the raw press of power that sweeps behind him like a cloak, more tangible even than the fire he commands. Ben half-laughs, half-sobs in exhausted relief.

But the fire isn’t fading this time, and neither is the demonic black in Jesse’s eyes. There’s something wrong. Ben’s Jesse carries his powers like a burden, not a crown. “Jesse?”

A slow grin uncurls from Jesse’s mouth. “What a nice change, to see the hunter tied up for once.” He moves faster than Ben can follow, one second shrouded in smoke, the next leaning over Ben in a predatory crouch, sharp fingers gripping Ben’s knee. He cocks his head, licks blood off his teeth.

“Jesse,” Ben says, scrambling back against the unforgiving pole, trying to keep his voice steady. “Jesse, snap out of it, this isn’t you—”

“What isn’t me?” Jesse leans even closer, his black eyes cold and appraising. “The fire? The pain?” Before Ben can ask what pain, he feels the crack of every vertebra in his spine. Jesse continues speaking over his scream. “Did you think my other half was a myth? That they call me the Antichrist for nothing?” Ben shakes his head, nerves searing, but Jesse holds out a handful of flames. “Did you mistake me for something you could tame?”

“Please don’t,” Ben begs, as Jesse reaches towards him. The hand on his knee grips tighter, scorching like a brand. “Please don’t burn me, please, just put the fire out—”

“There is no putting the fire out,” says Jesse. "Not by you. Not by demons, or djinn. Not even by hunters." He sighs, smug and unrepentant. “She tried so hard. Always has to be in control, that one.”

Jesse's smile widens, and Ben's stomach drops. He asks, desperate, "Claire?"

Jesse tips his head back and laughs. "Turns out it's not so hard to make her scream for you after all." He leans forward, voice deceptively soft. "You just have to know the right tricks."

And then he withdraws, even as the heat redoubles on Ben’s tear-streaked face. The flames let someone else through: disfigured, horrible, bubbling skin sloughing off while her shiny-pink burns reflect the flickering light. Her mouth gapes like a wound. “Ben.”

“Claire,” he sobs; he knows her even like this. “What—what did he do to you—”

“Ben, it’s not real. Whatever you’re seeing, it’s not real.” Her lips split with lines of pus and blood when she speaks. Claire hates to be touched but she touches him now, the sticky exposed flesh of her fingers crumbling to ash when she grips his chin. His stomach heaves.

“Claire, I’m so sorry—” Smoke is smothering him, forcing its way down his throat. Like mother like son. He can never protect the people he loves, even from themselves. This is his fault, he tries to tell her; it’s always been Ben’s job to keep everybody human, and now he’s failed in the worst way possible. He knows with utter certainty that this is where he dies. They’ve lost Jesse.

Jesse lifts his hand once more, and Ben closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to watch his own skin burning off.

Cold. Blissful, wonderful cold. Ben convulses under the shaking fingers on his forehead, and little by little the fire retreats. When he finally opens his eyes there’s only Claire, her skin intact and unmarred, and Jesse, hazel-eyed. Ben blinks, and Jesse scurries away.

“That must have been some trip,” says Claire, sawing away the ropes at Ben’s wrists. “More djinn?”

“I—” Ben sways when he gets to his feet, dizzy with half-formed memories, and Claire holds him steady. She’d better be careful or he’ll think he’s still dreaming. “It was the woman from before,” he finally says. “The one that got away.” Ben stumbles in the direction Claire leads him and his boots crunch on shattered glass. That much, at least, was real.

“Is she still here?” Jesse’s voice is quiet, but Ben flinches at the sound of it. He wishes he hadn’t as soon as he sees the pain cross Jesse’s face—it wasn’t real, Ben reminds himself. Any other hunter would ask the same; it doesn’t mean Jesse plans to turn back into that vengeful fire-clad thing to hunt her down, first Brigitta and then Claire and then him—

Ben lets go of Claire’s arm, and throws up.

“I think it’s best we just find a motel,” says Claire after a moment’s pause. Ben wipes his mouth, ashamed. “We can regroup, come back in the morning.”

“I’ll go start the truck,” says Jesse, almost too low to be heard, and his rapid footsteps echo in Ben’s ears across the gym and out. Unsteady and still a little nauseous, Ben starts to follow.

“He’s still himself,” Claire says quietly, no longer touching Ben but there at his side in case he falters. “Whatever you saw him doing—it wasn’t real.”

“I know,” says Ben. “I know that.” Rationally he knows Jesse would never let himself fall so far, would run before he’d ever hurt either of them, and he plans to tell Jesse as much just as soon as the afterimages of the flames fade from his vision. He glances at Claire to remind himself how she looks with whole skin. “And you’re okay.”

Her steps falter, just for a second. “I’m okay,” Claire agrees, and lets her hand rest on the small of his back for a moment before leading him outside.

 


 

It’s well past midnight by the time they check into the cheap motel in the run-down outskirts of town. Ben signs his name Gregory Aframian and pretends not to notice the clerk’s suspicious glares at his rope-burned wrists. He’s exhausted, crashing after all that adrenaline, but he locks himself in the bathroom and runs a shower anyway because he can still feel the powdery scrape of Claire’s burnt fingers on his face.

The steam and the hot water do help clear his head—not least because there’s no chance of fire there—and when Ben emerges, he feels like he can face a night of sharing the bed with a cambion. Drying his hair off, he hears the murmur of voices from the room and pauses to listen.

"He doesn't hate you. He was high on djinn poison, it's nothing to do with how he actually feels about you."

"I saw what he was seeing," Jesse says. "Just for a second, while I was healing him, I saw it. Black eyes and fire. I saw what I look like to him." Ben’s breath catches. If Jesse thinks—

"It was a hallucination," Claire says firmly. "His subconscious dragged out his worst fears, and you just happened to be there."

“He was waiting for me to kill him, Claire.” Mattress springs squeak, and then Jesse says more quietly, "I don't want to be his worst fear."

“He worries about you,” says Claire, in the same quiet tone. “Not because he doesn’t trust you—”

"But he doesn't get it." Jesse sighs. "Not like you do. I mean, you grow up thinking you're normal and then bam, surprise, you've got something in your blood that won't ever wash out, and suddenly no one looks you in the eyes anymore."

Claire makes a soft noise. "Give the guy some credit, Jesse. He's trying."

"I know that," Jesse says, frustrated. "I can see him trying. But it's not something he can understand, you know? He's only human, and some part of him is always gonna think of people like me as the thing that goes bump in the night." Ben barely catches the next words. "I just thought we'd been doing okay."

Ben opens the door.

Jesse jumps to his feet. "Um," he says. Ben moves toward him, unsure what to say, but Jesse beats him to the punch: "Think I'll shower as well." And he ducks into the recently-vacated bathroom, lock clicking behind him.

Claire sighs.

"He's freaked, huh," says Ben once he hears the water running.

"You heard."

He nods. Is it true? he wants to ask. Do you understand him better than I do? And: What about you? All our years together, do you think now he knows you best?

He says neither. Instead he clears his throat like Dean would and asks, "So how'd you find me?"

"Phone GPS." She squints, hearing the question he's not asking. "He kept it together. Broke all the windows in the gym when we saw you, but that was the only thing."

Ben nods and keeps nodding, like this is all a normal recap after one of Jesse's training sessions. Right after Purgatory Jesse would blow out the truck's tires whenever something so much as startled him; his control really is getting better. "And he didn't go after the djinn?"

Claire's lips press together. "I told him not to." Ben looks up at her, surprised, and she shrugs tightly. "You were in a bad way."

"Oh," says Ben. She won't look at him. But you don't let feelings get in the way of a hunt, he wants to remind her, because if that fundamental truth is changing on him then what reality is Ben supposed to cling to?

Claire stands up. "You should get some rest," she says. "We'll hunt them down in the morning."

That's more like it. Ben climbs into the bed further from the door, easier to do with Jesse still showering in the background. He should stay up until Jesse comes out, apologize properly, but as soon as his head hits the pillow he feels his exhaustion and unease pulling him under.