Title: The Art of Losing
Disclaimer: I'm just playing in someone else's sandbox. I promise not to throw sand. Too much, anyway.
A/N: I'm not sure who's to blame for this idea, though it is a bit cruel. I like to blame Gem, because most of everything I do is her fault anyway. And for some reason, I think she was the one who thought of this idea in all of its graphic glory. It's kind of intense in some ways, though not nearly as upsetting as probably some of the deathfics I've written. Still, I guess I'd warn you against ensuing Sam torture in the most literal sense. Things do get better, though, and there are two subsequent parts to this fic. Beta'ed by Gem, helped by Brenna, and therefore dedicated to both of them and the rest of the SFTCOL(AR)S gang. Pimp the limp, forever and always :)
Summary: Because maybe winning isn't about what he gains, but about what he doesn't lose.
The Art of Losing
"The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster."
-"The Art of Losing," by Elizabeth Bishop
He doesn't know where he is.
It's dank and musty and smells a little like a sewer. The walls are covered in a brown sludge that he can't identify and the room is all but empty, except for a few key items he sincerely wishes weren't there.
There's a chair--wooden and decrepit--along one wall. Right next to a table, just as dilapidated.
The other wall hosts a makeshift pegboard and is decorated with various knives and axes.
It's not cold, but the air is cool and rancid as he breathes it in and out, in and out.
He can't move.
It takes him a moment, but he cranes his head and sees he's mostly naked, save his underwear. He would be embarrassed but he is too distracted by the fact that he can't move his arms or legs.
He slowly discerns the metal shackles clasped around each appendage; his stomach drops.
Pulling, he tests the restraints. He finds them tight and unyielding.
He realizes then that he's being stretched across some sort of table. His hands are bound far above his head and his ankles are being pulled in the opposite direction.
There's enough light to see, but Sam doesn't know the source, and he can't see much from his limited vantage point anyway.
Just dark four grimy walls, furniture fit for the dump, and no way out.
Somewhere, water is dripping. Not a lot, but a consistent, hollow drip definitely haunts the fringes of his awareness.
It's the closest thing he has to measure time and he counts 89 drips before something changes.
Sam tenses, straining to look around, finding it just as futile as the countless other times he's tried.
His breath catches in his throat when he discerns the steady thumping.
Sam grits his teeth and doesn't know whether to hope or fear.
It could be Dean, coming to save him. His brother could have found him and is there to take him out of this place.
But it could be something else. It could be whatever brought him here.
Whatever it is, it's getting louder.
Sam's no longer alone.
It's human, or pretty close.
The shadow skulks in on two legs, sporting a limp and a distinctly humped back. Sam wonders briefly if he's been captured in a bad horror flick, because it seems far too clichéd to be real.
He catches glimpses of it--a shrouded figure, wearing a tattered and stained robe. It stays out of his line of vision, tracking along the wall and coming at him above his head.
He hears its approach, senses it as it nears him.
Then he hears the humming. It's a soft melody, gentle and lilting, and Sam's anxiety skyrockets. "Who are you?"
Nothing answers, just the continued, melodic hum.
There is a rustling above his head.
"What do you want?" Sam demands, sounding more in control than he is.
The laugh that answers him tells him that whatever it is, it is not fooled by his bravado.
He hears noises--sounds that cling metallically. Something grinds and lurches, clanking with age.
Brightness flashes behind his eyes as his body protests. He breathes a curse and inhales a prayer.
He's being drawn.
The realization comes to him with a morbid disbelief.
He's on a rack, pulled tight and shackled, and he's being drawn.
It's going to torture him.
Coldness ebbs in his stomach. Why? What does it want?
It makes no sense, he can find no logic, but the tune strengthens as the crank is turned again and Sam's body is stretched even tighter across the surface.
"What do you want?" he screams finally, his entire body screaming for reprieve.
But there is no answer.
And Sam is afraid.
It has been to see him twice now, but it was just as elusive the second time around as the first. Everything was exactly the same--the hum, the crank, the stretching--and Sam feels almost giddy with fear.
He thinks he is awake between visits, but he's not entirely sure. It doesn't quite hurt yet, and for a moment he thinks maybe this won't be so bad. If he could just stop shivering...
He has to get out of here. He has to figure a way out. He needs to think. Full on geek boy mode.
His mind wants to wander, but he forces himself awake. Think, Sam, think. All the possible culprits.
Within a minute, he draws a blank, and he finds himself drifting.
He jerks back and he grimaces.
It's too human in its movements to be any kind of literal monster. Not to mention the seeming intelligence--Sam is nearly certain it can speak, or at least communicate, and it is so particular in its methods that Sam does not doubt its ability to reason and plan.
No, whatever has him here has plotted and planned and executed it all perfectly. He tries to remember how he came to be here but comes up blank, just a vague memory of a motel and his brother but nothing in between.
Sam knows this is no regular human. The setting, the techniques--it seems so strangely archaic. It doesn't make sense.
And the question why.
It makes his head hurt. He swallows hard against the dryness of his throat.
Being drawn is a means of torture, usually used to elicit information. But so far it has asked nothing of Sam, not even spoken to him. To go through all this trouble to find something out without asking the question seems unlikely.
So maybe what it wants isn't information, but him. Ritual sacrifices, appeasing some higher demonic force--something like that, but Sam isn't sure what. Because he's never heard of a sacrifice being drawn--and he hates to think that his death would come like this.
What disturbs him more is the way it seems to enjoy it. Its approach is careful and deliberate. But the hiss of laughter always rings through his ears as it pulls him farther.
Sam has never seen a rack before, but he's beginning to understand how one works. It's a mechanical device, primitive, but effective in its means.
It's a long table, wood from the feel of it, and there's a crank, or a ratchet, or something at one end. When it's turn, the table vibrates, something rolls beneath him and moves as he is stretched farther.
He tries to remember more about them, but he's not sure it matters. He can't remember any details that might help him escape, not that he could do much anyway, stretched spread eagle and manacled to a torture device.
The drip is his metronome and he swears it matches the rhythm of his heart. Sam's world is so small now that he is attuned to the slightest change. His senses are sharp, over alert. Yet so little changes.
He tries to move--again. The shackles are unforgiving, and the metal around his appendages is vicious as it cuts into him. Warm blood trickles freely from his wrist, but the flow doesn't last long, and Sam feels it as it cakes onto his skin.
It comes back with a different tune, just as cheery as it starts up the crank.
"Someone will look for me, you know," Sam says this time as it lingers above his head.
Sam recognizes the noises now, almost can sense the movements.
The hum doesn't even pause.
"You won't get away with this."
There is a clank of gears and Sam tenses a second before his body is stretched even more.
"You won't," Sam gasps, but the crank is still turning slowly, looking to find a lock.
Sam's voice fades and he can't find enough air to speak. This newest position is surprisingly difficult to adjust to and his breaths are hard and strained as he realizes how effective this torture is.
The discomfort becomes pain, though Sam can't remember when, but now the pain slices up and down the length of his body, resounding in his taut muscles.
He forces himself to wiggle his hands and feet as best he can--at least the fingers and toes--to make sure the circulation isn't cut off.
He has to keep it together, after all. Being laid out doesn't mean he shouldn't be keeping his wits about him, ready for an escape. Besides, he doesn't want his legs to be numb when Dean rescues him--he's sure as hell not letting his brother carry him out of here, no matter what.
He smiles a little. When Dean rescues him.
The song it hums sounds familiar, but Sam can't place it, doesn't even want to try, but it's distracting--so damn distracting that Sam almost doesn't hear the grinding of gears as it turns the crank.
A scream is almost ripped from his lips. But he won't allow it. He bites his tongue to keep it in and blood runs down the back of his throat.
He stopped talking to it a while ago. It just seemed amused by his words, so Sam didn't want to give it the satisfaction anymore.
But it hurts. It burns and lances, reverberating throughout every inch of him. He wants to pull away, to curl into himself, but he has no means, no recourse. He is completely helpless.
And somehow, that's the worst part of all.
He has no real sense of time, but he guesses everything seems so ritualistic that it seems like a pattern. Each visit is the same--the lopsided gait, the haunting hum and then the turning of the crank that increases his agony.
He still doesn't know where he is, what it is, what it wants, how he got here, how he's going to get out of here.
He doesn't know where Dean is, doesn't know if there's enough of a trail for his brother to follow him here.
His logic is failing him.
It's the pain, he tells himself. The pain is clouding his judgment.
He has to stay strong. When Dean rescues him, he doesn't want his brother to see him crying.
His stomach grumbles. His bladder twinges. As if the physical stretching of his body wasn't uncomfortable enough, now he's been here long enough for his body's normal functions to feel neglected.
It has not offered him food or drink and it certainly hasn't offered him a chance to go to the bathroom. And it finally occurs to Sam that while he could survive a long time on the rack, he can't survive without water.
Then he feels the pull of sleep, though he's not sure why. Surely he hasn't been awake long enough to warrant feeling this tired.
He wonders absently how much damage was done in his capture; he doesn't imagine he went down without a fight.
Through the mist of hurts that pulse throughout his body, he suddenly discerns one in the back of his skull and as he rolls his head, it throbs. Somehow that makes him feel better.
The world is hazy, soft and ethereal. It still hurts, but in an abstract way. He doesn't hear the crank churning, barely acknowledges the minute increases of the strain exerted on his limbs. Sometimes he can't even feel it.
So when his shoulder pops it's a cruel surprise, flooding over him like ice, then searing through him like fire.
His instinct is to pull it in, draw it close to him, protect it, but the force on his body yields no give and he merely twitches in pain, his head flopping back and forth, the only part of his body free to express the torment.
When he wakes up, his throat is raw and his voice doesn't work right anymore. It hurts and suddenly feels as stretched as the rest of him.
He is shivering, though his body is wet and sticky.
For a moment, he forgets. He doesn't remember what happened. But then just the act of breathing aggravates his shoulder and his vision dims with it.
He's had a dislocated shoulder before, but not like this. Not with it over his head, pulled so taut that he can feel the bone resting unnaturally against his muscles and ligaments.
He had thought he was helpless before. But now the pain and the knowledge that, even freed, his arm would be useless, is overwhelming.
It suddenly fills him with despair and he can't stop himself from crying.
He doesn't care if anyone sees him. He doesn't care if he's sobbing when Dean comes. As long as Dean comes.
He sleeps more. He stops waking to its footfalls. He stops his thinking, his plotting, his hoping.
In fact, he hardly even knows what's happening until he's being pulled again, and he is wrenched from his sleep sobbing and screaming, crying and begging.
He never gets an answer. Just a hum and a laugh that lingers in his dreams.
"Please," Sam begs. "Please, stop."
His pride has left him, completely.
It doesn't care. It is no more sadistic and no more sympathetic. It is the same. Unchanged. Nearly unaffected, for better or for worse, by anything Sam does.
That lack of response has begun to terrify Sam. Because he can't reason with something that doesn't respond to him. He can't explain something that doesn't seem to even interact with its victim. It makes no sense--nothing makes sense--and Sam can't take it.
"Please," Sam tries again, and his voice sounds pathetic, even to him. "Please."
When his other shoulder is pulled out of its socket, it's just as surprising, but he doesn't have the energy to scream like he did the first time, not that his voice would work anyway.
He feels like he's been here for years, though something inside of him figures it's only been a day.
He tries to shift, to move--anything. His body aches with the consistency of the pressure and yearns for any kind of reprieve.
Whatever it is, it doesn't seem to sleep, and Sam is sure its visits are getting closer and closer together.
He knows Dean is coming, Dean always comes, but Sam wonders if he'll be fast enough.
Sam wakes up feeling wet.
It's a new sensation, different from all the pain and disconnectedness he's felt so far. His mind slowly processes it and tries to find its source.
It's his underwear. He doesn't remember doing it, but the absence of pressure in his bladder is evidence enough.
It breaks him a little more, and he feels emasculated and pathetic. He wants to bury his head into his hands, cry his shame away, but he can't move. Even that small solace has been taken from him.
This has to end, he thinks. This has to end soon.
The world gets fuzzy again, and as his vision grays around the edges, Sam is sure he can see his brother standing above him, cocky smirk and all.
Sam wants to stay awake, to speak, to see if this is real, but as he drifts away all he can hear is his brother's voice, "You crapping your pants, Sammy?"
Sam meets oblivion this time with a smile.
He's pretty sure he can't be stretched any further. He realizes that each churn of the crank only moves him by the merest distance, but it's gone on so long and his body feels like it's about to pull apart.
It has to be over soon.
But he hears the giggle and sees the shadow and sobs and sobs and sobs.
His arms are going to rip right off, and he'd rather be dead by the time that happens.
But he doesn't die, and this time he doesn't pass out. He just shudders and squeezes his eyes shut, wishing that it was over.
"Hey, kiddo, you look kind of green."
Sam would laugh if he had the strength. But it's getting hard to breathe--he doesn't have enough leverage to raise his chest as much as he wants to.
He coughs instead, and the process rips at his already stretched and torn muscles.
It takes a few minutes before he can breathe again and his vision returns a few seconds later. "Dean."
His brother is grinning.
Sam almost laughs again. "We need to get out of here, Dean," Sam says. "Before it comes back."
But Dean just keeps on grinning and Sam's heart sinks.
"Kind of a tight spot you've got yourself in there, isn't it?"
Sam doesn't care. Sam doesn't care if he looks like an amateur or a baby or a wimp or anything. He just wants to get out of here. "Please."
Dean smiles, and just cocks his head and Sam's stomach drops. Something's not right.
Dean sort of fades, becomes shimmering and translucent, and there is a lilting laugh that takes his brother's place.
Sam just shakes his head in denial and can't stop crying.
When he wakes again, Sam tries to find Dean, but he doesn't seem to be there.
But that thing is. Sam is babbling before he can stop himself. "Not again. Please. I can't--I'll do anything, please, just let me go--"
It doesn't respond, just turns the crank and whistles while he screams.
The laugh is always the same. A little sinister, a little amused. It's a breathless, wispy thing, and suddenly Sam isn't sure if it isn't just in his head.
But the rack is not in his head. There is no doubting that. He may imagine the laughter, but nothing in his mind could have conjured something as horrendous as the rack.
His body no longer rests on the table. He is pulled so tight that he is suspended, his shoulders and his bottom skimming it. It offers no support but his body has no give.
His muscles burn then ache then burn again. He knows he is well passed exhaustion, and probably on his way to shock.
He thinks of Jessica on the ceiling and tells himself that there are worse ways to die.
Dean's not here.
It takes Sam awhile, but he's pretty sure on that fact now.
Sam isn't sure if it's a hallucination or some vision this thing has put into his brain but he knows it isn't Dean.
It sounds like him. It moves like him. It even smiles like him. But Sam can tell.
Because Dean wouldn't be here. Dean wouldn't have gotten trapped like this. Dean just wouldn't.
But if Dean wouldn't be here, then maybe Sam wouldn't either
For a moment--a brief, beautiful moment--he convinces himself that he isn't really.
Sam ignores him. If he's going crazy, it doesn't mean he has to acknowledge it.
"Sam." Dean's voice is melodic as he calls his brother.
Sam squeezes his eyes shut even more and tries to think of something else, of anything else. It hurts too much to talk to Dean and have him not be real.
Sam's patience snaps. "It's Sam," he says as loudly as he can.
Sam isn't looking, doesn't have the strength to move his head, but he knows Dean is grinning. "Sammy," he taunts. "Try to stop me."
The little brother in Sam furrows his brow petulantly and wants to move before he remembers he's strapped down so tight that he can't even breathe right.
And Dean laughs and laughs until Sam knows no more.
The hum is always in his head, in his dreams, and he can't tell when it's real and when it's not.
"Dean, I want to get out of here," he mutters to no one for no particular reason.
Except that he's tired and he's hurting and he doesn't know what else to do.
But Dean doesn't answer this time. Instead he is greeted with that laugh and the metallic grinding that sends his world to nothingness again.
He misses everything about his brother. He misses the way his brother wears the collar on his leather jacket turned up. He misses the way he leans back in the driver's seat, relaxed and confident. He misses the way he smiles at the pretty waitresses they see, all charm and flirtatiousness. He misses the way Dean holds out the credit cards with so much grace and style that no one questions the last name on the card.
He misses knowing that Dean is nearby. He misses the way Dean lies to him when he's scared. He misses the way Dean stands so close to him when danger presents itself, always assuring him, always protecting him.
A sob shudders through his body.
He wishes Dean could protect him from this.
But Dean's not here. Sam doesn't know where Dean is. Sam doesn't even remember the last time he saw his brother. He can't remember taking a full breath. He can't remember being relaxed. He can't remember peace and tranquility and happiness.
He just knows pain--shoulders out of sockets, ligaments torn and ripped, stomach empty and aching, head swimming and foggy.
He just knows he's going to die. He's almost ready for it.
Sam isn't sure when, but eventually he stops caring if Dean is really there or not. It doesn't matter if it's a hallucination or a vision or some sick trick that is slowly going to kill him--because real or not real, he needs his brother.
Then he doubts. Doubts that Dean will come. After the times he's abandoned Dean, why would his brother come for him?
Sam has always trusted, always known, always believed: Dean would do anything for him. It is his safety net.
He has never realized just how weak he is without it.
And he has taken it for granted. Tried to run from it. Left it behind.
"I'm sorry," Sam whispers. "I'm so sorry."
But Dean doesn't come.
He doesn't even think of it anymore. He doesn't care. He never saw it to begin with. And now it's just a voice, just a laugh, just a shadow.
It comes and goes without his notice. The only thing he notices is the sound the rack makes, the way the table shakes as it is moved up a notch, the way his insides seem to stretch and tear with each passing moment.
He feels dirty. His tongue is swollen and parched and his lips begin to crack. The sweat has dried cool and sticky on his tight skin.
He doesn't know how long he's been here, or how long it was before that that he had a drink. But his skin is no longer moist with the sweat of the strain.
And he's sick. He isn't sure of the nausea is from the emptiness of his stomach or the pain of his injuries. It doesn't matter. Because if he throws up, he's not sure he can turn his head enough to keep from choking.
He can feel it when his knee starts to go.
His body is mostly numb, too exhausted to even tremble anymore. He hears the metallic clang of the crank being shifted and the quiet laughter that comes in breaths all around him.
He doesn't ask why anymore.
He doesn't even beg no.
The table vibrates with the movement and he has no recourse as he feels the chains pull at him more, yanking harshly before settling into a groove.
Somehow, somewhere in his muddled brain, he knows his body can't take it. He knows something else has to give. Both of his shoulders have both become muted pains, his synapses too abused to register the persistent onslaught, and he knows the only damage left to be done there is to sever them clean off.
His legs have resisted so far, pulled so tight his knees have no bend. The shoulders popped quickly, suddenly, like pulling a Band-Aid off in a swift swoop. But he can feel the grinding of the bone in his left leg, bone on bone, harsh and unforgiving, a second before it slips clean out of joint.
The inhale of sated joy whistles through his ears and he knows the presence in the room is watching him, studying him, waiting for him to respond.
Sam wonders what would be more entertaining--to see him struggle with a pain he cannot fight or to watch him succumb to darkness.
He doesn't get to pick but isn't upset when he does the latter.
Dean doesn't come back anymore. Sam wonders if he is so far gone that even his delusions have abandoned him.
Distantly he wonders if this is what it wanted. Because he knows if it's plan was to break him, it has succeeded in every way possible.
Yet it doesn't end.
A clang and a grate and his shoulders feel like they're floating, his knee screams, and his other leg tenses in desperation to stay together.
If it would only ask something of him, Sam would give it without question. Sam would tell it anything it wanted to know. He would perform any service. He would even willingly turn a gun on his own head to finish this.
But it asks for nothing but continues to harvest his willpower and reap his pain.
When his stomach rebels, he can't stop it. He can't even help himself. He can barely turn his head and his vomit catches in his mouth, his body not even capable of projecting it clear.
The process is excruciating, ripping through his chest painfully as he tries to heave. His eyes water uncontrollably with the effort. He writhes with it, ignoring the burning sensation in his limbs and he tries with his meager strength to lift himself off the table--anything to keep himself from suffocating.
Another mouthful is coming too fast--he can't keep up. It plugs up in his throat, stalling up the airway, blocking the upcoming bile, which triggers his gag reflex anew.
He flails his head sideways, desperate, and his mind screams for air. He thinks for a moment he is going to die, chained to this table, stretched, and drowned in his own vomit.
Finally, some of the vomit seeps out the side of his mouth, trailing down his cheek and chin. Hollowly, he feels it drip over his ear and into his hair.
It seems to take a lifetime, but eventually his stomach calms and his muscles still--but not relax, the chains still hold them in perpetual tension. Acid burns in his throat and mouth and he's choking on it still, coughing and spitting desperately to rid his mouth of the intrusion.
The vomit splatters on his face and he doesn't have the energy to move his head. His eyes are closed but he doesn't pass out.
He's dying. He's dying on this table, in this place, at the hands of some thing he can't identify.
Somewhere inside of him he knows this isn't how it should end, but he's not so sure he cares anymore.
Dean comes back.
At first Sam is giddy, overwhelmingly relieved, but then he sees Dean's face.
It is set and serious and Sam quivers. "Dean."
Dean doesn't say anything, and Sam can see why. Dean is angry--so very angry.
"I'm sorry," Sam offers, his voice somewhere between a sob and a plea.
Dean just shakes his head. "I should have known."
Sam feels a little hysterical at his brother's obvious disappointment. "Dean, please."
"You walked out once. Should have known you'd do it again."
Sam tries to shake his head but he's not sure anything is happening. He can barely see through his swollen, red eyes. "I can't do this."
"Yes, you can. You just don't want to. Everything's a choice, Sammy. The universe just pushes us until we break just to let us know who's the boss."
The words don't quite make sense--Sam's not sure what to make of them. All he knows is that he is broken, he is at the mercy of the thing, of the universe, of this torture device he's hooked up to. He knows nothing else. "It hurts, Dean," Sam whispers.
Dean moves closer, closer than ever before, leaning so close that Sam can smell the scent of his brother. "Of course it hurts, Sam. That's how you know you're still alive. That's how you know to keep fighting. Once it stops hurting, kiddo, then you quit, then you throw in the towel. Until then, you fight."
Sam can barely breathe through his hiccupping sobs and the congestion it brings in his nose. He wants to wipe his face but he has no means. "Dean."
Then his brother brings a gentle hand up and rests it on his forehead, running it softly through his hair. "And just know, Sammy, that it never stops hurting."
The motion of Dean's hand in his hair is so soothing that Sam almost feels relaxed, lets himself be lulled by it, closes his eyes to it like a lullaby.
Sam is numb now, number than ever before. It eclipses everything. He is vaguely conscious but the world is intangible to him now. He exists only within the glow of his brother's aura and he wants nothing more to effuse into it.
"Never, little brother." Dean's voice is distant and soft and Sam follows it to nowhere.