What Makes You Think I
K Hanna Korossy
It wasn't on a hunt. In the woods or a crowd of people or a haunted house. They weren't even separated. One second they were walking to the Impala, Sam just behind him, the next minute he was gone.
It wasn't much of a lead, but Dean started looking nonetheless. What else was he going to do?
With his hands strung above him, his feet barely brushing the floor, it was hard to breathe. If he didn't balance just right, his throat closed up from his weight and he choked. Nice twist on the usual something choking him from the outside, but Sam wasn't feeling appreciative. He pushed himself wearily up again, and prayed for his brother to find him.
And there Dean was.
That one word had such power. Sam gasped at the weight of relief, straining uselessly toward the voice. "Here." His voice was dry and the word scraped. "I'm here."
Dean dashed into the room—cave?—equal relief flooding his face. "Hold on." A knife was suddenly in his hand, and he was sawing at the ropes that held Sam up. Sam took advantage of a nearby shoulder to rest his chin on and ease a little of the weight on his straining arms. Dean's head leaned against his in tacit comfort as he worked. "Hold on, man, I'll have you free in a—"
With a lurch, Sam was hanging again, full weight on his wrists, because Dean was gone.
He propped himself up quickly, looking around in confusion and growing dread. What had just…had he fallen asleep, dreamed his brother's arrival?
"Dean?" His voice sounded horrible to his own ears. "Dean!"
But no one answered, and Sam's shoulders rounded in despair.
He was following one wisp of a lead, a tiny little local legend about the ghost of a hanged man who stole others to hang, heading toward the abandoned house in a rundown suburb of town, when he saw Sam.
Dean screeched on the brakes, felt the Impala skid a moment before she caught herself, but by then he was already flying out the door, dashing toward the side of the road. This easy? This open? Sam just waiting for him in plain sight?
Okay, bound and bloody, but still.
The shaggy head jerked at the sound of Dean's footsteps, and he quickly threw a reassuring hand and few words out. "Hey, it's me. Sam? You all right?"
His brother was tied to the tree, arms behind his back, gag stuffed in his mouth. Dean didn't know why no one else had seen him but didn't care. Ghosts played mind games all the time; for all he knew, Sam had been hidden from every passerby but him. And he didn't even care why right now as he gently eased the gag from the blood-crusted mouth. Smiling when frightened hazel eyes opened to him.
"Everything's gonna be fine, Sam, just let me get you outta here, okay?" He leaned his brother forward against him, feeling Sam's face drop into his shoulder, and started carefully in on the knots that tied him to the tree. Sam's breathing hitched against his shirt. "Ropes, huh?" Dean teased gently. "Didn't know you were into that scene, Sammy."
Dean's head snapped up, to stare into the Impala's mirror, his own wide eyes staring back at him. He jerked a full 360 around him, but there was no one else in sight, just him in the car on the edge of an empty road. No Sam.
His face crumpled.
He woke strangling, body convulsing against the lack of air. Dizzy and unbalanced, Sam pushed himself up, falling twice before he found his balance again. Every muscle seemed to be stretched too far, and breathing was starting to hurt, his chest aching from his labored efforts to draw in air.
"Dean," he used precious oxygen to rasp aloud, simply because it brought him comfort.
An unexpected answer. "Sam!"
Dean was suddenly back again, ducking down to see into Sam's face, one hand warm on his bare arm. He didn't even realize until then how cold he'd been. The concern on his brother's face seemed to banish the worst of the chill.
"God, who did this to you?"
A hand went around his back, pressing against seizing muscles but taking a lot of his weight. He let it, relieved, throat full with the simple gratitude of having Dean there, of being rescued. "Dunno," he said hoarsely. Dean's forehead was touching his, and Sam leaned against him. "Woke up here."
"Well, hang on—uh, no pun intended—I'll get you down in a minute." The flash of Dean's knife again. "Keep talking to me, Sammy."
"'Bout what?" he murmured with a smile.
Into empty air. His body swung in the dead silence and empty room, nothing to lean on, nothing to support him. Sam gasped at the sudden abandonment, feeling hope quaver and crumble. "Dean," he whispered, but knew already it was useless. His composure soon crumbled, too.
Anyway, there was no one there to see him cry, right?
The next time he saw Sam, it was in their room.
Dean gaped for a minute in the doorway, then was rushing forward, reaching for the huddle of torn clothing and flesh against the far wall.
Hollow, hopeless eyes came up to stare at him in disbelief, then growing wonder. They closed again when Dean slid a hand along the stubbled jaw, feeling his pulse, propping his head up, and soothing all at once.
"Sam, how did you—?"
"Dean," came the croak, and then that was all that mattered. Dean gathered his brother in, cataloguing damage even as he held and comforted.
"Easy, Sammy, easy," he crooned. "It's gonna be all right. You're safe now."
"No." Fingers dug into his arm. "No, it's not over. Dean, please."
He frowned as he went on, feeling welts and bruises and cuts. "What're you talking about—what's going on, Sam? You're here—you made it. We made it."
Those fingers were going to leave marks of their own, they clutched him so hard. "No, Dean. Please, I need—"
And then Dean was falling back, only peeling wallpaper in front of him, no one else in the room.
"No!" he growled, shoving to his feet, looking around wildly. Sam had been there, he'dfelt him. "No, damn you! Give him back!"
But there was no answer.
It took his groggy mind a few seconds to register the touch.
Sam blinked, lifted his heavy head to stare into a pair of hazel eyes that watched him with grief and love.
"Dean?" he murmured. Arms wrapped around him in response, easing the pull on his strained and screaming wrists. Dean was the only warmth he felt, and Sam tried not to sob as he burrowed closer.
"Don't be a girl, Sam," came the quiet cajoling. "Everything's gonna be fine, you're gonna be fine."
"Don't know…what's real…keep thinking…'s you."
"I know, man. Let's get you down from here, huh?" The arms released him, letting him sway again, his whole body lurching in protest. Dean was pressed against his chest, though, muscles working as he reached up to saw at the ropes.
Sam leaned gratefully against him a moment. Then suddenly frowned. "Are you real?" He struggled to reopen his eyes. "Dean? 'S this real?"
"Real as you want it to be." Dean's movements suddenly stopped. "Unless you want to stay here. I can go."
The cold he felt was inside him now, coating the inside of his stomach. "No. 'S not you. Get away." He longed for even the illusion, but couldn't bear to be disappointed again when it evaporated. Sam tried feebly to push himself away, succeeded only in wobbling in place.
Dean's smile became a sick, foreign leer. "Suit yourself."
And he was gone.
Sam drew into himself, shutting out the agony of his arms and chest, and the even worse betrayal of his heart, and let it all go.
Sam was waiting for him in the Impala, curled up in the back seat.
Dean was leery this time, but he couldn't help the jump of his heart, or the desperate need to help in case this time it was for real. He yanked the door open, hesitating only a fraction of a second before skimming his hands over his hurting brother. "Sam?"
The eyes, swollen and haunted and brimming as they looked up at him, certainly looked like Sam's. They had the same power to twist his big brother's heart and get him ready to do anything at all to make it all better.
"Take it easy, Sam," he soothed, unable to resist as he slid inside the car, perching beside his brother. "What happened?"
"Don't know." The murmur was so raw, it made him wince. "Dean, help."
"I'm trying," he murmured back. "Sammy, I'm trying." Sam was shivering, and Dean shrugged out of his coat, spread it over his little brother. "You're going to be all right. I'll fix this."
Sam's head rolled against the seat. "Hurts. Dean, it hurts."
"Okay, easy. I've got you." His hands were on Sam's shoulder, swollen and distorted, then his chest, feeling his labored heartbeat. "I've got you."
Feeling it when the heartbeat suddenly stopped, his fingers landing only in pooled leather. His jacket blanketed an empty seat.
Dean's vision darkened. "No!" He slammed a fist into the back of the seat, then again. "Not again, for God's sake!" His voice started to trail off. "I can't…I can't."
But the seat stayed empty.
He heard it distantly, the familiar voice, the warm touch. But he ignored it, refused to rise to the bait, hurting too much to want to feel anymore. It didn't surprise him when a few minutes later it went away and he was alone again. But it still broke him a little more.
Dean drove single-mindedly back toward the abandoned house. Sam's "appearance" alongside the road had distracted him, but it wouldn't distract him again. Not even when Sam's voice plaintively called his name from the seat next to him, fingers brushing the edge of his jacket in silent plea. Dean didn't even look, turning up the music and wiping his eyes angrily when the car went still again.
It was back.
He noted it dispassionately, then ceased to care. Nothing mattered anymore.
Hands gripped him, manipulated his abused body. Sam couldn't help the hiss that broke out of him as the weight pulling on his shoulders shifted, but that was all the satisfaction of response he'd give.
A head, hair tickling Sam's chin and eyes, ducked through the raised circle of his arms and whispered in his ear. Sam ignored it. Ignored the way his hands were being jerked back and forth.
And then he was falling, bound arms catching around the shoulders pressed against his, a solid embrace keeping him from hitting the ground. He screamed when his upper body jarred to a stop, dead wrists and arms and back suddenly on fire.
It broke through the comfortable haze, thrusting him back into the brutal world of sensation.
"Shh, shh. You're okay. You're okay, Sammy. I'm here. I'm here for real this time, I promise. I won't let anything else happen to you."
Dean's words, desperate and hurting. Strong hands massaged his shoulders and arms, trying to get them to unlock and lower. It hurt enough to make him pant and moan, but Dean didn't stop, just pressed him closer, soothing whispering continuing. "You're gonna be okay. I'm not leaving you."
He didn't want to believe it. To pull comfort from it, only to crash and burn when it disappeared a moment later. He hurt too much already.
But…this was different. He'd never been cut down before, never felt the reality of pain he knew lurked behind help. And the words, the careful hold, weren't going away.
"You're safe now, Sammy. Come back to me."
He blinked water out of his lashes and looked up. Upside-down hazel crinkled at him from behind. "Dean?"
His arms, still spasming and tight with pain, were finally maneuvered down, then Dean was wrapping his jacket around Sam's body, folding him close. "Right here, Sam. I'm not going anywhere."
And as Sam closed his eyes and dropped his head against his brother's chest, he believed him.
He kept waiting for Sam to vanish, for the shaking body to disappear from his arms leaving him alone again.
But Sam stayed there as Dean cut him down, as he worked on loosening damaged muscles and joints, as he was finally able to hold Sam and tell him it was going to be okay and really mean it. The tremors of exertion and exhaustion and fear slowly faded, but his brother remained solid and heavy as he pressed against Dean, also willing him to stay real and there.
That Dean could do. He sat on the floor of the house with Sam for a long time while his brother's breathing lengthened and steadied, keeping the promises he'd made to his little brother.
Dean wouldn't have believed it this time, either, the sight of Sam hanging from the ceiling of the small room, shirtless, sweat-soaked, shaking. In fact, Dean had stood there a minute in the doorway and fought with himself, wondering how many times he could do this, save Sam only to watch him vanish, before it drove him insane. He'd been frozen, flinching in pain at the strained sound of Sam's breathing, until a quiet moan had finally gotten him moving again. Because while there was a chance it was really Sam and he needed him, Dean couldn't say no.
This was also the first time he'd found Sam instead of Sam finding him. The first time Sam flinched from his touch instead of welcoming it, burrowing deeper into himself. Trying to protect himself just as Dean had been, and that was what convinced him. His imagination, the cruelty of whatever was playing with them, wouldn't have created a Sam who was as afraid of losing him as vice-versa.
Apparently, he'd been right.
It was Winchester-style triage, though, that decided they both needed this, just holding on to each other for a little bit, until reality settled into the cracks. Dean waited for his brother's heartbeat to slow against his ribs and hitched breathing to hover on the edge of sleep. For himself to stop feeling like he was about to break apart at any minute and his eyes to stop stinging. He still chafed a hand loosely along the back of Sam's neck, but that was for his brother's sake, not his own, he told himself. All he wanted was for neither of them to feel like screaming anymore.
Dean finally shifted, absorbing Sam's jerk of surprise. "C'mon, let's get you taken care of," he said.
"Dean…If I wake up back here again…"
He was about to say, not gonna happen, forget it, no way. But it didn't come out like that. "I'll come get you again," Dean said instead.
Sam knew that look, as soon as he opened his eyes, even a little groggy from the painkillers. "What?"
Dean tossed a handful of printouts on the bed, his eyes hooded. "The thing that snatched you. It didn't take people and hang 'em."
His arms were out of commission for a while, but Sam glanced at the top page, frowning. "The ghost?"
Dean swallowed, unusually subdued. "The hanging victims weren't the people who disappeared. They were the ones left waiting back home, strung up by their family members and best friends who'd been snatched a few days before and came back…wrong." His lips twisted.
Sam's mouth went dry. "Their loved ones killed them?" he repeated, disbelievingly.
Dean's eyes met his. "Probably couldn't tell reality from hallucination anymore. Or, hell, maybe they just felt betrayed."
Sam stared at him solemnly. Felt the weight of his brother's grief. And said the only thing he could think of. "Thank you."
"Yeah," Dean said softly, eyes bright and palm warm on Sam's chest. "Me, too."