Strings Attached
K Hanna Korossy

He was cold. Like death was supposed to be when it wasn't warm blood and hot tears.

Distantly, he heard a voice raised in worry and felt hands shaking him, but when he opened his eyes, all he saw was the man. Old, wrinkled, smiling in a way that lodged the cold in his spine. Then the old man turned and disappeared.

Dean stared after him, wondering what piece of his soul the spirit had just taken with him, because something felt very, very wrong.


Sam's voice finally penetrated his head if not his ears, and Dean turned in a daze toward his brother. Sammy was looking frantic and Dean knew he should have been worried about that, but it all seemed so apart from him.

He was shaken again, lightly, like a mother dog a pup. "Dean, talk to me!"

"'M okay," he murmured, because it seemed the thing to say. It made Sam's face crumple, anyway, which he wasn't sure right now was good or bad. Another glance past his brother's shoulder revealed nothing there: no spirit, nothing but the preacher—La Grange?—smiling benevolently down on Dean.

Dean shivered, ice water running through his veins.

"Let's move him someplace quiet."

A woman's voice, friendly and soft. Dean couldn't remember who she was and couldn't seem to care.

"Okay, Dean, let's get you on your feet, all right? We'll get you someplace you can rest."

Dean didn't say anything, didn't argue, disoriented as Sam let go of his jacket and slid his arms under Dean's and lifted. Vertigo momentarily replaced the cold, and Dean shut his eyes through the process, leaning his head against Sam to stop it from spinning. His brother seemed more than willing to take the burden, hands moving over Dean as if he were made of precious glass: around his back, skimming his head, ducking under his shoulder. Probably would have carried him if Dean had been willing, but he started shuffling forward before Sam got any bright ideas. Things were disconcerting enough as it was.

They moved away from the murmur and heat of watching people, which Dean was silently grateful for, into the quiet chill of outdoors, which he was not. He couldn't seem to stop shaking, and Sam silently pressed him closer. Dean didn't shrug him off this time, busy just trying not to rattle apart and to make sense of things. They'd come there for…healing, right? Sam with his frightened, earnest eyes, Dean's body slow and failing with pain. He looked for it now and couldn't feel anything but cold and weakness, and wondered if he should be happier than he was. Cured, maybe, but he felt more off than before, as if he'd been put back together wrong. Sam's miracle was flawed.

Steps, then warmer air again. A house. Dean spared it an uninterested glance before Sam was lowering him onto something that creaked and gave softly under his body and smelled of lemon. Being horizontal helped his muddy thoughts settle, and Dean finally opened his eyes to see Sam talking with a woman. A moment later she nodded and left. Sam turned back to him, smiling painfully when he saw Dean watching.

"How are you feeling?" He sank down on the edge of the—couch?—Dean was lying on.

"Cold," Dean muttered, the first thing that made it to his lips. It wasn't the answer Sam had been looking for, he could tell. But his brother's fingers passed over his forehead, and, with a frown, Sam was pulling off his own jacket.

"You're freezing. Sue Ann says that's normal, kind of a…byproduct or something of the healing." The jacket, warm from Sam's body, was gently wrapped around him. That seemed to be the mode Sam was stuck in these days: gentle, soothing. Scared.

Dean hated it, hated that it was for him, and let his eyes shut again even as he savored the slight reduction of chill. His stomach turned queasily and he felt lightheaded and shaky and like he'd never be warm again, but the shortness of breath, the spasming and knotted muscles were gone. Cured? Was it possible?

"Dean?" Soft and concerned. Now that there was nothing to do, his "specialist's" work done, Sam's take-charge attitude had evaporated back into little-brother uncertainty.

Dean opened his eyes and stared into the painfully hopeful ones. "Let's get out of here, Sam."

He wasn't sure what arrangements Sam made. There were more distant murmurs, and at one point Sam's jacket was joined by a blanket. It made the tremors fade but not disappear completely, the cold too deep inside him to be warmed from the outside. Then several hands—no, just Sam, which was good because even that was barely tolerable—and Dean was being shuffled somewhere else. He was more grateful than he could say when it turned out to be the Impala, and sinking into the vinyl was far more comfort than the citrusy overstuffed couch had been. For the first time, he felt like he could breathe.

The car dipped under Sam's weight, and Dean could feel his brother's eyes on him. Dean was reluctant to talk, though, and nestled himself against the door, the embrace of his other beloved family member, and closed his eyes. He could feel Sam's hesitation, the burning questions, and felt guilty for not answering them. But Dean himself wasn't sure what was true, and it was all…too much. The concern, the aching hopefulness, and the unease that had settled into Dean's bones, it was too much. Sam would just have to wait until Dean sorted some of the jumble in his own head before he could help his brother.

The driver's side door swung shut, and the reassuring growl of the engine started up. Dean took what felt like his first real breath of the day.

It wasn't difficult to feign sleep; his mind did white out a few times along the way, drifting agitatedly from memory to memory. The basement where he'd fried himself along with the rawhead. Sam's pale, lost expression. The pain that suffused him like no injury he'd known. The calm of his own approaching death. And then the iciness that had replaced it, seemingly the moment Dean had stared into that old man's eyes. If this was healing, he wasn't sure he wanted it.

The engine idled and Sam got out. Dean dully traced his brother's actions in his mind: room for two, please, first floor. Double beds—my brother's with me. A few days; we're just passing through. Credit card? Sure.

The door creaked again—he really should oil it sometime—and Sam's quiet breathing returned. The car was reparked, and Dean listened to Sam carry in their bags, then crunch through the wet gravel around to Dean's side. Time for Act Two.


"Yeah." He opened his eyes and nodded tersely. He wrapped an arm around Sam's shoulder, wanting the help to be on his terms this time. Sam let him, wide eyes watching Dean oh-so-carefully as they made their slow way to the door, then into the room beyond. Already Dean was moving better, and he knew Sam had noticed and was trying not to say anything. Dean really should have, but couldn't seem to.

"You wanna take a shower, try to warm up a little?" Sam was asking. "Or just bed? Or I could get us some food…"


Their path was changed without comment, to the nearest bed. Dean wondered if that was for practicality's sake or a concession to his usual preference. Sam deposited him on the edge, then crouched in front of him, hand skimming Dean's, then chafing his arms. "God, you're so cold."

"'M okay, Sam," he repeated idly, not really caring that the words were meaningless.

"Are you?" Sam had stopped and was staring hard at him. "Dean, did he…do you feel any different?"

Dean pulled away from him, inching back by slow and painful degrees onto the bed until he was huddled almost at the headboard. Sam followed him as far as the edge of the bed, sitting there and watching him with a combination of hope and fear that had always cut straight through Dean's heart. It was the same look that had believed he could fix everything, frighten away every nightmare, protect him from all harm. Dean had no resistance at all to that look, not when he was at his best, not now when he felt a shell of himself. He nodded slowly, voice husky as he said, "Yeah. I think he did."

Sam's breath shuddered, his eyes too bright. But he didn't react otherwise, just helped Dean strip down to his boxers and t-shirt with careful hands, then slide under the covers. There were a few moments of movement behind him, then, as Dean half expected, Sam climbed in after him, warm hands rubbing Dean's arms again, trying to quell the tremors that still ran through his body. "We're going to a doctor tomorrow," Sam said quietly.

Still stuck in protective mode, but also looking to his brother to chase away different demons now that they were grown. Dean tolerated the closeness without comment, wanting only to be left alone to sleep and forget but knowing Sam needed it. Remembering a few times the tables had been turned, although maybe not quite this spectacularly close a shave, and Sam had let him cling.

But he flinched when Sam buried his face against Dean's hair and the back of his neck, and started to silently shake. Dean's skin was soon damp.

He sighed, feeling the weight of his brother's love on top of everything else. "Sammy…"

"Just…shut up," Sam muttered. An arm wrapped defiantly around him from behind, settling over his newly strongly beating heart.

Dean shut up.

Love was warm, too, and Dean's insides slowly thawed from his brother's desperate closeness. Enough that even the intermittent shivers finally faded and let sleep approach. Sam had already succumbed behind him, exhausted from the passing mourning, and Dean let himself drift to the puffs of his brother's quiet breaths.

He would live; he knew that now even without the doctor Sam would track down for him the next day. Dean hadn't quite wrapped his head around the concept, and some part of him would be relieved and grateful when he finally did. But there was still something…wrong, some price he'd unwillingly paid for his reprieve. And that scared Dean more than his impending end had. Death was never traded for life without considerable cost.

God…Sam, what did we do here?

But it wasn't the first time Dean had sacrificed for his brother, and apparently it wouldn't be the last. Maybe, if he looked at it that way, he could deal with this. Dean rolled over onto his stomach, pretending it was the absence against his back of the furnace that was Sam that sent a quiver of cold through him.

His brother's arm heavy across his back, Dean gratefully fell into the blackness of sleep.

The End