First appeared in Brotherhood 7 (2009), Pyramids Press

Barry White Never Sang About This
K Hanna Korossy

"Okay," Dean said, sounding nonplussed. "This is…different."

Yes, Sam silently agreed, looking over all the faces that stared back at them. While audiences during a hunt were more frequent than either of them preferred, they still didn't usually have the whole town there to witness the takedown. At least it had been one of their better ones, neither of them hurt, the Terichik wholly dead, no innocents caught in the crossfire. Smooth as silk, besides the fact that the Terichik had been ready to swallow the whole town, and that had been a little hard for even the oblivious townspeople to ignore.

Hence the hundred or so people staring at them with dumbstruck disbelief.

Dean cleared his throat and leaned a little closer to Sam, eyes not moving from the crowd. "You think they'd buy the 'we're shooting a movie' story?"

Sam's mouth flattened, and he took a step forward, sliding effortlessly into empathy. Dean couldn't really remember a time when he didn't know about what dwelt in the darkness, but Sam could. "It's okay now. Everyone's safe—the creature's dead. You're safe."

That unfroze a few people, and there were stirs, murmurs. What was it? and Who are they? and My God… Someone finally asked the first.

Sam shook his head. "We don't know yet exactly, but we're with Fish & Wildlife and we've been tracking the creature for a while. There was only one, and it's dead now." Pretty much all a lie except for the last, but the end result was true enough.

"It looked like that…thing in Tremors," someone else ventured, and whispers agreed. In the back of the crowd, Sam spotted someone in a uniform and hid a wince.

"Look, there are some animals out there we're still discovering, in caves and underwater and in the mountains. What matters is that you're safe now. The threat's been taken care of."

Dean, leaving it to him thus far, spoke up now. "Time for everybody to go home. Get those kids to bed, settle down. We'll clean up here—that's our job."

There was a time for empathy, and a time to give orders. Dean excelled at the last. Sam watched as the still shell-shocked crowd responded to the voice of authority, starting to stumble off to their homes. They'd have more questions in the morning once the fear wore off, but by then the Winchesters would be long gone, and the Terichik would be a smoldering patch of ground.

While the families and elderly were leaving, though, the younger people and those uniforms in the back and a few single adults continued to press in on them, the questions starting in earnest now. Sam fell back a step, a little overwhelmed by the crowd, and felt Dean's eyes dart quickly over to him. Just like that, the guard was changed and Dean slid smoothly into place in front of him, answering the inevitably curious and rolling out lies more effortlessly than the truth. He'd always been better at that, anyway.

And at dealing with groups. Sam was the finesse, good at coaxing reluctant people to talk and sympathizing with the bereaved. Law enforcement, the inquisitive, the people who needed to be schmoozed, or browbeaten: that was Dean's purview, and Sam was glad to leave him to it. He moved back a few steps more, breathing in the cool night air and blocking out the babble of voices.

They hunted now for more than altruism, or vengeance, or even to honor Dad. The Demon and Sam's own mysterious destiny had made it all a moot point, made hunting a matter of survival. Sam had to keep looking for answers, and Dean would go where Sam went. But in the meantime, his big brother was right: they had to kill Evil where they found it. They knew too much to look away.

That didn't mean he wanted to do this, or that he enjoyed it. In fact, after his taste of normalcy, it was harder than ever to return to it. He wanted a home to go to at the end of the day. He wanted to not worry about Dean all the time. He wanted to chart his own course like others got to, and not fear where his own mind would take him. He wanted to not be responsible for other people's survival.

He wanted a life.

Shoving his hands deep into his pockets, Sam started walking. They still had the Terichik to burn, but they needed to wait until everyone went home to do so. And Dean would know he was coming back.

Or so Sam hoped, anyway. It had taken most of the previous year for him to realize Dean was constantly braced for Sam leaving again. Then their dad had died, and Sam was all the family Dean had left. Sam had let school go since then, and many of his dreams, but still he knew that Dean's fear he'd someday be alone lived deep inside his brother's heart. And while Sam had needed to go find his answers when Dean hadn't wanted to, he knew sneaking out during the night a few weeks before to go look for them had only carved that fear deeper. One more thing he didn't want to be responsible for.

Coffeeville—a name Dean had heartily approved of—could've been called Kudzuville for as much of the stuff as grew around there. That pretty much described the whole South, actually, but Sam rarely had a chance to examine the local flora. They were always off on the next job, or hip-deep in the current one, and there was time for little else. As a kid, he'd enjoyed looking up the plants and trees they came across; he'd actually learned a lot from their cross-country lifestyle. Dad had used every stop as a learning experience, not just for hunting but for geography, history, sciences. The road had been his school as much as his home.

Sam rubbed his eyes, shoulders sloping. Sometimes it was easy to forget all the good things because the bad was so bad. But there had been so much positive, too, like people who cared about him and a safe home on four wheels and always food on the table and clothes on their backs, if never in abundance.

And a brother who'd always been a buffer between him and the harshness of life. How much harder had their childhood been on Dean, who hadn't had that protection? He'd never complained, not then, not now. Nor thought Sam owed him, but he did. He did. If not his future, at least his present, now when Dean was struggling so much and needed him. When he could be Dean's buffer…and maybe still lean on him a little, too. For a while, at least, until they figured things out. If there was one thing Sam understood now, it was that Dean needed his brother as much as Sam did. They were each other's only family.

As purposes went, it wasn't a bad one.

Breathing deeply, Sam turned, starting back the way he'd come.

"Excuse me?"

His head came up at the sound of the soft feminine voice, startling Sam from his thoughts. He'd probably walked a mile or so; houses were still all around, but fields were starting to stretch off in the dark-cloaked distance. The stars seemed brighter away from the lights of "downtown." Far enough out that a girl with a stalled car probably needed some help, and he turned his long stride toward her side of the street.

She was petite, shapely, and with curly blonde hair that would have drawn him two years before, but that now made him flinch inside. She was in cut-offs and a baseball shirt, just about right for the warm night, and the Ford beside her was dark and silent.

"You need some help?" Sam's hands closed around the phone in his pocket. Dean would doubtless be very happy to check out her car, and, if she was willing, its driver, too. "I can call—"

"Actually, I think it might be the radiator—darn thing soaks up water like a sponge." She shrugged, exasperated. "You live around here? Maybe I could get a refill from you?"

He'd reached her now and looked down into the engine, fairly clueless as to what he was seeing. His dad and Dean's attempts to teach him basic car repair had left him with a few part names and vague bits of information, but checking the oil taxed his limited knowledge, let alone trying to diagnose any malady. He'd always had his family for that and hadn't driven at school. "I'm sorry, I don't. But I could call—"

He was turning around to face her again, and had just enough time to see her shove something at him and to feel it jam into his stomach hard below his ribs. That was when the fire began to flow through his body.

Taser, he realized in the split-second before the current reached his brain. Ambush.

His muscles seized, feet going out from under him, and his head cracked hard against the pavement. But she went down with him, her oval face blurring, determinedly continuing to shove the small weapon into his gut, until it felt like his chest would explode because it was so tight. He tried to say something and nearly bit his tongue in the process, jaw locking.

Why?

His vision was graying. His head flung back again, and if he could have cried out, he would have. He couldn't breathe, his body completely beyond his control.

Dean.

And then the darkness took him completely, his pretty attacker the last thing he saw.

00000

No matter what Sam teased him with, Dean knew he was good at lying. Yeah, maybe he couldn't sweet-talk the old biddies and the wary victims like Sam could, and as far as Dean was concerned, Sam could keep right on doing so. Because the fun lies, the ones to the cops and the beautiful women and the snot-nosed teens, those he excelled at. That was one of the reasons, in Dean's opinion, the Winchester boys made an unbeatable team.

Some things were a little beyond even his exceptional talents, however, and that included a thirty-foot dead carnivorous worm lying in the town square that they'd just killed in front of a boatload of witnesses.

Didn't mean it wasn't a challenge he could pass up.

Slowly, the remaining group thinned, trickling away. The cops were the last to go, but even they couldn't argue that killing a creature like that and obviously saving lives was no crime. Dean fielded the offer of a round of beers if they hit the bar outside town that night, patted the last uniform on the back, then rolled his eyes as he turned away and started looking for Sam.

Who'd vanished into the night. Awesome.

Dean hadn't been too surprised when Sam had gotten that slightly frantic look in his eyes as the crowd has pressed in; he'd never been one for big groups even before he'd started to fear there was something wrong with him. Sam dealt best with one or two people at a time, folks he could focus on and connect with. Anything more was a real effort, and Dean usually had no problem stepping in to fill the gap.

Of course, Sam didn't usually disappear on him then.

Sighing silently, Dean looked back at the Terichik. They still had to burn the puppy, and that was oh-so-much fun as a solo job. Not to mention, they didn't usually have to burn things the size of a bus in the middle of town. Bound to attract some more attention when he'd just worked hard to deflect it.

Dean circled the creature, giving it an experimental kick, considering. Well, it wasn't like it was coming back to life if it wasn't immolated. So it left a cryptozoological carcass—I know some big words, too, Sammy—for the bigwigs to study. So what? It would give the Weekly World News grist for the mill for weeks.

The decision was easy enough to make. Turning his back on the Terichik, Dean headed in the opposite direction.

His brother had always liked to take off to sort things out by himself. When they'd been kids, it had been favorite hiding spots wherever they went, homemade forts and natural caves and solitary corners. As they got older, it had become long walks or just kicking gravel around the parking lot. Now, Sam often sat outside their room, shivering or sweating until Dean coaxed him back inside.

Dean didn't really get that. Okay, so he wasn't a big thinker and dweller and brooder like Sam. But when he did have something on his mind, solitude was the last thing he wanted. It was why Dean had finally shared Dad's last words with Sam, even if he'd regretted it many times since. He just hadn't been able to bear being alone with that secret any longer. Without any distraction, the doubts and fears and longings gnawed at him like a friggin' black dog. Better to be among people and noise, to let distraction ease the worst of the pain. A barful was ideal, but Sam at his side was turning out to be more than enough. His brother had no idea how much he did for Dean's sanity.

But Sam needed different things, and lately Dean wasn't so sure he himself could provide what Sam gave him. That Sam wouldn't wander off one night to think and come to the conclusion he needed something more, and never come back. Dean had been certain Sam would return when he'd slipped out the night after Rivergrove…until he hadn't. The fruitless search for that Ava chick hadn't made him any less restless to find his answers, either—answers Dean was pretty sure would only make things worse—and after what Sam had drunkenly forced him to promise the previous week… Well, let's just say every morning when he woke up to an empty bed beside him, Dean's heart started hammering until Sam's ugly mug peered around the bathroom door or came in hot and sweaty after an early-morning run.

But he was coming back tonight. Dean was sure of it. He had to be, because the other option made his palms damp and his heart thump. There were no weird gray areas in this hunt, no brushes with death. They'd saved a town, killed something bad with their training and planning and teamwork. If there was a job to be proud of, it was this one. Okay, yeah, so usually hardly anyone else knew, and there'd be a few kids with nightmares tonight. But bottom line? This was a win, proof they were the good guys. Sam should've been celebrating, not moping.

Stupid emo little brothers.

Dean had walked several blocks already, and there was no Sam in sight. No way even of telling if he'd gone this way or turned off at one of the corners before. Dean couldn't search the whole town for him. They'd planned to leave town before morning came and the questions began in earnest; maybe Sam was already back at the motel. Yeah, probably, Dean realized, and turned toward their home-away-from-home on this job. And if Sam wasn't there yet, he'd show up soon. Even stewing, he was a responsible guy. He knew his job. He knew Dean would worry.

Right, because he wasn't worried already.

00000

Sam lurched awake on full alert. Maybe by day he could pretend sometimes he wasn't a hunter, but his instincts knew better.

Like the fact that waking up lying on a hard metal surface in his shorts and undershirt wasn't normal. Or that neither was every muscle in his body aching as if he'd spent the whole previous day running and climbing. Or that the pull on his wrist meant handcuffs, and even Dean at his grouchiest had yet to cuff him to his bed while he slept.

But this wasn't his bed or even their room, and there was no Dean in sight in the dim…

…cage. Sam groaned. He was lying on the floor of a metal cage, one arm cuffed to the bars.

"Right, of course. Why not? I mean, my life didn't suck enough already," he muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose, then letting his hand drop to the cage floor. With a sigh, he pushed himself up, wincing as his sore body flexed. "But does it always have to BE A CAGE?"

A few seconds later, he realized he was waiting for a response that wasn't coming.

Folding back against the bars, Sam took in his surroundings a little more fully. Sadly—he snorted at the thought—he was becoming kind of an expert on cages, and this one wasn't so bad. Bigger than the one a demented shapeshifter had stuck him in once, and less filthy than the Benders'. It sat at least a foot up off the ground on some kind of base, and it looked like it had been built for large animals, maybe wildcats, high enough to sit up or crouch in but not stand. It was secured only by a simple padlock. Of course, his lock pick set and any other possible weapon or tool was gone, so that didn't help him too much, and only one hand would have been able to reach the lock, anyway. The lack of clothing was getting to be a disturbing trend he could do without. At least he could be grateful whoever his captor was this time had left him his underwear, he supposed. Not really enough against the chill of the room, but better than nothing.

Well, there was a remedy for being cold. Sam started moving, prowling the edges of his reach, rattling bars and testing the solid floor and ceiling. Nothing gave, not even when he lay on his back and mule-kicked the metal bars. It just left his bare feet bruised and sore.

He finally gave up that pursuit and pulled his legs in toward his chest to conserve heat. "Hello! Can I at least get a blanket here or something?"

Still no response. Sighing once more, Sam thunked his head back against the bars and examined his surroundings again.

There wasn't much to see in the light, which seemed to be filtering through a small, high window in the wall to his right. It was just enough illumination to outline some shelves on the wall, boxes lining them and the floor below, the long shadows throwing any details or contents into gloom. If Sam didn't know any better, he'd have guessed he was in some suburban home basement.

Right, with a cage in the center of the room.

Shivering in his thin, sweaty clothes, Sam absently rattled the cuff and tried again. "Hello?"

He was surprised when a door opened above him, a rectangle of light quickly blocked by a figure.

Sam straightened as much as he could, alert and tense. "Please. I need some help here."

The figure approached slowly, down a set of stairs with small, light steps. It almost looked like a…

Teenage girl. Blonde, curly hair, slender, with a stalled car. Memory came back in a rush, and Sam stiffened, pressing slightly back into the bars behind him. "Christo."

She cocked her head at him, eyebrows drawing together over eyes that remained light and clear.

And somehow that didn't reassure him all that much. "Who are you?"

It came out harsh because, well, his manners tended to get a little rusty when he was being held captive and half-naked in a cage. The girl winced a little, and Sam reined himself in with effort. She didn't look or act malicious, and it wouldn't do him any good to scare her off before he could talk himself out of…whatever this was.

"Please," he said more quietly, holding up both hands in supplication, the cuffed one unable to reach far. "I don't know what's going on, but no harm done so far, right? Just…let me out, and we'll pretend this never happened, okay?"

Her eyes wide, she finally moved closer, and her features became clearer as she hovered just out of Sam's reach. Her cheeks were flushed, and her expression was…enraptured.

What the…?

"I'm Violet."

Of course she was. Sam's jaw worked, and he tilted his head. "Violet," he managed. "My name's Sam. I'm a federal offi—"

"You know how special you are?"

He paused, mouth still open, throat suddenly a little dry. Wait, she knew—?

"I've been waiting all my life to meet someone like you, but there aren't a lot of real heroes out there, y'know?"

Sam took a breath. Okay, so she didn't mean…special special. That was good. What wasn't so good was that apparently Violet was the reason he was there, which meant she probably wouldn't be helping him get out. And she couldn't have moved him in there by herself so she had a partner somewhere, too. Perfect. They didn't have enough evil things after them already; now it was psycho chicks with a crush who had their number. Dean would be laughing his head off. After he got Sam out of yet another friggin' cage.

Sam gentled his voice with effort, giving the girl a practiced soft gaze. "Violet…I'm not a hero. I was just doing a job. With my partner, who's already looking for me." Dean would be going crazy by now; judging from the light in the window, it had to be at least morning. "Please, I know you…you just wanted to…" Actually, he had no clue. Sam shook his head, held up his hands again. "…but, I need to go, all right? Other people need help, too. So if you could just—"

She smiled at him like he was an especially adorable toddler. "You don't have to worry—I've thought of everything." Violet unlocked the door and quickly pushed the bundle Sam now noticed she'd been holding—a blanket, a bucket, a bottle of water, and a plate of what looked like mac-n-cheese and fried chicken—hastily withdrawing before he could grab at her. "I'll take care of you."

Sam blinked. "Violet, I'm a person—you can't just keep me in a cage."

Her smile turned brittle. "You'll like it here, I promise. Don't worry." She turned and hurried up the stairs.

"Violet!" Sam called after her, climbing awkwardly to his knees. "Please, don't do this. If I helped you, please, don't—"

The door slammed shut hard in her wake.

Sam slumped back against the bars.

Well, crap.

00000

Sam hadn't come back.

Dean had gone to bed the night before, only to spend a restless, sleepless few hours twisting the sheets, expecting the door to open at any moment. But it hadn't, nor had the phone he'd left on the nightstand, volume turned up, rung even once. Sam was gone. Again.

Somewhere around dawn, empathy became edged with hurt, especially when Sam's phone went straight to voicemail. After the second time, Dean stopped calling.

He chewed on his nail as he swung irately from the closed door back to the room. He was so freakin' tired of this. Tired of trying to keep Sam happy so he didn't leave. Tired of worrying it wouldn't be enough. Tired of being abandoned as soon as something better came along: school, the hunt for the Demon, word on Dad, Sam's destiny crap. Tired of having no one at his side, at his back.

And, yeah, okay, maybe just a little bit scared by it all, too.

Dean kicked aside his brother's duffel and dropped onto the end of Sam's bed. He should've known. He still wasn't sure what had set the kid off the night before, but the distant look in Sam's eyes, the aloofness: Dean should've known Sam was ready to rabbit again. Stopped him before he left.

But how many times was Dean supposed to go after him when his brother obviously had other priorities? Where was the fine line between loyal and pathetic?

Then again, Dean's mind traitorously added, what if Sam hadn't left by choice?

He shook his head, made another fruitless circuit of the room. He'd watched Sam pull into himself and retreat the night before. No one had been holding a gun to his head. His laptop bag was missing, and he'd turned off his phone. No, Sam had to have taken off because he wanted to. Again.

"Fine," Dean growled to the empty room. "You hate this life so much, stay gone. Quit playing me like some kinda yo-yo, Sam—I've got better things to do."

But all he did was continue to pace, only stopping occasionally to check his traitorously silent phone.

00000

The next time the door opened, Violet wasn't alone.

Wrapped in the blanket, Sam deliberately kept himself slumped and small this time. He watched warily as the guy came downstairs, Violet just behind him. Didn't even stir as the man, at least a half-foot shorter than Sam and with a scraggly dark goatee and fuzzy hair, reached slowly through the bars to retrieve Sam's plate.

The plate he hadn't touched. He saw the guy show Violet the food, and her small nose wrinkled in displeasure.

"You didn't eat."

His shoulders contracted once in a soundless laugh. "Being locked up in a cage kinda takes away your appetite—go figure."

"You have to eat. You'll get sick."

"Let me out then."

She frowned, and once again Sam felt like she was seeing a kid when she looked at him. "You know I can't do that. You have to eat."

Sam turned his head away, conversation ended.

He could hear Violet huff her frustration, and the low murmur of discussion with the guy. Boyfriend? Although, what kind of man let his girl hold her crush captive in the basement? For that matter, what kind of person did, period? Was he as crazy as the girl?

"If you don't like the food, tell me what you want and I'll get that," Violet finally said.

His jaw flexed but he didn't turn back.

"Sam."

"Let me out," he said evenly, "then we'll talk. You don't…" His frustration got the better of him, and he turned back to face her, teeth grinding. "God, you don't just…take somebody if you like them and lock them up like an animal. I have a life, Violet—I have a brother who's worried sick about me. If I'm some kind of hero, then this is, what, how you show your gratitude?"

The words struck home, or at least he saw her flinch. Then raise her chin. "I'm not gonna keep you down here forever, I promise. I just…I don't want you to leave, okay? This is just until I know you're gonna stay."

Dean would have had a few things to call the girl, none of them complimentary. But the fact was, she couldn't be completely sane, not if she seriously thought this was the way to win him over. Even rabid fans didn't usually take their idols captive and keep them in a cage. Sam whooshed out a breath and dropped back against the bars, tuning her out again.

"Violet, leave him alone." That was the guy, speaking for the first time. "You knew he wouldn't be happy about this. You said you were ready for that."

Sam cut his gaze over to him, assessing the guy from under the cover of his mussed bangs, this time eyeing him as a potential ally.

"But…" Violet sounded small, bewildered. "I'm trying to be nice to him. I like him."

"You zapped him, and you're keeping him in your dad's old vet cage, Violet. He's not gonna thank you."

Sam smothered a snort. Thank God, they weren't both totally insane.

"You helped." Sulky now. Geez, how old was this girl, anyway?

"Yeah, don't remind me. Just…let him have a few days to settle in, all right? He'll listen to you after a while."

Wait a minute, a few days? Frickin' no. Sam growled and kicked out, the still-empty slop bucket clattering against the far cage wall and making both his captors jump. With a small shriek, Violet fumbled something in her hands, then shoved it frantically against the bars.

The steel of the cage conducted electricity just fine. The taser's burn instantly arced through every metal surface he was touching, even the cuffed hand. Sam's body snapped back against the unforgiving iron, voice caught in his throat in an inhuman yowl as his muscles went rigid, then began to spasm. He could almost feel the electricity sputter and spark down his nerves, freezing his brain.

God, it hurt.

He didn't quite lose consciousness by the end, but he wasn't really there, either. Sam's lungs stuttered, trying to suck in air, and his body twitched beyond his control. Something thick and wet trickled from his nose into his agape mouth, and his eyes couldn't seem to focus. He couldn't even push away when he felt something drift through his hair. The gentleness revolted him, and his stomach flipped, but his vocal chords couldn't muster more of a protest than a grunt.

"It's okay." She was trying to soothe him. Sam's hand fluttered up, then fell back again, his jerky headshake not dislodging her. "I'm sorry, I don't like to do that, but you scared me. You have to be nicer."

Right. Nicer. Top of his to-do list, really.

She stroked through his hair, then tugged on it gently. He didn't even realize what she was doing until there was the soft snick of scissors, and then the hair that had clung damply to his face…suddenly wasn't there.

Somehow, that made his eyes burn in a way the electricity and the captivity hadn't. He was well and truly helpless, and she wasn't letting her hero go anytime soon.

God, just let Dean show up already and get me out of here.

Because at that moment, screw his pride, his independence, his skills and his destiny. He felt sick, every single muscle was jerking with pain, she'd friggin' cut his hair, and Sam wanted nothing more than his brother to burst through the door in some cheesy TV-style rescue and get him off this twisted ride.

But when the door shut behind Violet and her friend, it just left Sam lying there alone and shaking in the dark.

00000

He was going to kill Sam. Slowly and painfully. Wasn't like the law ever caught up with them, anyway.

He had to find the kid first, though. Make sure he was okay. Then kill him.

Dean stepped out of the small town hospital and glanced both ways down the street, rubbing a hand over his mouth. No tall, floppy-haired John Does brought in the night before, not like everyone wouldn't recognize one of the town heroes. No body—thank God—in the morgue. Sam hadn't gotten another room, slept in the car, crashed on a park bench, or hailed a taxi, and as far as Dean could tell, he hadn't met anyone he might have gone off with for the night, if Sam ever even did that. The options were getting kind of limited.

Dean swore and stomped off the curb back to his car.

His resolution that morning to ignore Sam's absence had lasted all of fifteen minutes, five of which he'd spent reassembling the phone he'd thrown against the wall in his frustration. Dean still wasn't completely convinced Sam wasn't halfway back to California or off brooding somewhere, oblivious to the passage of time and the worry of older brothers. But with their job, there was more than an off-chance something had stopped him from coming home, and that was a possibility Dean couldn't just ignore. Even if it meant confirming what he dreaded.

Not that it had done much good. Three hours later, all he had was a list of eliminated possibilities.

"If he took off again…," Dean muttered under his breath as he unlocked his door. But even as he did, his eyes fell on Sam's computer satchel in the back seat. Crap. Sam might leave his brother behind, but his laptop? Uh-uh. Now Dean knew something was wrong here. He could feel it.

He slid into the car with a curse, trying to figure out where to go next. It was a small town, and everybody knew them thanks to the previous night's show. Any place Sam turned up, Dean should've heard about by now. The kid was nowhere.

Dean smacked his palm against the steering wheel. "How does someone that friggin' tall just disappear?"

There was no answer.

Dean twisted the key in the ignition, then peeled away from the curb with a squeal of rubber, no clue where he was going, just knowing he had to look.

00000

Night had come before the door opened again.

The aftereffects of the shock had finally worked their way through his muscles, leaving him feeling like used chewing gum. Sam winced in the sudden light of the bare bulb above his cage, not even taking advantage of the illumination to make a visual check of his surroundings. He just braced himself as best he could for Violet again, body clumsy and hurting in ways he wasn't used to. So it was with surprise and relief when it was only the friend who came down the steps.

Sam's eyes shot around the cage, seeking a weapon, a plan. But he'd already explored every inch of the welded-solid cage, used the blanket to try to hook one of the boxes beyond, even tried to reach the bulb to pick his cuffs with the filament, without success. Finding nothing now, he fixed his gaze warily back on his visitor.

"She's not crazy," the guy said quietly after reaching the bottom and pacing a moment.

Sam's laugh was sharp. "Yeah. Right. 'Cause it's totally normal to lock strangers up in a cage in your basement."

The guy stuffed his hands into his pockets. Something about the body language and the goatee reminded Sam of that actor, the one in the pirate movies Dean liked so much. What he wouldn't give to be flopped across the bed with Dean, sharing a bag of microwave popcorn and watching cable. "She…she's had a hard life, y'know? Both her parents died pretty young. She inherited the house and an aunt who really was nuts; she hasn't had a lot of people to look up to, y'know? So when she saw what you did the other night…"

Sam took a breath and compartmentalized the anger, then drew up his knees to sit cross-legged: chummy, unthreatening. His torso ached as if he'd been thrown into several walls, his legs faintly trembling, but he hid the weakness. "All right, so maybe she's kinda…confused. But you, man, you know this isn't right. All it's gonna get her is more trouble."

The guy's lips pursed. "I know that! I do." He spun away in agitation. "I'm not saying I agree with her. But I guess I just thought…if she had a chance to try this, see it was a stupid fantasy, maybe she'd, I don't know, be ready to accept reality."

Accept him, Sam realized. People did insane, ridiculous, stupid things for love. Like make deals with demons.

He closed his eyes a moment and swallowed. No, not the same. Dad had done that to save someone he loved, not entrap him. Only, it didn't exactly turn out that way, did it, Dad?

"So how long do you expect to keep me here?" he finally said with amazing evenness as he looked at the guy again. "Until she gets tired of me? Until I can't fight back anymore? And then what?"

"Look, just…just give it a few more days, okay? Please. I won't let her hurt you—the taser won't kill somebody." At Sam's snort, the guy grit his teeth. "I'm…I'm trying, okay? You just havta give me more time. That's all I wanted to say." He turned away and started up the stairs two at a time.

"Wait!" Sam went forward on his knees before he even realized it, weakness nearly dumping him to all fours, but his chance was slipping away, and he didn't know when he'd get another. "Please, just…do something for me then, all right? Just one thing."

The guy's face was half in shadow, but it was turned to the side, listening. "Like what?"

Sam sank sideways to sit on the floor of the cage. "The other…agent I was with? That's my brother. He's gonna be worried about me."

"He's your brother?"

"Dean. His number's in my cell. Please, just call him and tell him I'm okay. Tell him…I'll be back, all right? Please." Tell him I didn't leave, he almost said, but he wanted to tell Dean that one himself.

The guy was frowning.

Sam strained forward against the cuff. "There's no reason to hurt him, too, right? C'mon, dude, you know it's the right thing to do."

The guy chewed the inside of his cheek a minute, then gave a short nod. "I'll think about it."

Sam watched him leave, then slowly shuffled back against the cage wall, shrinking into the blanket again as the door clicked shut above.

Okay, he'd just tried the only tool he did have. Time alone would tell if it worked.

00000

He couldn't keep doing this.

The hunts where Sam got hurt were bad enough. Or the nightmares that woke him gasping in the night. Or the grief that still sometimes burned through him—whether for Dad or for Jessica—leaving him red-eyed and dodging Dean's gaze. But the disappearing…

Sam vanishing on him, leaving Dean uncertain if he was even alive, not knowing where to look, desperate with the thought that it was all on him to figure it out in time: that was the hands-down worst. Worse than seeing Sam bleeding, or distraught, or white with pain. Because Dean's imagination was always so much more vivid than reality.

He no longer had any doubt that Sam hadn't left on his own. Dean was ashamed he'd believed that at all, except, well, Sam hadn't always had the best track record when it came to sticking around. A little doubt wasn't unreasonable.

No more, though. His brother wouldn't do this. Dean was sure of it.

He just had no clue who would.

Dean gulped down his cold coffee with a faint grimace. It was getting late, but there would be no sleep this night, the third one that Sam was gone. Not until he was safely sleeping in the other bed beside Dean. Not while Sam needed him.

With a weary sigh, Dean scrubbed a hand through his hair, then sank onto the edge of the bed and picked up his phone. Time to start casting the net wider than Coffeeville, the small town he was really starting to hate.

00000

Sam had managed to get some sleep after the guy's visit, tucking the edge of the blanket under his head and pulling the water bottle close as he curled up on the cold, hard cage floor to try to escape his discomfort. Really, he'd slept in worse circumstances before, but he'd usually had Dean with him.

Was Dean even looking for him? Sam knew his brother would never stop searching, leave no stone unturned if he knew Sam was in trouble. But had he just written off this time as Sam skipping out on him again? Wasn't like Dean had no cause to think it. The idea was crushing in more ways than one.

And ironic. Here Sam had been wishing for a new life, and now he'd give anything to have his old one back. Dean would roll his eyes over that one.

Sam turned aside that train of thought as the door above opened. He pulled himself together as best he could, wincing as he leaned his sore back against the bars.

Violet descended the stairs alone, watching Sam almost shyly all the way. She didn't turn the light on, so he didn't see her clearly in the dim outside light until she was close, when Sam realized the shorts and t-shirts she'd worn so far had been replaced. She was in a short dress now, the low cut accentuating her not-unimpressive bust. Her hair was loose and soft, and in just about any other circumstance, Sam might have found her attractive.

Amazing how not in the mood fifty-some hours in a cage made you, though.

"Like what you see?" she asked, her voice low and throaty.

Sam wondered again how old she was, because the childlike girl of before was gone. He watched her uneasily as she slipped closer, hips swaying.

"Sam?"

She probably had a key, if she wanted him to do more than look. Sam licked his lips, swallowed down his distaste, and also dropped his voice. "Yeah. Yeah, I do."

Violet smiled, one hand coming up to finger the bars as she circled the cage. "I'm glad. I knew if I gave you a little time, you'd see I wasn't bad. I just don't meet too many people like you."

"Me, neither," he said truthfully.

Her eyes crinkled. "You're so sweet. I told Phil I was right about you."

Phil. Sam pushed himself up higher, turning on the act as effortlessly as breathing. "Violet…it's been a long time. I had a girlfriend…" Her face clouded, and he hurried on. "She was killed, and…it hasn't been easy since then, you know?"

She melted again, fingers trailing against the bars. "I'm sorry. But I'll help you forget all about her, all right? I'll make it better."

He was pretty sure he was grimacing more than smiling. "What about…Phil?"

"Phil? He won't bother us. He helped me, you know, get you here and set this all up, but he's not my boyfriend or anything. It's just you and me." She was moving slowly around to the side, closer to him, watching him through her lashes.

Sam gave her a weak smile, the nails of his cuffed hand digging into his palm. He rubbed the other one against the bottom of the cage, forcing down his body's automatic retreat as she rounded the corner on his left. "Great. That's…good."

"You have no idea." Violet's voice dropped even more, and then she was close enough to touch, reaching tentatively through the bars to stroke his cheek.

Sam bit the inside of his mouth and didn't move. "It's just…this isn't exactly how I pictured this—us—Violet," he breathed over her caressing hand. Sam rattled the cuffs gently. "I can't—"

"You don't have to," she whispered back, kissing the back of his neck, wherever she could reach. Her hand slid down from his cheek to his shoulder, then his chest under the blanket. Sam's cheeks grew warm with mortification, her touch a mockery of everything he'd shared with Jess. He watched her out of the corner of his eye, calculating, body coiled under her fingers. Her elbow cleared the bars.

He moved as fast as his battered body was able, grabbing her, twisting in her grip to get a good hold. He lunged for her other hand and, hopefully, the keys.

But that wasn't what she was holding.

That close, he couldn't help see the shift in her eyes from pleasure to betrayal and anger. Her face grew red and blotchy, motions jerky with rage as she tried to pull away from him. With a furious cry, she jammed the taser against his bare upper arm, yelping as she caught the edge of the shock.

It was worse than before. Against his bare skin and not stopping, never stopping, the electricity was a liquid burn through his muscles and bones.

Sam's teeth clamped shut, cutting his tongue, his hands contracted into claws, and his body pulled tight enough to bend him back like a bow. The current shook his body like a flag in the wind, and his skull met the bars so hard that his vision instantly grayed. The pain quickly became a distant thing, beating over him like a heavy rain.

He felt his heels drum against the floor, and warm wetness down his face, his wrist, his neck, in his mouth. His spine felt like it was cracking as his body just continued to jerk and dance. Blood flowed down his throat, making him gag, and his lungs seized in his chest. Gray edged toward black.

He heard yelling in the background, and at some point the current singing through him stopped. But his body still spasmed and trembled, lungs locked and limbs flopping.

Unconsciousness was a mercy.

00000

Dean started awake in the car to the last dying rays of the sun. Sam had been gone almost three full days now, and Dean was no closer to finding him.

He groaned in the silence of the Impala, tipping his forehead against the steering wheel.

God, please, just…where are you, Sammy?

Three seconds later, his phone rang.

Considering he'd left about twenty messages for friends and fellow hunters during the night and the early hours of morning, that wasn't so surprising. Dean's eyes blurred as he fumbled the cell out, rendering the caller ID unreadable. He flicked it open. "Yeah."

There was a pause. Then, hesitantly, an unfamiliar voice said, "Is this Dean?"

Sarcasm was on the tip of his tongue, but something turned it aside. "Yeah. Who's this?" He pulled the phone back, focusing with effort on the screen.

Sam's Cell

Mouth dry and fingers gripping the wheel hard, Dean returned the phone to his ear in time to hear the unfamiliar male voice answer him. "Your brother asked me to call you. He, uh, he's okay, and he wanted you to know he'll be back. Soon. I promise."

There was no taunt in the tone; if anything, the guy sounded apologetic. Which didn't make any sense at all. Dean's mouth moved a moment before he spoke. "Where is he? If you hurt him—"

"He's all right, I swear. Or…he will be. I won't let her… Just, he wanted you to know, so you wouldn't worry." There was a pause, but even as Dean started to say something, there was a whispered "I'm sorry," then the line went dead.

What the…?

But the guy, whoever he was, had called from Sam's cell. Which meant Dean could find him with the GPS now, and that was what mattered.

Because as he started the car and raced back to the motel room and the laptop, Dean was trying hard not to think about what he will be all right meant. And about how his kidnapped and possibly hurt brother's only concern had been that Dean know he was coming back.

00000

Every breath hurt.

There was no part of him that didn't feel used and abused beyond its limits. His hands quivered like an old man's, and stray muscular contractions made his frame distort and jump agonizingly. Dried blood was crusted on his upper lip and chin and the side of his neck, flaking off when he swiped uncoordinatedly at it. But there were few things as demoralizing as simple breathing—chest muscles flexing, lungs expanding, ribs spreading—causing pain.

He stared dully at her as she came down, not really caring anymore what she wanted or why. Only that she leave him alone.

The light of the bulb shone off the wetness on her cheeks. "I'm sorry."

Sam blinked at her, hand twitching on the cage floor. From where he lay on his side, she looked towering even though her shoulders were hunched.

Violet seemed to realize that and crouched down, putting herself at eye level with him. "I didn't-didn't mean to hurt you. I just didn't want you to leave."

Dean hadn't, either, but he'd let Sam go, even when a simple request would have been fetter enough to keep him there.

Her fingers curled around the bars, white and trembling, too. "It wasn't supposed to happen this way."

Sam's eyes slid up to her. "It n-never is," he rasped.

"I don't know what to do," Violet whimpered.

He sighed, closed his eyes, then looked her in her wide and shining eyes. "Call m'brother." His words slurred appallingly.

"I can't! I'll be arrested, and…I can't. I just… You don't understand!" Her fluttering hands squeaked over the steel.

Sam tried to push up on one arm, only to have it wobble out from under him. He didn't know how long it had been since she'd tasered him, but it wasn't long enough, his body exhausted and dehydrated, his electrolytes probably in the cellar. Just to keep her in focus and talk clearly was all the effort he could muster. "Violet…I know you weren't trying to hurt me…but you did. Y'have to help m-make it better now. Call my—Dean. He'll know what to do."

"I can't. I can't," she moaned. "What if I just…I'll open the door, okay?" She fumbled for something in her pocket. "You can just leave, right?"

Sam tried again to maneuver himself upright, made it into a sort of lazy sprawl back against the bars, but his legs weren't near to holding him yet. He locked his jaw against the starbursts of pain throughout his body from even that and stared hard at his captor. "I can't go anywhere right now. Just…call Dean. Please. He won't hurt you." Sam hoped. Depended on if it was before or after he saw Sam's condition. Sam gentled his voice. "If you really want t'make up for things…Violet, you have t'do this. Help me."

She gulped, scrubbing at her face with her hands. She really wasn't very old and was orphaned just like he was, not even a Dean to snatch her out of the flames. Nobody but Phil, whose own moral compass had been screwed up by his feelings for her.

Maybe he and Dean weren't even as damaged as Sam sometimes feared.

"Please," he whispered, surprised at the compassion he felt for her.

She hesitated a long moment, then nodded and pushed to her feet. "Okay. I will. I will, I promise."

Which was when, of course, with a clatter and a curse, Dean arrived.

Thank God. Sam sank back against the bars in simple faith that his brother would fix everything now.

Dean shoved Phil ahead of him down the stairs, one hand on the guy's back, the other wrapped around his Colt. His features weren't clear to Sam's blurred eyes, but he could still feel his brother's glare, and his relief as he spotted the cage and its occupant.

"Sam?"

"Yeah," he sighed.

"You okay?"

Sam winced in response, and then a second time as Phil was slammed hard against the outside of the bars. Violet gasped.

Which was his cue to intervene. Sam pushed a little higher with a groan. "Dean. Don't. Let 'em go."

The room fairly vibrated with Dean's anger. "Dude, you've been gone three frickin' days, you're in a cage, covered in blood, looking like a five-year-old girl could take you down. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't."

Sam's gaze swam to him. "'Cause I'm askin'."

Dean stared at him a moment, then growled something that sounded like one of these days that's not gonna work before jabbing his gun into the back of his jeans. He narrowed his eyes at the pair standing in front of the cage. "Fine. But you've got five seconds to get out of here, and I don't wanna see you two again, not even in my nightmares. You got me? Am I clear?"

Two dazed nods.

"Key," Dean snapped, holding out a hand. Violet timidly gave it up, then sidled past Dean to Phil, who quickly pulled her close with one arm and toward the stairs.

"Phil," Sam called quietly after him.

The guy paused, glancing back. Violet shivered and melted even more into him.

"Make sure she gets some help."

Phil nodded and hurried up the stairs with Violet.

Dean was already unlocking the cage door, ducking inside before the upstairs door shut. "Never answered my question, Sammy," he said, deceptively mild.

Sam breathed out—it was finally starting to hurt a little less—and closed his eyes as his brother got a hand under his heavy head. "Which one?" he murmured.

"The one about you being okay, dummy."

"I'll live." He groaned as Dean felt down his ribs, looking for damage. "Unfort'nately. Taser. Coupla times."

Dean stilled.

Sam forced his eyes open, his brain not too befuddled to figure out what his brother had immediately flashed to. Sam had gotten rid of the taser in their own arsenal, a move Dean had never challenged him on, after his brother's near-fatal electrocution. "'M okay, Dean."

Roughened fingers had already found his pulse, monitoring it in tight silence a few moments before reluctantly acquiescing the point. "Yeah, you look it," Dean muttered, tucking Sam's shaking arm in close against his body, then muttering an epithet as he discovered the cuff on the other one. "Anything else?"

His vision was cutting in and out anyway, so Sam let his eyelids fall again. "Hit m'head." He breathed slowly as he felt Dean move away from his cuffed wrist before careful hands tipped his head forward and ghosted over the knot near his crown.

"Did they feed you?" Dean gently thumbed his eyes open to study his pupils, giving Sam a few seconds' view of his brother's worry-creased brow, before, satisfied, he let Sam rest. Exam apparently finished, he shifted back to the handcuff with a comforting creak of leather and started picking the lock. The metal circlet rubbed against Sam's broken skin, a small hurt among many.

"Wasn' hungry," Sam murmured.

Dean coaxed the open cuff free and brought Sam's other arm carefully around. Another moment, and he'd unwrapped Sam from the blanket and hurled it aside, swathing his own jacket around his brother's body instead. "Yeah, can't really blame you on that. No offense, dude, but it's pretty foul in here." Sam could just picture him wrinkling his nose at the slop bucket and almost smiled. Dean tucked the jacket's sleeve under his temple. "So, what, they just wanted a roomie? A guinea pig for shock therapy?"

"She liked me." Sam snorted wearily. "Wanted her very own hero."

Dean mimicked his reaction. "You tellin' me you got taken down by a lovesick teenager with a thing for bondage?" He'd moved down Sam's body, and Sam was almost curious enough to open his eyes to see what he was doing, when Dean muttered, "I should start carrying an extra pair of socks for you, Cinderella." A few moments later, socks warm off his brother's feet were pulled over his freezing own.

Sam was pretty sure the déjà vu was from another time Dean had gotten him out of a cage. He wrinkled his nose but couldn't seem to bring himself to care any more than that. "Girl with a taser," he stumbled out a correction.

"Right, right. And tell me again why I just let her and Igor go?"

Sam sighed. "She's sick, Dean. She needs help, not revenge."

"Sick is choosing you over me, dude, not zapping and snatching you because she has the hots for you." Dean had slid back up to his chest and was once more supporting Sam's head with one hand, rubbing along his arm with the other. Still trying to warm him up and ease the shaking, which must have at least partly been from the cold and stress because already Sam was a lot more relaxed. "And what's with everyone wanting to stick you in a cage, huh? Explain that one to me."

"I'm sorry I disappeared on you again, man," he whispered in a voice that was almost steady, if thick with his fatigue.

Dean's pause was only the slightest hesitation this time, but Sam caught it. "Maybe it's the height. Force you to squeeze down into something small."

Sam pried his raw, tired eyes open. "I wouldn've jus' left like that, Dean. I'm not gonna do that t'you again."

Dean was focused on the task at hand, his tone absent. "I still think it's the hair. People keep mistaking you for a sasquatch." He frowned, leaning closer. "Dude, what happened to your hair?"

Sam flinched, rocked by a head-to-toe shudder, eyes stupidly tearing at the reminder. Dean immediately leaned closer, concerned, and Sam took advantage by hooking clumsy fingers around the edge of his flannel shirt. "If I leave again," he said, a little desperately, "I'll talk to you first, I promise."

Dean shifted away and began to lift him to sitting against the bars. "Whatever, dude," he answered in the same faux casual tone, eyes flicking over to Sam and then away again. "I can survive without you, you know."

Sam chuckled weakly. "Who's the one who keeps ending up in a cage, man? Maybe I need you."

Crouched in front of Sam, Dean's head suddenly dropped. He was perfectly still for several long seconds…except for the thumb moving up and down the back of Sam's neck. Sam held his breath.

And then Dean looked up at him, really looked at him, mouth curving in a small, rueful but real smile. He held it long enough that Sam got his answer, then slid his hand to his brother's shoulder and patted it absently while studying his shaking legs, then the stairs behind him. Dean made a face as he turned back. "Think I'm gonna have to carry you out of here."

Sam groaned.

"What are you complaining about, dude? All you have to do is enjoy the ride." But Dean was so very careful with him as he eased him out of the cage and over a shoulder.

It was as awkward and uncomfortable as Sam had imagined, made only a little better by Dean's steady stream of complaints as he labored up the stairs. It left Sam with a dizzying look down, and he finally shut his eyes and tuned the world out until he was in the car again, wrapped up in two blankets and stuffed comfortably into the corner of the front seat, Dean watching him from not two feet away.

"Y'all right?"

Sam gave him a wan smile. "Tired. Hungry. Sore."

"Here." Things had started to blur alarmingly again, but Sam felt the bottle's rim at his mouth, the slight tangy smell of Gatorade in his nose.

He gulped half of it down before turning away, his toes bumping against something. Sam just made out the vague shape of his boots and balled-up clothing tucked in by his feet when a spoonful of something warm and savory touched his lips. Sam blinked out the windshield, noticing the neon glow of some gas station mini-mart for the first time. He hadn't even realized they'd driven anywhere.

"Eat the soup, Sam."

It was more than a little embarrassing, being fed by your big brother. But the hands curled in his lap under the blankets were useless, weak and as out of his control as the rest of his body, and Sam was too tired and hungry to care. If Dean couldn't help him when he needed it, there was no one else in the world who could.

The thought was big and important, and Sam knew he should think about it more, but his brain was finally shutting down along with the rest of his nervous system. He was pretty sure he wouldn't even make it through the soup at this rate.

He wasn't quite sure how far he got or when he really stopped eating, just heard Dean's amusement as he said, "Yeah, get some sleep, Sam. I'm just gonna drive for a while."

Cold steel bars gave way to cushioning vinyl in Sam's senses. This was where he'd been raised, where he was safe, where his family was. His home—his life. And, honestly, it wasn't a bad one at all.

He went to sleep to the rumbling lullaby of his youth.

00000

"Seriously? You paid twenty-five bucks a pop for that?"

Tilting his head back, Sam gave him one of the million you're such an idiot looks he seemed to keep stockpiled just for Dean. "That's pretty cheap, man—I only got that deal because Jess's hairdresser liked me."

Dean lit up at that. "Liked you? Like, liked you? Jessica know about that?"

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure Reynaldo told her."

Dean winced. "And you let the dude cut your hair? Although, that might explain why you look like a girl…"

Sam twisted on the toilet seat to glare at him. "If you don't want to do this—"

"Settle down, Don King. I said I'd do it." Dean pushed him back down with a hand on his shoulder. "I never cut it too short, do I?"

"No," Sam admitted, grudging.

Dean examined the butchered head tactically, decided on a plan of attack, and started snipping. "Dude, you have no idea how much grief Dad gave me for that when we were kids. He always wanted you regulation short like me."

Sam, thawing, turned just enough to give him a curious look. "You never told me that. What changed his mind?"

Dean squinted, assessing again, and decided he was on the right track. "I'd remind him Mom always liked your curls."

Sam's defiance melted like cotton candy. "She did?"

Dean shrugged, continuing to cut. "I don't know, probably. But it worked." He just caught Sam's soft-eyed look in the corner of the mirror and hid a smile of his own as… "Done, princess." Dean pulled the towel off Sam's shoulders and nudged him between the shoulder blades.

Sam barely spared him a grimace before he was turning and leaning toward the mirror.

The hair in front would take a while to grow back; there was no fixing that. But with the other side cut short to match and both tapered, Sam still had some symmetrical bangs. More of his face showed than Dean could remember seeing in a long time, but he could put up with that.

There was a long, worrisome pause. Sam had been a little hard to read since the whole cage thing, although Dean was pretty sure he saw a peace there he hadn't in a while. And that Sam would kick his ass if Dean voiced one more time that he should've known Sam wouldn't just take off on him again. If Sam was threatening him again, things had to be okay, even if his little brother remained quieter than Dean preferred. Right?

Sam suddenly smiled, even his eyes alight with it. "I think you missed your calling, bro."

Dean dumped the towelful of clippings down his back, then dashed out of the bathroom before Sam could retaliate.

But on the other side of the door separating him from his healthy, happy, and there brother, Dean was grinning wide.

The End