Delayed Response
K Hanna Korossy

He was halfway back to the motel when his hands started shaking.

Sam stared at them in near fascination; some part of him had wondered when he'd finally start feeling it. The same part that worried about using his abilities, or the pragmatic way he approached jobs now. A year ago, a threat to Dean would have had his little brother anxious and impassioned and desperate. Now, he'd taken out the ghost of Luther Garland calmly and rationally. Even Bobby had given him a few odd looks.

So, yeah. Some little part of Sam had worried about his detachment.

But Dean had been falling apart back in the room, acting like a seven-year-old in a carnival haunted house, only a few hours left before his fear killed him. One of them had to keep it together, and Sam…he'd had a lot of practice that past year. He couldn't even count the number of times he'd had to dam up the flood of grief just to crawl out of bed in the morning, let alone do anything. The wall had eventually become pretty strong, and Sam could put it up without thought now.

Deep down, he was kinda concerned about that, too.

So, the shakes, now that he could afford to be scared? That was maybe not such a bad thing. The ghost was destroyed; Dean was safe. Sam could finally let it sink in just how close they'd come to Dean's deadline.

Sam curled one trembling hand into a fist and thumped it against the steering wheel. Always with the deadlines, Dean with only hours left to live—what was up with that? Sam was more than a little tired of that scene.

But it had seemed so unthreatening at first. Dean's fears had been more ridiculous than frightening, and the solution had been simple: salt and burn the source. Wasn't like they didn't face risks like this every day. It was only after learning how Luther had died, how much harder it would be to end the ghost than Sam had thought, that the situation had suddenly gotten deadly serious.

After Dean's little freak-out about the job.

Sam closed his eyes for a second, swallowing hard. Maybe Dean had been the one scared of his own shadow, but that little rant he'd gone on about the job, about Sam, about being done with it all, managed to hit some of Sam's biggest buttons. Hunting alone, losing Dean: been there, done that. He was pretty sure he'd be out after a third strike, with Lilith still out there gunning for him.

So Sam had retreated. Turned it all off, gone to his little stoic hunter happy place and did what had to be done without thinking about how much time Dean had left, or the horror with which his hallucinating brother had looked at Sam in the room, or the last time Sam had done a solo hunt. Just get the job done and freak out later. Maybe.

Depending on why Dean hadn't answered his phone since they'd finished off Luther.

Sam yanked the steering wheel, crossing two lanes of oncoming traffic to a cacophony of blaring horns—yeah, Dean, I have got a death wish, so what?—into the motel parking lot. There was a flutter in his chest as he ran inside and down the hallway, and his unsteady hands took two tries to open the door.

The body was the first thing he saw.

It took a moment, a very, very frantic moment, before Sam's mind cleared enough to realize what he was seeing was the sheriff, dead. Okay, not good, but not Dean. Sam could handle that. He stepped inside the room and swept it with one gaze.

There, past the broken coffee table, half-hidden by the couch. Dean, also on the ground, curled up but moving, trembling and breathing.

Sam took a deep breath of his own, feeling his shakes whiplash down his back, into his legs. "Dean?"

His brother jolted a little but didn't sit up, and Sam let himself worry just a tiny bit that maybe he was hurt and needed some help. Which would still be okay, if not good. But Sam could handle that. It wouldn't tear down the wall. It would let him breathe, function.

Sam stepped forward, softening his voice. "Dean?"

Dean was paper white, the skin brittle grey around his squeezed-tight eyes. The road rash was gone from his arms—which was a little surprising, considering how much real scratching he'd been doing—but one hand was wrapped around his trusty silver flask while the other was locked around the leg of the couch, as if he'd tried to anchor himself. His hair was mussed, his clothes torn and crumpled, and a bruise was darkening one pale cheek. The sheriff had apparently gotten a few licks in before—Sam glanced back at the older man—he'd probably succumbed to a heart attack. He'd been infected before Dean, and there was no sign of traumatic injury to the body.

Sam took another breath, feeling the air force his lungs to expand, and moved around the wreckage of furniture to crouch beside his brother. "Dean? Hey. Dean. Y'all right, man?"

There was a pause, Dean's body twitching, then he gave a short, rough nod.

"Okay, so…you wanna get up off the floor?" Sam ventured gently. He could just imagine what a terror hangover felt like, not to mention whatever had gone down with Sheriff Britton. He shuffled forward, knees bent, and slid a hand carefully under his brother. "Dean?"

Dean yanked away from his grip. It didn't seem to be out of fear, though, just…too much, maybe. Probably still sorting out reality and hallucination in his head.

Sam sympathized. He just stayed there, unmoving, waiting patiently. "It's okay. Luther's gone now."

Dean finally pried his eyes open to stare first at the couch, then up, briefly, at Sam. The hazel was bloodshot, exhausted, and…

Sam frowned. Just for a minute, the look in them had been almost…devastated. About his stupid panic attacks? Because they'd seen each other through far worse than that. "Hey," he said carefully. "It's fine, Dean, all right? No big deal—could've happened to either one of us." Sam offered him a lopsided smile. "I'll even try not to give you too much grief about screaming like a girl, okay?"

Dean was still wincing away from him, but at least he kept moving, shoving himself up with slow, clumsy movements, as if he ached all over. Sam wanted to help him, but touch didn't seem so welcome right now, so he just made sure he was there, smiling, whenever Dean pried his eyes open to glance at him. His brother always shied away just as fast—that stupid pride of his—but he kept checking nonetheless. Probably making sure Sam only had one head or something.

He couldn't help sliding a hand under Dean's arm when his brother's grip slipped and he tilted toward the couch. Sam helped him sink down on the one end that still had its cushions, then crouched in front of him. "Dean? Dude, you're kinda scaring me here. It's gone, right, the fever? Your heart feels okay—no pain, no trouble breathing?"

Dean's brow furrowed, and he glanced at Sam again, then nodded.

"Okay. Good. All right, so, something else you want to tell me?"

Dean's eyes widened, flickering with something Sam couldn't read.

"The sheriff," Sam said slowly, hitching a thumb over his shoulder while trying to figure out Dean's reactions. "He's dead. He came after you?"

Dean nodded, the motion as uncoordinated and jerky as his ascent to the couch. There was an obvious lump on the back of his head, and the whole fear bug had clearly taken a lot more out of him than Sam had expected. Worry made his stomach ache.

"We need to get out of here before they find him," Sam said softly. "Can you make it to the car? We'll get a room someplace else, meet Bobby tomorrow for the wrap-up, all right?"

Dean surprised him with a low, hoarse answer. "Yeah." Throat probably raw from all that screaming.

"All right," Sam agreed, nodding, feeling his own concerns settle a little. A silent Dean was always worrisome. He pushed to his feet. "Stay here. I'll get our stuff together and make sure the room's clean."

Dean's other hand curled around the one already clutching the flask, and he nodded, eyes sinking shut. He looked like death warmed o—kay, not going there.

Sam shook his head and pushed to his feet. Time to get out of this godforsaken town and put this one behind them. Dean would be all right once he came off what had to be a massive adrenaline rush. Good night's sleep, and he could be the big brother again.

Walls or not, that job scared the crap out of Sam.


Sam had finally stopped looking at him in the rear view mirror, at least.

Dean had flinched under the scrutiny, just as he had from the unspoken questions when he'd reached the car and immediately crawled into the back seat. There was no explanation he could give, nothing that would make sense to Sam, anyway. Can't stand to be around anyone right now and need some space in case I lose it wouldn't pass without requiring serious explanation. Dean was still shaking, and while Sam was cutting him a lot of slack for just coming off the fear virus, that excuse would only take him so far.

Sam had driven slowly and carefully, as if he was afraid of breaking the car, or Dean—too late for that, bro—but had found a new place soon. Dean was grateful for that much, and wasted no time escaping from the dark, exposed back seat of the car, to the security of the small, blinding-white bathroom. Turning both the overhead light and the fluorescent bulb over the mirror on, Dean retreated to the toilet seat and sat there, pulling his knees up to his chin. Friggin' rocking.

It beat screaming.

The knock on the door made him jump. "Dean? Everything okay, man?"

Yeah, that would be a big NO, Sam. Dean cleared his throat. "Yeah," he called back.

There was hesitation, Sam still worried about him. Not surprising after the hissy fits Dean had been throwing the last forty-eight hours, and the laugh turned into a silent sob somewhere inside his throat. "I'm gonna order some food. You want anything?"

The thought made him feel sick, but not eating would just worry Sam more. Dean took another swig of his nearly empty flask and hoarsely called out, "Burger."

"Okay." Another pause. "Yell if you need anything, all right?"

Dean's eyes stung. "Yeah."

"Yeah. All right." A moment, then he heard Sam shuffle away and a quiet phone call.

Dean's lip trembled, and he bit down on it hard, jerked his head to the side in anger. He wasn't giving in to this. He wasn't.

He swallowed sharply, several times, and dug his nails into his palms. Closing his eyes was a bad idea, letting in too many memories to fill the darkness, so he stared at the white door until it made his eyes water. I can't do this. Sammy, I can't be this.

There was a gentle knock at the door.

Dean dragged in a breath like a gasp, pressed back against the toilet.

"Dean? Food's here."

Can't come now, dude—kinda busy having a nervous breakdown here, Dean thought hysterically.

"Dean… Listen, I'm coming in, all right?"

He wanted to say no, but his voice was gone.

The knob turned, and Sam slipped cautiously inside. Or at least his jeans did; Dean was unable to look higher than his legs, into his brother's face let alone his eyes. He kept staring at the bright white floor. Light was good. Nothing terrifying in the light.

"Hey." Sam settled on the tub next to him, knees knocking against Dean's folded-up shins in the small space of the bathroom. "What's going on, man?"

Dean shook his head, not having the energy even for sarcasm.

A warm palm insinuated itself between the toilet tank and Dean's back. He hadn't even realized he'd been shivering until the light pressure softened the edge of the tremors.

They sat that way for long minutes, just breathing together.

"I was scared, too," Sam finally said low and quiet, like it was hard to admit.

Dean bit his lip until he could taste the blood. He didn't want to hear this.

"I mean…I knew what we had to do so I did it, but the ticking clock, your life on the line again?" Sam huffed quietly. "I guess it was stupid to think we wouldn't face something like this again, right? Yeah…" He hung his head, the curtain of his bangs obscuring his eyes.

Dean blinked. Sam was scared. Sam was struggling. Sam needed his big brother. But…even after…?

Sam shuffled a little, fingers flexing against Dean's back, those long legs crammed up against the toilet bowl. Something inside Dean screamed to get away, but something even stronger needed to stay there with Sam. "I just…I wasn't ready to face losing you again," Sam continued in a strained confessional whisper. "Not after the rugaru and…I just can't do that again, you know?"

Dean felt his shoulders straighten, pushing back against the weight that was crushing them. Sam had been the one to take charge on this case, the one who'd looked after Dean so far. But he needed Dean now, and Dean no longer had the luxury of freaking out. Sam's pain had always made his own feel smaller, and if Dean couldn't be strong for himself…maybe he could be for Sammy. Because of Sam.

Sam pinched his nose and gave an embarrassed laugh. "Anyway, uh…food's here if you, uh…" He stumbled to his feet, set to flee.

Dean suddenly realized his brother had totally misinterpreted his silence, seeing rejection where Dean had just been trying to find his balance. He shot out a hand, grabbing on to Sam's sleeve. "Food can wait, Sam," he scratched out. "Tell me how the thing with Luther went down."

It wasn't hard to see the relief in Sam's eyes—warm chocolate brown without a hint of yellow—as his brother sank back down on the bathtub's rim and started to talk.

Or to feel his own heart slowly climb back down out of his throat as Dean listened.

They ended up sprawled across their beds, watching some stupid sci-fi flick from the eighties while nibbling at the food. Neither of them had much of an appetite, and Sam was asleep a half-hour in. Dean pushed himself up to free the blanket off his bed and spread it over his brother, then dropped back on the mattress and tried to focus on the movie.

Listen to your heart.

Sammy thought he was still struggling with the aftereffects of the fear virus, the adrenaline and the memories and the fear. And Dean had let him go on thinking that.

But, God, he wished it was only that.

Dean squinted at the TV screen, trying not to hear her voice. The screams and the taunts, the begging. The crackle of flames and rending of limbs.

Listen to…

She'd been right, it had been all there, every last minute buried inside his brain. All the things he'd done, all the things done to him. The agony and the twisted ecstasy. He'd blocked it all out in his return, content in his ignorance, until she'd yanked it out into the light. Or maybe until all that terror had just struck a too-familiar chord.

Dean's fists tangled in the sheets as he began to breathe faster.

The anguish of years and years of hopelessness and suffering. The unbearable knowledge of what it had made him into…or maybe just what it had revealed inside him. The thought of Sam's disgust if he discovered Dean's hypocrisy, who the real monster of the family was.

Panting, Dean turned to look at his sleeping brother.


But Sam still needed him, even after months of riding alone and becoming a seasoned hunter in his own right. Whether he deserved him or not, Dean had a little brother who loved and wanted him around. Whom he still needed to save from dangers that were very real.

Listen to your heart.

He would. Dean made himself slow his respirations, turning on his side to ease the tightness in his chest. Coincidentally, it also put him facing Sam. "I'm listening," he whispered over the drone of the movie. That was all he could do.

And tomorrow, he would pick up a fifth of Jack to drown out the other voices screaming inside him.

The End