Previously appeared in Blood Brothers 2 (2008), from Gold'n Lily Press

Find and Seek
K Hanna Korossy

"So, this is the place?" Dean asked skeptically as he cut the engine and sat back.

Sam leaned forward to peer past him at the house in question. Two stories of grey wood and stone were topped by grey shingles, giving the house a decidedly…grey, dull look. It didn't appear especially scary, though, at least not in the light of midday, nor dangerous. "Yup," he confirmed. "The old Randolph home, built in 1844. Since then, five people have disappeared in it, including Joseph Abbott, age 74, eight days ago. The Abbotts had been the first people to live here in almost fifty years."

"Gee, I wonder why," Dean said blandly, then pushed his door open.

Sam followed suit, meeting him back at the trunk. He chewed his lip as he watched his brother dig through their weapons stash, arming himself with a shotgun and various smaller weapons while thrusting the EMF meter at Sam. "You sure about this, Dean? We're kinda going in blind—nothing I've turned up explains what might be going on here."

"That's why we're here," Dean answered, adding Sam's favorite handgun and blade to the growing pile in his hands. "Check it out, see if we can figure out what we're dealing with." He flashed Sam a formulaic grin as he slammed the trunk lid shut. Without hesitation, he headed past the car, up the stone steps of the walk.

Sam sighed, tucking the gun into one pocket, the meter into another with the bottle of holy water he already kept there. While Dean always had a few extra weapons stashed on his person, Sam's tended to be armed more subtly: a packet of salt, another of iron filings, a few assorted herbs, charms, and carefully copied rites hidden in his pockets. Especially for a job like this one where they didn't know what they were dealing with. But Dean was right, research could only take them so far. With a faint grimace, Sam headed up the steps after his brother.

The house seemed to loom as they climbed up onto the stone porch, and Sam shrugged uncomfortably in the sudden shade. It was a mild late-spring day in Western Maryland, but the temperature seemed to drop as they got closer to the heavy wooden door. Sam opened his mouth to ask if Dean felt it, too, but his brother was already busy picking the lock and Sam snapped his jaws shut again. Not like the answer would change anything except maybe annoy Dean, and Sam had had enough of irritated brother the last week or so.

The door swung open, and Dean glanced back with an automatic smirk. Sam gave him the requisite eye roll and, feeling a little better, followed the older Winchester inside.

For some reason, he'd expected the old house to be decorated accordingly: dark wood, printed sofas, chandelier in the foyer maybe. Instead, Sam's eyebrows rose at the metal and glass dining room set visible through the doorway on one side, the black and white vinyl living room set past another.

Dean was also craning his head to take in the place. "Maybe the house is ticked off about their bad fashion sense," he mused.

Sam chuckled softly at that. Dean's taste in furnishings had never really come up before; when they were kids, Sam's brother had filled the places they'd stayed for longer stretches of time by curbside shopping, not exactly an opportunity to be selective. He'd waxed enthusiastic then about every patched sofa and wobbly chair he'd dragged home, trying to get Sam excited, too. It dawned on Sam now he didn't really have any idea what Dean really liked. Not art nouveau, apparently.

"You gettin' any EMF?" Dean asked from where he'd wandered over to a farther doorway. It held a cluttered closet. The family hadn't stuck around after the grandfather's disappearance, and Sam silently cheered them on for that even as he chided them for not having done their homework beforehand.

Dean's words sunk in. "Oh, uh…" Sam fumbled for the meter, ignoring Dean's exasperated glance, and turned on the small converted Walkman. There wasn't even a flicker of light. "No, nothing."

"If it turns out grandpa took a tumble into the well in the backyard or went to Vegas with his nurse, I'm gonna be miffed."

Miffed? "That wouldn't explain the other four disappearances," Sam said patiently, waving the meter toward the living room and dining room with no result. "Besides, Mr. Abbott disappeared in front of one of the grandkids in this hallway, just standing there."

"Great," Dean muttered, poking through another closet.

Sam swallowed a sigh. They'd both really been trying, and while Dean no longer watched him suspiciously as if expecting Sam to leave at any moment, his brother still seemed warier than usual, and more irritable. Sam couldn't figure out if he was pushing to see if Sam was really staying this time, or punishing him for having left in the first place.

Forgiven wasn't forgotten on Sam's part, either. He still thought Dean had too much faith in their father, and the thought they'd been so close to finding their dad and didn't pursue it ate at him, even if Dean had saved that couple as a result, even if he'd saved Dean by turning back. Dean wanted to find Dad, too, Sam knew he did. But he also knew his brother was content being back with Sam and hunting together again, and Sam… Sam wanted more. God help him, he'd always wanted more.

"Earth to Rapunzel. You up in your tower again, dude?"

Sam startled to find Dean standing in front of him, giving him a half-amused, half-annoyed look. "What?"

Dean blew out a breath. "Clever. You think of that one all by yourself, college boy?" He turned away, shaking his head, and moved toward the doors at the end of the foyer.

Sam winced at the appellation, as he did at any reminder of Stanford these days. "Rapunzel?" was what he chose to focus on, though. It was safer.

"You've got the hair for it," Dean called back over his shoulder as he kept going.

Sam opened his mouth for an acid retort.

And then, in a sweep of white mist so fast, he wasn't sure he hadn't imagined it, Dean was gone.

Just…gone.

"Dean!" he barked, right over the EMF's squeal. Dumbly, Sam looked down at the device, seeing that every light was glowing its fullest, now straining to be even brighter. Then the meter fell dark just as quickly, as dead as it had been before.

Sam shoved it into his pocket, cursing under his breath late warnings, stubborn brothers, and the total lack of information they had to go on. It was a house that ate people—who else would've been stupid enough to walk in?

"Dean!" he called, stepping forward cautiously, eyes glued to the spot where Dean had disappeared. His shotgun rested on the floor, and a delicate flowering of frost on the polished metal stock was already fading. As Sam reached hesitantly into the space Dean wasn't, his fingers felt the lingering chill. Spectral activity, probably. But one that made people disappear? How did it even do that?

Sam hesitated, torn. Keep going, search for answers in the house? And risk vanishing, too, unable to help his brother? Or retreat and start digging through research again? Just because he hadn't found anything before didn't mean there wasn't anything to be found. There had to be an answer somewhere.

What if it was upstairs, though, or in the basement? Dad had always ingrained in them not to hunt alone, a rule he'd thought nothing of breaking himself, and had forced Dean into violating regularly with Sam's departure for school, and the week before. What if he just got himself trapped wherever Dean was? Or…killed…like Dean? Sam swallowed, eyes sheening over from too-recent fears of unanswered phones and a panicked flight to Burkitsville. He wasn't ready for this—they weren't ready for this. He should've talked Dean into a vacation, or at least a little downtime, some breathing space where they could work out a few things and get comfortable with each other again instead of heading out for the next hunt and the one after that. He wasn't ready.

Not to lose Dean, too.

The thought actually made up his mind. If going on meant risking joining Dean, wherever he was, so be it. Sam wasn't going to run again, and damned if he was going to do this alone. He lifted his chin, brushed hair and water out of his eyes, and stalked forward.

He made it two steps before his cell phone rang.

Sam nearly dropped the meter in startlement, and he shoved it into his pocket as he traded it for his phone. His knees went weak for a moment at the sight of Dean in the caller ID window. "Dean," he snapped into the phone. "Y'all right? Where are you?"

"One question at a time, dude." Dean's voice was trying for light, but there was strain under it; Sam could hear it right away. "Don't know what happened, but I'm pretty sure I found Abbott, if the smell's anything to go by." He coughed lightly.

"Where are you?" Sam repeated, hand clenched around his phone.

"Don't know—it's pitch black in here. Gimme a minute…"

Sam could hear him fumbling, and realized Dean had called him before even checking out where he was. That managed to both move and annoy him, a twofer Dean seemed to pull on a regular basis, especially of late. Sam shifted his weight impatiently and waited.

He heard the tiny flare of a lighter, and an indrawn breath. Another few seconds crawled by before Dean breathed out a harsh curse, voice rising in pitch.

"Dean, what—?"

"It's a…a box, Sam. I'm stuck in a box with bodies."

Sam swallowed, hair prickling. "Abbott?"

"Kinda hard to tell with all the decomposing, but they look like they've been here years." A deep breath. "Looks like…five bodies? I think they're all here, one's just… Oh, crap!"

Sam's spine snapped straight, his fingertips numb from clutching so hard. "What, Dean?"

"Rats. Friggin'…there're rats all over th-the place." His voice rose.

"Y'all right?"

"Sure. Sure, yeah…man, they're…" Dean suddenly sounded short of breath. "Sam, get me out here!"

"Okay, okay, I will, I promise," Sam soothed. "I need to know where you are, though. Can you hear anything?"

"I hear rats, dude, what more do you want! I think they're… God, they're feeding on— Sam!"

He'd seen, or could remember seeing, Dean terrified exactly twice. Once was on a plane. And once was when Dean was sure Sam was dying. Sam really hadn't been anxious to revisit either, but his mind obligingly provided the image anyway: Dean's eyes rounded, freckles stark against pale skin, body taut with tension. Sam closed his eyes. "They'll leave you alone," he promised. "Just stay away from the…the bodies. I need you to describe to me where you are, Dean. What kind of box?"

He could hear Dean swallow, gathering his courage around him. Rats and being trapped in small, dark places: throw in an airplane and they had a trifecta of Dean's deepest phobias. Sam had to keep his brother distracted, focused on the problem at hand so he wouldn't lose it.

He had to find and get Dean out of his nightmare.

"It's…okay, it's not a box so much, but it's made out of wood and there aren't any…okay, there's a grate, looks like iron, old. No light or sound coming through, just a little air. Probably how the rats got in. But it's welded in there, Sam. That's the only opening I can see. Ceiling's too high to…yeah, okay, maybe a trapdoor above, but I can't reach it and there's nothing to stand on, just…"

Decaying bodies. Not one of Dean's pocket fears, but not exactly something any sane person wanted to spend time in close quarters with, either, not if they wanted to stay sane. Sam paced a tight circle, seeing nothing but the picture Dean was drawing. "Okay," he quickly cut in before Dean kept on that track. "Okay, uh, any smells—besides the bodies? Sounds? Any clue where the…box is?" It sounded like some kind of cellar or basement, though, and already he was trying doors off the foyer, then the kitchen. One led to stairs going down, and Sam flicked on the light and headed in without hesitation.

The few moments he waited for Dean's answer, he realized his brother was breathing heavily. Dean's voice seemed stuck an octave higher, and his words were tight, shoved together like there was no space for them, either. "Salt. I think…by the grate, I can smell…salt air. Like—gah!"

"Dean!" he snapped, freezing halfway down the stairs.

The rattle of crude curses reassured him enough to continue. "That's where they're coming in, Sam—the place is crawling with… God, get me out, Sam!"

"I'm trying," he said desperately, but again he stopped. Salt air? Dean smelled salt air? They were at least a hundred miles from the nearest body of salt water, and considering the Chesapeake Bay cut through half the state and had about a million tributaries, that narrowed it not at all. Assuming Dean was even in the same state. What the heck kind of ghost took you miles away?

"Try faster!" Dean snapped with real anger, and even as the rebut formed on Sam's lips, he held it back. Dean's fear came out as fury, not directed at Sam so much as the situation. Returning it in kind wouldn't do any good except to get Dean more worked up. Sam had to be the calm and in control one this time.

"Dean, man, listen to me. I'm going to get you out, I swear. But I need you to calm down, all right? Hyperventilating's just gonna make things worse. Just…stay away from the bodies and the rats and hang in there. I'll figure this out."

"Sam…" It was plea and apology and shared fear in one.

"I know," he reassured Dean, because he sort of did. "We'll figure this out. Abbott probably didn't have a phone with him, but we can work on this together."

There was a soft scrape he couldn't quite place, then a longer, harder one. When Dean spoke again, his voice echoed slightly differently, and Sam realized he must've taken his little brother's advice and moved into the furthest corner from the gore and vermin, sliding down against the wall. The small voice set an unwitting picture in Sam's head of Dean huddled in a corner, scared, and it was so at odds with every other image of Dean he had, it wasn't hard to push away. "Sammy…I've only got three bars."

It took him a second to figure out what that meant, he was so busy banging back up the stairs—the furniture-filled basement wouldn't provide any answers—and trying to think. Sam swallowed. They'd recharged their phones overnight but already used them some that morning. "So, maybe a little more than an hour?"

"Yeah."

"Okay. Okay, then, we'll save it for when we need it. But, uh, the grate is too small to get out through, right?"

"No, I was just gonna sit here a while longer and enjoy the dark," Dean shot back sarcastically. "It's maybe a foot square, Sam, and, oh, did I mention the welding?"

"See anything? Maybe you can get somebody's attention?"

"It's dark. All I can hear are echoes. I think it winds around before it hits open air. Frickin' rats seem to find it okay, though." His voice shrank at the end.

Sam leaned hard against a wall and squeezed his eyes shut, feeling trapped with Dean. "You'll be out of there soon. Just…make a list of anything you can think of that can move somebody across space like that, all right? Dean? I need your help with this."

"Yeah. Yeah, I can do that."

The slightly steadier tone steadied him, too, and Sam stormed out the front door, headed for the car. "All right, I'll call you as soon as I have something. And…you call me if it gets too bad, okay? We can break that hour up into a lot of little check-ins." He paused. "Dean, I won't leave you there."

There was a pause, then a pained, "Dude, you do and I'm haunting your ass for the rest of your life."

Sam just snorted.

It was painful to hang up, as if he were physically cutting some tie between himself and Dean. But, Sam slid into the driver's seat, he had work to do, and the sooner he did it, the sooner he could get Dean out.

Wherever he was.

00000

Dean made it almost an hour.

Sam ignored the librarian's disapproving look as his phone rang, just retreated to an out-of-the-way corner before he slid it open. "You all right?"

"You comin' yet?"

Sam winced. The Dean of an hour before had sounded calm and collected next to this one. His voice was ragged and hoarse, and Sam wondered if he'd been yelling at the rats…or Sam, or God, or anybody passing by. He ignored the near tremor, forcing himself to soften into a smile that Dean could hear, to be reassuring like his brother needed him to be. "I'm working on it. I looked more into the first guy who disappeared—figure he's the key, right? But there aren't any records on him and they never found a body."

It took seconds longer than usual for Dean to make the leap. "So back to square one. Dude, what the hell are you doing, just sitting on your thumbs?"

Sam chewed his mouth. "Dean—"

"They're… they keep coming over to see if I'm dead, Sam. I kicked one so hard, I killed it, and the others started to eat it. I'm gonna start shooting them if I stay here, I swear—"

"Dean!" He had to say it twice before it penetrated and Dean's ramble cut off. And it was a ramble, the spill of desperate words sending a shiver down Sam's back. "Listen to me. I just… I need you to hang on, all right? This is going to take a little time, but I will find you and get you out of there. Just…trust me."

There was a long pause. Too long.

Sam licked his lips, trying to ignore the pang in his gut. "So, you come up with any ideas?"

A hesitation, then, "Thirteen of them. Unfortunately, none of them with this MO."

Sam grimaced, but he'd figured as much. "Okay, well…the answer should be here somewhere. I'll keep looking."

"I went over every inch of this place I could reach—there's no getting out. Our guy must've gotten stuck down here somehow." Another pause, but this time Sam recognized Dean was thinking, moving the pieces around in his head. "You try the original owner of the house?"

Sam opened his mouth, closed it again. Randolph? "Uh…not yet."

"Sometimes they—" A low growl, and a shuffle of movement. "I'm not dead yet, you mangy—"

"Dean, you sure you don't see or hear or smell anything else? Anything might help."

"I'm stuck in the dark in a twenty-by-twenty box with five corpses and a bunch of nasty, creepy scavengers. It's kinda hard to miss anything, Sam. If you wanna get here and take a look around yourself, though, you're more than welcome."

"I will," Sam said softly. Biting his lip, he added reluctantly, "You should go. We can't use up…" He couldn't finish.

"Yeah." Dean's outrage seemed to have vanished, leaving him quiet and scared.

"Hey," Sam tried to smile, "at least you're getting reception, wherever you are."

"Don't even joke about that, dude." Dean was trying, too, but he sounded more rattled than anything. Sam winced; he probably hadn't needed the reminder of how fragile the connection between them was.

He forgot sometimes Dean wasn't brave because he was fearless. He was brave because he kept going even when others would have long given up. Sam hesitated. "Dean?"

A reluctant, firmly controlled, "What?"

"Start doing square roots." Dean had always beaten him in math and sciences in school, before he'd given up on formal education. Sam could remember more than once when they'd been stuck somewhere to wait for Dad, and Dean had passed the time reeling off pi or figuring square roots or multiplication tables into the twenties or thirties.

A surprised laugh told him he'd done his job. "Shut up and go be a geek, Geek."

Sam didn't say goodbye, just closed his phone.

He was an idiot. It'd taken his trapped and half-losing-it brother to give him a clue. Sam turned and hurried back to his research material to look up one William Ellis Randolph the Second.

00000

Another hour-plus, and he was the one who called, in the car speeding down the highway. He kept having to hotwire it, the keys with Dean, but the hardest part was riding in it alone.

"Dean? You there?"

"Tell me you have s-something, Sam."

The tremor in Dean's voice traveled through Sam, evaporating what he was about to say. "Dean? Y'all right?"

A pause. "Peachy. You're coming, right?"

"I'm coming. Dean, I'm pretty sure you're in Baltimore."

Another beat of silence, or near it; Sam thought he could hear soft scuttling in the background, a few high-pitched squeaks, and tried not to shudder. "'Pretty sure'?"

"You were right about Randolph—he didn't disappear in the house, so I didn't find it when I was researching the place the first time, but he did vanish, in Baltimore. A seaport, Dean."

"That's it?"

Sam blinked. "What?"

"Almost three friggin' hours, and that's all you've got? Baltimore? Which is, what, two hours away from you?"

"I'll be there in one," Sam promised.

"And then what, Sam? Start at the top of the city and work your way down? Follow the shoreline? That's only gonna take you days." His voice was rising again, but in rage instead of fear, at least superficially. "What were you doin' for three freakin' years in school, Sam, just shacking up? 'Cause if this is how they taught you to figure—"

"Dean," Sam said sharply, and this time his voice shook.

"I need you, too, Sam! Dad's not the only one—you ever consider that?"

Sam choked into silence, realizing they weren't just talking about now. Which made sense, because they'd never talked about then. "That's why I came back," he finally said softly over Dean's hard breaths.

A second passed by, then two. "Crap," Dean whispered. "Sorry, this place's just… I didn't mean…"

"I know," Sam said warmly, even though he knew Dean had. But not out of anger.

"Sammy, you have to get me out of here. Don't know h-how long I can take this. Please—I'm not mad, okay? I'm not mad. I just need…" He muttered a curse.

Sam jumped, nearly swerving the car into the next lane as a gunshot over the line momentarily deafened him. His heart sped up, crashing against his ribs. "Dean? Dean!"

"Friggin' rats," came the answering growl, and it would've made him smile if not for the slightly feverish tone.

"Dean," Sam pleaded, then caught himself, returned to the baseline of calm. One of them had to, and Dean was in no shape for any lame you need to calm yourself down lectures. "Dean, listen to me. I need you to listen to me."

A hiccup of silence. "I'm here."

That was the problem, Sam thought, slightly giddy. His eyes bounced around the car, seeking wisdom, help, inspiration. Lighting on the radio and, with a surge of hope, he reached over and flicked it on. AC/DC blasted from the speakers.

He let the phone sit on the seat for precious minutes as the music played. At the end of the song—Sam hadn't even paid attention to what it was—he turned the volume down and picked up the cell again.

"Better?"

He didn't expect the laugh, shaky as it was. "I'm really flipping out, huh?"

"You're entitled," Sam said. "Look, Randolph disappeared in 1849. A lot of men were getting shanghaied then in seaport towns—you sure there aren't really six bodies in there?"

Dean's voice grew even more strained, stretched and rough. "Sure, why not."

"Okay, so, they often had cellars or-or secret rooms they kept their victims in until the ship was ready to sail—maybe they stuck Randolph in one and then forgot about him? I figured I could check out the companies that were shanghaiing people back then, see if any of the properties are still intact. But, dude, you have to save the bullets, all right? If I get close, we might need 'em for signaling."

"Yeah. Right, okay. But, dude, if you don't get here soon, no guarantees, all right? I'm not… Sam, I can't…"

Sam found he was wincing whenever Dean spoke. He just wasn't used to this, to Dean being the one who needed. Oh, yeah, backup on hunts, entertainment in the car, a straight man when they hustled. But not needing Sam. He'd never felt it before like this, not when Dean had balked at going on the plane or when he'd gotten trapped in a wardrobe and panicked or the few times he'd let slip how much he'd missed Sam. It just wasn't the order of things.

Dean's breath was a ragged sob over the phone line.

Then again, when hadn't they written and rewritten their own rules?

"I'm about fifty miles away now. I'll be there soon, I'll figure this out, and I'll find you, all right? I promise, man, swear to God."

"Pinky swear…used to love to pinky swear…"

It wasn't really meant for him, so Sam ignored it with an ache. "Hang in there, big brother," he said quietly, and broke the line.

And his heart a little, too.

00000

He'd made some calls the rest of the way, squeezing research into every spare moment. By the time he exited off the interstate, Sam had a list of bars to start with, the most popular kidnapping spots of 150 years before.

He hit paydirt at the second one.

The bartender was just explaining how the place was a historical hotspot because of its maritime history, when Sam's phone rang. He excused himself and stepped just outside the front door into the evening breeze. "Hey."

"Sammy, they're coming. I can't stay here anymore. They're…"

Another shot. It was as loud and frightening as the first.

"They're chewing on his eyes…gonna eat your fingers…"

Dean sounded crazed. Sam's throat clogged, his stomach full of rocks. He never had known where his brother's fear of rats came from, not seeming to be rooted in the same need for control as his avoidance of planes and being trapped. But perhaps it was some scene like this, a victim they'd been too slow to reach, being devoured by vermin. "Dean, just close your eyes, okay?" he said desperately. "Pretend you're somewhere else—in the Impala, pretend you're driving down the road in the Impala. Wind in your hair, music on the radio, me rolling my eyes in the front seat. What's playing, Dean?"

"…can't."

"Just try it!"

"Sam—"

"Dean! Focus," he ordered. "You're in the car, engine's purring, window's down, it's Kansas corn country, blue skies and open road. What's playing?"

He counted long beats while he listened to Dean panting. Nearly opened his mouth to repeat the question, maybe make it an order, when Dean's voice, low and thready, trailed back to him. "'Unforgiven.'"

Sam smiled despite everything. "Always Metallica, huh?"

"…the best."

"All right, man, so Metallica's playing, you're in the car, and I'm on my way, all right? I think I've got a lead, should be there soon." He squeezed his eyes together, straining to hear.

And realized there'd been an odd thumping in the background the whole time he was only now registering.

Sam's shoulders bowed. He still remembered his brother's purple, torn nails from trying to kick his way out of the wardrobe. "Hey, don't break any toes, man, all right?" He couldn't help sounding as anguished as he felt, but doubted Dean could hear it at that point.

"Dark…light went out—can't breathe, Sammy…rats'll eat you…"

"I'm coming," he whispered. "I'm coming."

He hung up, afraid it was the last time he'd be able to break through Dean's darkness.

00000

So. It turned out three major shipping companies engaged in the practice of shanghaiing crewmen from the port of Baltimore. Sam would've found the history fascinating if it hadn't felt like the pressure was building in him with every second, soon to blow. Just like Dean.

Two of the companies had gone out of business, and while that didn't mean all their property had been torn up and converted, Sam relegated them to the bottom of the list. First came the three sites the third company still owned: warehouses and their surrounding areas. Perfect place for a secret holding cell to be hidden and forgotten for a century and a half.

He called Dean as he got out of the car at the first one, noting the time as he did. Almost six hours since Dean had first vanished. It was a miraculous speed-job of research and travel, but it didn't feel like it. Sam kinda doubted Dean saw it that way, either.

His brother's phone rang four times before going to voicemail.

Sam went cold. Surely Dean wouldn't've…

No. No way. Maybe if there was no hope in sight and he was going under from dehydration, maybe then. But not while he knew Sam was looking, and Dean himself was relatively okay. Physically, anyway.

Emotionally? How much confusion would it take to hurt himself when everything around him was dark and closing in and scurrying hungry? Or to just get so drawn down into his fear that he lost touch with everything else?

Sam jammed his finger on the redial.

Just when it was about to go to voicemail again, the connection was made.

"Dean?"

No answer but a tight squeak. It took a moment for Sam to realize it was Dean's grip slipping across the phone.

"Dean, I'm here. I've almost reached you. I just need to figure out if I'm at the right spot. You have any bullets left?"

A long silence, so long that he started to wonder if Dean could even hear him. Then, voice shredding on the word, "Three."

Sam swallowed hard, rubbed his burning eyes. "That's good. That's good, Dean. When I say the word, fire once, all right?"

There was no answer, but he heard the slide-load of the gun. Sam sprinted across the expanse of grass between him and the fence, scaling it in one jump and swing over. The warehouse loomed ahead, silent and shadowed. There was a flicker of movement at the far side, probably a guard, and Sam ducked low and hurried to the close end of the building.

"I'm gonna hang up, then you fire, Dean." And he did so, snapping his phone shut.

The silence stretched on: five seconds, ten. After thirty, Sam called back.

"Did you shoot?"

"'S low."

He frowned. "What, Dean?"

"Beeped. Battery's dying." Dean gave a sharp bark of laughter, and it sent a chill down Sam's back. "Sammy…I can't…"

"Dean, dude, listen, we're almost done. We're almost done. I just need to know, did you shoot?"

A long pause filled with too-fast breathing. Then, "Two. Two left."

Sam nodded, heart sinking a little but not too surprised. They were rarely that lucky. "Okay. I'll call you back in a few minutes. We're almost there. Jerk."

Seconds unspooling like precious gold thread. "Bitch," came the strained whisper.

He laughed, shakily, and hung up.

Less than ten minutes later, Sam was at the next site.

"Again, Dean. As soon as I hang up, fire once."

Five seconds. Seven. Ni—

There. A faint pop. Hard to pinpoint, but he was pretty sure it was to the right somewhere, not in the warehouse. Sam scoured the cluttered yard around the building, eyes skimming abandoned machinery and parts, trash, and an old shed with several large windows. But… He hurried closer, speed-dialing. Dean's battery was nearly gone. Same with his sanity.

Dean didn't answer the phone this time. Not on the first call, not on the third. Sam finally shoved the cell into his pocket, swearing, and attacked the lock on the shed.

The building was nearly completely dark inside. Sam toggled the switch on the Maglite he'd brought with him and shined it around the small, cluttered room. The floor was made of planks, and he shoved piles of junk impatiently to the side, trying to see all its contours.

He almost missed the edge of the trapdoor, it was so crusted with dirt and age.

"Dean!" Sam bellowed through the wooden barrier. "I'm here. I'll get you out in a minute."

There was no ring or handle set into the door as far as Sam could see, and the caked edges had sealed it shut. He cast around for a lever, located a rusted shovel by the wall, and set to work trying to pry it open. When that didn't work, an axe finally did the trick, splintering the old wood. Sam hacked at it viciously, unleashing himself on the one remaining and tactile obstacle between himself and his brother.

"Dean?"

There was no answer. Sam grimly clenched his jaw and hacked a few more boards, until the hole was big enough to fit a man. He immediately bellied down to it, shining the light inside.

It fell first on a body, bloody and bloated and raw. Squealing grey shapes darted away from the light, and the smell hit Sam like a mallet, making his eyes water and his throat close. He coughed through it, swinging the light past the corpse, to a pile of bones, and then, finally, to Dean.

His brother was pressed into the farthest corner, legs pulled up to his chest, gun across his knees. He shied away from Sam's light but otherwise didn't seem to register it, mouth moving in silent syllables. There was blood on the fingers clenched around his knees.

"Dean. Hey." Sam glanced around, hoping to see a ladder but spotting only rope. He wasn't sure he could rouse Dean enough to tie himself off, though, let alone to scale a rope. He turned back to his brother. "Dean? You hear me, man?"

Dean's silent monologue trailed off, and he squinted at Sam blankly.

"Hey. It's me. I came, just like I promised, remember? You ready to come out of there now?"

A rat skittered into the beam of the flashlight, tugging at Dean's jeans with its teeth. Dean shuddered, lashing out suddenly and kicking it away. There was a frantic scramble somewhere to the side, then the noise settled back to the creepy tripping of tiny feet and chewing-biting noises. Dean's shoulders rolled in even tighter.

Sam shifted on the edge of the hole, debating again whether to go down. "Dean. C'mon, man, snap out of it. I need some help here." Darn it, maybe there was a ladder in the warehouse…

Dean's head came up again. He blinked, then his eyes narrowed a little. "S-sammy?"

He wasn't the only one who regressed when traumatized. Dean sounded a fourth of his age. "Yeah," Sam said warmly. "It's me. You wanna come out and join me?" He reached a hand down in invitation, seeing the raw, brilliant green eyes flick over to it.

Something seemed to click in Dean at that. He climbed to his feet, ignoring another curious rat as it detoured to check out his boots. His shoulders straightened and he held his gun with sure comfort. The steps over to the trapdoor were stiff, but also controlled and deliberate.

"Okay, good," Sam praised. "I don't have a ladder, but I'm gonna send a rope down—tie it around yourself and I'll pull you up, all right?"

Dean's eyes opened and shut a few times, his forehead faintly creasing. "Not a kid, dude," he scraped out.

Sam's grin cracked his face. "So…I don't have to tell you how to tie the knots?" He climbed to his knees, enough to stretch and pull the rope toward him. It was old but thick, solid and unfrayed. Sam unwound two loops and started feeding it down the hole.

Dean didn't answer. When the rope reached him, he looked at it for a moment, then jammed his gun into the back of his jeans and clumsily pulled a coil around him.

Sam only realized then that he was shaking so badly, it was hard for him to use his hands.

"Do it big, dude," he coached, getting a weak glower for that. But Dean listened, making the loop large, threading it through then with ease. In a minute, he had the rope firmly under his arms and was holding on.

Sam had already found a heavy iron contraption in the corner and tested its stability. It wouldn't be budging until they tore the building down around it. Satisfied, Sam looped the rope around a thick pipe and returned to the hole.

He'd propped the light on the edge of the gap, and it cast Dean's face into shadow, making him look gaunt and sick. Not to mention that coming over to the opening meant Dean was standing right next to Joe Abbott's decomposing body. Sam's throat bobbed, and he pasted on a smile. "Y'ready?"

Dean gave him what was probably supposed to be an exasperated look, but in the dim light his shaky control seemed too close to terror for Sam's satisfaction. He didn't bother trying to say anything, though, just pulled. Getting Dean out of there would make everything better.

It took about a minute of sweating and straining, but finally his brother's fingers wrapped over the broken edge of the aperture. Sam anchored the rope on the same machine he was using as a pulley, then quickly hopped over to help pull Dean up and over. His brother's hands were torn, his skin and jeans damp with sweat, and every single muscle seemed to be trembling, silent witnesses to what he'd been through in that hole.

As soon as Dean was fully out and on his feet, he pulled away, shrugging out of Sam's grip.

"Hey, you—"

"Get off me," Dean snapped, and fumbled with the knot against his chest.

Sam reached over to help, only to find his hands pushed away. He watched instead in uncertain silence as Dean worked uselessly at the pulled-taut rope then, finally giving up, reached down with a growl for his boot knife. The change of elevation made him stumble, nearly toppling him forward, and Sam reached out to steady him, only to be shoved away again.

"I've got it." Dean sawed at the rope, slipped once to slice the edge of his hand, but returned all the more frantically to cutting himself loose.

Sam bit his lip and watched, hurting for his brother, hands curling uselessly at his sides. But if Dean needed to do something to free himself, Sam could give him that much, at least.

The rope finally off, Dean stumbled for the shed door.

Sam hung back and saw his brother gulp air like he'd been drowning, coughing in the chilly night breeze. He tripped once, going down to his knees, but one snarl was enough to keep Sam at bay this time before he could do more than take a step closer. Dean pushed himself back to his feet, took another few steps, then folded to the ground, heaving.

Sam hovered a few feet away, as miserable as Dean clearly was, feeling the helplessness of that afternoon return.

He was ready to intervene when Dean finished and looked like he might topple forward into the mess. But Dean caught himself in time and shoved back up to his wobbly feet, striding determinedly for the edge of the yard. Sam trailed after him, wondering how much he'd freed Dean, after all.

Thankfully, this fence had a door in it, one whose lock he'd picked. It stood ajar, and Dean plowed through it, swaying, heading with steely determination for the car and never even looking back to see if Sam followed. He was, though, all the way to the Impala's side, where he winced and fought with himself over stopping Dean before his brother decided he could drive in this shape.

The decision, however, was made for him. Dean unlocked and opened the door with difficulty, then froze there in the doorway, hand clamped onto door and car frame, just staring.

Sam paused a moment, trying to gauge this new development, at what Dean could possibly be looking at so desperately inside the car. He finally took a chance and went around, noting the hard tremors that were passing through his brother's frame and rattling the door.

"Dean? Y'all right, man?"

Dean uttered a vehement curse and slammed the door shut. He pounded a fist on top of the car, then turned and cast around for something else to take his anger out on. A nearby trashcan went flying, a bottle smashing against the brick wall of a nearby building, then an empty beer can.

Sam was starting to seriously worry. When Dean had been trapped in the wardrobe, he'd shut down for a while after, dealt with the demons internally. Sam had rarely seen him lash out like this, out of control, and knew it was only the residual shock that was keeping him even this much in check. How could Sam help this; what did Dean need? Sam knew the play but not this role.

Dean had run out of things to throw, and seemed to move on to the next weapon he had: himself. He reared back a fist, aiming for the huge metal dumpster by the fence they'd just left.

That was his cue. Sam stepped forward and grabbed his arm on the backswing.

Dean immediately spun on him, growling, his other fist coming around. Sam stood his ground. If Dean wanted a fight—heck, if Dean wanted a punching bag—he was willing. As long as it helped.

Dean's fist stopped an inch from his jaw.

In the streetlight, Sam really saw his brother's face for the first time. Rage twisted it—reshaping into helplessness even as he watched—but it was terror that blew his pupils wide and bled his skin white. Dean was afraid, even now, or maybe especially now, without anything tangible to try to break out of or shoot or kick into the wall. He searched Sam's face a long minute, as if silently pleading. Then he slid down to the ground beside the car, curling in on himself.

This part Sam knew from playing opposite it for years. He crouched down opposite Dean and gripped his legs just above his knees, holding on. "It's all right," he said in quiet undertones. "You're out now, you're free. Just breathe and it'll get better in a minute."

If it would've been Sam, he would've been wrapped in Dean's arms by now, but his brother didn't like restraints of any kind. Dean just needed contact, to know he wasn't alone, and he immediately gripped Sam's wrists hard enough to bruise. He remained hunched over, swallowing rapidly, but his eyes didn't budge from Sam's face.

"You're free. You're out of there," Sam crooned, steady and sure. "Plenty of space, Dean, you can move around. Just take it easy, try to relax. You're okay."

It felt like grounding a lightning bolt. Tension, vibration, panic all seemed to bleed off Dean into Sam, who let it drain away. Dean's unsteady, almost sobbing breaths slowed and evened out, his grip loosening a fraction.

Sam was reminded of a thousand nights in his childhood when his brother had warded off the nightmares and the monsters by his simple presence. He'd clung to Dean then, just as he had the last few months since Jess had died. He could stand being clung to a little in return.

Sam kept talking until Dean finally shut his eyes and leaned his head back against the car. Sam sucked in a slow breath, then gently pulled his hands free. He shifted to sit down next to Dean, touching at shoulder and hip this time.

"Little tight inside the car, huh?" he finally ventured when only the occasional spasm still wracked his brother.

Dean snorted. "Afraid of my own car—how pathetic is that, dude?"

He sounded steadier, and Sam felt some of his own stress let go. "I won't tell anybody," he offered.

Dean almost laughed. "Yeah, right. Who's left to tell, Sam?"

His heart tightened. "I won't make fun of you for it?" Sam counter-offered.

"Until you get drunk."

"Or you dye my socks pink again."

"Or Caleb asks you."

"Yeah, pretty much."

"Dude, you suck."

Sam smiled, tipping his head toward Dean. "Got you out, didn't I?"

There was a beat. Then, quietly, "Yeah."

And for the first time since he taken off on that dark road in Indiana, Dean going the opposite direction, Sam felt taken back.

00000

Terror took a lot out of you.

By the time he'd finally been able to get in the car, Dean had needed Sam's help just to stand, exhaustion finishing the job fear had started. There hadn't been any argument as Sam had steered him around to the passenger side, nor any mention of stretching out in the back. Dean was asleep before Sam hit the city limits.

He always had been able to sleep well in the car. Dean's version of resting best at home, Sam had always figured. He'd promptly slept through the next eighteen hours, including Sam stopping at a motel and trying to get him inside and comfortable. Sam finally gave up, covering him in a pile of blankets and leaving him curled in the seat and dead to the world.

Two days later, he could look Sam in the eye again, didn't doze off at the drop of the hat, and no longer looked queasy at the sight of food, all of which Sam considered very good signs. They hadn't talked about it any more than to call the police about the bodies. They'd let the authorities sort out who was who, then come back to do a salt-and-burn on Randolph and finish the job. As for the home Randolph kept punishing people for going to when he couldn't—Sam's pet theory—no one seemed inclined to go into it in the near future, but if they did, they'd hardly be trapped in the excavated and busy dump site now that the police were there. Time to move on.

They'd gotten wind of a haunted junkyard a few states over and headed that way, Dean back in the driver's seat. If he still hesitated whenever he got into the car or spent more time than usual outside, away from walls, Sam pretended not to notice. Dean had never let himself stay beaten for long, and was bouncing back more every day.

When they stopped for the night on the way to the new hunt, Sam surprised his brother by joining him for a few beers at the local watering hole, where Dean watched the female clientele, and Sam watched Dean. But they both seemed content just nursing sweating bottles and listening to the oldies playing on the jukebox, and Sam felt normalcy creep back over them like a comfortable blanket.

"So," he finally said, then took a long draw off the bottle, and a big chance. "You know, junkyards usually have rats, Dean."

Dean stiffened a little, gave him a long look, then relaxed and shrugged. "And most of my shotguns have buckshot in them—what's your point?"

"Okay," Sam put up a hand, "just saying."

Dean glowered heatlessly at him. "Dude, you didn't see the eyes on those things. They were plotting to kill me."

Sam's worry cooled. If Dean could joke about it, they were okay. "Uh-huh," he said with a skepticism perfected over years, and took another sip, and a lazy glance over the room. Always was good to be prepared.

Dean got quieter, fiddling with his bottle, picking at the label with a nail. He finally hitched a shoulder again. "We stayed in a lot of rundown places when you were little. I mean, real hole-in-the-walls, places that should've been condemned and burned."

Sam's breath caught, eyes swiveling back to Dean. He wanted to hear the story, sure, but hadn't really expected to and certainly not this soon. As free as he was with memories of Sam's childhood, Dean kept his own close and private, and Sam respected that. But he held still, waiting for the rest, not wanting to do anything to shut Dean down if his brother was willing to share.

Dean's eyes focused on the wall, distant. "Dad…Dad was away a lot, or so buried in his books, he might as well've been away. It was pretty much just you and me a lot of the time. Dad always made sure we had food, or I'd remind him if we were getting low, but he didn't pay attention to a lot of other things."

"Like rats," Sam ventured softly.

"Like rats," Dean conceded. "I mean, the roaches were bad enough, but the rats…" He shifted in his chair. "It wasn't too bad until we stayed in this one place. But I woke up in the middle of the night, and there was this monster rat nosing around in your crib, smelling your fingers and your hair…"

Sam shivered.

"You were just a little kid, Sam," Dean shook his head, still watching the replay in his mind, "and rats'll feed on anything that can't fight back. It took off when I climbed in with you, but if I hadn't woken up… Sometimes you had to stay up all night to make sure they didn't come chew on you."

Sam didn't remember any of that and was pretty sure he knew who'd stayed up so who wouldn't be chewed on. Rats'll eat you—it wasn't insanity; it was memory. He felt an old welling of anger at his dad at the thought…and soft love for his brother, who always bragged about his shortcomings and downplayed his virtues.

Dean seemed to snap back to the bar, eyebrows shrugging, taking another swallow of beer. "Never liked 'em since then," he finished offhandedly.

Sam nodded in silence.

"So." Dean thumped the bottle down and cleared his throat, sharing-time over and clearly never to be spoken of again. "This junkyard—how do you wanna handle it?"

Sam almost smiled, his earlier concern completely fading. Dean would do what he needed to, as he always had. "With a stop in Atlantic City on the way?" Giving in to the smile at Dean's instant brightening.

And Sam would do what he needed to, too.

The End

Just want to put a plug in for two great zines I've been involved with this year: Blood Brothers 3, available from Jeanne at TeaJunkie , and Brotherhood 8, available from . Beautiful work and good fic!