Disclaimer: I don't own or make a profit from Supernatural. Many thanks to Starliteyes for taking the time to look this over for me.
For Vanessa at SFTCOL(AR)S, who wanted to see a story of why Dean was afraid of rats.
They were deep in southern Georgia, the thick mid-summer heat pressing down on them until it felt like they were swimming in bathwater. The air smelled sweet with decay and the kind of sweat that clings with you no matter how much you shower. It seemed to John that they spent a lot of time in the south. It was dank with old memories and rotten with nearly forgotten sins. There were so many spirits steeped into the countryside that the folks accepted them as part of the natural scenery. But they weren't natural---staying on after your time had a way of moldering your soul until it stank as bad as spoiled peaches left to ferment in unpicked groves.
They were carefully creeping along the upper floors of a long abandoned plantation, the air thick with dust. The wilderness was slowly creeping in, violently taking back what it used to own by right of nature. Silken vines strangled the Ionic columns that stood like decommission soldiers lined up for one last inspection. Mosses sunk in low from the thick-limbed trees that stood sentential over the once beautiful and ancient architecture, obscuring the bloated, white plantation behind green and yellow vegetation.
One hundred years ago, Ezra Cane had gone insane and had stalked through the well-groomed orchards and plowed farmlands, searching for new victims to capture and torture. Rumor said that it all started when his wife ran away with her black lover, taking Ezra's four year-old daughter with her. Their abandonment drove the old man to kill his friends and neighbors or anyone else who dared to wander onto his lands. Finally the townsfolk had enough, and they stormed his plantation. They strung him up by the neck on the front lawn, and after he stopped kicking, they cut him down and burnt him to ash.
It was a mystery to John, why still, after all these years, people were turning up missing. As far as he could figure, there had to be something left behind in the house that Ezra was hanging onto. Something that John had to find and destroy before another innocent person paid the price for the spirit's insanity.
They had methodically searched every inch of the crumbling house, until finally hours later they had reached the third floor. The wooden floorboards were weak and John didn't have to remind his well-trained fourteen year-old son to walk close to the walls where they were the most stable. However, that didn't stop the almost uncontrolled urge to do so as he watched Dean at the far end of the hall, his shot gun held nose down, ready to fire at a moment's warning.
His son was mad at him in a way that only a teenager could be. John hadn't wanted to bring Dean along on this particular hunt. They were dealing with a poltergeist, and it was a known fact that they fed on a teenager's natural angst. There was something about the hormonal imbalance of a growing body that made most spirits go bat shit, and if there was anything that John was sure of, it was that his fourteen year-old was definitely having some hormone issues.
The boy had just recently discovered girls with a ferocity that almost stunned the grown man. Dean had always been aware of his boyish charms on women when it came to getting something he wanted, like information or a second helping of pie. But in the last few months his son had figured out that the fairer sex had other uses than cooking. John was fairly certain that the boy hadn't acted on it yet, but he knew it was only a matter of time. Dean was nothing if not a fast learner.
It was for that reason, which John had told Dean to stay home that day. Someone as emotionally charged as Dean would be a beacon for a vengeful spirit on the hunt. Dean of course hadn't seen it that way. He thought John was punishing him for some small mistake or error in judgment. His son hadn't outright questioned his decision, but if the glare that Sammy sent his way was any indication, then John had seriously damaged Dean's fragile ego.
Even though there was no outright dissention in the ranks, the silence emanating from his sons was enough to break any man, and John had relented and allowed his eldest to join him on the hunt, leaving Sam home to do more research.
Dean was stopped in front of a solid wooden door, ready to push it open and step to the side. John called out a warning for him to be careful of the rotted floorboards directly in front of the door. Dean paused in the act of reaching for the knob, his eyes swinging towards John.
Without warning the door was wrenched open of its own volition, revealing a black maw of nothingness. The barrel of Dean's gun jerked up and he twisted around to face the threat. John watched stunned as a multitude of arms shot out of the darkness, long gnarled fingers scrabbling for purchase around Dean's waist and legs. Some of the arms were pale, almost gray with rot, while others were dark and ashy. Some were stick-thin and childlike, while one set was brawny with a man's strength.
They grabbed a hold of Dean and yanked, pulling the boy off his feet. Instinctively, he dropped his gun, his hands clawing at the door frame to keep from being sucked into the darkness.
John dropped into a crouch, hugging the wall as he sped down the hall, carefully putting one foot in front of the other on the most stable portions of flooring. Dean's panicked eyes held onto his father's, the only connection he had across the distance. Dean slipped further back, and his nails left long claw marks in the soft mahogany on either side of the door.
John was close enough to see the whites of his son's eyes, when his fingers gave way and he was yanked into the darkness with an aborted scream of terror. The door slammed shut as John reached it, nearly breaking his nose with the impact. He pounded his shoulder against the old wood, feeling it shudder under his weight. It gave way with a crack as it tore from the ancient hinges and fell backwards into the room.
It was an old sewing parlor, with large bay windows that were mostly broken out. Something fluttered in the rafters above his head, and John looked up to see a flock of nesting birds. The room faced a western exposure, well lit and clearly empty.
"Dean!" His tone demanded an immediate answer, but he received nothing in return.
John's voice boomed in the room, and the flock of birds scattered out the windows with loud screeches of dismay at being disturbed. He tore the room apart looking for hidden passages or forgotten cubbies. Too quickly it was apparent that there was no other way out of the room except for the way he came, and the window ledge that was three stories up.
John choked on the word, wondering if he would ever be able to say that name again without swallowing ashes.
Dean wasn't a lazy boy, but truth be told, he would rather wake up slowly in a nice soft bed than to jerk upright at the sudden influx of shooting pain at the tips of his fingers and the soft fleshy parts of his lips. He noticed immediately that there were warm, furry bodies flooding over his chest and face, suffocating him with their wet, musky stench. He gasped for air, as they tumbled down around him, squealing in protest.
He came up fast, and when he hit the ceiling with his forehead, he fell back even faster. He could taste blood on his lips, and pain starburst behind his eyes at the knock he took. He struggled to focus his eyes, but he was enveloped in complete darkness, so thick that he couldn't even see his hand in front of his face. Beneath his back he could feel something sharp and angular jab uncomfortably into his ribs. He sat up gingerly, slumping against a cold, damp wall when he realized that he couldn't sit upright fully.
The half-starved rodents that had blanketed him, scurried away, but Dean was still freaked at the sensation of their filthy little bodies covering his. He checked his pockets quickly, wincing when the tips of his fingers brushed the rough fabric of his jeans. He found his small flashlight that he always kept with him, switching it on so he could see his surroundings.
The first thing he checked was his fingers. His nail beds were cracked and crusted with blood and he could see where a few of them had been bent completely backwards. There were longs slivers of wood shoved underneath his nails, piercing deep into the quick of his fingers painfully. He knew those wounds were the result of him struggling to escape the arms that had yanked him through the doorway and away from his father.
In addition there were small puncture wounds in the webbing of his fingers and the fleshy part of his palm. The bottom of his stomach dropped out when he realized that they were small bite marks. He brushed his hand over his lips, feeling ragged tears of flesh, and freshly oozing blood. The squeals of rats ricocheted off the damp walls around him, attacking him with sound instead of teeth. Dean kicked out his foot, connecting with a fat body, and sent it flying.
The rat darted away and Dean followed it with his penlight. It disappeared into a tiny crack in the wall near his feet. Dean scanned the area, trying to swallow down the tide of panic that swelled deep and terrible inside him.
He was crammed into a tiny cubby hole built of cement. It was tall enough to let him sit in a half-slumped position and just long enough for him to lie down. He barely had any room to move side to side, and besides the small hole where the rat disappeared into, the walls were seamless with no exits that Dean could see.
Something round and smooth was nestled in his spine and he shifted so he could scan the floor. Ivory colored bones littered the floor around him. He immediately indentified a couple of femur bones and several ribs. Stacked to the side he saw two skulls, the round empty sockets of one staring back at him woefully.
He twisted his arm behind him, digging out the third skull that was pressing against his back. His panic surged when he realized that it was the skull of a child, no more than three or four years old. Dean tossed it away where it landed with the others, trying not to think too hard on the matter.
Dean could see where most of the bones had been gnawed down to the marrow by small teeth. Another rat ventured through the hole and Dean lashed out at it viciously. His aim struck true and it bounced off the wall, and fell still on the floor.
Dean felt a flood of victory at the sight, and his panic lessoned a little. There was no reason for him to worry. He wasn't about to end up as rat food like the unfortunates that he shared the tomb with. His father would be looking for him, and John would find him, Dean had no doubt in the world. His Dad was the best hunter out there, and there was no way that he was going to let some two-bit, piece of crap, wanna-a-be Freddy Kruger snatch his kid.
Slowly, Dean cleared away the bones beneath him, piling them against the walls so he could lie back comfortably without being jabbed in the ribs. All he had to do was sit back and wait. His Dad would be digging him out soon enough, and then he could get back to the business of salting and burning the dickweed that had been disappearing people who wandered onto his property for the last hundred years.
As much as Dean trusted in his dad, he wasn't completely oblivious to the seriousness of his situation. It could take a while for his father to find him, and he had limited resources on hand. He had a flask of holy water in his pants pocket, a hunting knife in his boot, some salt, a lighter and his flashlight. The water would last him about two days if he rationed it carefully, but the flashlight would barely last a few hours if he kept it on constantly.
Right now the rats were kept at bay by the torch, but as soon as the light went out they would come flooding back. Dean could hear them behind the wall, squirreling around and squealing with hunger. Carefully, with the toe of his boot, he nudged one of the skulls over to the small crack in the cement, wedging it tightly into the hole. It wouldn't hold against the rats if they tried to nose their way in, but if he kept the sole of his foot pressed against the skull, it would keep the hole plugged. To do so he had to lay prone on the cold cement slab. Laying back left him feeling vulnerable, but it was a trade off he was willing to make.
The air around him smelled rich with wet mold and decay. The coldness that seeped into his bones from the cement flooring and the weight of the air around him, spoke of being deep underground, beneath damp earth and twisting roots. Dean tried not to panic at the knowledge that he was buried alive. He closed his eyes, and breathed through his nose, exhaling out his mouth. It was an exercise that his father taught him to deal with stress. He tried to imagine himself on a sun-soaked beach, waves lapping at his toes with beach bunnies bouncing around in string bikinis.
As soon as he had a handle on his emotions, he clicked off the flashlight. The darkness crashed down on him like a tidal wave. Even though his eyes had been closed, the darkness had not been as complete as it was now. Dean felt something heavy press against this chest, and he fought to drag a lungful of air into his body. His pulse raced, and the sound of the rats behind the walls intensified until it sounded like they were digging in his ears.
His hand trembled and he clenched his fingers tightly around the torch. He wanted desperately to turn on the light, but the hard resolute voice of his father echoed in his head. He knew it was better now to accustom himself while he had the choice, rather than to wait until the light went dead and he was left in uncompromising darkness.
He breathed deeply, counting in his head like his father taught him. He tried to reclaim his beach fantasy, but he could no longer hear waves, just his harsh panting and the scurrying of rats. He felt the round press of the skull beneath his foot shift, and he locked his knee holding it tight against the flood of rodents that were trying to invade the small space that he claimed for himself.
Dean screwed his eyes shut, pretending that he was lying in his own bed trying to sleep. The fantasy was compromised when he realized that the sound that had lulled him to sleep for the last ten years was absent. Sam was safe at home, and Dean was thankful for that, but at that moment he would give anything to hear his brother's soft snoring.
Sam never could get a handle on the idea of stealth sleeping. While John had drilled into them the importance of sleeping with one eye open and as silently as possible, Sam had shrugged off his father's words, claiming that it was impossible to control one's body when they were unconscious. His disregard for his own safety while sleeping had led Dean to take up the slack. He slept with the Bowie his Dad had given him under his pillow, his senses stretched taut even in unconsciousness. While asleep he could sense a shift in the air if the door opened across the house, or hear the slightest creak of a footstep on the floor.
Dean did prefer to awaken slowly in the comfort of his own bed, but it rarely happened. Instead he stood vigil over his sleeping brother, guarding him twenty-four seven, without Sam's knowledge. Dean didn't resent his brother for that, in fact, he felt that it was his right. He was the oldest, the strongest, and no matter what Sammy said he was the wisest. It was his duty to make sure that his little brother was safe and protected. And if part of protecting him meant that Sam never knew that terrible things didn't stop just because he was asleep, then Dean was fine with that. Let his little brother sleep peacefully-- it was one of the few meager things that Dean could give him.
Eventually, with every breath the hard knot of fear that was forming in the center of Dean's chest loosened. The knowledge that Sam was far away from the spirit's clutches calmed him. Dean thought back to that morning's breakfast that he had shared with his brother. They had squabbled over the last bowl of Lucky Charms, an argument that Dean had won of course. Dean forced his brother to eat eggs and bacon instead, a far healthier meal than a bowl of pure sugar. Sam thought his brother was being a dick, but that was okay. Dean had eyed the last two eggs on Sam's plate and absently thought that he should be having some protein himself before the hunt, but he knew that his brother needed it more. He was still growing and all.
Once the row had been settled, Sam had fallen into the rhythm of his habitual nonstop chatter that drove their father absolutely bonkers and which Dean had learned to tolerate over the years. That morning's topic had been epics and the saga of Beowulf. Apparently, his ten year-old freak of a brother found the Viking sagas to be far more interesting that Shakespeare's tragedies. How or why a ten year-old would have read either or even compared the two was completely beyond Dean. Sometimes he wondered if Sam was adopted, or the product of an alien experiment or something, because there was just no way that they were in any way related. Dean caught the look on his Dad's face as Sam rattled on about the differences between translated prose and iambic pentameter, and knew that his father was thinking the same thing.
Dean sighed as he adjusted to the weight of the darkness that surrounded every inch of his body, and ignored the distant squeal of rats. Instead he allowed himself to construct the story he would tell Sam when he got home that night. Of course he would tell Sam about how brave he had been as he laid in his tomb of rats and bone. Maybe he would exaggerate the story a bit, tell Sam how fiercely he fought against the ghost as it dragged him down the hall, kicking and screaming as Dean busted holes in the walls and yelled imaginative curses that would make a nun's ears bleed. This was definitely a story he was going to have to tell to his brother as they sat under the covers, their Dad in the other room fast asleep.
He could imagine Sam's little snickers as he cracked off wise-ass jokes and his gasps of awe as Dean acted out how he fought off the spirit and won. He couldn't wait to terrify his brother with the description of giant man-eating rats and their long yellow teeth and sharp claws.
Dean was just composing the end of his story, figuring that he could tell Sam that he dug his way out of the ground with his bare hands, breaching the surface like some sort of zombie out of Dawn of the Dead when he realized that something was wrong.
The air around him had grown cold, but his body was already numb with the dampness that penetrated his bones from the cement slab he reclined on so he had barely noticed. He opened his eyes, but the deep, impenetrable darkness remained the same. He shifted his face to the side, staring at where the wall should be. It took him a moment to realize that the constant scurrying and squealing of the rats had fallen silent. The stillness of the air around him should have been complete, but it was broken by an awkward, rasping sound.
Dean inhaled, his breathing coming in short, barely controlled pants. The sound was harsh against his ears, and it took him a moment to realize his breaths weren't the only ones he heard. Someone was breathing heavily against his right ear, their exhalations panicked and grating.
Dean jerked away, colliding with the mound of bones next to him as he stared wide-eyed into the darkness. He flicked on the light, blinking as his pupils contracted painfully under the glare. He glanced at the wall next to him and the emptiness of space. He swallowed hard, panning the light around the small cubby.
As the light reached the wall where the two skulls had previously been stacked, Dean paused, his hand trembling. On the wall was a dark, viscous stain that writhed with small white specks. Dean was positive that it hadn't been there before he had turned out the light. He leaned a little closer, and he could smell the taint of rotting blood in the air. Maggots slithered through the ooze that was thick and tacky, their fat little bodies making sticky sucking sounds as they fed.
Dean drew back in disgust. In his panic he had forgotten to keep his foot pressed against the skull he was using to block the hole, and suddenly a plethora of rats spewed into the tiny room. Dean snarled, drawing his feet back and kicked. They squealed and danced around his legs, running into the piles of bones around him and scattering them on the ground. Dean flailed, knocking them against walls, and crushing them with his booted feet. Their eyes gleamed red in the torchlight, and Dean tried not to think about Hell Hounds and demon kin.
They retreated through the hole, a half a dozen less than what had rushed him. Dean's lips curled back as he scraped their little corpses across the floor with his feet, cramming them back through the hole with his toes. He pushed the skull into place, pressing his foot tight against the angular protrusion of cheekbones and sinuses. Small blood spatters smeared across the walls and floor where he had crushed them, and he automatically checked on the large stain. It was gone, along with the squirming maggots that had been feeding on it.
He laid back, wide eyes staring blankly at the gray ceiling above his head. He should have expected the spirit to pay him a visit. He hadn't expended all that energy to nab him, just to dump him in a hole and leave him. Of course, it would want a little play time. It had never been clear what Ezra Cane had done to his victims. All anyone knew was that people disappeared forever if they ever stepped foot on his property. Now, it was pretty obvious to Dean that he had buried people alive in different plots around the property, leaving them to choke on their own panic until finally dying of thirst or oxygen deprivation.
It was a terrible, horrible way to die. Not at all how Dean imagined he would meet his maker. He always imagined it would be in a blaze of glory, like the Bon Jovi song. Billy the Kid was a true outlaw hero. Too bad he was shot down by his best friend. That was a lesson that Dean took to heart. You could only ever rely on family, and at the moment Dean was betting heavily on his father to get him the hell out of there.
Dean did his breathing exercises and tried to relax his muscles. His hand trembled when he finally turned off the light. He wanted to think about anything but where he was, but his senses were attuned to every little sound that echoed in the small tomb. There was no way he could get back to the eye of calm that he had been at before.
Dean was brave. He was strong. There was nothing that he couldn't handle, but at the moment, he really, really wanted his Dad.