Sam could hear his brother screaming. He couldn't see Dean, but he didn't need to. The scream told him all he needed to know. He could hear him, but he couldn't find him. There was nothing ahead of him but cold mountain earth, shadowed by the trees, shuddering in the December wind, cracking.
He stopped, tried to stop panting, tried to listen past the wind and the snow and the pounding of his own heart and find Dean.
But there was nothing but the unforgiving woods.
And Dean was still screaming.
This had all been to spare Sam. Sam, who had a cough and a nose that ran like Niagara Falls. No need for him to be out in the woods in mid-December, at least not when Dean could handle it by himself.
He hadn't actually meant to hunt the thing when he'd left the hotel room during Sam's nap. It was reconnaissance, trying to find signs of a spirits presence. And he'd found it. Another body, neck bent almost backwards, lying prostrate on the ground. The fourth body found in the woods over three months. He'd moved past it, intending to head back to the car and call the cops anonymously so the poor guy could go back to the family he belonged to.
And then the spirit found him.
It came at him fast and without warning, a man swinging a pick-axe, so corporeal Dean wouldn't have thought it was a spirit except for its nineteenth century clothes. He dodged, but the axe nicked his shoulder, set it to bleeding a thin stream of red. He shot at it with his shotgun, sent the salt pellets flying in all directions, but the spirit was fast, practiced, and did not disappear.
It fought. Slashing and howling and staring with a murderous glint in its eye, the spirit advanced, and Dean fought, with his gun and his knife and his salt until he was sweating in the cold of winter afternoon, shoulders burning and lungs aching. He was fighting so hard he didn't even notice he was being shepherded, carefully herded backwards, and back, and back, a little this way, and a little that way, until the ground gave way under his feet.
He plummeted several feet, landed on his side; bit his lip to keep from crying out. It wasn't dirt that caught him, but hard wooden beams, crisscrossed across the ground and the walls, collapsed against each other like a toothpick house blown to bits. He put a hand to his chest and felt the ragged pull of his own breathing and the pounding of his heart against burning ribs. And then the spirit was there, next to him, a giant of a man in miner's clothing. Ah. That explained the hole. A mine shaft. A collapse. The spirit. It came together with lightening speed.
Dean couldn't resist a jibe, even though he was defenseless. "You're doing a bang-up job trying to break my neck."
"Not you." The spirit said, and for the first time, Dean noticed that the pick-axe was gone.
Dean looked to his knife, feet away, and gun, long-since run out of ammo. Not close enough.
"Not you." The spirit said again, and this time it was on its knees in front of Dean, empty eyes boring into him. "You die like me."
There was an odd inclination to laugh in Dean's brain. "What's that supposed to mean?"
The spirit dissipated.
Ribs howling in protest, Dean sat up and stared at the sky, several feet above him. The climb would be hard, but…
And then something started to move over the top of the hole, eclipsing the afternoon light. Wooden beams, like the ones all around him, all being pushed together to blot out the sun. In mere seconds, Dean was left in total darkness. He could hear the scratch of more debris being piled on top of the hole. Entombing him.
A voice from above laughed maniacally and shrieked, "You die like me!"
And Dean understood.
The first hour in the pit was spent getting ready. He tried to call Sam, but apparently Sprint had no service six feet under. The phone had a little battery, though, and the light still worked when he opened it. He found his knife that way, and his gun, even though it was pretty much useless without bullets or salt. He marked the size of the hole, three paces one way, two the other, tall enough for him to stand, not much room to move. He tried to move some of the debris, searched for a way out, but every time he moved (breathed) the pain made spots dance behind his eyes. He gathered his weapons close and waited. For what, he didn't know.
But Sam would be coming, sooner or later. Looking around him at the choking darkness, broken only by the faint glow of his phone, he hoped it was sooner.
By the second hour, he was hoping for anything to happen. He'd even go another round with Miner Forty-Niner (and his daughter, Clementine) just to break the monotony. But there was nothing but the darkness, and his ribs hurting like crazy, and his shoulder bleeding a little again. There was nothing but him.
And that was just as scary as any spirit.
By hour three, Dean was beginning to hate himself. Every time his mind screamed no air no room can't move no room no room no air there was a flare of anger at his own weakness. There was air, he told himself, plenty of air. The room wasn't that small, and if the walls seemed to be getting closer and the ceiling was looming lower and lower every second, well, that was just fine. He was fine. Just fine. One-hundred percent.
But his mind kept saying things like that, and his palms were starting to sweat.
Stop it he told himself. Sam's coming.
By hour four, Dean caught himself humming. Master of Puppets. It sounded eerie in the pit, no echo, all the sound swallowed up by the earthen walls. But eerie was better than downright claustrophobic, so he let himself do it. But he couldn't keep it up for long. It was getting hard to breathe, not so much from the small space, but from the constant ache in his chest. Was he bleeding inside? He couldn't tell, but he tried his best to stay still. Sam would tell him to stay still.
Stay still, Sam would say. His eyes would be big and round, his hands bruised from digging the debris off the pit. He'd look back over his shoulder and call for Dad, who'd--
Dean opened his eyes. No. It wouldn't happen that way. Not with Dad. Not ever again.
Your fault your fault your fault his mind said, and this time, Dean didn't have the strength to resist it.
Hour five was spent thinking about things Dean didn't want to think about.
It started when his phone gave out. The light flickered, then chimed as it shut off, and then there really was nothing but darkness. But if he closed his eyes, he could pretend that the phone was still there, and that if he chose to open his eyes, it would be light again. More than anything, Dean wanted light. But he didn't have it, so he sat with his eyes closed.
Problem was, things played like movies on the back of his eyelids, movies like--
"Sam!" Sam in his arms, limp, bloody. Dean rocked forward and backwards, remembering when Sam used to be small enough to actually fit in his arms and they used to rock back and forth like this whenever Sammy cried and he would always stop crying when Dean rocked him because Dean knew what was best for his little brother who he loved more than anything in the world and who was his whole world and oh Sam, no.
Dad's body burned slowly, smoke rising up into the sky, swirling embers in an elaborate dance. Sam was crying beside him, crying so hard he was gasping. Dean didn't know why. He never cared about Dad, not like Dean had. He should have been angry. But there was nothing inside of him, no tears in his eyes, just a gaping hole that had been forming for years and had only now become big enough to really consume him. But he couldn't listen to Sam cry like that, so he went and knelt with Sam in the dirt and lied about having to get back to Bobby's, then hated himself for a coward.
Truth was, he couldn't watch his father burn.
They played like bad midnight reruns, and Dean absently wondered how long he'd been down here.
The spirit came back during hour six. Dean couldn't see it, but he knew it was there. It didn't do anything for a long time, just watched. Dean's muscles were tight across his chest, and he was beginning to think he probably was bleeding a little inside, because it hurt so much and breathing was getting harder. If he had to fight, he would probably die.
But in a blaze of glory, right? Right?
"Does your mind wander, boy?" the spirit drawled at last. "Does it go over every inch of your life with a fine-toothed comb, finding all the things you ever hated about livin' ?"
Dean didn't answer.
A grim chuckle. "Boy, I know it does. Used to think God gave man reason. That ain't it. That's the devil's work. Reason makes a man crazy, in the end."
Dean couldn't answer.
"Not most men, see. Most men live their whole lives without ever really having to face themselves. But I did. And so will you."
There was a loud thud and a scramble of rushing dirt that Dean couldn't identify. "I might come back when you can't take it anymore. Might even break your neck for you. But only after I hear you scream."
Then it was gone, and Dean knew what the sound was.
The thud of a pick-axe. Dean stuck out his leg and found he could only move it a few inches. The spirit had collapsed more of the hole. It was half the size it had been before.
Dean bit his lip to keep from screaming.
Dean found in hour seven that the ache in his chest was making him dizzy. He caught his head dipping forward onto his chest, eyes closing, and jerked it back up, fighting the fizzing white spots that popped at the edges of his vision. The spirit could come back and Dean would be without even the defense of consciousness. It seemed pretty set in stone that he was going to die down here--
No. This was not the way to die. Dean Winchester was going to die in three months, a trade for his brother, food for the hell-hounds. Not like this.
He hadn't told Sam yet, but the way he wanted to go, if nobody found a way out of the deal, was sitting on the hood of the Impala, right next to Sam, with AC/DC blasting as loud as the car's speakers could go. If he didn't fight, the hell-hounds probably wouldn't tear him up too bad, and he'd be with all the things he loved about life right up until the very end.
The very end.
He stared out into the dark. Would hell be like this? Darkness and fear?
Darkness darkness darkness his mind chanted hysterically, and Dean chanted along with it.
By hour eight, Dean couldn't think anymore. His thoughts ran around in circles, and he knew that it wasn't his ribs that were causing the breathing problem (though those ached and burned and were undoubtedly broken) but the air supply. It was running out. Running out like his own life, tick-tock, sand in an hourglass.
Hourglass, like the one Mom had to time the chicken in the oven--
Ovens like Hansel and Gretel, children on fire--
Fire like Jessica, burning on the ceiling, burning, burning, burning making Sammy cry--
Don't cry Sammy, hate it when you cry--
Cry like Cassie when he told her the truth--
Didn't matter. Nothing really mattered that much.
Sam wasn't coming.
Dean was hurting and Sammy wasn't coming.
In the confusion of his pain-fueled mind, only that mattered and hurt.
In hour nine, Dean woke up. He'd been asleep, or dozing, or hallucinating, or something, but he hadn't been awake.
The hysteria had played itself out, and now there was nothing again, nothing like when this all started. He didn't want the nothing. It was like when Sam had left, the hole inside of him, gaping and wounded. And then Dad had left him too, and the hole was so bad that Dean did what he said he was never going to do: drag Sam back into this life, this half-life, living in hotel rooms and fighting other people's nightmares.
But he had, and then Sam had left him again (the movie threatened to play), even though it was only a little while, and now he was leaving Sam. It was like an endless circle of sacrifice that they couldn't get out of.
But he remembered the hole inside himself, and for the first time, let himself think about what a hole like that would be in Sammy.
The fire burned, hot and cruel, licking at his brother's body. Sam watched it burn, wanting to cry. He should have been angry. But there was nothing inside of him, no tears in his eyes, just a gaping hole that had been forming for years and had only now become big enough to really consume him.
And it did, wholly and utterly.
No. Not like that for Sam.
Sam with his moral codes, and his smile, and his brilliant, brilliant mind, and his sense of humor, and his love, and his future.
And Dean started screaming.
His chest ached and black spots swirled in his eyes, but he didn't care. He clawed at the dirt around him, tearing at it with his fingernails, felt some of them rip off.
He wouldn't die here.
He wouldn't die.
He wouldn't leave Sammy to be eaten by loss.
"Never!" He screamed to the darkness. Another fingernail tore and bled. Dean could feel scratches forming on his arms from the wooden beams as he beat against them.
"Never!" He screamed, and then the screams stopped sounding human.
He was screaming so loudly he almost didn't hear it. He paused to take a breath, and heard it again.
That voice. He knew that voice.
"Sam!" He screamed, because he couldn't stop screaming.
"Dean!" Closer, this time. A morbid game of Marco Polo, but Dean played along, until the voice was right on top of him.
"Sam." He said. As quickly as it had come, the energy and the anger disappeared, and he sagged against a wooden beam, the darkness swirling around him.
"Dean! Are you okay?"
The anger was gone, and in its wake was exhaustion so complete, Dean felt himself falling, slipping back to the floor. "Just hurry, Sam."
"I will! I will, Dean, just hang in there, okay?"
"Don't sleep on me, man! Stay with me!"
That made sense. "Don't want to go anywhere without you."
A hysterical laugh, almost a sob, from above. "You better not. I'm going to try and dig you out. Stay with me, Dean."
It was the last thing Dean heard as he faded.
Stay with me…
Cold on his face. So cold, but good. Dean opened his eyes. It was still dark, but above him he could see a star.
"Sam?" He whispered.
There was a scramble of dirt, and through a gap between the wooden beams, he could see a sliver of his brother's face, dirty, anxious in the moonlight. "Dean?"
"Who else would it be." His mind felt clearer with the air. More coherent.
Sam laughed, shaky. "Can you stand?"
"Not for long. Something's broken."
"Okay. Okay. Stay still. I just need to get a couple more of these out of the way." Sam wrapped his long arms around one of the beams and pulled. It moved a few inches. It was painfully slow, and Dean could only imagine how long it had taken to dig out all the debris. But Sam had done it.
Sammy had come for him, and Dean was never going to betray that by leaving. Not ever.
When it was done, Sam knelt at the edge of the pit."Let me get down there, I'll help you out."
"No!" Dean said. Sam jumped a little at the sudden outburst. "No. I don't want you down here, Sam. Not ever." He sounded a little hysterical, but Sam forgave him for it and nodded.
"Then you're going to have to stand and let me pull you out. Can you handle that?"
"Better than I can handle one more minute down here." He reached for a beam and hauled himself slowly up. His nap had cost him; the muscles across his chest and abs had tightened, constricting in on themselves. He was dizzy, swaying as he stood, but Sam had him then, hands around his wrists, counting to three and pulling.
Blackness loomed, imminent. Sam had him free, sitting in the cool air, hands on his face, his neck, feeling his pulse.
And the spirit was there. It snatched at Dean's jeans, tearing him from his brother's grip, dragging him back toward the pit. "Heard you break, boy." It dragged him another few feet before Sam got a shot off. It was hit in the shoulder, and it disappeared with a howl, just for a moment, to reappear with its hands around Sam's neck, kicking Sam's gun away.
Sam choked, gasping, clawing at the miner, eyes wild. "Not your business, son" the spirit said. "Besides, everybody loses someone."
"Not him." Dean pressed his brother's gun to the back of the miner's head. "Not him. Never." And he pulled the trigger.
Sam sat up, gasping, then the world tilted, and Dean let go, fading into the darkness again.
Sam watched his brother sleep.
The ride to the hotel had been hell. Dean had been out, body bent beyond its limits, and from the sound of his nightmares, bent in his mind too. As close as Sam could figure, he'd spent eleven hours in that hole. Alone, scared. Claustrophobia was a big one for Dean. The sight of his brother, curled in a corner of a hole that was barely two feet across, covered in dirt, the echo of that inhuman screaming in his ears, were going to haunt him for a while.
Dean groaned in his sleep and fought against the blankets, hands gripping his pillow, white-knuckled. Sam shushed him and put a hand on his arm.
"It's okay, Dean. Easy. Go back to sleep." Dean stilled, grip loosening and forehead smoothing out.
Sam sat back. He probably wasn't going to get any sleep tonight. Dean needed it more than he did, even if digging through debris for two hours had left him in need of a little shut-eye too. He couldn't help but wonder what Dean was thinking about. Had been thinking about in the hole.
Don't want to go anywhere without you… that's what he'd said.
Dean, Sam thought, reaching forward to fix his brother's blankets, I don't want you to go anywhere either.
And Sam watched his brother sleep.