A/N: Haven't forgotten about my other fic. This one was penned a year and a half ago, was recently released for online publication and I thought, "Why not?". Let's do the Time Warp to the beginning of S3... ETA: Stupid site rejecting certain symbols.

Down in a Hole

"All I'm saying is we should probably be more prepared next time," Sam said, his voice taking on a whining edge.

Dean Winchester found he actually didn't disagree with the sentiment his little brother was droning on about, but he was too annoyed to care all that much. He was pretty sure the last place on earth he wanted to be was a mud pit in Louisiana. He'd told Sam that and why, but his stupid little brother had managed to find a case for them to work down in this area anyway. He couldn't really say no after claiming he wanted to kill as many monsters and raise as much hell as he could until he got sent to Hell in fifty weeks.

But short of knocking Sam out and tying him to a chair, Dean knew there was going to be no stopping him from visiting that hoodoo priestess who might or might not be able to help fix Dean's deal. The second this case was over, he knew Sam would bug him to head over to Baton Rouge while they were so close, in spite of the very negative impact any weaseling would have on his life. Dean had been an idiot to think letting Sam know the deal's stipulations would have any effect at all. If anything, it had made the guilt Sam wore like a mask every day even worse.

"Really, Sam?" Dean snapped out. He gripped the Winchester rifle tightly. Carrying Dad's old Yellowboy no longer made him cringe. "This is grade school stuff."

The town of Killian had seen a marked increase in illnesses in the past six months. Not just a bad flu bug going around but cancer. Heart disease. E. Coli. If it could be named, it was pretty likely someone in the town's small population had it or had died from it. Sam had read that information, ready to go all Erin Brockovich even before finding out there were reports of haunting, bellowing noises coming from a swampy area outside town. In Dean's experience and very humble opinion, disease plus strange wailing did not usually equal a bunch of drunk factory workers dumping toxic waste.

"These boots were my favorites." Sam's voice was soft. "That's all."

The original complaint didn't have anything to do with new boots. Dean knew it, and Dean knew Sam knew he knew it. He took a swipe of his sweaty brow, which transferred all the moisture from it onto his forearm. He didn't think there was a part of his body that was dry which was, by the way, a disgusting feeling. A line of sweat trailed down his spine and soaked into the waistband of his jeans. He wanted a cold beer and a cold shower and to be on the road away the hell from Louisiana.

Humidity made it difficult to breathe anyway, but the stench of mud and decaying plants compounded it. The air was cloying and thick, seeming to wrap around him like an unneeded blanket. He couldn't pull himself free of it. He didn't do well in heat, dry or wet, though his temper always grew shorter the heavier the air was. It was more than heat and humidity at the root of his foul mood here, though. All Dean wanted was to enjoy the rest of his short life, and squelching through the bayou really hadn't been high on his list of things to do. Fighting Sam tooth and nail wasn't on that list at all. Yet here he was doing both.

"You can always buy another pair of boots, Sam," he said anyway, making it be about the boots because he didn't really want it to be about anything else.

"Yeah, I know. But I like these boots."

Dean wasn't about to condemn a whole town because he didn't want Sam poking at things that could drop him into a rotting corpse on the ground. Fear made his gut ache, just as much now as ever. Fear about what might happen to Sam was a given. He knew his brother better than anyone, and he knew Sam wasn't going to give up easily. The fear he had about what was going to happen to him was only slightly less. Dean might want Sam to think he was ready for this, his life, to be all over, but he was scared out of his mind. He couldn't exactly let Sam know that without making his brother more worried. It wouldn't solve anything. It wouldn't make anything better at all.

"You seeing anything out there?" Dean asked, glancing over his shoulder at Sam.

His brother looked every bit as hot and uncomfortable as Dean was, shaggy hair plastered to his forehead and red splotches coloring his cheeks and neck. Tiny droplets of sweat clung to the curls of hair until finally giving up the ghost and splattering down on Sam's already soaked T-shirt.

"No, nothing." Sam's eyebrows furrowed. He lifted his left arm and rubbed his face along the sleeve to keep the sweat from dripping in his eyes. When he was done, his hair stuck up at awkward angles briefly but quickly wilted back onto his forehead. It obscured his eyes. "Maybe I was wrong about this."

Sam's focus had been a tad off for a couple weeks, not that Dean could blame him. Being dead and resurrected was bad enough to have to deal with. Adding concern about Dean's limited lifetime warranty only made the guy burn the candle at both ends. Dean saw all of that, though he was trying really hard not to think about it too much. Even with all that was going on, Sam's inner geek was something Dean trusted.

Dean shook his head. "I don't think so, man. I don't know what the chances are of half a town getting sick and dying from some freak natural occurrence, but I'll bet not very good. Besides, that kid at the body shop described the bunyip roar perfectly."

"Maybe we should have waited until dusk. It's hotter than he…" Sam's voice trailed off, his expression turning sick. He glanced away from Dean, squinting into the sun.

"Yeah," Dean said. "It is."

But he had to wonder if it truly was. He'd find out.

He drew to a stop, and Sam followed his lead. Dean eased the pack from his back. He transferred it and the rifle to one hand. He rooted through the bag until he found the bottled water. He tossed Sam one before cracking his own open and finishing half of it in two huge swallows. It was disgustingly lukewarm, but it helped a little bit. They were sweating enough dehydration would happen fast if they weren't careful. What was left in the bottle Dean dumped over his head, figuring he was already wet anyway. It felt good for about ten seconds, and then he was back to being too damned hot.

They couldn't break for long. He scanned their immediate vicinity, still not seeing any sign of the bunyip. The only thing he could see was mud. A month ago he'd been kneeling in mud, holding his dead brother. It now ranked right up there with humidity as his new favorite thing. Clenching his jaw, Dean re-clasped the pack and slung it toward his shoulder. Sam grabbed at it, though, smoothly hefting it to his shoulder.

"I'll carry it for a while," Sam said. "Looks uncomfortable."

He wouldn't miss the chafing from the strap. And without the pack, Dean didn't feel quite so sticky or weighted down. The respite was welcome, and he was so damned glad Sam was around to help him share the load. Not for the first time, he regretted that Sam wouldn't have him to help. He swallowed. What he'd never regret was knowing that when he was stuck in Hell, Sam would be okay. Sam had to be okay. He had to stop thinking about it.

"Ice cream," Sam murmured suddenly. "I want a gigantic sundae when we're done here."

"Oh, god, yeah." Dean shot his brother an approving smile. "And a cold beer."

"At the same time? That's gross, man."

"What are you talking about, Sammy?" Dean pulled a thinky expression. "Beer? Good. Ice cream? Good. Beer and ice cream? Goooood."

Sam laughed, giving him a light shove on the shoulder.

"I guess I can't fight the logic," Sam said.

"No, you can't," Dean agreed.

They fell into silence again, this time more relaxed than what they'd had previously. Dean knew he'd eventually have to deal with Baton Rouge and hoodoo priestesses, but for now he was content to be on the hunt with his brother. His living and breathing brother. That right there was the important stuff. Fixating on anything else, the heat, the humidity, Sam being Sam, wouldn't help him keep his head in the game. He could do nothing about any of those things.

They both carried themselves at the ready, though Dean was starting to wonder if they really should have spent more time pinpointing the area the bunyip had been heard. They still had a lot of territory to cover, and the humidity was sucking the energy right out of his bones.

He was about to tell Sam they should call it a day and come back out tomorrow, which he really, really didn't want to do, when the swamp was filled with a loud bellowing shout. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean saw Sam tense and bring the rifle up to bear. The call of the bunyip echoed off trees, bouncing around them. The hairs on the back of his neck rose. He had to admit the thing sounded eerie.

"I can't tell where it's coming from," he muttered. "Can you?"

Sam didn't answer, instead taking a few jogging steps away, backpack falling to the ground. The Winchester was up and aimed now. Sam must have it in his sights.

"Do you see it?" Dean started out after his brother.

Before he'd even taken a step, something strong and unyielding wrapped around his right leg. He was on his belly in the muck and the mire before he knew what hit him, the rifle flying out of his hands and out of his reach. Scrabbling for something to grab onto, Dean was pulled unbelievably fast down into thick, sludgy water. He kicked his legs, trying to dislodge whatever had him. Tentacles. He couldn't shake free, slipping deeper into a small pond of water.

"Sam!" he yelled, panicking despite himself, eyes locked on his brother's back.

Sam spun around, face going from hunter-hard to confused and then scared. He went from motionless to moving just as fast, flinging himself at Dean and extending an arm as he crashed to his knees. He locked his right hand around Dean's right forearm.

Dean matched Sam's grip as the bunyip hauled him backwards. He was waist deep in the shit now. Trust their luck for him to find a goddamned bottomless pit of mud to get pulled into. He watched Sam's face turn even redder, veins popping on his forehead, sweat dripping down his nose.

Sam dropped the gun in order to use both hands to heave Dean out of the mud. No matter how hard his brother strained, Dean was pulled backward. His instinct was to tell Sam to let him go, that there was no sense in both of them going into the pit. But he took in the sheer desperation in Sam's expression and knew he couldn't do that. Suddenly he very much did not want to die, now or later. A dark, slimy tentacle snaked up his torso, another around his left bicep. Pulling, pulling. The bellowing was increasingly loud.

"Shoot it." His voice cracked, but he said it again, "Shoot it."

"Where?" Sam asked.

"Anywhere!" Dean shouted, chest deep in the mud, the bunyip squeezing and squeezing.

As he gave Dean a frantic onceover, Sam pursed his lips unhappily. He let go of Dean with his left hand. He didn't remove his right, fingers practically burrowing into Dean's skin. It would be hard to aim one handed, and the left at that, but Dean knew it could be done. Sam didn't reach for the fallen rifle, instead pulling out the Taurus from his waistband.

Dean tried to flatten himself onto what solid ground he still had contact with. The shot boomed, leaving him with ringing ears. Before he could recover at all, there was another loud report. The tentacle around his left arm loosened. So did the one around his chest.

But Sam's grip on his right arm remained steadfast.

Sam couldn't let go of his brother. Not yet. For a second back there, he had been sure Dean was going to ask him to. He wouldn't have been able to then, and he couldn't now. It was impossible.

He wavered slightly, his balance off as adrenaline drained out of him almost as quickly as it had fueled him. All he could do was breathe and feel Dean safe and alive in his grasp. That had been way too close. He was still baffled on how it got behind Dean because he swore the call had come from somewhere to the north. Apparently he'd been wrong, and it had almost cost Dean. Sam swallowed past the lump in his throat. He'd never had a clear visual on the bunyip. He knew he never could have made the shots with the rifle using only one hand, not in a rush. Letting go of Dean hadn't been an option he'd considered for a second. He set the handgun on the muddy ground, grasping Dean with both hands again. He caught Dean's eye.

Dean squirmed, a dismayed, half-puzzled look on his face.

Sam's heart started racing again, thinking of worst-case scenarios. He might have hit Dean instead of the bunyip. He might not have killed the creature, and it was tugging Dean under again. His hands clasped tighter, instinct kicking in.

"Dude," Dean said, sounding dazed and confused, "I think we just reenacted the garbage smasher scene from Star Wars. I don't know how I ended up as Luke. I'm totally Han. I've always been Han."

A swell of relief at the unexpected, stupid comment hit Sam so hard he couldn't do anything but sit back, butt squishing into the spongy soil, and laugh. He sounded moderately hysterical even to himself. He didn't care. Through his own chortles, he heard Dean give a disgusted snort.

"Laugh it up, fuzzball," Dean groused. "I'm the one who's got mud up his ying-yang now."

That only made Sam laugh harder. Somewhere deep inside, he knew his reaction was out of whack for the situation. He had no control; not even glimpsing Dean's gloomy expression could stop it. There was too much mud-spatter on his brother's face. Sam exhausted himself quickly, though. The oppressive, moist heat was a drain on his energy, and he'd expended a lot yanking strenuously to get Dean free. Actually, he wasn't finished. Dean still wasn't free.

"You done now?" Dean didn't sound amused. He sounded concerned. "Sammy, you okay?"

Sam looked at his brother still squirming in the sludge. He wasn't okay, and he could see Dean knew he hadn't really been laughing because this was funny. He was going to have to work on controlling his emotions better, not wanting to cause Dean any more pain than he was already experiencing. But to be honest, it was so nice to see Dean not being cavalier for one minute, even if it was about Sam instead of himself. The worst thing about all of this was the way Dean was pretending he was not scared witless, under some misguided assumption that Sam couldn't see what was underneath. Sam couldn't imagine what he was going through, but that didn't mean he didn't understand Dean was going through it. How awful the prospect of Hell was.

"I thought you were going under, Dean," Sam said at last, giving Dean a sad smile.

"Nah. That is not on the agenda for today," Dean said carefully.

Sam lost his smile. It wasn't on the agenda for today, but it was on the agenda. Sometimes he thought he was just as scared as Dean about it. It couldn't be possible for him to be more terrified than Dean, could it? That would be far too selfish. The thought of losing his brother was a cold, ever-present ball in his gut, and below it lurked darkness he didn't want to give a name. He couldn't seem to help it.

"No, not today," Sam echoed.

Now that he wasn't crying from the laughter, sweat stung his eyes. Sam closed them tightly, lifting his right arm without letting his grip on Dean slacken and rubbing his face on his wet T-shirt. Opening his eyes, he caught Dean in an unguarded moment as his brother stared at him worriedly. His brother looking genuinely frightened for the first time, and Sam hoped it wasn't fear for him. Dean should be scared for himself. The crack in the façade didn't last, not that Sam expected it to.

"You going to help me out of this spa treatment or what?" Dean shifted his right arm, Sam's hand still attached, raising it off the ground. He glanced up at Sam.

It was an unspoken signal to get back to the task at hand. Now they knew one more thing - the bunyip seemed to be a hands-off kind of entity, preferring to inflict damage without any actual interaction with humans. And had a hell of a distraction technique. As Dean had just experienced firsthand, if provoked it would go on the offensive and pull a person into the water, drowning him or her. Thinking again at how close he'd come to losing Dean, his insides quaked. He couldn't handle it now, and he didn't think any amount of preparation would make it better. Death was death, whether someone was prepared for it or not. He didn't know how anyone could ever be prepared for it. No matter what Dean thought.

"Dude, anytime now," Dean said. He waggled a hand impatiently.

Sam nodded and awkwardly scrambled off his butt, back onto his knees. It was safe to let go now. Dean wasn't in danger anymore. He unclasped his hand, fingers stiff from the prolonged stress. There were half-moon indentations on Dean's forearm, and they'd likely lead to bruises. He'd regret that if the other possible outcome to this hadn't been so much worse. He got to his feet, and then crouched . He got hold of both Dean's arms this time.

"On three," he said, not wanting to pull too hard if Dean wasn't ready. "One, two, three."

He wrenched back on three, but Dean didn't budge. Sweat and mud slicked Dean's arms now, and Sam's adrenaline and sense of urgency had depleted enough that he lost his hold, flying backwards himself instead. He went ass over teakettle into his own puddle of mud. Globs of it sprayed everywhere. He wasn't up to his chest like Dean, but suffice it to say – mud had entered his nether regions, and he didn't care for the feeling.

Dean, however, thought it was hilarious, laughing and pointing.

Sam scrambled to his feet, using his hands to squeegee most of the mess off his arms. Mud splatted on the ground. Some of it landed on Dean's head. Purely by accident.

"Whoops," Sam said.

Flipping him the bird, Dean stopped laughing and started wiggling around some more. The bog held onto him fast, as if it were a sentient being in and of itself and didn't want to lose him.

"Yeah, right, whoops," Dean grumbled, wiping a hand down his face. He curled his lip in disgust. "I think the bunyip's still attached somewhere down below. Now come on, put some muscle into it. There could be, you know, things in here."

Sam hadn't thought of that. He doubted Dean wanted to reenact the leech scene from Stand By Me , and he could honestly say he didn't want to see that either. He'd faced monsters and demons and vampires in his life, but some things were just wrong. A parasite attached to the aforementioned nether regions? So on that list. Shuddering slightly, he eyed the murky water Dean was in.

"Calm down, Gordie," he said lightly. "I'll have you out in a second."

"Gordie?" Dean frowned up at him, but it only took a moment for him to get the reference. His eyes widened. "That's not funny, Sam."

It really wasn't, but Sam grinned anyway. He'd felt so weighted down lately, it had felt good to have a minute or two of lightness. In fact … Sam pulled out his cell, finding his pocket had kept it mud free enough for it to be in working order, and took a step back. If he was going to get photographic evidence of this debacle, he wanted a good angle. Dean caught sight of him, providing excellent source material by flipping him off again.

"It's a little funny," Sam said.

"Watch your back, man." If it were possible for the daggers shooting out of Dean's eyes to be real instead of figurative, they'd have felled Sam. "It's on."

Sam laughed, this time out of a genuine, nearly-happy headspace. It was tempered almost immediately by a pang of intense sadness. A year from now, a prank war wouldn't be possible anymore. Nothing would be possible anymore. He wondered if he'd be able to look back on this fondly or if it would just break his heart over and over. He clenched his teeth, giving himself an internal shake. He wasn't going to let Dean go to Hell, so it was a non-issue. He had to believe that. That was the only thing he could believe.

"Bring it." Sam put his phone away, tucking it in his back pocket. He didn't trust Dean not to get handsy in an attempt to get at it and delete the picture. "Do I have to remind you who wo –"

There was no warning this time.

Brutal strength cut him off mid-word, pressure constricting across his neck, around his waist. His head snapped up before his whole body was jerked so hard he lost his footing. Sam thought he let out a choked yelp but couldn't be sure. He thought, too, that he heard Dean shouting, but his world was a swirl of blue sky, green trees, brown mud, confusion, and all he could think was that this shouldn't be happening and Dean, help, Dean. He landed with a grunt on the soft ground, hands scrabbling for purchase. For a weapon.

Sam got neither. Another tentacle wrapped down his right arm all the way to his wrist, snapping it back. He tried to scream, but that, like his words, was cut off. Slimy mud on the inside of his shirt, then wet all around him. Water. Up his nose, in his mouth. Under water already. Shit, oh damn. He lunged, trying to get above water, succeeding for a fraction of a second. The tentacle around his neck disappeared, a lucky break. It was his only lucky break. It coiled around his chest instead. Sam kicked his legs, seeking to connect with the bunyip's body, make it release him. His legs only swished in the water. Somehow, he didn't know how, up was down and down was up. He grappled his way above water again, one armed. He broke the surface, gasping and spluttering.

"Dean," he called, an automatic appeal. "Dean!"

His brother couldn't help him. His brother was stuck in the pit. His brother was shouting his name, over and over, and Sam could hear it even when he dipped below the water again. It was too much for him. Then he imagined Dean in Cold Oak, how awful he had looked when he'd dealt with Sam being dead for days. A burst of fraught energy and denial rushed through him, a last ditch fight for his life. Instinct. Whatever it was, it didn't matter. He thrashed hard, kicking and punching at anything and nothing. Hazily, he thought to raise his right arm to his mouth. Sam bit down on the tentacle wound around his forearm. Something foul flooded his mouth, filthy water and more. Thick blood.

He breached the surface again, gurgling and spitting some more. Without the tentacle hindering his right arm, Sam managed to grab fistfuls of mud and grass. He sucked air into his lungs and whipped his head around in search of Dean. He saw his brother, a few feet away and fighting to free himself. Dean looked over to him, face twisted into a horrible mask of fear and anguish, and Sam couldn't do or say anything to make that look go away. He could only stare back choking and gasping as Dean reached out, waist deep in mud, his arms stretching toward Sam.

But the bunyip lugged Sam back with a roar. The massive limbs embracing his stomach and chest tightened, compressing out what little air he'd taken in. Sam descended into the water amid a swirl of muddy bubbles. No matter how much he fought, he wasn't going to get free this time. He was dying for the second time in two and a half weeks, and for the second time in two and a half weeks, Dean could only watch it happen, unable to stop it.

Sorry and Dean flashed through Sam's head, and then there was nothing.

This was not going to happen again. Not again.

Dean twisted and pulled, eyeing the spot Sam last went under and trying like hell not to remember the regretful expression on his brother's face. The one that said Sam knew he was fighting a losing battle. It was more of a farewell than Dean had gotten at Cold Oak, but no. Nononono. He was not going to watch Sam die again. He let out an aggravated growl. He braced his hands on the loam and strained for all he was worth to free himself from the mud and the bunyip's heavy weight still wrapped in a death-grip around him. His gaze never left the still water. There weren't even any bubbles anymore.

"No, Sam," Dean said, voice rising at the end, fracturing. "Sammy."

The second bunyip's cry was the only answer he got. There were always two; he should have known that. It spurred him on, first his left leg finally easing free with a slurping pop. His right quickly followed. He climbed out of the wet earth like he was being reborn, wriggling, crawling, clawing his way over to the small slough of water Sam was in.

Dean arrived just in time to see his brother's body float to the surface, face down and motionless. The ground was shaking, or maybe that was him, convulsing on the inside. On the outside, too. It must be some kind of cosmic joke on him, always getting there seconds too late to prevent something horrible from happening to the people he loved. For a moment, Dean stood there frozen in disbelief.

"No, Sam," he said again, not recognizing his own voice. Dean slogged into the water, movements uncontrolled and jerky. He cursed and defied fate to pull this shit on him ever again. "You're not doing this."

Sam was limp and heavy, deaddeadsamwasdead, as Dean got hold of him under the arms. He turned his brother over, bile rising in his throat at the sight of Sam's gray face, the deep discoloration from the bunyip's tentacle already a prominent bruise on his neck. His dead neck. He pulled Sam toward solid ground, his brother's arms flopping gracelessly. Dean thought his heart was going to burst out of his chest and leave nothing but a gaping, bloody hole.

As he approached the shore, Sam still half submerged, the goddamned monster blasted out of the water, spraying mud every direction. Startled by the angry roar of the creature, he fell, Sam a lifeless weight on top of him. As he scrambled on his ass, Dean's fingers hit something hard. Sam's Taurus. It was in his hand in a millisecond, his arm up in a smooth arc. He fired until there were no more rounds, until the water turned black with its blood, and it disappeared under the surface. He dropped the gun, his focus instantly on his brother.

He lay Sam on his back and knelt beside him. There was no thought, only breathegoddamnitsambreathe. He tilted Sam's head back, praying to a god he would believe in if Sam would just start breathing. One breath, two. Relief that his brother's chest expanded, airway somehow not compromised from the earlier choking. Dean's motions were automatic, hands strong if unsure as he pushed down on Sam's chest rapidly.

"Damn it, damn it." He punctuated with each compression with words. "You can't do this to me."

Over and over, press, breathe, press, breathe, cursing at Sam to respond. His arms started hurting. It lasted a minute, two at most, but it was a lifetime to him. As Dean shifted to Sam's chest again for who knew what time, his brother's body arched upward and he gave an awful strangled groan. Dean hurriedly rolled Sam onto his side while Sam vomited bilge and mud. He rubbed Sam's back as he held his face out of the mess, then just holding him like he didn't ever want to let go.

He rested his forehead against Sam's trembling shoulder, cringed as Sam kept spewing out gunk and gasping all the while. Fear-tainted relief coursed through him, though, and it left him weak, turning to jelly on the inside. When Sam finally stopped throwing up, Dean turned him over. Sam's eyes were at half-mast, and his hands grappled clumsily as if seeking something. He lifted Sam up, let his head rest against his chest. Now it was over, they could spare some time. He needed it, in any case. He was uncertain he could move Sam or himself through the swamp at the moment.

"You scared the shit out of me, man," Dean said into Sam's hair, and it might as well have been an echo. What am I supposed to DO?

One of Sam's hands clutched at his T-shirt, and his brother murmured, "Sorry."

Like it was his fault. Like any of this was Sam's fault, the mess Dean had willingly put himself into. But knowing the heartache he was causing his brother made it a bittersweet pill to swallow if he thought about it too much. It was worth it. It was worth anything to have Sam alive. It was half the reason he refused to do anything but pretend things were all right.

"You okay to move, Sammy?" he asked, knowing his brother couldn't be.

Sam nodded, though, and pulled away from him feebly. His limbs were still rubbery, and he put a hand on his chest and coughed when the change in position irritated the newly forming bruises on his sternum.

Dean did most of the work, getting Sam to his wobbly feet and steering him through the wetland. Once Sam was situated in the car, he told his brother to stay put while he slogged back to collect their guns and pack. Worry for Sam notwithstanding, he couldn't leave their things. But on this rare occasion, he wasn't going to worry about getting rid of the corpses. They'd stew and decompose quickly in the heat and water. It took him long minutes to get back to Sam, all of them filled with worry. His legs were stiff from where the bunyip had wrapped itself around him, and he was concerned Sam might have some hidden damage.

Sam was out cold against the passenger window, mud crusting in spots from head to toe, but most of it remained slick and wet. Underneath it all, Sam just looked like he was enjoying a restful sleep, not the sleep of the recently dead and resurrected. Dean choked back those thoughts before they could take root. Sam wasn't dead, and Sam wasn't going to be dead.

He drove to the motel as fast as he could, trying to figure out how he was going to get Sam cleaned up and checked out. He would do anything for his brother. He had the car parked and was at Sam's side when his brother stirred and straightened up with a soft gasp.

"We home?" Sam asked, voice raspy and small. He peered at Dean through squinted eyes.

Home. Dean guessed some crappy motel room was home.

"Yeah." Dean nodded. He took Sam by the arm, tugging. "Let's get you up."

Communication from then on consisted of Dean nudging Sam and Sam letting out exhalations and mumble-words. Despite being hazy and out of it, Sam was ornery enough to insist he could clean himself up, leaving Dean pacing outside the bathroom door listening for a six foot four thud.

It was empty time, which meant Dean's brain started playing catch up. The pacing stopped, and he sat down at the table. He replayed what had happened today in his mind's eye, and memories from Cold Oak insinuated themselves in terrible flashes. Sam dead on the ground. Sam dead on that old mattress, skin waxy. The days after, empty voids of time he couldn't remember anything of but a cold feeling. The deal. Willingness to throw himself into Hell to keep Sam alive. Part of him wondered if when he was dead and gone it would be an echo of what had gone down today – Dean stuck in a Pit, leaving Sam to drown.

The taste of earth and swampy water and blood lingering in his mouth was what woke him up. It came back to Sam in a rush – panic, pressure, Dean looking scared, muddy water filling his lungs. He sat up, arms and legs flailing out. He knocked a pillow into the nightstand, and it sent the clock radio tumbling to the floor. His chest ached. It took him a second to catch his breath, and when he did he gasped it in.

He squinted at the morning light streaming in the east-facing windows. His eyes adjusted shortly, and he looked around the room. Dean was nowhere in sight. His heart started pounding in his sore chest. Sam didn't remember getting back to the motel. He didn't remember showering. He didn't remember falling asleep. Clearly those things had happened, because when he awoke he knew he was clean and in a familiarly uncomfortable, too-short bed. Dean wasn't in the room. Sam was alone, and for far too many seconds, he didn't know if he'd come back to the room by himself. Dean was gone. Why wasn't Dean there?

In a blink he was back in Cold Oak, waking up from the dead. The same dark, cold undercurrent shivered through him now as it had then. Sam scrubbed a hand through his hair. God, he was thinking about it like it had happened years ago, when it had been only weeks. His back still twinged occasionally, right in the middle. He shifted his feet off the bed and leaned his elbows on his knees, buried his face in his hands. His head hurt. Everything hurt.

He staggered to the bathroom, glanced down at two piles of muddy clothes when he stumbled over them. Dean had been there, at least. Sam leaned against the sink, looking at his reflection. He looked liked death warmed over. It was déjà vu all over again. He didn't lift his T-shirt to inspect a nasty gash in his back. Instead, he examined the thick, rope-like purple bruising on his neck. He lifted his shirt, not the back wound not, not, finding similar bruises along his torso. There was another bruise, dead center on his chest.

He winced and fumbled for the aspirin. Turning on the faucet, Sam popped a few tablets into his mouth before leaning to drink from the tap. He splashed water on his face, contemplated brushing his teeth, and chose Listerine instead. He shuffled back to the bed, where he resumed his elbows-on-knees position.

Sam was still sitting like that a few minutes later, when he heard keys at the door a second before it opened. He snapped his head up.

"Sammy," Dean said, moving to his side quickly. Déjà vu all over again, again. But it wasn't Cold Oak. It wasn't. Dean put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing quickly once. "You're awake."

"Yeah," Sam said, his voice scratchy. He rubbed at his throat, wincing at the bruising. He noticed it was difficult to swallow.

"I thought you'd sleep longer." Dean handed him a paper cup and a straw. "I went to get breakfast. Just a shake for you. Chocolate. Your, ah, your neck looks pretty ugly."

Sam nodded his thanks. He unwrapped the straw, poking it through the lid. Maybe the chocolate would wash away the taste of loam, because the Listerine hadn't put a dent in it. The taste was decay and renewal at once, millions of tiny organisms growing and living from something dead. He shuddered.

Dean set the bag of food on the table and moved back to Sam's side. He leaned down and tilted Sam's chin up just as he tried to take a drink of the shake. Sam glaring only made Dean tilt his head further.

Sam had a brief memory about a threatened prank war. He held the shake at arm's length. "W-wait, you didn't do something to this, did you?"

"No, I didn't."

The tone in his voice made Sam believe him. Like either of them would really carry on pranks after getting tossed around or nearly throttled or insert any method of hurt here. Not after what had nearly happened again.

"Dean, did it get you anywhere?"

"No, Sam," Dean said quietly. "It only went after you."

Sam cringed when Dean prodded a particularly sensitive spot.

"I don't know why they always seem go for the throat," he said.

Dean pulled back a step. He smiled halfway, but before it could become full it faltered. It was haunted, familiar somehow and yet strange at the same time. Like Dean wasn't sure Sam was really there.

"I died again, didn't I?" he asked, the grimace on Dean's face as he retreated to the other side of the room all he needed for an answer.

He stood, putting the shake on the nightstand. It didn't taste right. His appetite was gone anyway, though if he thought about it, Sam wasn't actually sure he'd had one to begin with. He rubbed at his chest and noticed Dean hadn't even taken his breakfast out of the bag.

"You have to stop doing that to me," Dean said softly, staring at some point behind Sam's shoulder. "Sammy, I can't watch you die again. I'm sorry. I just can't."

Sam suspected, he knew Dean wasn't talking about what had happened with the bunyips anymore or not entirely. He knew why Dean was so quick to embrace his new joie de vivre as some sort of mask what was really going on. He'd always known that was Dean's way to cope. What he didn't know was if Dean was doing it now because he was scared himself about the crossroads deal he'd made or if he thought that if he put on a happy face, Sam wouldn't look into ways to get him out of it. Because if Sam died from it, then Dean had traded his life for nothing. He might have already, anyway.

"Yeah. Just like I wouldn't know what to do without you either," Sam said. His throat was tight for reasons that had nothing to do with being strangled. "I already don't. Acting like it's all okay isn't helping. It's not okay, Dean."

A dimple appeared on Dean's face, just above his lip, but it was not born of a smile. It always appeared when the haunted expression did, when the far-off, but somehow deeply pained look in Dean's eyes was like a punch to Sam's gut.

"Sam, I don't want to talk about this."

"I know you don't," Sam said.

Of course he didn't. Dean never wanted to talk about anything that had to do with him. The way Dean refused to put any value on his own life angered Sam. He should be touched that Dean wasn't willing to risk Sam's life to save his own, and part of him was. But part of him knew that was precisely the reason he had to fix this. It wasn't just because he couldn't live without Dean anymore than Dean could live without him. They were all they had in this rotten, evil-infested world. It was because if he could save Dean, maybe Dean would understand his own worth.

So they didn't talk. Dean closed off right before his eyes, put up barriers so thick it would take explosives to get through them. Sam sat back down on the bed and felt as alone as he'd ever felt even though his brother was right there. He didn't quite understand how it was possible to love someone so much and dislike them at the same time. He hated the situation they were in now, and how it felt like things were changing in their lives and in them.

"We're okay?"

"We're always okay, Dean."

"Good. Good." Dean flicked on the TV, finally cracking into his breakfast.

The love always won out over hate, though. There was never any question in his mind or heart about that. Dean wanted to keep things hidden in the dark, and for now Sam would do it for him. He knew they'd stick around Killian until tomorrow, because Dean was worried about him. Dean would go out tonight anyway, if Sam showed him he was all right. He'd do his I-only-have-a-year-to-live faux celebration and mating dances that had become standard in only a couple weeks.

And Sam would go to Baton Rouge to talk to a hoodoo priestess.