Episode Four: Swamped

By BurstynOut

Part One

 

Louisiana Swamp, vicinity of Honey Island

Tangled fronds of Spanish moss, dangling heavily from the lowest branches of native cypress trees, stretched their stringy tendrils across the path of the fleeing hunters as Dean and Sam tore through the swamp. The heavy, moist air seemed almost to pour into their straining lungs and threaten to drown them rather than replenish their oxygen-deprived systems.

A grimace of exertion was painted across Dean's face, mingled with a distinct air of 'I knew it, I just friggin' knew it.' Sam, the intended benefactor of said disdain, was in no position to reply as he plunged along behind his charging brother, long legs tangling in the heavy, sticky undergrowth. The movement of the vegetation in their wake was obviously more than just the snapping back of branches disturbed in their passing. The entire wetland area seemed to have taken on a life of its own with the sole intention of hunting the hunters.

Though the pursuer or pursuers remained hidden in the greenery, the thundering approach was reminiscent of a scene from the movie 'Jumanji' and the brothers almost expected a herd of stampeding rhinoceros to break through the foliage.

"Nice job dropping the rifle in the water, geek boy," Dean grumbled between straining breaths. He was completely soaked, his dirty blond hair dirtier than usual with bog mud clinging to his scalp. "Don’t suppose you got a Plan B worked out in that college educated head of yours?"

"Hey, this is so not my fault!" Sam huffed as he ducked beneath some low hanging vines. "The bugger's got a low center of gravity, and you're the one always saying my legs are too long. It was like a linebacker running down a basketball center back there," he argued, feeling compelled to defend himself despite his body's desperate need to conserve the air it took to form the words. "Besides, you were supposed to have my back! And thanks, by the way, for jumping in after the gun while the thing practically ripped my jeans off."

"What?! You didn't think I was gonna touch that slimy critter with my bare hands, did you?" Dean sneered back, turning his head enough to keep one eye on the path in front of him while allowing the other to burn a hole in his little brother. "That's our best rifle. And holey jeans are so you, baby brother. It's not like you need every inch of those giraffe legs of yours anyway." he smirked.

The sound of rustling leaves and snapping vines behind them grew progressively louder. Above them, long dead branches of the ancient trees began to shower down on them as the hanging vines were yanked tight around them. The brothers ran, ducking their heads beneath their curled arms protectively, and realized they were losing ground quickly.

Temporarily blinded by yet another mass of tangled moss, Sam caught the toe of one foot beneath a raised tree root and went careening forward into the back of his older brother. He hit the ground with a thud and a muffled "Umph!" as Dean struggled to keep his own footing.

Sam lifted his face out of the soft, muddy earth just in time to see his brother turn in an effort to come back to his aid. Before Dean could reach him however, there was a distinct twanging noise followed by the hiss of burning rope, and his older brother disappeared from Sam's line of sight. A second later, Dean's dazed and startled face appeared once more, completely inverted as he dangled by one leg from a hog snare knotted in the canopy above them.

"Dean!" Sam cried, forgetting his own predicament as the thunder of pounding hooves advanced behind him. He was about to lurch forward when his feet were knocked out from beneath him once more. Helpless to stand amongst the chaos, Sam threw his arms over his head protectively and waited to be torn to shreds.

His anticipated demise proved anticlimactic, however, as the thunder rolled over him like a fog in the bayou. He was paid as little heed as a tussock of bog grass as the pursuers stampeded around him and made a beeline for the dangling Dean.

Dean was momentarily disoriented from having the world spun on its axis around him. Shaking his head, he had just enough time to grimace and draw back futilely as the herd of wild pigs trampled over his brother and advanced on him in his helpless predicament. He paid little attention to the dozen or so average sized swine that found him first but struggled, eyes wide in panic, as the dreaded Hogzilla broke from the undergrowth.

He was so fixated on the monster hog, a thousand pound freak of nature with twelve-inch curled tusks, that he barely noticed the smaller, black-and-white, domestic-looking pig that had apparently taken a liking to him. He felt the small snout root under his chin momentarily, and batted it away. "Hey, hey! Hands off the merchandise!" He quipped absent-mindedly, never taking his eyes off the monster that approached.

Dean barely noticed the frantic milling and grunting of the critters below him as he worked his fingers nimbly over the handle of the hunting knife at his wrist. He'd never hunted wild hog before, but he supposed the heart must be somewhere in the same vicinity as that of a black dog. At any rate, he knew he'd most likely get one chance to strike before Hogzilla tore him from the snare and made lunch of his ass. From the looks of the thing, it didn't go hungry very often, and Dean must seem a veritable seven course meal.

He drew his razor-sharp dagger, poised to strike like a cobra, and willed himself to wait for the perfect shot. The stench of wet, muddy hog was almost overwhelming, causing his stomach to clench convulsively. His chin trembled with determination, accentuating the familiar dimple, as he reached out with his left hand and placed it squarely on the beast's back, steadying his swinging body enough to place the killing blow. His right hand drew back to his shoulder and struck with lightning speed, sinking the dagger to the hilt in the space behind the animal's scapula. When the shaft thrummed in his hand, he knew he'd hit the heart, and Hogzilla dropped like a ton of hairy, stinking bricks below him with a stifled shriek that sent the rest of the pigs scattering to the wind.

Huffing with relief, Dean curled upward on himself and climbed up his own wrenched leg to the rope at his ankle. He wrapped his fist tightly around the rope several inches beyond his ensnared foot, and sawed through it quickly. His head pounded from the blood building behind his eyes, and he almost slipped and cut his hand several times before making it through the hefty rope. Finally, he felt his foot snap free, and he clung momentarily with his hand until his body righted itself in the air, and he dropped silently to the ground.

"Sammy," he called weakly, as his lungs strained to fill. "You all right?"

"Yeah," Sam assured him, stalking cautiously up to the fallen monstrosity. "I guess what they say about pigs being vicious when threatened is true. Good thing for me, they didn't even seem to notice I was there; they went for you for a change," he noted contemplatively. "Wonder what was up with that?" He asked, toeing the carcass in disgust.

"That's easy," Dean smirked. "While you, little brother, are a demon magnet, the living, breathing females of the world, will always prefer me. They can tell actual testosterone from that watered down sissy crap you got in your blood."

"Whatever, man," Sam laughed with a shake of his head as he held out his hand to his squatting brother. "Only you would find the flirtations of a giant hog to be flattering."

Sam helped his brother to his feet, and Dean balanced precariously on the raw ankle, but found it sturdy enough to walk on. They headed back to the Impala, eager to collect their bounty and get cleaned up.

Dean found some old, raggedy towels in the trunk of the car as he put the hunting rifle away and spread them over the driver and passenger seats with a grimace before settling behind the wheel. For once, he didn't mention the recently repaired damage to the car, a familiar taunting of his brother that had become habit since the fiasco in Missouri. He had plenty of other issues with Sam at the moment.

"There's no way it's a pig, you said," Dean grumbled as he turned the key in the ignition. "No such thing as Hogzilla, you said. That myth was proven to be just some trick photography. College boy, in all his infinite wisdom, swore to me that this had to be our kinda thing. A werewolf or a Wendigo, you said." Dean's words were punctuated by his clicking jaw as he bit off the words accusingly.

Sam raised his hands in exasperation. "Hey! It was a paying gig, big brother. We don't get those very often. It was worth checking out. And you gotta admit, that was not just a pig. That was a freak of nature. If that thing wasn't supernatural, then I don't know what is."

"You're just trying to make excuses for the fact that it knocked you on your ass, not once, mind you, but twice. And then you had the ungodly grace to drop the rifle in the muck," Dean argued.

"At least I didn't end up strung from a tree by my ankle," Sam sassed.

"Only because you were already face down in the mud, giraffe boy. Smooth move, by the way. If you hadn't pushed me, I 'd have seen that snare a mile away," the older brother assured. "Then, after you got me snared, you just left me dangling while you got your girlie mud facial."

"I thought you looked like you were having a good time necking with that little black and white one," Sam grinned wryly. "Don't think I didn't see her plant a kiss on you, Romeo. Come to think of it, I think that's the most action you've seen in months."

"Whatever, Dude," Dean said more quietly, obviously skirting the issue.

"No, really, man. You haven't picked up a girl in one of these Podunk towns for ages. What's up with that? Downstairs brain on strike?"

"Very funny, smartass. In case you forgot, it was you who tried to turn me all girlie with the yoga stretches and crap. Hard to keep the downstairs brain thinking at all when kid brother's tossing me pictures of skinny-assed dudes doing downward facing dog poses." Dean stated, lowering his eyes in disdain.

"Well, what about all your other 'assets'?" Sam asked, placing unnecessary stress on the first syllable of the word. "You still got all those hot scars, right?" He smacked his brother on the shoulder with a sideways tilt of his head.

Dean finally dropped his rant and shook his own head with a lopsided grin of amusement. "Yeah, more than I need," he admitted. "The thing about scars, Sam, is this. Chicks dig the old ones. The fresh ones. . .not so much."

Sam bit his lower lip and nodded slowly in agreement. "I guess." He looked out the window as they pulled into the parking lot of the Denny's they'd set up as a meeting place. He didn't want to say anything, but he hated seeing his brother's scars, too. He knew too much about the pain that lay beneath them.

"Here's our guy," Dean noted, guiding the Impala expertly into the parking space beside a shiny, silver 350Z.

Daniel Burns, the proprietor of Honey Island Bayou Tours and Wildlife Observatory, stepped out of his car clasping a leather portfolio in his left hand as he extended his right in greeting. "Dean," he said courteously. "Sam. Did you find our swamp monster?" He asked, eyeing the boys' bedraggled appearance with amusement.

Sam looked down at himself with a grin, extending his hands out to his sides, and said, "Actually, I think it found us."

"It looks that way," Burns agreed laughingly. "So, what's the verdict? What was it? Can we open the tours again?"

"Turned out the locals were right," Dean stated. "It was a giant hog, after all."

"Was? So that means you killed it, right?"

"Yes, Sir," Dean affirmed. "You should be able to start your tours back up any time. Sorry we didn't find something more bizarre to add to your exhibit, but that was one helluva giant pig. Might be worth your while to stuff it and put it on display anyway."

"I just might do that, provided I can get to the carcass before one of our resident alligators does," Burns suggested. "I just hope I haven't wasted you boys' time sending you after what turned out to be something I could've gotten a local hunter to take care of for me. There are a lot of superstitions linked to that swamp, and I didn't want to take any chances. When I got your number, I thought you'd be just the men for the job."

"Well, there's no job too small," Sam dismissed, not letting Dean get started on his rant about the holes in his research.

"Especially when there's a paycheck at the end of it," Dean continued. He felt an elbow from Sam for his lack of tact, but he was covered in stinking mud and itching for a shower. Tact was officially suspended until further notice.

"Of course," Burns nodded, opening his portfolio. He pulled out a Mont Blanc pen, the mark of a true businessman, and held it poised over the sheet of checks. "To whom do I make it out to?"

"Uh, Sam Winchester would be fine," Sam said, knowing that his real name was the only one of their many aliases that wouldn't draw attention from a bank computer when they tried to cash the check. Thankfully, Dean didn't argue the point.

"Okay, then five thousand dollars as we agreed, plus three hundred for your accommodations," Daniel said, filling in the ledger. Both Winchesters stared at the pen hypnotically as it floated over the page as if they feared it would disappear before they collected their reward. Somewhere in the backs of their minds, they each noted the small tattoo on the man's writing hand, but neither paid it any real attention as the check was torn out of the folder with a jerk and handed over accordingly.

Even covered in muck, Dean couldn't maintain his guise of irritation as he grasped the paper. Hell, he'd mud wrestle twenty Hogzillas if there were paychecks like this involved. His trademark grin spread wide enough to crack the mud on his cheekbones, and Sam thrust his hands into his pockets and looked down at the ground with a reciprocal grin of his own. It was so good to see Dean smile like that. He didn't do it nearly enough.

Sam made a mental note to himself to look out for more paying gigs when he got the chance.

To the younger brother's relief, the crinkle of hard-earned money in Dean's pocket seemed to erase all residual bitterness linked to the day's unorthodox hunt. His big brother wore a content smirk all the way back to their motel room, and he didn't complain once about the smell of rancid swamp water that permeated the air.

Dean sauntered into the motel room, a slight spring in his step despite the ache in his ankle. He tossed his keys onto the nightstand with a satisfying clank that said, 'Dean Winchester has arrived,' and rifled quickly through his duffel bag for clean clothes.

"Don't use all the hot water," Sam teased, knowing full well that the motel had a water heater the size of Rhode Island and no other inhabitants but himself and his brother. As Dean strode past him toward the bathroom, the younger brother crinkled up his nose and waved his hand in front of his face with disgust. "On second thought, knock yourself out before the smell knocks me out, man."

"Oh, little brother, you're just jealous that you didn't get a smooch from Hogzilla's little friend, too," Dean quipped, raising his eyebrows suggestively. "I'm not the only one who hasn't been seeing any action lately, you know. In fact," he said, patting his wallet with a satisfying smack, "I think we should definitely go out tonight and see if we can't break this drought. I'm suddenly feeling lucky."

"Yeah, lucky if they make an aftershave strong enough to cover up your last date's funky perfume," Sam dismissed with a shake of his scruffy head.

"Bitch," Dean chuckled, and he tossed a rolled up pair of holey socks at his baby brother's head. The ball bounced off and onto the floor.

"Jerk," Sam reciprocated, scooping up the sock ball and pitching it back with some heat behind it only to have it connect with the closed bathroom door.

"Prick," Dean snickered, opening the door just far enough to shout the word and slamming it shut instantaneously.

Sam just shook his head, poking the inside of his cheek with his tongue, mouth agape, as he accepted his defeat and fell back onto the bed, arms splayed out to his sides.

He listened as Dean began his familiar shower ritual, turning on the hot water to get the steam started while he unpacked his shaving kit and started to undress. Sam reached for the television remote, intending to try to catch the news, when the bathroom door swung open with enough force to bounce back off the door stop, leaving the spring twanging in protest.

Sam threw his arms up and crossed them over his face, making a dive for the far side of the bed as he fully expected Dean to shower him with silly string or some other secret weapon he no doubt kept stowed away in his belongings. When no attack came, the younger brother peeked up over the edge of the bed warily and watched in surprise as Dean, shirtless and barefoot, stormed out of the motel room and into the parking lot without a word.

Sam leapt to his feet and followed in confusion. As he stepped outside himself, he saw that his brother had the trunk of the car open and was rifling around inside with a frantic desperation he couldn't remember having seen since they'd showed up to a werewolf hunt without their silver bullets that time. "Dean?" He asked, approaching apprehensively.

As Sam stepped up behind his brother, Dean slammed the trunk closed and stepped back quickly, nearly sending Sam sprawling for the third time that day. The older brother rushed over to the driver door and flung it open. He dove in halfway, tossing out the smelly towels he'd used to protect the upholstery after shaking them briskly, and began feeling inside the seat cushions and bending low enough to look beneath as well.

"Dean!" Sam insisted, his voice tinged with concerned agitation, "what are you looking for?"

Standing decisively, Dean pretended not to hear his brother's questions or even acknowledge the younger sibling at all. He just seemed to think hard momentarily, his hazel eyes rolling up as though to make a mental list of possibilities and he turned on his heel, hurrying back into the motel room.

By the time Sam came back into the room, Dean already had his shirt back on and was pulling his boots on over his sockless feet. He was beginning to stand, the car keys jingling in his hand, when Sam stepped in front of him, forced him back down into a sitting position and held him there with strong hands on his shoulders.

Sam bent forward at the hip enough to stare into Dean's panicked eyes, getting almost close enough to draw the gaze crossed in its focus. "Dean! What the hell is the matter?" He shouted.

Dean looked away, his chin trembling slightly. "My necklace," he whispered in obvious disbelief. "My necklace is gone."

Sam slumped back onto the opposite bed with an audible sigh. "Is that all? Damn, Dean! You scared the crap outta me!" He chuckled, running his hands over his forehead and through his thick hair. "I thought something was really wrong."

Dean looked at him incredulously. "Something is really wrong!" He snapped, going back to tying his boot laces. "Didn't you hear me? My necklace is gone! G-O-N-E, as in, not hanging around my neck where it's supposed to be. It must have come off when I got caught in the snare. We gotta go back and look for it."

"There's no way in hell you're dragging my ass back out there to mosquito central so you can look for your misplaced jewelry, Deanna." Sam flopped back on the bed and noticed absently that someone had put glow-in-the-dark planet stickers all over the ceiling. "And you'll never find it out there, anyway."

Dean chose not to acknowledge his brother's attempt to downplay the situation. Dean was an expert at the old bait and switch ploy, and he knew that Sam was pressing his buttons to change the subject. "First of all," he grunted, tightening his second boot with a sharp jerk, "it is not girlie."

"How do you know?" Sam asked. "You don't even know what it is." He tossed the sock ball from their earlier tussle into the air and caught it again while he rolled his eyes at his brother's sentimental rant. "I'll give you ten to one odds that it's a goddess, though. That so makes it girlie, Dean."

The older brother looked slightly taken aback but only glared at Sam sideways from beneath half-closed eyelids while he knotted his laces with finality. "Okay, well, maybe I don't know what it is, but I know it's mine, and I want it back."

Sam continued to toss the sock ball indifferently. "Then go buy yourself a box of Cracker Jacks, cuz there's a better chance of finding another one in there than you have of finding that one out in the swamp. I mean, even if you didn't lose it in the water, a shiny thing like that would get picked up by any one of a number of animals that live out there. Hell, for all you know, one of the pigs ate it!"

He was tired and dirty, and as much as he hated to see his brother lose one of the few possessions to which he'd actually formed an emotional attachment, there was no way Sam was going back out there. Dean wasn't the only Winchester brother to inherit their father's stubborn streak.

The older brother stood abruptly and headed for the door, but Sam rolled off the bed and beat him to it, blocking the exit with his body. "Dean, you're being pig-headed about nothing. If it means that much to you, we can go out tomorrow and find you some other girlie charm to hang around your thick skull."

The older brother's eyes became desperate and his muscles tensed up as if he were preparing to physically toss Sam out of the way. Instead, he put both hands to the sides of his head, fingering his dirty hair, and began to pace about nervously.

"C'mon. This is not the end of the world," Sam said, holding up his hands in an effort to calm the bubbling tension. "I don't see what the big deal is about that necklace. We've got a whole trunk full of lucky charms and amulets, which we both know hold more superstition than function."

Dean got in his brother's face, and the wide-eyed glare that fixed on Sam reminded the younger Winchester of the way Dean had stared down Meg while interrogating the demon within her. At the time, Sam had thought the gaze was an expression of intense rage, a look at the darkest part of Dean Winchester that usually remained hidden along with all the light Sam knew was there. But Sam had seen the same look cross his brother's features when the Demon had been in Dean's face, cutting him to the core with its twisted words, and now he recognized it for what it was; desperation and fear. Sam wasn't any less frightened for his newfound understanding. This glimpse at his brother's barely masked fragility actually terrified him even more.

Dean's chin trembled as he drew close enough for Sam to feel the heat of his breath hissing out between clenched teeth. "The deal is that Dad gave that necklace to me, Sam. He gave it to me and made me promise never to take it off. Capital 'N', capital 'Ever'; NEVER, Sam, not even during sex."

"And Dad said that?" Sam asked incredulously.

Dean scrunched up his chin and shrugged half-heartedly. "Well, not in so many words," he conceded.

"And exactly how many words did he use?"

"Never, Sam. He said, 'What part of never don't you understand, son,'" Dean explained, his voice deepening to mimic his father's.

"Of course he did, Dean," Sam returned, refusing to back down. "Of course he gave it to you and told you never to take it off, because it's the perfect accessory to go with the angst, dysfunction, and sociopathic tendencies he gave you."

Either Sam's lack of intimidation or something the younger brother said seemed to break down Dean's desperate conviction. He backed up half a step with a thoughtful wrinkle forming in his forehead.

"Hey! I do not have sociopathic tendencies."

"Right, Dean," Sam conceded with a roll of his eyes. "If the world was populated by nothing but hot girls and kids under the age of twelve, you'd be a regular social butterfly."

"Yeah. . .well. . .that's beside the point," the older brother admitted, flustered. His eyes dropped, and he went back to pacing, fidgeting with his hands as if contemplating what action to take next.

Sam was as unsettled by Dean's loss of control as Dean was himself, and after the older brother had made three laps around the dinky room, Sam could take no more. He reached out and wrapped a strong hand around his brother's shoulder and halted the relentless motion. The tension in Dean's muscles pulsed through Sam's fingers like an electrical current.

"Geez, you're a mess," Sam sighed, finally grasping the gravity of the situation. "You really have to let this go, though. I mean, sure Dad told you never to take the necklace off, but I'm sure it was probably just another one of his little tests. You remember, like when he used to put those stupid troll dolls in our pockets and make us swear to protect them while he put us through some simulated hunt or something. He used to tell us the mission was failed if we lost the damned things. That's what this is all about, I'm sure. He just wants to see how far you'll go to follow orders, Dean. He's just making sure he can still control you."

Dean's eyes darted away from Sam's intense stare. "No, Sam. This is nothing like that. Nothing. And I'm gonna prove it." He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his cell phone, opening it quickly and focusing his attention on finding the correct button to speed dial Dad.

"No. . .no," Sam protested, reaching for the phone between exclamations. "You're not going to call him. You can't be serious."

"Yeah, I'm serious," Dean retorted pressing the talk button and the speed dial. "Dad trusted me. He trusted me to keep that necklace. If it's missing, then I have to tell him."

Even with the phone in his brother's hand, Sam could hear the familiar voice mail message kick in. Dean didn't even try to mask his disappointment that their father hadn't answered, just waited for the tone as his eyes darted nervously about the room. "Dad," he said finally, "it's me, Dean. Something's come up. . ."

 

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