Chapter 3 – Captain Blood

The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do
[…] Pirate is in your blood; you'll have to square with that someday
[…] So, can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not?

-Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean

www

There had always been two kinds of 'big trouble' in Sam's life: the kind he caused and the kind he got into. The difference was intent. In Sam's mind, one could be walked away from, the other must be handled. Stranded in the Mojave Desert, the night cloaking any hope of escape, surrounded by six pirates definitely fell into the latter category. And he had no idea how they were going to handle this one.

Sam rolled to his knees, his fingers burying deep into the unforgiving sand as he pushed himself slowly to his feet. Dean stood near him, his focus centered on the threat around them. In Dean's mind, Sam knew, there was only one kind of 'big trouble.' And the choice to walk away was non-existent. There was only the fight to survive and protect.

"Mack," Dean's voice was low, and surprisingly ominous in the moonlit vista of their surreal surroundings. "Get up."

Sam shifted sideways, moving more on instinct than awareness, his body searching for his brother's. In his head, his father's voice echoed a mantra that had been burned into his psyche through endless hours of training and preparation.

Always maintain an awareness of your surroundings.

His back found Dean's and he felt his brother's shoulders bunch up just beneath his, their muscles coiling and colliding, melding to blend strength and balance. Sam's eyes slid to the left as a mutter in Spanish sliced the night.

"Lleváoslos; de nada nos sirve matarlos aquí." (Take them back; their death is no good to us here.)

The pirates all looked the same to him: swarthy skin, shadowed eyes, cheekbones hollowed from malnutrition visited upon them before death and haunting them in the afterlife. Their clothing was worn but whole; no flapping cloth, skeletal limbs, or sagging skin. These weren't Disney creations. These six had been men once. They'd had homes, families, futures, debts, loves, enemies, passion.

"Es lo que dijiste la última vez y no funcionó." (You said that the last time. It still did not work.)

Sam could hear the burden of the past in the answering voice. The grief and hopelessness brought on by centuries of solitude and perdition.

"Matémoslos ahora, empezando por Pelo Amarillo." (Kill them now, starting with Yellow Hair.)

"Mack," Dean repeated, and Sam could feel the rumble of his brother's voice through his back. "You need to stand up. Now."

"I-I… I c-can't…"

The pirates shifted forward, almost as one. Emerson groaned slightly, his blond hair still in the grip of a weathered hand, the curved blade of a short sword pressed to the pale flesh of his exposed neck. Sam resisted the urge to glance his way; his instinct was to check on a comrade, his training demanded he not take his eyes off his enemy.

"Yes. You can." Dean stepped forward; Sam stepped back. He was not letting even a whisper of air separate them. Their unity would be the only thing to save them.

If escape is not possible or viable, raise your hands up, palms out, at neck level, and angle your body away from them. This is your fence. Do not let them cross it.

There was a shuffle sound behind Sam and he swallowed. His hands moved slowly from his sides, fingers spread, unthreatening. He could hear Mack move through the sand away from the pirate, gain his feet, and step toward Dean. Sam slid his eyes to the left and saw movement in the moonlight that bathed the deck of the ship.

"Atta boy," Dean was saying.

"Now what?" Sam whispered out of the corner of his mouth, hearing his question echoed in the dying whimper of Mack's fear.

Dean took a deep breath and Sam felt his stomach tighten in anticipation.

"Don't think running for it is an option," Dean muttered back out of the corner of his mouth.

"¿No lo ves? Planean algo. Los últimos casi tomaron el barco, ¿es que quieres que vuelva a pasarnos lo mismo?" (Do you see? They are planning. The last ones almost took the ship. Are you willing to allow that again?)

"Si bastara con asesinarlos con la luz de la luna como testigo para acabar con este tormento ya estaríamos en casa." (If simply slaying them with the light of the moon as our witness brought an end to this torment then we would already be home.)

"Wha—" Emerson tried, but was apparently stopped by the press of steal against his throat.

Dean, however, apparently picked up on his former antagonist's line of thought. "What are they saying?" he asked Mack.

Sam felt Dean shift, jostled by the impact of Mack backing up into them then stepping away to create an inadvertent triangle of bodies.

"Uh… they're," Mack swallowed, "uh… arguing. About where to kill us."

"Fantastic," Dean muttered.

Make an effort not to get hit. Keep moving. Motion is living.

"La sangre de los hombres correrá." (The blood of men will flow), growled a pirate closest to Sam. His greasy hair was twisted into ancient dreadlocks, the mass of it tied back with a silver medallion. The pirate stepped forward threateningly, dark eyes pinned to Sam's face, causing him to bring his chin up in instinctual defiance. "Hombres o chicos, lo mismo da." (Men or boys, it's all the same.)

"La luna caiga sobre la hoja de la espada," (Moon falls on the blade), cried another from the opposite side of the circle. "La luna lleva siglos saliendo y nosotros hemos derramado sangre durante cientos de años. Sin embargo, aquí seguimos!" (The moon has risen for hundreds of years. For hundreds of years we have slain. For hundreds of years we have waited. And still we wait!)

"Tú no te cansarás de hablar ni siquiera muerto," (You will talk yourself into the afterlife,) snapped the pirate devouring Sam with his hollow eyes.

"Dean," Sam pressed back against his brother's shoulders. "What are we—"

"¡Silencio!" (Silence!) The pirate closest to Sam pulled a long, thin sword from a leather scabbard with dizzying speed and pressed the tip of the blade to Sam's sternum.

Maintain the distance with your fence. Use your fence as a tripwire.

Sam sucked his air in, pulling his flesh away from the tip of the blade. He felt Dean react to this, felt his brother settle into a lower stance, his body lining up differently against Dean's than it had a moment ago.

If they even touch you once, brace yourself for counter attack the next time they attempt contact.

"Hey, easy," Sam attempted, hands up, open, eyes on the dreadlocked pirate. "Just… just take it easy."

"¿Cómo osas dirigirme la palabra, infiel?" (You dare speak to me, infidel?)

"¡Basta!" (Enough!) The voice from the ship was the same as before; the one to call out midst the cannon fire. "¡Súbelos a bordo!" (Bring them aboard!)

"Ya habéis oído al capitán," (You heard the Captain,) said the man on the opposite side of the circle from Dreadlocks. "Al Ángel." (To the Angel.)

Dreadlocks sneered, lifting the tip of his sword to Sam's chin.

"Dean?" Sam breathed, barely moving his lips. They had no weapons. No salt. Not even a sliver of consecrated iron. He'd never thought about engaging spirits in a fist-fight.

"Easy…" Dean breathed, seeming to echo Sam, but directing his order at his brother rather than the pirates. "Take it easy."

The group began to close the circle, their intent, apparently, to herd the hunters toward the ship.

"Now."

Dean's decree was soft, but powerful enough to spurn them both into action.

Your strike should be aimed to the chin or jaw.

Sam felt his brother shift to his left; he instinctively dodged right, Dreadlock's sword slicing the air between their parted bodies. Rolling in, his shoulders sliding along the length of the blade with his motion, Sam pivoted in close to the pirate's body, coming around with his right fist up in a powerful swing, making contact with the ancient pirate's jaw and sending him stumbling backwards several steps.

Don't be afraid to strike first; your goal is to get through the situation without being hurt.

Pivoting once more, Sam ducked into a low crouch, dodging the swing of another fist, plowing into the vulnerable side of a third body. He didn't let himself think about the surreal sensation of making physical contact with a man that should have died almost four hundred years ago.

The fetid odor of an unwashed body caused him to flinch backwards and he narrowly missed the fist that would have laid open his cheek with the rings that adorned it. Pivoting once more, Sam slammed his shoulder into the belly of another pirate, driving him backwards, away from the group.

At Dean's cry of surprise and pain, Sam brought his head up. Flanking his brother were the prone bodies of two pirates. A third wrestled with Emerson on the ground. Mack was backing away from a fourth—Dreadlocks, Sam realized—and a fifth, the one with the rings, had caught Dean by surprise, ramming his ancient brass knuckles into his brother's back in a kidney punch meant to drive him to his knees.

Stay calm. Anger will make your fighting worse, and will make your punches weaker.

"Dean!"

Sam moved away from the pirate he had shoulder-rammed and moved to help his brother, fear caramelizing on his heart and turning to anger as he tried to run in the loose sand. The ring-adorned pirate slammed his fist into Dean's side once more before his brother could recover and Sam saw Dean go down.

If you fall on the ground, do everything in your power to keep your opponent away until you can get back up. Every second you are on the ground you put yourself in danger of getting kicked or stomped by anyone standing by as well as your attacker.

Sam felt a hand grip his shoulder and as he was turned unwillingly around, he caught sight of Dean rolling quickly away from the booted kicks of the pirate—directly across one of the bodies he'd driven to the desert floor. The pirate gripping his shoulder muttered something he couldn't understand as Sam worked to refocus his attention on his own fight rather than that of his brother.

Never drop your guard. Before relaxing make sure there's no one else around you. Bad guys always bring their friends.

The fist that cracked across Sam's temple was fast and powerful. The world spun and air turned to sand in seconds. Voices swam around him, hands gripped his useless limbs, and sand once more gave way to air as he was lifted from the ground. Unable to shake the sudden dizziness, Sam worked to open his eyes, scrambling to find some sort of balance as he felt the coarse strands of rope being slipped around his wrists and over his head.

"Sam!"

Dean's voice.

"Sammy!"

Desperate.

"De—"

With the impact of another fist, darkness won the battle for control and Sam slipped over the edge.

www

Dean saw his brother sag against the ropes now binding his hands, his weight causing the leash-like rope around his neck to dig into the soft flesh there.

"Hey!" Dean barked, struggling viciously against the hands pinning him to the desert floor. Two pirates bordered him—one of whom he'd done his best to put down moments ago. "You're gonna choke him!"

As though Sam were nothing more than a bag of bones, the pirate holding his neck by a tether slung him over his shoulder. Sam's bound arms swung freely, his shoes dragging furrows through the sand as the dreadlocked pirate hauled him away and toward the ship.

"SAM!" Dean screamed, bucking, twisting, writhing to get free of the impossibly strong grasp the two pirates had on him. "Let. Me. Go. You sonsabitches… if you weren't already dead I would fuckin' kill you all!"

A solid kick to his side drove the remainder of his air from his lungs and Dean turned as much to his side as his captors' grip allowed, gagging as the fire in his gut traveled upward, resting behind his heart, ready to explode.

"Este da más problemas que el último." (More trouble than the last.)

"Es más joven que el último." (Younger than the last.)

The foreign words spun around him, making him dizzy and desperate. From his vantage point on the ground, he watched as another pirate pulled a length of rope from his belt and began to bind Mack as Sam had been bound: wrists and neck. Emerson was held in a tight grip, once again controlled by a blade at his throat. His bright blue eyes found Dean's.

"Thought you said these bastards were ghosts."

Dean blinked, the suffocating panic at being held against his will turning his voice to sandpaper. "They are."

"Then why can they kick our asses, huh?"

"They're cursed." Dean shot a look past Emerson toward the ship, watching the progress of the pirate holding Sam as he climbed the rope ladder to the ship's deck, his precious cargo draped over his shoulder. "Something about that curse."

"That's fuckin' helpful. Thanks a lot."

"Don't let them take me, Em," Mack suddenly bleated. "Don't let 'em!"

"What the hell do you want me to do about it?" Emerson shot back, attitude bobbing his head forward, the knife shoving it back.

"Stop them!" Mack's panic broke across his voice. "Do something! Stop them, Em!"

The pirates holding Dean jerked him up roughly, keeping him on his knees, one arm twisted painfully behind his back, the tips of his fingers turned so that they were brushing the base of skull.

"EM! EMERSON!" As the rope tightened around his neck, Mack slipped from eerie, sullen silence into full-on freak out. "Stop them, Em! Don't let them take me!"

"Mack," Dean tried, "calm down."

"Stop it," Emerson barked at his brother. "You shut up or they'll kill you."

Mack's scream was choked off by the jerk of the rope as a pirate pulled him forward.

"You're not helping, you idiot!" Dean admonished Emerson. "Calm him down. I'll distract them."

Emerson looked at him and Dean saw something slide across the blue eyes. Something that he recognized. Something that he feared.

"No," Dean shook his head once, then winced and buckled in on himself as a pirate twisted his arm roughly. "Don't!"

With a war cry worthy of this cursed crew, Emerson reached up to grip the hand holding his throat hostage while simultaneously stepping backward and shoving his elbow deep into his captor's gut. Suddenly free, he screeched once more, pushing past the pirate that held Mack captive, and took off across the desert, scrambling up the dune and reaching the destroyed Jeep before slowing.

"EM!" Mack cried, his face white in the moonlight, his blue eyes large and terrified.

"I'll get help!" Emerson called back. "I'll bring back hel—"

He was never able to finish his sentence. The knife that had been held at his throat sailed through the air and Dean's stomach plummeted as it found its mark, spinning Emerson to the side and toppling him from the crest of the dune down the opposite side, out of sight.

"No…" Dean breathed.

"EM!" Mack screamed.

And then, with a sound that came close to breaking Dean's heart, Mack went limp in the tethered grasp the pirates had on him, his head falling back and a wail cutting the night. The pirate that had thrown the weapon crested the top of the dune, looked down, then turned to face his comrades.

"Está fuera de nuestro alcance. No podemos atraparlo." (He's beyond the breech. We cannot retrieve him.)

Mack went suddenly silent, as if someone had simply flipped a switch and turned him off. His body was limp; though Dean saw his limbs tremble. His eyes were open, though hollow. He was a human doll, pliant as the pirate lifted him from the sand and carried him over his shoulder toward the ship.

Dean was left with four pirates, two still immobilizing him. His heart thudded sluggishly in his chest, his mind spinning as he tried to categorize all the ways in which this slightly off the reservation hunt had gone to Hell. He was in no shape to fight off four seemingly immortal warriors.

And Sam was on that ship.

"What are you waiting for, fellas?" he said to the closest pirate, who was currently peering curiously at his face.

Foreign words flowed around him like water, buffeting him with breakers of frustrated confusion and pulling at him with the desperate need to know. They seemed to be interested in something, pointing to him, pointing to the dune, shaking their heads. Dean wracked his brain for any bits of Spanish he'd picked up from television, Clint Eastwood movies, hell, even Sesame Street.

The pirate peering at Dean narrowed his dark eyes. Dean watched a pink, puckered scar cinch up along the side of his face with the motion. He spoke, and Dean turned his face away as the briny breath of the ancient spirit wafted over him.

"Dude, seriously," he gasped. "Breath mint."

The pirate gripping Dean's arm growled out a statement, standing suddenly and using his grip on Dean's arm to hauling him up. Dean gasped as the pain in his twisted arm sliced through his tortured shoulder. He staggered a bit as he gained his feet, trying to balance in the shifting sand, his fingers aching from loss of circulation.

"Tenemos a su hermano en el Ángel." (We have his brother on the Angel.)

Dean looked over at the speaker, the weight of the tone resting heavy on his heart, though the full meaning was lost to him. He did recognize one word, however: hermano. Brother. They were talking about Sam. How they knew he was Dean's brother didn't matter. Maybe they defined the word differently in the 17th century. Maybe they just meant partner. Friend.

All that mattered to Dean was that he knew what brother meant. And to him, it was everything.

"Don't know what you all are yakking about," he said, sliding his eyes around the group, "but you're burnin' moonlight, huh? So let's get this show on the road already."

Eyes still narrowed in curiosity, the pirate gripping Dean's arm released him, stepping back. Two others put their hands to their knife hilts. Pain and relief mingled in a wave of vertigo; Dean's knees buckled and he sagged forward, tipping at the last minute to his shoulder to avoid eating sand. To say his arm ached would be to state that the night is dark and the ocean wet. He caught his bottom lip between his teeth, huffing out two quick breaths to combat the gut-numbing sensation of blood flow returning to the edges of his abused limb.

The noise he uttered upon being once more hauled unceremoniously to his feet was just this side of a whimper. One pirate pushed him forward and he stumbled, caught his footing, stumbling again.

"Morirán en cuanto los tengamos a los dos en el Ángel. ¿Qué importa que no vaya a poner en peligro a su hermano?" (They die the minute they are united on the Angel. What does it matter that he won't risk his brother?)

Dean shot a look at the gold-toothed speaker. You're so freakin' lucky I don't have any salt with me, you rum-drinking bastard.

"No tenemos más cuerda." (We have no more rope.)

Dean stumbled forward, the sound of the pirates' laughter turning up the heat on his already boiling blood. As they drew closer to the ship, Dean had to catch his breath. It was massive, towering above him at impressive, dizzying heights. He'd never been around anything bigger than a fishing boat, and that had been on Pastor Jim's pond.

He could hear voices calling to each other in Spanish, the movement of men and materials, and, unbelievably, the creak of wood as though the ship was rocking in the clutches of the sea. As they reached the rope ladder, Dean swallowed. He could barely lift his arm, his muscles throbbing from his wrist, across his shoulder, and up into his already-sore neck. Climbing was going to be next to impossible.

"Sube." (Climb.)

The point of a blade jabbed him with stinging encouragement in the small of his back. He didn't need to speak Spanish to know he was being ordered to climb up to the ship deck.

"Woulda been a helluva lot easier if you hadn't tried to Mel Gibson my shoulder, dude," Dean grumbled, reaching up with a trembling hand to grip the thick rope. To his surprise, he felt the ship roll away from him, pulling the rope ladder with it. He released his grip and stumbled backwards, staring up at the wooden Angel beseeching the night with outstretched arms.

"What the…"

"¡Sube!" (Climb!)

This time, the blade was jabbed hard enough to draw blood.

"Son of a—I'm climbing, okay! Jesus. Don't get your damn knickers in a knot."

Reaching up once more, he grit his teeth, turning the groan of pain into a grunt of effort, raising his aching right arm and forcing his entire will on getting his hand to close, to grip, to hold until he could adjust his body to the bizarre sensation of a boat rocking on an ocean of sand. His breaths puffed out shallowly, sweat collecting on his upper lip, running down the furrow of his spine, slipping beneath his sand-coated waistband.

Scarface first climbed next to him, then passed him, flipping his body gracefully over the edge of the rail. The others followed, making sure he didn't drop back to the desert floor. He'd almost reached the top when he heard Sam cry out in pain, then follow the cry with a vicious curse.

"Where the hell is my brother, you tattooed bastard?"

"Sam!"

"Dean!"

The relief in Sam's voice made Dean weak. He knew the feeling. His heart had collapsed under that feeling too many times over the years. Too many times since he'd pulled Sam from Stanford. He crested the top and hung there, his abused arm unable to do more than hold on to the rope.

"You okay?" Sam asked, his tone tight with anxiety and pain.

If he'd have had the energy, Dean would have laughed at the tragic irony surrounding that question. Sam was bound, shirtless, to a large section of grating, his hands tied through the solid-looking woven slats, his ankles hooked across the squared base. His right eye was swollen and blood trickled in a thin line down the side of his face. Three small cuts trailed along his ribs and the blood that smeared his side was a slick black in the moonlight.

"Jesus, Sammy," Dean breathed as the pirates behind him flipped over the rail to the deck, reaching back and grabbing him roughly. "Hey!" Dean protested. "Easy with the merchandise!"

He was dropped near the base of the mast, Scarface burying the toe of his boot in Dean's side as he walked past. Dean grunted and coughed, curling in as his already abused side howled in retaliation.

"Bastards," Sam spat. "Dean?"

"M'okay," Dean gasped, pushing himself shakily to a sitting position. He took a breath and looked blearily around. "Where's Mack?"

Sam simply shook his head.

"They killed him already?" Dean coughed again.

"No," Sam replied.

"Then wh—"

Dean never finished his question. Laughter—cracking crazily across the night—met his ears. He twisted, gripping the rough-hewn wood of the mast for balance. Standing toward the stern of the ship midst a group of men that had stayed aboard, in front of a door tucked between two flights of stairs, was Mack. He wore a knee-length black coat, taken from one of the other pirates, and a large-brimmed hat, complete with white plume feather. In his fist was clutched a dark glass bottle and as Dean watched, he lifted it to his lips and took a long swig, some of the liquid spilling down his chin.

"Dude," Dean mumbled. "Kid looks like Captain freakin' Hook."

"He's lost it, Dean."

Dean twisted back around to face his trussed-up brother. "Ya think?"

"What the hell, man?" Sam said, grimacing. "What have we gotten ourselves into?"

Dean stood on hollow legs, running the back of his hand across dry lips. His tongue was beginning to stick to the roof of his mouth. He worked it against his teeth to wet his mouth, looking around the massive deck of the ship as he answered.

"I can pretty much guarandamntee you that there's nothing about… zombie-like ghost pirates in Dad's journal."

"Aw, man. Dad," Sam grunted, tugging against his bound wrists.

"What about him?"

"We shoulda called him, man."

"Take it easy, Sammy," Dean soothed, bracing himself unsteadily against the impossible motion of the shipwrecked Angel. "We're gonna get out of here first. Then we can fight about calling Dad back."

The grating that held Sam fast was propped several feet inside the bow of the ship. Two cannons were positioned to Sam's right, a pyramid of heavy metal cannon balls stacked to their left. Boxes and chests containing who-knew-what lined each side of the boat. Piles and piles of rope and canvass were stacked in various sections of the deck, and he counted at least three hammocks slung between the masts.

"Why didn't they tie you up?" Sam asked.

"Good question."

Dean looked over his shoulder as the group of pirates that retrieved them argued with another group that had stayed behind. In the center of the deck was a slightly raised cross-section of wood with what appeared to be a brass hook and catch lock. Beyond that was the stern, the room that Mack appeared to be guarding, the wheel, and the rear deck.

As he trailed his searching eyes back toward Sam, he counted twelve men, aside from Mack, milling about the deck, all with varying degrees of menace skirting their expressions.

"You figure out what the big deal is?" Dean asked, daring to move away from the mast, toward Sam. He staggered a bit as the deck seemed to roll beneath him.

"Yeah, Dean," Sam snapped quietly. "I suddenly remembered I could speak Spanish."

Dean managed to circle around behind Sam without causing a stir. "Ass," he retorted, trying to loosen the impossibly tight knots with aching fingers.

"Jerk."

"Bitch."

Sam hissed in pain as Dean tugged on the ropes that were biting into his wrists.

"Sorry."

"I don't get it, man," Sam craned his head to check his brother's progress over his shoulder. "Why didn't they just kill us?"

"They're fighting about something." Dean managed to work on section of the stopper knot but was delayed by the reef knot. "You get anything out of Mack before he decided to go pirate?"

"Dude, I woke up hog-tied to a piece of floor."

Dean tilted his head in concession to this excuse. And continued to work on the ropes. He could feel Sam's skin tremble beneath his fingers.

Frowning, he muttered, "Y'know… I coulda been a pirate."

"No way," Sam retorted.

"Think about it…" Dean grunted, digging his nails into a knot. "Freedom of the sea—"

"Knowing you, you'd get seasick."

"—don't have to answer to anyone—"

"Waiting to get your throat slit."

"—get the treasure and the girl."

"Dean," Sam shifted, easing the tension on a knot, looking back at his brother over his shoulder. "You might be a born hustler, but you're no pirate."

"Yeah?" Dean lifted his eyes, keeping his chin down. "What makes you say that?"

Sam sighed, as if the next words pained him to say. "I don't know… you're… honorable."

Dean felt his lips curl up in a grin. "Aw, shucks, Sammy."

"Traedme a su jefe." (Bring me the leader!)

The voice boomed over the shouts of arguing sailors and both brothers froze, Dean peering over Sam's shoulder to see a large man with shoulder-length, red hair and a wiry black goatee step from the room behind Mack.

"This can't be good," Sam breathed.

The red-headed man slung an arm around Mack's shoulders, lifting the large plumed hat from the boy's head and dropping it onto his own. Mack looked across the deck to Sam and Dean fumbled faster with the knots.

"Dean…"

"I'm trying!"

"Dean, they're heading this way…"

"Shit!"

"¿Dónde está el cuarto?" (Where is the fourth?) The voice was booming, echoing across the night and sending chills along Dean's exposed flesh. "Eran cuatro." (There were four.)

"Lo eran." (There were.) Mack suddenly spoke up.

This caused the brothers to freeze once more and this time, Dean found himself standing enough to see Mack completely over Sam's shoulder. Oh, God… His stomach turned to ice as he saw Mack's pale face angle away from them and toward the large man, who was no doubt the Captain of the Desolation Angel.

"What the hell is he doing?" Dean hissed.

The Captain looked down at the smaller man and Dean saw him draw back and away, his expression one of surprise.

"Oh, no," Sam breathed. "That's the Captain, Dean. He's… he's challenging the Captain."

"Stupid-assed kid," Dean echoed. "He's gonna get us all killed."

Mack pulled a short dagger from the pocket of his borrowed coat.

"Habéis matado a todos los que tenía." (You killed everybody I had left.)

Dean didn't need to understand the words to know that Mack was about to bring down the wrath of twelve angry spirits upon them. Before the kid could follow through with what was sure to be their end, Dean stood up, strode around Sam and headed for the nearest crewmember.

"Dean!" Sam called out in a desperate stage whisper. "No, don't!"

Dean was already in motion, and without an immovable object to stop him, he was going to stay that way. He grabbed the sword hilt from the scabbard at the pirate's hip, pulled the blade free, and with a two-handed sweeping arc that lit his shoulder on fire, sliced the blade through the former owner's neck, relieving the man's body from the burden of his head.

For one breath, nothing moved.

"How do you like that, bitch!" Dean crowed loudly, bringing all eyes on him and away from Mack and any threat to their Captain. "Highlander, Season one!"

He turned, holding the sword in front of him, eyes darting everywhere at once. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he registered that the pirate he'd decapitated hadn't bled. The deck was free of blood, but thick with malice as the crew of the Desolation Angel advanced on him.

He was able to bring the sword up once, digging into the arm of one assailant before he was overpowered by the sheer mass of men coming at him, swinging, tearing, stabbing, dragging him breathless and dizzy to the deck, then pounding him into the safety of darkness.

www

Sam felt sick.

He strained against the ropes holding him fast against the grating until he literally saw stars. He'd seen just enough of the crazy light in Dean's eyes before he grabbed that sword to know the next moments were going to go Very Wrong, but he'd been unable to stop his brother.

Stupid, stubborn, asshole of an idiot… Sam struggled again, bellowing his brother's name as the pirates overpowered him, slamming their fists against his sides, his legs, his head, until Dean went limp. Sam stopped calling out then and focused everything in him on finishing the job Dean had started on his knots.

The pirates backed away, one stepping to the body of the headless crewmember. As Sam watched in disbelief, another pirate grabbed up the severed head, and they calmly tossed both off the starboard side of the ship. It occurred to Sam then that it took more than twelve men to crew a galleon. He licked his dry lips, his brain skipping and stuttering across realizations that weren't continuing to full completion.

Two pirates lifted Dean from the deck. Sam's stomach hitched when he saw his brother hang limply from their grasp, his head lolling, his now-bare chest slick with sweat, his fingers dangling and swaying with motion as they dragged him to the door in the center of the deck, kicking open the lock, then unceremoniously dragging him below. Sam winced as he heard his brother's boots bang against the stairs as they descended.

"Mack!" Sam roared. "Where the hell are you?"

His eyes searched the deck through the milling, arguing pirates, taking in how they began shoving at each other, fist-fights breaking out on the port side of the ship, arguments with the Captain back toward the stern. A small figure with red hair slipped through the melee and crouched on the side of the mast where the pirates had initially dropped Dean.

"What the hell were you thinking?" Sam snapped. "Kill the Captain?"

"They killed Emerson," Mack replied in a shaky voice.

"There's too many of them," Sam countered.

"They can die," Mack returned. "You saw that."

"You almost got Dean killed," Sam snapped.

Mack looked off to his left, then back at Sam. "He didn't have to save me."

Sam tugged at his ropes. "He wasn't saving you, you little shit," he snapped. "He was saving all of us."

Mack ducked a dueling pair, drawing his legs in and making himself as small as possible.

"Tell me what the hell is going on," Sam grunted. "And get me untied, already, dammit."

"No way," Mack shook his head. "They'll see."

"Oh, now you're scared?"

The fact that he couldn't see Dean, couldn't hear what might be happening to him, was bleeding into Sam's already heightened sense of panic. They were in so far over their heads he felt as though he were drowning on air. He tugged and twisted the ropes, trying in vain to get his ankles free of the base of the make-shift stocks.

"Why are they fighting?"

Mack watched the ruckus with wide, guileless eyes. It was as if he'd found a way to disappear inside himself, observing the fighting crew with a detached interest as though it was all part of the show.

"They've gone through this for hundreds of years, and they've never been able to break the curse," Mack said, his voice holding something of a childlike quality. "Some of them wanted to kill us right away; others said we had to be on the ship."

Sam grunted, tugging harder, until finally he felt his right hand slip free. Frantically he worked the knot on his left. "So, we're here, now what?"

"They can't figure out the curse," Mack shrugged. "Guess they cheated some Indians out of the pearls or something. They're bound here until they figure out how to break the curse. Blood on the blade, blood in the moonlight, moonlight on the blade… they're just doing it wrong."

"So," Sam ducked as a box sailed over his head and crashed against the deck on the opposite side of the ship. "They've killed people every year? No way. How come nobody noticed?"

"They only killed the ones lucky enough to find the ship. Or the map," Mack said, rolling away from two fighting pirates, landing at Sam's knees. He lay on his back, looking up at Sam. "Like my Uncle."

Sam swallowed. Mack had lost everyone. No wonder he's out of his mind. "Listen," Sam said softly. "You help me get free and Dean and me… we'll get you out of this."

Mack blinked slowly. "Why would I want out?"

"Wait… what?"

"Why would I want out?" he repeated, rolling to a seated position. "The less pirates left at the end of the solstice night, the more treasure for us."

"They killed your brother," Sam reminded him, incredulous at what he was hearing.

Something akin to clarity crossed Mack's face like a shadow on the sun, then the look of blank innocence returned and he stood, pulling free the small dagger that had started this whole thing. He stepped around behind the grating and cut Sam's left hand free. Sam fell forward, catching himself before his face came in contact with the time-smoothed wood of the deck. As he lay prone for a moment, he felt the impossible sway of the ship in the none-existent current. Painfully, his face twisted into a grimace, he unhooked his ankles from the base of the stocks.

"Help me up," Sam ordered. "I have to get to Dean."

"They're trapped you know," Mack said softly, leaning down until he was inches from Sam's face.

Sam turned to his side, peering up at Mack, his face close enough that Sam could count his freckles. Mack grinned, his eyes bouncing with a manic thrill.

"Trapped?" Sam gasped, reflexively tightening and releasing the muscles in his legs, trying desperately to return blood flow to his feet. "Ah, man… wha-what do you mean?"

Mack leaned closer, his lips brushing the edges of Sam's ear as he whispered, "They can't go beyond the dune."

Sam jerked his head to the side gaping at Mack in surprise. "You're serious?"

Mack smiled, then flinched as a struggling pirate stepped on his outstretched fingers. Before Sam could react further, the Angel shook violently as another cannon roared into the night, blasting sand high into the air and silencing the fighting crew, more effective than a pistol shot.

The red-headed Captain stood next to the smoking cannon, and Sam shook his head as his ringing ears settled. Mack reached out and helped him sit up as they watched the Captain tug at his dark goatee, his flinty eyes drifting over his crew with lethal judgment. Raising a hand over the crowd like a modern-day orator, the Captain bellowed a stream of words that turned the remaining crew contrite.

The pirates shuffled their feet, looking at the deck, then back up at their Captain. Sam looked expectantly at Mack.

"Uh… he's saying that they have to stop fighting and kill us right."

Sam took a breath. "Got any idea what that means?"

Mack lifted a shoulder.

The Captain turned to them and Sam instinctively shoved the younger man behind him, working to stand on numb legs. With a snarled statement in Spanish that sounded to Sam like a death sentence, the Captain reached out and wrapped powerful-looking fingers around Mack's skinny bicep. Two crew members shoved Sam roughly out of the way.

"Sam!"

"What?" Sam reached out, trying to grab Mack from the iron-like grasp of the pirates. "What?"

"I can't really shoot," Mack confessed as he was hauled across the deck toward the bow. "I can't shoot at all."

"What?" Sam cried, moving forward, halted by two pairs of strong arms that pulled him back and away. "What are you talking about?"

"Emerson lied. I didn't mean to shoot you!"

Sam's head spun as his arms were pulled roughly behind his back once more, his battered body dragged away from the image of Mack being lifted and tied onto a make-shift cross over a large treasure chest. As a rope settled around Sam's neck once more, he saw the red-headed Captain throw open the lid of the chest to reveal millions of milky-white pearls gleaming in the moonlight.

Sam tried to call out to Mack, but the rope was pulled tight, cutting off his air, and he was shoved toward the stairs leading to the dank, rancid smelling belly of the ship.

www

Dean groaned.

That was a great idea, he admonished himself, awareness overtaking him faster than he would have liked, bringing with it every ache and throb that the pirate crew had visited upon him. In moments he was aware of two things: his mouth was desert dry, and the room he was in smelled of rot and death. He tried to roll to his side, the stench of the deck his face was currently pressed against making him gag.

The weight of his arm stalled his progress.

"What the—" he rasped, his voice barely audible, his lips feeling as though they split with the motion of speech.

Rough laughter greeted his ears and he heard words spoken in a voice that sounded as if it were saturated in liquor and mucus as the toe of a boot pushed at his bruised side. Dean flinched away, working to open his eyes. His face—his body—was gritty with sweat and sand. Something was trickling down into his eyes, catching and coating the edges of his lashes, and running into his ear.

He reached up to wipe away the sensation. He was stopped suddenly, his hand pulling up short, unable to reach his face from his recumbent position. After a moment of confusion, he realized that his wrists were shackled, tethered to the deck beneath him by heavy chains. Shifting slightly, freeing the arm beneath him from the weight of his body, he blinked one eye open.

And saw the semi-decomposed countenance of a human skull.

"What. The. Fuck."

Revulsion had him pushing away, turning his face the other direction, only to see more bodies, some simply bones, others mummified with straggling hair and the merciless grin of death. Struggling against pain and fatigue, he managed to push himself to his knees, and then realized he wasn't going to be able to stand. The chains that held him a prisoner were just long enough that he could kneel, but not long enough to stand.

The laughter grabbed his attention once more and he snapped his eyes front. Scarface stood in front of him, thumbs hooked in his belt, his fingers tapping just above his crotch which happened to be in direct alignment with Dean's mouth. Dean's eyes traveled upwards to the pirate's face and his stomach rolled over as the spirit grinned, exposing a gold tooth, and muttered something in a tone that made Dean want to gag.

"Dude, you better not be telling me it's been a long time," he declared in a ragged voice.

The pirate spoke again, reaching out one finger to trail along the side of Dean's face, wiping at the blood drying there from the beating he'd taken earlier. Dean twisted away, trying to rid his skin of the feel of the leathery touch and maintain his shaky balance on his knees.

"You pull out anything; I promise you I'll bite it off."

A cannon's roar staggered the pirate and Dean tumbled to the side, catching himself with one hand, his shoulder protesting the motion. Scarface looked up from the hold to the deck above.

"Where's my brother?" Dean barked, so desperate for a drink he almost followed that question up with a plea for agua. He could swear the flesh that lined his throat was as puckered as the scar running down the pirate's face.

Sneering, Scarface reached out once more. Dean tried not to recoil, but his body reacted before his mind could resist. Laughing, Scarface rested the flat of his hand on the top of Dean's head, then, to his dismay, rubbed his hair, giving his head a humiliating pat before stepping away and moving up the stairs.

Dean snarled, watching him go, curling forward as the tortured muscles of his back shook with an exhausted spasm. Mentally dragging his ire inside, burying it deep where he knew it would fuel his continued resistance; Dean looked around the large hold once more. The amount of bodies, in various stages of decomposition, was somewhat overwhelming. For nearly four hundred years, the pirates had been trapped, shipwrecked, not allowed to actually die, to cross over. And the carnage around him was the result of their desperation.

"Serves you right," Dean muttered, breathing shallowly. He pulled his arms up, testing the length of the chains. He was able to raise his hands to just above his waistline. "This is just… freakin'… perfect."

I coulda been taken by the reaper… I coulda given Layla a shot…

Instead, he was chained in the hold of a pirate ship, body trembling from exhaustion and abuse, and Sam…

Dean went cold, his breath catching on the ragged interior of his throat. Where the hell is Sam?

As if in answer to his unspoken question, he heard his brother's fear-ravaged voice calling out to someone, then being cut off. He looked up at the door leading down into the hold and saw two pirates dragging Sam below, his long legs tangling up on the stairs, his breath choked off by the rope around his neck.

"Sammy!"

The pirates slammed him against the base of the mast that bisected the room and Sam groaned.

"Hey!" Dean protested. "Take it easy!"

Rapid mutterings accompanied their motion as the pirates tied Sam by the neck and hands to the post, kicked his legs roughly out of the way, then strode back up the stairs, dropping the trapdoor back in place and leaving the brothers in near-darkness.

"Sam?"

Sam coughed. "Dean? You okay?"

"I'll live. How about you?"

"Dude, what the hell is that sm—" Sam gasped and Dean realized he was taking in the bodies around them.

Their eyes had adjusted enough to the dark that Dean knew neither of them wanted to see what the hold would look like in the daylight. No matter the horrors they'd witnessed in their lives, the sight of human carnage was not something he wanted tattooed on the backs of his eyelids to revisit him at night.

"Sam." Dean tried to get his attention. He felt himself beginning to shiver as the adrenalin of the past several hours began to seep away in deference to exhaustion, and the cold of the desert night sought to climb under his skin.

"Oh, God," Sam practically whimpered. "Dean… it's… it's all the people…"

"Yeah, there's a whole mess of Chester Copperpot's around here," Dean conceded.

"Chester who?"

"Forget it, Sammy, just look at me," Dean ordered, not liking the panic that was ratcheting up the tension in Sam's voice.

"God, Dean, their Uncle is probably down here," Sam rambled, nearly breathless. "All of the people who found the ship, went looking for the treasure, used that damn map—"

"No, no, Sammy, stop it, okay? Stop it." Dean talked over his brother's panic, taking a breath when Sam finally quieted. "You look at me, okay? Just me. That's it."

Sam took a deep, trembling breath. "God, it stinks down here."

"Yeah, well, they offered me the suite with the Jacuzzi," Dean sagged back, sitting on his feet, "but I told them the chains would help me tone up."

Sam gaped at him; Dean watching him blink in the pale slices of moonlight that tried to illuminate the large hold. They sat for a moment, quiet, staring at each other in the dark, and then, Sam laughed.

It was weak, and somewhat breathy, but it was Sam's laugh. And Dean felt light surge inside of him at the sound.

"So," Sam said, his head falling softly back against the beam. "How long you wanna wait around?"

It was Dean's turn to chuckle.

"Seriously, Dean," Sam started, his voice soft and sober. "Are you okay?"

"I've been better. They cut you?"

"Not bad," Sam said, looking down. "The one with the Dreadlocks was messing with me, that's all."

"Bastard."

"My face hurts."

"Hurts me, too," Dean said automatically, a big-brother jibe that brought out another easy chuckle from Sam before the air was sucked from the room by a cry of pain from above.

"Dean, they, uh…"

"What?"

Sam swallowed so hard Dean heard it. "They're gonna kill Mack."

Dean felt his heart thud painfully, his skin rippling in chills. "Dammit," he muttered, dropping his head, chin touching his chest.

"We got them into this, man."

Dean brought his head up at Sam's defeated tone. "No. No, don't you do that, Sam."

"He said he didn't mean to shoot me."

"Huh?"

Sam twisted slightly, working against the ropes. "He said Emerson was lying. He didn't mean to shoot me."

"So what?" Dean lifted his tired arms, rattling the chains. "So he has lousy aim."

"He also overheard the pirates talking," Sam continued, panting a bit with his exertions.

"And?"

"Said that they're trapped—on or with the ship, I guess."

"What do you mean, trapped?"

"Said they can't go past the dunes." Sam puffed out a breath of air before continuing to work on his ropes. "That's why they didn't go after Emerson's body."

Dean pressed his lips together, brows raised in slight surprise. "How 'bout that."

"He's totally lost his mind, Dean, I mean… they killed his brother and all he talked about was that fewer pirates meant more treasure for him! It's like he was in total shock, or… or denial or something."

"Jesus, Sammy, you and your bleeding heart," Dean grumbled, amazed as ever at his brother's attempt to see reason behind the actions of people. Not everyone works like us, Sammy. "Seriously, so they lost their family and decided to follow some random map to some random treasure… it's not like we held a gun to their heads. They were hell-bent on getting that map from us and—"

"Hey," Sam straightened suddenly.

"What?"

"The map."

"What about it?"

"If everyone who finds the ship gets killed… how did the map get out?"

"Not everyone gets killed," Dean pointed out, lifting his eyes to the ceiling. "Only the idiots that find it on the winter solstice. "

"But… is the ship even… y'know… visible at any other time?"

"How should I know, Sam?" Dean snapped, frustrated. The shackles were rubbing on his wrists and the weight of the chains was pulling at his strained shoulder muscles. "I don't know how the map got out. I don't know how the pirates got cursed. I don't know what the deal is with the Guiley's family." He rolled his neck, biting back a helpless groan. "I don't know, Sam, okay? And you know what, I don't care. I don't. They're just stupid kids that got a bad deal. Why our paths crossed at that diner is beyond me."

They were silent for a moment, the muted voices from above undulating with worrisome regularity. Both brothers realized that there was no indication of Mack's voice in the noise above.

"Hey, Dean?"

"Yeah?"

"You think we're… y'know… being punished or something?"

Dean rested heavy eyes on Sam's face. "For what?"

"I don't know, but… We just seem to have a lot of bad luck. Seems like there's gotta be a reason it always happens to us."

"You mean other than the fact that we look for the bad guys?" Dean sighed. "Does there always have to be a reason bad shit happens to us, Sammy?"

Sam hesitated. "Well, no. I guess not."

"Not everything happens for a reason." Dean lifted an eyebrow in a half-hearted attempt at a shrug. "Sure, sometimes there's a bigger picture—a reason a mother's die and a reason father's walk away." He swallowed, trying to ignore the pang at the thought of his dad. "And sometimes… they just die. And just walk away."

He watched Sam resist his logic, pulling at the ropes that bound his wrists.

"So, there's no fate, is that what you're saying?"

"I'm saying we make our own, Sam. Just like the Guileys. Just like Dad." He rotated his neck gingerly. His whole body throbbed. "Just like every other damn person on this miserable planet."

Sam stared at him a moment longer. Dean waited, knowing Sam would want to drive the point into the ground and stand on it for leverage. When Sam's face flinched, Dean sat slightly back.

"What is it?"

"I think I just got one of the knots loose," Sam breathed.

Dean almost sagged with relief. "Good," he said. "Keep at it. We have to figure out a way to… get some weapons. Something. These dudes can be taken out if we can do it one at a time."

"Just like eating… an elephant…" Sam grunted, pulling at his ropes, his face twisted in concentration.

"Whatever you say, College Boy. One of these poor bastards around here has to have a weapon on them."

Sam jerked. "I'm free!" He reached up and started in on the knots at his neck.

"Okay, listen to me, Sam," Dean started, his eyes having found the butt of what looked to be an ancient pistol. "To your right there's a green satchel, see it?"

"Yeah," Sam ground out, pulling the ropes loose and working his head from beneath them.

"There's a gun in it, I think. Check it, and look for bullets and, hell, maybe even gun powder, who knows."

Sam scrambled to the satchel, digging in the decaying mess, and pulling out a pistol with a roughly nine-inch barrel, a ramrod fixed beneath it, and a hammer about the size of Sam's thumb.

"Holy crap," the brothers whispered together.

"This is like… Revolutionary War era, Dean."

"Okay." Dean licked his lips, blinking rapidly as he remembered to breathe. The world was starting to tunnel on him and he was almost too tired to shake it off. "Okay, so… yeah. You gotta find some balls."

Sam shot him a look over his shoulder.

"For the gun, dumbass."

"There's, ugh, a lot of… gunk in here," Sam complained, digging deeper into the bag.

"Ignore the gunk, Princess," Dean ordered, swaying forward on his chains, wanting to give in and slip sideways into the dark. Let the world have its way. But then, there was Sam… "They're not going to leave us alone down here forever, y'know."

"Okay, I found one. And some powder."

"You got… one shot, Sam," Dean said. "I, uh… I can't see any other weapons from here."

"Let me take a look—"

Raised voices and stomping feet cut him off. Both brothers looked up, and Dean felt his body tense, his belly heating up with anticipation.

"Okay, scratch that. Hold really still so I can shoot your chains—"

"No," Dean interrupted, wetting his lips and pulling in a breath. Sam straightened slowly, his free hand sliding to his wounded side, his eyes hidden by his bangs and the absence of light. Gripping the chains for balance as his vision swayed, Dean pinned his brother with his eyes.

"You gotta get off this ship."

"What?"

"You get out of this hell hole, take out as many of these sonsabitches as you can, and get to the dune."

Sam seemed to settle slightly, his shoulders hunching in. "Leave you behind, you mean."

Dean swallowed. "These chains are thick, Sam, and one shot isn't going to—"

"Forget it," Sam looked down, pulling the stopper from the powder horn. "I'm not leaving you."

"Sam…" Dean almost pleaded.

"No, Dean. No."

"Sam, these guys… these guys are desperate, okay? Mercy doesn't translate for them." Dean shook his chains once in frustration. "We're not going to luck our way out of this one. It's not like we got a lot of miracles in our back pocket. You can get back… find Dad and—"

Sam looked up sharply. "And what? Come back and see if the ship is still here after the solstice? Return in a year and bury your body?"

Dean was quiet.

"Forget it, Dean."

"I'm not letting you get yourself killed—"

Sam took three steps forward, crossing the room and leaning forward so that his face was inches from Dean's. "It's my fate, Dean."

Dean frowned, wanting to pull back from the intensity in Sam's eyes. "I—"

"Mine. And I'm not losing you to some damn pirates."

Sam loaded the Kentucky pistol as though he'd handled Revolutionary War era firearms all his life. When he grabbed Dean's wrist, pulling the chain taut, Dean lacked the strength to protest. Before Sam could aim, however, the hold door was thrown open and both brothers jumped, facing the stairs as three pirates—including Scarface and Dreadlocks—stormed down the stairs toward them.

Everyone stopped and stared for a moment when the pirates realized that Sam was free. Dean felt the odd sensation of time slowing, a rush of blood to filled his ears with white noise and he saw his brother turn to face him, dread in his hazel eyes.

Dean opened his mouth to utter a protest of denial when Dreadlocks charged forward, his sword out, slapping the heavy gun from Sam's grip and jabbing the point of the sword into the soft flesh of Sam's belly.

"SAM!" Dean roared, his voice deepening with a bolt of panic, the last reserve of energy he'd stuffed deep several moments before surging forward.

Sam stumbled back, grabbing his middle, and to Dean's relief, pulled his hand away clean. The blade hadn't broken skin. In a flurry of Spanish, the pirates seemed to swarm them, arguing and pointing, reaching for Sam, ignoring Dean.

"Sam, run!"

"I'm not leaving you!"

"Get away! You fight them off! Don't you let them win!"

"Dean!" Sam cried out fighting against the heavy hands of the pirates as they pulled him across the hold, easily subduing his thrashing arms, kicking feet, dragging him toward the stairs.

"You bastards!" Dean screamed, blood thrumming beneath his skin, rushing to his face, burning the backs of his eyes. He strained against his chains, pulling his body forward until his arms shook from the effort. He felt the metal shackles dig into the bend of his wrists, cutting and rubbing the skin there raw. "Let him go!"

Sam growled out a curse, pushing against the pirates and earning a cuff on the ear for his efforts.

"I am going to fucking gut you!" Dean bellowed, his voice shaking from the effort of his cry, his body trembling, stars blinking before his eyes. "I will rip your heads off with my bare hands, I swear to God!"

He was spinning, the world was spinning, and Sam was being pulled further away.

"SAM! SAM!"

So focused was he on his brother's retreating form that he didn't see Scarface pick up the discarded Kentucky pistol. And he didn't see him aim it. And he didn't see the flash of fire as the lethal ball flew from the barrel.

He only felt an explosion of fire in his shoulder as the air was slammed from his lungs with the impact. As he crumpled to the death-saturated floor of the hold, he dimly heard his brother call his name.

And then the world was empty.

www

The snap-fizz-bang of the pistol slid shivers like mercury through Sam's blood. The sight of Dean falling as if lifeless to the deck in a tangle of chains erased coherent thought from his mind. The powerful hands pulling him away from Dean's body effectively sent him over the edge into white-hot insanity of rage.

Sam roared.

His wrath was so complete he was able to struggle free from the grasp of the pirates and push away from the wall of bodies blocking his return to the hold for all of a minute. He reached the top step before he felt hands gripping him once more, determined fingers twisting and bruising his bare skin, slipping on the sweat and blood and digging in to deny him access to his brother's current prison.

"You goddamn bastards," Sam panted, his mouth dry, his lungs on fire. He struggled harder until a backhanded strike sent his world spinning. He sagged for a moment, blinking desperately, trying to keep from blacking out.

Foreign words with hidden meaning were barked around him and he was dimly aware that the night was waning. Stumbling over his feet, drunk with fatigue and shock, Sam looked around, then up. The stars were losing their brilliance and the deep black of the sky was starting to fade to navy blue. Their time was growing short and the realization both panicked him and empowered him.

As he was drug to the bow of the ship toward where he'd last seen Mack, he realized the black coat Mack had worn was still tied to the make-shift cross—but Mack himself was absent. As he was shoved roughly forward, angry shouts and rapid words surrounding him, Sam's eyes scoured the deck for the wayward red-head.

Dreadlocks grabbed Sam's hair, forcing him to his knees in front of the opened treasure chest. Two others grabbed his rope-burned wrists and pulled his arms away from his sides, exposing his bare, heaving chest. The Captain approached his bloodied sword out and ready.

"No," Sam panted. "No! Stay back!"

Dreadlocks yanked Sam's head up with a fist-full of his hair and he found he was unable to watch the progress of the Captain. He had no problem feeling the tip of the sword cut into his belly, however.

"Argghhhh!" Sam screamed, his skin lighting up with fire from the cut. "NO!" He struggled harder, pulling enough away from Dreadlocks that he was able to look down.

A shallow slice—just above his navel—traversed his belly, and blood spilled in across his skin, dripped onto the pearls, already stained with what he assumed was Mack's blood. The Captain lifted his stained sword so that it caught the light of the moon.

"Y-you freakin'… zombies." Sam sputtered. "Doesn't matter what you do, don't you get that! Kill one, kill a hundred, you're never going home!"

The Captain dropped his eyes from the blade to Sam, then traveled across the waiting faces of his diminished crew. A shout rose up from the crew below and the Captain muttered a reply. Sam felt himself suddenly freed as the pirates holding his arms strode forward, challenging their captain with angry words.

For a moment Sam could only sway on his knees, his hands automatically moving to cover his belly, hissing at the pain of contact. When Dreadlocks stepped around him, shoving him roughly aside, Sam scooted away, moving until his back was to the starboard edge of the ship. Panting, he craned his neck to look over the edge, thinking fast.

Emerson had had the bag of weapons. In the bag were rock-salt filled shotguns, spare clothes, and most importantly, water. If he was going to get Dean out of there, he was going to need all three. Pulling himself up, his legs shaking as his system rode out the shock of abuse, he looked down the side of the ship's hull.

Damn, that's far.

A cry of fury snapped his head around. Dreadlocks was pointing at him, realizing, it seemed, that his charge hadn't stayed cowering where he'd been left. He started to turn, to run, and slammed full-force into the body of another pirate. Stumbling backwards, Sam's hip met a gap in the starboard rail.

He reached out blindly, grabbing for purchase, and saw Dreadlocks grin as he drew closer. Sam swallowed, the sting on his belly begging to be noticed. Lifting a short sword, Dreadlocks snarled out three short words and the pirate Sam had collided with laughed. Sam narrowed his eyes.

"He wants to know if you have any last words," came a voice to his left.

With surprise, three pairs of eyes turned to see Mack hanging off the side of the ship, clinging to a large rope that spilled over the rail. Sam blinked, trying to piece together the memory of the kid's scream, the silence that followed, the empty coat hanging from the cross, and the sight of Mack, his shoulders and arms slick with blood, clinging like a barnacle on the side of the ancient ship.

The cutlass jabbed once more and Sam stumbled backwards, the heel of his shoe meeting open air. Dreadlocks repeated the phrase.

"Last words?" Sam shot back. "Hell, yeah. I got two of them. Fuck. You."

With that, Dreadlocks lunged forward and Sam stepped back, praying that he wouldn't break his legs when he landed. He didn't anticipate not truly landing at all.

He felt his toes brush sand, felt them sink in, felt the sand suck at his legs, pulling his plummeting body downward until he'd slipped all the way beneath the surface of the desert floor, his arms out and flailing. Sand filled his nose, stung his eyes, and spilled into his mouth as he gasped for breath.

It was his nightmare. It was his hell. He was slipping through the earth, drowning in an airless vacuum, sliding further away from all that was solid, real. His mind spun, slipping on the greased edges of reason, unable to grip, to slow, to hold. His lungs flinched and curled, twisting in his chest until he was sure they would split through his skin and fill with sand.

He was dying.

And then, he stopped falling. A fist tightened in his hair. A hand gripped his wrist. As sparks of dying light from the raw ends of his tortured nerves danced across his eyes, Sam felt himself being pulled once more to the surface of the night. The hand at his wrist moved up to his shoulder. The fist in his hair grabbed for his other arm.

The cold of the desert winter smacked him in the face and he was coughing and gasping and spitting out sand and gagging all at once. He couldn't open his eyes, couldn't move his arms, could do nothing but drag sweet, precious air into his desperate lungs. He felt more hands on him pulling him from the sand sink hole and rolling him to the solid earth at the base of the ship.

"Here," a voice whispered, and Sam felt a gentle hand at the back of his head, lifting it from the ground. He continued to cough, feeling as though his lungs would never be free of the grit of sand, when he felt the first drops of water on his lips. He grabbed for it.

"Hey, hey, easy! There's plenty."

Sam gulped, swallowed, gulped more, breaking only to breathe. He felt gentle fingers at his eyes, washing the sand away. After drinking deeply once more, he was able to finally blink.

"Emerson?" he croaked.

"In the flesh."

"What… how…" Sam pushed himself to his elbow. "Where the hell have you been?"

"Playin' dead," Emerson replied. "Here, wash that off," he said to someone on Sam's other side. Sam turned to look and saw Mack using the tail end of a gray T-shirt to wash off the sand-encrusted blood on Sam's belly. "Mack." Sam sat forward more, reaching out to touch the red-head's shoulder. "You… how did you…"

"Guess my blood wasn't good enough," Mack said, continuing his ministrations.

"You scared the shit outta me, man," Emerson laughed softly. "I was all… looking for a way up and then you just… fell out of the sky."

"And sank into the sand," Mack said, pulling his ruined, bloody shirt off and sliding the one he'd been using as a rag over his head.

"How—" Sam's question was broken off with a fit of coughing, his body shuddering as he drug air in over the edges of his raw throat.

Emerson pulled open his long-sleeved shirt, exposing a bandaged wound just beneath his shoulder. "Dude hit me. I thought I was dead. I laid there forever trying to figure out what the hell to do next… and why the hell they hadn't come after me. Then I realized… they couldn't."

Mack handed Sam a shirt. Sam pulled it on over his shivering body before he realized the significance. "You found the bag!"

Emerson nodded, lifting the canvass. "Here, wrap up your—"

"C'mon." Sam pushed himself to his knees. "We gotta get back up there."

"What?" Emerson cried out. "Are you crazy?"

"We gotta get Dean," Sam said, using the side of the ship to help him stand. "Lemme see the bag."

"Look," Emerson stood, the water bottle he'd used to revive Sam gripped tightly in his hands. "I didn't pull you out of that… that Lightning Sand just so you could take us back into the Hellmouth."

Sam simply blinked at him.

"He's right, Sam," Mack chimed in, also standing. "They're getting desperate up there. They've done everything from hack someone to pieces to bleed them dry to drizzle their blood over the pearls and they're still here."

Sam gaped at him. "Look who's E.F. Hutton all the sudden. You think I care about a goddamn curse?"

"I heard the shot," Mack said softly. "You don't even know if—"

Sam took a step away from the ship, backing Mack up. "Don't you say it."

"We got a chance to get outta here, man!" Emerson exclaimed. "Let's just take the water and the clothes and get the hell outta Dodge!"

Sam felt his heart thud. Felt his blood slow. Felt his eyes burn. Felt his lungs constrict. "I'm not leaving him."

He bent, reaching for the bag, and ended up on his knees as the hot flash of pain across his belly made itself known. Dragging in a breath, he pressed a hand to his still-bleeding wound.

"You can't even stand," Emerson pointed out. "How are you going to—"

Sam ripped the zippered bag open, tugging out a bandana. "If you had any idea what it was like to really be a brother," Sam growled, "you wouldn't even bother to finish that thought." He tied the bandage with an extra shirt, slinging the straps of the bag over his shoulder, then pushed himself to his feet. "I'm not leaving him."

He took a step away from the boat, looking up the massive structure in search of a way back to Dean.

"I saved your life, man," Emerson pointed out. "I coulda let you drown in that freaky sand trap."

"True." Sam nodded, moving toward the bow of the ship, stepping calmly over the beheaded body of the pirate tossed overboard earlier that night. "But then, Dean and I coulda let those truckers have you. Or press charges for stealing the Impala. Or leave you by the side of the road when we went after the ghosts." He stopped then, turning to face the Guileys. "But we didn't."

Mack blinked at him, looking small and young in his too-big shirt. Emerson dropped his eyes to the ground.

"That's my brother up there," Sam said. "Pretty much my only family. I just got him back…" Sam felt his throat tighten at the thought. " And. I'm. Not. Leaving. Him."

With that he turned and continued toward the bow, his brain on fire with all possible outcomes of climbing back onto the ship. He rounded the bow and reached the rope ladder on the port side without a clear idea of what he was going to do.

"What the hell would you do, Dean?" he muttered, needing the weight of the question on his ears to ground him in reality as fiction seemed to swarm around him.

Kill 'em all

Sam dropped the bag in the sand, nodding at the unspoken thought. "You'd kill 'em all. Sure fire way to end the curse, huh?"

He knelt in the sand, feeling the disorienting sensation of sinking into water and pushed the bag further toward the stern, shuffling after it.

"Bet you're wondering what the hell happened to us, aren'tcha, Dad?" Sam said softly to himself, needing the sound of his voice to focus his thoughts and steady his hands. "It's gonna be a miracle if we get out of this one."

Layla's voice, soft, a hint of a smile balanced like bookends to her words, slipped into his consciousness. Never know when you might need another miracle… I think you two are blessed… You have each other.

"She's got that right." Sam wiped beads of sweat from his upper lip as he drew out two shotguns, checking their loads. "Here's how it's going to go down, Dean." He swallowed. "I'm gonna get up there, take out as many of these sonsabitches as I can, and get down into that hold." He checked the Glock and tucked it into his side as his belly was too tender to double as a holster. "And you're gonna be alive. There's no way you're gonna die on me now… not after Nebraska."

We've done all we can. We can try and keep him comfortable at this point. But, I'd give him a couple weeks, at most, maybe a month.

He grabbed up the bag of salt and set it next to him.

Look, Sammy, what can I say, man, it's a dangerous gig. I drew the short straw. That's it, end of story.

He pulled out the fuel and set it next to the salt.

I know it's not easy. But I'm gonna die. And you can't stop it.

"Watch me," he declared, lifting the shotguns and standing up.

"You gonna carry all that up a rope ladder?"

Sam jumped, turning to see the Guileys standing a few feet behind him.

"If I have to," he replied.

Emerson's blond head seemed to shimmer silver in the slowly dying moonlight. He looked at Mack, then back to Sam. "We'll come with you."

"What changed your mind?" Sam narrowed his eyes, tilting his head.

Emerson lifted a shoulder. "We came here for treasure. We don't want to leave without it."

"Well," Sam sighed, picking up the bag, "guess everyone has to have a goal." He handed the bag to Mack. "Make yourself useful."

He handed a shotgun to Emerson. "Maybe you can shoot better than your brother. Grab the salt."

"What's the salt for?"

Sam turned to the ladder, tucking the shotgun under his arm. "Extermination."

The ruckus above decks met their ears when they'd climbed half-way. Sam wet his lips, taking a calming breath. Reaching the top, he peered carefully over the edge and found himself looking into insanity. Twelve had become ten, and ten turned into eight as he watched.

The loss of their latest crop of curse breakers had turned the pirates on each other in a frenzy of rage and Sam saw that two crew members had managed to skewer each other on swords, dying on their knees, facing each other like lovers just short of embrace. Another was essentially tacked with a sword through the neck to the main mast, and a fourth met with a similar fate as Dean's Highlander victim.

Sam looked below him at the waiting brothers. "All hell broke loose," he whispered. "Take out as many as you can with the shotgun, spill the salt and the fuel. I'll do the rest."

"Spill it where?" Emerson shot back in a stage whisper.

Sam looked back at the deck. "Anywhere," he answered, lifting himself over the edge.

He was immediately confronted by a bald pirate with tattoos covering nearly every inch of exposed skin. Without hesitation, Sam lifted the shotgun and fired a blast of rock salt point-blank into the pirate's sternum. He wasn't sure what to expect from spirits that behaved like revenants.

When the pirate screamed in pain and exploded in a blast of flesh and dust, Sam blinked, then nodded. "That'll work."

He made his way toward the center of the deck, hearing another shotgun blast behind him and Emerson displaying the many ways in which he could use the word fuck in a sentence. Sam fired a round at another pirate, choosing to not pay attention to the secret thrill that shivered through him when the spirit disintegrated. He reached the hold cover, kicked the lock open and lifted the door.

The darkness below pushed him back for a moment. Fear crawled up his throat like a living thing, searing him with doubt. Oh God oh God oh God…

He took a step down, and suddenly he wasn't descending the steps into the death-ridden hold of a surreal pirate ship in the middle of the desert, he was heading down into a dank basement, the smell of cooked flesh filling his nostrils, the sight of his all-go-no-quit brother lying limp and helpless on a pile of rags.

"Dean?"

His voice was barely there, his will tucking tail and running back up the stairs. As he took another step down, he wished fervently for his father. If Dad was here… things would never have gotten this bad. Another shotgun blast above him shook him free of the paralyzing fear and he was suddenly running, scrambling, slipping in the muck and falling to his knees beside his brother.

"Dean!"

The sight of Dean's blood brought back the reality of the moment that the seemingly clean deaths above had removed. Dean's body was a pile of loose bone and muscle, tangled in the heavy chains, his shoulder torn by the journey the ancient ball had made through his flesh. With a trembling hand, Sam reached out to press fingers against Dean's throat, immediately relieved to feel the pulse there and alarmed at the clammy feel of his skin.

"I'm here, okay? We're getting out of here."

Gently rolling Dean to his back, Sam frowned, trying to assess the best way to remove the chains and not injure his brother further. Setting the shotgun down, he pulled out the Glock. Taking a breath, he stretched Dean's wounded arm away from his body, pulling the chain as far as he dared, took aim, and fired.

The chain exploded, Dean's hand bouncing free, though the shackle remained attached to his wrist.

"We'll have to deal with your jewelry choices later," Sam muttered, turning to the other arm and firing once more.

Dean was free. And unconscious. And bleeding.

Sam knelt next to him once more, taking his brother's face in his hand, turning it toward him. "Dean? Hey, man, it's me. It's Sam."

Dean didn't even flinch. Sam patted his cheek, wondering why he bothered when two gun blasts in close proximity hadn't made him stir.

"Dean? C'mon, man… please… just… something, okay? Give me something."

Dean laid still, the only sign of life the steady rise and fall of his chest and the steady, if rapid, beat of his heart. Sam heard Emerson's voice call out and looked over his shoulder toward the stairway leading to the deck.

"Okay, man," he said, checking the shotgun load. Two shots left. He had to make a choice. There was no way he was carrying everything. He discarded the shotgun, tucked the Glock into his back waistband and shifted to a crouch next to his brother. "Don't know 'bout you, but I've had enough of this place."

He lifted Dean's head and shoulders up, his hand skimming the clammy, bare skin of Dean's back, unsure if he should be relieved or dismayed that he didn't find an exit wound. His belly pulled with his efforts, causing him to groan as he slipped Dean's limp arm over his shoulders and slid his shoulder beneath his brother's. Tucking his head close to Dean's chest and gripping Dean's waist with long fingers, he shoved to his feet, dragging Dean with him.

"C'mon, big brother," Sam panted. "That's it…"

Dean was deadweight against him. Sam gripped the shackled wrist of the arm across his shoulder, holding Dean's body against his with his other arm, and moved toward the stairs.

Which seemed impossibly steep.

As he started to climb, he realized that the words he'd been hearing Emerson yell were not only no longer imaginative groupings of swear words, but were also being translated into Spanish in a shaking, rough voice by his brother.

"—killed your Captain! And I have your map!"

Sam dragged Dean up another step.

"The map is the source of your curse; without it, no one else will find your Angel. No one else!"

Sam stumbled and almost lost his grip on Dean.

"The rest of you, back the fuck off and let us go—with these pearls—and we won't destroy the map."

When Sam breeched the hold, the first thing he saw was the denim blue of the pre-dawn horizon. The sun was steadily chewing through the darkness to once more overtake the night. He shifted Dean against him, and turned to face the stern of the ship to see Emerson and Mack flanking the wheel, the red-headed Captain pinned to the wood by a sword through the chest. Emerson held the rolled-up parchment of the map in one hand and a lighter in the other. Mack's fists were full of pearls. Sam looked toward the bow and saw four pirates—among them Dreadlocks and a pirate with a long, puckered scar running down the side of his face—staring back at the Guileys, murder in their eyes.

In his arms, Dean trembled. Sam shifted his attention, gripping Dean tighter, trying to ignore the pull of his brother's weight, blood slicking the skin along his side and making him even harder to hold.

"Dean?"

Dean groaned, his head rolling slightly so that his cheek rested on Sam's collarbone.

"Easy," Sam soothed. "We're getting out of here."

Mack shoved the pearls in the duffel bag, tossing it to the deck and jumping down after it. Emerson stayed where he was, still holding the map.

"What's it gonna be, huh?" Emerson yelled. Mack didn't bother to translate.

Just as the four remaining pirates stepped forward, the Desolation Angel shifted, sending them staggering to the side and tossing Sam to his knees, Dean tumbling from his grip. As he hit the deck, Dean cried out, his body shuddering with the pain of impact. Sam reached out, grasping his brother's arm just above his shackled wrist and crawled closer as the ship seemed to groan like a woman crying out in pain.

"What's happening?" Mack spoke up fearfully.

"Sunrise," Sam replied, looking along the edge of the horizon, watching as the blue was washed out by the golden fingers of the sun. He looked over at Emerson. "Light it."

"What?" Emerson said, surprised.

Sam looked down at Dean, tightening his hold when he was met with the green irises of his brother's glassy eyes. He crawled closer, nodding at Dean, but not surprised when he got nothing but a blink in return. The ship rolled once more, tipping further toward the port side, the bow beginning to sink, sending the four pirates backwards.

"Light the damn thing," Sam yelled, still looking at Dean. "End this."

"But what about the treas—"

"Light it," Dean rasped, staring back at Sam.

Sam nodded.

"Light it," Mack echoed. "I wanna go home, Em."

Dreadlocks called out, his words understood only by Mack. Emerson flicked the lighter, touching the flame to the map, then dropped the crackling parchment to a pool of fuel near a pile of salt. Sam half-stood, gripping Dean by the arm and waist, trying to pull him from the deck.

Dean cried out as another shift and roll of the ship sent them all skidding toward the port bow of the ship, including the pirates. The flames from the fuel caught, skipping along a twisted, crooked path and lining the ship deck with flames just as a sliver of sun crested the edge of the world. As Sam watched, Dreadlocks faced him, dropping his sword and opening his hands as if in them he held something precious.

The ship groaned, sinking and rolling at once until Sam felt his back hit the port rail, Dean's body crashing against his tender belly. The port cannons sank into the sand as it parted for them like butter, making Sam realize how he'd fallen in so quickly and deeply. The wooden Angel at the bow buried her arms into the sand. The deck was nearly vertical, the flames sliding toward them like mercury.

"Off!" Sam bellowed. "Off, everybody! Now, off the ship!"

Emerson and Mack wasted no time following that order, tossing the duffel the short distance to the desert floor and jumping after it. The fingers of light from the sun hit the pirates one by one. Before Sam's eyes, they vanished into a breath, hidden from sight once more until the next winter solstice.

"Sam." Dean's voice was wet, tight, and saturated with pain. Sam had never heard his brother sound like this before and he shook as he looked down at Dean's pale face. "Lemme go."

"Don't be a jerk, Dean," Sam retorted, looking over his shoulder at the drop to the desert floor. He wasn't sure how he was going to get Dean down without damaging him further, but the fire that was slowly consuming the ship was closing in on them.

"Listen," Dean forced out, his throat working overtime to force out the words through dry, cracked lips. "You'll… never get out… of this desert… dragging me… 'long."

Sam turned them, Dean's back now pressed against the rail, Sam's body against his, anchoring him there as the boat rolled once more, sinking closer to the desert floor. Dean was trembling against him, his arms hanging loose on either side, weighted by the heavy shackles, his shoulder a torn, bloody mess, his eyes barely open. Sam felt Dean push against him with his legs, trying to use the ship as leverage.

"Only… so many t-times," Dean swallowed hard, blinking his heavy-lidded eyes, "I c-can… ch-cheat death."

"Hell, Dean. You're a hustler, right? You can cheat at anything." Sam pulled him close, wrapping an arm around Dean's less-wounded one, pinning it against his body. "Besides, it's almost Christmas. Maybe it's time you started believing in miracles."

With that, Sam rolled, letting the motion of the ship spill him to the sand, Dean limp in his arms, the fire eating through the ancient wood, the sun turning the silver desert into gold. Digging in his heels, he pushed away as quickly as his burden would allow, the ominous groaning of the ship a warning that he needed to move.

Scrambling out from beneath Dean's unconscious form, Sam wrapped his arms under Dean's, lacing his fingers across his sternum, and began to pull. The shackles on Dean's wrists dug furrows into the sand and slowed their progress.

Around them, the masts began to hit the sand, the wood almost seeming to cry out as the force of the death roll pushed them deeper into the desert, snapping and twisting, the canvass sails tangling around the ropes. Sam screamed in a frustrated echo of that sound, pulling Dean as fast as his fatigued body would allow him.

"C'mon!" Sam cried out as the tallest mast snapped; the deck now half-buried in the Mojave. I'm not gonna make it I'm not gonna make it I'm not gonna make—

"Gimme his arm!"

"The left," Sam gasped as Emerson materialized beside him. "Grab the left!"

"Dude, he is messed up."

"Don't talk, just go," Sam panted, able to escape faster as the desert reclaimed the ship. They managed to reach the top of the dune and turned back, grabbing huge gulps of air, just in time to see the Desolation Angel slip beneath the waves of sand, nothing but the open hands of the wooden Angel visible from the desert floor.

"G-guess that answers that question," Sam panted, sinking to his knees beside his brother. "G-gimme some of that w-water," he ordered.

Mack dropped a bottle into his open hand and Sam pulled Dean carefully into his lap, his head resting in the crook of Sam's elbow. Sam drizzled water carefully across Dean's parted lips, waiting until his brother reacted and then carefully filled his mouth until he swallowed.

"That's it," Sam encouraged. "Slow and easy, man."

Dean didn't open his eyes, but Sam felt awareness return to his brother by the flex of his muscles and the rapid swallowing of water. As Dean drank, Sam let his eyes slip to the ragged wound at his right shoulder. His stomach clenched at the sight.

"Sam," Dean whispered.

"Yeah, Dean. I'm here."

When Dean said nothing else, Sam frowned, offering him more water, but he choked on it as it filled his mouth. Sam pulled the water back, his chin trembling with emotion as he regarded his brother's pale, bruised face in the morning light.

"You look like shit, man."

"What…" Emerson spoke up. "What the hell do we do now?"

Sam looked up, then around. Pieces of the Jeep were scattered across the dune and in a several foot radius around them. The pirate ship—and her treasure—had sunk. Civilization was nearly a day's drive away.

Dean shivered in his arms and Sam looked down. "Hand me one of those extra shirts," he said. "Actually, make that two."

"There's only one," Mack replied.

Sam sighed. Slipping from beneath Dean's shoulders, he laid his brother carefully on the sand and took the spare shirt, then untied his own make-shift bandage. Stuffing the bandana that was providing the main point of his dressing into the front of his pants to anchor it in place, he wadded the other up and pressed it to Dean's wounded shoulder.

Dean gasped, his eyes opening, wide and unseeing.

"Easy," Sam soothed. "Easy, it's okay."

"Sombitch," Dean managed, his jaw shivering with pain.

Sam tied the bandage around Dean's shoulder as best he could, then gathered the bottom edges of the spare shirt up until he was able to slip it over Dean's head.

"Help me," Sam ordered. Dean turned slightly, unable to lift his shackle-heavy arms, and allowed Sam to dress him. "There you go."

"Dude, seriously," Emerson said again, dropping down beside him in the sand. "What now?"

Sam looked at him, then slid his eyes up to Mack, their identical blue eyes pleading with him for reassurance. He looked back down at Dean, whose eyes were closed, lashes shadowing pale cheeks, body shuddering from exhaustion and pain. He looked out across the desert expanse, feeling the warmth of the sun already seeping into his muscles.

Dean's hand slid across the sand, his fingers bumping Sam's and catching his attention.

"Dean?"

"Go," Dean whispered.

Sam felt his chest ache with the thought of having to tell Dean that he wasn't leaving him one more time… but then, Dean's fingers hooked over his, gripping with the force of an order, and he opened his eyes to bore green determination into Sam's.

You and me. We're all that's left. So, if we're gonna see this through, we're gonna do it together.

"Go," Dean repeated. "Just… go."

Sam nodded, understanding. He looked over at the Guileys, watching Mack pick up a piece of Jeep wreckage and turn it over curiously in his hand.

"Get up. We're going."

"But… where? How?"

Sam leaned forward, gathering Dean against him, once more slipping his brother's arm over his shoulder and tucking his body against Dean's. With a heave, he pushed himself to his feet, this time, Dean somewhat able to help balance them. Together, they turned and faced the bewildered Guiley brothers.

"That way. On foot," Sam answered Emerson's questions.

"We'll never make it," Emerson predicted, shouldering the duffel bag.

Sam felt Dean's head roll on his shoulder, lifting slightly. "Move," Dean ordered in a thick voice. "Keep moving. Do not stop."

"Is he serious?" Emerson squeaked.

Instead of answering, Sam followed Dean's order, keeping his brother close, keeping their sluggish, halting steps in line. Dean was quiet. He was almost… still. And Sam had never seen him this physically broken before, his fate literally in Sam's hands. He'd never traveled a road this daunting with a burden this important before.

He'd never been tested like this before.

"Sam," Dean whispered.

"Yeah," Sam replied.

"You're… not gonna… fail."

"How do you know?" Sam felt a ball of tears press against his larynx trying its best to choke off his voice.

"'Cause…" Dean shifted, taking some of his weight from Sam long enough to lift his head and looked directly at him. "I'm an awesome… big brother."

Sam huffed slightly, the sound of metal clinking behind him as the Guileys moved through the Jeep wreckage.

"And…" Dean pulled away a bit more. "I know you."

Sam kept hold of his brother's shackled hands, keeping their steps in time and wondered if they managed to reach the end of this journey what, or who, would be waiting for them at the finish line.