Chapter 4 – Los Diablos Del Mar

The youth had been taught that a man became another thing in battle.
He saw his salvation in such a change.

- Stephen Crane
The Red Badge of Courage

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December 21, 2005

Pain had always been part of his life.

It started when he was four and he'd heard fear in his father's voice, choked on heat, held a baby too big for his grip, and was answered with a devastated I don't know when he asked what happened to Mommy?

Pain had been wrapped in different forms.

The physical side of fingers slammed in a car hood when he hadn't pulled them free quickly enough, rock salt in a paper cut stinging like a son of a bitch, broken ribs, sliced skin, concussions, and burns. The emotional side—the side that he dare not show and would never confess to—of being alone in a crowd, of looking at the world through suspicious eyes, of realizing he was often times the only thing standing between Sam and danger. And the mental side that said he knew the truth, that said he was too old to cry over a sense of abandonment, and that being alone was the same as being safe.

He'd trained himself to use pain.

He'd funnel it into a tightly-woven fuse that propelled him through moments of his life that would collapse him from the inside out were it not for that core. He'd become such a master at pain-weaving he'd almost ceased to recognize it as pain—as something that normal people shrink from.

But this…

"Let's take a break, Dean."

This was fire and ice. This was all of them at once: physical, emotional, mental. This was beyond the zero barrier of resistance. This was more than he'd tolerated, more than he'd survived. It felt as though he was drowning on too much air and suffocating from the lack of it.

"I'm gonna just… slide you… down. That's it."

He could do nothing but comply with Sam's gentle tones, his eyes too heavy to open completely, his will too strong to allow them to close. Dean felt his brother ease his left arm free from its perch across his shoulders and his muscles wept as the weight of the shackle pulled. Sam tried to catch him, to break his fall, but he was on his knees in the sand before either of them could do much more than draw air, his wounded shoulder tipping dangerously toward the ground.

"I gotcha… hang on, hang on, I gotcha."

He hadn't recognized the low moan as having come from him until he heard Sam's reassuring response. His shoulder was on fire. There was no escaping it, no position he could place himself in that would ease the pain. He imagined he could feel the ancient lead ball burying itself deeper and deeper within his body as the torn skin below his collar bone hissed and spat with even the small motion of his shallow breathing. He knew he was still bleeding, but was beyond caring about how much and what that might mean.

The sand under his hand as he turned in Sam's grip was cool, compelling him to look around in confusion.

"Time 's it?"

"I don't know," Sam replied, his voice low and tired. He flopped next to Dean, shifting to the side and offering his brother a shoulder for support. "Morning."

"'S cool here."

"Found some Joshua Trees," Sam replied. "Shade."

Dean felt his head bobbing forward, fatigue fighting will for dominance. He forced his eyes open, unwilling to give in. Sam handed him a bottle of water, the cap pinned to the side of the plastic bottle by his brother's long fingers. Dean tried to lift his left hand to grasp the bottle, but found the weight simply too much. He frowned, dropping his eyes to the offending appendage and was outwardly surprised when he saw the three-inch wide shackle encircling his wrist, the skin framing it red and raw.

"Huh," he managed, though inside the words bounced against the barriers of his skull like the sharp retort of bullets. Bastard chained me up like his dog… wanted me weak… wanted me willing… "No way," he croaked.

"No way what?" Sam asked turning so that Dean ended up slumped part-way against his chest, one arm behind Dean, cupping the back of his head, the other holding the water to Dean's mouth.

Dean drank greedily, unable to fully quench the thirst deep in his gut. He almost whimpered when Sam pulled the bottle away, stopping only when he saw Sam lift the opening to his own lips. He watched his brother drink, finding even that simple act a significant effort.

"Dean?"

"Hm?"

"No way what?"

Dean simply shook his head, lacking the strength to explain to Sam that he would have willingly impaled himself on one of those damn pirates' swords before allowing the type of submission Scarface had alluded to in that dank hold before Sam arrived. It made him shiver to even think of it.

"You're shaking." Sam moved again, reaching for the make-shift bandage at Dean's shoulder.

"No." Dean flinched, trying to pull away.

"I gotta see it, Dean," Sam insisted. "I didn't really get a good look before."

"F'god's sake, Sam," Dean breathed, his skin alighting in a new kind of fire at the touch of Sam's fingers. "Leave it 'lone."

Sam stopped. Whether he sensed the desperation in Dean's slurred words, or realizing he couldn't really be of much help with just a bottle of water, Dean wasn't sure. All that matter was that he stopped.

"Where…" Dean tried, the rest of his words eaten by a hiss of pain that sliced through him unexpectedly.

"Back at the wreck of the Jeep," Sam replied, guessing correctly that Dean was wondering after the fate of the Guileys.

Dean rolled his head up, peering at Sam through burning eyes. "Left 'em?"

"Left them? No, I didn't leave them." Sam pointed. "They're like… ten steps away, Dean."

Dean turned to follow the direction of Sam's finger. The desert swam like liquid gold before his eyes, lumps of figures that could be people, could be cacti, could be those bloody pirates for all he knew, moved in the distance, their pattern of motion indistinguishable from anything else. Dean was at a loss as to what the two brothers were doing.

"Shoulda… left 'em…"

Sam didn't reply, and Dean closed his burning eyes for a moment, recalling the image of Mack with the black pirate's coat hanging from his thin shoulders, the 400 year-old rum spilling down his chin as he tucked his body in with the enemy. The enemy that had very nearly killed Dean, had tortured Sam, and had wrought havoc on treasure seekers for centuries.

"Sam?"

"I think they're digging through the wreckage for… hell, man, I don't know." Sam sighed, and Dean watched him pinch the bridge of his nose as he so often did when hurting or tired. "There's nothing left but pieces of metal and strips of cloth from the seats. A roll-bar… maybe…"

When Sam's voice died off, it took Dean three heartbeats to clue in to the fact that his brother's brain was chewing on a solution to a problem Dean wasn't even fully aware they had.

"Sam?"

It was the only word he seemed capable of uttering without the tale-tell slur of fatigue, before his lungs wanted to collapse against his spine and shroud his weary heart in a cove of cool darkness.

"How could I be so stupid?"

Dean blinked, feeling his body slip as the weight of his shackles tugged at his weaker side. Sam caught him, pulling him close so that Dean's head rolled against his brother's chest, Sam's heart beating strong and steady beneath his cheek.

"We'll build you a stretcher," Sam proclaimed, squeezing Dean's arm in his excitement. Dean was unable to bite back a cry of pain. "Sorry! Oh, Jesus, I'm sorry, Dean."

"W-water," Dean pleaded.

"Here." Sam lifted the uncapped bottle to Dean's lips once more, tilting it so that the liquid ran into Dean's mouth, filing it. Dean swallowed as quickly as he could, choking as the water came faster than his body could handle. "Sorry." Sam eased off.

"N-not… carrying… me," Dean gasped.

He felt Sam staring at him, knew the incredulous are you shitting me expression that would be held steady in his brother's hazel eyes if he turned to look. He knew he wasn't walking out of that desert on his own steam, but simply allowing himself to be carried was to Dean the same as letting the pirate have his way with him. It would be conceding defeat. It would be handing over control to another and asking them to protect Sam.

And he just couldn't do that. Not even when the person he was giving to was Sam.

Something about the tension in his body seemed to convey this message—or a semblance of it—to Sam because he didn't argue. He didn't say a word. He simply slid his arm out from behind Dean, caught him before Dean collapsed into the void left by Sam's body, and laid him back on the cool sand in the shadow of the cluster of Joshua Trees, a bottle of water next to him.

"Wait here," Sam said softly, as if Dean was perfectly capable of getting to his feet and walking away. "I'll be back in a minute."

Dean simply blinked at him, his eyes burning from exhaustion, pain, and a very real need to release the tension of the last few weeks. Crying may be cathartic to some, but for a Winchester, it was the kiss before dying, the white flag on the battlefield. He tightened the muscles in his belly, making a physical effort to pull the emotion back inside, buried behind the wall where it belonged.

He turned his head as Sam moved away, keeping his eyes on his brother's lanky form. The sand seemed to shrink him; eating him up from the feet to the knees, stopping just short of his waist as Sam ceased to move away, meeting up with two of the blurred images Dean had seen before.

There had been a moment in his life that Dean felt he had everything worked out. He was clear on his purpose, confident in his skill, savvy in the ways to con the world out of what he wanted from it. He could slide on a smile that would have a woman slipping out of her clothes. He knew the right combination of words that would compel money from the toughest of men.

He knew how to work around his father and handle his brother. He was at the top of his game, and he'd naively expected life to continue this way. He'd earned it. He'd paid a childhood of dues.

And then Sam left. And John collapsed inside himself. And Dean's world fell apart.

As he lay alone on the sand, watching the blur that was Sam move around the wreckage of the Jeep through heat-seared eyes, his body shivering, part of him knew that the pieces of his world weren't going to coalesce anytime soon.

If at all.

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"What the hell are you guys doing?" Sam grumbled as he approached the Guileys.

Emerson looked up. "Where's Dean?"

Sam nodded over his shoulder. "I set him in the shade of those Joshua Trees. I got an idea."

"Yeah, well, so did I," Emerson replied, standing. He had what looked like to be the GPS in his hand, its insides exposed to the sun, its screen dark and dead. "You know Morse Code?"

Sam lifted an eyebrow, too tired and sore to humor him. Shaking his head in exasperation rather than in answer, he moved around Emerson toward the largest section of wreckage. Mack was sitting next to the front grill of the Jeep, which was sticking out of the sand like a tombstone, holding the duffle bag.

"What's with you?" Sam asked, plucking the grill from the sand and tucking it under his arm.

"I kept it."

Sam sighed. His patience was still in place, but the thread holding it there was thin and frayed. "Kept what?"

"The treasure."

Mack lifted his blue eyes to meet Sam's and he could see the kid had been crying. He didn't blame him. He felt like crying himself.

"You kept it?"

Mack opened the duffle and lifted it for Sam to see. Inside were easily two dozen pearls, some pink from blood. Sam ran his tongue across the inside of his bottom lip, thinking. The ship hadn't burned before the desert had reclaimed its prize, the bleached wood of the Angel's hands rising from the desert floor toward the sun. That, and these pearls, proved his fear to be correct.

The curse hadn't been lifted.

"Well, shit," he whispered.

"What?"

"Our job's not done, that's what."

"Your… job?" Mack asked, his eyes squinting up at Sam against the glare of the sun.

"Yeah, our job," Sam snapped, grabbing the bag roughly from Mack's hands and letting the grill fall to the desert floor. "You two might've come out here for treasure, but Dean and me…" he looked into the bag, his eyes skipping over the pearls sliding inside the bag alongside the handgun and rock salt, "we came out here to get rid of some spirits."

Emerson stood and moved over to them. "What are you guys, like… 7-eleven? Not always busy, but always open?"

"Funny," Sam replied, thrusting that bag back into Mack's hands. "Get what you're gonna get and let's go."

"What are you doing?" Mack asked, climbing to his feet, edging closer to Sam as if proximity equaled protection.

"I'm gonna make a stretcher for Dean," Sam said, frowning as he kicked sand free from the barely-intact roll-bar of the Jeep.

"You're gonna carry him out of here?" Emerson squeaked. "Have you seen yourself, Dude?"

Sam had managed to keep his reaction to his injuries in check until Emerson brought them to the light. The cut across his belly stabbed with a sick twist of pain at those words, and his bruised hands, face, and pulled muscles decided to join the fray with a harmony of vibrations meant for only his ears. Sam pulled in a tight breath through his nose, choosing to ignore Emerson and continued to search for items to build a stretcher.

"I say we leave him in the shade with a couple of bottles of water and come back for him when we—"

"Shut up," Sam growled.

"Sam, think about it," Emerson pressed, reaching out to grip Sam's arm. "He's beyond beat to hell. There's no way he's going to—"

Sam's fist was tight, his arm swinging, knuckles connecting to Emerson's chin in a satisfying flash of motion before his head even registered that he wanted to hit him. Emerson fell to his ass on the sand, the broken GPS flying from his fingers, his hand reaching up to his bleeding mouth.

Mack scrambled backwards, his eyes shooting from his brother to Sam and back with the look of a beaten child.

"I said shut up!" Sam roared. "I don't need your help to get my brother out of here."

"Yeah?" Emerson spat blood from his mouth, wiping the back of his hand across his damaged lips. "Whose gonna get him out when you can't, then, huh?"

Sam turned away from the blond and back to the wreckage. He gripped one end of the roll-bar and kicked it loose from the Jeep, turning to dig through the sand for the shorter, rear-seat version. He moved to what was left of the engine and tossed pieces aside, knowing Dean would probably have had a use for each item, and found something he could use. Roll-bars, seat coverings, two belts from the engine… the pile grew as Emerson kept talking.

"What is this freaking… devotion you have to him, huh? He's not some god. He's just a guy. Sure, a guy that happens to be related to you, but, still, man! You're ready to lay down your life for the guy? Because he's your brother?"

Sam felt bile rise in his throat listening to the incredulity in Emerson's tirade, acutely aware of the fact that Mack stood not three feet away. He'd always taken it somewhat for granted that Dean and he were tight. They'd spent their lives breathing for the safety of each other.

It had been reassuring in a way when he'd been at Stanford and saw kids his age living comfortably away from their family unit, surviving, making choices, happy. Their casual nonchalance about being physically separate from their family, yet still somehow connected to them gave Sam hope that he might make it on the outside, away from the shadow of the Winchester legacy.

But he'd never released that need for Dean. The devotion Emerson mocked had been his rock in a turbulent world. Dean had made a promise a long time ago, perhaps not in words, but in actions and Sam believed in him. He'd witnessed Dean fulfill that promise over and over. He found himself talking before he was aware he wanted to, the sound of his own voice—a shade deeper than normal from fatigue and anger—surprising him in the still light of the desert morning.

"When he was four years old, my brother pulled me out of a fire." Sam's hands were ceaseless motion as he began to assemble a stretcher from the gathered bits and pieces of Jeep. "Our mom died in that fire, and our dad, he," Sam shrugged, feeling the emptiness of more questions than answers as he always did when he spoke of their father, "he basically turned us into soldiers to keep us together and alive. Well, he turned Dean into a soldier. I just wanted to be just like my big brother."

He looked up, catching motion out of the corner of his eye. Mack sank to his knees, his blue eyes on Sam, tears streaking his face and turning his features young. Emerson stood where he'd been, the GPS in his grip once more, his eyes flinty, the hard edges of betrayal and abandonment apparently still too sharp in his mind. Sam looped the engine belts together in a figure eight, and then slid each end over the jagged curves of the roll bars, creating a sling for Dean's head.

"Somewhere in there I decided that I needed to be me and not just Dean Winchester's little brother."

Strips of seat were torn and tied, roughly three inches between them, down the short length of the roll-bar stretcher. In his periphery, he registered Mack shifting closer to him and his skin tightened in reaction, unsure about the red-head's sanity.

"And he saw that, y'know? He pushed it. Used it. Kept teaching me how to fight and what I needed to know to stay alive, but he was really clever about it."

Sam glanced at the grill, wondering if he could use it to lengthen the stretcher, or strengthen the sling, then dismissed the idea. Too heavy and not wide enough to be any real benefit.

"Dad would go all drill sergeant on us, but Dean… he would say things like you're never gonna get into college if you get killed on a hunt, so pay attention. Then, he'd help me with my homework. He barely finished high school, but he could check my Trig homework and be right 90 percent of the time."

Sam slid his eyes to the motionless form of his brother in the shade of the Joshua Trees and kept working. Emerson kicked at the sand with the toe of his shoe, listening, Sam saw, but acting as if he could care less.

"Dad left us alone a lot. Dean was my… aw, hell, hero sounds so lame, but it's true. I didn't look up to Dad. I looked… past him. To my brother. He took the hits for me until he broke. He basically gave up his life—he decided that this life was what he wanted—so that I could have the life I wanted." He looked hard at Emerson, daring him to mock that. "So there's your freaking devotion."

Jackass, Sam heard his brother's voice in his head punctuate the end of his sentence and bit the inside of his cheek to keep his grin in check.

"But…" Mack sniffed. "But where'd he screw up?"

"Huh?" Sam's hands stopped moving. He looked at Mack's tear-stained face with honest surprise. "He didn't screw up."

"You're here, though. You're not in college."

In a flash of memory so real, so intense he could smell the smoke of the fire and feel the burst of heat on his face as Jessica's body flashed hot, Sam remembered Dean's bellow, his brother's hands on his body, his shoulder shoving into Sam's chest, pushing him out of the burning building.

"He didn't screw up," Sam repeated. "Our Dad took off. Got into some trouble. Dean needed my help to find him."

Sam stood, the make-shift stretcher standing just above his elbow. It was crude, but it could work.

"Did you?"

"Did I what?"

"Did you find him?" Mack asked, looking up at him.

Sam ran his tongue over his lip. Do your job. Stop looking for me and do your job. "Not yet," he said. "But we will."

"Yeah, well, you gotta get out of this desert first," Emerson pointed out.

Sam shot Emerson a look and took satisfaction in the flinch of reaction before he rolled his eyes and started to walk toward Dean.

"What? It's a great story, man. But Dean's no superhero and he's dying and we're gonna join him unless we get out of this fuckin' desert!"

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Mack exploded, exploding from the sand as if he were on springs.

Sam stopped at this, turning to squint over his shoulder as the two brothers faced off. Mack threw the duffle down in the sand with enough force that it nearly bounced. Emerson shoved the GPS into his waistband, spreading his hands to either side of his lean body.

"You wanna do this now?"

"They don't give a damn about the treasure, Em." Mack sniffed, unable to keep his tears in check. Sam blinked, leaning against the bits of metal and cloth that were his one hope for getting Dean out of there. "They never did!"

"What's your point?"

"You said they were gonna take the treasure. You said that's what they wanted."

"So? Maybe I was wrong."

"It's all you've cared about! Since you found Dad's journal, it's all you've talked about!" Mack screamed, taking a step forward and shoving at his brother with the flat of both hands.

"At least I had something to say!" Emerson retorted, stumbling back, but not retaliating. "You freak. You stopped talking ten fucking years ago."

"You son of a bitch," Mack spat. "You didn't see her. See them cut her up. Take pieces of her out 'cause they couldn't get her free."

"What? Don't you put that on me." Emerson took a step forward, his chest thrust forward in a challenge. "You aren't the only one that lost her, man."

"Shut up," Mack choked out and Sam found himself feeling a stab of pity for the kid. His brother had a point: Mack personality shift from the time he and Dean had encountered the Guileys to now was dizzying. Sam imagined it had to be hard for Emerson to wrap his head around.

"No way, you started this, Mack. You go all troubled child on me—leave me to deal with Dad going ape-shit crazy—then you meet these chuckleheads, run into some pirates and suddenly you're… you're normal?"

Sam half-turned, starting back for Dean, leaving the brothers to their war when Mack stopped him with a soft confession.

"I fit in here."

"You fit in," Emerson repeated, his voice dull. "You fit in with two guys who hunt ghosts, for Christ's sake, and a bunch of zombie pirates?"

Mack blinked at his brother, his chest heaving with desperate gulps of air.

"Oh, fine. If you're gonna go all SciFi Channel on me, then fuck you." Emerson tilted his head, thrusting out his chin in a challenge.

"I saw you," Mack whispered.

"What?" Emerson pulled his head back and Sam tilted his forward, wondering openly curious.

"That night, in the shed. I saw you. I saw you kill him."

Sam drew back, blinking. He looked at Emerson, feeling his mouth drop open as he stared in surprise at the blond. Emerson looked stunned. His pupils were wide, sweat beaded on his forehead and upper lip.

"No, you didn't."

Mack's face smoothed, his expression taking on the same guileless quality Sam had seen on the deck of the pirate ship, a slightly spooky smile tugged up the corner of his lips.

"We are just like them, you know. The pirates. We're not supposed to be here."

"Dude," Emerson took a step back. "You've lost it."

Mack looked at Sam, but his eyes were wide, not really seeing anything. His gaze traveled back to Dean and Sam felt his shoulders straighten in instinctive protection.

"She was looking at me when they cut her up. And he was looking at you when you killed him." Mack shrugged with the casual what the hell motion that made Sam not even question how he'd worked his way into the pirates circle.

Sam felt his belly tighten, the fine hairs on his skin rising on his skin. "Okay, listen—" he started, but was interrupted by Emerson's throaty voice.

"I don't even know who the hell you are," Emerson snarled at his brother. "Something tells me my brother died up on that pirate ship." He turned away, shaking his head.

The growl that rolled from Mack when he tackled his brother didn't even sound human. It was so feral in fact, that Sam took a step back, pulling the stretcher with him. He watched in a foggy haze of disbelief as the Guileys thrashed on the sand, rolling and kicking, gasping and punching.

For several moments, all Sam could do was stare. He'd yelled at Dean, and Dean sure as hell had yelled back. They'd sparred, trained, wrestled, but they'd never gone at each other with so much anger, so much raw fury. They'd never truly fought before.

"I saw you… I saw you," Mack grunted, absorbing blows.

"You don't know what you saw," Emerson growled, pushing Mack away to get leverage. "You're as crazy as the old man."

"Then why'd you keep me around? Why didn't you just kill me, too?" Mack spat in a challenge.

"Okay, enough!"

Sam dropped the stretcher in the sand and stalked over to the weary fighters. It didn't take much effort to grab the backs of their too-big T-shirts and pull them apart. Both were bleeding from knife wounds and weakened from the previous night. Sam tossed Mack one direction and Emerson the other, glaring at them.

"Enough," he repeated. "This isn't helping anyone."

Mack wiped the tears from his cheeks with a rough hand, still staring at his brother.

Emerson looked away, his body trembling with pent-up emotion. "I didn't kill him," he stated.

"I don't care." Sam declared, wanting to laugh at himself. Hysteria was hovering just below the surface. "None of that matters. Not until we get out of this desert."

Emerson looked at him. "And then what? You gonna turn me in?"

"For what?" Sam challenged, tipping his head to the side. "They can't arrest you for being an asshole. Unfortunately."

"You believe me?" Emerson blinked, casting a quick glance in the direction of his brother.

Sam sighed. "I have no idea. I don't know what you two are even talking about. To be honest? I don't care."

"I told you," Mack grumbled, gaining his feet.

"You told me they didn't care about the treasure," Emerson retorted. "But I do. Or… did, before the desert ate it up."

"Dad said he'd find the treasure in Hell and it would send him to Heaven," Mack said, looking at Sam, tears once again balanced on his lashes.

"Jesus Christ, get over it," Sam replied, feeling a piece of his soul peel away as he took one more step toward his father's world.

"He was right about the Hell part," Emerson snarled. "Pretty sure we're there."

Sam stepped forward, feeling his voice crawl from his gut to bisect the tense air between himself and Emerson. "You think this is Hell?" He thrust out a fist, his finger pointing to the desert floor. "Hell is watching your lover burn up in front of your eyes. Hell is never having a home. Hell is forgetting the face of your soul mate. Hell..." he dropped his voice to a near-whisper, "is different for everyone."

He took a step back. "Get. Over. It."

His angry gaze took in both brothers. His words, his tone, his entire being was ticked sideways from his natural reaction and he felt something sticky and black begin to swim around in his heart. He was so damn tired. He wanted to sit down in the sand and close his eyes.

He felt like he'd been running against the wind for months. His fuse was non-existent and left him with zero tolerance for the drama unfolding in front of him; even if part of him wanted to know if Emerson had truly killed their father and why the hell Mack thought going pirate had been a good idea.

It was all too much, and if Dean hadn't been lying a few feet away from him, he would have very easily been able to find a reason to quit.

But, if there was one thing his father taught him that had stuck to the fly-paper in his brain, it was that Marines didn't quit. If they were hurt, they pushed harder. He knew it was that mentality that was going to get them all out of this desert. He had to become someone else if he was going to save them.

If he was going to save himself.

"We're getting out of this damn desert. All of us. You," he pointed to Emerson, "what can you do with that thing?"

Emerson pulled the GPS out of his waistband, brushing the sand from the face with a blood-stained finger. "I think I can get a signal out on it."

"You could barely hot-wire a car," Sam scoffed.

"It's true," Mack spoke up, "he can. He's always been able to rewire stuff."

"Right," Sam lifted an eyebrow, "and you can shoot the wings from a fly."

The Guileys exchanged a quick glance.

"Well," Emerson said, "we had to have a story. I mean, he wasn't talking. Even to me. I had to say something."

Sam looked at Mack, who simply lifted a shoulder in reply. He looked again at Emerson. "You can really get a signal on that thing?"

"Well, I can try," Emerson said. "I mean, all the wiring is here, just scrambled up. And the power cell is intact."

Sam sighed, then turned to pick up the stretcher. "Not sure how that's going to help us, but—"

A cry of pain and anger brought his attention to where he'd left Dean in the shadow of the desert trees. While they'd been fighting, three carrion birds had circled closer to his wounded brother until one had apparently gotten brave enough to try for a nip at Dean's hand. It took Sam a moment to take in the sight of Dean, pulled into a semi-sitting position by the muscles in his belly, throwing bits of debris from the tree toward the scavengers, his weighted arm falling to his side and pulling him over.

"Son'v…bitch," Dean growled weakly, his face now in the sand.

"Hey!" Sam yelled, running toward his brother.

His feet scooped the sand to either side and slowed his progress as effectively as fingers gripping his ankles then sliding slowly away. He heard the Guileys chime in and out of nowhere it seemed, the sharp retort of a handgun had him dropping the stretcher, covering his head, and going to ground.

"AARRGHHH!"

Bang! Bang! Bangbangbangbang!

Sam looked over his shoulder as Mack, the Glock in his hand, the duffle at his feet, fired widely at the large birds, scattering them in a flurry of screeches and feathers.

For a moment, everyone stared at Mack, panting.

"If I'm gonna shoot wings offa anything," Mack gasped, licking his dry lips, "they're gonna hafta be bigger."

"Holy shit!" Emerson yelled, shaking his head in wonder, then carefully eased the gun from his grip. "How 'bout I keep that for awhile…"

Sam nodded his thanks, taking a mental note to keep all firearms away from the Guileys, then stood and hurried to Dean, dropping to his knees next to his brother and carefully rolling him to his back.

"Did it get you?"

"No," Dean breathed. "Tried. Bastard."

Sam checked the back of Dean's hand, relieved there were no new gouges. "Good."

"Wh're ya… been?"

"I'm sorry, man," Sam shook his head, looking for the bottle of water. The sun had shifted enough so that the shadow of the Joshua Trees had moved away from Dean's sprawled legs, warming his jeans and the water. "We got us some… interesting travel companions."

"Pirates?" Dean blinked.

Sam felt bile rise in his throat at the gray pallor of his brother's face, the bruise-like circles under his eyes. The tremble that ran through his body was constant and visible, and heavier, Sam saw, in his right hand. Dean's shoulder was a mess: sand clung to the bloody bits of cloth they'd used to bind the wound.

"Oh, man, Dean," Sam uttered, "you're… you're, uh… this looks bad."

Dean said nothing, the green of his eyes barely visible beneath the heavy lids weighted by lashes. He simply breathed and for that, at least, Sam was grateful.

"Right. You knew that. Okay, well, no, pirates are gone. At least for now, but…" Sam looked over at the Guileys. Mack was staring openly at him, as if Sam held answers to questions he hadn't yet thought to ask, and Emerson was fiddling with the wiring of the GPS, having procured a pocket knife from somewhere. "Let's just say I'm ready to get back to our kind of normal."

"Sh-shoulda… known… better…" Dean pushed out, grimacing.

Sam shook his head, remembering his brother's earlier comment. "Guess I should be glad it's not I told you so."

Dean's mouth flinched in what Sam guessed was an attempted grin.

"I figured out how to get you—get us—out of here."

"I c'n walk," Dean slurred, blinking slowly.

Sam grabbed the bottle of water and lifted Dean's head, aiding him in drinking what was left.

"You might have to," he nodded. "But, first," he nodded over his shoulder, "I wanna try something."

Dean brow folded in the center and he rolled his eyes to the side. "Been… watchin' MacGuyver?"

Sam allowed himself a small chuckle, his eyes on the stretcher. "You're the one that said daytime TV sucked."

"Sam."

Sam looked back at his brother, feeling tears roll hot and thick in his throat. Bits of green irises shone out through Dean's barely-opened eyes, but Sam felt the weight of his brother's gaze, felt trust and apology, felt need and admiration. In that glance, everything he'd heard, everything he'd absorbed, everything he'd tried to understand from the last few minutes with the Guileys was chased away, and the only thing that matter was Dean.

He felt his heart slow, held his breath so that he could hear the steady thrumming beats, counting them until Dean spoke again. He made it to eight before he had to take another breath.

"I gotta try, Dean," Sam whispered. "Please."

Dean simply stared at him, his eyes as wide as weariness allowed, the whites shot through with red as heat and emotion surged forward. Sam took a breath, the days of struggle and fear, fighting and searching, questioning the truth that had always carried them forward, hoping for a miracle… all those moments leading up to this one sat heavily on his shoulders, pressing him lower into the sand.

He opened his mouth to present his brother with a viable reason for getting on that stretcher when Dean took his breath away with a single, salty tear slipping from beneath his tented lashes and tracing a path through the blood and dirt that painted his brother's face.

Sam swallowed. Dean's lips parted, but no sound emerged. As Sam watched, Dean closed his eyes, turning his face away and another tear followed in the path of the first.

"'Kay," Dean choked out.

Fear, as quick and deadly as the blade of a knife, cut through Sam. He wasn't ready for Dean to give in. He wasn't strong enough to take up the mantle.

"Sam?" Mack's voice was soft and tentative, breaking into the moment and reminding Sam that daylight was crawling across the December sky and the longer they waited, the less chance they had of making it out of there.

"Okay." Sam nodded, rubbing the palm of his hand across his bleary eyes. "Okay. I, uh," he looked from Dean to the Guileys, "I need your help."

Wordlessly, Emerson stepped forward, his hands surprisingly gentle as he helped Sam roll Dean to his side, the heavy shackles making the task harder than it should have been. Dean bit his lip, but a groan escaped and Sam felt his belly tighten at the tremble of muscles beneath his fingers as he held Dean's shoulders carefully. Mack slid the make-shift stretcher beneath Dean and Sam and Emerson rolled him back so that his head rested on the engine belts.

The stretcher ended at Dean's knees, meaning his feet would hang, but there wasn't anything Sam could do about that. He carefully rested Dean's hands on his belly, keeping the extra weight at the center. He gripped the roll bars and looked toward Emerson, asking with his eyes to please help.

"Let me," Mack said, moving into position at Dean's feet, the duffle slung around his cut-up shoulders. "If he's gonna get that thing working, he need both hands."

Emerson looked at his brother a moment, something crossing his face that Sam couldn't place. Shaking his head, Emerson reached out and plucked the duffle from Mack's shoulders, slinging it across his own.

"We're not finished, you know," Emerson told his brother, turning his attention back to the item in his hand.

Mack lifted an eyebrow. "Did we even really start?"

With that, he bent and wrapped his hands around the bar. Sam, not having the energy to keep up with the conversation, timed his motion with Mack's and together they lifted Dean from the desert floor, his body sagging in the straps of Sam's stretcher.

"Guh," Dean breathed, his face tightening as his bearers shifted his weight in their grip. His booted feet swung low, the differences in height between Sam and Mack putting Dean's body at an odd, downhill angle.

Sam looked down at his brother's tense, pale face. Dean's eyes were closed tightly, his lips pressed into a white line, his breath puffing out in quick gasps. Sam lifted his eyes to look at the back of Mack's head, watching the kid's wounded shoulders tremble a bit from the strain of the burden he bore. If Dean was heavy in Sam's grip…

"Sam?" Mack called.

"Go," Sam grunted.

They moved forward and Sam tried to ignore the uneven grunts of air that pushed out Dean's lips as his brother tried desperately to maintain control. The weakness he could see on Dean's face turned his belly to water with a fear larger than he'd faced before. It was more than when he realized the wendigo had taken his brother. More than finding Dean tied to a tree for slaughter by a pagan god. More than the moment he stood at the foot of his brother's bed and saw surrender in Dean's eyes.

This was bigger than every near-miss of the past. And he was scared.

Dean groaned as Mack tripped and Sam tried to balance them once more.

"Easy… take it easy, it's gonna be okay," Sam whispered.

To Mack, to Dean, to himself.

He simply needed reassurance in that moment. He needed to know that he was doing the right thing and that the edge he felt he was about to fall over wasn't the end of all things.

They walked without speaking; the only sound between them the creak of the straps that held Dean and the pants of air from their thirsty lungs. The sun warmed their heads, left its mark on the backs of their necks as they bowed their heads in deference to its might, and heated the exposed skin of their arms.

Sam tried to tilt his body to protect Dean's face with his shadow, but found it nearly impossible to keep a balanced grip as he did so. He settled for covering it lightly with a torn edge of bandana one of the Guileys had rescued from the wreckage. At some point, he registered that Dean slipped from semi-lucidity into quiet oblivion, his face maintaining the tight lines of pain, but his breathing evening out as his body succumbed.

When Mack tripped again, Sam adjusted his sweaty grip, looking around the desolated landscape for any oasis. The desert seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions, and the air hovering at the crest of the ground shimmered with mirages of liquid heat.

"I hafta… I can't…" Mack breathed into the silence, going to his knees unexpectedly.

Sam skidded to a stop, looking frantically down at Dean as his brother's body shifted forward against Mack's back, bunching up like bed sheets shoved out of the way.

"Hey!" Sam exclaimed with alarm and irritation.

"S-sorry," Mack panted. "Couldn't… hold him… anymore."

"It's too hot, Dude," Emerson chimed in, squinting over at Sam. "We gotta…"

"What?" Sam barked, easing the stretcher down and shielding Dean from the sun with the shadow from his body. "Go inside and cool off?"

"We need to find some shade," Emerson looked around, digging into the duffle bag for a water bottle. "Something. We're gonna fry out here."

"How many of those you got left?"

"Four," Emerson replied, taking a long pull from the water bottle in his hand. "Well, three and a half."

Sam snagged Emerson's bottle and reached for the duffle, pulling it into his lap. "We're officially on rations."

"Hey!" Emerson objected. "Who made you the water police?"

"Me," Sam said, looking up, his hazel eyes eerily calm, "just now."

Emerson looked away.

"Sam?" Mack called.

Sam handed him a bottle. "We get one drink every two hours." He took the bottle he'd gotten from Emerson, wiped the mouth with the hem of his T-shirt, then cupped the back of Dean's head and rested the bottle against his brother's dry, cracked lips.

The water pooled in his mouth and Sam held him steady until his body remembered to swallow. Dean's skin was hot to the touch and Sam knew that the sun wasn't mainly to blame. The bullet still buried inside Dean was slowly killing him, though the bleeding seemed to have stopped.

"Dean?" Sam said softly, keeping one hand on the back of Dean's neck, and cupping his brother's chin with his other, gently tapping his fingers on his cheek. "Hey, you there, man?"

Dean remained unresponsive, but Sam knew his brother. Knew he heard him. On some level, Dean always heard him. Had been listening for him since Sam was born.

"You're doing great, okay? Just keep breathing, that's all you gotta do."

"Oh, swell," Emerson whined, flopping down in the sand. "Maybe I'll shoot myself so all I have to do is breathe."

"You keep this up and I'll help, but no one's gonna be carrying you!" Sam snapped, cutting his eyes to the blond.

"What are we gonna do?" Mack asked, sounding genuinely scared and a little bit hysterical. "We can't just keep walking and walking."

"Okay, calm down," Sam sighed, easing Dean's head back to the sand, and looked around once more. Not a cactus or Joshua Tree in sight, though there was a dune just ahead that could be shielding an oasis of sorts. He couldn't remember passing anything on the way out, but then, the sandstorm had cloaked a good portion of their route.

"We'll stop here," Sam decided. "Make a tent and sit in the shade of it until evening."

"Make a tent?" Emerson exclaimed. "With what?"

Your hide. Dean's voice was so strong in his head that Sam actually looked down at his unconscious brother. He forced himself to ignore Emerson and took a breath.

"Take what you need from the duffle," he said, looking at Mack, "then hand it to me."

He reached across Dean and began to untie the strips of seat cover from the roll bar of the Jeep. As he did, he couldn't help but see the expression of anguish on his brother's face as his eyes moved rapidly beneath his closed lids.

"Hang in there, man," Sam breathed the plea, holding it tightly until it became a prayer.

www

There were voices around him.

It almost sounded as though he was eavesdropping on a poker game. He remembered being young and sneaking out of the room he shared with Sam to watch his father sit at a table with a group of men, cards held in strong-looking fists, voices hushed, words rough, eyes shifting.

He held himself very still, unsure of their proximity, not wanting to draw attention to himself until he could figure out where he was. The air around him with pungent; death seemed to slip like mist along his skin and he felt it working its way into his pours.

He opened one eye.

It was dark, musty, humid. Opening the other eye, he turned his head and came face-to-face with the eye-less, decaying corpse that had been lying next to him in the ship's hold. He swallowed a scream, but couldn't stave off the flinch when the corpse blinked.

Putrid lids slid closed over empty sockets as the head tilted as if to regard him with curiosity. Dean pushed himself to his elbows, thankful that his hands were finally free, but confused as hell about how he ended up back on the ship. He'd been in the desert. With Sam. And then…

"Hello, hunter."

The baritone called his attention even as his skin rolled with disgust at the wet sound that wrapped around the words. He looked to his left and was surprised to see a man—comparatively less decayed—standing where Sam had been tied. He was leaning against the beam, one leg up, his foot pressed back against the wood, arms crossed over his tan, blood-stained shirt.

He had thinning strawberry-blond hair and his eyes were so blue they almost hurt to look at in the dim light of the hold. A scruff of blond beard framed his jaw and Dean saw that parenthesis of a smile framed his serious mouth. As the man tilted his head, much like the inquisitive corpse, Dean bit the inside of his cheek to keep from gasping.

His throat had been slashed, the cut so deep Dean could see the white bone of his spinal cord through the dripping, fleshy hole.

"Nice of you to join us."

Dean looked around the hold and saw that more bodies were rising to sit or stand and face him. Some were a comical representation of a middle school science teacher's display skeleton, some were almost gooey mummified remains with bits of skin hanging like cobwebs from yellowing bones, and still others had most of their skin, graying or green, sucked in tight to their frame.

"I'm dreaming," Dean breathed. "This is a dream."

The blue-eyed man lifted a shoulder. "Maybe."

Dean pushed himself to his knees, then stumbled forward to his feet, shooting a glance over his shoulder to make sure it was zombie-free. He took a step backwards.

"Maybe this is your penance," the man continued, glancing to his right. He reached out a hand and to Dean's horror pulled the eyeless corpse to its feet.

"Penance for what?" Dean snapped, dropping his chin and looking from the tops of his eyes as the dead men rose.

"For not saving us," the man replied.

Dean pulled his head back, his brow folding in disbelief. "Dude, you were dead."

"You are a hunter. You could have given us peace. Set us free," the man took another step forward and Dean mirrored him with a step back. "You had the power."

Dean lifted a hand waist-level, spreading his fingers in a gesture of warning and peace. "Let me get this straight," he said, glancing at the growing number of corpses. "You're pissed 'cause we didn't salt and burn your bodies?"

The blue-eyed man shot his eyebrows up. "Yes."

Dean narrowed his eyes, cocking his head to the left. "Wait… don't I… know you?"

The man shook his head, blood from his slashed neck flecking his shirt. "No. But you know of me."

"You're their uncle, aren't you?" Dean blinked in astonishment. "Charlie something?"

The man nodded. "I found the ship, found the treasure, and found my Hell in one day."

"Yeah, they sure did a number on you." Dean eyebrows bounced up. He felt a touch on his arm like wet leather and instinctively jerked away. "Hey!" He looked over and saw the eye-less corpse moving closer. "Back off, I mean it!"

The other bodies drew closer, their rank stench gagging him and making him cover his nose with the back of his hand. He stepped back until he felt the wall behind him and still they moved closer.

"Get the hell away from me!" He ordered.

"Or you'll what?" Charlie asked passively. "You have no power here, no weapons, not even any way to give us peace. You are, essentially… one of us."

"The hell I am," Dean barked. "I'm not dead."

"Yet." Charlie shrugged. "It's really only a matter of time. And we've become rather skilled at waiting."

"No!" Dean cried, pushing against the slime of skin that covered the bones of the body Sam had lifted the pistol from. It slid free from his hand and dropped to the floor with a splat, like a wet rag. "Get the fuck away from me! I'm not dead! I'm not dead!"

They pressed closer until he couldn't breathe from the stench, couldn't see around the darkness of their bodies, couldn't move as their hands gripped, clawed, gouged. With the strangled cry of a drowning man, Dean felt himself sink to the floor of the hold, the ancient remains of victims he'd left behind burying him in guilt.

www

"Hey! Hey! Whoa, easy, easy!" Sam knelt on the sand, one hand gripping Dean's left arm, and the other pressed gently on his brother's heaving chest.

Dean came around with a cry, his eyes wide and staring, fear and confusion etched on every line of his drawn face.

"Not dead… not dead…"

"Take it easy, man," Sam said softly. "You're okay."

Dean looked up and Sam's belly lurched at the terror still captured in the green of his brother's eyes. Reaching up and out, Dean gripped Sam's arm, the heavy shackle scraping Sam's sunburned skin.

"Sam?"

"I'm here. I'm here, you're okay."

Dean dropped his head back, blinking rapidly, trying to lift his hand to rub his face in a familiar gesture of exhaustion. "We left them."

Sam frowned, looking back at the Guileys who were huddled close under their tent constructed of a shredded duffle bag, Emerson's outer shirt, two jeep roll bars and the bleached skull of what Emerson assessed had been a very, very lost cow.

"They're right here, Dean," Sam assured him, reaching for a bottle of water.

When Dean looked over at him in panic, Sam felt more words of reassurance evaporate in the heat.

"'m I… awake?" Dean asked, his fingers convulsively gripping the sand.

"Yeah, man," Sam nodded, lifting his brother's head. "You're awake."

Dean drank, coughing as the water overflowed in his mouth slightly. Sam waited until he'd swallowed before offering him more.

"Dude!" Emerson spoke up. "One drink every two hours or whatever. Goes for him, too."

Sam glared at him, but rested Dean's head back against the sand, watching as Dean's eyes came back to him.

"Left… the bodies," he rasped.

"Bodies?"

"Victims," Dean clarified.

"Oh," Sam sank down on his haunches. Dean was worried about the bodies in the hold? They'd barely escaped with their lives, salting and burning bodies with no evidence of spirits had not been a possibility. "We had to, man."

"Think they'll haunt us?" Mack asked.

Sam saw Dean slide his eyes to the side and a dark look crossed his brother's face. "Should… haunt you… traitor."

Sam blinked in mild surprise, but Emerson chewed over any comment he'd thought to make with a, "Traitor my ass!"

"No, he's right," Sam said, carefully pulling Dean up next to him so that his brother slumped against his shoulder and chest, off of the itchy sand. "Not about the leaving him part, but, seriously, what the hell was up with joining up with the pirates?"

Mack shot a quick, guilty look at Emerson, then studied the small pyramid of sand he was shuffling together with his fingers. "I thought they'd killed Em," he said.

"You joined up with them?" Emerson asked, the GPS in one hand, the small pocket knife in the other, his eyes on his brother.

"No! Not really… I just… I wanted to, y'know… make him think he was safe with me, then," Mack drew a finger across his neck.

"Make who think—"

"The Captain."

Emerson shook his head. "But, dude, the Captain wasn't the one down there with us. I mean, he didn't throw that knife."

Mack shrugged. "He was their boss. He told them to do it."

"So… you were gonna kill him… 'cause you thought he killed me?" Emerson clarified.

Mack lifted a shoulder. "You'da done the same thing. You did it before."

Emerson closed his mouth with a click of teeth.

"How'd that rum taste, man?" Sam asked with a tick of his chin, still unsure if he bought Mack's traumatized child persona.

"Like shit," Mack answered honestly.

Emerson huffed out a quick laugh, but was silenced when the GPS emitted a small beep. Everyone froze. Hands shaking, Emerson touched the same wire. The beep sounded once more.

"Holy Mary Mother of God," Emerson breathed. "I friggin' did it!"

Sam lifted an eyebrow. "Uh… it's just beeping. Not that I'm not impressed, but… yeah, so the hell what?"

Emerson shook his head. "You don't get it—this thing works off a satellite. The beep is bouncing off a satellite somewhere and is being picked up by someone else. We can tell them where we are."

"Someone else," Sam repeated dully. "So… could be someone in Melbourne, Australia for all we know."

"No," Emerson replied. "No, it would have to be in range—a few hundred miles or something. Seriously, this could work!"

Almost chuckling in disbelief, Sam looked down at Dean, ready to hear a cocky comeback or snarky insult from his brother's quick mouth. Dean's eyes were closed, his breath a quick pant for air, and his body had gone slack against Sam's.

"Dammit," Sam cursed, squinting out through their small shade to the sun tipping to the western crescent of the sky. Still too much daylight left… "Okay, fine, Q. What do you need to get the gadget working?"

"It is working," Emerson insisted. "I just need to know how to say where we are."

Sam closed his burning eyes, and almost startled at the immediate image of John Winchester's serious brown eyes regarding him with a silent challenge. You know this. You can do this, Sam.

"Okay," Sam sighed. "Here's what you need. A group of short words and our coordinates."

"Like SOS?"

"Yeah, to start with."

Sam reached over in front of Emerson, careful not to tip Dean too far onto his wounded shoulder, and swiped a patch of sand smooth. Closing his eyes, he searched through the filing cabinets in his mind, picturing text books, John's journal, newspaper clippings, and finally, sheets and sheets of paper with letters and words next to columns of dots and dashes.

With eyes still closed, he used his index finger to etch into the sand Morse Code for SOS, four in danger, 3436N, 11437W. He'd committed the coordinates of their intended location to memory when programming the GPS on their way into the desert. It was frighteningly easy to recall those numbers now.

"Okay, so what does that all say?" Emerson said, looking at the series of dots and dashes.

"Says c'mere and get us now," Sam said, shifting his hold on Dean. "Memorize it."

"Dude, chill out."

"No!" Sam roared, snapping Emerson's eyes up in surprise. "You memorize that. You make it a part of you. Because we're not sitting in this pile forever and you're gonna have to send it out while we're walking."

"We took apart the stretcher, though," Mack said. "How are you going to—"

"You let me worry about that," Sam snapped. "I'm not gonna just sit here and let him die in this desert. Not after…" he stopped, swallowing.

"Not after what?" Mack prompted.

"Forget it," Sam shook his head, peering at the sun again. "Just memorize that and start tapping."

"Think it'll work?" Mack said softly to Emerson.

Quirking his lips in a frustrated frown, Emerson shrugged. "It'll take a miracle."

www

It was night and he was walking.

His canvas jacket felt heavy on him, his clothes rubbing on his skin as they always did when he'd been sick and everything held too much texture, too much weight. He heard gravel crunch beneath his feet and he brought his head up, looking around, trying to orient himself.

A car lot? No… a parking lot. In a muddy field. He turned swiftly, looking behind him at the large white tent in the distance lit from within, the humanity filling it humming with energy even out in the cold of the night.

"Aw, shit," he muttered to himself. "What is the friggin' deal here?"

Instinct alone had him picking up speed, slipping quickly between cars, running from shadows. He knew it was coming, knew it was only a matter of time, but the urge to survive, the impulse to fight was too strong in him. To do anything other than resist would be to lose himself to madness.

He turned left, angling his body around the front of a station wagon when it appeared. Standing silent and pale, its eerie eyes sunken in a wrinkled visage regarding him with a kind of resigned quiet that had him wanting to swing away.

"I beat you, man," Dean snarled. "You can't win! You won't!"

Sam would find the altar, he knew. He'd get out of the cellar. He'd break Sue Ann's necklace.

"This is just some tricked out, hinky dream." Dean backed away. "You can't hurt me."

The reaper moved with swift grace, not walking, not chasing him, but catching him all the same. Dean took another stumbling step back and the ice-cold touch of a paper-like skin skimmed his cheek, the weight of the reaper's hand resting on his head.

Dean felt his knees buckle, felt the dig of gravel through his jeans into his flesh. He was cold. Aching. His bones were turning brittle, his eyes clouding. And he held his breath as he waited. For the pain, for the fear.

The reaper held on even as Dean tried one last time to move away. And suddenly he was flooded with images… sunlight glinting off of Layla's blond hair, the corners of her green eyes crinkling up with delight and humor, her life, her chance, her survival. And with the images of Layla's peace came the slam of her pain.

Dean cried out as the pressure in his head built until he felt his brain push against the confines of his skull. He tried to reach up, to push the reaper's hand away, but his arms were too heavy, and his body was freezing, and he couldn't breathe and Sam wasn't coming.

Sam wasn't coming.

www

"Sam…"

"Take it easy, Dean," Sam panted.

"What…" Dean brought his head up slowly, fighting the painful motion of Sam tugging his limp body through the sand. "… the hell?"

They had been walking for nearly an hour in the twilight of the day. The last of the sun's rays were sinking below the surface of the Earth, taking with them the heat that had done its best to siphon both the energy and the will of the weary travelers.

"Had to take apart the stretcher," Sam told him, doing his best to keep his tenuous grip on Dean's sweaty side, the fingers of his left hand gripping the shackle on Dean's left wrist as it rested on Sam's shoulder.

Once again awake, Dean worked to walk with him, the toes of his dusty boots dragging with each step, his body hitching and shifting against Sam's. The sounds Sam heard slipping out through his brother's cracked lips were those of a wounded animal, and he had an image of Dean caught in a trap, trembling, eyes bright with pain and fear, ready to attack anyone who came close.

"How are we going to know," Mack panted, "if that code you gave him is even going to work?"

"Well," Emerson paused in his trudging stride, his head hanging low, his eyes up. "If someone comes to get us out of this hell hole? Then you'll know."

Mack just shook his head. Sam continued past the brothers, unwilling to stop if Dean was moving, if Dean was with him. His brother's body was heavy, weighted by the shackles, solid muscle shivering beneath taut, sunburned skin. He began to count in his head, eight slow strides, four dragging tracks in the sand behind them, one moment closer to help.

He wasn't prepared when Dean's knees buckled. He tried to catch him, tried to grip, but fatigue had slowed his reaction time and the cut on his belly chose that moment to sing with a sharp note of pain. Dean fell to his wounded shoulder and Sam to his hands and knees beside him, both crying out, both gasping as air vacated their lungs.

"Aw, shit…" Dean groaned, able to roll clumsily to his back. "Sombitch."

"Sorry." Sam panted for air. "I'm sorry, Dean."

"Can't… no more, Sam…"

Sam leaned over his brother, one hand on either side of Dean's torso, dropping his face close so that Dean could see his eyes. "Don't you do that."

"Sam."

"No, Dean. We're getting out of here."

"Listen… listen," Dean pushed out. "You listen." His voice was rough, forceful.

Sam felt the tears press hot behind his eyes, felt his throat close in reaction. He didn't want to listen. He didn't want to face the truth. He didn't want to leave Dean behind.

"I'm… done, man."

"No, you're not." Sam shook his head, only realizing that he'd given in to the tears when one salty drop fell from the tip of his nose to slide down Dean's check. "Don't say that."

Darkness was growing around them as the night closed in. Sam was only aware of the chill of his skin, the heat of Dean's and the space between them.

"Sammy…" Dean's voice cracked and Sam felt himself choke back a sob. "I'm not… supposed to be here."

"Yes, you are! What are you talking about?"

"Reaper," Dean said, then closed his eyes, catching his breath. "We… tried."

"I'm not done, Dean. I can still try!"

Dean turned his head to the side, closing his eyes and Sam almost reached out to shake him when he saw the starlight reflect once more in his brother's irises.

"Not enough miracles," Dean whispered. "I… had mine."

"No! No, that's not—"

"S'okay."

"It's not okay!" Sam sat back on his haunches, gripping Dean's forearms. "You can't give up on me now, Dean. You can't."

"You… you gotta… go."

"No! You're a soldier, man. All those lessons, all that talk… you're the soldier! Not me. You…" Sam sniffed, pushing himself to a crouch and tucked his arms beneath Dean's chest pulling him up to a sitting position. "Get up. Get up!"

Dean cried out as Sam's efforts pulled on his wound, but Sam ignored it, backing up in the sand, staggering as he worked to lift his brother.

"Get on your feet. On your feet, soldier! Get UP!"

Dean's cry this time was more of a growl ending in a whimper as he cuffed Sam across the cheek with the shackle on his left wrist, toppling Sam on his rear in the sand and ending with his body crumpled in Sam's lap, his face resting on his brother's chest. They were both panting, Dean's sounding like the rasps of a file across metal.

Sam fell to his back, tears rolling from the corners of his eyes to tangle in his hair and fill the hollow of his ears. His chest heaved with a tired sob and Dean bounced against him with the motion. The moon was up, its brilliant white light bathing their faces, the Guileys motionless forms, the desert floor in a pearly luminescence that would have been beautiful in any other situation.

"You're not done, Dean," Sam choked out, not even caring at this point if Dean were awake and listening, or if he were sprawled unconscious across him. "We still gotta find Dad. We gotta find this demon. We have work to do, man." Sam felt the whimper before he heard it roll from his own throat. "I don't want to do it without you."

Dean was silent, his breathing rapid and rough against Sam's chest. Sam was dimly aware of the Guileys moving closer, knew they were most likely unsure what to say or do, but he could care less. His world was falling apart around him for the second time in less than a month and he was sick of it.

Fisting his hands at his sides, Sam arched his neck into a primal scream of rage, his voice deep, broken, the cry going on for what felt to Sam like hours. As it died off, though, another sound filled the growing silence.

"You hear that?" Emerson said with soft awe.

Sam panted, looking up at the sky, not sure his ears could be trusted.

"Tell me you hear that!" Emerson demanded.

"Is that… is it a… helicopter?" Mack stepped forward, accidentally kicking sand onto Sam's cheek.

Sam pushed himself to his elbows, looking around. "You see it?"

"I can't see shit!" Emerson jogged forward, his form small in the moonlight.

"Hang on, wait… wait… look!" Sam pointed to the horizon as a beam from a searchlight cut down from the heavens and skimmed the desert floor.

Emerson and Mack went wild, screaming, waving their arms, jumping up and down. Sam sat up, rolling Dean down into his lap as he did so, trying to pull his limp brother into his arms to protect him from the blowing sand. The beam of light hit him and he cut his eyes to the side, holding up a hand in defense. The helicopter teetered to the right, cutting away from them.

"Where the hell are they going?" Emerson cried.

"Landing," Sam said. "They'll land at a distance so we're not sandblasted."

"Oh," Emerson sank to his knees. "Right, sure, okay."

"Dean." Sam leaned close resting a hand on his brother's cheek. "You just keep breathing, okay? Help is here. You're not done until I say you're done."

The beat of the blades on the night air slowed and stopped. Mack sat down in the sand near Sam and they all stared in the direction the helicopter had banked, waiting. About five minutes after silence once more prevailed, they saw to figures approaching, one dressed in fatigues, the other in a red velour suit trimmed in fluffy white cotton.

Sam blinked. Emerson huffed out a quick bark of a laugh.

"Santa?" Mack said in the voice of a child.

"Someone here call for a dust off?"

"Over here, Sir," Sam replied to the man in fatigues.

As if John were standing before him, he felt his shoulders square, his chin rise, his eyes empty as the men approached him. He recognized the stance of the man in fatigues, the way his unlined face and dark eyes looked him over, assessing. He was definitely military, if not a Marine.

"What's the skinny?" The man in fatigues said, his lingo suggesting a lifetime in the military.

Sam tried to keep his eyes from sliding to the man in the Santa suit as he replied. "Four casualties, one critical. Three with knife wounds, one with a bullet to the shoulder. Dehydration, sun exposure, exhaustion."

Santa tilted his head and Sam caught a narrowing of eyes before he snapped his attention back to the military man.

"How long have you boys been out here?" He asked as he knelt down to check Dean's pulse.

"Two days," Sam replied. "We were, uh, hunting."

Santa brought his head up quickly. "Hunting?"

"Treasure hunting," Emerson chimed in. "Lost ship of the Mojave. You heard of it?"

The man in fatigues ran his eyes over Sam, then skimmed Mack's face. "Which of you is the diddy bopper?"

Sam nodded in Emerson's direction. "Him."

"Dude, I ain't no—"

"It means you've been sending the Morse Code," Sam translated, raising an eyebrow. "Chill out."

"You in the Corp, kid?" Santa spoke up suddenly.

"No," Sam shook his head. "My Dad was."

"What's your name?" asked Santa.

Sam hesitated for a moment, a laundry list of alias' immediately scrolling through his head. He glanced down at Dean's face, reflecting like porcelain in the moonlight, and another piece of his will cracked, breaking free and evaporating.

"Winchester," he said on a sigh, looking back up at Santa. "Sam Winchester. This is my brother Dean," he nodded to his lap. "The diddy bopper is Emerson Guiley and the kid there is his brother Mack."

"Sam and Dean Winchester," Santa repeated, brown eyes softening with wonder and appreciation. "No shit."

The man in fatigues looked up at Santa from his position near Dean. "You know these two?"

"Yeah," Santa nodded. "I do. These are John Winchester's boys."

Sam blinked.

The soldier looked back at him, his features folding into a frown of realization. "Oh," he said softly. "You were… hunting."

"We gotta get them out of here, double time, Mike," Santa said.

Mike, reached for his belt and Sam saw a walkie talkie clipped there. He looked up at Santa as Mike twisted the dial.

"You know my father?"

Santa reached out a hand and Sam shook it automatically. "Yeah," he grinned. "My name is Joshua."

"This is Razor," Mike said in to the walkie talkie as Sam gaped at Joshua in disbelief. "Need the bus prepped for two and two. Got a whiskey tango foxtrot sitch coming back to you. Over."

"Joshua?" Sam squeaked, looking at the sandy-haired man, rugged lines drawn in a seemingly ageless face. "Faith-healer Joshua?"

"The same," Joshua nodded. "It's good to finally meet you, Sam."

Sam blinked. "Yeah, uh… you, too. How the hell—"

"Kid, you're just outside of Needles," Joshua shrugged. "And, I got me some, uh… let's just say resources."

"Morse Code-reading resources," Emerson chimed in.

"You two can walk?" Joshua asked, looking first at Emerson, then to Mack.

"Yeah," Mack answered.

Emerson took a step closer. "Dude, seriously. What's with the suit?"

Joshua shrugged. "It's Christmas," he replied. "Everyone's gotta work."

Sam tried to clue in to the reply on the walkie talkie, but his head was buzzing. Dean's weight was putting his legs to sleep and all he wanted to do was tip over in the sand and join them.

"Josh," Mike said, standing, "you secure these two in the huey then bring back the stretcher for this one."

Joshua nodded and motioned with a twirl of his index finger for the Guileys to follow him. With a worried, backward glance, they did as they were told. Mike knelt next to Dean again.

"I'm gonna ease him off of you, okay?"

"His shoulder is a mess," Sam said, slowly moving his legs out from beneath Dean.

"I can see that," Mike replied. "What's the deal with the shackles?"

"Do you really want to know?" Sam asked, looking up as Joshua came into sight, carrying a canvas stretcher.

"I kinda need to, Son," Mike replied. "Not something we can slip under the radar at the hospital."

Sam swallowed as he watched Joshua and Mike carefully lift Dean and lay him on the canvass.

"We found the lost ship," he said. "It's a pirate ship named the Desolation Angel."

On a silent count, the two lifted Dean and Sam pushed himself to his feet.

"Why do I think this isn't going to be a story we can tell back at camp?" Joshua said.

"The ship's cursed," Sam continued. "And the pirates were still there. They chained Dean down in the hold, cut the rest of us, and then shot him."

"With what?" Mike grunted as they closed in on the helicopter. "A cannon?"

"Close," Sam puffed, shaking his head at the sight of the big machine. "An eighteenth-century Kentucky pistol."

The helicopter looked like the men had stolen it from the set of Platoon. It was obviously pieced together from various metals, side door gunwales open, sans machine guns, and jumps seats inside the interior enough to seat six. Sam saw Mack and Emerson staring out at him with disbelief in their eyes.

"Oh, swell," Joshua sighed. "So on top of everything else, the kid could have lead poisoning from the ball."

"Shit." Sam stopped as if he'd run into an invisible wall. "I didn't even think of that!"

"Don't worry, Son," Mike said as he and Joshua lifted the stretcher into the helicopter, sliding the bars securely into place. He motioned for Sam to step in next to his brother. "We'll get him squared away."

Pausing for a moment in the opening of the helicopter, Sam tried to determine how a soldier and a man in a Santa suit had procured a potentially retired military helicopter, picked up their renegade Morse Code signal, and found them in the middle of the Mojave desert.

This is random, even for us…

Climbing in, Sam sat on a jump seat, belting himself tight, and tipped his head back against the wall as Mike and Joshua climbed into the pilot and co-pilot seats.

"Where are we going?" Emerson called out from his position on the other side of the bare interior.

"I got a place," Joshua called back as he and Mike began flicking switches, "about three clicks from here. It's kind of a… camp."

"Like for kids?" Emerson replied.

"Not exactly," Joshua replied.

Mike looked over his shoulder, his eyes hitting each of them, making sure they were secure. He looked at Sam, who was fighting to keep his eyes open.

"We're pulling chocks," he called over the noise of the blades. "You ready?"

"Hooah," Sam intoned, lifting his hand in thumbs up.

Mike nodded once, tossing Sam a two-fingered salute, and then turned back around. Sam dropped his hand on top of Dean's, curling his fingers around his brother's and closing his eyes.

"What are they pulling?" Emerson called out to him.

"Means they're leaving," Sam called back.

The helicopter rocked a bit on lift off and Sam felt Dean's fingers flinch around his. He opened his eyes and looked at his brother's face. Dean's eyes were still closed, but the lines around his mouth were tight and if Sam didn't know better, he'd swear Dean's lips were moving.

"Dean?"

Are you humming Metallica?

It calms me down.

Sam began to hum, softly at first, but louder as he felt Dean's fingers begin to relax.

"Exit light, enter night," Sam sang, somewhat off-key, "take my hand. We're off to never never-land."

He paused, but then heard Emerson's voice pick up where he left off.

"Now I lay me down to sleep, pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, pray the Lord my soul to take."

Sam looked over at the blond and when he picked up the song again his voice was louder joined with Mack until the back of the helicopter was filled with the sound of three worn, thirsty voices.

"Hush little baby don't say a word, and never mind that noise you heard. It's just the beasts under your bed, in your closet and in your head."

Sam saw Joshua twist slightly in his seat to look back at them. With a grin, the hunter shook his head. "Okey dokey," he commented, pushing his lips flat. "Whatever gets you through the night."

The ride was short, but Sam was so tense it seemed to last hours. As Mike eased the helicopter down on a landing pad, Sam peered out at their surroundings. Several tall lights framed a square of blacktop about the size of a soccer field, flanked by two shed-like buildings. Mike yelled something out through his opened window, but Sam couldn't make it out over the noise of the dying rotors.

Before he could unbuckle, Joshua was standing at the door, checking Dean's pulse once more, and then looking at Sam.

"Here's what's going to happen, Sam," he yelled, his voice coming down in decibels as the blades slowed. "My buddy here is going to take your friends to the hospital. He's got an ambulance prepped and ready."

Joshua pointed to a vehicle that looked like it had been a prop from St. Elsewhere.

"But what about—"

"We're going to take Dean to the med tent," Joshua continued.

"The what?"

"I'll explain in a minute. I got a guy over at Mercy who knows our kind of work," he said, lifting his eyebrows expressively. "He can get Dean in and treated without too many questions and under the cops' radar, but we gotta wait until he's prepped. In the meantime, we're gonna get these… cuff things offa him."

"Your guy… he knows about… hunters?"

"That he does."

"And he… can help Dean?"

Joshua nodded, seeming to see the edge Sam was riding. "It's gonna be okay, Sam."

"Wait!" Emerson called out as Mike took his arm to lead him to the old ambulance. "That's… that's it?"

"Go with the man," Sam told him. "Keep an eye on your brother."

"But will we… I mean, this is… it?" Emerson swallowed, looking down, then away, and Sam realized with surprise that the blond looked somewhat afraid to leave.

"Hey," Sam reached out, grabbing his arm. "It's been… interesting."

Emerson looked back, silent, then turned to walk to the ambulance.

"Sam!" Mack called out.

Sam turned to face the strange red-head.

"Here." Mack handed him something, then turned to follow Emerson to the ambulance.

Sam looked at his hand. It was a pearl. He looked back up at the ambulance and watched as it pulled off the blacktop and out into the night.

"Let's go," Joshua said.

Sam shoved the pearl into his pocket and turned in time to see a black man in a tie-dyed shirt and ripped jeans join a Jerry Garcia look-alike wearing a Boston Red Sox cap and a long-sleeved shirt with a faded Coca-Cola logo on the front. When Joshua stepped up in his Santa suit to join them, Sam shook his head, feeling oddly detached.

He watched with appreciation, though, as they transferred Dean from the helicopter to a stretcher and moved him swiftly across the blacktop, through one of the sheds, and into what looked like a M.A.S.H. replica.

"What the hell is this place?" Sam asked in wonder, following them.

Another man, this one also in jeans and a sweatshirt, but with a stethoscope around his neck, approached Sam. Instinctively, Sam backed away until his legs bounced a chair against the wall.

"Kenny," Joshua said to the man, "why don't you help here? I got this."

"Who… what…"

"Sit down, Sam," Joshua ordered softly, easing a chair beneath Sam's legs. He handed Sam a bottle of water and made him drink. Sam felt his body beginning to slowly fold in on itself. He tried to look past Joshua to see Dean, but he could barely lift the bottle of water to his lips.

He felt something cool on his arm and looked down in surprise. Joshua was cleaning a patch of skin with an alcohol wipe.

"What is that?" Sam croaked.

"You're both severely dehydrated," Joshua said. "We giving you and Dean some IV fluids until we can get you to the hospital, okay?"

"Joshua, what is this place?"

"It's a camp," Joshua explained, "for Vets. Veterans. Kind of like an organic VA Hospital, but not government run. I started it… hell, probably before you were born." He shrugged. "I didn't have what you'd call a… stable environment when I got back from the war. I figured there had to be more like me out there. So, I started the camp and it just… grew. Guys come here to live or work, or just… work shit out."

"And… they know about… us? Hunters?" Sam asked.

Joshua shook his head. "No, not all of them. Mike does, but only because I saved his ass from a werewolf some time back. He's the one that got us the helicopter. Towed it here one day from an airplane graveyard and spent about, oh, ten years rebuilding it. Registered it with the FAA and everything. He may have been discharged from the military, but the military was never discharged from him."

Sam shook his head, amazed that there could be pockets of civilization like this still out there—people who have been through similar Hells, coming together to actually help one another. Dean's never going to believe this…

"There are all kinds of people here, Sam," Joshua said as he eased the catheter needle into Sam's arm. "Not everyone is medical. Mechanics, cooks, gardeners, writers, lawyers, accountants… you name it. They don't all live here, either. Sometimes, they just come here when…" Joshua sighed. "When the world starts to eat them up."

Sam frowned at Joshua's tone. "Did you meet my dad here?"

Before Joshua could answer, one of the men standing around Dean's bed called to him. "Josh, we need you."

Joshua hung the saline bag on a pole next to Sam's chair. "Wait here."

"Like hell," Sam replied, standing.

Joshua sighed and pulled the pole toward Dean's bed. "I thought your dad said Dean was the stubborn one," he muttered.

"He is," Sam said, stepping to the foot of his brother's bed. He moved closer, pushing Red Sox Hat out of the way, when he saw that Dean's eyes were open. "Hey!"

"Sam?" Dean's voice was faint, panicky.

"I'm here."

"The hell?"

"We're okay, man," Sam reassured him. "Joshua found us."

"Hey," Joshua stepped into Dean's line of sight.

Dean shot wide eyes back over to his brother.

Sam looked up at Joshua. "Might want to re-think the suit," he said.

Joshua shook his head, pulling the front snaps open. "Everyone's a critic," he muttered. "I was working the peds ward at Mercy when Mike got your distress call," he explained. "Didn't bother to change."

Dean started to struggle slightly, as if working to sit up.

"Take it easy." Sam put his hand on Dean's forearm, wincing at the heat he felt there. "It's okay, easy. They're gonna get the shackles off and then we're going to a hospital. Get that shoulder fixed up."

"Dad," Dean whispered, dropping his head back on the stretcher, his eyes fluttering closed as if his lashes were too heavy to lift.

"Dad isn't here," Sam replied, confused. When Dean stayed silent, Sam shook his arm slightly. "Dean?"

"Tell… him…"

Sam leaned forward, tilting his ear to Dean's mouth. "I'll tell him. Dean?" He looked back at his brother's face, then lifted tragic eyes to Joshua's.

With a nod, Joshua looked at the three other men standing around the bed. "Right. Listen, this kid is one of ours, get me?" They nodded. "Ben, hydration and antibiotics. Kenny, keep on his vitals. Shep, we're gonna get these shackles offa him."

The team began to move, speaking to each other in semi-military code that Sam was too weary to follow.

"What about me?"

"You're gonna sit there and talk to your brother," Joshua ordered, "while someone takes a look at whatever made that nasty bloodstain on your shirt."

"I got cut," Sam said as a chair was shoved beneath him and cool, brown hands lifted his T-shirt. He looked over at the friendly face and gentle eyes of yet another man, this one with a heavy, gray mustache.

"By what?" the man asked him.

"A… cutlass, I think."

The man looked up at Joshua. "Suppose I shouldn't ask," he said.

Joshua nodded.

"What is that?" Sam asked as the man prepped a needle.

"Tetanus shot," the mustachioed man replied. "Hang on to something, kid. I'm gonna clean out this cut."

For the next several minutes Sam slipped his skin, hovering just outside of oblivion, watching as a chisel was applied to Dean's shackles, breaking them open and exposing the raw, bloody skin beneath. He felt the muscles of his belly tighten when antiseptic was applied as though they belonged to someone else. He felt cool, dry bandages applied over the wound and flinched slightly as the cuts and bruises on his face and knuckles were attended to.

He kept his eyes on Dean, never wavering in his vigil as his brother's shirt was cut away, his superficial lacerations and wounds treated and antibiotics administered. It was when Tie-Dye man approached the jerry-rigged bandage on Dean's shoulder that Sam came alive.

"You know what I want to do when we get out of this, Dean?" he spoke up suddenly, startling Mustache Man and Red Sox Hat. He ignored their looks and stared at his brother's pale face. Tie-Dye started to gently lift the bandage. "I wanna go to the beach. The beaches here are nothing like where you've been before."

The bandana had sealed to the wound, Sam saw, and as the sand slipped away and the cloth was raised, a dry, sucking sound followed and Dean jerked. Sam kept talking, reaching out with his IV-tethered arm to rest his hand lightly on Dean's bare chest.

"First, the water is like navy blue. You haven't seen blue like this."

Dean's head tossed to the side, his brow furrowed and his lips pressed tight as a low moan built in his throat.

"Then, there's the girls," Sam continued, watching carefully as the bandana was pulled off further while Joshua added water to the cloth so that it didn't simply tear the scab free. "They walk around practically naked, man. You could have your pick. Put that chick, Joey, to shame."

Dean bucked slightly, his neck arching as he bit back the tail-end of a cry.

"I mean, seriously," Sam raised his voice, standing as Dean's body tightened, keeping his hand on Dean's chest, "do you want the last girl you sleep with to have a dude's name?"

The bandage was pulled completely off, exposing the red, raw, seeping hole to the air and Dean thrashed, his breath quaking, his body trembling.

"I know for a fact you hate Concrete Blonde." Sam's voice wavered as Dean writhed. Tie-Dye brought a wet, soapy rag to Dean's heated skin and washed the sand and dirt away from around the wound.

"You're doing great, Sam," Joshua spoke up when Sam sniffed. "Keep talking to him."

Dean's groan turned to a teeth-grinding growl when Joshua helped Tye-Die pour antiseptic on the wound, a white foam bubbling up around the jagged edges of skin.

"You could learn to surf," Sam said around his tears. "Be like the Fonze in your leather jacket. Hell, man, you could jump a freakin' shark if you want."

"Arghhh!" Dean pounded a fist into the bed, his skin shaking so much under Sam's hand that it felt unnatural.

"Stop, man," Sam cried, reaching out to Joshua. "You gotta stop!"

"We need to clean this out, Sam," Joshua said.

"Give him something at least!"

"We did," Tie-Dye chimed in. "Ain't legal to have anything stronger outside a hospital."

"Well, let's get him there, then!" Sam demanded. "You got the shackles off!"

Joshua looked over his shoulder. "Mike back yet?"

"On his way," someone called back.

"Hang in there, kid," Joshua encouraged Sam. "You think I'd get you the name of a faith healer just to let him die now?"

Sam wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, then looked down at Dean, watching him pant for air. "You got that number for where my Dad is?"

Joshua paused long enough for Sam to look up at him. "Joshua?"

"I do," Joshua nodded. "You want to call him now?"

Sam shook his head. "Not yet. I just…" He looked back down at Dean. "I wanna have it."

"Sure kid," Joshua said softly. "Wrap him up," he instructed Tie-Dye. "That bullet's too deep inside for what we got to work with here."

Sam sank down on the chair next to Dean, leaning forward so that his face was inches from Dean's ear.

"You're gonna make it, Dean. You're too stubborn to let some pirates beat you. You're gonna make it and we're going to that beach together. And we'll find Dad. We will." He took a breath and lowered his forehead so that it rested on the sheet next to Dean. "Layla said she believed in miracles." His voice was barely above a whisper. "Said we were blessed. 'Cause we have each other." He lifted his head a fraction so that he could see his brother's profile. "She was right, man. Just remember that, okay?"

He heard a quick, digital beep, and looked up to see a clock on the shelf above Dean's head. Midnight.

The solstice was over.

"Mike's back," Joshua reported.

www

December 22, 2005

The ride to the hospital in the back of the ancient ambulance was a blur of motion and sound to Sam. He wanted to stay engaged, to stay aware, but his body rebelled and his eyes slipped closed. He knew they arrived at the hospital, but let the darkness slide around him when he heard Joshua's voice barking orders.

He heard his name called and tried to respond, but felt himself slip lower, sinking until he felt nothing, heard nothing, saw nothing. He floated in the nothing, finding comfort in oblivion. The next thing he was aware of was a small, cool hand touching his, lifting it. He turned toward the sensation of touch, feeling a drowsy smile pull at his lips, his pain forgotten for the briefest of moments.

"Jess?"

"Hi, Sam," replied a female voice. A female voice not Jessica's.

He blinked his eyes open, memory crashing against awareness.

"Nice to have you back with us."

He looked at her, wondering if he was supposed to know her. She was pretty, brunette with large brown eyes, wearing lavender scrubs.

"You been sleeping for about six hours now," she informed him.

Oh, God, Dean.

"Where's my brother?" Sam asked, surprised at the sound of his own voice. He sounded as if he'd been screaming for hours.

"You had a pretty nasty cut on your torso, but it's been treated and stitched. Should heal fine if you're careful. We gave you some antibiotics and pain meds," she continued as if he hadn't spoken. "Some cream for that sunburn. Need to make sure to apply it every day or you mi—"

"Where's my brother?" Sam repeated, sitting up.

The nurse took a step back. "I don't know," she replied.

"Find out," Sam ordered, reaching for his IV.

"Don't do that!"

"I'm not staying here," he snapped.

"Sam."

His name was spoken with such authority that Sam felt a quick wave of dizziness roll over him. He lifted his eyes, fully expecting to see his father. He tried to temper his disappointment at the sight of Joshua, but knew it reflected in his face when he saw the look of understanding cross the man's weathered face.

"Don't you have anything else to wear?" Sam grumbled, taking in the reassembled Santa suit.

"You can go," Joshua said to the nurse. "I got this."

"Don't let him remove that IV on his own," the nurse admonished before stepping away.

"Where's Dean?" Sam asked.

"How are you feeling?"

"Pissed," Sam replied.

"Dean's in surgery," Joshua replied.

Sam sat back. "Still?"

"You feel well enough to get dressed? Come with me somewhere?"

Sam narrowed his eyes skeptically. "Yeah…"

"Good." Joshua stepped up to him. "I'll get that." He removed Sam's IV, pressing a folded up piece of gauze over the puncture and fixing a bandage over it.

Sam found his jeans and shoes, then slipped on a hospital scrub top that Joshua procured for him. Silently, he followed Joshua down the hall from the ER and to an elevator where Joshua pulled out a fake beard and red hat with thick white hair attached to the base. Sam watched with a continuing sense of detachment. He glanced up, seeing his sunburned, disheveled appearance in the reflection of the elevator wall and almost didn't recognize himself.

"Where are we going?"

Joshua twisted his mouth a bit, adjusting the beard, then turned to Sam. "Gonna remind you want a miracle looks like."

The elevator dinged and Joshua stepped out. From the sign on the wall, Sam saw they were on the pediatric oncology floor of Mercy Hospital. He took a breath. Joshua stepped up to a counter and handed Sam a mask that would cover his nose and mouth.

"Put this on."

"Why? Are they contagious?"

"No," Joshua shook his head. "But they're vulnerable."

Sam nodded, following Joshua as he moved from room to room, pulling from pockets Sam didn't even know the red suit had bits of candy, small dolls, yo-yos, cross-word puzzle books, parachute soldiers. Each room they stopped in, Sam watched eyes light up and smiles transform little faces from a tragic story into a promise for tomorrow.

He listened to the innocent laughter and squeals of delight, feeling as he did so the edges of his soul that the desert had peeled away slowly begin to paste themselves back into place. As they left the last room along the hall, a small voice stopped him as Joshua continued out of the door, stopping at the desk.

"Are you Santa's friend?"

Sam turned and regarded the large, green eyes of a boy of about four. His brownish-blond hair was close-cropped as if it were just growing back in and his lashes were so long they touched the base of his eyebrows when he looked up at Sam. Crouching down slowly, careful of his sutures, Sam came eye-level with the boy and nodded.

"Yeah," he said, "I am."

"Good," the boy nodded. "Santa needs friends."

Sam smiled behind the mask. "Why do you say that?"

The boy shrugged. "Well," he said. "He's always doing stuff for us. Who does stuff for him?"

"That's a good point," Sam nodded. "You're a smart kid."

"I know," the boy replied. "I'm a miracle."

Sam blinked, his eyes watering. "Yeah?"

"I wasn't apposed to be born," the boy said, leaning forward and whispering.

Sam met him half-way, whispering as well. "You weren't, huh?"

The boy shook his head. "But I got things to do."

"I have a feeling you're gonna get them done," Sam said.

"Sure, I will," the boy smiled, showing Sam his baby teeth. "You don't give up on a miracle, my mom says."

Sam swallowed, standing up and nodding. "You sure don't."

"Sam," Joshua called him.

Sam waved to the boy. "Be good, kid."

"You, too," the boy replied, solemnly.

Sam stepped out into the hall. "Yeah?"

"Your brother's out of surgery," Joshua said. He pulled his beard down and Sam felt his knees turn to water. "The bullet broke up inside of him. One piece was stuck in a rib. They got that one out."

"But?" Sam said, his voice barely present.

"The other was down in his abdomen and they had to remove some of his small intestine to retrieve it."

"But they got it?"

Joshua nodded. "They got it. And the good news is, you got like seventy-five miles of small intestine, so he's not going to miss it much."

"They why do you look like you ran over my dog?" Sam said, wanting desperately to reach out for the wall, his world tilting dangerously around him.

Joshua wet his lips, looking at the nurses watching them from behind the desk. "C'mere," he said, taking Sam's arm and leading him to the elevator. He pushed the 'door close' button and faced Sam.

"It was a long surgery," Joshua said. "And I'm not gonna lie to you, Dean's pretty bad off, even if they got the bullets out. It takes awhile for tissue to heal, and he's got plenty of it torn up, not to mention the broken ribs and intestine—"

"Skip to the part you're afraid to tell me," Sam snapped.

"My guy, he, uh," Joshua shook his head. "He wasn't able to cover our tracks completely. One of the nurses called the police when they found out the bullets were actually fragments of an 18th century musket ball."

Sam closed his eyes. "Dammit."

"We can't move Dean, not yet anyway," Joshua said, rubbing his face. "So, we're going to have some explaining to do." Joshua hit the button for the eighth floor. "I'll take you to him."

"Where are the two guys we were with?"

Joshua shook his head. "I don't know."

"You might want to find out," Sam told him as the doors opened. "I didn't really prep them on how to explain a haunted pirate—"

Joshua caught Sam's arm. "Wait," he said, frowning. "You did finish the job, right?"

"Josh!" called a harried voice, saving Sam from having to answer. "I'm sorry, man."

Joshua tapped the air with his fingertips, soothing the stocky, balding man. "It's okay, Pike. You got him in there. You probably saved his life."

Pike looked at Sam, then back to Joshua. "Well, now we just gotta get him back to your place before the cops ask too many questions. Otherwise, they're gonna start handing out strait jackets."

Sam shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, dropping his head with a sigh. "Man, I wish my dad was here."

"You think he'd come if we called him?" Joshua asked.

Sam frowned, feeling a small bead in his pocket, then looked up as he removed it. "I honestly don't know," he said. "Couple weeks ago, Dean was dying. He didn't come then."

"There's gotta be a reason for that, Sam," Joshua said.

"Oh, I'm sure there is," Sam said, looking down at the bead in his hand. Not a bead… a pearl… "Just don't know if it's one I'm gonna like."

"What's that?" Pike asked.

"Pirate treasure," Sam replied without thinking.

The lack of response made him look up. Pike was blinking at him owlishly. Joshua was shaking his head.

"Can I see Dean now?" Sam asked.

Joshua scratched the side of his head. "Yeah," he sighed. "Pike, take him to his brother. I'm gonna change my clothes."

Sam followed the small doctor down to a closed door with a sign on it that read oxygen in use.

"They only let one visitor in at a time while he's in recovery and ICU."

"That's okay," Sam said softly. "There's only me anyway."

He stepped through the door and wavered slightly at the smell of the room, the beeps of machines, the steady pump of a ventilator beating a rhythm of too soon… too soon… in Sam's head.

His heart was pounding he rounded the curtain that shielded Dean from the other bed in the room—which was, thankfully, empty—and stepped up to the foot of his brother's bed. Dean's lips were parted around the white tube of a ventilator, his chest bare except for a bandage at his shoulder and another across his belly. Round patches connecting red and blue wires to his brother's body like a car battery were attached to his temple and several different locations on his chest.

An IV catheter was fixed to the back of his left hand and his wrists were bandaged. The bruises on his face stood out against the paleness of his features, and Sam realized that his bandana trick had worked to spare him from most of the sun's rays.

"We gotta stop this, man," Sam whispered. "We are really due for a run of good luck."

Sam heard the door open behind him and looked over. A middle-aged nurse walked in, smiling gently at him.

"I know it looks bad," she said, "but he's doing amazingly well. He's a fighter."

"I know," Sam said, sniffing. "Always has been."

"Your… friend?" She hedged.

"Brother," Sam said, looking back at Dean. "My big brother."

She nodded. "Here," she pushed a chair forward. "Have a seat. Talk to him a bit. It will help him to hear your voice."

Sam sat, feeling his body come together once more as he reached out to touch Dean's arm. He didn't even notice when the nurse left, but he did hear the door open sometime later. He looked up to see Joshua standing in civvies, his hair glistening wet in the dimmed overhead lights.

"Thought only one visitor could be in here," Sam said.

Joshua lifted his hospital badge. "I'm staff."

Sam squinted at the tag. "It says James Wong."

Joshua lifted a shoulder. "Joshua Edwards has too many demerits to work at Mercy."

Sam nodded, looking back at Dean.

"Here," Joshua handed him a piece of paper.

"What's this?"

"The number where John was staying."

Sam looked at him sharply.

"I called it."

"And?" Sam prompted.

"No answer."

Sam looked down. "Figures."

"Maybe try his cell?" Joshua suggested.

Sam opened his fist, looking at the pearl in his hand. "Maybe."

Joshua reached over and plucked the pearl from Sam's hand. Sam watched as he rolled it around in his fingers, then solemnly regarded first Dean, then Sam once more.

"I think you and me need to talk, kid," he said, tossing the pearl back to Sam.

Sam caught it against his chest, then turned back to face his brother. "Let me ask you something first."

"Okay."

"When I called you, looking for help for Dean," Sam said, watching the way Dean's eyes rolled slowly beneath his closed lids, wondering what he was seeing. "You said you hadn't been hunting in years—hadn't heard from my dad since I was a kid."

"Right."

Sam looked over at him. "Why'd he call you with the name of the faith healer, then? How'd he know you would help me?"

Joshua had the grace to blush as he sank back against the wall. "Y'know… your dad told me that you were quick, but… I think he underestimated you."

"What aren't you telling me?"

Joshua slid his eyes from Sam to Dean. "I know about your demon, the one John's looking for. John was in California several months ago. Said he was checking in on you at Stanford."

Sam looked down, remembering Dean telling him that, still unsure as to where to put the information.

"He told me he was going to have to separate himself from Dean. To protect him."

"He planned on leaving that long ago?"

"He sent Dean to New Orleans on a hunt," Joshua said, his eyes on Dean's still form. "I don't think he could just walk away. I think that's why he contacts you through coordinates. Because if he got in contact with you two again, if he actually saw you… I don't know if he'd be able to leave."

"He doesn't have to," Sam snapped.

"He's trying to protect you."

"Oh, that's bullshit," Sam muttered. "He sends us on jobs. On hunts. Think that's protection? This is what happens on hunts!" He thrust his finger toward Dean, ignoring how his hand shook.

"Yeah, let's talk about that." Joshua lifted his chin, smoothly bringing the conversation back to his turf. "Why do I get the feeling that this hunt's not over?"

Sam sighed, dropping his head in his hands, his fingers shoved into his hair, the pearl rubbing against his scalp. "Because," he said softly. "It's not."