Chapter 5 – Master and Commander

When you have come to the edge of all light that you know and are about to drop off into the darkness of the unknown, Faith is knowing one of two things will happen: there will be something solid to stand on, or… you will be taught to fly.

- Patrick Overton

www

December 22, 2005

He opened his eyes, suddenly thirsty for light.

Part of Dean knew that his body had been drenched in light for longer than was healthy, but that part was now hiding in his soul's shadows. The part that was currently in control was usually reserved for nuances. The change in Sam's breathing as he slept, signaling a nightmare. The tickling of fine hairs on his neck when danger—supernatural or otherwise—approached. The minute flick of his father's eyes letting him know he'd done well.

The last few times he'd looked around, he'd been in the dark: the dank, death-saturated hold of a haunted pirate ship; the cold stillness of a make-shift parking lot; and now, the syrupy black of a desert night.

A very surreal desert night. Without wind, without temperature, without sound.

Dean took a tentative step forward, feeling the night slip along his skin as he did so, silky in its seductiveness, holding starlight ransom for want of his eyes. Looking up, he could have sworn he saw the sky take a breath before the moon rolled sideways, shining silver light down on the landscape around him. It was then he realized that he was barefoot. The air smelled like patchouli and lavender.

Dropping his eyes to the ground, he saw sand beneath his feet, wondering why he hadn't been able to feel the smooth pellets of the desert floor until this moment. He was wearing what looked like hospital scrubs—white or light blue, he couldn't be sure—and was shirtless. Flattening his hands on his belly, he spread his fingers along the ridges of muscle and the outline of ribs, his head spinning slightly as he felt skin on skin.

It felt almost new—as if he'd never before registered the sensation of touch. Or perhaps, he reasoned glancing around himself at the desolate landscape, he'd thought he'd never feel that sensation again.

"I'll just say it. This is weird," he said aloud, just to be saying something.

Just to confirm that he could.

His heart pushed him to call out to Sam. His gut muzzled him. Something about the stillness of the desert, the almost spotlight quality of the moon, warned him that to say much more would be to give too much away. He slid his hands down his belly, slipping them to his hips then along his thighs, maintaining contact, needing the touch even if it was his own.

"Hello, Dean."

The female voice was everywhere at once. He turned in a full circle, searching. Even in the echoing silence, he could still feel the voice against his lungs as if she had somehow been inside of him.

"Give a girl a hand, would you?"

Brows pursed in confusion, Dean looked over his shoulder, his muscles tensing for attack.

"Down here."

What the hell? Dean slid his eyes down.

Protruding from the smooth sand of the desert floor were two slim, pale hands. As he watched, the fingers of one curled down against the palm and the index finger beckoned to him.

"What… the….hell?"

"You're not going to just leave me here, are you?" Her voice was in his head and reverberating around his heart and echoing through the desert air and coming from beneath the ground. "Not very gentlemanly of you."

"Yeah, well… never said I was a gentleman," Dean grumbled, resisting the urge to take a step back.

He sensed tendrils of fear climbing his spine, running through his hair like a caress, raising chills along his bare skin. He hadn't been spooked in a good, long while. But her voice… those hands…

"Dean, please."

Working against every muscle tensed to flee, every instinct that screamed get out, every voice in his head that reminded him that one step in the wrong direction meant death, Dean took a knee, reached out and wrapped his fingers around one of the smooth hands erupting from the sandy earth. Her skin was soft, cool, firm. He rocked back on his haunches, pulling as her body came loose and broke through the earth.

He felt her take a breath, the sand falling away from her like water. Once her shoulders were free, Dean let go, stumbling back, and watched as she rose, her body floating in a surreal image of light pressed against dark. Her hair was like oil, falling around her alabaster face and down her back in waves. She was wrapped in what appeared to be a white sail. And as her feet touched the now-solid ground, Dean saw in her shadow a pair of wings spreading from her back.

She stretched her arms, her wings extending with them, and dropped her head back as if she were embracing the night, a smile creasing her ageless face.

"Oh, that's better."

Dean pushed himself awkwardly to his feet, backing away from her until he felt safe. She lowered her eyes and when her gaze touched him, he couldn't stop a flinch of reaction. Her irises were silver, much larger than normal, and the pupils were wide as if she took in all light and harnessed it beneath her skin.

"What… are you?" Dean ticked his chin to the side, keeping wary eyes on her.

"Don't you mean, who am I?"

"No." His answer was immediate, the motion of his head decisive.

Her lips folded down in a flash of a frown and Dean felt a shadow cross the moon. "Fair enough." She spread her hands out at her sides, holding them up to show with her body that she meant no harm. "I am the Desolation Angel."

"You're the… ship?" Dean arched a doubtful brow.

She shrugged, her wings rippling along the feathered tips. "In a way. My name was Isobel. The man who commissioned the Angel named her after me."

Dean narrowed his eyes. "You're the… what is it called… masthead thingy."

Isobel's lips quirked. "You're quick."

Dean looked around at the barren backdrop of land surrounding them. "Okay, so… what gives?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Why am I here?"

"You don't know?"

The words slipped from her mouth and tumbled into the space between them. Dean blinked, hard, watching as letters seemed to swim before his eyes in strong, dark font. Isobel stepped forward, her body scattering the letters into the night, and Dean mirrored her motion by backing up.

He could taste the air around him. It was salty, stale.

"I'm not going to hurt you."

Dean held up a hand, instinctively warding her off. "Not from there you're not."

"Dean," she whispered and Dean flinched as he realized she was no longer standing several feet in front of him, but was now at his side, her lips brushing his ear, one cool hand pressing against his lower back. The air around them seemed to swirl as her wings settled against her back once more. "Trust me."

He jerked away, pointing at her. "Trust you?" He shook his head once, feeling his face tighten. "Lady, last time I saw you, you were slapped up against the hull of a pirate ship. And, oh yeah, you were made of wood."

Isobel smiled softly and her face shifted. Dean blinked and her eyes became green, sad, and careworn. Her smile became Layla's. He blinked again and the silver was back, her moon-like skin shining out at him.

"You simply need to have faith, Dean."

He stepped back, feeling the tightness in his face travel down his neck and spread over his bare chest. "Faith, huh?" He snapped, his lip curling in disgust at that word tossed carelessly into the air. "In what? Wooden angels? Pirates?"

"Miracles," she said softly. "In the possibility of good. In the righteousness of those who fight on the side of light."

Dean sighed, her words feeling hollow, meaning scooped out at the first mention of the word 'faith.'

"In yourself," she continued, stepping toward him. He tried to step back, but found himself frozen to the spot. "In your father. In Sam."

"You shut up about Sam," he snarled, his reply instinctive. She could mess with his head all she wanted. She could call up those rotting corpses he knew were still in the buried hull of the ship and sic them on him. She could drag him below the sand with her. But she wasn't going to touch Sam. Even with words. "He's got nothing to do with this."

Isobel sighed and Dean felt it beat against his ears like a bass beat of a drum. "He is this. You both are. That's what you need to understand." She stepped closer and Dean pulled his belly in tight, feeling an uncomfortable hitch in his side as he did so, as if he'd been running for hours. "Every life you save, every soul you touch—"

"Hey, all we do is hunt evil—"

"—you change the course of destiny. You set humanity on a different path."

"Listen, lady," Dean snapped.

"Isobel."

"Last I checked, Sam and I weren't rubbing elbows with Nostradamus—"

"Say it," she whispered, stepping close.

He was suddenly very aware of her mouth, of the color of her lips. He didn't know what she was doing to him, why she suddenly had him wanting to touch her, but he was dizzy from the desire. The air smelled sweet, clean. It wrapped around him like arms, keeping him still, holding him tightly.

"Say… what?" He whispered, jarred by the unexpected need in her voice.

"No one has said my name is such a long, long time. Say… Isobel."

He opened his mouth to tell her to go to Hell and to take her name with her, but then he saw her eyes. He saw them relax into china blue, into eyes that had never seen death. Eyes that had belong to a girl who had been loved and forsaken.

He felt his skin ignite. His heart slammed hard against his ribs, his eyes vibrated. He tried and failed to catch his breath as she watched him, waiting for him so speak, her eyes on his mouth.

"Isobel," he whispered and would have collapsed into her had she not been holding him upright.

Her breasts pressed against his chest, the thin silk of the sail not enough to keep her figure hidden. She allowed him to move his hands and he settled them at her waist, feeling her curves, the bend of her spine, the firm muscles of her backside. Her legs met his, thigh to thigh, and he slid his fingers up along her back until the tips encountered the anchor of her wings, sending a thrill of sensation and rebellion through his system.

His body responded, tightening, hardening, bending toward her touch, leaning into her hands as she cupped his jaw, fingers skimming the stubble that framed his jaw. He felt her breath on his mouth, cool, like the winter air that surrounded them. When she paused just shy of his mouth, he tipped his head forward, meeting her in an impossible kiss, time folding and creasing around them, meaning collapsing under the weight of their contact.

Angel wings beat the air, swirling sand up and around them in a vortex of pulverized glass. He felt it pelt his skin, skipping along his side, boring into him until the pain of its invasion snapped him back to reality. Turning his hands, he pressed against her small waist, pushing away. She held on.

And kissed harder.

He felt his breath leave him, felt it escape his body and fill hers. He felt his skin cool, felt the pain of the cold slip into his bones, felt the pressure build in his head until his skull became a prison.

It was the reaper taking him. It was the victims of the pirates swarming him. It was hope leaving him.

His knees gave way as awareness began to swirl, narrowing as darkness grew. She held him up, not allowing him to break contact, her mouth pressed tightly to his until he felt as if her lips stiffened, turned wooden, rubbing splinters across his flesh. Desperation flamed hot inside of him and he pushed at her, shoving her away, commanding his muscles to obey, to rid himself of her false touch.

Dean… relax, relax…

Sam's voice slipped into the rush of blood and scream of resistance that filled his ears.

I'm here… I'm not going anywhere…

Sam was here. Somewhere in this empty night. Sam was here.

With that thought, he thrust against her once more, finally breaking contact. Isobel flew backwards, away from him, and Dean fell to his knees, gagging, coughing, sobbing as sand impossibly fell from his mouth, surging from his core, and serrated the soft flesh of his throat to spill onto the desert floor.

He wretched, desperate for air, until there was no more sand inside of him, until he was raw inside and out, until he was trembling from the effort to live. Still on hands and knees, Dean lifted his head, his eyes traveling up the slim figure of the angel standing before him, watching.

What are you looking at,he sassed silently, unable to bring himself to speak. Isobel blinked slowly, her lips curving upward.

"You mother always said," Isobel reminded him softly, "that angels were watching over you."

"How…" Dean rasped, dropping his head to take a breath, then lifting it once more, "do you… know that?"

"I know it because you know it, Dean." She stepped to the side, exposing him to the view of a new hole in the earth behind her. A hole that was growing. "Nothing you've seen is out of your control. You could have let the reaper take you. You had a chance to save the souls of the men in the hold. And now…"

She crouched in front of him, taking his chin in her hand and lifting his face to hers. He tasted the salty copper of blood on his own lips. The air around him turned rancid and smelled of dead fish and stagnant water.

"You could have been mine. No more pain, no more sorrow, no more fear. But each time," she let her hand slip away, "you chose life."

He slowly pushed himself back until he sat on his feet, unable yet to stand.

"You think it's Sam," she said, tilting her head so that her silver eyes took him in, her dark hair falling like a wave over her shoulder. "You think you make this choice because of your brother."

"He's… my job," Dean pushed out in a ruined voice.

"Sam lives in the future," she said on a sigh. "His mind is always on what is about to happen, what could happen, what might happen. You? Your mind is on what is happening. Now. This moment. That is all that matters to you."

"So?" Dean pressed his hand to the base of his throat, wishing desperately for water. The hole behind Isobel widened, the ground falling away rapidly, chasing itself on a path to her feet.

"Only when you blend the two will you see the light," Isobel stated her eyes staring past him. "And it's that light that will lead you home."

Write that on a fortune cookie, why don't you?

Dean watched as the desert floor continued to vanish. As the earth disappeared, the stinging pain in his side grew, pressure building, pushing against the prison of his skin until he cried out. He looked up and saw that Isobel stood on air, her wings beating slowly as she sank into the nothing beneath her.

"It's always been your choice, Dean."

"Right," Dean muttered, his eyes on the rapidly shrinking ground around him. He couldn't seem to catch his breath, the pain keeping him on his knees. The hole filled with nothing was coming closer.

Gotta wake up or I'm toast, he thought as Isobel slipped slowly beneath the surface of the earth once more.

His eyes pinned to hers for one moment, seeing the moon reflected there. He blinked in fascinated horror as her smooth features cracked, lines of age and wear drawn by desert heat turning the alabaster into faded, gray wood. She lifted her face to the night sky, reaching up as her wings beat one last time, hardening as they vanished beneath the sand. In moments all he saw were the tips of carved fingers breaking the surface of emptiness. He looked down once more and tried to scramble backwards, away from the swiftly vanishing earth, but slices in his body from the swirling sand took his breath away.

Open your eyes, Dean, he commanded himself. The mantra picked up speed, took on strength, came from another voice. Open your eyes… open your eyes… open your…

The ground slipped away.

And Dean fell.

www

"…eyes, okay? Just for a minute. Just… show me you're there."

With a gasp and a jerk as if he'd been dropped from the sky to land dead-center on a hospital bed, Dean opened his eyes. Sam felt himself go weak, his belly turning to liquid at the sight of green.

"There you are," he whispered.

"Sam?" Dean's voice was rough, as if he'd spent the previous night on whiskey and women, screaming his way through his entire collection of Metallica.

"Right here, Dean." Sam sagged a bit in his chair, his fingers gently tapping Dean's bicep in reassurance. He resisted the insane urge to reach up, touch his brother's hair, wipe the sweat beading on his brow. "I'm right here."

"Where's…" Dean's eyes darted around the empty room, searching.

"It's just me, man."

"You… sure?"

"Positive." Sam nodded, leaning forward once more and tightening his grip on Dean's arm. The fear and fight in Dean's eyes seemed to settle and fade as he turned them to meet Sam's.

Sam watched as his brother looked him over, reassuring himself that they were here. They were together. They were safe.

"You… okay?"

"I'm a helluva lot better now, that's for sure."

Dean closed his eyes, swallowing. The oxygen cannula in his nose had replaced the mask, which replaced the ventilator not more than an hour ago. It set off the gray pallor of his brother's face and the purple shadows beneath his eyes, but it was better than seeing Dean with a tube down his throat.

"Throat's… on fire," Dean rasped.

Sam lifted a plastic cup of water and tipped the straw toward Dean's dry lips. After letting Dean drink his fill, Sam eased back down into his chair, his sutured stomach not ready for sudden movements. Dean took a long, shuddering breath.

"Sammy?"

"Yeah." He didn't bother to correct his brother. In this moment, he was happy to be Sammy.

"We're… not done, are we?" Dean's eyes were closed, a line bisecting his sun-kissed brow.

Sam sighed, shaking his head slowly, though he knew his brother couldn't see. "No, man."

" 'fraid of that."

"We'll worry 'bout that later," Sam stated.

He pressed the button on Dean's bed that called in a nurse, keeping his eyes on his brother's face while he waited. A male nurse arrived—someone Sam hadn't seen yet—and talked calmly to Dean, handing him a pillow to hold, asking him to breathe deep. Dean followed orders, his body moving on autopilot, his awareness anchored in the twilight of dreams Sam had pulled him from.

As Sam watched, the nurse checked Dean's vitals, adjusted some settings on the machines next to the bed, then asked if he needed anything else. Eyes closed, Dean shook his head, then frowned. His eyes popped open as if he just remembered where he was and searched the room with quick, frantic motions.

"I'm here," Sam said, touching his brother's arm, offering him the comfort of contact.

"You okay?" Dean slurred, his glassy eyes trying to focus.

"I'm good, Dean. Don't worry about me, okay? Just get some rest."

"You, too," Dean said softly, his eyes slipping closed once more.

Sam nodded, pushing at the arms of the easy chair they'd wheeled into Dean's room for him. When he refused to stay in his own room, Joshua had been able to convince the staff that both patients would heal faster if Sam could be in Dean's room. The foot-rest was a little too short for Sam's long legs and the covering was frayed and worn, but fatigue turned it into a feather bed.

"Already there, man," Sam said drowsily to his sleeping brother. "I'm already there."

www

December 23, 2005

He hadn't dreamt.

For the first time since this nightmare of a hunt started, Dean realized he'd closed his eyes and had actually slept, his body using the downtime to heal and not to torment him with memories, visions, ghosts of his failures. A repetitive, droning voice hummed in the background as he climbed the ladder of awareness with careful steps, becoming slowly conscious of his body and of his surroundings. Just before he opened his eyes, he realized two things: he was not alone, and Sam wasn't there.

Cool hands touched his skin in a gentle, practiced rhythm. Turning his head a fraction, he worked to pry his lids open, his mouth desert-dry. He could smell cinnamon and disinfectant. The musky, warm smell that always wrapped around Sam was absent.

"Hey there, sleepyhead," greeted a soft voice.

Dean blinked. Diffused light filtered down from somewhere above his head, haloing the figure at his bedside in a false, golden light. He blinked again.

"Take it easy," the voice commanded. "You've been through a rough time. Think you can take a drink?"

Dean tried to answer, but his voice hadn't yet caught up with the rest of him. He nodded, finally pulling the figure into focus. Blonde nurse, hair tucked behind her ears, multi-colored scrubs and a soft, unlined face. He took a pull on the straw she rested against his lips, feeling his body sigh as the cool liquid filled his mouth and soothed his raw throat.

"That's it," the nurse said, smiling at him. He liked her smile. It was kind with a hint of wry humor. "My name is Marnie. I'm gonna be with you until about seven tonight, so you'll see this face for a few more hours yet."

"'kay," Dean rasped, then winced.

Marnie pulled a cart close and removed a digital oral thermometer, sliding a plastic sleeve over the rod and slipping it between Dean's lips. Knowing the drill, he automatically tucked it under his tongue. In seconds, he heard a beep. Marnie frowned.

"Well, still not down where I'd like it," she commented, looking at the digital read-out, "but not as bad as yesterday."

Dean tried to shift in the bed and relieve some of the pressure on his aching back, but that small movement shot a quick line of fire down his right side from his collarbone to his hip. He drew in a harsh gasp.

"Son of a…"

"Easy, Tiger," Marnie admonished wrapping up the blood pressure cuff. "Let me help. That's why I'm here."

Pushing a button on his bed, she slowly raised the head until he was at a better angle. He nodded his thanks.

"How's the pain?"

Like liquid fire, he thought. "Not bad."

"Can you give me a one to ten?"

Nine. "Six."

"Doesn't do you any good to lie to me, y'know."

He started to shake his head, but a wave of nausea swept over him, forcing him to close his eyes and grip the sheets as he breathed through his nose. He felt sweat bead on his upper lip and back of his neck.

"Take it easy," Marnie soothed. "It's the pain medication—a morphine drip. We'll get that adjusted. Here."

Dean opened his eyes as he felt something placed in his lap. It was a pink, kidney shaped bowl about the size of his hand.

"What's this for?" he asked, his voice a harsh beat of sound.

Marnie's smile was sympathetic. "In case you decide to hurl."

Dean raised a doubtful eyebrow.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," she waved at him, checking his saline IV bag. "Those things are only good if can shoot a camel through the eye of a needle."

She held up an odd-shaped contraption with a clear tube and a plastic tower about the size of his hand. "Can you blow into this for me?"

"I swear… I haven't been drinking," he rasped.

"Funny." Marnie raised an eyebrow. "See this little marble-looking thing? You want it up here. That means your lungs are clear of fluid. Otherwise…"

Dean let Marnie slip the mouthpiece between his lips and blew, his body tightening in painful reaction to the effort as the blue marble hovered on his exhale to just under the mark Marnie had indicated.

"Not bad." She tilted her head, her eyes sliding over his face.

"Hurts like a mother."

"I imagine it would."

"Sadist," Dean looked up at her, liking the quirk of her generous mouth.

"Depends on who you talk to. You just keep that up, though. Get all that crap out of your lungs."

The droning in the background hadn't tapered, he realized. Someone nearby was watching TV. Regaining his equilibrium and settling his stomach back where it belonged, he looked around, unable to see beyond the curtain pulled behind Marnie's figure. She caught his glance and met his eyes, shaking her head once. Frowning in confusion, he glanced to his right. The easy chair Sam had been curled in when he'd last opened his eyes was empty.

"Where's my brother?"

Marnie followed his gaze. "You mean the kid that thought something six-four could sleep in something built for five-two?"

Dean nodded.

Marnie glanced over her shoulder. "I'm not exactly sure," she answered somewhat hesitantly.

Worry spiked and Dean leaned forward, instinctively trying to look around the curtain. His side protested and he collapsed weakly with a whimper. Marnie pressed a button and then pried open his fist to set something into his curled fingers.

"This is your pain pump," she explained. "It's on a controlled drip; press when you need to. It won't let you overdo it."

"S'okay," Dean shook his head, letting the trigger fall back into the bed.

"Hey," Marnie tipped her chin down. "Don't borrow trouble."

She eased his blanket and sheet back so that it rested just over his lap, exposing his chest and belly. He frowned in surprise at the sight of the three large bandages along his right side.

"The staples in your abdomen will probably be removed tomorrow," Marnie said.

"Staples?" Dean croaked.

Marnie nodded, carefully peeling back the medical tape from the lowest bandage and removing the gauze. The inside of the white bandage displayed an unappealing brown and pink mark that looked very much like seeping blood. Dean's eyes traveled along the nearly three-inch gash from his navel around to his side held together by several large, silver staples.

"How…"

Marnie pulled out a fresh bandage and laid it over the staples, taping it loosely. "That bullet broke up inside you," she explained. "They had to remove a few inches of your small intestine to get one of the pieces out."

At Dean's raised eyebrows, she continued, "Basically, it caught in the tissue at what would be the top of your intestinal tract. They went in, cut around it, then pieced the two sides back together. Aside from being sore as hell for awhile, you won't even notice."

Dean reached up with clumsy fingers to gingerly touch the bandage on his upper ribs.

"Yeah," Marnie nodded, clicking her tongue against her teeth. "The other piece of the bullet broke a couple of ribs. Counting the entry wound on your shoulder, you've got three good holes in you, Tiger."

"How soon can I get out of here?" Dean asked, letting his hand fall to the bed.

Marnie's look of incredulity would have been comical had he not been so tired. "Let's just talk about getting you off a clear-liquid diet first, how about?"

The very thought of food brought the rush of nausea back and Dean closed his eyes.

"You have a ways to go before you even get about of bed, let alone—"

"Can you find my brother?" Dean asked, his weak voice angering him.

When Marnie hesitated, Dean opened his eyes, worried that she wasn't telling him the whole truth about Sam. He didn't expect to see someone standing next to her. At the edge of the privacy curtain, a large, ruddy-faced man had emerged, watching Dean with dark, critical eyes.

Despite the casual clothes, Dean knew immediately that he was police. He'd spent too many years avoiding the law for various reasons to not be able to recognize them by the way they stood, the look in their eyes, even the paper and gun-oil smell that so often wafted from their fingers. He instinctively squared his shoulders, working to hide all outside evidence of pain and weakness.

"Dean," Marnie said, sounding sad and nervous. "This is—"

"My name is Hanson," the man interjected. "I just need to ask you a few questions."

"About what, Officer?" Dean replied, lifting an eyebrow and letting the man know his pretense only went so far.

Hanson pushed out his lips and glanced down. "It's Detective, actually."

"If you say so." Dean tipped his head to the side.

Hanson's lips twitched and he glanced at Marnie. "Give us a minute?"

Marnie glanced at Dean, "I'm not sure if—"

"He'll be fine," Hanson assured her with empty sincerity.

Dean tipped his chin in a half-nod. "It's okay."

"I'll see if I can find your brother," Marnie offered.

Hanson rolled his neck, cracking the joints with a popcorn-like snap. "He's down in the cafeteria with my partner," he informed them. "I've been waiting here for you to wake up."

Dean bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself from uttering a stream of sarcasm. He didn't have the strength to keep up the pretense for long, and he instinctively knew he needed to be on guard. As Marnie pushed her vitals cart from the room with an uncertain backward glance, Hanson moved to the foot of Dean's bed, leaned against the wall and pulled out a small notebook, spirals gracing the top.

"Think you could turn that off first?" Dean asked nodding toward the TV in the other curtained section of the room.

With an irritated flick of his brow, Hanson pushed away from the wall and moved behind the curtain to the TV controls. Dean took the moment of solitude to close his eyes and pull in a steadying breath. He yearned for his father in this moment. John's flat voice and dead eyes had stopped police questions many times in the past. Dean reached into his bank of memories and pulled the most recent forward, sliding the mask of disinterest smoothly into place in time for Hanson to return to his post on the opposite wall.

"So, Dean," Hanson said, licking his thumb and using it to flip a page on the notebook. "It is Dean, right?"

Dean nodded, not offering anything further. They had a number of aliases appropriated for insurance purposes; Sam could have used any one of them when they checked in. Assuming, of course, Sam had checked them in. His fog of uncertainty wrapped tighter and Dean found it hard to breathe comfortably.

"How 'bout you tell me what landed you here at Mercy?"

"Got shot," Dean replied, his left arm snaking across his belly to rest gingerly on his tender wound, his bandaged wrist rubbing against the sheet.

Hanson flicked a brow. "Yeah, that much I worked out on my own."

Dean stared at him, silent.

"Okay, how about we take a different route," Hanson dropped his chin and Dean recognized the look in his dark eyes as an attempt at intimidation. He rolled his tongue against the inside of his teeth to keep a cocky grin from taking over his mouth. "How 'bout you tell me what you know about a guy named Emerson Guiley?"

Dean blinked. He hadn't expected that. "Emerson?"

Hanson nodded.

Dean's brows met over the bridge of his nose. "Not much I can tell you, Detective."

"Listen, kid," Hanson stepped forward, leaning both hands on the end of the bed, the notebook folding in his hand with the press of his thumb. "We know he told you about some treasure. We know he shot you and planned on stealing your car. We just need to know where he got the pistol and where your brother got that pearl."

Dean looked down, taking a moment to let the information Hanson had just given him filter through the tired cobwebs in his head. "Sounds like you got the case practically solved, there, Columbo. Don't know why you need me."

"I just told you why," Hanson snapped. "You show up in the ER, half-dead, with an 18th century bullet in your shoulder. I want some answers!"

"What makes you think it has anything to do with Emerson Guiley?"

Hanson lifted a brow and reached into the breast pocket of his denim shirt. "This," he pulled out a pink-tinged pearl.

Dean lifted a shoulder, his jaw tight. He needed to talk to Sam. He couldn't remember much after beheading the pirate that wasn't tangled in the fingers of nightmare and hallucinations. He was vague on how they'd gotten out of the desert. He wasn't really sure if the Guileys were even still alive.

"Pretty," he commented. "What's it got to do with me?"

Hanson took a breath and dropped the pearl back into his pocket, sliding a hip on the end of Dean's bed. "Okay, kid, I'll level with you," he said softly.

Oh, goody, Dean thought, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. Here's the part where we get to be friends.

"My partner and I… we're from a little town called Dayton, Nevada. Ever hear of it?"

"That's near Carson City, right?"

Hanson nodded. "That's right."

Dean felt something cold settle in his gut as the events of the past several days folded back against his memory. He looked down, recalling vividly the sight of the Impala's taillights pulling away from him as he downshifted a strange car's transmission to catch up with her; seeing Sam jerk as a stray bullet grazed the flesh of his shoulder; pulling two brothers from a fate worse than death; huddling beneath a Jeep in the middle of a sandstorm; yanking desperately on wrist-bound chains to reach Sam…

"Dean?"

He knew the Guileys had an uncle. He knew Mack had seen their mother die and that their father had killed himself. He knew they were desperate and that had it not been for John's discipline and obsession, he and Sam might not have been much different.

"Hey, kid!"

He closed his eyes, thinking back to that diner, to the cops that had chased after them when Emerson took the Impala.

The cops there knew them… knew they were looking for a treasure…

"You okay? You're, uh… you're getting kinda pale…"

"Am I?" Dean snapped through gritted teeth, wincing as the effort it took to express his frustration took its toll on his healing abdominal muscles. "I wonder why."

"Listen, this probably isn't the best time," Hanson backtracked, exhaling with a puff of his lips.

Something in the tilt of his chin, the light in his eyes, reminded Dean of something his father had told him about law enforcement in general: They will lie their asses of if they think it will get them the truth they think they're after. Truth is their endgame, and it doesn't much matter to them how they go about getting it.

"It's just that we've been after this guy for murder going on about two years now," Hanson continued. "This is the closest we've come to having something to pin on him."

Dean blinked at him. "Murder?"

"Kid killed his old man." Hanson lifted a shoulder.

Lemme lay some wisdom on you. Never run a jigsaw after downing a bottle of Jack.

Dean licked his lips, Emerson's words filling his ears. "Yeah, well, don't know what to tell you."

"Rob Guiley was a friend of mine," Hanson revealed after a few moments of silence. "You ever have to clean up after the body of a friend, kid?"

Dean leveled his eyes, hiding any reaction to that statement. The answer was no, but it didn't mean he hadn't seen some hellish canvases in his time. It didn't mean that possible future wasn't waiting for him.

"Listen, your brother is telling my partner everything that happened right now."

Arching a brow, Dean relaxed, recognizing the both halves against the middle technique. "Really? You two have some kind of psychic connection?"

Hanson looked down, white teeth darting out to bite at his bottom lip. "Tell me how Emerson got the gun."

"Why? You're getting everything you need from Sam."

"Son of a…" Hanson stood. "Listen, hero, fuckin' with me isn't going to get you anywhere but jail, get me?" Anger spiked his words with venom and spittle flew from his lips to fall flaccidly on the foot of Dean's bed.

Mouth ticked up in an arrogant grin, Dean simply blinked at him.

Hanson stepped away from the bed, running meaty hands through thinning hair. He paced for a few minutes while Dean watched, then turned and faced Dean, temper once more in hand.

"Tell me about the last time you saw Emerson Guiley," he requested in a calm, measured tone. "Please."

Dean took a breath, weighing his options. Without true clarity of his own, he didn't want to offer Hanson much information; however, he also wanted him to leave. "My brother and I ran into them at a truck stop."

"Wait, them? Emerson was with someone?"

Dean cocked his head, warning bells loud in his ears. "He was traveling with a red-headed kid."

Hanson flipped his notebook open, clicking the tip of his pen. "That kid have a name?"

"Not that he mentioned." Dean shook his head.

"I'll be damned," Hanson muttered, eyes scanning previously written notes. "So they're traveling together."

Dean was silent, letting Hanson connect crooked lines to unrelated dots in his own theory. He knew the drill: keep the details to a minimum, let them draw their own conclusions, then get the hell out.

"So, what happened at this truck stop?"

Dean pursed his lips, dropping his head back on his pillows, exhausted from the effort of being conscious. "We helped them out of a scrape with some truckers."

"What kind of scrape?"

Dean brows bounced into inverted V's. "The kind you don't really want to walk away from."

Hanson pressed his lips together, absorbing the information. "And then?"

Dean sighed. "Then nothing."

"You left them?"

Dean lifted an eyebrow. "What, you think I let them hitch a ride in the back seat?"

"So," Hanson frowned, his eyes running along Dean's bandages. "If Emerson didn't shoot you, then who did?"

Dean rolled his bottom lip against his teeth. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

"Try me."

You asked for it, pal. "A pirate."

Hanson nodded sagely, writing something in his notebook. "You get a lot of those around here."

"Really." Dean couldn't keep the sarcastic bite from the word.

"Come from motorcycle gangs, mostly," Hanson shrugged. "Looking for easy targets like you and your brother. Roll you for cash, leave you for dead."

Dean just stared at him, not responding.

"Still don't get how your brother got hold of that pearl, though."

"What makes you think it has anything to do with Emerson?"

Hanson flipped back through his notebook. "We've liked Emerson for Rob's death since the start, but all we had was circumstantial evidence—and not enough to convict. Emerson's saying suicide, that weird brother of his wasn't saying anything, and my hands were tied."

Hanson twitched his wrist and closed the book, tilting his head as he continued to talk, his eyes on Dean but not seeing him. "Then one day, they just took off. I didn't have clearance to follow them, so I had to let them go, right? Only I didn't."

Dean sighed, letting the detective warm to his story, wishing desperately for Sam, for John, for Marnie—anyone to get rid of this guy and let him rest, let him think.

"I found a cop in Carson City who told me they had locked Emerson up on more than one occasion trying to steal a car to go after some treasure. Guess the kid described it as a shit-load of pearls. 'Course no one believed him."

"Except you."

"Well, I had an advantage," Hanson lifted a shoulder. "After they bailed, I went through the house, found Rob's notebook. The guy really lost it after Rosie died. Wasn't really ever the same. That notebook…"

Hanson shook his head, remembering, it seemed, the crazy ramblings of a friend he'd never really known.

"Anyway, looks like Emerson took it all seriously. We tracked him for while, then lost him. Hadn't seen hide nor hair of his brother. Figured he'd either killed him, too, or ditched him somewhere. Next thing I know, you turn up with a bullet in your shoulder."

Dean looked at Hanson through his lashes. "Pretty big leap, don't you think?"

Hanson straightened up. "Been doing some digging into this treasure of Rob's. Figured that's where Emerson was headed. Put out a BOLO for anything related to seventeenth or eighteenth century artifacts or pearls. Plus, I got a cousin works homicide here in Needles."

Swell. "Listen," Dean sighed, letting his weakness show through for the briefest of moments. "Can we finish this later?"

Hanson narrowed his eyes, raking them over Dean's body, then hitting his face once in a sharp glance. "Sure, kid. Get some rest. I'll be back."

"Can't wait," Dean muttered, finding the controls for the bed and easing the head down until he no longer felt the uncomfortable pinch of his staples. He flicked off the light above his head, leaving the room illuminated only by the fluorescent lights embedded in the ceiling at the foot of his bed.

He heard Hanson leave the room, shutting the door behind him. The room was quiet save the hiss of air circulating and the dull hum of the voices in the hall. Dean listened, trying to pick one voice from another, searching for someone he knew. He was too tense to sleep, and in too much pain to do anything by lie still and breathe.

When the door opened again, he flinched, then groaned softly. His body was beginning to remember the abuse he'd inflicted upon it during their trek from the pirate ship, even though all he could clearly recall was Sam. His brother's voice, his brother's arms, his brother's touch, his brother's eyes. They hit him like physical blows as he tried to recall how they escaped and how, exactly, he ended up here.

"Dean," called a male voice, pitched low in deference to the environment of the wounded.

He opened his eyes, staring blankly at the man standing at the foot of his bed where Hanson had been. The man wore a navy blue scrub shirt and dark denim jeans with orange stitching. His hair was thick, brown, and cut short, and his dark eyes held something familiar. Dean instantly thought of John.

"Yeah?"

"How you feelin'?"

Dean sighed, his patience whisper-thin, his body crying for respite. "Listen, man, no offense, but, who the hell are you?"

The man grinned and the tug of memory grew stronger. A heartbeat before he said his name, Dean realized who he was.

"Sorry, you were pretty out of it when we picked you guys up. Name's Joshua. I'm a friend of your father's."

"Holy shit," Dean breathed. "Faith-healer Joshua?"

Joshua grinned broader. "You sound like Sam."

"Where is he?" Dean opened his eyes wider.

"He's okay." Joshua tapped the air with his fingertips, encouraging Dean to mentally stand down. "He'll be here directly."

"He's okay?" Dean asked, not convinced.

Joshua stepped closer, and Dean felt oddly comforted by his presence. He was accustomed to being on guard around strangers—friends of his father's or not. Joshua gave off the same calm as Pastor Jim and Dean soaked it up.

"He's fine," Joshua nodded. "He has a few stitches in his belly—said it was from a cutlass. He's going to have to tell you about that one. Some bruises, a nasty sunburn, but nothing that won't heal."

"There was a cop in here," Dean said, fighting to keep his eyes open.

Joshua nodded, then reached behind the curtain for a stiff-backed chair. He pulled it around next to Dean's bed, sitting down. "I know. He's not going to bother you again."

Dean's mouth bowed up in a small smile. "Why? You kill him or something?"

"Or something," Joshua's eyebrow bounced.

Dean blinked.

"Don't worry, Dean," Joshua said. "I'll hang out here until your brother gets back. Get some rest."

"Sorry, man," Dean slurred. "No offence, but… without someone watching my back…"

Dean was convinced there was no way he would be able to relax enough to sleep with Sam gone and a near-stranger sitting next to his bed. He would be too aware, too on-edge. The desperate keen of his weakened body would have to go unheeded until he was sure he could truly let down his guard.

Joshua cleared his throat and Dean watched the edges of the man's shadowed figure blur as he worked to focus. "I'll watch your back, kid."

"I know… you're a friend… of Dad's…but…"

"That I am," Joshua said softly. Dean blinked slowly, the low rumble of the man's voice soothing the edges of his awareness. "I met your Dad when he wasn't a very nice guy to be around. He pushed everyone away. But…" Joshua leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "There was something in his eyes, y'know? Something more than just the Corp. Something that made me cut through his bullshit and call his bluff."

"What was it?" Dean whispered, his lips almost too numb to form words.

"You." Joshua said softly. "You and your brother, Dean. You two are everything to him. Always were. You believe that?"

"Hmm," Dean verbally shrugged. He wasn't going to let exhaustion pry open a vault he'd kept closed even around Sam.

"It's easier to leave than to be left behind, Dean," Joshua said softly. Dean tried to nod, but his body had disconnected from his brain, unwilling and unable to comply.

"Get some sleep, kid." Joshua's voice faded in the background. "I'll watch your back."

With that promise, Dean's eyes slipped closed, his muscles relaxed, his breathing evened out. And despite his conviction to the contrary, Dean fell asleep under the watchful eye of a hunter.

www

December 24, 2005

"We'll take the catheter out when he wakes, but, you need to let him do this on his own steam."

The blonde nurse, Marnie, seared him with angry eyes, her voice a harsh whisper in response to Sam's question.

"I get that," Sam replied, his voice not quite a whisper, but low and calm. "Believe me; I want him well worse than you do. But, we have somewhere he can go to heal up that's not—"

"Anyplace that isn't here isn't good enough," Marnie declared.

Sam felt the sigh slip out before he had time to catch it. Dean had been sleeping more than he'd been conscious under this nurse's care and yet he'd managed to engender himself to her as if he'd turned on the full watt of his practiced charm.

"Marnie," Sam said, watching her react to the low roll of his voice. Dean might be able to reduce the female will to nothing, but Sam had a few skills of his own. "You know those cops that were here?"

Marnie's nod was jerky, as if wary of what she might be agreeing to.

"They're looking for someone they think is connected to my brother and me, and they're gonna be back."

"So?"

Sam took a breath. "Can I trust you?"

Marnie arched a brow. "Depends on what with."

Sam nodded, shooting a glance to the curtain shielding Dean's bed from the door. His brother's silhouette hadn't moved. He was anxious to see Dean awake, to talk with him, to connect again. Until then, he had to trust that the training he'd found himself falling back on since this hunt began kept him in synch with his brother despite the barrier of unconsciousness.

"We helped them."

"Who?" Marnie asked, her pale brows puckering in confusion. "You mean… the guys the cops are after?"

Sam nodded. "We helped them, and that's how my brother got hurt."

"Why didn't you just tell—"

"Because the cops have it wrong, but… I don't have any way of proving that."

Marnie looked over at Dean, then back to Sam. "And you want Dean away from the cops."

Sam nodded, finding just the right tremble in his voice to help her believe him. "He… he won't heal if he's dealing with them all the time."

Marnie looked at the floor. Sam waited, watching the part of her hair at the top of her head.

"You're friends with James, aren't you?"

It took Sam a moment to realize she was referring to Joshua's alias. "Yeah," he said.

"He's a good guy," Marnie muttered, still not looking up.

"Will you help us?" Sam pressed, feeling his chin tremble.

Dean shifted and took a breath and Sam shot his eyes to the curtain, then back to Marnie.

"Please?"

Marnie took a breath, then lifted stern eyes to his. Sam found himself feeling momentarily sorry for anyone that truly crossed her.

"I'll help you on two conditions," she said, pointing an index finger at him. She had to tilt her head back to look in his eyes, but it didn't seem to diminish her ferocity. "One, he's able to get out of the bed and walk to the bathroom and back on his own. And two, if his fever spikes or his incisions become infected, you get him back here immediately."

"Where we're going, there's medical help," Sam pointed out.

Marnie simply stared at him, her finger pointed at his chest.

Sam nodded hastily. "I promise. On his own, and immediately."

Taking a breath, Marnie turned to the curtain. "I'll get the AMA for Dean to sign… I'll have to get the medications he'll need to James. He'll help you get Dean out of here. Once you sign those papers—"

"I understand," Sam nodded.

Squaring her shoulders, Marnie pushed the curtain aside and Sam watched her gently touch Dean's bare arm. He stayed back in the shadows a moment, letting his brother wake slowly and be tended, knowing the moment Dean was aware of his presence, he'd be on point and looking for answers.

"Hey, there, Tiger," Marnie said softly.

"Hey," Dean replied, his voice slurred from the hold of sleep, but considerably stronger than the last time Sam had heard him.

"Thought you were going to sleep through Christmas," Marnie commented, checking his vitals.

"Christmas?" Dean asked, sounding honestly confused.

Sam bit the inside of his cheek. His brother had always made sure Christmas was special when they were growing up. Tree, cookies, presents—even if all were stolen property, Dean made sure Sam had them. Sam recalled a few holidays where it had just been the two of them, John holed up who-knew-where. For the first time, Sam wondered about how the holiday had been spent while he'd been away at Stanford. Had Dean been alone? Had he shared a bottle of Jack with their father?

"It's Christmas Eve morning," Marnie replied, clicking her tongue against her teeth as she looked at the thermometer she pulled free from Dean's mouth. "Better," she said softly.

"He's not a Scrooge," Sam said, emerging from the shadows and into his brother's line of sight. "He just lost track of time."

"Sammy," Dean grinned, his pale face lighting up and his eyes opening wide in relief and delight.

The change was remarkable, Sam realized. Caution and uncertainty had drawn lines around his brother's eyes that were smoothed and forgotten with the power of that smile. Several days' growth of beard framed his jaw and mouth, giving him an air of a wounded soldier, setting off the bruising as badges of honor.

Marnie stepped back, her glance taking them both in. "Dean," she said, grabbing his attention. "Your brother wants to sign you out of here."

"'Bout time," Dean nodded.

"You need to do a few things for me first," Marnie informed him. Dean's chin ticked to the side in an instinctive stubborn reaction. "You don't, and I'll have a doctor in here in under a minute that will stop me from getting that AMA."

Dean quirked his lips, shifting his eyes to her. Sam saw the green warm up and shook his head in bemusement.

"Now, Marnie," Dean said, his voice low. "When has a doctor ever moved that fast?"

Marnie huffed out a slight laugh, then sobered. "Dean, listen to me." She leaned slightly forward. "I can tell you've been through some stuff—your body is too young for the scars I've seen on it."

Dean's eyes shot to Sam's, then slid back to Marnie, waiting.

"But this isn't just a patched up bullet wound or some broken ribs," she continued. "You also had major abdominal surgery and the possible complications from that—"

"I'll do what you tell me to," Dean interrupted. "I promise."

Marnie looked at Sam. "You want to be here for this?"

Sam looked right at Dean. "I'm not going anywhere unless he kicks me out."

"He's not going anywhere," Dean echoed.

"Come up here, then." Marnie nodded toward Dean's head.

Sam stepped up as Marnie lifted the sheets, exposing Dean's bare legs. He turned to face his brother, giving him the semblance of privacy as Marnie calmly narrated her actions while removing the catheter. Dean closed his eyes, grunting in a flash of discomfort and then relaxing as Marnie stood and straightened the sheets.

"We need to talk," Dean said, his eyes on Sam.

"I know."

"Talk later, listen now," Marnie ordered. "I'm going to remove your IVs except for the antibiotic. That means no IV pain meds, Dean."

He nodded. Sam watched his brother's face, looking for the tension lines that always pulled tight around the corners of his eyes and mouth when Dean was in pain.

"Here," she pressed the pump once before setting it down and starting to detach it. "One last hit to tide you over before you have the pills to help. Staying ahead of the pain is the best way to heal."

Dean lifted a brow and glanced sideways at Sam. "Remember that."

"Stay ahead of the pain," Sam nodded, "got it."

Marnie narrowed her eyes. "Are you two making fun of me?"

"No, Ma'am," they replied in unison.

"We'll remove the last IV just before you sign the AMA," Marnie promised. "I want you to have that tetracycline for a few more hours."

"Tetrawhat?" Dean frowned.

"It's a broad-spectrum antibiotic. That bullet was old enough that just having it in your body for several hours could have given you moderate lead poisoning. The chelating agent is purely precaution, but better safe than sorry."

Dean glanced at Sam and mouthed lead poisoning? Sam folded his lips down in a frown and shrugged.

"There's one more thing," Marnie continued.

Dean lifted an eyebrow at her hesitant tone.

"I need to know that your bowels are working."

Dean closed his mouth with a click. "Oh."

Sam looked down at the floor.

"Soon as I know that, I'll let you head to this…" she waved her hand in the air, "mystery place with medical care."

Dean looked at Sam, questions in his eyes.

"I'll explain later," Sam promised.

"Okay, fine," Dean sighed. "But you're gonna have to get me something to eat."

"Not a problem," Marnie said, smiling sweetly. She stepped behind the curtain and through the door. Sam and Dean exchanged a quick, confused glance. Marnie returned carrying a tray laden with hot tea, chicken broth and Jello. She set it on a swivel return and placed it across Dean's lap.

"What's this?" Dean asked.

"Breakfast," Marnie announced. "Enjoy. I'll be back later to, uh… check on your work."

With a cheeky grin, she swept from the room leaving the brothers to stare at the unappetizing fare.

"Dude," Dean sighed, prying the lid from the broth bowl. "This sucks out loud. Why didn't you just break me out of here?"

Sam chuckled, sitting gingerly in the easy chair, his hand pressed to his still-sore wound. "'Cause I'm tired of carrying you."

Dean sipped the broth, made a face, set it back down, then reached for his Jello. "Okay, brother. Start talking."

"Where do you want me to begin?"

"You get to play twenty questions with a Nevada cop earlier?"

"Yesterday," Sam nodded.

"That was yesterday?" Dean brought his head up swiftly. "Hell, I did lose track of time."

"Eat," Sam tipped his chin up to the tray. "So, I sit down with this cop, and the first thing she says is—"

"Wait, you got a lady cop?" Dean's forehead folded in an incredulous frown. "Swell. I get Dirty Harry and you get a chick."

"Thought she said her partner's name was Hanson."

"Whatever."

"Anyway," Sam sighed, leaning back in the chair and watching Dean grimace as he finished the broth and reached for the hot tea. "They're after Emerson—"

"For murdering his dad," Dean nodded. "That much I got. But… I thought he told us his dad killed himself."

"Dude, I don't know what to think," Sam shook his head. "You would not believe the level of weird I waded through with those two trying to get us out of the desert. They got into a full-on brawl because Mack said he saw Emerson kill someone and Emerson denied it."

"That Mack kid isn't all there, Sam."

"Tell me something I don't know."

"I said we left them at the truck stop," Dean informed him, caution etched on his face.

Sam nodded. "Same here. Didn't give her Mack's name."

"Me neither. Told them a pirate shot me."

"Ditto—she assumed I meant some kind of desert biker gang."

Dean's mouth curved up in a grin. "Yep. Mine said they'd been on the lookout for old artifacts that could lead them to the treasure."

"And then to Emerson," Sam nodded. "Seems like there would be easier ways to do it."

Dean shrugged, pushing his empty tray away. "Exactly why I'm not a cop," he sighed, settling back against his pillows with a wince. "They just get in the way and screw everything up."

"You're not a cop 'cause you're too good a criminal," Sam tossed up.

Dean folded his lips. "I'll give you that."

Sam felt his brother's eyes on him, knew he was checking him for injuries. He tugged up the hem of his T-shirt and exposed the slice in his skin held together by dozens of tiny black sutures.

"Looks like ants." Dean scrunched up his nose. "You need a shave, Sammy."

"Says you," Sam huffed. "Seen a mirror lately?"

Dean swallowed and caught Sam's eyes. Sam held them for a moment, allowing the care and worry that warmed his brother's gaze slip into him and settle around his heart. The looks held everything they couldn't say out loud without the buffer of pain or threat of death. Words bellowed in desperation when someone lay bleeding weren't palpable in the sanitized world of medicine and normalcy.

I was really scared.

I thought I lost you.

Don't ever do that to me again.

I'd rather give up than go on without you.

I'm sorry I couldn't stop them from hurting you.

I love you.

Dean cleared his throat and touched his side. "I remember getting shot."

"You do?" Sam replied, hearing the emotion tug on the edges of his words.

Dean nodded. "I… I thought they were going to kill you."

Sam touched his belly. "They hauled me up, over the treasure chest," he paused, remembering the sight of the empty coat Mack had been wearing still hanging over the opened chest. "They only cut me once."

Dean closed his eyes, and Sam watched him remember. "The ship… was… burning?"

Sam nodded when Dean opened his eyes again to look at him. "Emerson brought the bag on board. We tried to salt and burn it."

"How did he," Dean lifted a shoulder, "not die?"

Sam shook his head helplessly. "They cut him, but not bad enough. He came back—and I honestly couldn't tell you if it was for his brother, for all of us, or for the treasure. They'd cut Mack up pretty good, trying to stop the curse, Emerson—"

"He lit the map," Dean remembered suddenly. "And the ship… dude, did it… sink?"

Sam nodded. "There were four left—four pirates. The one with the dreadlocks that cut me, one with a big scar down his face—"

"Oh, that bastard," Dean snarled, absentmindedly rubbing at his bandaged wrist. "I wanted to be the one to take that son of a bitch down."

"Well," Sam sighed. "You might get your wish."

Dean nodded. "I was afraid of that."

"Yeah, you said that before," Sam narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean?"

Dean looked past Sam, toward the curtained window. A small sliver of light broke through the seam, shooting false warmth across the bed sheets. "I… I was, uh, dreaming. A lot."

Sam waited, watching as clouds of nightmares crossed his brother's face.

"I saw the bodies—the ones in the hold. They're trapped there, Sam. All those souls… and they were kinda pissed that we knew how to… y'know, ease their pain or whatever and didn't do it." Dean shifted his eyes to meet Sam's. "And I saw the angel."

"What angel?"

"The lady on the bow of the ship? Her name was Isobel."

Sam blinked. "How the hell do you know that?"

Dean looked down. "She told me."

"What do you mean? Like, she… haunted you?"

"I guess you could say that."

Before Sam could react further, the room door opened and a male nurse stepped in.

"Hey there," he greeted, his grin too broad and too sunny for their current moods. "I'm just gonna remove those staples. Help you get more comfortable."

Dean nodded without saying anything and Sam stood, stepping over to the window and opening the curtain to look out into the California winter landscape. The parking lot of Mercy Hospital was nearly empty; the grass was brown, the trees nearly bare, their branches unmoving. It almost looked as if someone had flicked a dimmer switch on the world.

"There, all done. Better?"

"Much," Dean grumbled.

"Marnie told me to give you these. You can have one now."

"Thanks."

"Need anything else?"

"Got any real food?"

Sam turned at that question. The nurse nodded.

"I'll have them bring you in a tray in a bit."

"Real food," Dean stressed. The nurse smiled blankly and nodded, then left the room.

"He's not gonna bring me real food," Dean muttered.

Sam sat back down, concern pushing his shoulders lower as the outside light turned Dean's sunburned face an odd shade of gray. "Don't worry about it," he said. "Just do what they want you to so you can get out of here. I'll get you some real food at Joshua's."

"Okay, yeah, that." Dean pointed at him. "What the hell, man?"

"You met him, right?"

Dean nodded. "I met him. Nice guy. Reminded me of Dad."

Sam leaned forward, elbows on knees, and told Dean about the helicopter rescue, the Santa suit, the Vet camp. As he talked Dean's eyes seemed to retreat, slipping over memory and tightening focus when he caught on something familiar.

"I can't believe you let them put me in a helicopter," he said when Sam ran out of words.

"There wasn't any other way, man. Besides," Sam said with a grin, "we sang Metallica."

Dean smiled. "Yeah?"

"Dean?" Sam sighed, leaning back.

Dean watched him, waiting.

"You want to know something weird?"

Dean chuckled. "You're gonna have to work at it if you plan on beating a soldier in a Santa suit landing a helicopter in the desert to rescue four guys wounded from fighting pirate ghosts."

"In the desert, I… I remembered, like, everything Dad taught us," Sam said softly.

"Why is that weird?" Dean popped two of the small white pills from their silver packets and tossed them onto the back of his tongue, swallowing.

"You don't understand," Sam sat forward. "I mean everything. How to fight, how to move, what to watch for. I remembered freakin' Morse Code, Dean."

One hand wrapped around his middle, Dean tilted his head to the side. "Sam, you spent your whole life around that. Of course you—"

"No, listen, see, I didn't!" Sam stood up, and paced to the end of the bed, then leaned a shoulder against the wall. It was easier to talk to Dean about this without actually looking at him. "I hated learning all that shit. You soaked it up. You were good at it. But I just… tolerated it. I wanted to make you proud but I was always so… so pissed off at Dad for making us do all those drills and learn all that lore and the military slang and the bullshit sign language for soldiers and… hell, all of it."

Dean didn't say anything. Sam barreled forward. The words were ballooning in his chest, piling up in their eagerness to get out, to be heard. He was almost choking on them.

"I couldn't wait to get away from it. From him. There were times I hated him so much for making us live that way, dragging us around everywhere… leaving us. I remember more Christmases without him than with him, y'know?" Sam rolled to his back, leaning against the wall and tipping his head up to stare at the paneled ceiling, not waiting for Dean to answer him. "I picked that fight with him. The day I left. I could have told him about Stanford differently. I could have snuck out. I could have done lotsa things."

"Sam—"

"But I wanted him mad," Sam interrupted. "I wanted him to push me away. I wanted him to have to watch me walk away and know that he was the one that did it. Then I could feel justified, y'know? I could say he made me leave… he told me not to come back"

The tears were tight in his throat, doing their best to block his words.

"I missed you, man," he almost whispered. "I would wake up at night in the apartment and… I'd forget for a minute. But I wouldn't let myself miss Dad. I packed it all away—anything I brought with me that was connected to hunting. All of it, gone."

"Not all of it," Dean said quietly.

Sam looked at him and felt tears slip down his heated face, tucking neatly into the corners of his mouth.

"You were ready to take me down that night I broke in to your apartment."

"That's different. That's instinct."

"What do you think all that desert kung-fu was, Sam?"

Sam looked down, feeling the next words cut into him as they climbed free. "If I'd let myself remember back then… if I'd still been listening to Dad… Jess might still—"

"No!" Dean leaned forward as far as his wounded body would allow. "You stop right there. Jessica's death… it wasn't your fault. No matter what you dreamed, no matter what you thought you saw. Dad said it on the phone when he called us from Sacramento. It was a demon, Sam. It was that demon and nothing else."

Sam nodded, silent for several moments.

"Why do you believe in me, Dean?" He asked softly, sniffing. He lifted his head, taking in the lines of pain and weariness on his brother's face, the tightness of his stern mouth, the hunched posture of self-protection. "Back in the desert, when we got off the ship… you said you knew I wasn't going to fail."

Dean nodded.

"How, Dean? How do you know?"

As Sam watched, Dean's chin shook and his brother looked away, working to control himself. "Sammy, goddammit. I have watched you all your life. You realize that? The life I had before you were born wasn't even… real." Dean looked back at him out of the corner of his eyes and Sam saw them glisten with tears held at bay. "It scared the hell out of me, watching you grow up. Watching you figure stuff out. But I never once saw you fail. Never once."

"But… what if I succeeded in something I wasn't supposed to?"

Dean sighed. "Hasn't happened yet, brother. And if it does…" he shrugged. "We'll deal with it."

They were quiet for a moment, the muffled voices in the hall the only noise in the room.

"Joshua knows where Dad is," Sam said. "Gave me the phone number."

Dean looked away. "Think he's still there?"

"One way to find out."

"You sure you want to?" Dean asked.

Sam took a shaky breath. "I… don't know. What about you? What do you want?"

"Sammy," Dean offered him a trembling smile. "I never wanted him to leave. I never wanted you to leave. I never wanted any of this to happen. But… it has. So, I don't know that what I want matters all that much."

The door to the room opened, breaking the moment, and Joshua walked in carrying a tray.

"Someone order some real food?" He asked, tipping his chin at Sam and turning to look at Dean. He set the tray down on the swivel return, lifting the lid of one plate on the tray.

Sam almost laughed at the look of euphoria that crossed Dean's face.

"Oh, my God," Dean sighed. "Is that… a cheeseburger?"

Joshua had brought enough for all three and shared with them what he called the Winchester Extrication Plan. He'd borrowed Mike's ambulance so that Dean could ride to the camp somewhat comfortably.

"And, I have news about your fugitive friends," he said.

Sam raised his eyebrows, his mouth too full of food to say anything.

"They were dropped off here the other night before Mike came back for you two. They were treated in the ER and before they could be released, they went AWOL."

"That much we kinda figured, man," Dean said around a mouthful of food.

Joshua raised an I wasn't finished finger. "The detectives that were here? Grabbed onto an anonymous tip and headed out after the Guileys toward New Mexico."

"They're in New Mexico?" Sam squeaked.

"No. They're at the camp. But the cops think they're in New Mexico."

Dean and Sam exchanged a bemused glance.

"Mike's got them helping Kenny with the greenhouse. They're not hurt that bad, but… they're pretty messed up."

Sam wadded up his burger wrapper and tossed it into the trashcan near the head of Dean's bed. "Any way you got some… contacts or whatever to help us figure out what's going on with those two?"

"If you really want to know," Joshua nodded.

"Why wouldn't we want to know?" Sam asked.

Joshua raised an eyebrow. "Sometimes it's enough to know they've been through the shit, y'know?"

Sam shook his head. "No, man. I gotta know." He stood up. "I'm serious. I gotta know what the hell is up with those two. I gotta know if Emerson killed his dad. And I can't figure out why Mack turned pirate so damn quick when he thought Emerson was dead. Hell, how he turned so quick. I mean, it was almost like he was—"

"Planning it," Dean finished for him.

"Yeah," Sam nodded, thinking. "Y'know… he told Emerson—back in the desert when you were out of it—that he fit in with them."

"He fit in with them," Dean repeated, dully. "With cursed ghost pirates?"

Sam walked to the window and looking out at the bleak view, his hands talking as rapidly as his mouth. "Think about it, man. He was in the same accident that killed his mother. He watched her get cut up so that they could get her out. I mean, that's gotta screw anyone up." He took a breath, shoving his hands into his hair, still not turning around, too caught up in his logic.

"He stops talking, right? Somewhere along the way he learns Spanish—and I'm not even going to bother trying to figure out how a kid that doesn't talk learns a foreign language. He thinks he sees his brother kill his father. They find the journal where their dad has taken a walk right off the map and he starts to believe that not only is the treasure real, but the pirates are and he decides that's where he's gotta go. That's where he belongs. I mean, did you notice—"

Sam turned to face Dean and Joshua, stopping short at the looks on their faces. "What?"

"Damn, Sammy," Dean shook his head, licking his lips quickly. "Didn't put much thought into this or anything."

Sam blushed, looking down and slumping against the cold glass of the window. "I had a lot of time to think."

"What did you notice?" Dean nodded, encouraging him to finish his thought.

Sam shrugged. "Well… just that… the closer we got to finding the ship, the more he talked."

"I didn't really pay attention," Dean admitted.

"He was spacey, but it was like as soon as we got on the ship someone stuck a quarter in him."

"Well," Joshua stood up. "We'll have time to figure out all that and more back at camp."

"More?" The brother's asked together.

Joshua nodded. "There's a bit of cursed treasure to figure out."

Sam nodded and Dean sighed.

"I'll take this away," Joshua said, motioning to the tray of wrappers, "and bring Dean back some clothes."

"Thanks, Joshua," Sam said, smiling his gratitude at the older hunter.

"Sure, kid," Joshua nodded, leaving the room.

"Sam," Dean caught his attention.

"Yeah?"

"Go get Marnie. Tell her I'm following orders." Dean winced, rolling slowly to his right side and bringing his knees up so that he could slide his legs off the side of the bed. Sam curled his fingers into fists, wanting to help, knowing he couldn't.

"Sonofabitchthishurts," Dean gasped on a quick breath.

Sam watched Dean slowly push himself to a seated position, then stand on incredibly wobbly legs. He gripped the now-mobile IV pole that was still attached to the back of his right hand.

"You got it?" Sam asked as Dean moved forward, one hand on the bed, heading in the general direction of the bathroom.

"I got it."

When the door closed behind Dean, Sam dropped his head in his hands, trying not to hold his breath as he waited. He hated the weakness of the human body. He hated how much they demanded—how much Dean demanded—of their bodies only to be betrayed time and again by limits. When the door opened once more, Dean leaned on the door frame, pale, sweating, trembling, the simple act of moving taking whatever strength he'd gathered. Sam stood, watching as his brother's hooded eyes followed his motion.

"Let's get the hell out of here," Dean whispered, his voice thin.

www

The navy-blue hoodie was too big, but it was warm. Dean allowed Sam to roll the sleeves of the borrowed denim jacket up to his wrists as they bumped along a back road to Joshua's mysterious camp. They'd been able to salvage his jeans and boots, but everything else—down to the boxer shorts—had been 'donated to the cause,' as Joshua put it.

Sam wore a large black and tan flannel shirt over a gray long-sleeved T-shirt with the words beef, it's what's for dinner faded across the front. Joshua said the only one tall enough to loan clothes to Sam had once been a farmer in Iowa before war had brought him to the camp.

"We look like we traded clothes," he commented when Sam sat back from helping him adjust the too-long sleeves.

Sam grinned tiredly, his dimples barely denting his cheeks.

"You aren't going to believe this place, Dean," Sam told him. "It's like… someone dropped a bunch of people from all walks of life into a snow globe and then tipped it over."

"Poetic."

"Bite me."

"You wish."

"We're here, boys!" Joshua called back from the front of the ambulance.

When the vehicle stopped, Sam waited until Joshua and Mike opened the back doors, then stood. Dean watched him amble to the back and drop down to the pavement. He wanted to rise and move just as his lanky brother had. He wanted to kick this weakness that caused his hands to shake, his muscles to quiver, his emotions to rebel, to the curb. He took a breath, steadying himself.

Sam looked back over at him. "You okay?"

"Gimme a minute," Dean replied, unwilling to admit he needed help with the eyes of two former Marines on him.

Sam saved him. Without glancing back at the waiting men, he climbed into the ambulance and sat next to Dean on the stretcher. As Dean gathered his strength, Sam rambled idly about arriving to the camp in the dead of night, the flurry of activity that surrounded them, and how he felt like he stepped out of Platoon and into M.A.S.H. Dean listened, swallowing hard and willing the sweat beading on his upper lip to evaporate. Glancing to his right, he saw that Joshua and Mike had gotten the hint, stepping away, out of ear shot. Mike lit up a cigarette and turned his head away to breathe out a curl of smoke.

"I'm ready," Dean said in a low voice.

"Slow and easy," Sam soothed, turning his hand over so that Dean could use it to leverage himself up.

They made their way to the end of the ambulance, then Sam stepped down, reaching his other hand for Dean and somehow managing to avoid the wounds on his right side. Dean took a slow breath, filling his lungs with the crisp afternoon air. It helped to balance him, though he felt as though he were separated from his true body.

The broken thing surrounding his heart, containing his will, wasn't his body.

"C'mon," Joshua gestured with his head. "I'll show you where you'll be staying. You can hit the showers before we eat."

The brothers nodded and Sam ducked, sliding Dean's left arm over his shoulders easily. Dean knew Sam wanted him in a wheelchair, wanted him to be cautious about too much too soon, but he needed to be mobile. He needed to be in charge of this body until it once again became his own.

As they made their way to a large green canvass tent, a man in a large white sweatshirt with a Cubs baseball logo on the chest walked by. Dean blinked in surprise at the Jerry Garcia look-alike. The man stopped, turned, and grinned at Dean.

"Look who's back from the dead!" With a two-finger salute, he continued on.

Dean tipped his head back, looking up at Sam. "You have got to be kidding me."

Sam grinned. "Oh, it gets better."

By the time they reached their bunks, Dean was willing to swear he'd seen every slice of life—from hippie to yuppie. In just a glance, he could see that everyone had a job and that the camp ran smoothly because of each individual's contributions. As he lay on a bunk, allowing a man with a large, white mustache and a scar pulling the corner of his mouth down in a permanent frown to check his bandages and sutures, he realized that they all had one thing in common.

They were all haunted.

Joshua dropped off towels, razors, soap, and several changes of clothes. "I'll send someone back to check on you periodically—no need for you to go to the med tent unless things go sideways. You got the nod of approval from Al when he checked your bandages, and you have the meds from Marnie. You can either come down to the dining hall, or I can bring you something back here—it's up to you. I know you've gotta be cooked."

"Like a Thanksgiving turkey," Dean muttered, his right arm over his eyes, his left arm close to his side.

"I have Mike looking for your traveling companions. I radioed Kenny and he said they skipped out on him early this morning."

"Thanks," Sam said, tipping his chair back against the wall.

"Hey, Josh?" Dean called.

"Yep."

"Do… do they all…" Dean dropped his arm, squinting up at their friend. "…know?"

"About hunters, you mean?"

"Yeah."

Joshua shook his head. "Mike does, and a few others."

"It's just… none of them asked… y'know?" Dean shook his head in wonder. "They just helped us and gave us their clothes—"

Joshua looked down, picking at a callous on the palm of his hand. "That's exactly why I started this camp, Dean. People want to heal. They want to help others heal. They just need a chance." He looked up at Dean, his eyes weighted with meaning. "They need someone to give them a chance."

Dean nodded, looking around their sparsely decorated room. "Thanks, man," he said. "You didn't have to help us, and… we appreciate it."

Joshua smiled. "You'd do the same for me."

As he turned to leave, Joshua wrapped a hand on the door frame, his face turned away as he spoke. "I wasn't going to tell you this… being Christmas Eve and all, but…"

"What?" Sam prompted.

Joshua looked back over his shoulder at them. "I figured you lost your phones in the desert… or left them with your car, so… I called the number in Windom—where your dad was holed up." He held up a cell phone.

The brothers were silent.

"A lady answered the phone. Said he left two days ago. She didn't know where he was going." Joshua took them both in, then folded his lips down in a sad smile. He set the phone on the small desk just inside the door. "Sorry, guys."

Sam nodded and Joshua left, closing the door of the small room behind him.

"I keep forgetting it's Christmas," Dean said softly. "Feels like any other day."

"And here I was hoping for a new pony," Sam teased. "You want to take a shower?"

"Hell yeah." Dean groaned. He reached out a hand and Sam eased him up. "Just… don't go far, okay?"

"I'm right here, man."

The shower was hot, the water strong, and Dean blessed whoever had decided to put a grip bar on the tile wall. Without it, he would have fallen ten times over. He stood so that the water hit his lower back, careful of his sutures and the incision on his abdomen that was apparently now held together with surgical glue and a few butterfly bandages.

High on his left side, he felt the pinch and bite of his broken ribs, and the muscles that traced his side from shoulder to hip felt wrenched and twisted. His skin was bruised from abuse and from healing. Taking a tentative step back, he eased his head below the stream and let the water run from the crown of his head, down over his face, skipping and stuttering along the scruff of beard. His wrists looked like he'd been branded by the cuffs, scabs covering the deepest abrasions.

Suds and water sluiced left-over sand, sweat, and blood from his body and when he stepped into the steam-filled bathroom to wrap a towel around himself, he felt as weak as a newborn colt, but more aware than he'd been in days. He hobbled to the sink and wiped away a swath of steam from the mirror.

His reflection shocked him. He hadn't really bothered to look at himself after the rawhead had fried his heart, but the glimpses he'd caught in the Impala's reflection or side mirrors were troubling. With the exception of coloring from the desert sun and bruising from pirate fists, he looked as if he hadn't even been healed by the miraculous touch of Roy LeGrange.

Pressing his palm flat against his chest, he sank slowly to the closed lid of the toilet. His heart beat strong, steady. No flutter, no pain, no frightening skips of rhythm. His heart was the only part of him ready to get back into the fight.

"Dean?"

"Yeah."

"You… okay?"

He was about as far from okay as he ever wanted to be, but telling his little brother that wasn't an option. Not after all Sam had been through. He was still trying to think of a reassuring answer when Sam cracked the door open, peeking in.

"Dude," Dean protested automatically.

"Just seeing if you needed any help." Sam held the shaving cream and razor in his hand as a peace offering. "The hippies are caroling outside," he said. "They've kinda remastered the words to Silent Night."

Dean grinned tiredly. "I don't know the real words anyway."

"Wanna shave?"

Dean sighed, resigning himself to the inevitable. "I don't think I can stand up that long, man."

Sam turned and reached for something out of Dean's line of sight. He came back with the rolling chair that had been at the small writing desk situated by the door. Pushing it in front of Dean, Sam straddled the chair with the back at his chest, and turned on the water.

"Sam…" Dean tried to object.

"You remember teaching me how to shave?"

Dean nodded.

"You made me use a straight razor."

"You needed to learn to do it right," Dean argued as he felt Sam's fingers on his cheeks smearing shaving cream over his stubble. "I can do that part." He pulled his head back.

"Relax," Sam snapped. "Let me help you."

Dean sighed, then did as he was told. Sam was good; he pulled the razor with the grain to shorten the hair, keeping the burn to a minimum.

"What's your favorite Christmas?" Sam asked.

Dean blinked, lulled by the sound of the running water, the warmth of the bathroom, and Sam's careful motions. He didn't want to think.

"Dunno."

"You remember the year I gave you that?" Sam asked, nodding to the amulet around Dean's neck that had miraculously survived the melee.

"Yeah."

"My favorite Christmas," Sam said, his mouth tightening as he worked the razor around Dean's lips, "is the year after that one."

"Didn't Dad get hurt that year?"

"Yup. And he couldn't go anywhere. For weeks."

"Man, he was a bear to deal with," Dean sighed, remembering. "I think I cleaned our guns fifty times. And we never even used them."

"He made our gifts, you remember?"

Dean started to smile, but held still as Sam worked the razor along his jaw. "Yeah. You got a… what, model car?"

"He carved it," Sam nodded. "I took it with me to Stanford." Sam turned from him to wet the corner of a towel.

"I didn't know that."

"I told Jess I'd made it. She said I was obviously good with my hands."

Dean huffed out a laugh. "I'll bet she did."

Sam wiped the rest of the shaving cream from Dean's face. "There. You look almost human again."

Dean smiled. "Thanks, Sammy."

"It's Sam," he corrected good-naturedly.

With Sam's help, Dean stood and made his way to his bunk. Dressing had never been such a monumental effort before. He lay on his bunk with an exhausted sigh, letting Sam pull the sheet and blanket up to his shoulders. He was ready to sleep until next Christmas.

"Hey, Dean?"

"Yeah…"

"What did you get that year?"

Dean opened his eyes a crack, looking at his brother standing in the door way of the bathroom, dressed in too-big borrowed clothes, several days' growth of beard making him look road-weary, the curious light in his eyes turning him into a little boy.

"A crossbow."

"You ever use it?"

Dean shook his head, his still-damp hair rustling against his pillow. "I don't even know where it ended up. All the places we've moved… if it's not in the Impala, then I don't own it, y'know?"

Sam nodded with a small smile. "Maybe Dad kept it?"

"Anything's possible," Dean yawned, closing his eyes. "Just… gonna rest m'eyes…"

He never heard Sam close the bathroom door. And he didn't prepare himself to meet the devils waiting for him in the dark.

www

December 25, 2005

It was officially Christmas morning, though Sam knew there wouldn't be presents or a tree. The world outside their small bunk house was still and cold. The camp residents were tucked into the dark confines of their units of safety, chased by nightmares or rolling in dreams.

Sam had slept about eight hours after Joshua brought them food; Dean's meal was still wrapped up, waiting for his brother to wake. It took Sam several moments to figure out what had jarred him from sleep, and only when the wounded-animal sound from the other side of the room repeated did he breathe once more, the memory of where they were coming back to him.

He turned to his side, facing Dean. Sam had rarely seen his brother trapped in a nightmare. Since reuniting, he'd been the one to fight off the demons in the night, waking finally to find Dean watching over him and feeling shaken from the lack of control. When they'd been young, he'd often wake with a jerk, soaked in sweat, knowing only one thing: Dean was nearby.

But now it was his brother who was held prisoner of his own subconscious. Dean swore in his sleep, his face fisted with fury, his skin slicked with a sheen of sweat triggered, Sam hoped perversely, by terror and not fever.

"…fuckin' back off…"

Sam sat up, leaning forward, listening to his brother's mumbled words, slurred with sleep. Dean's right hand fisted in the sheets covering him, his left held close and careful to his side.

"Not my fault…"

Pushing himself to his feet, Sam crossed the room and retrieved two of the pain pills and an antibiotic Marnie had sent with them. He filled a glass with water and returned to his brother's bunk, determined to pull Dean from whatever abyss he was staring into. He froze when Dean's voice cut through the darkness with startling clarity, unhampered, it seemed, by the shackles of sleep.

"Not out of miracles."

Frowning, Sam set the water on the floor next to Dean's bed, and then leaned over to grip his brother's shoulder. "Dean."

Dean face pulled tighter and Sam felt his body stiffen beneath his fingers.

"Hey, man," Sam whispered, shaking him gently. "Wake up."

Dean's eyes flew open and he gasped, looking around the unfamiliar room with wide eyes. With a surprisingly strong grip, Dean's hand shot up, gripping Sam's wrist, fingertips turning white.

"Easy," Sam said quickly. "It's me. It's Sam."

"Where—?"

"We're at Joshua's camp, remember?"

Dean relaxed under Sam's hand, his eyes slipping closed. "Was dreamin'," he mumbled.

"Yeah, I know," Sam nodded. "Here, take these."

Dean opened his eyes and looked at the pills in Sam's hand. He allowed Sam to tip his head up slightly, swallowing the pills with the aid of the water, then relaxed back against the pillow.

"Time is it?"

"Merry Christmas, Dean." Sam smiled his answer.

Dean blinked in surprise, the darkness of the room broken only by cast-off from the outside lights and the light Sam had left on in the bathroom. "It's Christmas?"

"For about… five hours now."

"Merry Christmas, Sam," Dean replied. "Sorry I didn't get you anything."

Not out of miracles.

"Oh, I'm not so sure about that," Sam said softly. "You need anything?"

"Gotta take a piss," Dean groaned, rolling to his right side. Sam smiled in silent sympathy as a litany of curses streamed from Dean's lips the likes of which would have shocked the pirates buried in the desert. "This sucks out loud," he continued, as he sat on the edge of his bed gather in his strength.

"Here, let me—"

"No," Dean interrupted, shaking his head. "If I can't get from the bed to the toilet by myself, how the hell am I going to help you on this hunt?"

At that Sam drew his head back, watching in surprise as his stubborn brother pushed himself to his feet. "Who said there was a hunt? And that you were going to help?"

"I did. On both counts," Dean grunted, bent at the waist, his right arm across his middle, as he made his way to the bathroom door. "Come to think of it," he continued, leaving the door part-way open, "so did you."

"Well, there may be a hunt, but you aren't going anywhere."

Dean flushed and Sam heard the sink water running. He waited until Dean turned off the light and leaned weakly against the doorway staring back at him before crossing his arms, his eyebrows up in a so there expression.

"I gotta be part of this, Sammy," Dean said softly, his voice trembling.

There was something in his brother's voice that tugged at Sam's heart. He was reminded of a moment in the Colorado wilderness, his soul still jagged and torn from the nightmare of Jessica's death, telling his brother all he could think about was finding Dad. And Dean, with earnest, honest eyes, his belief in his words clear on his face, telling him that Dad wanted them to pick up where he left off.

Saving people, hunting things.

"Why?" Sam asked, reaching out unasked and taking Dean's elbow, the tremor under his fingers knotting his stomach with worry. "Just sit this one out, man."

Dean gripped his arm as he eased to the bed, looking up at Sam with a haunted expression. "I don't think they'll let me."

Sam crouched so that he was eye-level with Dean. "Who?"

"The spirits, Sam," Dean said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "The spirits in the ship." He leaned back carefully, groaning as he did so, a hand pressed to the wound on his belly. "And I thought broken ribs hurt," he muttered.

"What were you dreaming about, Dean?" Sam asked, settling on the floor next to his brother's bed.

"Sure as hell wasn't lollipops and candy canes, I can tell you that much."

"Tell me."

Dean spoke with his eyes closed, his hands flat on either side of him, his fingers working the sheets like the claws of a cat, as if trying to balance his body and anchor himself in reality with the same motion.

"There's hundreds of them. People. In the hull of that ship. And she watches over them. All of them. All this time."

"You lost me."

"The other treasure hunters, Sam. The ones that found the ship before we did. The maps… they're so many… and they're like paper sirens… the pirates put the treasure fever in someone through the map. Curses them, too, I guess. And whoever finds the map is called to them."

"So they can break the curse," Sam guessed.

"Yeah. And she's there—the whole time."

"Isobel?" Sam remembered.

"Yeah. She watches. And she can't sleep. None of them can. They can't rest because they're just as cursed as the pirates."

"But, Dean, we can't save them all."

Dean opened his eyes, looking directly at Sam and the raw emotion swimming there in the light from the early dawn shook Sam's heart. "We have to. If we don't…" Dean swallowed.

"They won't leave you alone," Sam finished.

Dean shook his head helplessly. "I gotta be a part of this, Sam."

"But… if the ship only appears on the solstice… how are we…" Sam started. The thought of his brother being haunted by the echoes of ghosts for an entire year drew goosebumps of dread along his skin.

"I don't know." Dean's voice was faded, hope leeching out with each word. "I don't fucking know, Sam."

"Something tells me we have to find those Guileys," Sam sighed, tenting his elbows on his knees and shoving his fingers into his hair. He peaked out one eye. "You can say I told you so now if you want."

"Just as much my fault," Dean muttered. "I didn't have to let them jump in the back seat."

Saving people, hunting things.

"Hell, Dean, maybe you did."

"What do you mean?" Dean looked over at him as Sam raised his head.

"I've been thinking about it," Sam confessed, scooting around until his back was to the wall.

"You've been doing that a lot lately."

"You know how you said you wondered if Joshua knew about LeGrange? About the deal Sue Ann made with the reaper?"

"Yeah," Dean said, shifting on the bunk.

Sam closed his eyes. "I just keep thinking… what if… What if Dad did send us on a hunt? Two birds, one stone, that kind of thing. We kinda broke our code with that—with Marshall Hall."

"Where are you going with this?"

"I don't know. I just wonder… if you have to repay a miracle." He pressed his lips flat, looking at his brother, begging him silently to debunk his theory. To set him on a different path.

"So, we save the Freak Brothers, it makes up for Marshall Hall?"

Sam shrugged.

"Don't think it works that way, Sam."

"Yeah, I guess."

When he was silent for a moment too long, Dean prompted him with a, "What is it?"

"I just… I really believed, y'know? When Joshua called back with LeGrange's name, I… I really believed he'd save you. That I'd found us a miracle."

Dean was quiet for a moment. "The angel—from the ship," he started. "She told me I had to have faith in the good guys."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Hard part is," Dean sighed, "trying to figure out who the good guys are."

They both turned their heads to face the window, watching through the curtains as the sun crested the edge of the world. Sam felt words unspoken hovering between them heavy with meaning. He wanted to say something, offer something that would ease the pain he heard in Dean's voice.

As he opened his mouth to speak, however, he heard the unmistakable sound of a phone. Jerking in surprise, he shot a look at Dean.

"Dude, don't look at me," Dean replied, pushing himself to his elbow.

Sam scrambled to his feet, glancing around the room as the ring continued. His eyes caught on a phone sitting on the table just inside the door. Crossing quickly, he picked it up, looking at Dean incredulously as he flipped the phone open.

"Hello?"

www

Dean watched as Sam flipped the phone open, his boyish face drawn close in puzzlement as he said hello. In seconds, Dean's heart plummeted as he watched Sam's face drain of color. He sat heavily on the rolling chair positioned by the desk.

"Sam?" Dean prompted, his voice snapping out more harshly than he'd intended. He could feel his sunburned-skin fold as he pulled his eyebrows together.

"Dad," Sam choked out, swallowing audibly. "How—"

Dean felt the room tilt around him, his body deciding, apparently, that it was no longer anchored to reality. He felt dizzy, unreal, too light. He blinked rapidly, trying to focus on the now-hazy outline that was Sam, and it took him a moment to realize that his brother had rolled across the room on the desk chair and was now directly across from him.

"—okay, man?"

"Yeah," Dean replied quickly, horrified to realize that he'd almost passed out. "I'm good."

Sam put the phone back to his ear as Dean eased himself higher up on the bed, his back supported by the bunkhouse wall, his weakened side throbbing in protest from the motion.

"I'm here," Sam said into the phone. "Dad, where are you? Why… why haven't you called us back?"

Dean stared at his brother, wanting desperately to grab the phone from Sam's hand, to hear his father's voice, but lacking the strength to follow through. He watched, trying to glean information from Sam's side of the conversation.

"It's Joshua's phone," Sam was saying. "He left it with us when… yes, Sir, he's here. Yes, Sir."

He held the phone to Dean. "He wants to talk to you."

Dean stared at the small phone, thousands of replies swimming in his head. Resentment left a bitter taste on his tongue, betrayal seared the edges of his heart, longing burned the backs of his eyes, anger ticked the nerves in his lips, and need lifted his hand to take the phone from Sam.

"Dad?"

"Dean…"

Dean looked at Sam, saw the shine of tears swimming in his brother's wounded eyes as he watched. Dean shifted ears, then ticked his head beckoning Sam closer. Heads tilted together, they listened to their father's voice.

"How are you?"

"Been better."

"I've…" John cleared his throat and Dean felt a shift of satisfaction in his chest as he realized his father was searching for words. "I've been worried."

"Yeah, well," Dean verbally shrugged. "Sorry 'bout that. Been out there… y'know… doing the job."

"I heard about LeGrange."

"What did you hear?" Dean asked, his heart hammering.

John was silent for a moment and Sam sat back, away from the phone. Dean looked at him quizzically, but Sam just shook his head, his expression unreadable. Dean turned his attention back to the phone.

"I know what you're thinking, Dean."

"No offense, Dad, but I doubt that."

"I didn't know about the reaper—Joshua told me later when I called back."

"Sam called you, Dad," Dean said, hating the catch in his voice. "Sam called you and you left him hanging. You called Joshua."

"I had my reasons, Dean."

Dean gripped the phone tightly, years of training fighting months of desperation. "So, you didn't send us on a hunt."

"No!"

"'Cause… you gotta agree… it sure as hell looked that way."

"You were dying, Dean. I wouldn't—"

"You wouldn't call back," Dean broke in, ignoring Sam's eyes, the pull in his skin as he leaned forward, the tone of his voice as he gave in to the pain of betrayal and fired words at his father. "You wouldn't leave Minnesota. You wouldn't make sure I was still alive. That's what you wouldn't do!"

"Dean."

"You call us up, tell us the thing that killed mom was a fuckin' demon, tell us to do our jobs—and we did, Dad. We did. I almost got eaten by a Pagan god, but hell, we did our damn jobs."

"Dean!"

"You tell us to stop looking for you. To turn our backs on twenty-freakin-years of training as family and stop looking for you. That it's too dangerous. That they're everywhere. Well, I'm sorry Dad, but we just can't do that. We won't."

"DEAN!"

Dean was shaking so badly the phone bounced against his ear. His head spun and he felt the sour, wet taste of bile building at the back of his throat. He couldn't steady his breathing and tears flashed hot in his eyes. He turned to Sam, a plea in his eyes, one tear tracing the path of bruising down his face to skip off of the edge of his chin.

Sam reached out and took the phone from Dean's stiff fingers. "Dad, don't go, okay? Just… just wait," he said into the phone, then set it open on the floor, looking at Dean. "What is it?"

"Gonna be sick," Dean whispered. "Can't. Hurts too much." He pressed his hand to the searing heat that was his side.

"Take it easy," Sam soothed. "Just breathe, okay? With me. Ready? Breathe."

Dean watched his brother's eyes, hooked his whole awareness on them, and breathed when Sam breathed. He felt the nausea begin to abate with the third breath. The shaking eased with the sixth. By the eighth, he was able to sink back against the wall once more, eyes closed, body wrung out. He heard Sam pick the cell phone back up, but didn't open his eyes.

"Dad? You still there?"

Pause.

"Yeah, he's okay… we've just… been through a lot recently. Dean's kinda… well, he's beat to hell, basically. Yeah, we got the coordinates, but…"

Pause.

"You were hurt?"

Dean opened his eyes, bringing his head away from the wall. "What?"

"How—"

"Gimme the phone, Sam."

Wordlessly, Sam handed the phone to Dean.

"Dad?"

"You okay?"

"I'm fine. How were you hurt?" He started to reply the moment they decided to head to Sacramento in his head.

"The coordinates I sent… they were to a place I've been to before. Few times, actually. I knew a few people here and there was a… a churel. It was after a friend of mine."

Dean frowned. "Don't churel go after women?"

"Yeah, they do."

Dean looked up at Sam, but said nothing.

"The ceremony to banish it was… dicey."

"You needed our help?"

"No—actually, I had a lead on the demon, but… I couldn't leave." John sighed. "I banished the churel, messed up my arm a bit. I was laid up for a few days and lost the scent."

Dean looked down. "I'm sorry, Dad."

"Dean, listen to me. I didn't know about LeGrange. I didn't. I need you to believe that."

Dean was silent.

"I… I was…" John took a breath and Dean waited. "I had to call Joshua to make sure he'd given you the name in time. I can't explain to you why I didn't call Sam back. I thought…" John's voice choked.

"It's okay, Dad," Dean said softly, unable to bear the sound of his father's sorrow. "I think I understand."

"You and your brother," John said. "You're the most important people in the world to me."

Dean closed his eyes, feeling his heart crack.

"Dean?"

"I'm here."

"Listen, I'm coming up on Ludlow."

Dean's eyes popped open. "What are you doing there?"

"Joshua called, said he'd talked to you, and then, when I couldn't get either of you to answer your damn phones…"

"You… you're looking for us?" Dean couldn't keep the surprise from his voice.

"My friend in Windom called. Said she heard from Joshua and that you two were… well, that he was worried."

Dean looked at Sam, wondering how he was going to explain that John had taken a call from this friend of his and hadn't picked up when Sam had called. Deciding to ignore that element for the moment he turned his attention back to his father.

"We're not in Ludlow, but the Impala is."

"What's it doing there?"

"Long story," Dean sighed. "And it's not over."

"Hunt?"

"What else?"

"You two going to finish it?"

"Soon as we can."

"Dean… are you… is it bad?"

Dean swallowed, feeling the heat of tears once more and cursing himself for feeling so weak when it came to his father. "Well, I can't say I've had worse. I, uh, got shot."

"What? Joshua didn't say anything about—"

"Bullet broke up, had to have surgery. Took out some of my intestines."

"Dammit, Dean," John growled, anger his fall-back emotion when he was scared, Dean knew. "Where's your brother?"

"He's here," Dean said, looking at Sam.

"Let me talk to him."

The bite in John's voice warned Dean to resist. Too many times he'd had to physically put himself between John's rock and Sam's hard place. He didn't have the strength.

"Sam's fine, Dad."

"I want—"

"Are you coming to Needles?" Dean interrupted.

John paused a moment and Dean had his answer. "I am going to try."

"Okay."

"I'll make sure the Impala gets to you."

"Don't worry about it, Dad. We can take care of her."

John paused again and Dean felt his father searching, seeking a steady road, a place he recognized in his son's voice. "I'll be there."

"Don't, Dad. Don't say that if you don't mean it." Desperation to not cling to the hope John offered turned Dean's voice hard.

John cleared his throat. "I picked up its trail last night."

"The demon?"

"Yeah. The signs I've been looking for… it's somewhere in Pennsylvania."

"That's in the opposite direction."

"Dean…"

"Do what you have to do, Dad. Sam and me… we'll be okay."

"You're hurt."

"We've been hurt before," Dean said softly. A soft, throaty female voice slid through his memory. It's always been your choice, Dean. "You need to do this. For all of us. We'll find you again."

Sam's jerk caught his eye and Dean looked up. Sam was staring at him with disbelieving eyes. Dean looked down, hating himself for what he was saying, hating his father for making him say it…

"Dean, you don't sound… what is it?"

"Just tired, Dad."

He was so close. So close to asking him to come. Asking him to just come to them, choose them, just this once. He didn't trust his voice.

"I'm heading your way, Dean. You tell Joshua… tell him I—" the connection crackled. "—for the truck and—"

"Dad?" Dean frowned, leaning in to the phone. "You're breaking up."

"—few days after Christmas—"

"Dad?"

"—ean? Can you—"

John's voice was fading.

"Merry Christmas, Dad," Dean whispered as the phone went dead.

Sam looked at him, sniffing as he worked to keep tears of hope and exhaustion at bay. "He's… coming here?"

Dean closed the phone, staring at it. "That's what he said."

"Do you believe him?" Sam asked, swallowing hard.

Dean closed his eyes. "I… don't know."

It was quiet in the bunk house as both brothers wrestled with their thoughts. Outside, the camp was beginning to come alive and Dean could hear voices greeting each other with warmth to combat the crisp California morning. Happiness and Christmas seemed to be woven together no matter where they were when the calendar changed. Yet it always seemed to be outside their bubble of reality.

"Dean?"

Dean looked at his brother, feeling the cracks in his heart spread at the look in Sam's eyes. "Yeah?"

"Do you think… I mean, last time I saw Dad—"

"A lot has happened since then, Sam."

"I know, but…"

"You're not the same person now as you were then," Dean offered. "None of us are," he sighed.

"He's okay, though?"

"Said he hurt his arm, but I guess his… friend… helped him heal up."

"Lady friend," Sam confirmed.

"Sounded that way."

"Seems weird to think about Dad, y'know, with a woman."

Dean shook his head. "And, now I'm completely grossed out."

"What? The man's not a monk—"

"Stop talking," Dean frowned. "Stop talking now."

Sam grinned and Dean felt some of the cracks heal up at the sight. The knock at the door startled them both. Opening the door, Sam stepped back with a quick bark of a laugh.

Santa—complete with beard—stepped through the door. "MERRY CHRISTMAS, WINCHESTERS!"

Dean gripped a pillow against his chest as he chuckled. "Nice suit!"

Sam laughed again. "Imagine this coming to rescue you in the middle of the desert."

"Ah, but this time," Joshua rumbled in his deepened Santa voice, "I come bearing gifts."

Dean looked around him. "Funny, I don't see any bikini models."

"Ha!" Joshua laughed, digging into his deep pockets. "The way you look, they'd kill you before you got to your happy place."

"Dude!" Dean protested, watching as Joshua pulled out a pint of Captain Morgan rum.

"Libation, fitting for the moment," he said, handing the pint to Sam. He lifted a dog-eared copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island from his pocket and handed it to Dean. "This is from Mike. Said it might give you some pointers."

Dean grinned, flipping through the book. "Awesome."

"And last, but certainly not least," Joshua reached into the lining of his red, velveteen jacket and removed a rolled up stack of papers, handing it to Sam. "Research."

"Research?" Sam asked, puzzled. He unrolled the papers and scanned them. "Holy shit!"

"What?" Dean asked from his perch on the bed.

"Dean… it's… they…" Sam continued to flip through the pages. "Holy shit!"

"Dude, either say something real, or give me the papers."

Sam looked up at Joshua. "This must have taken you all night."

"Well, me and a couple of others. You'd mentioned the Lost Ship… Mike had heard the legend—one of them, anyway—and Kenny was indoctrinated into the world of pirate ghosts last night after he threw a fit when the fugitives skipped out on him. What can I say? I got people."

"Have you found them yet? The Guileys?"

Joshua shook his head. "No, but Mike has a lead and we think—"

"Sam!" Dean barked. "Papers!"

"Oh!" Sam turned to face him. "It's about the curse—they found the Indian tribe that put the curse on the pirates."

Joshua pointed at the papers, tapping the edge with his index finger. "And the solution, don't forget that."

"Right," Sam looked at the papers once more. "They know how to break the curse."

Dean looked at Joshua. "Well, Merry freakin' Christmas, man!"

"Back atcha," Joshua grinned.

"Only…" Sam's face pinched as he looked up at Dean. "It kinda looks like we have to be in two places at once."

Dean raised an eyebrow. "Interesting."

"Well, not exactly," Joshua offered. "We just… split up. Two teams—one in the desert, the other at the reservation."

"The desert," Dean said, his voice dull.

"And… it, uh, has to be done, when?" Sam peered at someone's illegible handwriting.

"Midnight on the turn of the year. Mike found all this stuff about Gregorian calendar and the Yuki Indian tribes and… well, basically, we have to break the curse exactly at midnight on the 31st, and we have to have two teams to do it."

His eyes caught on the phone in Dean's hand. "Hey! There's my phone!"

The brother's exchanged a glance. Dean looked back at Joshua.

"Thanks for leaving it here," he said quietly.

Joshua's whole being seemed to settle, his shoulders squaring up, his hands folding behind him looking like a Santa Clause standing 'at ease.' "Did it work?"

"He called," Sam confirmed.

"And?"

"Says he's coming," Dean offered. "Few days after Christmas, I guess. Was up around Ludlow. Gonna try to get our car."

Joshua paused one heartbeat before asking, "Do you think he'll make it?"

The brothers let silence answer for them.

Joshua took a breath. "You feel like eating?" he said to Dean.

"I could eat," Dean nodded. He frowned, glancing at the clothes on the chair, knowing it would take more energy than he had to don them on his own.

Sam turned to Joshua. "Y'know, I'm still kinda beat, man. Think you can bring us something here?"

Joshua smiled, nodding.

"We have six days." Dean's voice was both weak and purposeful. "Think you can have a team ready?"

"I can have them ready tomorrow," Joshua said, moving toward the door. "It's you I'm worried about."

Dean lifted his head, meeting Joshua's eyes with determination. "You just have that team ready."

Joshua tipped his chin up and stepped through the door, pulling it closed behind him.

Dean looked at Sam. "We've got some work to do, man."

"Starting with getting you stronger."

"Son of a bitch," Dean groaned.