Disclaimer/Spoilers: Please see Chapter 1.
A/N: We've reached the end of this journey. Thank you for reading; I hope you've enjoyed!
Amy Blair, you'll find the rest of your requests woven throughout these pages. It's been a joy to meld your quirkiness and my randomness and create an actual story. I truly hope you feel you chose wisely. Thanks for giving me the chance to play. *grin*
For those who enjoy the long chapters, bless you. According to fanfiction[dot]net, this is actually the longest story I have written and posted to date. Not really sure what to do with that other than bob my head in a nod of acceptance while uttering a soft, "Huh."
I considered breaking this up into two chapters, but changed my mind. You are all beautiful people for traveling this road with me. And with that, I leave you to it…
"They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue…Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?"
December 29, 2005
There was nothing in the world that tore at Sam's heart like the sound of his brother's pain.
He lay still in the half-light of morning, listening as Dean's breath rasped from his throat, dragging misery over his lips and puffing out shallow pants into the cool air of their bunk house. Without looking, Sam knew Dean's fingers would be fisted in his sheets, knotting the cotton with impotent resistance. His face would be pulled into a frown, drawing his brows over his closed lids, sketching lines of distress in an ancient scrawl from the edges of his eyes, and turning his full lips into seams of anger.
The nightmares were becoming rhythmic, predictable. Each time they seemed to increase in intensity. Dean's body was healing, but his mind, his emotions, were eroding a tiny bit more as each day passed without action, without understanding.
And without John.
The meaningless cry brought Dean from the darkness with an abbreviated jackknife of his torso. Sam held his breath, waiting as Dean calmed. He shifted his eyes right, catching his brother's silhouette against the pale light caught behind the shaded windows. A trembling hand reached up and rubbed at his face as if Dean were trying to squeeze the images from his mind. After a brief moment, Dean wrapped his arms around himself, tucking his shaking hands beneath his arms.
The motion made Sam shudder; it was as if Dean were trying to reach inside to catch bits of himself before they fell and shattered completely.
Christmas night, when the nightmare caught Dean just as Sam was giving in to sleep, he'd panicked and grabbed Dean to wake him, thinking to prevent him from hurting himself. Dean had fought against what he'd apparently believed to be a specter from his nightmare so viciously he'd torn open the stitches in his abdomen and spent the rest of the night in the med tent under the watchful eye of the full-time camp doctor, Ben. Sam next attempted to wake his brother with just his voice, but even that would bring havoc down on Dean's tenuous control. After that, when Dean slept it was fitful, when he rested, his eyes were restless, and healing became a fight.
"You okay?" Sam asked softly, his eyes on Dean's semi-upright posture, his shoulders moving with the force of his breathing. He jerked slightly at the sound of Sam's voice but he seemed to be more aware. Sam heard Dean's teeth click shut, his hammering breath blowing through his nose like pistons on a train as he worked to bring himself under control.
Sam pulled his lower lip into his mouth, his eyes slipping upwards to the ceiling, staring at the corrugated metal. It was raining again. He heard it bouncing against the roof in a staccato beat unique to nature. It had been raining off and on since the morning after Christmas, limiting their time outside the bunk house to curtailed walks around the camp and visits to the buildings closest to them: green house, mess hall, med tent, and garage.
He heard Dean slide from the bed and fail to bite back a groan as he stood and shuffled toward the bathroom. He heard the turn of the latch, the flick of the light switch, the hum of the fluorescent bulb, but he didn't look away from the ceiling.
California rain held a familiar melancholy for Sam. Moving through the fog, his brother at his side, Sam surprised himself by longing for moments of solitude, for the smell of books and classrooms, for the feel of a cool cheek, the smell of damp hair, the breathy sound of quick laughter that stemmed from getting caught exposed in the chilly mist.
It was disorienting, disturbing. He had Dean with him, and he found himself wanting only to get away. Away from the fear of loss. From the consistent mystery of their future. From the angry sorrow that now clung to his brother like briars.
"Angel or ghosts?" Sam ventured. They were going on five nights of nightmares; it was a tossup as to which being he should hate more.
"Both," Dean rasped, drawing Sam's eyes from the ceiling to the bathroom door.
Dean had left it part-way open, which creased a frown on Sam's brow. He'd done that two days ago, when his stitches had been seeping and he was too stubborn to ask for help. Sam had allowed curiosity to get the best of him, pushed the door open, and found Dean pale, shaking, and trying to change his own bandage.
"You wanna talk about it?"
"Not particularly," Dean muttered.
Sam waited a beat. "You ever see the pirate in your dream? The one… the one that shot you?"
"No." Dean's reply was quick. "Never."
"Yeah, well… probably for the best," Sam mused.
"They're freakin' tag-teaming me," Dean sighed and Sam imagined he heard the struggle of the night escape Dean's skin and roll into the morning air with that sound. "I tell 'em the same thing, every time. I tell 'em they can go to hell. I tell 'em they can't take me…"
Sam swallowed, his eyes burning.
"And then she shows up."
"She's… she's lonely. And sad. And she wants to go home. She wants…" Dean's voice cracked and Sam held his breath. "She wants me to go with her."
"You tell her to go to hell?"
"She never lets me. She… says she knows I won't. Go with her, I mean."
"How does she know that?" Sam asked, blinking to ease the burning.
"Says it's because of you," Dean replied, his voice muffled.
Sam heard the water roll through pipes and tumble from the shower head to beat a tattoo of seductive peace on the tile floor. Metal rings shinked on the shower rod and Sam sat up, swinging his legs over the side of his bunk. He reached over and turned on the small light positioned between the beds, illuminating the room with pale yellow light.
"Screw this, Sammy."
Sam blinked, eyebrows bouncing up. He waited, listening.
"I'm done waiting."
Sam looked down, listening as Dean's voice echoed hollowly from the shower. Part of him instinctively knew that Dean was ready to get back into the fight. But the kid brother had to ask.
"Waiting for what?"
Dean's sigh sounded wet. "Hell, man, for… everything. Ludlow's not that far from Needles. Where the hell is he?"
Sam's shrug went unseen. He'd been trying to forget that John had said he'd come. It was easier to simply think about his dad out there searching for the demon than it was to think about him doing that instead of coming to them.
"Like hell," Sam retorted automatically.
"—and I'm tired of having someone else do my fighting for me."
"You're not fine," Sam snapped, standing up and facing the bathroom as the water shut off. "And no one is fighting anything right now."
He heard Dean shove the shower curtain aside and ran his hand over his tender belly. Kenny—the man who wrangled an impressive mustache over an amazingly small mouth—had removed his stitches the day after Christmas, but the scar was raised and pink, and the flesh around it yellowing as old bruises tend to do.
Dean stepped from the steam-filled bathroom, a light-blue towel knotted at his waist, water droplets beading on his chest and shoulders. He'd removed the gauze bandages from his wounds and Sam couldn't hide the wince of sympathy at the sight of his brother's wounded skin. Dark lines punctuated the hollow of Dean's shoulder, the ribs just beneath his breast-bone, and the flesh to the right of his navel. Bruises turned the tan of Dean's skin into the mottled color of old meat.
"I am better, Sam," Dean insisted, moving stiffly to the pile of borrowed clothes, turning his back on Sam. "I've been taking longer walks every day. I can actually breathe. And… everything else will… y'know, catch up with me."
"It's barely been a week, Dean."
"And not that I'm not thankful for Josh and his buddies," Dean went on as if Sam hadn't spoken, "but I don't like them getting tangled up in this hunt. They're at this camp for a reason. And it's not supernatural. This is our job, not theirs."
"There's nothing wrong with accepting help," Sam argued, feeling the control he'd had over his wounded brother during the last few days slipping through his fingers as Dean continued to dress.
"There is if it gets them hurt in the process. 'Nuff people have been hurt already."
Sam narrowed his eyes at the back of his brother's head. "You're a stubborn bastard, y'know that?"
Dean half-turned in that way he had—shoulders first, then chin, then eyes—that made Sam want to somehow hide and stand straighter at the same time. His mouth was curved up in a small grin, but it didn't meet his eyes.
"You make that sound like something bad, Sammy."
Frustrated, Sam stomped into the bathroom, closing the door behind him to shut Dean away, but yelling through it anyway. "It's Sam, you asshole."
"Not to me it isn't," Dean hollered back.
Sam faced the mirror, gripping the condensation-slicked sides of the sink and staring at his reflection. The shadows beneath his eyes were a pale echo of the exhaustion that chased Dean's lashes each time his brother blinked. If he was tired, Dean had to be barely on his feet. And yet…
"I'm starving. I think I'll head to the mess hall," Dean called.
"Wait for me," Sam called, his tone flirting on the edges of an order.
"Well, hurry it up, Princess."
Sam shucked his boxers and turned on the shower in one motion, stepping beneath the spray and letting it pelt him in the face, his jaw muscles tight. Heated words sparked up behind his eyes, tempered only by the torrent of water splashing against his skin. He knew that worry was becoming frustration, and that if he didn't get himself in check, frustration would quickly become anger.
Sam wanted Dean back.
The Dean that barreled through life like a bull in a china shop one minute and offered comfort with a soft shift of his eyes the next. Not the haunted, wounded man standing out in the living room with false bravado and time-worn irritations attempting to mask the fear lingering at the edge of his being.
Sam knew they had to rid their reality of these ghosts, just as they'd always done. But they had to be smart about it—they needed to take time to heal. His brother may not realize it—or may not be willing to admit it—but Sam knew he was holding on by a very thin thread. One that could be snapped if either of them so much as breathed wrong.
As he turned off the water and grabbed for the remaining towel to scrub his skin free of water, he heard the front door to the bunk house open. When no voice accompanied the sound, indicating someone coming to see them, he felt his heart begin to race.
"Dean!" Sam wrapped the towel around his hips and flung open the bathroom door.
Dean had gone on walks around the camp every day, slowly rebuilding his strength. But each time it had been with Sam at his side, and each time he'd needed a sly hand at his elbow, or shoulder to lean on before he'd returned to the bunk house to rest.
"Right here, man," Dean replied from the doorway, the metal awning sluicing the rain away from the doorway. "Just getting some air."
"Oh." Sam deflated. Dean's restlessness was pervasive. "Well, hang tight." He worked to even-out his voice. The last thing Sam wanted was to be two steps behind and not catch his brother when he fell.
"Don't get your boxers in a twist, Francis," Dean said over his shoulder as Sam dug through their pile of clothes. "I wasn't going to leave you behind."
"You just… you need to take it easy, man."
"I've been taking it easy," Dean grumbled.
"Dude, it's barely been a week since you were shot, okay? Not to mention the… the shackles and the desert and… you're not invincible, y'know," Sam snapped, pulling a T-shirt over his head and settling it on the waist band of his jeans. "We can't even break the freakin' curse until the 31st."
Dean leaned against the door frame, his eyes focused outward toward Kenny's greenhouse, currently shrouded by rain. The damp winter air from the open door had quickly cooled their small room and Sam shivered as he searched for a long-sleeved shirt. He glanced again at Dean, taking in the incongruity of his brother in the navy-blue hoodie and denim jacket. The clothes seemed to shrink him somehow in the same way the leather jacket he was so rarely without gave him an air of danger.
The sleeves were long enough that they hid the abrasions left behind by the heavy shackles, but the image of Dean kneeling, chained, screaming threats and obscenities at their captors wasn't going to leave Sam's mind for quite some time.
"Yeah, well," Dean sighed, turning slightly to catch Sam in a thoughtful glance. "I've been thinking about that." He looked back out across the field.
Sam zipped up a gray cable-knit, high-collared cardigan that looked like a reject from J. Crew and leaned against the doorway, waiting. In the time between his rebellious departure for Stanford and Dean's desperate, understated plea for help with finding their dad, something had shifted inside of his brother. It had taken Sam thousands of miles in the passenger seat of the Impala, and one more rebellious departure on a rain-streaked back road outside of Indiana, but he'd finally started getting the picture.
Dean had quieted.
The years alone—alone with John—had tempered the often frenetic energy inside his brother that Sam had taken for granted. It wasn't overt, and it wasn't something Sam suspected anyone else would see. But he'd been watching his brother his whole life. Studying him. Alternatively emulating his brashness and rejecting his roguish arrogance. The energy that seemed to spin around Dean's core had slowed. Their time apart had aged them both in more than just years. Where before Sam could rightly suspect what Dean was thinking the majority of the time, now, if he wanted the heart of Dean's thoughts, if he wanted a true response, he had to wait his brother out.
Sam wasn't used to waiting. He was used to finding the answer first. But the fragility that coated the air surrounding his brother right now encouraged him into a forced calm. The nightmares, the ghosts, the angel, they were all working to compound that quiet into something not Dean. And it pissed Sam off.
"I know Josh and his guys have been doing a lot of work, y'know, getting to the bottom of this curse," Dean continued after several moments of silence. "They figured out which Indian tribe created it, figured out that the curse could be broken at midnight, last day of the year… but…"
"What is it?" Sam prompted.
Dean looked at him. "It's not enough, Sam. We need to be out there. We need to make sure the descendants of the original tribe are even willing to—"
"Joshua's gonna do that, Dean. He's gonna go meet with the… the chief," Sam broke in.
"Okay, fine, but what about the ship? I mean, you said it yourself—it's under the desert, right? And in my dreams, it's always swallowed up by a big fat nothing. How are we gonna get—"
"They're working on that, man," Sam interrupted, crossing his arms over his chest to try to ward off a shiver. "I talked to Joshua yesterday."
"He didn't tell me."
"Well, he wanted to give you time to mend."
Dean's lip bounced up in a half-snarl. "We don't have time to waste, just… lying around."
"God, would you quit? You have barely been able to walk across the room without keeling over until yesterday. Nobody's wasting time."
"What else did Josh tell you?" Dean snapped, ignoring Sam's statement.
Sam sighed. "They're looking for the Guileys. We can't break the curse without those pearls."
"Looking where, though? It's not like those two are professionals. They can't be that hard to find." Dean rubbed the back of his neck, hard. "We need to go into this ready, y'know? Prepared." He tipped his hands apart as if he were holding a football, his body instinctively attempting to express to Sam how significant this oversight seemed. "What if Joshua meets with that chief and… I mean, what if there's no one there that cares about the curse anymore? And… what if we can't find the ship again, huh? We don't have our weapons, or the Impala, and with the exception of Josh, we're working with rookies. I mean, Marines, sure, but still, in our job? Rookies."
"We've still got time—"
Dean shook his head, cutting Sam off. The rain had tapered leaving behind a thick fog and a chill that seemed to settle into his bones, chasing shivers up his spine.
"Dean, I know you're feeling better, and I'm glad, believe me, but you can't just… jump back in. You still got a lot of healing to do, man." Sam reached out to rest a comforting hand on Dean's shoulder.
Shrugging him off, Dean stepped away from the doorway. "Stop it, Sam."
Sam rolled his lips against his teeth, biting off a sharp retort.
"Stop treating me like I'm going to break. I'm not going to break."
"Quit acting like nothing happened!" Sam snapped, joining Dean outside of the bunk house, slamming the door behind him. He circled around in front of his brother, demanding that Dean meet his eyes. "You're acting like that," Sam gestured to Dean's right side, his fingers close enough to Dean's body that his brother instinctively flinched back, "was from a bar fight or something. You were shot, Dean."
"Thank you, Captain Obvious." Dean's voice was low, an old danger rolling under the tone.
"Give yourself some time to rest—"
"Rest?" Dean broke in, his voice ticking up in pitch. "You think rest is even a possibility right now?"
Sam pulled his head up, swallowing at the heat that began to simmer in Dean's eyes. "Maybe not, y'know, sleep, but at least give your body a chance to heal—"
"Sam," Dean shook his head, stepping away from the wall of the bunk house. "You don't get it. They won't leave me alone. Until we finish this, they're always fuckin' here!" Dean pointed to his temple, the sleeve of his jacket sliding down with the motion, exposing his red, raw wrists.
"I'm sorry, Dean," Sam said, putting his hands up partly in a white flag of surrender, partly to keep Dean from walking away. "I am. And I promise we're going to finish this. Okay? We will. But you can't push it! You gotta get your strength ba—"
"Will you stop telling me what to do, already!" Dean pushed against Sam, weakly tipping the taller man off-balance. Sam stepped away, pulling a breath in through his nose, trying to calm his temper. "For the love of… I can take care of myself, y'know. I've been through—"
"Don't you dare say you've been through worse!" Sam yelled, feeling heat in his cheeks. "Don't you say it. Nothing was worse than climbing back into that hold full of rotting corpses to see you lying in a pool of blood, Dean. I thought you were dead."
"Well, I wasn't! And I'm not gonna die now."
"You don't know that!" Sam bellowed, taking satisfaction in the jerk of Dean's head as he pulled away from the force of Sam's ire. "None of us are guaranteed tomorrow, Dean."
"Dude, please. Spare me your psychological bullshit. I've had about enough caring and sharing in the last few days—"
"Oh, I'm so sorry if I crossed some invisible line in the Dean Winchester Code of Macho. I guess I let down my guard a little since I'd just carried my dying brother across the freakin' desert."
They stared at each other, having maneuvered until they were toe to toe, Sam's height offering him even more of an advantage of position as Dean was still unable to stretch to his full stature without grimacing in pain. Chests heaved, eyes flashed, and fingers curled against palms as fists were kept in check.
After a moment, Dean blinked, the corners of his eyes crinkling with an unconscious plea for clemency.
"I just… I gotta do something else, Sam. I can't… I can't keep waiting for someone else to fix…" His chin trembled and for a moment Sam felt his heart crash against his ribs as his brother's eyes glistened. With his next breath, however, Dean reigned in the emotion, pulled his vulnerability back inside and emptied his eyes of pain. "I gotta finish this damn hunt! Get these fucking ghosts out of my head!"
Dean pushed past Sam, walking toward Kenny's greenhouse.
"We will!" Sam insisted, catching Dean's left arm at the elbow and turning him around. "We will. If you would just take it easy."
"I can't! Dude." Dean jerked his arm free. "I can't take it easy one more day. Sitting here, thinking... Reading that goddamn book. Watching the road for my car… for Dad… I'm losing my mind, Sam."
Sam licked his lips, shifted his weight from one foot to the other, tried to find a non-confrontational way to broach the subject. "He could still come, Dean."
Dean shook his head. "Dad's always done exactly what he thought he needed to do. To hell with everyone else." The bitterness in Dean's voice left a bad taste in Sam's mouth.
"Maybe something happened to him."
Dean's eyes bounced up and Sam felt the air leave his body at the look held there.
"I'm outta here," Dean muttered, walking past Sam in the opposite direction he'd started.
"Sammy, just leave it!" Dean didn't turn, didn't slow, didn't soften his tone.
"My name is SAM!" He yelled at his brother's back.
"Then act like it," Dean roared, his chin tilted over his shoulder as he threw the words at Sam.
As he watched Dean walk across the empty lot, his stride an unfamiliar stagger, his body parting the fog, Sam forced himself to accept that everyone had their limits. Even to how much care they could handle. He slowly uncurled his fists, willing his shoulders to relax, for the muscles to cease their vigil.
When he could no longer see Dean, he took a breath, forced himself to turn around, and walked toward the greenhouse. Neither of them had eaten breakfast, but fighting with Dean had taken Sam's appetite. The camp was small enough; Sam knew if Dean were hungry someone would be able to help him forage.
As he drew closer to the greenhouse, he heard the low, mellow sound of music emanating from ancient speakers. The heady, electric-guitar sound of Cream drew Sam forward and he pushed the door of the greenhouse open, stepping from the chill of the raining morning into the warm humidity of the controlled environment, his body at once shocked and relieved by the change in temperature.
"Hello?" Sam called as he made his way carefully between the rows of vegetables. Strong, pungent smells of earth and fauna filled the air and Sam found himself breathing shallowly to acclimate. He unzipped the sweater, pushing the warm sleeves up toward his elbows.
The rows of plant life and food went on for what could have easily been the length of a soccer field. The building was narrow, the roof curved, and muted, gray light filtered in through the periodically placed clear windows at the top.
In their walks, he and Dean had never breeched the first few rows of plants; the heat, the smell, and the ever-present sound of Eric Clapton had pressed on Dean's tolerance and pushed him back to the California rain within a half an hour.
Sam turned to his right, seeing a man atop a ladder several rows deep into the greenhouse, adjusting what looked like a bicycle chain fixed to a series of gears that mobilized the solar panels. Next to him was a workbench strewn with tools, unlabeled bottles, ashtrays spilling over with cigarette butts, and a boom box Sam was willing to bet had been new in 1989.
"You need a hand?" Sam called.
"Yeah!" Kenny yelled back. "Turn up the music."
Chuckling, Sam made his way toward the radio, rotating the volume up a few notches until the bass beat through his fingers and into his core.
"That's the stuff," Kenny sighed, glancing down appreciatively at Sam, his impressive mustache twitching in what Sam assumed was a smile. "Been wondering when you two would wander in."
"It's, uh… it's just me."
"Yeah?" Kenny wiped the grease from his fingers on his thighs, then climbed slowly down the ladder. "You finally let him out of your sight, did ya?"
Sam picked up a socket wrench and leaned his back pockets against the workbench. "Was I really that bad?"
Kenny folded the ladder, hefting it up and moving toward a tall, narrow locker positioned against a divider wall. "Nah, kid. You're worried. I'da done the same thing."
Sam looked up from spinning the wrench and regarded Kenny with a glance of hope. "Yeah?"
Kenny folded his rangy eyebrows together over the bridge of his nose, patting his pockets in search of something. "Hell, yeah. He's your family." His eyes flashed as he located the missing object. Pulling out a cherry-flavored Blow-Pop, he unwrapped it and stuck it into his small mouth, tucking the candy into the deep pocket of his cheek. "Tryin' to quit," he explained, nodding to the ashtrays.
It had become a familiar routine to Sam, watching Kenny find today's flavor, eye the burnt-out cigarettes with unguarded lust, then give in to the temptation and light up as they left the building.
"Dean… I think he needed a break from me."
"Nobody likes to be cooped up," Kenny said. "Only natural."
"Tell you what, he's a damn-quick healer."
"He doesn't heal any faster than anyone else," Sam grumbled, shrugging out of his heavy cable-knit and tying it around his waist. "Not that he knows that."
Kenny's shrug seemed to have a voice of its own as he frowned. "I ain't seen someone that messed up since…"
Sam mirrored his frown as the sound of a slow hand on stroking a guitar string shimmied its way between them. "You were a cop, right?"
Kenny turned away, the sucker clicking against his teeth as he rolled it from one side of his mouth to the other. "In Detroit," he nodded. He picked up a spray bottle and began to wander the rows of plants, pruning, checking, spraying, his lined face creased with memories Sam had inadvertently kicked up with his question.
"What was that like?" Sam asked, needing to hear someone else's story, focus on someone else's tragedy, just to forget about his own for a moment.
"Y'know, it was…" Kenny's voice seemed to chew on silence for a moment before continuing. "Surreal. I'd served in Desert Storm, but I was… I was lucky. I came back, and decided that I wanted to be a cop. Stop some bad guys. But… there were just more of them then there were of us," Kenny sighed, his voice further away. "And I couldn't get my head around what people did to each other—to themselves."
Sam watched Kenny stand still, sucker stick rolling from one side of his mouth to the other, water bottle hanging forgotten from his fingers, staring at a section of fern-like plants.
"There's all kinds of ways to die, y'know?" Kenny said finally. "And I've seen a helluva lot of them."
Sam swallowed, turning back to the workbench and finding Kenny's stash of cigarettes. He grabbed the pack, feeling for the Zippo shoved into the pack, and made his way across the rows of plants to the smaller man. Reaching him, Sam held out the pack. Wordlessly, Kenny took it, handing Sam the water bottle.
In moments the acrid tang of nicotine and tobacco flitted over the plants between them and Kenny breathed deep, a sigh that erased the fingers of memory.
"You've been working with Joshua on this hunt, right?" Sam asked.
"I've got some contacts," Kenny lifted a shoulder, taking a long drag on his cigarette. "I've been trying to find those two punks."
"Not all that impressed with them, huh?"
Kenny narrowed his eyes up at Sam, seemingly weighing his words. "You know what it's like to have a partner, don'tcha, kid?"
Sam cocked his head to the side, unsure where Kenny was going with his question.
"A partner," the man stressed, his mustache twitching like a living thing. "Someone that goes into battle with you, no questions asked. That has your back. Someone," he looked at the dirt-covered ground. "Someone who puts their life in your hands, willingly, and you do the same."
He dropped his cigarette into the dirt and began to rotate the toe of his boot over the filter.
"Dean," Sam said softly.
"Right," Kenny looked up. "Dean. I've watched you and Dean, when you took those walks? You two moved like… like partners. Even when you weren't next to each other, anyone could see you were aware of the other's movement. You walk differently, but… you move the same."
"We're brothers," Sam offered. "We've been working together our whole lives. Almost," he amended.
"Those two are brothers," Kenny muttered, still grinding the butt to death. "But they sure as hell ain't partners. They were with me most of a day and they didn't look at each other, they didn't talk to each other, they moved around each other, not with each other."
"Well," Sam attempted. "They'd just been through a lot."
"Cry me a river," Kenny scoffed. "Every one of us was two clicks from wings and a halo at some point in their life. That's why we're here."
"What are you saying, Kenny?"
Kenny pointed the barely-there sucker at Sam. "I'm saying that one of 'em's got an agenda and the other one ain't on it. I'm saying if our whole mission is hanging on finding them and these pearls they took, we could be well and truly fucked."
Sam swallowed. "You got any leads?"
Kenny sighed. "I got a couple," he said. "But they're thin."
"Try me," Sam requested.
Kenny narrowed his eyes, running them from the top of Sam's head to his boots, then back up to meet Sam's unwavering gaze. "You any good at detective-work, kid?"
Sam's grin was cocky. "You think I'd've lived this long, doing what we do, if I weren't?"
After a pause, Kenny stuck the sucker back in the hollow of his cheek. "You got a point," he motioned with his head for Sam to follow. "Set that bottle down there. You're about to visit the Bat Cave."
Shaking his head with a grin, Sam tucked the water bottle against the wooden frame of the large box, focusing briefly on the plant before him.
"Kenny, is this…"
Kenny looked up quickly, his mustache stretching in a grin around the white sucker stick. "For… medicinal purposes," he offered.
Sam's lips folded in a quick grin and he nodded. "Right."
Walking away from Sam with the fog swirling around his feet and hurt in his eyes was the most exhausting thing Dean had done since they'd left the hospital.
It would have been so much easier to simply give in, allow Sam his caretaking, just… stop. But as he half-staggered, half-walked toward the nearest lighted building, Dean knew he couldn't stop. The moment he gave in to the exhaustion and pain, the cloying voice in his ear, the cool fingers tugging at his ankles would win. They couldn't catch him if he didn't stop.
The unique mingling of oil and gasoline wafted a seductive perfume through the damp air from the open hanger-like doors before him. Dean leaned against the metal wall for a moment, clutching his throbbing, aching side and catching his breath.
His whole body ached—a bone-deep, hang-around-for-awhile pain that made him nauseous and angry. Rolling on his good shoulder, he rotated until he faced the open door, stepping across the threshold from the cloistering feel of the foggy outdoors to the grounded, greasy reality of the garage. Breathing deeply he made his way to the workbench, strewn with the comforting familiar sight of ratchets and wrenches, oil cans and shop towels, bits of gears, nuts, bolts, and a vast array of skin magazines.
Someone was humming in the back of the shop, but Dean didn't draw attention to himself just yet. His world was still sideways, his sight and balance swaying with the tripping sensation of a rocking boat. He made his way toward an interior wall, the room growing warmer as he got further away from the opened door. He trailed his hand along the time-worn wood of the bench surface as he walked, picking up smears of grease on the pads of his fingertips, not really noticing that his feet were dragging, only realizing he was weaving when his hip bounced against the workbench.
Reaching the wall, he pressed his back against it, sliding slowly down, his legs sprawled out in front of him, his eyes blurry and unfocused as a white-washed curtain slipped between perception and reality. Listening as the humming grew closer, deeper, more pronounced, Dean felt himself shift, the smell of metal and rubber grabbing hold of his memory and carrying him away from ghosts and angels, pain and pirates.
John would have been roughly his age when Dean was born, he realized. He blinked, a little too slowly, his eyes not seeing the collection of cars in front of him, but a smaller space, a smaller time. He found, sitting on the cold cement floor of the camp garage, that if he held perfectly still, his breath captured in his lungs, that he could still feel his father's hands under his arms, lifting his small body up to perch on the workbench and away from the danger of cars on jacks.
Dean licked his lips, his movement sluggish, a low hum rushing his ears, enhancing the disorienting, time-bending sight of his father's face, smiling at him, unlined, clean-shaven, worry-free. Years of struggle evaporated. Carefully constructed masks shattered. All that was left was a feeling of home. The sense of having been safe once.
"…'d you come from…"
The white fuzzy across his vision started to disperse, like fresh water suddenly spilled into a bucket of suds. Sound became sharper, rolling, tripping, until it met a recognizable cadence.
"…hear you come in. Take it easy, you look a bit shocky, yet."
"Huh?" Dean rolled his head up, his blinks becoming more rapid, the word coming into focus around him. "Shep?" he muttered at bespeckled face looming above him. He caught the shaggy mop of sandy hair, the Red Sox hat, the drawn, Hugh Laurie-like countenance.
"That'd be me," Shep asserted.
A flash of sliver caught Dean's sluggish vision and he saw Shep pulling a flask from the interior of his coveralls.
"Drink," Shep ordered. "You're shivering."
"I am?" Dean lifted his hands, as if surprised to see them attached to his arms. For a moment, they didn't look like his hands. They looked too young, too small. As if he was simply borrowing these while his real hands were in the shop. Then Shep placed the flask in his open palm and curled his fingers around the sides and reality re-asserted itself.
Dean took a quick pull on the flask, letting the smooth warmth of the liquor slide hot and greedy down his throat, settling in his stomach as if it had finally found its home. Another sip and he felt himself steady enough to look around and realize with a flash of shame that he was slumped against a bookcase on the far wall of that garage.
"Man," he said softly. "Sorry, I…"
Shep stood, dismissing his attempt at apology, faced the bookshelf and began skimming his fingers across the spines of the books arranged there, humming the same tune Dean had heard when he stepped inside.
"Where's your brother?" Shep asked.
Dean simply shook his head, unable to explain his escape from Sam.
"Does he know you're wandering around out—"
"Hey." Dean snapped his head up, flattening his palms against the wall at his back. "I can take care of myself." He managed to get himself to his feet on the third try, but had to bend slightly to the side to ease the throb on his right side once he got there.
"Yeah, I can see that," Shep commented, sarcasm turning his words to lead. "That's why I found you white as a sheet and just this side of unconscious on my garage floor."
"I haven't eaten anything," Dean pouted. His eyes tracked Shep's fingers as the older man continued to pull books from shelves and set them on top of the stack of Penthouse magazines. "You have a thing for Shakespeare, man?"
"I was a teacher."
"No shit!" Dean exclaimed before he could catch himself. "Guess I just thought you… y'know, were a mechanic."
"I get headaches," Shep said, placing another book on the workbench. He lifted his Red Sox hat and shoved aside a long swath of hair revealing an ugly, red, crescent-shaped scar over his left ear. "Bullet, 1974. Had my name on it. Missed blowing my head off by dumb luck."
Dean swallowed, watching the man's hands.
"Tried to go back to teaching, but the headaches… well, it didn't work out."
"So… why the garage, then?" Dean frowned, glancing around at the eclectic collection of vehicles scattered around the cavernous space.
"Joshua's idea. Thought if I could keep my hands busy, my head wouldn't get tangled up so much." Shep lifted a shoulder in a casual shrug. "Everyone can master a grief but he who has it."
Dean lifted an eyebrow, pushing away from the wall.
"That's Shakespeare," Shep informed him.
"Okay, Professor," Dean nodded, looking at the ramshackle collection of novels, textbooks, binders of loose-leafed paper. His smile was automatic when he saw that the books blended with albums and then faded into a large stack of cassette tapes. "You got music here, too?" He asked, reaching up to skim his greasy fingertips along the plastic cassette cases.
Shep nodded. "Some stuff left behind, some stuff brought with us."
Dean's eyes caught on a title and he pulled the cassette free. "This belong to anyone?"
Shep peered at the cassette. "Didn't take you for a fan."
"Not for me… for a friend."
Shep raised an amused eyebrow. "If you say so. You want it, it's yours."
"Thanks," Dean grinned, shoving the cassette into his back pocket. "What are all those books?"
"This? This is the story of fate, my friend."
Dean frowned, picking up one of the books. It smelled musty, heavy with dust and old ink. Inside the front of the book was a stamp claiming it was the property of Needles public library.
"The public library has a book on…" he flipped the book closed, then looked up at Shep. "Ancient Mysteries of the Sea?"
"You'd be surprised."
Dean set the book down, shaking his head. "Don't bet on it," he muttered, turning his back to the workbench and resting his pockets there as a brace, the cassette clicking dully beneath the denim of his jeans. "Sam and I've spent our fair share of time in libraries."
His eyes roamed aimlessly around the garage, catching first on a lime green Charger in the back corner near another hanger-like entrance, this one closed. Next he saw a large space void of cars or machinery of any kind.
"Hey, Shep," he said, bouncing the back of his hand against the other man's shoulder. "That where Mike parks the chopper?"
Shep hooked his chin over his shoulder, following Dean's gaze. "No," he shook his head turning back to his books. "That is where our excavation equipment is stored."
Dean turned to him, cradling his throbbing side with his good hand. "Your what?"
"Bulldozers, backhoes, some front loaders." Shep lifted an eyebrow, not looking at Dean. "You didn't think we were going to depend on magic to raise that ship from the sand did you?"
Dean had to work to keep his jaw from falling open. "Okay, man, you… you need to start talking."
"How about you sit down and—"
"I swear to freakin' God, the next person that tells me to sit down and take it easy I'm gonna introduce his stomach to his teeth."
Shep tilted his head. "Well, that was… colorful. Feel better?"
"No," Dean grumbled, trying not to grimace as the throb in his side worked its way up to his shoulder like quicksilver.
Shep took a breath, tilting his head toward the books, not looking at Dean. "I was going to suggested that you sit down and let me start from the beginning."
"Oh," Dean muttered, somewhat subdued. "Sorry, man. I… it's been a long hunt, y'know?"
Shep lifted a shoulder. "'Fraid I don't, this being a first for me."
Dean rubbed his face. "Right. Well, I'm not used to being… sidelined right before the big game."
"Probably not used to having that many extra holes in your body, either," Shep pointed out.
They were both silent for a moment.
"Sam and I… we have our reasons we live this life," Dean began, his voice sounding odd to him, as if it were coming from behind his ears. "This is… this is all I know. And I don't want anyone else hurt 'cause I couldn't do my job."
"You're staying in a camp created by a Marine specifically designed to offer war Vets a second chance," Shep replied, as if this should let Dean off the hook.
Dean looked at him sharply. "Exactly. And I'm not going to be the one that takes that chance away from them."
Shep reached out, gently, as if attempting to touch a wounded animal, a tiger in a cage. Dean watched his hand advance, holding himself still, feeling the need for caution. When Shep's hand rested carefully on Dean's shoulder, he felt his muscles coil, roll, then slowly relax, tick by tick, an engine cooling in the shade of the night.
"What if helping you in this search is my chance, Dean?" Shep asked softly.
Dean blinked, then frowned, working his mind around the question.
Shep smiled softly. "As the Bard said, I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it." He released Dean's shoulder and lifted a book from the stack before him. "But it doesn't mean I don't miss the time before."
"You really got a hard on for Shakespeare," Dean muttered.
Shep grinned, the lines of his face smoothing with the motion. "It has been said of me. You should give him a read."
Sighing, Dean leaned once more against the workbench, his eyes on the Charger. "No offense, Professor," he said, "but I reserve the Bard for moments when I want to be ridiculed or kicked out of bed."
Shep laughed. "Suit yourself. But I'd listen to this."
Dean pushed away from the workbench, wandering slowly among the cars as he listened.
"In the year 1615, the Desolation Angel ran aground at the delta of the Colorado River."
Dean paused, looking over his shoulder. "The map Sam and I found… it was dated 1615."
"Was it now," Shep replied, looking back at the book he held open in his hands like a hymnal. "Preparations were made to either launch the boat back to sea with the next heavy rain that flooded the Salton Sea basin, or abandon ship. However, Captain Iturbe threatened to kill any man that left the Angel."
Dean had made it to the Charger and leaned against her hood, watching Shep. "Okay, but if that's true, one, how did the story get out and two, where did the map come from?"
"Always with the questions," Shep muttered, not looking up from his book. "Captain Iturbe believed they could find a passage to the Atlantic through the fabled Straits of Anian."
"Pacific to Atlantic, via a Spanish Galleon?" Dean scoffed, straightening to face the car.
"It was 1615, Dean," Shep reminded him. "And I wouldn't mess with that car. It's Mike's, and he keeps her in perfect condition."
"It runs?" Dean asked.
"Do. Not. Touch." Shep stressed. "Hands up, back away slowly."
"Okay, okay," Dean muttered, moving on to a shell of a Corvette and peering inside. "Keep reading about Captain Ahab."
"Captain Iturbe had commissioned the Angel after his lover—"
"Isobel," Dean muttered, feeling suddenly weak. Though the morning sun had burned away the fog, Dean felt a chill in the air, the thick air sliding down his throat and filling his lungs.
"That's right," Shep said, looking up. "How did you know that?"
"Just… keep reading," Dean rasped, making his way back to Shep and the workbench. He desperately needed to sit down before his knees completely vanished.
"Isobel traveled with him, and when the Angel's keel became mired in what they thought was a sandbar, she left the ship in search of help, knowing their food supply would soon run out."
"She found the Indian tribe…" Dean said, reaching out for the same wall he'd leaned on before, and sliding down to sit once more on the cement ground. "Didn't she?"
Shep nodded, looking up cautiously at Dean, his eyes masked by the round lenses in his frameless glasses. "She did. The Angel had a treasure of pearls and Isobel bartered with the Yuki chief to trade food for the treasure. The Yuki gathered enough food to last the pirates through three months and followed Isobel back to the moored ship."
"And then it went to shit."
"In a manner of speaking," Shep nodded, closing the book with a decisive snap. "The pirates, true to their nature, swarmed the Indians, killing without qualm, and taking what they wanted. In the melee, Isobel was injured and the Indian chief held her ransom for want of his promised treasure."
"They…" Dean tried to swallow, finding his mouth dry. "They left her… The Captain turned his back on her."
Shep nodded. "Iturbe saw her going to the Indians as betrayal, and left her to her fate. The chief killed her, in the sand outside the ship. Burned her body, and gathered her ashes in a pouch."
Dean closed his eyes.
"Just before he and the remaining Indians departed, he vowed that the pirates would never know peace, never set eyes on the sea again, would never go home, until they fulfilled their bargain." Shep rolled his neck, turning to the workbench to pick up another book.
"The pirates had a counter-measure," Dean said softly, his eyes unfocused, directed at his boots, seeing instead the ancient, spidery scrawl on the map. "Didn't they?"
"Indeed," Shep nodded. "En el solsticio de invierno regresará ellaa las aguas y la sangre de los hombres correrá hasta que volvamos a alzarnos. Cuando la luna caiga sobre la hoja de la espada, ella llevará su carga a casa."
"Yeah, that was on the map. So… no spell? Witchcraft? Hex?"
Shep lifted his eyebrows. "It does not appear so. Simply… the will of desperate men."
Rubbing his face again, Dean looked at his hands, belatedly realizing he'd been smearing grease from his fingers across his forehead. Sighing, he tipped his head back against the wall. "So, okay, I get how the solstice would bring the ghosts back once a year. A lot of faiths believe in the power of the solstices…"
Dropping his head once more, he regarded Shep solemnly through his lashes. "But I do not get this deal with midnight on the turn of the year."
"The Yuki are a benevolent people," Shep explained. "Their shaman found out about Isobel's fate and… well, he put in an escape clause. You see, she is bound to the desert, same as those who betrayed the chief."
"I know," Dean whispered, unconsciously rubbing his heart.
"The shaman stated that… wait, I've got it here…" Shep turned and tossed a couple of books aside, finally drawing out a tattered copy with pages falling from their binding. Cradling it in his palm, he flipped to the passage he was looking for. "En el último minuto de la última hora del año, el tiempo cesará y los espíritus se levantarán. Cuando el Tesoro descanse en manos de sus gentes y el cuerpo del mensajero sea devuelto, los espíritus no estarán ligados a la tierra por más tiempo."
"And for those of us who skipped Spanish class?"
"Ah, yes, well," Shep cleared his throat. "I says, In the last minute of the last hour of the year, time will cease and spirits rise. When the treasure rests in the hands of the people, and the body of the messenger is returned, the spirits will no longer be bound to the land."
"Hold up, wait," Dean lifted a hand. "The body of the messenger? Isobel?"
Shep folded his lips down in a frown. "So it would seem."
"Didn't you say she's ashes in a pouch somewhere?"
"So… what you're saying is… we have to find the pouch, hope her ashes are still there, and get them back to the ship?" Dean struggled once more to his feet. "At the same time that someone's returning the pearls to the Yuki?"
"That about sums it up."
"Well that's just… freakin' perfect," Dean growled, rubbing the back of his neck and moving with more energy than he realized he possessed toward the open hanger door.
"Where are you going?"
"I gotta talk to Sam."
"Don't you want to hear our plan first?" Shep stopped him.
Dean turned, purpose lighting a fire beneath his skin, pushing pain to the side. "You have a plan?"
"Joshua is going to talk with the present chief of the Yuki tribe this afternoon, and Mike is leading a group to excavate the ship."
Dean nodded. "And?"
"And who's going after the Guileys?"
"Well… Kenny had a few leads, but—"
"Dude, we're not talking about finding Keyser Söze, here!"
Dean stepped forward, away from the open doorway, his eyes boring into Shep's. "This whole plan doesn't matter if we don't have those pearls."
"We have the one Sam—"
Dean's eyebrows bounced. "The one the cops took?"
Shep glanced innocently to the side. "Joshua… may have… pocketed it before the cops left the hospital."
"So, you're banking everything on one little pearl?"
Shep lifted his chin, looking down at Dean from beneath his glasses. Dean had a sudden quick flash of what the man would look like standing in front of a classroom of freshmen, quoting Shakespeare with the arrogance of one with superior intelligence.
"These men were evil, vial betrayers. They slaughtered innocents that brought them food because they wanted more treasure. I honestly don't see why—"
"You don't have to know why," Dean snapped, his words leaking between clenched teeth. "You just do the fuckin' job."
"You do the job," Dean repeated, gripping the workbench for balance. "Because if you don't, another fool will find his way to the ship. And to the hold. And to the wrong fuckin' end of a pirate's blade."
"You mean…" Shep frowned, eyes darting with thought behind his lenses. "Are you saying there are… are bodies in that ship? Aside from the pirates?"
"There are a lot of goddamn bodies in that ship," Dean snarled. "And I see each one every time I close my eyes."
"And that's not all, Professor," Dean shook his head, feeling his fingertips dig into the worn wood of the workbench. "I see her. Isobel. I hear her. Asking to go home."
"The messenger…" Shep whispered.
"You want to ask me again if I'm ready to hang the success of this hunt on one pearl?"
"We'll find them," Shep replied confidently. "We will! Kenny was a good cop—"
Dean turned away from him, heading toward the door, walking straighter than he had in days.
"Where are you going?" Shep called.
Dean paused, looking back over his shoulder. "Many times I've lied and many times I've listened, many times I've wondered how much there is to know."
Shep frowned. "Who was that? Tennyson? Yeats?"
"Zeppelin," Dean replied, stepping out into the wet air of the winter morning in search of his brother.
Sam chalked it up to instinct. To knowing his partner. To living in each other's pocket for more years than they probably wanted to think about.
Whatever the reason, when Dean rounded the corner of the mess hall and met his harried gaze, all tension drained from his body and he suddenly remembered what it felt like to be whole and confident, ready to charge into battle, ready to win.
"Sam," Dean breathed, his eyes sparking light that Sam hadn't seen since before the rawhead.
Sam had left the greenhouse with Kenny, knowing only that he had to find Dean, needed to talk to him, needed to tell him he got it. He understood. He hadn't paused at the bunkhouse, and didn't veer toward the garage. With a blind faith, he made a beeline for the mess hall, Kenny trotting along beside him, working to keep up with his long stride.
"You, uh, get hungry?" Dean's eyes darted to Kenny, then back to Sam. Buried in the green, Sam saw the echoed it's all good reply to his telegraphed I'm sorry, man.
"I could eat," Sam nodded, stepping away from his smaller companion to stride up to the hot-plate laden table of food in step with his brother. "I gotta talk to you," he said from the corner of his mouth.
"Ditto," Dean nodded curtly. "Not here, though."
"Need to eat," Dean hushed him. "Load up."
Taking him seriously, Sam began to pile breakfast food on his plate, turning when he reached the end of the line to find Joshua staring at him.
"Oh," Sam squeaked. "Hi, Joshua."
Joshua looked from Sam's plate to Dean's, his lips quirking in wry amusement. Though nearly four inches shorter, Dean could eat and drink Sam under the table. His muscular build just seemed to burn more calories in less time than Sam's lanky build. Therefore Sam was unsurprised to see Dean with a full plate in each hand, one balanced on top of a coffee mug, his utensils in his mouth like a dog bone.
"Hi boys," Joshua replied. "Let's… chat."
Sam exchanged a quick look with Dean, then trailed Joshua to a table on the far side of the mess hall. Following Dean's lead, Sam started eating, figuring Joshua would get to his point sooner or later.
"Talked to Shep just now," Joshua said. "You two got something you're planning?"
Dean shook his head, his mouth full of fried potatoes.
"'Cause if you are, you can tell me."
Sam nodded, making quick work of a crispy piece of bacon.
"We've got this covered," Joshua assured them. "I'm leaving in a few minutes to head to that Yuki tribe, get them squared away."
"Gonna get that pouch, Josh?" Dean asked, stabbing a sausage with his fork, and chewing off the end.
Joshua blinked, but nodded. "That's the plan."
"'Cause you know we're—check that, I'm—screwed without those ashes."
Sam swallowed his scrambled eggs, staring at his brother who in turn was eyeing Joshua with cool eyes. Information from Kenny's leads and questions about whatever Dean was talking about spun into a rope of need to know inside of Sam's head.
"I got it, Dean." Joshua sat back, his chin down, his eyes careful.
"Just so we're clear," Dean said, sipping his black coffee, never taking his eyes from Joshua.
"You just… heal up, Dean," Joshua admonished. "When this thing goes down, you need to be in good shape."
"I'm good, Josh," Dean said, no longer shoveling food into his mouth, his hand tented over the top of his coffee mug.
Joshua looked hard at Dean and Sam was reminded with a swift jolt of John. If he didn't know better, he'd expect the next words out of Joshua's mouth to be not sure I like your tone, son.
"You just… stay away from the garage, Dean," Joshua all-but ordered. "Like I said… we have this covered."
"Sam?" Joshua slid his eyes to Sam, jolting him with the sudden attention.
"Gotcha. No garage."
"I'll find you when I get back," Joshua said. His eyes flicked over Dean, taking in the tension in his shoulders, the hand hovering carefully at his right side. "Head back by Ben in the med tent to check out your sutures before you go lay down."
"Will do," Dean nodded, sipping more coffee as Joshua rose to his feet. He looked at both brothers for a moment longer, then with a nod, turned and left the mess hall.
"You get enough?" Dean asked Sam, his eyes on the door closing behind Joshua.
"Yeah, sure." Sam stacked his plate on top of Dean's and stood, ready to drop them in the wash tray.
"Good. Let's go," Dean stood, pausing for a moment to press a protective hand against his side, then straightening.
Sam dumped the dishes, then returned to his brother. "Where are we heading?"
"The garage," Dean replied under his breath as they made their way past Kenny at his own table.
"Dean," Sam protested, following his brother outside. "You just told Joshua you wouldn't go there!"
Dean shot him an irritated look. "How long have you known me?"
It was cool outside, but the rain had stopped. Sunlight was turning the damp world to crystal, defeating small hidden pockets of fog and kneading warm fingers into their stiff muscles. Sam had already slipped his cable-knit back on, but pulled the zipper up as he kept in step with Dean, warding off the chill the shadows of the buildings tossed his way.
Dean slipped along the backside of the mess hall, his body crouched, his steps quick. Sam followed, keeping his attention split between the eyes of the camp and his brother's figure. He didn't want to think about what might happen if Dean fell, if his wounds opened, if he injured himself further. Not only would they have some explaining to do, but Dean's internal claustrophobia would probably reach epic proportions.
Sam skidded to a stop when Dean reached out a hand, peering around the corner of the building. Turning back to face Sam, he held up a fist, then quick as lightening signed that Sam should veer left, Dean right, and flank the opposite building wrapping around to the front and slipping into the back of the garage.
Nodding his understanding, Sam watched Dean slip around the corner. In moments, they were once again next to each other, backs to the wall, shoulder to shoulder, dragging in quick pants for breath.
"You okay?" Sam whispered.
"Just… need to catch… my breath," Dean allowed.
Sam saw that he was pale beneath a soft scuff of beard and the hand pressed against his side had a visible tremble. When he straightened away from the wall, however, Sam saw none of the defeat or weakness of the past several days lingering in Dean's eyes. He had a purpose, and it was driving him forward like no amount of rest had been able to.
"In the back of the garage," Dean said, voice barely audible, "there's a lime-green Charger."
Sam had his eyes on Dean's mouth, reading his lips as best he could, working to calm his racing heart. He nodded when Dean paused.
"We get in there, you're gonna have to hotwire," Dean shook his head once, "I can't bend down that far."
Sam nodded again, then, "You got any idea where we're going?"
"After the Guileys," Dean replied. "You get something from Kenny the cop?"
"Only that his thin lead is about a mile wide," Sam replied, watching as his brother's eyes dropped to his own mouth, taking in his words. "They just don't know those guys like we do is all."
Dean tilted his head. "Not sure that's something I want on my resume."
"Emerson wants that treasure—all of it," Sam continued, leaning closer to Dean as his words spilled rapidly. "I think he's gonna pawn what he took, use the money for a way to go back."
"And he's not waiting on Christmas this time 'round." Dean faced the door, tugging softly on the padlock, then patted his borrowed pockets. "Damn."
"Maybe if you had a key," came a voice to their right.
Both brothers jerked in surprise and Dean cursed.
"Son of a bitch."
"Kenny?" Sam squeaked.
Leaning a shoulder against the side of the building, Kenny held out a single key. "I hope you let your brother here play the poker hustles, Sam," Kenny said, wry amusement coloring his voice. "When I showed you that blurry photo from the security camera in Laughlin, you look like someone had lit your hair on fire."
Dean tossed Sam a sideways glance. Sam shrugged helplessly, then returned his focus to Kenny.
"You gonna tell Joshua?" Sam asked, ignoring the way Dean's shoulders tightened at the thought.
Kenny lifted an eyebrow. "He's half-way to the swap meet by now. 'Sides… think I want him knowing you two ghostbusters showed up twenty years of cop work?"
Sam looked at the ground, then glance back up. "It was a lucky break," he offered.
"Yeah, well," Kenny shouldered Dean gently aside, unlocking the door, and shoving the hanger door open wide enough to get the Charger out.
"You got the key for the car, too?" Dean asked hopefully.
"Nothing's that easy," Kenny replied.
Sam tried the driver's side door, surprised to find it unlocked, then slipped inside. As Dean and Kenny stood watch on the passenger side, he leaned under the dash and pulled the wires free.
"Damn," Dean muttered once more.
Kenny tsked his tongue against his teeth. "And you call yourselves professionals." He pulled a small pocket knife from his jeans and handed it to Sam.
When the Charger caught and roared to life, Dean nodded his thanks at Kenny, then ducked into the car. Sam backed out of the garage and rotated the wheel hard left to face the nose of the car toward the road. As they drove away, Sam caught sight of Kenny pulling the door shut and locking it once more. No sneaking back in.
Dean rolled down his window, filling the car with a rush of crisp air. Sam looked over, concerned.
"I'm okay," Dean said softly. "Just… just drive for a bit, Sam."
Sam nodded, years of living on the road reorienting him to the direction of the highway. Kenny had said the photo was taken day before yesterday in a pawn shop downtown Laughlin, Nevada. One of Kenny's contacts had faxed it over. The face had been unidentifiable, but the arm snaking out to scoop the small display of pearls back into a brown bag had borne an unmistakable tattoo. Sam knew he'd not forget Emerson Guiley's intricate ink for awhile.
"Kenny said that the pawn shop owner still had the pearls—about half a dozen."
"How many did they grab from the ship, do you think?"
Sam shook his head, working back over that hellish night, those last few moments. Dean sagging in his arms, Emerson lighting the map… "Couldn't have been much more. I'm betting he pawned half there and was heading to a nearby town for the rest."
"Makes sense," Dean said, slouching a bit in the seat. "You know how to get to Laughlin?"
"I'll figure it out," Sam said, eyes catching on a gas station sign. "We have any money?"
Dean nodded, digging into the pocket of his denim jacket and pulling out a credit card. Sam took it, glancing at the name.
"Dude, did you snake this from Kenny?"
Dean shook his head. "He handed it to me. When you were under the dash."
"Huh," Sam muttered, pulling off. "You hungry?"
"No," Dean said, his voice practically a moan.
"Need some aspirin?"
"Yes," Dean closed his eyes.
"Be right back."
Sam scrambled from the car, found the gas tank and filled it, then jogged into the station. He felt like his heart beat in time with an invisible ticking clock and time was running out. He'd forgotten all about his disappointment of John's absence, his frustration with Dean for not going slow, his melancholy for his California past. They had a lead, a hunt; they had a job to do.
And at the end of the day, Sam was a Winchester.
He paid for his items and jogged back to the car, startling Dean when he opened the door.
"Aspirin," Sam tossed him a bottle of ibuprofen, "coffee," he grinned at the look of adoration Dean shot the steaming cup, "and… pie."
"Sam, you are a god among men," Dean sighed happily.
"Also? I got a map."
"To Laughlin!" Dean held his coffee up as a salute to the windshield.
"To Laughlin," Sam echoed. "Need music?"
They looked at the dash, then at each other. Sam bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.
"Dude," Dean looked back at the dash in horror. "What kind of… of freak doesn't have a radio in his car?"
Sam shifted to drive, pulling back onto I-40. "I could sing."
"Please don't," Dean muttered, sipping his coffee.
After a beat, he began telling Sam the story of the curse as he'd heard it from Shep. Sam listened quietly, then shared with him Kenny's observations about the Guileys.
"It's Mack," Sam finished. "Mack was the one with the agenda."
"What?" Dean looked over at him, surprised. "Emerson is the one that's all gung-ho for treasure."
"But Mack is the one that wanted to get to the pirates in the first place," Sam reminded him. "And… you reminded me of something."
"What?" Dean drew out the word, caution hanging on each letter.
"When we were trying to get off that ship… it was crazy, chaotic. And you were so… all I could think about was getting you free of them," Sam swallowed, registering for a moment that he hadn't yet achieved that goal. "Right before the ship rolled—"
"It rolled?" Dean repeated, his voice foggy with disjointed memory.
Sam nodded. "And we all, like… slid to the edge. But right before that, Dreadlocks looked at Mack and he… he said something."
"What did he say?"
Sam lifted a brow and glanced askance at Dean. "Really?"
"Right, Spanish," Dean nodded. "But you think it was something important enough… that Mack wants to… I don't know… go back?"
Sam tipped his fingers up on the steering wheel. "I dunno. All I can think about is that he just… he came alive out there. Weird, totally detached from reality… but alive."
"Eh," Dean shook his head. "I still think it's Mr. All About the Benjamins Guiley."
"We'll see, I guess."
They road in comfortable silence for miles. Sam had almost forgotten how quickly being on the road relaxed his brother. After a bit, Dean put the empty coffee cup on the floor of the car and leaned his head back, the cool air teasing the tips of his short hair and blowing Sam's across his cheeks.
It wasn't until Dean started to twitch that Sam realized his brother had fallen asleep. At first it was a small tremor of his hands, a reflexive reaching out. He began to struggle, subtly then with building strength.
Worried that he was going to hurt himself with no medical help nearby, Sam reached out carefully, gingerly touching Dean's left forearm. Dean moved so fast Sam barely had time to draw a breath. Without apparent concern for his wounds, Dean launched at Sam, one hand on Sam's throat, the other fisted in his hair, jerking his head back.
"Shit!" Sam exclaimed, slamming his foot awkwardly on the brake, the car swerving dangerously to the middle line. "Dean! Wake up!"
He felt Dean's hand relax on his throat a fraction and he managed to pull to the side of the road, stopping the car in a cloud of gravel dust.
"Dean… Dean, hey, it's me, okay? It's Sammy."
Dean was panting, but, Sam saw, coming back to himself. He released his grip, almost sliding down Sam's side to slump wearily in the seat next to him.
"Oh, Jesus, Sammy…" He rubbed a hand over his sweat-covered face. "Man… I'm… I didn't—"
"It's okay," Sam said, rubbing his throat. "Are you okay? Did you tear anything?"
Dean cradled his side, moving slowly back to his side of the car. "No… I'm okay."
"That was a bad one."
Dean nodded, his throat bobbing. "We… uh," he looked around. "We didn't…"
"Everything's okay, Dean," Sam reassured him, his heart hitching tightly in his chest at the lost look on his brother's face. "We're almost to Laughlin. We'll get these two bastards, get the pearls, get rid of these ghosts."
Dean nodded, rubbing the sweat from his face. "You think the Indians made the map, Sam?"
"What?" Sam asked, startled, thrown by the question.
"The map… it… it got out somehow… and there are bodies… so many freakin' bodies…"
"People who followed the map," Sam nodded. "Well, unless one of the pirates, y'know… escaped."
Dean shook his head helplessly as Sam pulled back onto the road. "People are crazy, Sam. Even ancient people."
"Kenny said something like that," Sam replied softly. "Said he couldn't believe how evil people could be to each other."
Dean rested his elbow on the window sill and leaned his face into the wind. "They don't even know what real evil is…"
Sam looked at his brother, feeling the fragile sorrow return, clinging to Dean as if he'd just walked through a cobweb of it. "I'm not sure about that," he said softly.
They passed a sign welcoming them to Nevada and Sam kept his eyes open for mile markers to Laughlin. The sun was starting to angle itself low in his rear-view mirror.
"Hey Sam," Dean spoke up suddenly, his face still in the wind. Sam realized it was to keep himself awake.
"You ever think about the fact that Dad woulda been just a few years older than me when Mom died?"
Sam blinked. "Uh, no, actually. Dad was always just… y'know, Dad."
"These guys—back at Joshua's camp—they have me thinking…" Dean leaned against the seat, arching his back and holding his side, trying to get comfortable. "Dad really wanted to come, y'know? When he said it to me, that night… he believed it."
"So what changed?" Sam said, bitterness sneaking out before he could toss his net of disinterest over it.
Dean shook his head, fingers rubbing idly along the seam of his jeans. "Maybe it was just that… he'd taken his second chance already. He'd taken it and turned it into a… mission. A vendetta. And he wrapped us up in that."
Dean paused and Sam heard him swallow.
"It had to have been damn hard on him, y'know?"
"Maybe," Sam allowed, taking the exit for Laughlin. "I guess it's hard to feel sorry for him. I mean… where's our second chance?" He looked at his brother when they paused at a stop light.
Dean returned his look and the rays of the setting sun caught his expression with such stark honesty that Sam felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
"I think this is it," Dean said, his fingers flicking back and forth in the space between them. "Us. Doing the job. Together. I think this is our second chance."
Sam blinked. You know what it's like to have a partner, don't you kid?
"Dean, I… I'm not…" he swallowed, feeling heat behind his eyes.
Someone that goes into battle with you, no questions asked. That has your back. Someone who puts their life in your hands, willingly, and you do the same.
How did he tell his brother that this wasn't the life he wanted, wasn't the life he was meant to lead? That he wanted to go back to the way it was. Find Dad, get the demon, avenge Jessica, and be done with it. Dean sat waiting, looking at him, heart exposed in a rare moment of truth, and Sam felt his skin ripple, shivering around him as he tried to crawl back inside himself.
He turned away. "I'm not sure which way the pawn shop is."
The sun fell behind the horizon, dropping twilight upon them with a heavy hand. Dean turned in the seat, his wall firmly back in place. And Sam felt cold and lonely.
"There's a gas station," Dean said, his voice neutral, natural. "Let's go ask."
It took Sam several hours to regroup. He followed Dean inside the pawn shop, listened as his brother worked his silver-tongued magic on the shop owner and used Kenny's credit card to buy back the six large pearls. They found out that the shop owner had sent them toward Bullhead City, ten miles down the road, not able to buy-out the Guiley's entire stash. They headed out, Sam once more at the wheel.
"Kenny's gonna have to report this card stolen," Sam commented as they crossed into Bullhead City. "Only way we'll be able to pay him back."
"I think he kinda figured as much when he handed it over," Dean said. "There—Martin's Pawn Shop. See it?"
"I see it."
"Think they'll still be there?" Dean mused.
"Not with our luck," Sam sighed.
They parked the Charger and exited, slamming the doors in unison as they made their way across the nearly-empty parking lot, one streetlamp tossing a white cone of light down on the business and attracting every errant moth in Nevada. As Sam put his hand on the door of the shop, they heard it.
The unmistakable sounds of a flesh hitting flesh, grunts, cries of pain, and curses of anger.
Dean shot Sam a look. "You think?"
"One way to find out."
They headed down the block, rounding a corner into a dusty, garbage-strewn alley littered with green trash dumpsters, cardboard boxes, and newspapers. Toward the middle of the grungy alley, four figures alternately stood and staggered in the gathering darkness, the streetlight only serving to cast threatening shadows on the wall.
"Son of a bitch," Dean muttered.
"We're not gonna be able to fight their way out of this one," Sam said, finding Emerson's pale hair in the middle of the melee, but unable to locate Mack.
"We're not gonna be able to fight at all," Dean growled. Sam saw him hold his right arm tight against his side. "Hell, we don't even have our weapons."
Sam looked from Dean to the melee in the alley, then back. Dean was looking down the block, chewing on his lip.
"I got an idea."
He'd made anonymous calls to the police before. It was often times one of the last things they did in a hunt. It never got any easier, calling the cops for help. This time was no different.
He hung up the pay phone and twirled a finger to Sam, signaling that he should pull the Charger around to the back of the alley. He hurried as quickly as his body allowed, joining his brother as they waited for the cavalry.
"What'd you tell them?" Sam whispered.
"That the pawn shop was being robbed at gunpoint."
He grimaced with each crack of skin, shuddered when he heard a bone snap and had to bite his lip to not call out as the echoing scream of pain reverberated between the alley walls. When the bwwoop of the police siren finally sounded, Dean thought he was going to throw up. It was simply not in him to stand aside while the weaker are punished by the stronger.
Or, in this case, the stronger in number.
The cop's voice boomed through the bullhorn and three bodies scrambled away while one crumpled to the ground. Dean nodded at Sam and as the cops exited their vehicle to chase the runners, the brothers darted quickly into the shadows of the alley, lifted Emerson by his shoulders and belt and shuffled him to the backseat of the waiting Charger.
"Is he conscious?" Dean asked, instinctively sliding behind the wheel and leaving the scene to hide the car somewhere the cops wouldn't immediately look.
"Barely," Sam said from the back seat. "Looks like a broken nose… hand, fingers…"
Emerson cried out as Sam's hands skipped over his side.
"Ger'offa me," Emerson pushed Sam's hand away, then immediately gasped in pain.
"Hey," Dean shot back over the seat. "Where's your brother?"
"Dunno," Emerson groaned.
"Is he back in that alley?" Sam tried.
"No," Emerson rolled his head against the seat. Blood from his face smeared the seat cushion beneath him.
"Is he alive?"
"Dunno," Emerson whispered, then tried to curl in on himself. "Bastard left me."
"He left you?" Sam replied, leaning over the front seat and digging through the glove box, coming up empty. "Dean pull over. I need to look in the trunk."
Dean nodded tightly, slipping into the back of a used car lot and shutting down the engine. Sam hopped out and waited until Dean smacked the release button on the dash before he lifted the trunk.
"Anything?" Dean called.
"Paydirt," Sam replied, closing the trunk and coming back around with a briefcase-sized first aid kit.
Dean turned carefully in the front seat and watched Sam carefully clean up Emerson's face. The kid was shaking. Dean shrugged painfully out of his denim jacket, handing it to Sam to drape over Emerson and keep him warm.
"Think you can swallow some aspirin?" Sam asked.
Emerson's nod was almost imperceptible. Sam eased him up carefully and helped him with the meds, then helped him lay back down, his head propped to the side so that he could breathe.
"We can't take him to a hospital," Dean said, regret pulling at his statement.
Sam shook his head. "Those cops would be on us like lightning."
"Emerson," Dean spoke up. "You think you can handle a ride?"
"Whatever," he muttered. "Doesn't much matter anymore."
Dean swallowed, hating himself for his timing, but needing to know. "Dude, uh… I gotta ask…" he looked at Sam, then back down at the wounded kid. "Do you have the rest of those pearls?"
After a pause the felt to Dean like twenty years had passed, Emerson nodded. "Never even got a chance to go in…"
"Emerson," Sam said, wrapping Emerson's swollen fingers with medical tape, immobilizing the bones. "What were those guys after?"
Emerson tried to open his eyes, succeeding with one. The other was swollen shut, the skin shiny and bruised. "They thought I was… y'know… being my own private Idaho."
Dean raised an eyebrow. "They thought you were hustling? Why?"
Emerson's chin trembled and the brother's exchanged a horrified glance.
"'Cause I… I didn't know what else to do," Emerson whispered. "I wasn't gonna go through with it! I was… I was just gonna take their money and run. Mack took what we got from Laughlin when he left. I…"
"Why didn't you just pawn the pearls?" Sam exclaimed.
"Do you know how hard that was the first time?" Emerson bleated. "That fat guy in Laughlin barely gave me what one was worth, let alone six…"
"So, when you didn't… go through with it…" Dean prompted.
"They beat the shit outta me, yeah," Emerson's voice was hard, but the undercurrent of terror and shame tugged at Dean's heart.
"Where did Mack go?" Sam pressed.
Emerson shook his head helplessly. "I don't know. Home, maybe? He hasn't said a word since we left you at that camp. Stopped eating… just… just stared at me. He was really freaking me out."
Sam began to tape up Emerson's ribs, trying to at least offer some support before they headed back to the camp. Emerson stopped talking as Sam worked, holding his breath against the pain and groaning when Sam touched a particularly sore spot. Dean watched quietly.
There had been a number of times his brother had taped him up after a rough hunt or a bar fight, but Dean had usually been too hazy from pain or liquor to appreciate Sam's precision and gentle touch. As he watched, he smiled.
"Think you missed your calling, man," he said softly.
"What? Tape man?"
"Doctor," Dean said. He grinned wider. "What's that saying? First kill all the lawyers?"
Sam chuckled. "Yeah, no one wants to off a doc, right?"
"Glad you two are having such fun at my expense," Emerson growled.
"Ah, there's the biting wit we missed," Sam muttered, finishing his tape job and pulling Emerson's blood-stained shirt down. "You wanna lie down or sit up?"
"I don't wanna fuckin' move, that's what," Emerson said softly.
"You ready?" Sam looked at Dean.
"As I'll ever be," Dean replied. "Get the pearls first, though."
Emerson's sigh was nasally, but he handed Sam the bag of pearls tucked into the lining of his jacket. Sam hefted them, then returned to the front seat.
"You sure you're good to drive?" Sam asked.
"It's better than falling asleep," Dean confessed.
They pulled out of the car lot and back to the main road, heading for I-40. This time the silence was weighted with questions and saturated with the painful breaths coming from the back seat.
"How'd you guys find me?"
"We're professionals," Sam replied.
Dean bit the inside of his cheek.
"What took you so long, then?"
"Well, there was a little matter of a bullet hole," Dean reminded him, glancing up in the rear-view mirror.
"What makes you think Mack went back home?" Sam asked.
"'Cause I—" Emerson paused as if the words jumbled up in his throat, choking off his larynx.
They waited a moment, then Dean encouraged, "You… what?"
"I told him," Emerson continued, his voice so choked it made Dean's eyes burn. "I told him what happened to our dad."
Sam shot a look at Dean, then half turned in the front seat to look back at Emerson. "What happened to your dad?"
"Man, I so need to be drunk to tell you this."
"Believe me," Dean replied. "You do not want to drink alcohol with a broken nose. One hiccup and it's all she wrote."
"I've got some water," Sam offered.
"Gee, thanks, Jesus," Emerson retorted. "I'm sure that'll work just fine."
"Hey," Sam protested.
"You don't want to tell us? Fine," Dean carried on. "But here's the deal, wise guy. We're going back to the camp to get you fixed up, but you've got a pair of cops on your tail. You're wanted for murder, hotshot."
"Your dad," Sam supplied.
"What?" Emerson's voice squeaked high, turning him even younger in Dean's perception.
"Yeah, murder," Dean continued. "So I'd start pulling Mr. Nice Guy back outta your ass if you want any help with the cops. Otherwise…" Dean shrugged.
Emerson was silent for a moment. "Why'd you want the pearls?"
"To break the curse," the brother's said together.
"Curse? You mean those freakin' pirates? Does it even matter anymore?"
"Yes," Dean replied while Sam nodded.
They drove in silence for awhile longer. Long enough for Sam to turn around and get comfortable on the seat beside him. Long enough for Dean's arm to start aching from holding the steering wheel and the throb in his side to work its way up to his teeth. Long enough for his blinks to lengthen and the soft whisper of voices from his dreams to breathe across his ear.
"My mom was killed by a hit-and-run driver," Emerson said suddenly.
Sam jerked in surprise and Dean's eyes darted to the rear-view mirror, then back to the road. Neither of them said a word, waiting.
"They never caught the guy—the only evidence they had was what Mack saw and some… some silver paint transfer or whatever. He drove off and left them all tangled up in the car. She… she might've lived. Least that's what I always thought. She might've lived if someone had found them sooner."
Dean swallowed, unable to keep the image of Mary from his mind. Mary smiling at him, Mary apologizing to Sam, Mary giving over to the pillar of fire and saving her sons.
"Dad, uh… he lost it. He was never the same. And Mack, I mean, you know how messed up he was. Stopped talking altogether. Never gave the cops anything to go on for the crash. So I started making sure we had food and money. Bet you never figured that, didja?" Emerson half-laughed, then drew in his breath sharply before continuing. "Dad started keeping that journal. Most of it was about how he was going to make it up to Mom or how he was going to get back to her or some shit."
Emerson shifted and Dean heard him groan.
"The night my dad died… I, uh, I found something out. I'd started following him a lot. Just, y'know, to make sure he got where he was going, got home, all that. He wasn't just a drunk… he, well. You get the idea. That night… I followed him to Mom's grave and then he goes to this junkyard."
Dean shivered, a pit of realization growing in his stomach.
"There's this silver car there, front end all mashed up, and Dad goes over to it and just… just sits there. Behind the wheel. And cries. It took me a minute but… well, the only evidence had been silver paint transfer."
"Oh, man," Sam breathed, still not turning around.
The air inside the car seemed to tighten, and Dean had to work to draw a breath.
"That night… the night that Dad died," Emerson continued, his voice thin and reedy like it was leaking through flattened lips, "I was heading out. Had a date. Cate Driscoll. She had a thing for tat's, y'know the type?"
Dean felt his mouth tug into an automatic, roguish grin. "Yeah."
He caught Sam shooting him an incredulous glance out of the corner of his eyes and sobered, clearing his throat. "Go on, man."
"This ain't easy, y'know," Emerson shot back, his voice trembling.
Dean looked up at him in the rear-view mirror, the highway lights casting an odd gray-blue glow on the unfamiliar interior of the car. Emerson was looking out of the passenger side window, his jaw clenched so tightly that Dean could see the muscle bunched along the line of his cheek.
They waited, the quiet pressing around them, until Emerson spoke again.
"I had a bike—old-school Harley. I'd been keeping it under a tarp in the shed where Pop kept all his tools. Saws, drills, clamps, the whole nine. He used to be big into home improvement shit. I didn't want Mack or Pop to see the bike… mainly because… well, it's wasn't really mine."
"We get it," Sam said. "Go on."
"I was rolling the tarp off when Pop comes in. Dude was three sheets easy. Coulda lit the air around him on fire. He was rambling about how I was… I was gonna tell… I didn't even realize he'd seen me at that junkyard, y'know? I hadn't really made up my mind what I was going to do… but, y'know, looking back? I wouldn't have told."
Dean nodded, finding himself agreeing with Emerson's line of thinking. Sam looked at him sharply, a strange light in his eyes. Dean returned his attention to the road as a mile marker for Needles passed.
"He came at me. I coulda taken him, easy. 'Specially messed up as he was. But… he was Pop, y'know? I told him to calm down. Chill out. That we needed to figure this out, but…" Emerson stopped again, and Dean felt the tears in the younger man's voice as keenly as if they were spilling down his own face. "He was talking about Mom and this treasure and… just talking crazy. I just started screaming at him to shut the hell up and I think… I think I went a little crazy, too. I started throwing things. Tools. Hell, stuff I didn't even recognize. And then I saw Mack. He was kinda… tucked into the corner of the shed—across the room from us."
"So… he did see—"
"No," Emerson interrupted Sam. "He couldn't see anything really clearly from there. I just… I saw his hair. And I started toward him—to get him out of there. I was just… I was pissed. Pop was between him and me and he yelled something at me. I couldn't tell you what it was. It's like… like everything gets blurry and mushed up in my head after I saw Mack."
For a moment, the only sound in the car was the deep rumble of the engine and the hum of rubber on road. Dean swallowed, darting a glance first at Sam, then up to the rear-view mirror.
"Emerson," he said, the kid's name sounding strange in his voice, as if it were too big to fit the battered image in the mirror. "Did you kill your dad?"
"No," Emerson whispered, tears thick in his choked voice. "I'm a son of a bitch. I know that. I have done some stupid shit in my life. And… I don't really blame Mack for leaving. I treated him like… like everything was his fault. Like he was a freak."
Sam shifted on the seat beside Dean.
"But I couldn't… I couldn't kill Pop. He was a bastard, but… he was all we had, y'know?"
"What happened, then?" Sam pressed, his voice hedging on frantic need.
"When he yelled at me, all I could think was to shut him up, that Mack would hear. I started to scream over him, calling him names, telling him I hated him. I never saw the saw blade."
Dean closed his eyes quickly, seeing it coming.
"It was… sticking out of the floor… like some giant Chinese throwing star," Emerson choked out. "I-I… don't know if he ever saw Mack. He just… he lunged for me, and I shoved him away and he… he kinda turned and stumbled back and fell… I thought at first it cut his head off. He made this like… gurgle sound… and blood kinda… sprayed out all over. It… it smelled. I didn't know blood could smell so bad."
Dean readjusted the grip on the wheel, the throb in his side almost to the point of full-on pain. He was breathing shallowly, Emerson's destroyed voice suppressing the air in the car to the point of suffocation. Sam rolled down his window part-way. Dean almost hugged him for it.
"His body was… was like bucking, like it was trying to throw itself off… and then he just kinda… stopped."
"What happened then?" Dean asked carefully.
Emerson was quiet for a moment. Behind them, the sky had started to bruise with the light of morning. Dean pressed the accelerator, suddenly anxious to be back at camp.
"I found Mack—he was like…curled up with his head down and his arms over his eyes—and I dragged him out of there. He never… he never said anything about it. Not once. Not until…"
"Until the desert," Sam filled in.
"Yeah," Emerson replied. "I guess… somehow it got all twisted up in his head. He thought Pop was coming after him or something."
"What makes you think he went back home, then?" Dean asked, puzzled. "If I were him… I'd never go back home."
"'Cause I… I told him about… about the car, and Mom, and he said that he was going back to where he belonged. Kid says nothing for days and then he hits me with that. Next thing I know, I'm alone and broke."
As the sun filled the rear-view mirror, Dean exchanged a glance with Sam, understanding passing between them.
"I don't think he went home, kid," Dean said, turning down the gravel road that lead to Joshua's camp. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as they got closer, causing him to instinctively slow down.
"What do you mean?" Emerson asked.
"Hold on," Dean muttered, peering down the road, trying to get a better view. "Something's wrong, Sam."
"Sure you're not just worried about Mike being pissed about his car?" Sam asked.
Dean shook his head. "It's too quiet."
Sam rolled his window down the rest of the way, pulling his sweater over his hands to ward off the crisp air. "You're right."
In all of their walks—rain or shine—there had always been a low background hum of activity, people, lives being lived. Dean heard none of that now as they approached. His body switched to autopilot.
"I'm hiding the car here," he said, his voice clipped. "Emerson, you stay."
"No," Dean bit out. "You stay with this car. Do not get out until we come back for you. Do you get me?"
Emerson's one eye looked from Dean to Sam and back. He nodded carefully, pulling Dean's denim jacket closer to him. "Roll the window up when you leave, okay?"
Dean nodded, pulling the car as far off the road as he could so that it couldn't be seen by the casual observer. Sam was almost to the road by the time he was able to get out, his body stiffening up almost to the point of paralysis after the long drive. He forced himself upright, curling his hand into a fist as he drew in a sharp breath of cold morning air.
"Son of a bitch," he muttered through clenched teeth. His wounds may be healing, but they were taking their sweet time. Pushing away from the car, Dean staggered through the underbrush to join Sam.
"You okay?" Sam asked.
They walked slowly down the road, Sam shortening his stride to match Dean's, keeping his body close enough to grab, but not actually touching Dean. It had become a familiar rhythm in the days following their arrival at camp and they fell back into it easily.
"You think cops?"
"Yep," Dean replied.
"Fantastic," Sam sighed as they rounded the corner, the mess hall to their left, the helicopter parked and quiet in the distance, the med tent to their right. Standing in what Joshua called Camp Square—the open area of land that basically brought the half-dozen buildings together—was Kenny, Shep, Ben, two other men Dean didn't recognize, and the detectives from the hospital. The unmarked police cruiser was parked near the helicopter.
Shep saw them first. "Ah, the prodigals return."
"Morning," Sam raised a hand.
No one else spoke until they reached the group. The detectives eyed the brothers with cool eyes, their mouths set in grim lines of purpose.
"Starsky, Hutch," Dean nodded at each of them.
"It's Hanson," Hanson growled. "Detective Hanson. And this is Detective Andrews."
Dean lifted a shoulder, dropping his chin in an abbreviated nod. "My mistake. You out here collecting for the Policeman's Ball?"
Hanson's lip curled in a snarl. "We don't have balls."
Blinking, his face carefully blank, Dean turned to Sam. "I honestly have no response to that."
"The, uh, detectives are out here to ask some more questions about the fugitives," Kenny supplied.
"Have you had any contact with the Guiley brothers, Mr. Remington?" Detective Andrews addressed Sam.
Dean had never bothered to ask what name they'd given at the hospital. He pressed his lips together, glancing at the dusty toe of his boot to keep himself from chuckling.
"Since the last time you asked me that question?" Sam replied. "No."
"We have it under good authority that the Guileys never left California," Hanson pressed.
"Then maybe you should be out looking for them instead of here bothering these guys," Dean replied.
Hanson advanced on him. Dean felt his back muscles tighten up, but he didn't back up.
"Listen," Hanson spat, anger turning the edges of his lips white. "I'm getting pretty tired of you trying to trivialize police work."
"Seems like you're doing a bang up job of that all on your own," Dean returned. "Why are you here, anyway?"
He wanted to ask how they'd found this camp—it seemed to be fairly off the radar to him—but for all he knew, Joshua's nameless camp for Vets was well-known in Needles, California. The thought of Joshua gave him pause; he looked from Hanson to the group of men then back. Joshua's absence was troubling.
"Make no mistake," Hanson growled, not answering Dean. "I will find Emerson Guiley. And when I do, he will be arrested for the murder of Rob Guiley. And anyone that harbors him? Will be arrested as accomplices."
"Accomplices?" Sam broke in, causing Hanson to turn from Dean. "You sure about that? Maybe… obstructing justice, but… accomplices?"
A vein in Hanson's forehead pulsed as he glared at Sam.
"My brother, the lawyer." Dean smiled proudly.
"Hanson," Andrews called, reigning her partner back in. "We got what we came for."
Hanson glared at Sam. "We'll be back."
Sam simply lifted an eyebrow. Hanson looked at Dean who tilted his head casually, an open invitation to say something else. He looked back at the group of men gathered in the Camp Square.
"Hanson," Andrews called again, this time reaching out to tug on his arm. "Come on."
They backed to their navy-blue cruiser, got in, and pulled away. The group waited until the taillights had completely receded before turning to face each other.
"Well, that was fun," Shep sighed. "Think they're ever going to give up?"
"Not until they find them," Kenny grumbled. "They ain't bad cops, those two. Just have a lot of shit to wade through before they get to the truth."
"Which, it just so happens, we heard," Dean said, the throb in his side beating a harsh echo at the base of his skull.
"You found them, didn't you?" Kenny asked.
"One of them," Sam replied.
"We have an idea where the other one went," Dean continued. "Where's Joshua?"
Shep and Kenny exchanged a look. "We've got a problem," Kenny replied.
"He didn't get to the Indians?" Sam asked and Dean wrapped his arms around his chest, feeling himself begin to shiver from the inside out.
"Oh, he did," Shep replied. "Turns out they remember all too well the Spanish pirates that massacred their people. They've been betrayed one too many times to just help out of the kindness of their hearts."
"Son of a bitch," Dean kicked at the ground. "I knew it! I knew we'd wasted too much time." He felt himself sway slightly, odd-shaped dots gathering at the corners of his eyes. One hand went to the back of his neck and he began to rub the tight muscle there.
"They are willing to make a trade, however."
"A trade?" Sam looked at Shep, disbelief in his voice.
"They'll give us the pouch, but…" Shep looked at Kenny, then down at the ground, an indistinct emotion cutting off his voice.
"What?" Dean pressed, feeling his knees begin to quake. He locked them, tightening his muscles, keeping himself upright through will.
"They won't let us have Joshua back until they have the pearls."
"Joshua's still there?"
Before they could answer, Dean felt the world tip sideways and he tumbled into Sam's shoulder.
"Whoa," he muttered, blinking.
Sam gripped him and Ben stepped forward. "Back to the med tent for you," Ben ordered.
"Wait," Dean lifted a hand, twisting it in Sam's sweater. "Emerson."
"We'll get him," Kenny said.
"We left him," Dean pushed out through rapidly numbing lips. "Back at the car."
"Where's the car?"
"Down the road half a klick," Sam replied, "south side of the road. He's beat up pretty bad."
Dean turned to compliment Sam on his lingo when his knees gave way and he found himself on the ground, the palm of his hand stinging from impact.
"Dean," Ben knelt in front of him, a finger tucked under his chin, lifting his face. "Your color looks like shit. When did you eat last?"
"Yesterday morning," Sam answered, crouching next to Ben.
"Don't want to sleep," Dean shook his head decisively, trying to make his tongue obey. It felt suddenly too big for his mouth.
"Nightmares," Sam answered when Ben waited for more of an explanation. "They're…"
Ben nodded, cutting Sam off. "Dean," he gripped Dean's good shoulder with a strong hand. "If I could guarantee you no dreams, would you sleep?"
Dean tried to push Ben's hand away. He wanted to stand up. To walk away. To gear up. "No," he said as forcefully as he could.
"Dean!" Ben all-but shouted. He cupped Dean's face, his fingers curling behind his ears, and forced Dean to meet his eyes. "Stop fighting me. Listen! I know from nightmares, okay? I know. You want to be in this fight?"
Dean felt trapped and tried to pull away, but he lacked the strength. He felt Sam's hand on his back, warm, strong. He stared back at Ben.
"You want to be in this fight?" Ben asked again, more gently.
Dean nodded and Ben released his head. He sank back against Sam, his brother's arm a brace for his hollow body.
"Then you need to sleep," Ben continued. "And if they won't leave you alone," Ben narrowed his eyes pinning Dean with his gaze and pointing to Dean's temple, "then we'll just have to hide you from them for a while."
"You can do that?" Dean rasped.
Ben grinned, then nodded at him. "You bet your ass I can."
December 31, 2005
Sam sat quietly on a chair near his brother's bed, his eyes on the hypnotic rise and fall of Dean's chest.
Dean had slept through the day and woke up near midnight, groggy, confused, and thirsty. Ben had been there, though, and before Sam had been able to fully wake, had made sure Dean had eaten, had checked his wounds, and had given him more meds.
It was nearly eight in the morning and still Dean slept. Quietly, no thrashing, no jerking, no crying out.
"Too bad we can't have those drugs all the time," Sam whispered to him.
"Wouldn't advise that," Ben said suddenly from behind him.
Sam startled, looking back at the doctor.
"They're freakin' addictive for one thing," Ben said, sipping a cup of coffee and handing another to Sam. "And something tells me your brother hates not being… alert."
"He sleeps with an eight inch Bowie knife under his pillow," Sam said.
Ben nodded. "I don't know much about what it is you do—just what Joshua told me—but, I can imagine you gotta be ready for a lot of… bumps in the night."
Sam nodded, sipping his coffee, watching Dean sleep. "Joshua okay?"
"Well, from what we can tell he's pissed as hell, but… not hurt."
"You reach Mike?"
"He's back—he and Shep are getting the weapons ready to your specifications."
"He still upset about the car?"
Ben chuckled. "I don't think upset properly categorizes it, but he's a soldier, our Mike. He's pretty much the only one of us that decided to use his military training to get over his… trauma. He knows there are times you do what you have to do."
Sam reached up and absentmindedly rubbed at the seam of skin across his shoulder where Mack's bullet had grazed him a few weeks earlier. "How's Emerson?"
"Healing. Kid's got a chip on his shoulder the size of Ayers Rock," Ben shook his head, setting his coffee down and started to move around the room where Dean slept and Sam waited. He shifted a messenger bag off of his shoulder, placing the contents on different shelves inset into the walls. "He's not openly admitted it, but I think he's worried about his brother."
Sam nodded, picking up a change in Dean's breathing, a rapid hitch to the motion of his chest.
"You sure Mack was heading back out to the desert?" Ben asked for what had to have been the tenth time since they'd returned.
"I'd bet my life on it," Sam said. "Hey, is he okay?"
Ben turned to face them just as Dean's eyes flew open, his hands pressing against the bed, sweat breaking out across his forehead and cheeks.
"Son of a bitch," Dean gasped, his heels pushing against the mattress, shoving his shaking body up high in the bed as if he were backing away from something. "Son of a bitch!"
"What!" Sam was on his feet, moving close, reaching out, but not touching. His throat constricted at the thought of touching Dean in this state. "What, Dean? What is it?"
Dean wasn't looking at him, Sam realized. He was looking past him, almost through him. He was awake. Sam saw awareness in his brother's eyes, but his pupils were so large the black had nearly eaten the green and his face was bone-white.
"You don't see her?"
Sam jerked a look over his shoulder, seeing Ben do the same. "Who?"
"Oh, fuck me," Dean whispered. "This is not happening… this is not happening!"
He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, rubbing hard then dropping them away to stare once more at the emptiness behind Sam. His breathing had reached a runner's pant and Sam couldn't stand it. He gripped Dean's arm.
His brother's eyes flew to meet his and Sam felt Dean's hand twist around to return his hold. Dean's fingers dug in to his forearm, holding Sam tightly, his eyes pinned to Sam's. Slowly, as if coming up for air from a deep ocean dive, Dean's pupils shrank, the mania receded, and reason returned.
"She's here, Sam," Dean said as calmly as his still-trembling body would allow.
Sam didn't look away, feeling the anchor that was his body holding Dean to sanity. "Who?"
"She's… here?" Sam worked to understand. "In… in this room?"
"She's standing over by that shelf." Dean didn't look away, but his grip tightened. "She's wrapped in a white sail. Her hair is black, and she has gray eyes. She's standing there just as sure as I'm touching you."
Sam took a breath. "Okay."
"You believe me?"
Sam nodded. "I believe you. Don't let go, okay? Just hang on to me."
"Okay," Dean nodded, keeping his eyes on Sam's face.
"Y-yeah," Ben replied, clearly shaken from the last few moments.
"What did you put on the shelf over there?"
Ben swallowed, moving away from the brothers. Sam heard him cross the room, heard him move something, then heard him utter a low curse.
"What is it?" Sam snapped.
"The pouch," Ben said softly. "It's the pouch of ashes."
"Isobel's ashes," Sam said. Dean closed his eyes and took a breath.
"Yeah," Ben replied. "He can… he sees her?"
"Dean," Sam started.
"I'm okay," Dean said, his fingers slowly releasing Sam's arm. "I'm okay."
Sam held on a moment longer. "You sure?"
"She's… she's just waiting, man." Dean let go of Sam, closed his eyes a moment, then looked back toward the shelf and Ben. "Waiting to go home," he said as if talking to Isobel.
"Well, we're going to send her there," Sam said. He sank slowly to his chair. "Other than the obvious… how are you feeling?"
Dean looked back at him, surprised. Sam saw him test the tenderness of his side and was relieved when there wasn't an accompanying grimace. "Better," he said. "Starving, actually."
"Good," Sam grinned. "'Cause we have a lot to talk about."
"You, uh," Ben was looking at his shelf, tilting his head one way then the other. "You want to just… leave her here?"
"No," Dean shook his head. "Give me the pouch."
"What?" Sam squeaked. "Are you sure?"
Dean swung his legs over the edge of the bed. "I'm sure," he nodded. "I have to see this through, Sam. Send her home."
"It doesn't have to be you," Sam protested, putting a restraining hand on Dean's shoulder, asking him with a touch to wait, to think, to stop, to stay.
Looking up, Dean met his eyes solidly. "Yeah. It does."
It didn't feel the same, preparing to take out these spirits. Even knowing who—what—they were up against didn't turn their actions from surreal into rhythmic. Any other hunt, Dean would have been cleaning their guns, readying the rock salt rounds, centering himself on what he would be called to do, while Sam would have been finding the location of the bones or the history behind the spook.
Both, in their own ways, keeping their hands busy, engaging their brains.
"You showed him how to cap the tops?" Dean asked, eyeing the shotgun shells Mike was lining up on the garage workbench.
"Yes, Dean," Sam replied tiredly. "He has rock salt rounds enough for four shotguns—none of them sawed off, but hey, we can't have everything. He has a fifty caliber weapon ready to mount on the top of the bulldozer—"
"Live rounds aren't going to do anything," Dean broke in.
"Yeah, well, after I showed Mike our trick with the shotgun shells… he got creative."
Dean ran his eyes over the collection of weapons and gear. Ben had insisted that Dean and Sam wear Kevlar vests beneath their shirts.
"I spent too much time putting you two back together again," he'd said. "The idea of either of you getting skewered by a pirate's sword or an Indian's spear does not excite me."
After Dean had eaten, showered, and eaten again, they'd walked in silence to the garage, ready for the mission debrief. Dean felt his heart working overtime, attempting to keep up with his racing mind. Isobel's ashes were tucked into the interior pocket of his jacket—which he'd retrieved from Emerson after a quick check to make sure he was still among the living. Isobel's spirit was at his side, her too-large, watchful eyes never leaving his face.
He did his best to ignore her; her silence made her bearable. But he knew he wouldn't be able to take her eyes on him for long.
Dean picked up one of the shotguns, momentarily alarmed at how heavy it felt in his grip. He balanced the barrel with his other hand, hoping no one but the silent spirit at his side had noticed.
"Dad'll kick our asses if we don't get Joshua back," Sam said suddenly.
Dean looked over at him. "We'll get him back."
Sam met his eyes. "Think he's okay?"
Dad? Or Josh? Dean wanted to ask. "He's fine, Sam. He's tough."
They faced the weapons once more, Sam's shoulder leaning close, barely touching his. Dean allowed him the balance of touch, unwilling to admit he needed it almost as much as his brother.
"I know you're going to the ship," Sam said softly.
"You know the only way out there in time is the chopper."
Dean ignored the greasy slick of sweat that instantly coated his skin, running in a tear-like trickle down the back of his neck. "I know."
"You sure you can handle it?"
Dean closed his eyes briefly, then looked directly at Isobel, letting Sam see the focus of his eyes. "I don't have a choice, Sam."
"I can do this for you, Dean," Sam insisted, grabbing the barrel of the shotgun that Dean still held braced in his hands. "Let me do this for you. You take the Indians, get Joshua back. Let me… let me help you with this." He glanced in the direction Dean had been looking. "With her."
Sam's voice was strength battling need, reason overriding fear. It was strong and sturdy, but so young it made Dean's heart crack as it beat against the cage of his ribs. Setting down the shotgun, Dean turned to his brother, not caring that Mike was within earshot. He needed Sam to hear this. To know this. No matter what happened, Sam had to know.
"You know what it was that you did? Getting me out of that ship, out of that desert?"
Sam's brow furrowed, his chin ticking to the side imperceptibly.
"It was a miracle, Sam. Nothing short of it," Dean put his hand on his brother's shoulder, squeezing the muscles coiled there. "You never once broke, Sammy. You never doubted. And you beat them. You beat a crew full of… of zombie pirate ghosts. You got us the hell out of there and you kept us alive."
"That's everything, brother," Dean pressed. "Don't think it's not. I've seen the ones that didn't make it. All of them. They weren't pussies, Sam. They were fighters and soldiers and hunters. They fought for their lives and they didn't win. But you did. That's how I knew I wasn't out of miracles… 'cause of you."
Sam's eyes swam with sudden tears. "And now we have to go back."
Dean lifted a shoulder, the corner of his mouth ticking up in an automatic smile. "We have to finish the job, right?"
Dean turned from his brother, eyes skimming over Isobel's pale, still face, and scanned the weapons once more. "C'mon, Sammy… don't tell me you're not a little jacked up about taking these bastards down."
"I'll be with the Indians, remember?"
"Yeah—saving lives. What you're best at."
Sam lifted an eyebrow. "Oh yeah? Then what's your great skill?"
Dean lifted the pump-action shotgun and cocked it with a loud ca-shink. "Taking out the bad guys."
"Okay, people!" Kenny's voice boomed through the garage causing Sam to jump, Dean to turn, and Mike to finally look up.
Just before he focused on Kenny, Mike caught Dean's eyes and held them. Dean raised his eyebrows, ready to take the reprimand, knowing he deserved it for taking the Charger. Mike simply smiled and with a two-fingered salute, turned from the brothers to face Kenny and the other men filing in. Dean smiled, relieved.
"Here's how it's going down," Kenny barked, and Dean could suddenly see the mustachioed little man standing in front of a squad room handing out assignments. "Dean, Mike, and Connor are in the chopper. You'll head out to the drop site, meet up with Tony and Lucas. Mike will drop the ashes on the ship—"
"No," Dean broke in, startling the entire group.
"Sorry, what?" Kenny said, peering at Dean.
"I'll take the ashes."
"I'll take the ashes," he repeated, his face impassive, his eyes hard.
Kenny shifted his appeal to Sam, but before he could say anything, Sam shook his head. "He's got this, Kenny."
Kenny and Mike exchanged a look and then he continued. "Okay, so… Dean will drop the ashes on the ship while Mike radios to Shep at the reservation. Shep, Sam, me, and Rudy will be heading out to the reservation to return the pearls and get Joshua back."
"And me," called a thin voice from the garage hanger door.
Everyone turned to see Emerson, face bruised and puffy, hand wrapped and held close against his ribs, standing in the doorway, listing to one side.
Shep shook his head. "Son, it is a noble thing you think of doing—"
"Save it, Professor," Emerson waved his good hand at Shep. "I ain't trying to be a hero. I just… I gotta be part of something. Something right for once."
Kenny sighed, rubbing his hand across the back of his head. "Seems I should have consulted the civilians before creating this mission."
"Don't want to make trouble," Emerson said, leaning against the wall. "I just… I got nothing else, man."
Kenny sighed and Dean saw his face soften slightly. He turned to Mike. "You keep an eye out for his brother out there."
"Roger," Mike replied.
"Everyone clear? Okay. We have six hours until midnight people. Let's do this!"
The flurry of activity seemed to happen around them, bouncing off of an invisible bubble that shielded Dean and Sam from the energy. Dean simply looked at his brother, wanting suddenly to memorize him, take him in, not forget one line, one dimple, one visible scar.
"Quit looking at me like that," Sam said. "You're starting to freak me out."
Dean grinned. "That's usually my line."
"Stay on the walkie, okay?" Sam asked. "I know he said Mike, but…"
"I won't leave you, Sammy."
Sam swallowed so hard his Adam's apple bounced against the bottom of his chin. "You better not."
He held out his hand, palm to the side. Dean clasped it, palm to palm, thumb to thumb, and Sam pulled him in for a quick, tight hug, Dean's shoulder tucked against his. They parted and gathered their vests and weapons. Dean shot a look at Isobel, her large eyes seeming to pull the air from his lungs for a moment, then he turned and followed Mike to the helicopter.
"I can't believe I'm friggin' doing this," he muttered as he climbed in, finding one of the jump seats flush against the wall, piles of tarp and ballast tucked into the back of the machine.
"Sam mentioned you had a small fear of flying," Mike called out from the pilot's seat as the other man climbed into the co-pilot's seat.
"You might say that," Dean shot back, breathing through his nose and wiping his sweaty palms along the seam of his jeans. The heavy vest pulled at his tender shoulder, but he felt stronger with it between his wounded side and the angry world.
Connor handed Dean a headset. Dean was no sooner strapped in when Mike started clicking the pre-flight switches. Silently, he began to tell himself all of the reasons it would be a Very Bad Idea to throw up.
"You feel sick, lean out the side door," Mike called back. "You can't breathe, you shove your fist in the air. Connor will hand you some oh-two. Got it?"
"Got it," Dean choked out.
The heavy blades began to rotate swiftly beating the air as Dean closed his eyes. Breathe, Dean… just breathe… in and out, air is good, air helps us, there's a big hand holding us in the sky…
"Here we go!" Mike called and the ground disappeared.
Dean felt his stomach jump ship, deciding it liked the ground better. He gripped the sides of his seat and for one moment felt nothing but blind panic. He couldn't see, he couldn't breathe, he couldn't move. He knew in that moment that he was going to die sitting upright on the jump seat of a retired military helicopter.
"Sam said this might help," Mike called out over the head set.
The squeal of an electric guitar caused Dean to open one eye. He blinked rapidly as the drums joined. When James Hetfield's voice growled over the speakers surrounding his ears, Dean almost laughed.
"I was thinking, y'know, Apocalypse Now… Ride of the Valkyries, but Sam insisted."
"That's my boy!" Dean called back, focusing on the notes, the beats, the curses, the shouts until he almost forgot he was skimming through the air inside a metal wasp.
When the hand touched his ankle, his scream caused Mike and Connor to rip their head sets from their ears.
"What. The. Fuck?!"
Dean looked down, completely shocked, to see Mack Guiley's blue eyes staring up at him from beneath one of the ballast tarps.
"He's on the chopper? How the hell did he get there?" Kenny shouted into the walkie talkie.
"You got me," Mike replied, his voice a tinny echo of sound. "But he's here. Guess he either remembered how to get back or he followed his brother. He ain't talking."
"Shocker," Emerson muttered next to Sam.
"Well, I guess you'll have to keep him with you," Kenny sighed. "No time to go back now."
"Roger. Bravo Team out."
Sam looked at Emerson. "He's going for the ship."
"He wants to go back with the pirates," Sam said.
"How does that make any sense?" Emerson frowned.
"I'm not saying it does," Sam shook his head. "I don't know that anything your brother does actually makes sense."
"You can say that again," Emerson said, shifting on the bench seat to get more comfortable.
"Everything that happened to you—I think it kinda… broke off a piece of who Mack was. Made him part of a person," Sam said softly, almost to himself. "Something about that treasure—those pirates—made him feel…"
"Whole," Emerson said.
"Yeah. Maybe it was because of how your dad talked about it, or what he wrote in that journal, but…" Sam shrugged.
"Why does he want to go back to the ship, though? They… they hurt him. Cut him. Bad."
Sam took a breath. "Well, I've been thinking about it. I've been trying to figure out why those guys in the hold—and the Angel—are haunting Dean. I think it's 'cause he was shot down there—a piece of them, a piece of the ship, basically, was, y'know, inside of him."
"Yeah, so? How does that matter to Mack?"
"When he and I were on the ship—when we thought you were dead—he, uh, he drank from one of the pirate's flasks."
Sam lifted a shoulder. "He said he was trying to get in close to them. So he could kill the Captain for killing you. And I think he amused them. They put their clothes on him and rubbed his hair and pulled him into their little group because he was small and angry and… and they knew they were going to kill him anyway."
"So that's what you meant when you asked him how the rum tasted…" Emerson said, his gaze inward, remembering.
"Okay, quiet back there," Shep called. "We're at the reservation."
Sam waited in the back of the Jeep until Shep made contact with their guide. They all disembarked, following the guide down a wooded path as darkness grew. Night creatures chirped loudly around them, the foliage seeming to grow larger as they sojourned. Sam found himself holding his breath, wanting desperately for someone to break the oppressive silence and radio the helicopter, but unwilling to voice his request.
There was an ancient pressure here; he felt the cool of the winter fighting with the magic the seemed to permeate the dark. The very air felt the power of this night, this place, these people.
They broke into a clearing and Sam saw several small, government-issue houses. Block-style, terracotta roofs, small stucco porches. Outside of one, an ancient woman sat in a rocking chair, watching them. Standing in the doorway of another, a child of about ten peered out. Sam followed the group as their guide led them to the last house on the left, then gestured for them to step inside.
He saw Joshua immediately. He was unharmed, unbound, sitting in a high-backed chair, looking angry.
"Hello, boys," Joshua greeted them.
"Joshua," Shep nodded. "You okay?"
"Could use a cold beer, but other than that…"
"You have the pearls?" came a voice to Sam's right, tucked deep into the shadows.
"Hold up. It ain't midnight yet, Hoss," Joshua replied. "We're not screwing this up now."
Landing was better than take-off, Dean decided. Either that, or the fact that he was once more on terra firma made anything from before seem worse. He bailed from the helicopter like the devil was after him, stopping only when he spotted the excavated ship in the half-light of the moon.
"Holy shit," he drawled.
The equipment Mike had sent out days before had dug a crater of sand around the marooned ship, exposing the bow, the broken masts, much of the deck and part of the stern. The wooden angel reached up into nothing as her wings spread in broken, time-worn wooden bits across the bow of the ship. The shadow of the moon turned the surrounding sand to black, giving the impression that the wreckage floated on emptiness.
"I saw this," Dean breathed. "I saw it, just like this."
"Me, too," Mack said, startling Dean. "Every night."
Dean looked at Isobel and saw that for once she wasn't staring at him, but at the ship.
"What time is it, Mike?"
"We have nine minutes," Mike called back. "Load up."
Dean wrapped the earpiece Mike had given him around his right lobe and looked at Mack. "Wait in the chopper."
Mack shook his head. "I belong with them."
"The hell you do," Dean snapped. "Don't make me knock you out, kid."
Mack looked at him. "This is what my father died for. This… this ship. This treasure. It took everyone in my family."
"Not everyone," Dean shook his head. "Your brother—"
"Wants nothing to do with me," Mack replied. "Everyone—including me—is better off if I go with them."
Dean felt his anger curling inside him like a cobra, ready to lash out, to strike. "How do you know they even want you?" he tried.
"The last thing they said to me," Mack revealed, "as the ship was rolling, was me perteneces."
"What the hell does that mean?" Dean shouted.
Mack looked back at the ship. "You belong to me."
"Oh, you poor, stupid kid," Dean breathed.
"Dean! Weapons!" Mike called.
Dean turned and took the pump-action shotgun that Mike thrust his way.
"Connor, Lucas! Get that fifty mounted on that bulldozer pronto! Tony, grab yourself two shotguns and get up in the back hoe. If it's not one of us, feel free to fire at will. I'll carry the flame-thrower."
Dean felt his breath quicken. The air pressed close, the sky seemed to roll, then pause. The stars didn't even flash. He looked at Mack.
"This is it."
"One minute to midnight," Joshua said, looking at his watch. "Your shaman ready to take the treasure and end this thing?"
"If you are able to return the messenger to her ship, then yes," the man in the shadows replied. "Show me the treasure."
His mouth suddenly dry, Sam stepped forward, opening the box they'd collected the pearls in.
"This is not the entire treasure," the man replied.
"It's all we have," Sam argued. "Why don't you let the shaman decide?"
The man stepped forward, revealing his face in the candlelit room. "I am the shaman."
Sam blinked staring at the wizened face, the deeply etched lines of time folding skin over dark eyes, the long, white braid, ropes of colored thread woven through strips of hair at either side of the man's face.
Unexpectedly, the walkie-talkie at Shep's side crackled. Sam shot a look over and watched the former teacher flick the tool to open-mic.
"Alpha Team. Alpha Team, come in."
"This is Alpha Team," Shep replied. "Go Bravo."
"We've got activity, here, Shep," Mike replied. "Dean's going in and Mack is with him."
"Mack!" Emerson cried out, turning to face Shep. "What the hell?"
"He won't stay back, and Dean doesn't have time to argue."
"Can I talk to Dean?" Sam said.
"Dean? You got your ears on, boy?" Mike called. "You hear me?"
"I hear you," Dean replied, and Sam heard the strain in his voice.
"Dean!" Sam called. "Are they there? The pirates?"
"I can… I see the scarfaced bastard that shot me," Dean muttered. "I just gotta get… these guys made a helluva crater, man."
"Just put Isobel's ashes on the ship and get the hell out!" Sam cried. "We're giving back the pearls."
"Don't let Mack stay there!" Emerson yelled. "Bring him back."
"Do my best," Dean grunted. "Ah!"
"Dean!" Sam yelled. "What is it?"
A boom sounded over the walkie-talkie, turning all feedback into white noise. Sam looked up at Shep, then over to the shaman.
"It is midnight," the shaman stated calmly.
Time will cease and spirits rise…
The world was holding its breath. Dean saw every particle of sand kicked up in his slide down the crater to the wrecked ship hover mid-air, as if frozen in the moment. He saw every slip of air that brushed by the wooden Angel in its haste to escape the death that surrounded the cursed vessel. He saw every star in the midnight sky suspended like Lite-Brite pinpricks in a sheet of black cloth.
Standing on the listing deck was Scarface, his crooked mouth pulled into a death's head grin, his eyes glinting from the frozen starlight.
"Me perteneces," he said, his voice everywhere and nowhere. It emanated from the sand, shook through the frozen air, reverberated from inside Dean.
Before Dean could say another word, the suspended world shook as Connor's fifty caliber gun fired a round into the depths of the ship, exploding rock salt across the deck and knocking Scarface to his knees. He rose quickly, joined by Dreadlocks and two other pirates, all with swords drawn.
"Dean! Now!" Mike screamed in his earpiece.
"Here goes everything," Dean muttered, shooting a quick look at Isobel who was facing the ship, then at Mack who was trembling beside him. "You stay here, kid."
Sliding the remainder of the way down to the ship, Dean used the crater of sand to make his way to the deck. Swing over the edge of the ship, he was surprised when his weight turned the floor beneath his feet to dust, releasing a waft of fetid air, heavy with rotting flesh.
Gagging, Dean pulled his foot free and looked up just in time to see Dreadlocks rushing him. He pumped the shotgun and fired, grinning when Dreadlocks' face disintegrated and his body fell through the swiftly crumbling floor. Another pirate lunged for him and Dean fired, reducing his foes to two.
He could hear Sam calling him from the earpiece.
"Sam! Tell them it's almost over!"
"They want more pearls!"
"Fuck that!" Dean yelled, firing once more and missing as the third pirate rushed him. "They get what they get!"
In that moment, Mack slipped past him, his lithe body leaping over the hole Dean stood behind and ran for the Captain's cabin, directly past Scarface. The pirate turned, surprise etching his features, as the red-head slipped beyond him and darted through the sagging door to the cabin.
"Hey! Dickface! Yeah, you!" Dean hollered, desperate to return the pirate's attention to him and away from Mack's crazy run. The third pirate yelled something back at him as he moved forward. "Whatever you say man. Just hold still a sec, okay?"
Dean shoved more rounds into the chamber, cocked it, and fired, blasting a hole through the chest of the pirate just as his sword slashed through Dean's hoodie and glanced off of the Kevlar vest. Dean took a breath, looking at the crumpled body at his feet.
"Thank you, Ben," he breathed.
"What was that?" Sam yelled.
"We need to invest in some of this Kevlar shit, Sam!"
"Oh, man, I don't want to know," Sam groaned.
"Mack got past me," Dean called. "Went into the Captain's cabin."
"Dean, just return the ashes, get the hell out of there!" Sam yelled.
"NO!" Dean winced from the ferocity of Emerson's scream. "No, don't you leave him there, Dean!"
Scarface turned from Dean and ran toward the cabin.
"Aw, sonuvabitch," Dean muttered, slipping from his perch and hurrying along the edge of the rail toward the cabin. "Mike?"
"Right here, Dean," Mike called back.
"You be ready with more salt and that flame thrower the minute I yell go, got that?"
"Roger," Mike barked.
"I gotta be outta my mind," Dean muttered.
"You hearin' this?" Sam yelled, advancing on the shaman. "You hear what your greed is doing?"
The shaman blinked benignly. "The pirates took from us—took our people. Only when the debt is paid in full will the curse be lifted."
"You selfish son of a bitch," Sam growled, reaching out and gripping the front of the shaman's loose garb. Not one finger of Alpha Team was raised to stop him. Sam shoved the ancient man back. "If my brother dies, you die, get me?"
The spear at his throat came out of nowhere. Sam froze, not releasing the shaman, but not advancing further.
"I'm here, man."
"Think Dad's ever gonna believe this?"
"Think anyone's ever going to believe this?"
"Good point." He took a breath. "Okay… I'm going in."
Dean stepped through the door of the Captain's cabin to find Mack standing, his back to a crumbling wall, the chest of pearls gripped in his hands, Scarface's blade at his throat. Isobel stood on the other side of Scarface, her eyes on him, her body completely still.
"Hey!" Dean called.
Scarface spared him a glance. Then turned back to Mack. He began speaking in Spanish, his words draining the color from Mack's face and loosening his grip on the chest.
"Don't listen to him, Mack," Dean said. "Whatever he's saying, it's a lie."
"He's… he's saying that we're the last. The treasure is ours by right."
"He's a ghost man. The treasure means nothing to him. He wants your blood."
Scarface turned, lightening quick, and thrust out his arm. Dean didn't see the knife fly from his grip until the blade slammed into his chest knocking him backward from his feet, chasing the air from his lungs. The vest protected him once again from the worst of the damage, but the impact with the wall shook him, stabbing his side with pain and keeping him down.
"Mack…" he tried again, unable to gather his breath. "Don't… don't listen to him."
"Dean?" Sam's voice, young, scared, came through his earpiece.
"Mack, your brother is back with the Indians. He doesn't want you to stay here. He wants me to… to bring you back," Dean said, closing his eyes as his ribs protested even the slightest movement.
"But… I belong with them…"
"No, man," Dean shook his head. "No you don't. They don't even belong here. We need to set this right."
Scarface yelled something over his shoulder at Dean.
Dean rolled his eyes at the pirate. "And the horse you rode in on, pal," he muttered.
Scarface turned from Mack, pointing his sword at Dean, still talking. Dean simply blinked at him unable to get up from the swiftly crumbling floor of the Captain's cabin. He waited until Scarface drew closer, close enough that if Dean shifted, the pirate's blade would be at his throat. And then he brought the barrel of the shotgun up. And he grinned.
Scarface disintegrated in front of him.
"That's the Chicago way," Dean whispered.
"Sam? Tell those bastards we've got their freakin' pearls," Dean gasped. Mack stumbled closer to him, setting the chest down. "Mike?"
"Right here," Mike replied.
"On your word," Mike said.
Dean looked at Mack, then slid his eyes over the kid's shoulder to look at Isobel. "You ready to go home?"
Mack nodded, his face thin, tear-streaked, and pale, but his eyes alight with chance. He tucked his shoulder against Dean's ribs had heaved him up from the ground. Gathering the treasure chest with his other hand, Mack helped Dean push the door open and make their way to the deck. Dean dug into the pocket of his jacket, suddenly unable to take his eyes from her soft features, sad eyes.
He'd gotten scary good at ignoring her.
"Time to go home, Angel," he said softly, opening the pouch and emptying the gray contents onto the deck of the ship. Isobel turned to stare directly at Dean, and as her ashes blew away, her image followed, turning to sand before his eyes. For a brief moment her smile lingered and then she was gone.
In that moment, time sped up. Sand, stars, air, wind everything resumed its normal pace. And the ancient wood beneath their feet began to fall away with the exposure to the air and their weight.
"Oh, shit," Dean muttered, pulling his arm free from Mack's shoulders. "Go, man, go go!"
"Roger, that's a go!" Mike called over his earpiece.
"No, I didn't—"
But his words were lost as a he heard the boom of the fifty cal spraying rock salt over the deck followed quickly by a storm of fire swamped the deck, eating through the salt-strewn, decrepit wood.
Sam heard his brother cry out.
He heard Dean tell Mack to run, just run and don't look back, heard him swear, and then white noise once again sang through the walkie-talkie. He hadn't moved. He still held the shaman against the wall. A spear was still poised at his throat. And he hadn't moved.
It was now ten past midnight. A new year. Time had resumed, spirits had gone back to their cloaked existence, and Sam refused to move. And the men with him waited.
At fifteen past midnight, Sam's hands began to shake. At twenty past, he felt the panic press tight behind his eyes. And then… he heard it. A crackle. A bend in the silence. And the unmistakable sound of helicopter blades beating against the air.
Sam released the shaman. The spear was pulled away and Sam sank slowly to his knees at the sound of his brother's voice.
"Still here, man."
"You tell those Indians to look out their back window."
Sam looked up at the shaman. "You heard the man."
Alpha Team left the small hut, looking heavenward as a canvass tarp was dropped from the hold of a helicopter, landing with a dull thud in the center of the circle of houses. The shaman made his way to the tarp, parting the folds, and exposing the shattered remains of the treasure chest and its complete collection of pearls.
"Let our people go," Dean ordered.
The shaman nodded at Shep. "It is done. The curse is broken."
As a unit, Alpha Team surrounded Joshua, tucking Sam and Emerson into their fold, and marched back to the waiting vehicles.
January 1, 2006
"I am never getting into a plane, a helicopter, a freakin' glider again for as long as I live," Dean vowed as they touched down on the camp tarmac.
"Never's an awfully long time," Mike reminded him.
Conceding this point, Dean amended. "Let's just say the world better be ending."
His aching body moving half a second behind his tangled mind, Dean slipped from the helicopter, stumbling at first, swaying when he stopped, then gaining his balance and crossing the lot to the returning vehicles. He ignored everything else, every order shouted his way, every call of congratulations, every shout of concern.
Not until Sam emerged from the back of the last Jeep did he truly take a real breath.
"Dude," Dean grinned when Sam loped up to him, reaching out immediately to grip his shoulder, "it's good to see you."
"Same here, man," Sam grinned, his dimples diving deep and holding on. "You look like crap."
"I feel fantastic," Dean chuckled. Just past Sam, he saw Emerson's battered figure emerge stiffly from the Jeep. "Hey, man," he called. "There's someone waiting in the chopper for you."
The relief on Emerson's face struck Dean's heart.
"He's okay?" Emerson asked, hesitantly.
Not releasing his hold on Sam's arm, Dean looked down for a moment. "Just… go easy on him."
Emerson turned and headed toward the helicopter.
Joshua walked up to them, his face serious, his eyes stern. "So," he said, facing the brothers, hands behind his back. "You went against orders. You put yourselves in danger. You put my men in danger."
They stood quietly, at attention, absorbing.
"And you pulled off the riskiest, most complicated salt-and-burn in hunting history."
Dean couldn't help it; he grinned.
"You're not mad?" Sam asked.
"Think I can stay mad at John Winchester's boys?"
"Uh, speaking of…" Dean hedged. "Any chance you've heard from him?"
Joshua looked down, then away, working his jaw slightly, then returned his gaze to the brothers. "Not exactly. But… he sent you something."
Dean frowned. Sam tilted his head. Joshua nodded toward the garage. Turning, the brothers saw parked just to the right of the hanger doors the gleaming black body of the Impala.
"Son. Of. A. Bitch," Dean murmured, already in motion toward the Chevy.
"But… how…" Sam stammered.
"He wasn't here," Joshua reassured them, following as they made their way to the car. "You didn't miss him. This was taped to the dash."
Sam took the paper as Dean kept walking. "Boys," he read aloud, "I got a lead, and it could be the one. I'm getting closer to this bastard, and he knows it. I found the Impala. Seems you two have been living lean. I stocked you up. Caleb was heading to see Joshua, said he'd drop her off for you. Merry Christmas, Boys. John."
"Caleb's here?" Dean said over his shoulder, reaching the Impala and running his hand reverently over her trunk.
"In the mess hall," Joshua said. "Couldn't wait for food, I guess." He paused for a moment. "I'll stop in, say hi before I get Mike to round up that equipment out in the desert. Not like we had permits or anything..."
"Hey, Josh," Dean called, straightening up. "What about the Guileys?"
Joshua shrugged. "We got a few spare bunks."
"The cops are still after them," Sam reminded him. "And they're more than a handful. Not only that, but… Emerson's not exactly one hundred percent innocent."
Joshua smiled a small, sad smile, reached into this jacket pocket and pulled out the keys. He tossed them in a low sloping arch to Dean who snatched them from the air. "Who is around here?" he said. "Besides… everyone deserves a second chance."
Sam smiled, then faced the trunk as Dean opened it up. The sigh the echoed from both of them was indeed akin to kids at Christmas.
"Ammo, rock salt, holy water…"
"Jeans, underwear, socks…"
"First aid kit, pain meds, antiseptic…"
"Dude, he fixed the slide on my .45!"
"The blade on the scythe is sharp again."
Dean looked at Sam, grinning. "Merry Freakin' Christmas, brother."
"Still… woulda been pretty cool if he had made it," Sam said softly.
Dean looked back at the loaded trunk. "Y'know, Layla said something to me… back in Nebraska," he revealed, his tone hushed, secretive. "I can't shake it loose."
"What'd she say?" Sam asked, not looking at him.
"She told me that… if you're gonna have faith… you can't just have it when the miracles happen." He looked askance at Sam. "You have to have it when they don't."
"We're not gonna stop looking for him, are we?" Sam asked, his eyes round and hopeful as he regarded his brother.
"Not a chance, man," Dean replied. "We'll find him. One of these days… we'll call and he'll show up."
"If we have a lead on the demon, I can pretty much guarantee it," Sam said, grinning ruefully.
Dean's smile was pained as he closed the trunk, stepping back with surprise when he saw Mike standing near the driver's side door.
"Care if I take her for a spin?" the former Marine asked, his grin sly and weighted.
Dean looked at Sam.
"Oh, boy," Sam murmured.
January 8, 2006
Dean wasn't whole, but he was better. His wounds were healing, and even the bruises from the knife thrown by Scarface were starting to yellow and age. He still walked with a slight hitch, his arm held close to his side, but he was once more rarely still. He'd worked with Shep to repair the garage's sound system and had introduced the scholar to the finer elements of Led Zeppelin, worked with Mike on both the Charger and the Impala, and traced a pattern around the entire camp one hundred times over.
Sam knew that if they didn't leave now, he was going to have a caged tiger by the tail. Dean needed to be on the road, doing the job, fighting the good fight. And, Sam reasoned, if he were honest with himself, so did he.
The last location their father had mentioned was Pennsylvania. Sam figured it was as good a place as any to resume their search, picking up whatever jobs they could along the way. So, he was surprised when Dean, once again behind the wheel, pointed the Impala west.
Leather jacket back where it belonged, half-smirk at home on his face, Dean looked as if nothing much had happened in the time they'd spent at the Vet camp. Sam couldn't hide his grin of satisfaction as he asked where the hell Dean thought he was going.
"Dude, this was your idea," Dean said as Sam shifted sideways in the seat, his back against the passenger door, facing his brother.
"Navy-blue water… beach stretching on for miles," Dean tossed a grin at his brother. "I think I'd be a bitchin' surfer…"
"You… you remember that?"
"Hell yeah!" Dean said, reaching into the pocket of his coat and pulling out a cassette tape. "You've got a point. Joey was… well, she was damn fine," he smiled and Sam rolled his eyes. "But I don't want to say the last girl I laid had a dude's name. So, the bikini's… how skimpy are we talking?"
"What are you doing with that?" Sam eyed the cassette as Dean shoved it into the Impala's player.
"Oh, this?" Dean asked innocently.
"Darkness falls across the land. The midnight hour is close at hand. Creatures crawl in search of blood. To terrorize the neighborhood…" Vincent Price's ageless voice slipped like eerie molasses from their speakers, and Sam looked over at Dean with disbelief.
Dean's grinned widened. "I told you I wasn't finished."
"And though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver. For no mere mortal can resist the evil of the thriller…" Mocking, evil laughter echoed through the speakers and the unmistakable beat of Michael Jackson's Thriller bounced inside the Impala.
Dean jerked his shoulders in time to the beat, turning his head to the side at the exact right moment.
"C'mon, Sammy… you know you love it."
"You such a friggin' jerk," Sam said, unable to suppress his grin. As the music continued, Sam lifted his arms, hands extended in claws and jerked them forward, a zombie dance in the confines of the Impala's seat.
"Atta boy," Dean grinned.
Sitting back, Sam laughed. He rolled down the window, wanting to catch the first whiff of ocean air.
a/n: I'm bracing myself for your reactions now that the truth is out there. I hope that you each found some entertainment in these pages.
*peeks out between fingers*
Next up, Wearing and Tearing, a pre-Series story centering on John and Dean in the weeks after Sam left for Stanford. A promo vid made by the amazing LovinJackson can be found here:
http: // www. youtube. com/ watch ? v = tJbvNBApJuw (remove the spaces)
I'll also be posting a zine story that has been 'released' for posting called Shadows and Dust. If you choose to read, I hope you enjoy!
Translations: Thanks to the lovely Onari who is as gracious as she is talented.
En el solsticio de invierno regresará ellaa las aguas y la sangre de los hombres correrá hasta que volvamos a alzarnos… She will return to the water on the winter solstice and the blood of men will flow until we rise again…
Cuando la luna caiga sobre la hoja de la espada, ella llevará su carga a casa… When the moon falls on the blade, she will bear her burden home…
En el último minuto de la última hora del año, el tiempo cesará y los espíritus se levantarán. Cuando el tesoro descanse en manos de sus gentes y el cuerpo del mensajero sea devuelto, los espíritus no estarán ligados a la tierra por más tiempo… In the last minute of the last hour of the year, time will cease and spirits rise. When the treasure rests in the hands of the people, and the body of the messenger is returned, the spirits will no longer be bound to the land.
Me perteneces… You belong to me.
Thriller by Michael Jackson... and no, I'm not saying Sam's an MJ fan... this one's for Amy, and for all those that remember the radio incident in Chapter 2... *smile*