Characters: Dean, Sam
Rating: PG-13 for language and mature scenes
Spoilers: This story is set in Season 1, overlapping the ending of 1X12, “Faith.”
Summary: While Dean struggles to keep his head in the game after being healed, Sam works to come to grips with John's purposeful distance. The last thing they need is to run sideways of two brothers hunting for buried pirate treasure...
Disclaimer: They're not mine. More's the pity. Story title from Bad Company album of the same name.
The youth had been taught that a man became another thing in battle. He saw his salvation in such a change. - Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
December 21, 2005
Pain had always been part of his life.
It started when he was four and he’d heard fear in his father’s voice, choked on heat, held a baby too big for his grip, and was answered with a devastated I don’t know when he asked what happened to Mommy?
Pain had been wrapped in different forms.
The physical side of fingers slammed in a car hood when he hadn’t pulled them free quickly enough, rock salt in a paper cut stinging like a son of a bitch, broken ribs, sliced skin, concussions, and burns. The emotional side—the side that he dare not show and would never confess to—of being alone in a crowd, of looking at the world through suspicious eyes, of realizing he was often times the only thing standing between Sam and danger. And the mental side that said he knew the truth, that said he was too old to cry over a sense of abandonment, and that being alone was the same as being safe.
He’d trained himself to use pain.
He’d funnel it into a tightly-woven fuse that propelled him through moments of his life that would collapse him from the inside out were it not for that core. He’d become such a master at pain-weaving he’d almost ceased to recognize it as pain—as something that normal people shrink from.
“Let’s take a break, Dean.”
This was fire and ice. This was all of them at once: physical, emotional, mental. This was beyond the zero barrier of resistance. This was more than he’d tolerated, more than he’d survived. It felt as though he was drowning on too much air and suffocating from the lack of it.
“I’m gonna just… slide you… down. That’s it.”
He could do nothing but comply with Sam’s gentle tones, his eyes too heavy to open completely, his will too strong to allow them to close. Dean felt his brother ease his left arm free from its perch across his shoulders and his muscles wept as the weight of the shackle pulled. Sam tried to catch him, to break his fall, but he was on his knees in the sand before either of them could do much more than draw air, his wounded shoulder tipping dangerously toward the ground.
“I gotcha… hang on, hang on, I gotcha.”
He hadn’t recognized the low moan as having come from him until he heard Sam’s reassuring response. His shoulder was on fire. There was no escaping it, no position he could place himself in that would ease the pain. He imagined he could feel the ancient lead ball burying itself deeper and deeper within his body as the torn skin below his collar bone hissed and spat with even the small motion of his shallow breathing. He knew he was still bleeding, but was beyond caring about how much and what that might mean.
The sand under his hand as he turned in Sam’s grip was cool, compelling him to look around in confusion.
“Time ‘s it?”
“I don’t know,” Sam replied, his voice low and tired. He flopped next to Dean, shifting to the side and offering his brother a shoulder for support. “Morning.”
“’S cool here.”
“Found some Joshua Trees,” Sam replied. “Shade.”
Dean felt his head bobbing forward, fatigue fighting will for dominance. He forced his eyes open, unwilling to give in. Sam handed him a bottle of water, the cap pinned to the side of the plastic bottle by his brother’s long fingers. Dean tried to lift his left hand to grasp the bottle, but found the weight simply too much. He frowned, dropping his eyes to the offending appendage and was outwardly surprised when he saw the three-inch wide shackle encircling his wrist, the skin framing it red and raw.
“Huh,” he managed, though inside the words bounced against the barriers of his skull like the sharp retort of bullets. Bastard chained me up like his dog… wanted me weak… wanted me willing… “No way,” he croaked.
“No way what?” Sam asked turning so that Dean ended up slumped part-way against his chest, one arm behind Dean, cupping the back of his head, the other holding the water to Dean’s mouth.
Dean drank greedily, unable to fully quench the thirst deep in his gut. He almost whimpered when Sam pulled the bottle away, stopping only when he saw Sam lift the opening to his own lips. He watched his brother drink, finding even that simple act a significant effort.
“No way what?”
Dean simply shook his head, lacking the strength to explain to Sam that he would have willingly impaled himself on one of those damn pirates’ swords before allowing the type of submission Scarface had alluded to in that dank hold before Sam arrived. It made him shiver to even think of it.
“You’re shaking.” Sam moved again, reaching for the make-shift bandage at Dean’s shoulder.
“No.” Dean flinched, trying to pull away.
“I gotta see it, Dean,” Sam insisted. “I didn’t really get a good look before.”
“F’god’s sake, Sam,” Dean breathed, his skin alighting in a new kind of fire at the touch of Sam’s fingers. “Leave it ‘lone.”
Sam stopped. Whether he sensed the desperation in Dean’s slurred words, or realizing he couldn’t really be of much help with just a bottle of water, Dean wasn’t sure. All that matter was that he stopped.
“Where…” Dean tried, the rest of his words eaten by a hiss of pain that sliced through him unexpectedly.
“Back at the wreck of the Jeep,” Sam replied, guessing correctly that Dean was wondering after the fate of the Guileys.
Dean rolled his head up, peering at Sam through burning eyes. “Left ‘em?”
“Left them? No, I didn’t leave them.” Sam pointed. “They’re like… ten steps away, Dean.”
Dean turned to follow the direction of Sam’s finger. The desert swam like liquid gold before his eyes, lumps of figures that could be people, could be cacti, could be those bloody pirates for all he knew, moved in the distance, their pattern of motion indistinguishable from anything else. Dean was at a loss as to what the two brothers were doing.
“Shoulda… left ‘em…”
Sam didn’t reply, and Dean closed his burning eyes for a moment, recalling the image of Mack with the black pirate’s coat hanging from his thin shoulders, the 400 year-old rum spilling down his chin as he tucked his body in with the enemy. The enemy that had very nearly killed Dean, had tortured Sam, and had wrought havoc on treasure seekers for centuries.
“I think they’re digging through the wreckage for… hell, man, I don’t know.” Sam sighed, and Dean watched him pinch the bridge of his nose as he so often did when hurting or tired. “There’s nothing left but pieces of metal and strips of cloth from the seats. A roll-bar… maybe…”
When Sam’s voice died off, it took Dean three heartbeats to clue in to the fact that his brother’s brain was chewing on a solution to a problem Dean wasn’t even fully aware they had.
It was the only word he seemed capable of uttering without the tale-tell slur of fatigue, before his lungs wanted to collapse against his spine and shroud his weary heart in a cove of cool darkness.
“How could I be so stupid?”
Dean blinked, feeling his body slip as the weight of his shackles tugged at his weaker side. Sam caught him, pulling him close so that Dean’s head rolled against his brother’s chest, Sam’s heart beating strong and steady beneath his cheek.
“We’ll build you a stretcher,” Sam proclaimed, squeezing Dean’s arm in his excitement. Dean was unable to bite back a cry of pain. “Sorry! Oh, Jesus, I’m sorry, Dean.”
“W-water,” Dean pleaded.
“Here.” Sam lifted the uncapped bottle to Dean’s lips once more, tilting it so that the liquid ran into Dean’s mouth, filing it. Dean swallowed as quickly as he could, choking as the water came faster than his body could handle. “Sorry.” Sam eased off.
“N-not… carrying… me,” Dean gasped.
He felt Sam staring at him, knew the incredulous are you shitting me expression that would be held steady in his brother’s hazel eyes if he turned to look. He knew he wasn’t walking out of that desert on his own steam, but simply allowing himself to be carried was to Dean the same as letting the pirate have his way with him. It would be conceding defeat. It would be handing over control to another and asking them to protect Sam.
And he just couldn’t do that. Not even when the person he was giving to was Sam.
Something about the tension in his body seemed to convey this message—or a semblance of it—to Sam because he didn’t argue. He didn’t say a word. He simply slid his arm out from behind Dean, caught him before Dean collapsed into the void left by Sam’s body, and laid him back on the cool sand in the shadow of the cluster of Joshua Trees, a bottle of water next to him.
“Wait here,” Sam said softly, as if Dean was perfectly capable of getting to his feet and walking away. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
Dean simply blinked at him, his eyes burning from exhaustion, pain, and a very real need to release the tension of the last few weeks. Crying may be cathartic to some, but for a Winchester, it was the kiss before dying, the white flag on the battlefield. He tightened the muscles in his belly, making a physical effort to pull the emotion back inside, buried behind the wall where it belonged.
He turned his head as Sam moved away, keeping his eyes on his brother’s lanky form. The sand seemed to shrink him; eating him up from the feet to the knees, stopping just short of his waist as Sam ceased to move away, meeting up with two of the blurred images Dean had seen before.
There had been a moment in his life that Dean felt he had everything worked out. He was clear on his purpose, confident in his skill, savvy in the ways to con the world out of what he wanted from it. He could slide on a smile that would have a woman slipping out of her clothes. He knew the right combination of words that would compel money from the toughest of men.
He knew how to work around his father and handle his brother. He was at the top of his game, and he’d naively expected life to continue this way. He’d earned it. He’d paid a childhood of dues.
And then Sam left. And John collapsed inside himself. And Dean’s world fell apart.
As he lay alone on the sand, watching the blur that was Sam move around the wreckage of the Jeep through heat-seared eyes, his body shivering, part of him knew that the pieces of his world weren’t going to coalesce anytime soon.
If at all.
“What the hell are you guys doing?” Sam grumbled as he approached the Guileys.
Emerson looked up. “Where’s Dean?”
Sam nodded over his shoulder. “I set him in the shade of those Joshua Trees. I got an idea.”
“Yeah, well, so did I,” Emerson replied, standing. He had what looked like to be the GPS in his hand, its insides exposed to the sun, its screen dark and dead. “You know Morse Code?”
Sam lifted an eyebrow, too tired and sore to humor him. Shaking his head in exasperation rather than in answer, he moved around Emerson toward the largest section of wreckage. Mack was sitting next to the front grill of the Jeep, which was sticking out of the sand like a tombstone, holding the duffle bag.
“What’s with you?” Sam asked, plucking the grill from the sand and tucking it under his arm.
“I kept it.”
Sam sighed. His patience was still in place, but the thread holding it there was thin and frayed. “Kept what?”
Mack lifted his blue eyes to meet Sam’s and he could see the kid had been crying. He didn’t blame him. He felt like crying himself.
“You kept it?”
Mack opened the duffle and lifted it for Sam to see. Inside were easily two dozen pearls, some pink from blood. Sam ran his tongue across the inside of his bottom lip, thinking. The ship hadn’t burned before the desert had reclaimed its prize, the bleached wood of the Angel’s hands rising from the desert floor toward the sun. That, and these pearls, proved his fear to be correct.
The curse hadn’t been lifted.
“Well, shit,” he whispered.
“Our job’s not done, that’s what.”
“Your… job?” Mack asked, his eyes squinting up at Sam against the glare of the sun.
“Yeah, our job,” Sam snapped, grabbing the bag roughly from Mack’s hands and letting the grill fall to the desert floor. “You two might’ve come out here for treasure, but Dean and me…” he looked into the bag, his eyes skipping over the pearls sliding inside the bag alongside the handgun and rock salt, “we came out here to get rid of some spirits.”
Emerson stood and moved over to them. “What are you guys, like… 7-eleven? Not always busy, but always open?”
“Funny,” Sam replied, thrusting that bag back into Mack’s hands. “Get what you’re gonna get and let’s go.”
“What are you doing?” Mack asked, climbing to his feet, edging closer to Sam as if proximity equaled protection.
“I’m gonna make a stretcher for Dean,” Sam said, frowning as he kicked sand free from the barely-intact roll-bar of the Jeep.
“You’re gonna carry him out of here?” Emerson squeaked. “Have you seen yourself, Dude?”
Sam had managed to keep his reaction to his injuries in check until Emerson brought them to the light. The cut across his belly stabbed with a sick twist of pain at those words, and his bruised hands, face, and pulled muscles decided to join the fray with a harmony of vibrations meant for only his ears. Sam pulled in a tight breath through his nose, choosing to ignore Emerson and continued to search for items to build a stretcher.
“I say we leave him in the shade with a couple of bottles of water and come back for him when we—“
“Shut up,” Sam growled.
“Sam, think about it,” Emerson pressed, reaching out to grip Sam’s arm. “He’s beyond beat to hell. There’s no way he’s going to—“
Sam’s fist was tight, his arm swinging, knuckles connecting to Emerson’s chin in a satisfying flash of motion before his head even registered that he wanted to hit him. Emerson fell to his ass on the sand, the broken GPS flying from his fingers, his hand reaching up to his bleeding mouth.
Mack scrambled backwards, his eyes shooting from his brother to Sam and back with the look of a beaten child.
“I said shut up!” Sam roared. “I don’t need your help to get my brother out of here.”
“Yeah?” Emerson spat blood from his mouth, wiping the back of his hand across his damaged lips. “Whose gonna get him out when you can’t, then, huh?”
Sam turned away from the blond and back to the wreckage. He gripped one end of the roll-bar and kicked it loose from the Jeep, turning to dig through the sand for the shorter, rear-seat version. He moved to what was left of the engine and tossed pieces aside, knowing Dean would probably have had a use for each item, and found something he could use. Roll-bars, seat coverings, two belts from the engine… the pile grew as Emerson kept talking.
“What is this freaking… devotion you have to him, huh? He’s not some god. He’s just a guy. Sure, a guy that happens to be related to you, but, still, man! You’re ready to lay down your life for the guy? Because he’s your brother?”
Sam felt bile rise in his throat listening to the incredulity in Emerson’s tirade, acutely aware of the fact that Mack stood not three feet away. He’d always taken it somewhat for granted that Dean and he were tight. They’d spent their lives breathing for the safety of each other.
It had been reassuring in a way when he’d been at Stanford and saw kids his age living comfortably away from their family unit, surviving, making choices, happy. Their casual nonchalance about being physically separate from their family, yet still somehow connected to them gave Sam hope that he might make it on the outside, away from the shadow of the Winchester legacy.
But he’d never released that need for Dean. The devotion Emerson mocked had been his rock in a turbulent world. Dean had made a promise a long time ago, perhaps not in words, but in actions and Sam believed in him. He’d witnessed Dean fulfill that promise over and over. He found himself talking before he was aware he wanted to, the sound of his own voice—a shade deeper than normal from fatigue and anger—surprising him in the still light of the desert morning.
“When he was four years old, my brother pulled me out of a fire.” Sam’s hands were ceaseless motion as he began to assemble a stretcher from the gathered bits and pieces of Jeep. “Our mom died in that fire, and our dad, he,” Sam shrugged, feeling the emptiness of more questions than answers as he always did when he spoke of their father, “he basically turned us into soldiers to keep us together and alive. Well, he turned Dean into a soldier. I just wanted to be just like my big brother.”
He looked up, catching motion out of the corner of his eye. Mack sank to his knees, his blue eyes on Sam, tears streaking his face and turning his features young. Emerson stood where he’d been, the GPS in his grip once more, his eyes flinty, the hard edges of betrayal and abandonment apparently still too sharp in his mind. Sam looped the engine belts together in a figure eight, and then slid each end over the jagged curves of the roll bars, creating a sling for Dean’s head.
“Somewhere in there I decided that I needed to be me and not just Dean Winchester’s little brother.”
Strips of seat were torn and tied, roughly three inches between them, down the short length of the roll-bar stretcher. In his periphery, he registered Mack shifting closer to him and his skin tightened in reaction, unsure about the red-head’s sanity.
“And he saw that, y’know? He pushed it. Used it. Kept teaching me how to fight and what I needed to know to stay alive, but he was really clever about it.”
Sam glanced at the grill, wondering if he could use it to lengthen the stretcher, or strengthen the sling, then dismissed the idea. Too heavy and not wide enough to be any real benefit.
“Dad would go all drill sergeant on us, but Dean… he would say things like you’re never gonna get into college if you get killed on a hunt, so pay attention. Then, he’d help me with my homework. He barely finished high school, but he could check my Trig homework and be right 90 percent of the time.”
Sam slid his eyes to the motionless form of his brother in the shade of the Joshua Trees and kept working. Emerson kicked at the sand with the toe of his shoe, listening, Sam saw, but acting as if he could care less.
“Dad left us alone a lot. Dean was my… aw, hell, hero sounds so lame, but it’s true. I didn’t look up to Dad. I looked… past him. To my brother. He took the hits for me until he broke. He basically gave up his life—he decided that this life was what he wanted—so that I could have the life I wanted.” He looked hard at Emerson, daring him to mock that. “So there’s your freaking devotion.”
Jackass, Sam heard his brother’s voice in his head punctuate the end of his sentence and bit the inside of his cheek to keep his grin in check.
“But…” Mack sniffed. “But where’d he screw up?”
“Huh?” Sam’s hands stopped moving. He looked at Mack’s tear-stained face with honest surprise. “He didn’t screw up.”
“You’re here, though. You’re not in college.”
In a flash of memory so real, so intense he could smell the smoke of the fire and feel the burst of heat on his face as Jessica’s body flashed hot, Sam remembered Dean’s bellow, his brother’s hands on his body, his shoulder shoving into Sam’s chest, pushing him out of the burning building.
“He didn’t screw up,” Sam repeated. “Our Dad took off. Got into some trouble. Dean needed my help to find him.”
Sam stood, the make-shift stretcher standing just above his elbow. It was crude, but it could work.
“Did I what?”
“Did you find him?” Mack asked, looking up at him.
Sam ran his tongue over his lip. Do your job. Stop looking for me and do your job. “Not yet,” he said. “But we will.”
“Yeah, well, you gotta get out of this desert first,” Emerson pointed out.
Sam shot Emerson a look and took satisfaction in the flinch of reaction before he rolled his eyes and started to walk toward Dean.
“What? It’s a great story, man. But Dean’s no superhero and he’s dying and we’re gonna join him unless we get out of this fuckin’ desert!”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Mack exploded, exploding from the sand as if he were on springs.
Sam stopped at this, turning to squint over his shoulder as the two brothers faced off. Mack threw the duffle down in the sand with enough force that it nearly bounced. Emerson shoved the GPS into his waistband, spreading his hands to either side of his lean body.
“You wanna do this now?”
“They don’t give a damn about the treasure, Em.” Mack sniffed, unable to keep his tears in check. Sam blinked, leaning against the bits of metal and cloth that were his one hope for getting Dean out of there. “They never did!”
“What’s your point?”
“You said they were gonna take the treasure. You said that’s what they wanted.”
“So? Maybe I was wrong.”
“It’s all you’ve cared about! Since you found Dad’s journal, it’s all you’ve talked about!” Mack screamed, taking a step forward and shoving at his brother with the flat of both hands.
“At least I had something to say!” Emerson retorted, stumbling back, but not retaliating. “You freak. You stopped talking ten fucking years ago.”
“You son of a bitch,” Mack spat. “You didn’t see her. See them cut her up. Take pieces of her out ‘cause they couldn’t get her free.”
“What? Don’t you put that on me.” Emerson took a step forward, his chest thrust forward in a challenge. “You aren’t the only one that lost her, man.”
“Shut up,” Mack choked out and Sam found himself feeling a stab of pity for the kid. His brother had a point: Mack personality shift from the time he and Dean had encountered the Guileys to now was dizzying. Sam imagined it had to be hard for Emerson to wrap his head around.
“No way, you started this, Mack. You go all troubled child on me—leave me to deal with Dad going ape-shit crazy—then you meet these chuckleheads, run into some pirates and suddenly you’re… you’re normal?”
Sam half-turned, starting back for Dean, leaving the brothers to their war when Mack stopped him with a soft confession.
“I fit in here.”
“You fit in,” Emerson repeated, his voice dull. “You fit in with two guys who hunt ghosts, for Christ’s sake, and a bunch of zombie pirates?”
Mack blinked at his brother, his chest heaving with desperate gulps of air.
“Oh, fine. If you’re gonna go all SciFi Channel on me, then fuck you.” Emerson tilted his head, thrusting out his chin in a challenge.
“I saw you,” Mack whispered.
“What?” Emerson pulled his head back and Sam tilted his forward, wondering openly curious.
“That night, in the shed. I saw you. I saw you kill him.”
Sam drew back, blinking. He looked at Emerson, feeling his mouth drop open as he stared in surprise at the blond. Emerson looked stunned. His pupils were wide, sweat beaded on his forehead and upper lip.
“No, you didn’t.”
Mack’s face smoothed, his expression taking on the same guileless quality Sam had seen on the deck of the pirate ship, a slightly spooky smile tugged up the corner of his lips.
“We are just like them, you know. The pirates. We’re not supposed to be here.”
“Dude,” Emerson took a step back. “You’ve lost it.”
Mack looked at Sam, but his eyes were wide, not really seeing anything. His gaze traveled back to Dean and Sam felt his shoulders straighten in instinctive protection.
“She was looking at me when they cut her up. And he was looking at you when you killed him.” Mack shrugged with the casual what the hell motion that made Sam not even question how he’d worked his way into the pirates circle.
Sam felt his belly tighten, the fine hairs on his skin rising on his skin. “Okay, listen—“ he started, but was interrupted by Emerson’s throaty voice.
“I don’t even know who the hell you are,” Emerson snarled at his brother. “Something tells me my brother died up on that pirate ship.” He turned away, shaking his head.
The growl that rolled from Mack when he tackled his brother didn’t even sound human. It was so feral in fact, that Sam took a step back, pulling the stretcher with him. He watched in a foggy haze of disbelief as the Guileys thrashed on the sand, rolling and kicking, gasping and punching.
For several moments, all Sam could do was stare. He’d yelled at Dean, and Dean sure as hell had yelled back. They’d sparred, trained, wrestled, but they’d never gone at each other with so much anger, so much raw fury. They’d never truly fought before.
“I saw you… I saw you,” Mack grunted, absorbing blows.
“You don’t know what you saw,” Emerson growled, pushing Mack away to get leverage. “You’re as crazy as the old man.”
“Then why’d you keep me around? Why didn’t you just kill me, too?” Mack spat in a challenge.
Sam dropped the stretcher in the sand and stalked over to the weary fighters. It didn’t take much effort to grab the backs of their too-big T-shirts and pull them apart. Both were bleeding from knife wounds and weakened from the previous night. Sam tossed Mack one direction and Emerson the other, glaring at them.
“Enough,” he repeated. “This isn’t helping anyone.”
Mack wiped the tears from his cheeks with a rough hand, still staring at his brother.
Emerson looked away, his body trembling with pent-up emotion. “I didn’t kill him,” he stated.
“I don’t care.” Sam declared, wanting to laugh at himself. Hysteria was hovering just below the surface. “None of that matters. Not until we get out of this desert.”
Emerson looked at him. “And then what? You gonna turn me in?”
“For what?” Sam challenged, tipping his head to the side. “They can’t arrest you for being an asshole. Unfortunately.”
“You believe me?” Emerson blinked, casting a quick glance in the direction of his brother.
Sam sighed. “I have no idea. I don’t know what you two are even talking about. To be honest? I don’t care.”
“I told you,” Mack grumbled, gaining his feet.
“You told me they didn’t care about the treasure,” Emerson retorted. “But I do. Or… did, before the desert ate it up.”
“Dad said he’d find the treasure in Hell and it would send him to Heaven,” Mack said, looking at Sam, tears once again balanced on his lashes.
“Jesus Christ, get over it,” Sam replied, feeling a piece of his soul peel away as he took one more step toward his father’s world.
“He was right about the Hell part,” Emerson snarled. “Pretty sure we’re there.”
Sam stepped forward, feeling his voice crawl from his gut to bisect the tense air between himself and Emerson. “You think this is Hell?” He thrust out a fist, his finger pointing to the desert floor. “Hell is watching your lover burn up in front of your eyes. Hell is never having a home. Hell is forgetting the face of your soul mate. Hell...” he dropped his voice to a near-whisper, “is different for everyone.”
He took a step back. “Get. Over. It.”
His angry gaze took in both brothers. His words, his tone, his entire being was ticked sideways from his natural reaction and he felt something sticky and black begin to swim around in his heart. He was so damn tired. He wanted to sit down in the sand and close his eyes.
He felt like he’d been running against the wind for months. His fuse was non-existent and left him with zero tolerance for the drama unfolding in front of him; even if part of him wanted to know if Emerson had truly killed their father and why the hell Mack thought going pirate had been a good idea.
It was all too much, and if Dean hadn’t been lying a few feet away from him, he would have very easily been able to find a reason to quit.
But, if there was one thing his father taught him that had stuck to the fly-paper in his brain, it was that Marines didn’t quit. If they were hurt, they pushed harder. He knew it was that mentality that was going to get them all out of this desert. He had to become someone else if he was going to save them.
If he was going to save himself.
“We’re getting out of this damn desert. All of us. You,” he pointed to Emerson, “what can you do with that thing?”
Emerson pulled the GPS out of his waistband, brushing the sand from the face with a blood-stained finger. “I think I can get a signal out on it.”
“You could barely hot-wire a car,” Sam scoffed.
“It’s true,” Mack spoke up, “he can. He’s always been able to rewire stuff.”
“Right,” Sam lifted an eyebrow, “and you can shoot the wings from a fly.”
The Guileys exchanged a quick glance.
“Well,” Emerson said, “we had to have a story. I mean, he wasn’t talking. Even to me. I had to say something.”
Sam looked at Mack, who simply lifted a shoulder in reply. He looked again at Emerson. “You can really get a signal on that thing?”
“Well, I can try,” Emerson said. “I mean, all the wiring is here, just scrambled up. And the power cell is intact.”
Sam sighed, then turned to pick up the stretcher. “Not sure how that’s going to help us, but—“
A cry of pain and anger brought his attention to where he’d left Dean in the shadow of the desert trees. While they’d been fighting, three carrion birds had circled closer to his wounded brother until one had apparently gotten brave enough to try for a nip at Dean’s hand. It took Sam a moment to take in the sight of Dean, pulled into a semi-sitting position by the muscles in his belly, throwing bits of debris from the tree toward the scavengers, his weighted arm falling to his side and pulling him over.
“Son’v…bitch,” Dean growled weakly, his face now in the sand.
“Hey!” Sam yelled, running toward his brother.
His feet scooped the sand to either side and slowed his progress as effectively as fingers gripping his ankles then sliding slowly away. He heard the Guileys chime in and out of nowhere it seemed, the sharp retort of a handgun had him dropping the stretcher, covering his head, and going to ground.
Bang! Bang! Bangbangbangbang!
Sam looked over his shoulder as Mack, the Glock in his hand, the duffle at his feet, fired widely at the large birds, scattering them in a flurry of screeches and feathers.
For a moment, everyone stared at Mack, panting.
“If I’m gonna shoot wings offa anything,” Mack gasped, licking his dry lips, “they’re gonna hafta be bigger.”
“Holy shit!” Emerson yelled, shaking his head in wonder, then carefully eased the gun from his grip. “How ‘bout I keep that for awhile…”
Sam nodded his thanks, taking a mental note to keep all firearms away from the Guileys, then stood and hurried to Dean, dropping to his knees next to his brother and carefully rolling him to his back.
“Did it get you?”
“No,” Dean breathed. “Tried. Bastard.”
Sam checked the back of Dean’s hand, relieved there were no new gouges. “Good.”
“Wh’re ya… been?”
“I’m sorry, man,” Sam shook his head, looking for the bottle of water. The sun had shifted enough so that the shadow of the Joshua Trees had moved away from Dean’s sprawled legs, warming his jeans and the water. “We got us some… interesting travel companions.”
“Pirates?” Dean blinked.
Sam felt bile rise in his throat at the gray pallor of his brother’s face, the bruise-like circles under his eyes. The tremble that ran through his body was constant and visible, and heavier, Sam saw, in his right hand. Dean’s shoulder was a mess: sand clung to the bloody bits of cloth they’d used to bind the wound.
“Oh, man, Dean,” Sam uttered, “you’re… you’re, uh… this looks bad.”
Dean said nothing, the green of his eyes barely visible beneath the heavy lids weighted by lashes. He simply breathed and for that, at least, Sam was grateful.
“Right. You knew that. Okay, well, no, pirates are gone. At least for now, but…” Sam looked over at the Guileys. Mack was staring openly at him, as if Sam held answers to questions he hadn’t yet thought to ask, and Emerson was fiddling with the wiring of the GPS, having procured a pocket knife from somewhere. “Let’s just say I’m ready to get back to our kind of normal.”
“Sh-shoulda… known… better…” Dean pushed out, grimacing.
Sam shook his head, remembering his brother’s earlier comment. “Guess I should be glad it’s not I told you so.”
Dean’s mouth flinched in what Sam guessed was an attempted grin.
“I figured out how to get you—get us—out of here.”
“I c’n walk,” Dean slurred, blinking slowly.
Sam grabbed the bottle of water and lifted Dean’s head, aiding him in drinking what was left.
“You might have to,” he nodded. “But, first,” he nodded over his shoulder, “I wanna try something.”
Dean brow folded in the center and he rolled his eyes to the side. “Been… watchin’ MacGuyver?”
Sam allowed himself a small chuckle, his eyes on the stretcher. “You’re the one that said daytime TV sucked.”
Sam looked back at his brother, feeling tears roll hot and thick in his throat. Bits of green irises shone out through Dean’s barely-opened eyes, but Sam felt the weight of his brother’s gaze, felt trust and apology, felt need and admiration. In that glance, everything he’d heard, everything he’d absorbed, everything he’d tried to understand from the last few minutes with the Guileys was chased away, and the only thing that matter was Dean.
He felt his heart slow, held his breath so that he could hear the steady thrumming beats, counting them until Dean spoke again. He made it to eight before he had to take another breath.
“I gotta try, Dean,” Sam whispered. “Please.”
Dean simply stared at him, his eyes as wide as weariness allowed, the whites shot through with red as heat and emotion surged forward. Sam took a breath, the days of struggle and fear, fighting and searching, questioning the truth that had always carried them forward, hoping for a miracle… all those moments leading up to this one sat heavily on his shoulders, pressing him lower into the sand.
He opened his mouth to present his brother with a viable reason for getting on that stretcher when Dean took his breath away with a single, salty tear slipping from beneath his tented lashes and tracing a path through the blood and dirt that painted his brother’s face.
Sam swallowed. Dean’s lips parted, but no sound emerged. As Sam watched, Dean closed his eyes, turning his face away and another tear followed in the path of the first.
“’Kay,” Dean choked out.
Fear, as quick and deadly as the blade of a knife, cut through Sam. He wasn’t ready for Dean to give in. He wasn’t strong enough to take up the mantle.
“Sam?” Mack’s voice was soft and tentative, breaking into the moment and reminding Sam that daylight was crawling across the December sky and the longer they waited, the less chance they had of making it out of there.
“Okay.” Sam nodded, rubbing the palm of his hand across his bleary eyes. “Okay. I, uh,” he looked from Dean to the Guileys, “I need your help.”
Wordlessly, Emerson stepped forward, his hands surprisingly gentle as he helped Sam roll Dean to his side, the heavy shackles making the task harder than it should have been. Dean bit his lip, but a groan escaped and Sam felt his belly tighten at the tremble of muscles beneath his fingers as he held Dean’s shoulders carefully. Mack slid the make-shift stretcher beneath Dean and Sam and Emerson rolled him back so that his head rested on the engine belts.
The stretcher ended at Dean’s knees, meaning his feet would hang, but there wasn’t anything Sam could do about that. He carefully rested Dean’s hands on his belly, keeping the extra weight at the center. He gripped the roll bars and looked toward Emerson, asking with his eyes to please help.
“Let me,” Mack said, moving into position at Dean’s feet, the duffle slung around his cut-up shoulders. “If he’s gonna get that thing working, he need both hands.”
Emerson looked at his brother a moment, something crossing his face that Sam couldn’t place. Shaking his head, Emerson reached out and plucked the duffle from Mack’s shoulders, slinging it across his own.
“We’re not finished, you know,” Emerson told his brother, turning his attention back to the item in his hand.
Mack lifted an eyebrow. “Did we even really start?”
With that, he bent and wrapped his hands around the bar. Sam, not having the energy to keep up with the conversation, timed his motion with Mack’s and together they lifted Dean from the desert floor, his body sagging in the straps of Sam’s stretcher.
“Guh,” Dean breathed, his face tightening as his bearers shifted his weight in their grip. His booted feet swung low, the differences in height between Sam and Mack putting Dean’s body at an odd, downhill angle.
Sam looked down at his brother’s tense, pale face. Dean’s eyes were closed tightly, his lips pressed into a white line, his breath puffing out in quick gasps. Sam lifted his eyes to look at the back of Mack’s head, watching the kid’s wounded shoulders tremble a bit from the strain of the burden he bore. If Dean was heavy in Sam’s grip…
“Sam?” Mack called.
“Go,” Sam grunted.
They moved forward and Sam tried to ignore the uneven grunts of air that pushed out Dean’s lips as his brother tried desperately to maintain control. The weakness he could see on Dean’s face turned his belly to water with a fear larger than he’d faced before. It was more than when he realized the wendigo had taken his brother. More than finding Dean tied to a tree for slaughter by a pagan god. More than the moment he stood at the foot of his brother’s bed and saw surrender in Dean’s eyes.
This was bigger than every near-miss of the past. And he was scared.
Dean groaned as Mack tripped and Sam tried to balance them once more.
“Easy… take it easy, it’s gonna be okay,” Sam whispered.
To Mack, to Dean, to himself.
He simply needed reassurance in that moment. He needed to know that he was doing the right thing and that the edge he felt he was about to fall over wasn’t the end of all things.
They walked without speaking; the only sound between them the creak of the straps that held Dean and the pants of air from their thirsty lungs. The sun warmed their heads, left its mark on the backs of their necks as they bowed their heads in deference to its might, and heated the exposed skin of their arms.
Sam tried to tilt his body to protect Dean’s face with his shadow, but found it nearly impossible to keep a balanced grip as he did so. He settled for covering it lightly with a torn edge of bandana one of the Guileys had rescued from the wreckage. At some point, he registered that Dean slipped from semi-lucidity into quiet oblivion, his face maintaining the tight lines of pain, but his breathing evening out as his body succumbed.
When Mack tripped again, Sam adjusted his sweaty grip, looking around the desolated landscape for any oasis. The desert seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions, and the air hovering at the crest of the ground shimmered with mirages of liquid heat.
“I hafta… I can’t…” Mack breathed into the silence, going to his knees unexpectedly.
Sam skidded to a stop, looking frantically down at Dean as his brother’s body shifted forward against Mack’s back, bunching up like bed sheets shoved out of the way.
“Hey!” Sam exclaimed with alarm and irritation.
“S-sorry,” Mack panted. “Couldn’t… hold him… anymore.”
“It’s too hot, Dude,” Emerson chimed in, squinting over at Sam. “We gotta…”
“What?” Sam barked, easing the stretcher down and shielding Dean from the sun with the shadow from his body. “Go inside and cool off?”
“We need to find some shade,” Emerson looked around, digging into the duffle bag for a water bottle. “Something. We’re gonna fry out here.”
“How many of those you got left?”
“Four,” Emerson replied, taking a long pull from the water bottle in his hand. “Well, three and a half.”
Sam snagged Emerson's bottle and reached for the duffle, pulling it into his lap. “We’re officially on rations.”
"Hey!" Emerson objected. "Who made you the water police?”
"Me," Sam said, looking up, his hazel eyes eerily calm, “just now.”
Emerson looked away.
“Sam?” Mack called.
Sam handed him a bottle. “We get one drink every two hours.” He took the bottle he'd gotten from Emerson, wiped the mouth with the hem of his T-shirt, then cupped the back of Dean’s head and rested the bottle against his brother’s dry, cracked lips.
The water pooled in his mouth and Sam held him steady until his body remembered to swallow. Dean’s skin was hot to the touch and Sam knew that the sun wasn’t mainly to blame. The bullet still buried inside Dean was slowly killing him, though the bleeding seemed to have stopped.
“Dean?” Sam said softly, keeping one hand on the back of Dean’s neck, and cupping his brother’s chin with his other, gently tapping his fingers on his cheek. “Hey, you there, man?”
Dean remained unresponsive, but Sam knew his brother. Knew he heard him. On some level, Dean always heard him. Had been listening for him since Sam was born.
“You’re doing great, okay? Just keep breathing, that’s all you gotta do.”
“Oh, swell,” Emerson whined, flopping down in the sand. “Maybe I’ll shoot myself so all I have to do is breathe.”
“You keep this up and I’ll help, but no one's gonna be carrying you!" Sam snapped, cutting his eyes to the blond.
“What are we gonna do?” Mack asked, sounding genuinely scared and a little bit hysterical. “We can’t just keep walking and walking.”
“Okay, calm down,” Sam sighed, easing Dean’s head back to the sand, and looked around once more. Not a cactus or Joshua Tree in sight, though there was a dune just ahead that could be shielding an oasis of sorts. He couldn’t remember passing anything on the way out, but then, the sandstorm had cloaked a good portion of their route.
“We’ll stop here,” Sam decided. “Make a tent and sit in the shade of it until evening.”
“Make a tent?” Emerson exclaimed. “With what?”
Your hide. Dean’s voice was so strong in his head that Sam actually looked down at his unconscious brother. He forced himself to ignore Emerson and took a breath.
“Take what you need from the duffle,” he said, looking at Mack, “then hand it to me.”
He reached across Dean and began to untie the strips of seat cover from the roll bar of the Jeep. As he did, he couldn’t help but see the expression of anguish on his brother’s face as his eyes moved rapidly beneath his closed lids.
“Hang in there, man,” Sam breathed the plea, holding it tightly until it became a prayer.
There were voices around him.
It almost sounded as though he was eavesdropping on a poker game. He remembered being young and sneaking out of the room he shared with Sam to watch his father sit at a table with a group of men, cards held in strong-looking fists, voices hushed, words rough, eyes shifting.
He held himself very still, unsure of their proximity, not wanting to draw attention to himself until he could figure out where he was. The air around him with pungent; death seemed to slip like mist along his skin and he felt it working its way into his pours.
He opened one eye.
It was dark, musty, humid. Opening the other eye, he turned his head and came face-to-face with the eye-less, decaying corpse that had been lying next to him in the ship’s hold. He swallowed a scream, but couldn’t stave off the flinch when the corpse blinked.
Putrid lids slid closed over empty sockets as the head tilted as if to regard him with curiosity. Dean pushed himself to his elbows, thankful that his hands were finally free, but confused as hell about how he ended up back on the ship. He’d been in the desert. With Sam. And then…
The baritone called his attention even as his skin rolled with disgust at the wet sound that wrapped around the words. He looked to his left and was surprised to see a man—comparatively less decayed—standing where Sam had been tied. He was leaning against the beam, one leg up, his foot pressed back against the wood, arms crossed over his tan, blood-stained shirt.
He had thinning strawberry-blond hair and his eyes were so blue they almost hurt to look at in the dim light of the hold. A scruff of blond beard framed his jaw and Dean saw that parenthesis of a smile framed his serious mouth. As the man tilted his head, much like the inquisitive corpse, Dean bit the inside of his cheek to keep from gasping.
His throat had been slashed, the cut so deep Dean could see the white bone of his spinal cord through the dripping, fleshy hole.
“Nice of you to join us.”
Dean looked around the hold and saw that more bodies were rising to sit or stand and face him. Some were a comical representation of a middle school science teacher’s display skeleton, some were almost gooey mummified remains with bits of skin hanging like cobwebs from yellowing bones, and still others had most of their skin, graying or green, sucked in tight to their frame.
“I’m dreaming,” Dean breathed. “This is a dream.”
The blue-eyed man lifted a shoulder. “Maybe.”
Dean pushed himself to his knees, then stumbled forward to his feet, shooting a glance over his shoulder to make sure it was zombie-free. He took a step backwards.
“Maybe this is your penance,” the man continued, glancing to his right. He reached out a hand and to Dean’s horror pulled the eyeless corpse to its feet.
“Penance for what?” Dean snapped, dropping his chin and looking from the tops of his eyes as the dead men rose.
“For not saving us,” the man replied.
Dean pulled his head back, his brow folding in disbelief. “Dude, you were dead.”
“You are a hunter. You could have given us peace. Set us free,” the man took another step forward and Dean mirrored him with a step back. “You had the power.”
Dean lifted a hand waist-level, spreading his fingers in a gesture of warning and peace. “Let me get this straight,” he said, glancing at the growing number of corpses. “You’re pissed ‘cause we didn’t salt and burn your bodies?”
The blue-eyed man shot his eyebrows up. “Yes.”
Dean narrowed his eyes, cocking his head to the left. “Wait… don’t I… know you?”
The man shook his head, blood from his slashed neck flecking his shirt. “No. But you know of me.”
“You’re their uncle, aren’t you?” Dean blinked in astonishment. “Charlie something?”
The man nodded. “I found the ship, found the treasure, and found my Hell in one day.”
“Yeah, they sure did a number on you.” Dean eyebrows bounced up. He felt a touch on his arm like wet leather and instinctively jerked away. “Hey!” He looked over and saw the eye-less corpse moving closer. “Back off, I mean it!”
The other bodies drew closer, their rank stench gagging him and making him cover his nose with the back of his hand. He stepped back until he felt the wall behind him and still they moved closer.
“Get the hell away from me!” He ordered.
“Or you’ll what?” Charlie asked passively. “You have no power here, no weapons, not even any way to give us peace. You are, essentially… one of us.”
“The hell I am,” Dean barked. “I’m not dead.”
“Yet.” Charlie shrugged. “It’s really only a matter of time. And we’ve become rather skilled at waiting.”
“No!” Dean cried, pushing against the slime of skin that covered the bones of the body Sam had lifted the pistol from. It slid free from his hand and dropped to the floor with a splat, like a wet rag. “Get the fuck away from me! I’m not dead! I’m not dead!”
They pressed closer until he couldn’t breathe from the stench, couldn’t see around the darkness of their bodies, couldn’t move as their hands gripped, clawed, gouged. With the strangled cry of a drowning man, Dean felt himself sink to the floor of the hold, the ancient remains of victims he’d left behind burying him in guilt.
Part 4B can be found here: http://gaelicspirit.livejournal.com/55909.html>