A colourful oath rang around the damp stone walls as a size eleven workboot splashed heavily into one of the many rock pools peppering the cave's uneven sandy floor, forcing three hermit crabs to scuttle for cover.
Dean pointed his flashlight down, illuminating his left foot which was immersed to the calf.
"Felt like a paddle?" Sam remarked calmly, barely even attempting to hide his snigger.
"Kiss it," snorted Dean, lifting his foot and giving it a perfunctory shake to dislodge a shower of muddy seawater together with the shattered remains of a fourth, particularly unfortunate hermit crab.
"Hate friggin' caves;" Dean grunted, the words followed by a curl of vapour which dissipated across the cave's cool, damp atmosphere.
Dean petulantly kicked an unidentifiable lump of beached flotsam out of his path before reluctantly continuing the brothers' cautious trek through the cave's impenetrable blackness.
They had begun their trek early morning, and Sam's initial cautious plan to 'not go too far into the cave system because these caves are unstable' had been lost in the brothers' enthusiastic curiosity as they set out on their search for mermaid clues.
For several hours they had inched forward through the labyrinth, exploring and groping their way through chambers as great as cathedrals and tunnels so cramped they could barely walk upright, ducking under stalactites and stumbling over stalagmites, their flashlight beams weaving and dancing, illuminating their path through the intense darkness around them.
They now found themselves, by Sam's reckoning, a good half mile under the rocky headland.
Unfortunately, their early enthusiasm for their task had waned dramatically as time went on and they still had nothing to show for their travails except for cold, wet feet and a crushing sense of defeat.
"Oh c'mon, Sam," Dean moaned, cringing at the chafe of the wet sand between his toes which seemed to have become a permanent fixture ever since he set foot inside this godforsaken black hole; "let's give it up man, it's a bust;" he sighed, "it's been over four hours and we haven't found a friggin' thing."
Sam grunted morosely as he tripped over a rock; he hated to admit it, but he'd been thinking the same way, especially since the unfortunate coming together of his forehead and a low hanging rockface about half an hour ago.
Both Winchesters were damp, tired and bored; there had been nothing to find in the caves but - well cave stuff - sand, rocks, seaweed and slimy, scuttly things.
Caves just sucked.
Sam sighed deeply in defeat; Sam Winchester did not do defeat willingly or graciously. "Okay dude," he groaned; "lets turn back."
The journey back through the caves without all their meandering explorations was swifter and more direct than the journey in, and it took only about forty minutes before they were far enough along to just begin seeing a faint grey haze of daylight from the cave's entrance playing on the wall ahead of them.
Suddenly Dean hesitated.
"What's that noise?" he asked.
"Sounds like water …" Sam replied absently, lifting his flashlight in the direction of the sound; "... it's echoing."
The dread hung in the air like the damp mist of threatening sea-spray.
"Sam," Dean spoke without taking his eyes away from the direction of the sound; "when you looked into all this mermaid stuff, did you research the tides?"
Sam's face dropped.
Dean pointed his flashlight down to see foaming water lapping around his feet, and looked back at his brother in horror.
They began to stride through the encroaching torrent, splashing clumsily through the gushing water as it rose terrifyingly quickly around them; ankle deep … shin deep … by the time they both ground to a halt against the onslaught, the water was lapping around their thighs.
"It's no good," panted Dean, "we can't fight against this current, especially with it getting deeper."
Flashlights were urgently put to work, as the brothers examined their surroundings. They could just make out that they were in a high chamber, the walls worn smooth by centuries of tidal surges, and more ominously, stained with a slick dark green coating of algae.
Sam's heart began to pound. How could he have been so stupid? He had been so preoccupied with thinking about the crumbling caves not crashing down on top of them; he hadn't even given the tide a second thought.
Damn Dean and his goddamn mid-life-crisis!
Suddenly he was jolted out of his thoughts by Dean's voice.
Sam felt himself being pushed forward; "up there …"
Dean's flashlight was pointing to a sloping shingle bank leading up towards the roof of the cave.
"We can climb up there, hopefully get above the water," Dean gasped, lumbering through the butt-deep water; "an' if we get out of this alive, I am so gonna paste your ass," he added with an irritable snort. Sam scowled; he couldn't help thinking, on the subject of asses, that if Dean had managed to get off his and donate a bit of brain-power to the hunt, and not left everything to Sam, they may not have gotten into this mess.
They began to scramble up the shifting shingle bank, trying to keep ahead of the water as it rose higher and higher with frightening speed behind them.
They slipped and scrabbled, clawing at the unstable shingle as it crumbled and shifted beneath their feet, sending them sliding two strides backwards and sideways for every one stride forward.
Eventually, Sam made it to the top of the bank to find a small ledge worn into the wall of the cave, gripping it fiercely, he hauled himself up onto it.
Spreading his bodyweight as far as he could across the tiny ledge, he dropped an arm over the edge to Dean, who was right below him, mired in the crumbling shingle.
"Dean, grab my hand," Sam barked, "there's a ledge up here, and there's no algae on it, so I guess the water doesn't go up this high."
Stretching up with a grunt, Dean grabbed Sam's waiting hand; his cold, wet fingers closing around his brother's wrist. He fought to extricate a trapped foot from the unstable bank and reached up toward the ledge with his free arm as he did so, bracing against the wall of the cave to try to pull himself up. There was a sudden yelp of shock from both men as without warning, his hand slipped from the wet, slippery corner of the ledge and he tumbled backwards down the bank into the seething well of rising seawater.
"DEAN," Sam screamed, his ear-splitting cry echoing around the cave.
It was mere seconds, but it could have been a dozen lifetimes, that passed before Dean broke the surface of the foaming, churning water, spluttering and thrashing for the shingle bank again.
The water was high enough now that Sam was able to attempt to reach him without leaving the ledge. Stretching his arm down toward Dean, he gripped his flashlight in his free hand, pointing it down so that Dean could see him.
"C'mon dude, my hand – take my hand!"
Dean groped and flailed blindly through the darkness, grazing Sam's fingertips several times before Sam took the intiative and gripped his wrist, using every ounce of his strength to haul him out of the cold water, and up onto the cramped ledge beside him.
They both lay on the wet, bare rock, panting harshly through the darkness.
Sam turned his flashlight onto Dean who recoiled, squinting, from the glare. Dean was dripping wet, gasping and shivering, but otherwise seemingly unharmed.
"Jeez, dude, don't ever do that again …" Sam sighed.
"W-why not … s'f-fun," Dean snorted wetly, coughing up a mouthful of water.
Sam tugged Dean toward him, slapping his back until his harsh, wet coughs subsided and his breathing evened out into something more approaching normal.
Taking stock of their position, Sam was not encouraged. It was pitch-black in the cave, so he hoped desperately the batteries in his flashlight would last given that it was now their only source of illumination after Dean's was lost in his fall. Not only that, but the little ledge that they were perched on was woefully uncomfortable, rock hard (unsurprisingly), haemorrhoid-inducingly cold and wet, and small enough to require its occupants to sit practically on top of each other, clinging together in a gut-clenchingly awkward tangle of limbs.
On the plus side, Sam guessed that cringeworthy closeness would assist admirably with the sharing of body heat that was going to be an unwelcome requirement over the next few hours while they waited out high tide.
The cave was cool and damp, as caves tended to be, but not freezing. Dean, however, was drenched from head to foot. A little pool of seawater was gradually forming around him where he sat slumped; partially against Sam's shoulder, and partially in his lap.
With a sense of some relief, Sam knew air, at least, wasn't going to be an problem; they weren't that far from the entrance to the cave, he could also feel a draft on his neck which suggested there was some kind of fissure or crack somewhere beside him which meant some air was filtering through to them. It also seemed that finally the water had reached it's high level; the deafening rush of the rising tide had softened to a rhythmic lapping melody. It seemed to have levelled some twelve inches below the lip of the ledge on which they were trapped.
Sam made a furious mental note to take himself round the back of the motel and punch his own lights out if … when they got out of this alive.
Sam had no idea how long it had been before Dean first spoke up, and given that his brother was shivering violently, the announcement was no newsflash.
"I know bro'," Sam sighed, "we need to get this wet stuff off you."
Pulling Dean's soaked overshirt and wet, clingy T-shirt off in the dark, in such a confined space, was an exercise in contortionism that neither brother would ever want to repeat; Sam couldn't believe how long it took his nose to stop bleeding. He briefly considered getting Dean out of his wet jeans as well, but he decided against it figuring that any punch on the nose resulting from that sort of suggestion probably wouldn't be accidental like the last one was.
Besides, Sam knew it was important that he kept Dean's 'core body' warm, primarily his heart. There was nothing in the first aid guide to preventing hypothermia that said it was particularly important to keep someone's ass warm.
Squirming out of his jacket, a not-inconsiderable feat for a man his size in such a confined position, he pulled Dean in close, and wrapped him tightly in the massive garment, patting his ice-cold skin dry with it as he did so, and smiling at Dean's mumbled thanks.
There was a wet squelch as Dean shifted uncomfortably in the little pool of seawater that had collected around him.
"Gonn' g-get trench ass sit-t-ting here."
Sam huffed a mirthless laugh; "well, don't expect me to kiss it better."
Dean shifted again, closer to Sam, planting his elbow somewhere Sam would really rather it hadn't been planted.
"H-how the hell'd I let you talk m-me into 'splorin' friggin' caves?"
"You were bored, dude," Sam replied through clenched teeth, trying to squirm out from under Dean's elbow, "unfulfilled and pissed about getting old."
"Yeah, well that don' look like it's gonna be a problem now," Dean snorted, wincing as his soaked boxers clung and threaded their way up into places they had no business threading.
"Crap," Sam retorted, "we're gonna get out of this fix, Y'hear me?"
Dean huffed sourly, succumbing to a violent shiver as Sam pulled him in closer, tucking the coat around him even tighter, an exercise that had the gratifying effect of moving Dean's ridiculously pointy elbow to less receptive parts of the world.
Sam shuffled back against the wall of the cave to try to make some more space for Dean, and gave a yelp as something sharp beneath him jabbed into his buttock.
He grimaced, rocking forwards, all the while gripping hard onto Dean to stop him tumbling off the ledge again and fumbled blindly underneath his ass to try to remove the source of his discomfort.
As he pulled it out from under him, he studied it under the beam of his flashlight and his heart lurched.
It was a small dainty comb, exquisitely carved out of an oyster shell.
"Holy …" he nudged Dean, "hey Dean, look," he showed the beautiful little object to Dean who stared blankly through the light's beam at it, his brow furrowing in concentration.
"Yeah Dean, don't you see - this is what we're looking for - mermaid stuff."
Dean managed a moderately interested huff.
Sam scanned the ledge with his flashlight, peering over the top of Dean's damp head to look behind his shoulder, and his eye caught something else; several other things …
Over the next couple of hours of the brothers incarceration, Sam entertained himself by exploring the little treasure trove he had happened upon, using it not only for his own amusement but as a way to try to keep Dean alert.
A tiny pearl mirror, a pretty circlet of shells and most fascinating of all, a flute fashioned of coral.
He guessed he was reaching the point at which Dean was beginning to tire of his enthusiastic blathering judging by what he suggested Sam do with the flute.
Sam gathered up their booty and carefully loaded it into the pockets of the jacket wrapped around Dean's body. he couldn't wait to check it out when they were back in the safety and comfort of a well-lit motel room.
In the meantime, Sam simply sat clutching Dean's damp form and pondered bleakly through the darkness on how to spend the next few hours until the tide receded.
"Wanna sing?" He asked brightly.
That'll be a 'no' then.
Across the chamber a shimmering auburn head broke the surface of the water and two midnight blue eyes regarded the trapped hunters.
Those were her belongings, and those men were going to take them.
That was not a nice thing to do.
What to do? To harm another being was not in the nature of the peaceful merpeople, but stealing is a bad thing; even the men of the dry world knew that.
They had stolen her nice things, and that should not go unpunished.
She silently dipped down below the inky surface of the water.