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Fic: Devil's Arcade (10/14)


What you fear in the night
In the day comes to call anyway
--Counting Crows, "Einstein on the Beach"


Earlier that day

Thinking back later on that moment on an Idaho mountainside, Sam could never understand how if two tremendous booms of thunder hadn't drawn his panicked gaze away from the lightning flashing overhead, the comparatively quiet crack of his brother's head contacting a rock could catch his attention.

But it did.

He whirled around, eyes widening, Dean's name springing to his lips. He caught himself just in time, knowing they would be lucky to finish the ritual as it was, much less go back and repeat the last ten minutes if he screwed up. Scratch that: he'd obviously already screwed up, given that Dean was sprawled face-down and unconscious.

Casting a quick glance around to make sure the spirit had dissipated, Sam crouched down by his brother and did the all-too-familiar check for pulse and breathing. Both were steady, and he carefully pressed aside Dean's short hair to examine the source of the blood steadily dripping down the back of his head.

The gash was short and shallow, right over an uneven lump in Dean's skull that had Sam searching his memory for the source of that particular scar when he remembered—his brother no longer had any scars. Shaking his head, Sam reached for the water bottle holstered in his pack and carefully poured the cold liquid over the wound. Dean stirred and moaned slightly, but not enough to indicate he had come to.

Another sharp crack of lightning froze Sam in place, crouched over his brother and waiting to feel the sharp jolt of electricity striking him dead. When nothing happened—again—he lifted his head up and looked at the clouds roiling overhead. The rain wasn't falling yet, but it was sure to start any second. And if the fire on the bones went out, they were in serious trouble.

Sam shook his head to clear it. Enough of this freaking out over the lightning, he sternly told himself. Dean was already hurt because of him, and now he had to finish it before anything else went wrong. He carefully arranged Dean so his forehead was resting on his arms, moving him as minimally as he could while managing to get his face up off the ground.

The sudden rush of cold air on the back of his neck as he slowly straightened was not from the storm.

He wheeled around so fast that his legs got tangled and he thumped hard onto his ass. Miguel Etxberri stood directly over him, glowering in the fading light, looking like he was at least seven feet tall from Sam's vantage point. Sam looked around wildly, but the shotgun was at least five feet away. Then he remembered the salt canister he'd been holding as he stood over the bones, and he silently cursed at himself as he realized it was still clutched in his hand.

He slung the canister towards the spirit, a stream of white crystals spraying out over the ghostly figure. The miner growled low in his throat before disappearing again. Sam scrambled to his feet and back to the gravesite, silently giving thanks that the fire was still going. He dug the crumpled paper back out of his pocket, raced through the last remaining words, and gave a final shake of the salt canister.

Thunder rolled overhead at the same time as the crack of the lightning. Sam's head shot up to see Miguel Etxberri appear one last time, standing over his own remains, no taller than he would have been in real life, giving Sam a final glower before fading into nothing.

Sam stood there panting for a moment. A rain drop plunked onto the back of his neck, and then another. At his feet, the still-burning bones sizzled as the water hit them. He looked up at the sky nervously, hoping the rain would hold off until the spirit's remains were well and truly burned. On the other hand, if Etxberri had made his farewell appearance, then they were probably good to go.

That was, assuming they could go anywhere. Sam took two steps back to where Dean was and knelt down next to him. "Dean, can you hear me?" he asked, reaching out to touch the fresh gash in his brother's skull.

"Ow." A hand came up to swat him away. "Is he gone or are you screwing things up by talking?" Dean muttered into the ground.

Sam bit his lip. No, I screwed things up enough already. "Yeah, he's gone. Can you get up?"

"Give me a hand," Dean demanded, and Sam was happy to oblige. He helped his brother stagger to his feet, Dean briefly pressing a hand to the back of his head before hissing and pulling it away. "You think maybe some time we could deal with a ghost someplace softer?"

"What, like a pillow factory?" Sam retorted.

"Shut up." Dean shook off Sam's arm and straightened up, carefully rolling his head from one side to another. "Yep, still attached."

"Any double vision?" Sam asked. The rain was starting to fall for real now, lightning flickering overhead once more. He was proud that he kept his reaction to a flinch this time.

Dean was eyeing him closely. "No double vision, no ringing ears, no nausea," he recited. "Hell of a headache, though."

"Okay then. Let me make sure the fire's out, and then we can head back." Sam bent down to his back and started rooting through it for the other water bottle.

"How 'bout you?" Dean asked. "Your head okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," he replied, straightening up with the Nalgene water bottle in his hand and turning his back on Dean to examine the smoldering pile of salt and bones.

"So what did you see?" Dean's tone was deliberately light and curious.

Sam frowned as he turned back towards him. "What do you mean?"

Dean gestured towards his head. "When you do a world-class freak-out like that, it tends to come along with a vision. Except I thought you weren't having those anymore."

"I'm not." Sam unscrewed the cap on the water bottle and looked down. There were only a few flickering flames left, one last piece of white bone turning dark with ash. Leave it alone, Dean, just leave it alone.

He might as well have asked for the Impala to appear hovering in midair in front of them float them back down the mountainside. "Then what the hell was that?" Dean asked, walking around to stand on the other side of the bones.

"It was nothing," Sam replied.

"Hey, you don't get to stand there and tell me that was nothing," Dean snapped.

"I get to tell you whatever the hell I want," Sam retorted, hefting the water bottle and glancing down at the last of the burning bones, wishing Dean would go pick up the shotgun or something.

"No, you don't." Dean leaned forward and jabbed a finger into Sam's chest, the firelight casting strange shadows on his face in the growing dusk. "You haven't frozen on a hunt like that since you were sixteen and Dad chewed out your ass for a good two hours afterwards. And what are you doing with that?" he asked, nodding at the water bottle.

"I was fourteen." Sam glared back at him. "And it's fire season, so as soon as the bones are gone, I'm dousing the fire."

Dean gave him a hard look. "Listen, Smokey Bear, I know you never want to give him credit for anything, but he was right about dealing with things before they could get in the way of a hunt. Something's going on with you, man, and it got in the way."

"I said I was sorry," Sam muttered.

"That's really not good enough," Dean replied firmly.

Sam didn't answer, just kept staring at the ground, and Dean sighed. "You know how you and Dad fought so much?"

"Kinda hard to forget," he responded sullenly.

"You know how many times it was him picking the fight?"

Sam looked up at him. "What do you mean, did I keep score or something?"

"No," Dean said exasperatedly, drawing the word out into two syllables. "He didn't want either of you going into a hunt distracted. So he'd say something to provoke you, get it out in the open, so you weren't brooding over it instead of watching my back."

"I do not brood," Sam growled, looking out from under his lowered eyebrows.

Dean's own brows quirked in response, his best, Uh, dude? expression on his face. After a moment, Sam lifted the corner of his mouth in a moment of self-acknowledgment. Then his expression grew serious. "I would never not have watched your back, you know that."

Dean pursed his lips as he parsed the grammar, but he gave a nod of acknowledgment before pointing up at the sky. "Then what was that?" he asked more casually.

Sam's response was to look down at the shallow grave before tossing the contents of the water bottle over the smoldering embers. Considering the way it was starting to rain, it seemed kind of stupid to be adding more water, but it was pretty dry country out here, and he didn't want to risk leaving any smoldering embers that could start a wildfire later. "Sorry," he muttered. "It won't happen again."

"Damn straight it won't. Or are we going to have to avoid hunts whenever there's a thunderstorm going on?"

Sam's head shot up, eyes meeting Dean's for a second before looking away. "What do you mean?" he asked quickly.

"Come on, Sammy, I'm not stupid. You freaked out like a girl when the lightning flashed." Dean's voice gentled as he went on, "What I want to know is why."

Sam stood strong for a moment, knowing there was no way he would be able to bluff his way out of this one. Then his shoulders slumped and he dropped the empty bottle onto the ground. "Let it go, okay? I promise it won't happen again."

"I can't do that." Dean shook his head. "I gotta know that you're with me one hundred percent and that you're not going to get distracted by something I can't predict. You know that's how it works."

Sam raised one hand and pinched the bridge of his nose. Rainwater was trickling down the back of his neck, icy cold against his flushed skin. "Can we at least get out of here before it starts pouring?"

There was a pause. Then Dean said roughly, "Yeah, sure," before stalking away. Sam could hear him gathering up their stuff, the shotgun clanking against rock as he lifted it from where it had fallen when he had been flung against the boulder by the spirit while Sam stood there like a stupid idiot.

"Dean, I'm sorry," he said, whirling around.

"Save it for later," Dean mumbled, turning away to snatch up his pack.

Sam watched for a moment, then let out a gusty sigh and bent down to pick up the water bottle. He packed it away in silence, along with the salt and the other remnants of the ritual. The jangoikoaren harriak he left in place; the instructions he'd come across hadn't been clear on whether the fossilized thunderbolt had to remain with the burned bones, and at this point, he wasn't about to tempt fate.

Five minutes later, they had packed up like a pair of leave-no-trace outdoorsmen, despite their unusual gear. Salt was still scattered across the mountainside, but the falling rain would dissolve that quickly enough. Sam hunched his shoulders against the cold wind, hoping they would be under enough tree cover that the rain wouldn't soak them straight through. He was not looking forward to three hours of walking in the rain. Well, probably two hours since it was all downhill, but still.

Truth be told, he wasn't looking forward to facing Dean right now, either. So when it was clear that they were ready to go, Sam swung into the lead, long legs eating up the rocky ground alongside the remnants of the long-ago landslide, focusing every bit of his attention on finding the trail they needed to take them back to the Impala. He could hear Dean behind him, his breaths coming too fast and hard for him to be able to carry on a conversation. A grim, satisfied smile flickered across Sam's face as he pressed on.

In no time at all, however, they had reached a clear path back into the woods to their right. They turned onto the dirt trail, and since it was generally downhill, Sam figured Dean would have no trouble catching up. Sure enough, a few minutes later, he could practically feel his brother breathing down his neck.

The rain diminished once they were beneath the forest canopy, but it was still coming down. The thunder and lightning had faded away, an occasional rumble or far-off crack still breaking the silence. Sam tried to keep up a brisk pace, but now that the rocky ground was damp, it was also treacherous.

They'd gone for about forty-five minutes in silence, back past the fork in the trail and onto ground they'd already covered in the other direction, when to his dismay, Sam realized the rain was coming down harder. Not only that, but they were approaching a stretch of trail that wound along the edge of the mountainside with very little tree cover. The last thing they needed was to slide down a few thousand feet of mountain because Sam was literally running away from a conversation.

"Hey, Sam," Dean called. "Wasn't there a cave or something up ahead?"

Sam grimaced. He remembered seeing a series of overhangs just off the trail, noting their location on the hike up in the automatic way he filed away information that might be useful later. "Yeah," he shot back over his shoulder. "Why, is your carefully-styled hair getting wet?"

That got him a thwack on the shoulder. "That's your department, princess. Besides, this trail's gonna turn into a mudslide if it rains much harder."

Dean did have a point. The ground was growing softer, and he didn't relish the idea of navigating a narrow stretch of exposed mountainside in pouring rain. Maybe it would let up soon. "Okay," he grudgingly admitted.

A few minutes later, they were tucked under a granite overhang that was wide enough to get them and their packs out of the rain but not so deep that it was likely to be inhabited by other large mammals. Now that he was sitting still in a damp sweatshirt and t-shirt, Sam wondered if he should dig his spare shirt out of his pack to ease his shivering, or if it was going to continue to rain once they started walking again.

"Might clear off soon," Dean said, gesturing out at the sky. It did seem to be getting lighter out, Sam thought. Dean was already shucking off his wet clothing, pulling on a dry grey t-shirt with a rip across the right sleeve. He looked over at Sam. "Dude, you'll catch a cold."

"I'll be fine," Sam said, drawing his knees up to his chest for warmth.

"Whatever," came the reply.

Silence fell as they both sat with their backs to the granite and looked out over the valley below. Then Dean said, sounding reluctant, "Sam, you gotta tell me what's going on."

He hunched his shoulders up towards his ears as if he could make himself small enough to escape Dean's notice. "I told you, it won't happen again." He was pretty sure it wouldn't, at least, and "pretty sure" seemed to work well enough with them.

"And I told you that's not good enough." Dean paused and moved to mirror Sam's position, wrapping his arms around his drawn-up knees. "Look, I know I'm not—you don't have to tell me everything that goes on in your head. God knows, I don't want to know most of it, especially where a little black-eyed demon bitch is involved."

"Dean," Sam said warningly without bothering to look at him.

Out of the corner of his eye, Sam saw Dean hold up a placating hand. "Fine. The thing is, you blanked out on me. You never do that, Sam. Never. And I gotta know why."

Sam stubbornly kept his lips pressed together, staring out into the rain. He knew Dean would absolutely freak if he told him what happened back in Concrete. Trouble was, he couldn't see any way out of telling him at the moment: Dean would keep badgering him until he got what he wanted. For a guy who claimed he didn't like to share and care, his brother was certainly skilled at prying things out of other people.

Dean shifted in his seat. "And before you go calling me a hypocrite or anything, can you honestly say that me not sharing what I did on my summer vacation has put you in any danger?"

His throat tightened at the casual way Dean referred to his time in Hell, but he shook his head. "Not yet," he muttered.

He saw Dean's jaw clench. And although the next words he spoke were simple, they cut like the blade of a knife. "Sam, I can't hunt with you if I can't count on you."

Sam whipped his head up. Dean was giving him a level stare, and when he saw that he had his little brother's attention, he lifted his eyebrows as if to say, You know I'm right.

He met his gaze for a moment before slumping back against the rock wall. "Yeah, I know," he finally agreed, his voice as rough as the granite at his back.

Silence fell while Sam fiddled with the strap of his backpack, trying to think of what to say, how to phrase this without hurting his brother further. Finally he let out a huff of breath. There probably wasn't any way to do that.

"When we were in Washington," he said, staring out from underneath the overhang into the pouring rain. "Hope had never made a wish on the well. She knew it was there, but she thought she had everything she needed in Wesley, I guess." He heard Dean snort, but he didn't interrupt. So Sam went on, "She found out that we were going to get rid of the well, and that meant getting rid of her feelings for Wesley. So she, uh, made a wish so that wouldn't happen."

"She made a wish." There was a pause, and Dean added, "Keep going," his voice tight as if he was bracing himself to hear something he didn't want to.

Reluctantly, Sam shifted his seat so he was facing Dean, keeping his drawn-up knees between them as if to shield him from the explosion he knew was coming. "It was a perfectly clear day, right? And then this little tiny cloud appeared out of nowhere, and a lightning bolt came down, and…" He made a slicing motion downward with one hand. Fill in the blank, dude.

Dean stared at him. "You got struck by lightning," he said in a flat tone.

Sam ducked his head to the side. "That's what Wesley said."

"What do you mean, that's what Wesley said?" The deep crescents were forming at the inside edges of Dean's eyebrows that indicated he was royally confused. "You were there, weren't you?"

Please don't make me say it, Sam thought desperately. "I—I wasn't exactly aware of what was going on right then."

Dean cocked his head to the side. "You were knocked out?"

God, are you deliberately being stupid? he thought uncharitably. "More than that," he admitted as though it were being physically dragged out of him.

Dean stared at him, mouth slightly open, and Sam could almost see the gears turning behind his green eyes. You were there, but someone had to tell you what happened because you were hit by lightning... Suddenly his low growl split the silence. "You can't be serious."

Sam nodded, unable to tear his eyes away from the play of emotions across Dean's face.

"You fuckin' died?" Dean leaned slightly forward. "Again?"

"Not—not really. I mean, the wishes were all undone, right? I'm fine." Sam made to spread his arms wide, then bit back an exclamation when his left hand contacted the granite wall next to him.

"For how long?" Dean demanded, his eyes lit with anger.

"Not long." Sam shook his head. "Maybe a minute, not much more."

"And you were planning on telling me about this when?" Dean asked with raised eyebrows.

He deliberately shrugged and turned to put his back against the wall again. "I wasn't, actually."

"What the hell, Sam? You can't keep something like that to yourself. A chick you pick up at a bar, I don't need to know about. You get struck by lightning, I need to hear about it." Dean's shoulders were tense, the muscles in his arms corded as they held his knees to his chest.

"And how is that different from you not telling me what I want to know, huh?" Sam glared at him and stabbed a finger towards the ground. "Everything you went through down there was for me, Dean. I need to know what happened to you."

"You don't want to know." Dean dropped his head and muttered the words into his kneecaps.

Sam chuffed out a breath. "That's the problem, man. I do want to know. But you won't tell me."

"Okay, fine, I don't want you to know." Dean lifted his head and stared out into the falling rain. "How's that?"

"No different from me." Sam matched his brother's position, looking out over the mountainside and the muddy trail in front of them, thinking about all of the other things he was holding back from Dean. He shook his head. Dean might not want to talk about the torture that had happened to him, but that was in a separate category from the torments Sam had been willing to inflict on others in his quest to get his brother back.

Remembering a long-ago conversation after defeating Bloody Mary, he quietly said, "Some things I just have to keep to myself."

Silence fell for a moment. Then Dean sighed and said something Sam never thought he would hear him say. "Man, sometimes it's like I don't even know you anymore."

The words slipped out of Sam's mouth before he could stop them. "So does that mean you'd want to hunt me?" he asked bitterly.

Dean froze, his face going white. "Don't you say that, Sam. Don't you ever say that."

Sam held up his hands and leaned back. "Sorry," he muttered, aware that maybe he'd gone too far.

In the next moment, he became shockingly aware of just how far he'd gone. Dean's eyes were flashing, his mouth tight with anger as he leaned closer and jabbed a finger into his little brother's chest. "I died for you, Sammy. I freakin' died and went to Hell for you. So don't you ever ask me if I would hunt you."

A year ago, Sam would have shrunk back from the emotion that was rolling off his brother in waves, the bright green eyes haunted by unimaginable memories that were fueling his brother's anger. He would have apologized for saying the wrong thing, would have buried the questions that sprang to his mind and tried to make peace.

But he'd spent months on his own, first after the Trickster and then after the hellhounds, and he'd taken on beings more powerful than he ever thought he could have faced. And he had more steel in him now than he ever knew he could possess. So he lifted his chin and replied firmly, "You made me a promise, Dean. You made Dad a promise. Are you telling me that you have no intention of keeping it?"

Quicker than thought, Dean backhanded him across the face. Sam automatically raised a hand to his stinging cheek, more shocked than hurt. Dean's eyes flickered to his cheek and back. With practically no inflection in his voice, he said, "Fuck you, Sam."

And then Dean scrambled forward out of the overhang, snatched his pack off the ground, and strode off into the rain.

Sam stared after him until he disappeared from sight around a curve in the trail. "What the hell was that?" he muttered out loud. Then he shook himself and clambered back onto the trail, glad that the rain was letting up. There was no way he was going to catch up to Dean if the weather didn't improve.

He just hoped there was something worth catching up to.

(Chapter 11)