Title: Devil's Arcade
Author: Zubeneschamali
Rating: T (violence, language)
Summary: While still dealing with the aftermath of the wishing well, Sam and Dean are taken by a group of hunters who will stop at nothing to find out the truth about Sam's abilities and how Dean managed to come back from the dead.

Spoilers: Takes place after 4.08, "Wishful Thinking," with spoilers up to and including 4.10, "Heaven and Hell."

Disclaimer: Dude, if they were mine, the back seat of the Impala would have been put to use much earlier than the tenth episode of the fourth season. Sheesh.

A/N: This is the product of my successful 2008 NaNoWriMo attempt (which gives you an idea of how long this is...). Despite the eps that aired as I was writing it, I think it's still in canon if the reader cuts me some slack. The title is from Bruce Springsteen's beautiful song of the same name, and a soundtrack is provided throughout the story. Many thanks to DreamBrother for beta reading.


You said heroes are needed, so heroes get made
Somebody made a bet, somebody paid
--Bruce Springsteen, "Devil's Arcade"


Sam knew they never should have done the hunt.

It was three days after Concrete, Washington. Three days after Sam was left with a second memory of suffering a violent death, of overwhelming pain shutting down his body and sending him into darkness. Three days after Dean admitted that years' worth of the tortures of Hell were burned into his brain and that he was bound and determined to keep it to himself.

Three days of cursing to himself that Dean had informed him of this after Sam melted the coin down, once it was too late to create his own private wishing well and erase the memories from his brother's mind.

Oh, the hunt itself hadn't been the problem. A two-paragraph story from the AP wire had sent them a day's drive away to a simple case on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains where an old miner was trying to regain his possessions from their current owner—even though said miner had died many years ago. The problem was the distance that Dean's deliberately-spoken words had put between them, on top of Sam's rant weeks earlier about having something in his blood that his brother couldn't possibly understand. The two together led to lingering, awkward silences interspersed with arguments that flared out of nowhere and vanished into sideways glances and smoldering resentments that neither was used to carrying for more than a few hours at a time.

Still, they'd played their respective roles the same as ever: Dean had taken the brunt of the spirit's anger while Sam carried out the familiar ritual with a few unique twists, including freaking out at a critical moment. Of course, he would much rather forget that had ever happened, but at least there was no (or maybe not much) harm done in the end. A few shakes of the salt canister and a flare of a match later, and they were on their way back to the Elk River Motel.

That was where the problem was waiting for them.

Or maybe the problem had been in the inquiries they had made at the library in the county seat on the previous day, or maybe at the local diner where for once Sam was the one eliciting information from the friendly waitress. Perhaps it was at the mountain town's tiny grocery store where their only purchases were a ginormous canister of salt and a huge box of matchbooks, both of which they had somehow managed to run out of at the same time. They never found out how the word got out who they were and that they were in Elk River, Idaho, or how their luck could have been so awful that the people who were looking for them happened to be within driving distance at the time.

What they did know is that when they arrived back at the motel—damp in clothing and tired in body and spirit, both of them regretting the words they'd spoken a few hours ago and thinking about the gap between them that was cracking open a little wider every day—their reflexes were not what they should have been.

Which was why the three men waiting in their room had embarrassingly little difficulty overpowering them.

Dean had entered first, tossing the motel room key on the bed and turning towards the bathroom door. He'd barely laid a hand on the door when it suddenly swung inward. Before he could react, he stumbled forward into a fist already headed his way.

Sam instantly started to turn towards him, which meant that the hands that grabbed him from behind could do so without him seeing them coming. His body knew what to do better than his conscious brain did, his arms flying up from his side to break the hold while his right leg punched backwards in a kneecapping move. Unfortunately, his automatic response was thrown off by a day filled with mountain-hiking and boulder-climbing and brother-saving, and so he missed completely. A second pair of hands took advantage by grabbing his extended ankle and twisting, sending him thumping to the floor on his back.

He automatically put his arms down to push himself up and then stopped abruptly. The .45 caliber handgun pointed straight between his eyes was inducement enough to stay still.

Sam's eyes flickered up to the man holding the gun, who he suddenly realized was not the same one who had initially grabbed him. That was a guy who had to be as tall as Sam himself, but with narrower shoulders and a meaner look on his young face. The man with the gun was older, maybe forty, with a few days' stubble and a John Deere baseball cap. Though he was sure he'd never seen them before, the way they carried themselves was somehow familiar.

A second later, he realized what was so familiar. They moved the same way he and Dean and Bobby did, the same total awareness of their surroundings without the rigidity that a military background brought.

They were hunters.

"Lie down where you are, hands underneath your head," said the older one with the trace of a southern accent.

Lowering himself back down, Sam docilely lifted his arms and placed his hands under his head. The guy in the ball cap was in range of a quick kick, and if Sam could time it with a reach behind him for the gun he still had in the back of his waistband…

Then he noticed the younger man had also drawn a gun and aimed it at him. His jaw clenched as he realized there was no way he could do anything with two weapons on him. Damn it, why had they stashed all of the weapons back in the trunk before coming in? Not that a crossbow would be much use at such close quarters, but at least the shotgun might have been worth something.

The scuffling sounds behind him drew to a sudden halt, and Sam twisted around to see Dean being shoved out of the bathroom at gunpoint, blood trickling down one cheek and staining his knuckles. His eyes instantly went to Sam and then to the two gunmen, coming back to Sam with a clear question in his gaze.

Sam gave him a short nod to say that he was okay while asking the same with slightly lifted eyebrows and a more intense look.

The corner of Dean's mouth twitched up as if to say, Don't worry about me. His eyes again shifted around the room and back, and Sam caught the message. Whoever these men were, they obviously thought Sam was a bigger threat since there were two guys on him. That meant Dean would be the one keeping his eyes open for his chance to start something.

The guy behind Dean was also older than the brothers, his close-cropped auburn hair flecked with white, and he looked like he was more than comfortable with the Beretta in his hand. With his other hand, he was tucking Dean's gun into the back of his worn jeans. "All set?" he asked.

"Yep," came the response from the older man standing over Sam.

"Man, if I'd known this was such a high-crime area, I'd have picked another motel," Dean said, reaching up to wipe the blood off his cheek with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. "Hope you aren't looking to score more than a couple of bucks, 'cause that's about all we're good for."

"We think you're good for a lot more than that, Dean Winchester," said the man with the Beretta.

Sam's eyes shot to his brother, who looked as confused as he felt. "Do I know you?" Dean asked, eyebrows raising as he carefully turned to face the man, keeping his hands up in front of him. "I swear, I was only flirting with her. Didn't mean a thing by it."

Standing at Sam's feet, John Deere snorted. "Turn over," he demanded, prodding Sam's leg with his boot.

Sam looked up at him warily. Slowly, he rolled over onto his stomach, keeping his hands clasped at the back of his head. He lifted his head slightly so he could keep an eye on Dean, standing a few feet to his left, and the red-haired man holding a gun on him. He heard the creak of leather as someone stepped over his legs and crouched down next to him. A moment later, at the small of his back, he felt his own gun being removed.

Then he stiffened in shock as the muzzle of the weapon pressed against his neck.

"Hey!" Dean barked, fear coloring his voice as he took a step forward.

In his peripheral vision, Sam could see his brother being yanked away by one arm to the far side of the room. His own senses suddenly ramped up as the adrenaline started to surge, enhancing the stale smell of the motel carpet filling his nostrils, the brown-and-orange pattern that was a little too close for his eyes to focus on, and the hard press of metal that was warm from his own body heat biting into the back of his neck.

"What do you want?" he asked, surprised at how calm his voice was. In all of the dangers they encountered in their job, guns were not something they were used to being at the wrong end of. Sam's confidence level wasn't exactly high at the moment, given his helpless position. On the bright side, these appeared to be people and not supernaturals. People could be reasoned with.

Theoretically, at least.

The man kneeling over him said, "Put your hands behind your back. Slowly."

Sam grimaced. He didn't exactly relish the thought of having his hands bound, which was surely where this was headed. On the other hand, the pressure at his neck reminded him that there were worse alternatives, and so he carefully obeyed.

Sure enough, a few seconds later he felt rope biting into his wrists. He kept his muscles clenched so there would be some give in the rope when they were done, but there were enough layers of rope that slipping free was going to be more than a little difficult.

Once Sam's hands were secured, the younger guy got up and strode over to where Dean was, grabbing his shoulder and spinning him around and into the wall. Dean offered no resistance as his own hands were tied, no doubt because of the gun that was still resting against Sam's neck. Once the tall man was done, Dean was flipped around again and the red-haired man holding him said, "Let's go."

Sam watched helplessly as Dean was marched outside, giving Sam a look that was equal parts confident and frantic as he passed. Once Dean and his captor were out the door, Sam felt the gun move away from his neck, and he briefly closed his eyes in relief. "Up," came a command from above him, followed by a kick to the ribs. Whoever these guys were, they sure weren't much for talking.

Sam rose to his knees and staggered to his feet. John Deere gestured with the two guns in his hands, and Sam moved out in front of him and into the night.

They stopped at the far edge of the parking lot where a dark pickup truck sat beneath a broken streetlight. Dean and the red-haired man were standing next to it, and a rough hand on Sam's upper arm kept him from getting too close. He looked around, assessing the situation, quickly noting where everyone stood and where their weapons were. When he looked at Dean, he could read clearly on his face that his brother had already done the same thing and had come to the same conclusion: I got nothing.

Behind him, Sam felt the left sleeve of his sweatshirt being tugged upwards, and he looked over his shoulder to try and see what was going on. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dean straining to do the same, but the older man standing next to him kept a firm grip on his shoulder and a gun pressed into his side.

Then a flash of silver in the moonlight caught Sam's eye, and he had just enough time to brace himself before sharp pain sliced across his forearm. He choked back a cry, throwing his head upward and squeezing his eyes shut.

"What the hell are you doing?" Dean called sharply. His cry was quickly followed by scuffling sounds from the same direction.

Opening his eyes, Sam quickly looked over to see Dean struggling against his captor despite the gun that was pressing against his ribs. "Dean, cool it!" he called back, worried that even the presence of a firearm against his side wouldn't be enough to hold him in place. "It's okay." Just a little blood running down my arm, no big deal. Not nearly as much as you lost because of me earlier today.

Once Dean saw he was alright, he stopped fighting, although his eyes still held a menacing promise as he glared at the man holding him. Then from behind Sam, the youngest man of the group came forward, holding up a six-inch silver blade stained with blood. He held it up forebodingly and stepped towards Dean.

"Careful with that thing," the red-haired man called out, backing up a step. "You never know people might be carrying, even if they don't react to silver."

Sam looked quickly at Dean, but his wide eyes were riveted on the blade. The younger man adjusted the angle he was holding the knife so that the drops of Sam's blood on it were running right down onto the ground.

Then he advanced again on Dean.

"Get away from him!" Sam barked, lunging forward before John Deere grabbed his arm and stuck a gun in his back. He came to a halt, eyes widening as the knife came closer to his brother.

For his part, Dean was trying and being prevented from taking a step away as the tall guy circled around from behind, but his voice was almost calm as he said, "Hey Sam, you think if I got a piece of silver embedded in the back of my hand or something, it would stop people from sticking knives in me?" Then he froze and hissed in a breath as Sam saw the younger man's arm move in a slashing motion behind him.

After a second, Dean shook his head, jaw clenched. "Are you happy now? We've established that everyone here is human, or at least that the two of us are, so do you mind telling us what the hell is going on?"

"I wouldn't be too sure about that," John Deere said from behind Sam.

Sam tensed and looked at his brother, who had the carefully blank expression he used when he was trying to hide something big. "What are you talking about?" Sam asked.

"Like you don't know." The tall man came forward, holding the knife carefully so that none of the blood was dripping onto his fingers. Sam tried to take a step back, but there was nowhere for him to go. The man came forward and with a sneer, wiped the blade clean on Sam's shirt, leaving streaks of his and Dean's blood mixed together across the green sweatshirt he wore. "Don't worry, you can tell us all about it later. Demon boy."

Sam knew that panic had flared across his face before he could school his features, and he knew the other man had seen it, too. But he still said with a set jaw, "I don't know what you mean."

"Not here." The command came from the man holding Dean at gunpoint. "Let's get them in the truck and get out of here." He gave Dean a shove towards the pickup. "Get in and lie down on your stomach."

Sam watched as Dean clambered over the tailgate and into the bed of the pickup as best he could without his hands to help him. Once he was in place, the gunman climbed up after him and knelt down, holding the weapon against Dean's back. "Get his legs," he said to the younger man, who came over and used another length of rope to tie Dean's ankles together.

A breeze whispered past, and Sam shivered. They had only been wearing sweatshirts over their t-shirts, figuring that the exertion of a long hike followed by a salt-and-burn would keep them warm. Then an unexpected thunderstorm had caused them a whole host of problems, not the least of which was momentarily drenching them in icy rain before the exertion of the return hike dried them off. And now it was approaching midnight, and the mountain nights were cold. If they were going to be sitting out in the open bed of a pickup truck with damp clothing, they were going to get even colder.

On the other hand, it would take one man to drive the truck, which meant one guard for each of the brothers in the back. Those odds were a little better than their current situation, even if they were tied hand and foot. Sam had a small knife tucked in his back pocket, and he was pretty sure Dean was carrying a blade in his boot. They could make short work of the ropes if given half a chance. Then, even as tired as they were, fighting against armed humans would probably be easier than what they faced on a regular basis.

Then he noticed the material piled next to Dean, and what the youngest of their captors was preparing to do with it, and he froze. "No!" he called out, his throat suddenly dry as his escape plans evaporated into the chilly night air.

The older man in the pickup bed looked up. "Don't worry, you'll get your turn," he smirked. "C'mon, Harry, let's wrap him up."

It was too dark to see the expression on Dean's face, but Sam figured he was doing his best to hide panic. Dean had never been fond of enclosed spaces, and Sam could only imagine how much worse it had gotten after waking up in a coffin underground. And now, his body was being rolled over until it was resting on the plastic tarp piled next to him and then slowly wrapped up in the tarp.

A memory suddenly flashed across Sam's eyes, clear as day, of a bitter argument he'd had with Bobby a few days after Dean's death. Once the older man had conceded to Sam's wish of keeping Dean's body intact, he wanted to wrap it in a sheet as a sign of respect, covering up the tattered remains of what the hellhounds had left behind. Sam had fought vehemently against it, arguing that when Dean came back, he was going to have enough trouble getting his way out of the coffin without being wrapped in a shroud. Bobby had told him he was crazy for worrying about that, Sam had snapped back that maybe he was, and the two of them had nearly come to blows before Bobby backed down, more out of concern for Sam's mental state more than anything else.

Now, watching Dean disappear under layers of plastic, Sam couldn't help but think of putting his brother's poor, torn body in a plain wooden box, meticulously noting the location of every wound and every scratch as he did so as a reminder of how he had failed to save him. He remembered closing the lid of the coffin and how long it had taken before he could force himself to tap the nails into the lid, how only the fear of wild animals somehow digging up the remains had enabled him to secure the lid at all.

Suddenly bile rose up in his throat and he staggered forward, hurling the remains of their energy-bar-and-trail-mix dinner all over the dusty gravel of the parking lot.

"Ugh! God, that's disgusting!" the youngest man exclaimed, looking back over his shoulder from his position in the truck and making a face.

As Sam finished retching, he dimly heard his name being called. When he realized it was Dean, muffled by the tarpaulin wrapped around him, he straightened up and weakly called back, "I'm okay, Dean."

"So am I, Sam," came the deliberately reassuring response. Then, a little more hopefully, Dean went on, "Hey, you didn't manage to puke on them, did you?"

He let out a soft snort and closed his eyes, drawing on the strength his brother was lending him. "No, I didn't."

"Dude, try harder next time," came the response.

"Shut up," the red-haired man said, giving Dean a hard thump with his fist through the tarp.

When his turn came, Sam fought only perfunctorily as they forced him into the back of the truck and bound his ankles before immobilizing him in a second piece of plastic. At least it'll keep us warmer, he thought as the world disappeared behind the green tarpaulin. He fought back a wave of vertigo as they rolled him around a few times, trapping him securely with no way of getting to his knife. Damn, they could all ride in the cab of the truck now and it wouldn't make a bit of difference to us.

In fact, that was what happened. From the conversation he could make out through the plastic wrapped around him, no one wanted to be stuck in the back of the pickup in near-freezing temperatures with two guys who weren't going anywhere. In a moment, he felt three bumps as each of the men left the bed of the truck, then three more as they climbed into the cab.

Then the engine started up, and they drove off into the cold night.


OK, first multi-chapter fic in this fandom, so any encouragement to go on would be greatly appreciated…