As Sam drifted back into wakefulness after an uncomfortable, hot and fretful night's sleep, he gradually began to wish he hadn't. He felt dirty, about as dirty and rancid as he had ever felt. He itched and ached all over from sleeping on a thin, lumpy mattress that appeared to be composed as much of horse-dung and insects as it was of straw and worst of all, he stunk; absolutely reeked. He was sure he'd dug up corpses that smelled fresher than he did right now.
He was beginning to wish that Dean hadn't been quite so forceful in sending away the unfortunate slave who had timidly ventured into their cell yesterday with a pitcher of scented oil and a strigil hanging on his belt. When Eric had quietly explained what the slave was intending to do with his tools, Dean's outraged punch had sent the poor man flying, together with oil and strigil, back out the way he came without troubling to open the door first.
But the worst thing about waking up on this particular morning was the look on Dean's face.
At first, Sam was mildly concerned that Dean didn't seem to be in any better shape than he did. The musk of perspiration hung heavy over him, his hair clung limply to his sweat-dampened forehead, framing a face which looked gaunt, bloodlessly grey with a faint patina of grime and bruising. What alarmed Sam the most, however, was the look of bone-cold, frozen horror that had glazed Dean's eyes as they stared blankly at him. Had Dean been sitting awake all night watching him? He looked so exhausted and crushed, it seemed a distinct possibility. His lips were slightly parted, as if he was about to speak but something, fear or confusion perhaps, had stolen his voice.
"Dude," Sam asked hesitantly, sitting up slowly and painfully; "what's wrong."
Dean took a deep breath, running his tongue over his dry lips as he held out his hand to Sam. Taking what was offered, Sam looked down at a crumpled, ash-stained scrap of paper.
He looked up to Dean and his eyes asked the question.
"Read it," croaked Dean, gesturing toward the paper with a shaking hand.
Sam unscrewed the note and began to read, sucking in a sharp breath as he read the first word.
Wide eyes looked up at Dean, "Bobby," he gasped, almost daring to feel relieved; "where'd this come from?"
"I found it under my mattress," Dean replied hastily, not caring about the details; "read it," he choked.
Sam read on, knowing full well that Dean was studying every nuance of his facial expression as he did so. By the time he reached the end of the hastily scribbled note, he was wearing an expression of dread that perfectly matched Dean's.
"Of course," he muttered under his breath; "it makes perfect sense. It's just like Eric said; the ones that achieve this honour will earn their freedom – but unless we're both in the same fight, that's only going to happen to one of us."
"Perhaps Bobby's wrong," Dean gasped, pointing to the note; the empty hope in his words was heartbreaking. He didn't believe it any more than Sam did.
Sam shook his head; "dude, this is Bobby," He replied dismissively; "you know he'd never put us in a position of harm unless there was totally no alternative. He'd have turned the world upside down looking for answers before he sent us this message."
Dean looked into his lap and sighed. He knew Sam was right; Bobby would have moved heaven and earth to seek any solution other than this.
"I can't do it Sam;" he stated flatly; "I've spent my entire life protecting you and now the only way we can survive this crap is to try to kill each other. It's like a goddamn nightmare."
Sam scraped a hand through his hair. "I dunno Dean, it might not come to that; we've sparred together all our lives. We can practically read each others' minds when it comes to fighting; we might be able to fake it somehow."
"You don't get it, do you?" Dean snapped; "that was sparring and wrestling. Play fighting. This is real; they're gonna give us weapons, swords and knives and shit, and they'll expect us to use them," he pulled in a deep breath, struggling to keep his composure. "These guys have fought all their lives, they watch these fights every day; they'll know what's real and what's fake. Nothing less than a fight to the death will satisfy these sonsofbitches."
Sam tried to remain calm; he could see Dean was close to the edge, and if he were to be honest with himself, so was he. "Okay, we give each other a couple of nicks then," Sam suggested; "draw a bit of blood, give them what they want. Eric says they stop a lot of fights before anyone gets killed otherwise they lose too many gladiators and then it gets expensive and time-consuming; if we fight well enough and long enough, I'm sure they'd do that, an' even if they didn't, there's nothing on earth they could do to us that would make us kill each other." He shrugged; "and if that's not good enough for them then, I dunno, we'll just have to find another way."
"Of course, there's no guarantee we'll get pitted against each other," he added; "we'd have to engineer it."
"Don't bother," Dean snapped; "there's lots of good fighters here; earn your freakin' freedom fighting against one of them. I'd rather spend the rest of my days rotting here than earn mine knowing I had to hurt or, god forbid, kill you to do it."
Sam pinched the bridge of his nose, and sucked in a long deep breath, feeling his exasperation bubbling under the surface. "No way, dude; don't you talk like this, don't you dare. You're fighting me. We're going to get back to our ordinary lives. They might not be much to shout about, but they're better than this crap." He pulled in a few deep breaths in an attempt to compose himself; "do you think I wanna fight you, hurt you?" he snorted; "no, 'course I don't - but if it means we get our lives back, then I'll do it, and if you're pissed at me about it, you're welcome to kick my ass into next week when we get back to Bobby's."
"You might have to get in line after him though," Sam added.
Dean opened his mouth to speak but Sam continued regardless.
"There's no way I'm going to try to get back to my life knowing that I'm leaving you rotting here waiting to be carved up by some asshole with a big sword," Sam railed; "no dude, if you wanna go all touchy-feely pacifist on me, then I'm staying too."
Dean's face tightened in petulant anger as his head drooped; "but Sam what …"
Sam cut him off. "What, why … nothing." You stay, I stay. You want me to earn my freedom? You've gotta fight me and hurt me; and I've gotta do the same to you."
Dean looked up and Sam could see tears of frustrated anger and bone-cold fear shining in his eyes. "I hate you," he snorted bitterly, his jaw clenching in unspoken fury.
"Good," Sam replied airily; "that'll help to make it a bit more convincing."
A long, tense silence settled between the two men; it was eventually Dean that spoke up, keeping his voice to a whisper.
"What about Eric?" he asked, gesturing toward the third man in the cell with his head, relieved to be able to change the subject.
Sam turned to stare at the sleeping figure, burrowed against the wall in the corner; "we'll see he's okay, won't we?" He looked up at Dean, pleading silently for reassurance.
Dean nodded, forcing a shaky smile that fell well short of his eyes; "yeah, we'll figure something out …"
"Figure what out?
Both Winchesters looked up sharply as a weary voice sounded from the other side of the cell. There was a rustle as Eric stirred, and sat up to look over at his two cell-mates.
Sam abruptly screwed the piece of paper into his fist and smiled weakly; "Oh, uh nothing much, he smiled, glancing across to Dean for some support; "just trying to figure out …"
"… trying to figure out how to get our asses out of this dump," Dean interrupted.
Eric shrugged and stretched the kinks out of his neck after the same sort of long, hot uncomfortable night that both brothers had endured.
He sat, blinking blearily, squinting through the gloom of the cell at the comings and goings of slaves and other fighters on the other side of the heavy grating; concentrating on something that seemed to have captured his attention.
"Have you figured anything out yet?" He asked, scooting over toward the brothers after a few moments.
Dean shook his head, "working on it," he sighed, flicking a knowing glance at Sam.
"Well," Eric replied, an icy fear sharpening his voice; "you'd better figure something out soon. I was just listenting to those slaves over there." His head swivelled between the two brothers shooting them a look of abject terror; "we're making our debut in the arena this afternoon."