Sam knows there's one secret he has to keep. He won't tell Dean. He won't tell Ruby. He won't tell anyone.
Not long after Dean came back from Hell, Sam rediscovered an old ability. It came in the form of a sudden headache, a stabbing pain shooting in through his eyes straight to the back of his head as if his skull had been cleaved in two. It wasn't the same sort of headache as the frequent hangovers he'd experienced during Dean's absence, nor was it a result of tampering with his demon purging activities. This was a familiar pain nonetheless. Seconds later his suspicion was confirmed. He was having a vision.
It was different from the visions of old, wherein the scenes unfolded with perfect clarity, events running through his mind in a linear fashion like he was watching a video. This vision was jerky, jumpy, stabbing him in staccato fashion with bits and pieces of images that made no sense to him. He came out of it breathless and completely unsure of what exactly he'd seen, but it was a vision, he was sure of that.
Twice more it's come to him, and this latest, the third, has just ended. He's worked hard to hone his ability to control them, studying what he could about clairvoyance and foresight, hiding it all from both Ruby and Dean. He borrowed books from Bobby and lied about his purpose. The old man was suspicious, but said nothing, at least not to Sam. There is a lack of trust all around. Sam no longer trusts anyone, especially not another Hunter, no matter what their relationship.
The hunter had become the hunted.
Sam runs his hands through his hair and bows his head. What side anyone choses won't matter in the end. It will all come out the same way, the way it was destined to be the very moment Mary Winchester chose to make a deal with a demon. Someone would live, and someone would die. Until the visions came, no one knew how it would play out in the very end, not even Chuck the Prophet. Sam knows now. He's seen the final act in all its gory details. What he saw, what answers were revealed, somehow didn't surprise him.
Research told him it is rare for a clairvoyant to predict their own death. However, Sam knows from experience the supernatural doesn't always play by the rules. The visions prove it. With his newly sharpened skills he'd managed to capture the last two, slow them down, and bend them to his will. He'd tuned in on the future and watched it unfold before him frame by frame by frame. Now he must live with the consequences of what he's seen.
At least now he knows Lilith will not succeed with her plans – no matter what choices Sam makes. She will die. In one vision it is Dean who takes her life, cutting her throat with Ruby's knife. In another vision it is Sam himself, forcing her out of the body she's stolen, and banishing her to the deepest, darkest depths of Hell from which there is no escape; a death sentence for demons. In both visions she dies, but not before she breaks the last seal.
And yet, there is no Lucifer. Hell does not rise. There will be no Apocalypse. The door opens, and then quickly closes once more. There's no one from this side of the void there to witness it, but in his vision Sam will know. He'll feel it. He'll sense the seething fury of those imprisoned behind that door and understand it is directed at him. They'll make him pay. They'll make him pay dearly.
There's whiskey, and he needs it – badly. He makes his way to the bag they brought in from the car. Dean's never without whiskey these days. Hell's made him a certified alcoholic. Looking back over his shoulder Sam can see his brother asleep on one of the beds, his brow creased and his hands twitching, caught up in some horrific dream. He won't wake. Earlier Sam had watched him drink himself to sleep. It will be hours before consciousness returns, bringing with it a hangover and a sullen silence.
Sam takes the bottle and a plastic motel cup and sits back down at the table. He pours himself a shot, and then another. He drinks alone. From the bed there is a whimper, and a growl low in the throat. Dean flinches and rolls over, curling in upon himself as if anticipating a blow.
"Like a beaten dog," Sam whispers, and toasts to Dean's nightmare – the bitch. You can't kill a dream, you can't kill a memory, but you sure as hell can kill the one who put them in your brother's head in the first place.
Sam pours himself another drink. He knows which vision of her death will be the one that finds fruition. He's been savoring it for more than a year now. He can't let go of the obsession, the desire to have her head on a pike, and sometimes wonders if it isn't driving him more than a little crazy. The memories are unshakable. The sounds are the most tenacious of them, more so than the visuals. They haunt him day and night - Dean's agonized screams, the roar of the Hell Hound, his own shrill pleas for mercy....
And Lilith giggling through it all.
His teeth grind. "I'm going to tear you apart, bitch."
Lilith. It's not entirely fair to blame her exclusively for everything that's happened to them, she's only the most recent player to come onto the field. The blame could be spread out among many. From the core, Azazel, poisoned tentacles stretch out to taint Mary, and John, Dean and Sam himself. All of them have made mistakes, dumb-ass choices. It didn't matter. They're all cursed, every one of them, and every one looking for an out. Sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice and for what?
"Protect Sammy. Save Sammy. Poor little Sammy."
Sam snorts. A lot of good it's done. Mary dead, John dead, Dean completely fucked up, and little Sammy dead despite it all.
He dies just like before, on the blade of a knife plunged deep in his back. His visions allowed him to be both within and beyond the action. He watched the knife slip through flesh, slice through nerves and blood vessels, scrape against bone. He felt the blood moving through his body into places it shouldn't be, drowning out his life. He heard his heart stop.
Dean's bloodstained hands shake uncontrollably. He's in shock, realizing just what he's done.
Deep down in the very bowels of Hell a door slams shut.
Sam freezes, hand and glass poised midway between table and mouth.
"You know what you're doing, don't you?" he says softly.
It isn't a prayer, he hasn't prayed in months, nearly a year, but the question is directed at God. He doesn't know why he bothers. He finds it difficult to believe after all he's been through, all he's seen, all he's heard. Is there really a God, or are prayers nothing but an exercise in futility; human whining and wheedling set loose upon the universe like so much Internet Spam? Did the angels pass them around among each other for their own entertainment?
"Forward this message to seven other angels and you will be rewarded with a secret cookie recipe....."
Delete, delete, delete. None of Sam's prayers were ever answered, none of them, especially not the one that really counted. If it had Dean wouldn't be lying there on the bed, drugged senseless by Jack Daniels, and moaning in his sleep. He wouldn't have gone to Hell in the first place.
"Prayer had nothing to do with anything. He wasn't saved, not really. It isn't a blessing." Sam swallows the burning whiskey and sets the glass back down on the table. "You sorry sons-of-bitches. You brought him back to make him do your dirty work."
It is a harsh reality. You don't make your own destiny. Humans are nothing but pawns, at best, weapons wielded by players from both sides of a war that has been going on since the beginning of time.
In both visions Lilith dies. In both visions so does Sam.
Sam closes his eyes and can see it unfold again. He hears his brother's broken whisper....
If there is something positive to be said about his impending death, it is that it won't hurt him much. His vision shows him a blood stained overcoat, and a pale hand upon his chest that draws away the pain. Castiel can offer him that much, but only as long as he lives. It won't be long before his spirit leaves his body, and after that, the angel can spare him nothing. No surprise there. Sam's moments of peace are never long lived.
He opens his eyes at the sound of something rustling in the darkness. A glance toward the bed reveals Dean still sleeping. A glance toward the door reveals the shadowy shape of a man. It is a man in silhouette only. Sam recognizes the shape. Nobody else could have gotten past him.
"God send you?" he asks, not bothering to hide the sarcasm.
Castiel steps away from the door, moving further into the dim light being broadcast from the lamp hanging over the table. In a human-like gesture he pulls out a chair, sits down, and reaches for the whiskey bottle. His motions are slow and deliberate as he peels the paper wrapping from another plastic cup. Sam pours him a shot, half smiling at the thought of a drunken angel crashing into someone's picture window, wings askew.
"No," Castiel says softly.
Sam raises an eyebrow. Dean has told him what intel he gleaned from Anna upon the nature of angels. They aren't free spirits. Castiel has no reason to be here. "I take it your grace is intact."
"Don't believe all you hear, especially from Anna." Castiel tips back the whiskey with a grimace. A second shot is declined. His blue eyes are cold and accusing."I know what you've seen."
Sam's first instinct is to tell the angel to get the fuck out of his head. Instead he simply smiles bitterly into his glass. "So it's true. God wants Dean to kill me."
"No sugar-coating it with you people is there?"
"No." Castiel toys with his cup for a moment, his eyes downcast. When he raises them the expression there is honest, frank. "Your death, it's the only way, Sam."
"The only way?" Sam pours himself yet another drink, now starting to feel the buzz. He'll probably regret it later. Doesn't care. Keeps drinking. "The only way for what?"
"To save the world. To save your brother." The angel's voice lowers to the softest of whispers. "But you need to know - your prayers could be answered, if only you have faith."
Sam doesn't bother to hide his disgust. "Well I don't. I don't believe in prayer, Cas. I prayed before. I prayed every goddamn day and just look what that got me."
Cas sets his glass down with soft "clink." He glances over at the bed. Dean has grown quiet. Castiel's presence works better than the alcohol to chase away his nightmares. Seemingly satisfied his charge sleeps peacefully, the angel turns his attention back to Sam. "It's a noble sacrifice."
"I don't give a fuck. I'm sick of sacrifices."
Castiel continues without pause. "Only Dean can restore the seals, Sam."
"By stabbing me in the back?"
"By sacrificing the thing he cherishes the most. By spilling the blood of his own brother in a rite older than time itself. Do you know what will happen if you were to live, Sam?"
"Is that even an option?"
"You'll kill Lilith...."
"That's the plan." Sam hears himself beginning to slur his words ever-so-slightly. He pours again anyway.
"And Lucifer will walk free," Castiel concludes bluntly.
Pausing in mid pour, Sam realizes the angel doesn't know everything. He doesn't know all of what Sam's seen, no details, just generalizations. Castiel's source had to have been Chuck, who has a penchant for sappy melodrama and badly written sex scenes full of cliché designed purely to entertain his readers. He's a writer first and foremost. Someone needs to inform him that creative license doesn't pertain to God's Prophecies.
God, or whoever was calling the shots up there.
Sam voices the opinion that has recently been looking more and more like truth. "I don't believe in Lucifer," he says roughly. "I don't believe in God. There's no higher power, Castiel, you're just following the orders of a bunch of celestial bureaucrats who don't want the big secret to get out because it might cost them their cushy upper management positions. Got to keep the laborers ignorant, dependent on the corporate teat for their weekly pittance. String them along with empty promises, give them false hope, inspire faith in gods that don't exist, all so they'll stay docile and obedient." Sam tightens his fingers around his glass, stopping just shy of shattering it. "I know how to play the game, Cas. I spent four fucking years wasting my time learning it at Stanford."
"You have lost your faith."
"Noooo?" Putting his glass down, Sam turns to give the angel a mocking, wide-eyed stare. "Really? What gave you that idea?" He drinks. The booze loosens his tongue. "I know the truth, Castiel. Angels and demons, you were all human once, but you don't remember, you don't want to remember. You're too wrapped up in the manipulation game. Who can collect the most human souls? Where we go in the end - that's the only choice we humans are allowed to make on our own, and even then it's all smoke and mirrors. Angels or demons, who was the most convincing, who pulled the right strings? What do you believe in? Heaven? Hell? Whatever it is, that's what you get." Sam pours more whiskey, too far gone to stop now. "But there is no Heaven. There's no Hell. They aren't real places, they don't really exist." He taps a finger against his temple. "It's all up here. Just like fucking Dorothy. There's no place like home, right?"
Castiel is silent, waiting. He knows Sam isn't finished.
"I believed once. I made my choice. I've never told anyone, but I remember it, just like Dean, I remember. I had everything I could have ever wanted. I didn't have to look over my shoulder all the time, jumping at shadows. The shitload of angst I've been lugging around with me all my life was gone. For the first time in my life I didn't have to worry about anything, anything at all. I was fucking happy, Cas." Sam thumbs the tears out of his eyes. He's spilled alcohol on his hands. It stings, makes things worse. "I had that, for nearly a month I had it, before I got dragged back to this fucking mess of a life again." His tone is bitter, and he knows he'll be misunderstood. "Dean got forty years in Hell. I didn't even get forty days in Heaven. That's jacked up."
"You can't blame Dean," Castiel says, straying close to being patronizing, straying close to pissing Sam off completely.
"I don't blame Dean. I blame the demons who fucked with my family in the first place, and the angels who sat on their asses and let it happen because we're nothing to you but the pieces on your goddamn game board!" As quickly as it came, Sam's anger flows away like serenely swirling eddies following a crashing wave. His voice steadies, softens. "It goes around and around and around again – the Winchester sacrifice, and where it stops nobody knows." Sam laughs. He's officially drunk now. "I do. I know where it stops." Raising a hand he thumps himself on the chest. "The buck stops here."
Castiel sighs. "I won't deny it."
"You'll convince Dean there is a God." Sam says it like it's fact. It is fact. He's seen it. "He's a soldier, Cas, a grunt like you. Obey orders – it's the only thing he knows. The man can't piss without someone telling him when, where and how. That's how fucked up he is, that's what Dad did to him. He followed Dad's orders all his life. In Hell he followed Alastair's lead, and now...." Sam gestures with his nearly empty glass, as if making a toast. "He'll follow God." The last of the whiskey slides past his lips. "I won't, Castiel. I can't. Not anymore."
"You've never been a follower," Castiel agrees.
"That's what has given you strength." The angel pauses, fixes Sam with an intense gaze that is not far from pleading. "Don't take the dark path, Sam."
Sam ignores him. "I just want one thing. One." He holds up his index finger, abandoning the glass upon the table. "One thing, Cas."
"And what's that?"
"If I end up in Hell, don't tell him, ever."
Castiel is understandably hesitant. He makes no decisions independent of God's will, or what he perceives as God's will. "I won't lie."
"I'm not asking you to lie."
"A sin of omission is still a sin."
Sam snarls, leaning forward bang his fist on the tabletop. "Do you like torturing my brother or something? If you tell him he's sent me to Hell you'll be no better than Alastair. I've been in that position before, remember? Knowing I'm there, realizing what is happening to me, will tear him up." Sitting back, he runs trembling fingers through his hair. "I want the angels to win this hand, Cas. Let Dean keep his faith. He deserves it. I don't care if you have to fucking lie, lie."
"Sam. You don't have to...."
"Yes I do!"
Castiel stops abruptly.
"You can't ask Dean to save the world." Sam looks up at the angel, who, remarkably, seems genuinely concerned. "He can't understand the kind of sacrifice you're asking for, and even if he does, I don't think he'll be able to go through with it."
"But you do," Castiel's tone is matter-of-fact. "Understand."
Nodding, Sam toys wearily with his empty glass. "If you want him to kill me, he has to have a damn good reason." His shoulders tighten, his jaws and fists clench. "And I want Lilith."
"This will lead you to Hell, Sam. You must know that."
Sam looks back over his shoulder at the bed where Dean has remained sleeping, oblivious of the discussion going on around him. They'd made enough noise to wake him despite the alcohol he'd consumed. Sam suspects Castiel has something to do with that, as well as the cessation of his brother's nightmares.
"I know." Sam rests his head on the table, suddenly weary to the bone, suddenly too drunk to care about anything anymore. His head is pounding. He wants to be left alone. "But it's got to end, Cas, and I'm going to end it, no matter what it takes." Turning his face into his arms his voice becomes slightly muffled. "Funny. It was Azazel who had it right."
"Had what right?" Castiel whispers.
"I was meant to lead them, so I will. I'll make my own way down there, climb the corporate ladder, keep 'em off my back. I'm not afraid of Hell. I'll be okay, Cas....I'll be....okay.... Just don't tell Dean, please don't tell Dean."
If Castiel replies, Sam doesn't hear it, and it takes him a while to realize this.
When he finally looks up a moment later, he is startled to see more time has passed than it should have. The answer is simple - he'd passed out. Not surprisingly Castiel is gone. Dean hasn't moved. The whiskey is gone too and Sam is still wasted despite his short nap. He's reminded of the futility of drowning one sorrows in alcohol. He's not nearly as numb as he wants to be, but then he really can't spare the time for it either. There's work he has to do, another addiction he has to feed.
He staggers to his feet and makes his way to the door, snagging his room key and phone from atop the television as he passes. As drunk as he is, he's surprised he makes it out the door without waking Dean and everyone else in the motel. He's already thinking about what excuse he'll use if Dean is awake when he comes back. A long time ago he convinced himself his brother is that gullible. Deep down he knows better. Dean sees right through him.
The night air is cool, somewhat sobering. Sam leans against the nearest solid object – the Impala, parked in front of their room – and makes a phone call. It takes him a couple of tries to get the number right. There's no way he's driving. He's seriously fucked up.
"Ruby. You'll have to pick me up," he says.
She starts to give him some shit for being trashed and he hangs up on her. He doesn't doubt that she'll come anyway, he's too valuable to her. For what reason he still doesn't know – and doesn't care. He's using her as much as she's using him. Dean fell for one of his lies anyway; Sam doesn't trust Ruby, not at all. She's just a tool, a means to an end.
"Demon assisted suicide. That's a new one." Sam puts his hands in his pockets and sighs.
It's quiet and cold, too cold, and it isn't all about the weather. There is an eerie chill in the air, some palpable tension much like a guitar string stretched to the breaking point. Upon the striking of just the right chord, the string will snap, and the music will come to an end. That's what it feels like. After some thought he recognizes this feeling for what it really is - the calm before the storm.
"Liar," he whispers to himself, and hunches his shoulders further down in his jacket, shivering with more than the cold. "You're such a fucking liar."
He's scared, more frightened than he's ever been before at any point in his life. He understands now what it's like to have the clock counting down to midnight and Hell Hounds on their way. The only difference is that Sam's clock is erratic and unpredictable – it's in Lilith's hands - and the instrument of his death sleeps in the bed next to his own every night. With each seal that Lilith breaks, the hands on the clock move forward. With every tick of the clock, the rift between himself and his brother grows wider. It won't be long before it becomes insurmountable.
Sam senses her long before he hears the rumble of an engine approaching, a clue to how far he's sunk already. He's ready for her, more than ready. She pulls up next to the Impala and it strikes him as ironic that she shares Dean's taste in cars. He doesn't know where or how Ruby came up with the muscle car she drives, and doesn't want to know.
She's pissed at him. He could care less. She'll get over it. He deserves to be cut a little slack. He hasn't been drunk like this in months.
Besides, he's after a different high now, one that will burn away all the alcohol in his blood and satisfy both of them. He craves it now. Once they're out of sight of the motel he'll ask her to pull over somewhere. He's already got a hard on. Sex should appease her, but she'll only get it if she gives him what he wants first.
As he turns his head toward her he catches a glimpse of himself in the rear view mirror. His eyes glitter with a faint flicker of fire, something he's seen there before, despite his growing aversion to mirrors. He barely recognizes the man who scowls back at him anymore, but then, that's a good thing. In those final hours Dean can't look at him and see his little brother, only the monster he's come to destroy.
"If I didn't know you, I'd want to Hunt you."
They've passed through town. The highway is deserted.
Sam doesn't have to say anything. Ruby pulls off the main road onto a narrow dirt track carved out alongside a farmer's field and kills the headlights. In the shadows beneath a row of trees, the car is all but invisible. He's tense with anticipation, longing for her in more ways than one, but despite himself, he flinches from her first touch. He always thinks it will be cold, but it isn't. Her flesh is warm; so is the blood running through her veins.
Wordlessly, she presses the hilt of slim stiletto into his palm. He holds it tight in his fist as she pushes up her sleeve. Together they watch the sharp blade bite deep into pale white skin, her hand guiding his. They cut deep, but it's Sam who moans softly when blood starts to flow.
In the darkness her blood is black, as black as her eyes, as black as the stain spreading across his soul. A single drop breaks free from the wound to roll down her arm where it pauses at the end of her index finger. It swells, growing heavier, and when it finally falls he catches it on the tip of his tongue. It's bitter and sweet, like dark chocolate, like life. A single drop is not enough. His lips follow the stream of blood up her arm back to the source where the dark elixir flows like water over his tongue and down his throat. Later, during sex, Ruby will lick the evidence from his lips, and distract him from feeling the inevitable guilt for what he's done.
He has to ask himself sometimes why he feels any guilt at all. His choices have already been dictated by fate. His visions do not lie. He's Hell's bitch for sure now, a pawn among many, but he's ready now to accept it. He'll play both villain and sacrifice in his brother's heroic tale....
And together they'll save the world.