Disclaimer: I own nothing. No copyright infringement intended.
Thanks go to SnarkyMuch2 for beta'ing this and for reading it even though it made her sad.
This is my take on the season eight finale. I have so many theories of how it could go down, and this is just one of them.
Sam heard the phone ring while he was in the shower. He heard Dean's rumbling voice, and he noted that he sounded upset. He hurriedly rinsed off the soap and stepped out of the cubicle. Wrapping a towel around his waist, he stepped back into the bedroom.
Dean was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at the phone in his hands as if it had just bitten him.
"What's up?" Sam asked.
Dean swallowed thickly. "That was Kevin."
Sam tilted his head to the side. "And?"
Dean looked up at him, and Sam saw something in his expression that told him this was more than a little complication in the tablet. Something big had happened.
"Is Kevin okay?" he asked.
Dean nodded slowly. "He's fine. Riding the pep pill high, but other than that, he's good."
"So, what's got you looking like that?"
"It's the tablet," Dean said. "He's deciphered the last of it."
Sam felt like he had been sucker-punched in the gut. After months of waiting, it was finally happening.
He had completed the second test weeks ago. Kevin had deciphered the tablet, and it had said the champion needed to kill a false god. By pure chance, they had stumbled across a case of what they thought was a zombie, but it turned out it was Prometheus. Sam had killed him using a blessed blade, and the second trial had been completed. Then there had been nothing for weeks. Now this call had come, and it was finally time to face the third and final test.
Dean was still talking, but it was white noise to Sam. All he could hear was the rushing of his pulse in his ears as his heart raced. He had thought he'd made peace with what was happening, but he was wrong.
"Sam! Sammy!" Dean shook his shoulder and Sam's attention snapped to his brother.
"Are you even hearing me?" Dean asked.
Sam looked apologetic. "Sorry. What were you saying?"
"I was asking if you're okay, but you just answered that question for me."
Sam frowned. "I'm okay. It's just a shock is all. It caught me off guard." He sat on the edge of the bed and braced his hands on his knees. "Did Kevin say what it was?"
Dean shook his head. "He said he wants to tell us in person. I'm guessing after all his hard work he's earned himself a dramatic reveal."
Sam nodded. "Okay, then. Let's get ourselves to him and let him have his moment in the spotlight."
Dean gave him an assessing look. "We don't have to do this right now. We can give it a couple of days."
Sam knew that was just prolonging the inevitable. They both known this had to end sometime, and now that time had come around. Whatever was coming next, be it death or worse, it was time.
He stood and began pulling on clean clothes. "Let's just get it over with."
Dean nodded thoughtfully. "I'll go check us out."
As Dean stepped out of the room, Sam paused in his dressing and looked about the room. He wished they were at the bunker. That place felt like home to them, and he would have liked to be there once more before he had to do whatever came next. They weren't there though; they were in a motel in the middle of Illinois, coming down from a werewolf hunt. Sam thought it was ironic that it would probably be his last hunt, something so simple as a silver bullet to the heart. He hadn't even been the one to pull the trigger. That had been Dean's pleasure.
He toweled off his wet hair and pushed it out of his eyes. He packed his clothes away in his duffel and shouldered it then went out to wait by the car for Dean.
The drive to Warsaw, where Garth's boat was housed, didn't take long, and soon they were pulling the car over on the jetty's parking lot.
Dean cut the engine and looked over at Sam. "You sure you're ready for this?" he asked.
Sam ran his hands through his hair. "Honestly, no, I'm not remotely ready, but I don't think I will ever be ready for this. It's better that we get it over and done with though. Maybe it won't be as bad as we are thinking."
Dean shot him a look that spoke volumes. Of course it would be as bad as they were thinking, if not worse. They were Winchesters after all; bad luck was part of the package.
Sam sighed. "Let's get it over with."
He climbed out of the car and walked along the jetty to Garth's boat. He crossed the rough wooden planking onto the dock of the boat. He could hear Dean cursing under his breath as he followed.
"Hey, Kevin, you here, buddy?" Sam called as he jogged down the steps that led into the hull of the boat.
Kevin was seated at the large table that took up most of the hull. He was surrounded by scraps of papers with scrawled words over them, coffee cups, and a two monsters pill bottles. He looked up as Sam came in and smiled a little dopily.
Sam nodded a greeting, and Dean raised a hand.
"So, you've got something to tell us," Dean said.
Kevin nodded a little jerkily. "Sure, yeah, uh, I deciphered the last of the tablet." He was twitching and his eyes darted about the room.
Dean crossed the room and picked up the bottle of pep pills. "How's about I take these off your hands. I'm guessing you've been taking a few too many."
Kevin chuckled. "You may be right. I don't need them anymore anyway. I've done it!" He breathed out in a huff. "I cracked it."
Sam smiled at Kevin's excitement, and an inkling of hope came to him. If Kevin was this wired, it couldn't be all bad news. Maybe the last test wasn't as bad as they were thinking. In spite of himself, he smiled.
"So you said on the phone," Dean said. "Want to fill the rest of us in?"
Kevin's smile faded and he shuffled the pages on the desk awkwardly. "Well, it wasn't easy, and it took a long time, and…"
"We know all this," Dean said a little harshly. "We'll get you a beer to celebrate just as soon as you tell us what you found out."
Kevin nodded and looked up to meet Sam's eye. "Well, the thing is…"
"Dammit, Kevin, talk already!" Dean shouted, making both Sam and Kevin jump.
"You're not going to like it," Kevin said, looking a little scared.
"Kevin, it's fine." Sam stepped forward and clapped him on the shoulder. "Whatever you know, it's not your fault, we understand that, but you need to tell us what it is."
Kevin looked him in the eye and spoke quietly. "The champion most overcome weakness of spirit and make the final sacrifice of himself."
Sam nodded thoughtfully. "I have to die? That makes sense." It was bad but not as bad as he had been imagining. He wasn't afraid of death, not anymore.
"No!" Dean said in a harsh voice. "That doesn't make sense. What kind of bullshit is this? How can him dying be the final test? How is that any kind of price for what we are trying to do? We're saving the world for crap's sake!"
"Dean…" Sam didn't know what to say to his brother. He knew this was harder on him that it was on Sam himself. All he had to do was die; Dean had to go on alone.
"No, Sam!" Dean spat. "I don't want to hear it. We've been here before, before Detroit, and I let you do it once. I'm damned if I'm going to do it again."
"He doesn't have to die," Kevin said softly. "Not exactly."
Sam breathed a sigh of relief. Unafraid of death he might be, but that didn't mean he was itching to pull the curtain on life.
"So what does it mean?" Dean asked, looking like he was one revelation from slugging someone.
Kevin picked up a scrap of paper and read aloud. "The champion must walk freely into the furnace."
Sam exhaled in a gust and sank down onto a free chair. He knew exactly what that meant and exactly where he was heading. He was going back to hell. Now he was scared. He wasn't afraid of death, but he was terrified of Hell.
"What does that mean?" Dean asked in a small voice. He sounded like a child.
"It means I'm going back," Sam said, avoiding his brother's gaze and staring at a spot above his head. He was surprised that his voice came out steady and calm rather than reflecting the internal horror he was feeling. "I've got to walk into hell."
"No!" Dean shouted. "No, no, no, damnit, no! We're not doing this again. No way." He pushed past Kevin and swept the papers lining the table to the floor. They fluttered down like wings, lining the floor with Kevin's scribblings. Then he clawed at the papers covering the walls, tearing them to shreds and throwing them down to join the others. "This is bullshit!"
Sam stood and reached out a hand to halt his brother's rampage. He caught him on the shoulder and turned him, but Dean swung at his with a fierce right hook. Sam staggered back, holding a hand to his painful jaw.
"I'm not doing it." Dean spoke through gritted teeth and turned and jogged up the steps onto the deck of the boat.
"Dean, come back," Sam called after him, but Dean made no response. They could hear him stomping across the wooden planks, and then, a moment later, there was the sound of the Impala's engine roaring to life.
Kevin looked at Sam, and he seemed to want to say something.
Sam nodded to him. "It's okay, Kevin. Whatever you want to say, just say it."
"I'm sorry, Sam," he said, and Sam was embarrassed to see that there were tears in his eyes.
"It's okay. You didn't write the tablet; you just deciphered it."
Kevin nodded, but Sam could see he was still troubled. Sam didn't know what to say to him to make him feel better. Not when he was so distracted by his own tangled thoughts.
He needed to speak to someone, but Kevin was too young. He didn't understand what sentence he had just handed down to Sam. He couldn't understand. Only someone who had been there and seen the flames could understand. The person he needed to speak to had just driven away.
Raising his eyes heavenward, he called to the next best person. "Cas, I need you."
Dean didn't drive far. He needed to be away from Sam, but he couldn't bear to be too far. He just needed a moment to calm himself down, at least that was what he told himself. He didn't want to admit that he had essentially walked away when his brother needed him most. He just couldn't bear to look into Sam's eyes, knowing what he now knew.
He pulled the car at the side of the road and rested his head against the steering wheel. The words he had heard spoken reverberated around his mind, and he fought them away with effort. He didn't want to think of them, not when they were hurting him like this.
He spotted a liquor store on the other side of the street, and he climbed out of the car and crossed the street at a light jog. Liquor was exactly what he needed. If he could drink enough, he could maybe blot out everything he had heard.
The bell above the door jingled as he opened it. A young man was standing behind the register flipping through a magazine. He looked up as Dean entered and smiled. Dean had no smile to return, so he nodded a greeting and made his way to the back of the store. There was a wealth of riches on offer, and he took a moment to decide what he was going to have. He wanted something that would annihilate his ability to think as fast as was possible, but that didn't mean he had to scrimp. He had a brand new credit card that he was going to use for this, and he was going for quality.
He picked up a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and then hesitated. It was true that his drinking capacity had been lessened somewhat since Purgatory, but he still could handle his liquor better than most met. He grabbed another bottle and headed to the register to pay. A minute later, he was stepping out of the store with his purchases wrapped in a paper sack.
He went back to the car and set his purchases down on Sam's usual seat.
He pulled the car out onto the road and drove back to the marina. He wasn't so stupid as to drink and drive, so he planned to park the car within walking distance of the boat. Close enough to make sure Sam didn't make a break for it, but not so close he had to look into his brother's eyes.
He pulled the car to a stop and took the keys out of the ignition and pocketed them. Then he leaned over and grabbed the first bottle out of the paper sack. It was in a red box, and it made him feel good to slip his thumb under the seal, as if he was more than a broken down hunter getting wasted in the middle of the day.
The first sip went down easy, and then it was as if a dam broke inside of him. He gulped at the fiery liquid, feeling it pulse down his throat. He knew he shouldn't do this; he should be inside that boat talking his brother out of this damn fool plan, but he couldn't make himself get out of the car to do it. He wasn't ready to face Sam yet, not until he had a clear plan of how to close the gates of hell without his brother having to sacrifice himself again. Because he couldn't let that happen. He'd done it once. He'd watched his brother throw himself into the pit to defeat Lucifer, and it was the hardest thing he'd ever done. He couldn't go through that again.
Hours passed and darkness came. Dean stayed cosseted away in car, hiding from the world. He finished the first bottle of whiskey, and he was sipping the second when his guest arrived.
One moment he was alone in the car, looking out over the water with blurry eyes, and the next there was a flutter of wings and a dry voice.
"Cas." Dean swigged back another mouthful of whiskey. "I wondered when you'd arrive."
"I was delayed comforting your brother," he said.
"Is he okay?" Dean asked immediately.
"He is resting," Castiel said. "He was most distressed when I arrived. What happened?"
"How much did he tell you?"
"I am aware that Kevin has deciphered the last of the tablet. And that a sacrifice is required of Sam."
Dean huffed. "A sacrifice? Is that what you call it?"
"What else should I call it?"
"Bullshit, that's what! Your dad has serious issues, not only did he sit back and let his kids almost destroy the world in their damn temper tantrum, but now he's expecting Sammy to walk into Hell."
Castiel sighed. "I am aware of my father's failings. Nothing is demanded of Sam though. You can turn away from this path at any moment. There have always been demons in the world, and there is no reason there cannot be in future."
Dean nodded. "You're preaching to the choir here, Cas. I've already been through all this in my head. There's no way Sammy is doing this. I don't care how bad things are, he's not throwing himself back into the pit." Dean wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "No way."
"You are having this conversation with the wrong person," Castiel said. "You need to say these things to your brother."
Dean nodded jerkily. "And I'm gonna."
"So why are you sitting out here alone, drinking yourself into oblivion?"
That was an easy answer; Dean was out here drinking because it was easier than being with his brother knowing he had to talk him down from the cliff. He knew Sam well, and he knew that even now, Sam was making peace with his decision to do this. Dean had to talk him out of it and that was not an easy feat.
He threw open the car door and climbed out. He found he was steady on his feet, despite the amount of alcohol he had drunk. It surprised him, but pleased him at the same time. If he was wavering like the town drunk, there was less chance of Sam taking him seriously.
He had planned on walking back to the boat, but Castiel had other ideas. One moment they were in the parking lot, the next they were in the small cabin room of the boat.
Sam was curled into a ball on the bed, fast asleep. The spot where Dean had punched him earlier had bruised into a dark shadow. Dean felt a pang of guilt for what he had done.
"Should we wake him?" Castiel asked.
"Nah, let's let him sleep," Dean said. "He's better off sleeping."
They walked back into the main room of the boat and Dean sank down in a chair at the table. Kevin was nowhere in sight, and he guessed that he was sleeping too. Checking his watch, he saw that it was past eleven. He had wasted eight hours drinking in the car. He couldn't believe it had been that long. He wondered if Sam thought he was gone for good. He should have been there to comfort his brother instead of drinking alone. Sam needed him, and he had abandoned him.
"What are you thinking?" Castiel asked.
Dean raked a hand over his face. "That I've screwed up again. I should have been here for Sam."
Castiel nodded. "You should. I did my best in your absence, but I am a poor substitute."
"How was he when you got here?"
"He was worried about you. I heard his call, but I was delayed. I only arrived little over an hour ago. The prophet was sleeping, and Sam was alone."
Kevin deserved a rest, he had busted his ass to help them with the tablet, but Dean was disappointed that he had been sleeping while Sam was alone. Dean knew he had no one to blame but himself; he was the one that should have been here.
Castiel cleared his throat. "I believe he had been weeping."
Dean's heart clenched. Sam had been crying. Sam didn't cry, but God knew there was enough for him to be crying about now. He was likely set on the idea that he was returning to hell. Damn, Dean would have been crying, too. His own tour of hell had been bad, and he still had occasional nightmares about it, but Sam's had been much worse and had lasted much longer.
There was the sound of footsteps coming up the hall, and Dean hoped with all his might that it would be Kevin returning, but he was disappointed. Sam stood in the doorway, his hair tousled and his face sleepy.
"You came back," he said.
"Yeah…" Dean rubbed at the back of his neck awkwardly. "Sorry about that. I just needed a minute."
Sam nodded. "I understand. Are you feeling better now?"
"Not particularly," Dean said honestly. "I will though. I've been thinking, and Castiel and I have talked, and we've come to a decision."
Sam looked like he was trying not to laugh. "Let me guess. I'm not doing it?"
"Damn right you're not. There's no need."
"Except there is a need. We've been looking for something like this for as long as I can remember, a way to keep the demons out, and now we've found it."
"No, Dean. I know what you're thinking, and I have been through it all in my head a dozen times. Someone has to do this, and it has to be me. I'm the one that has done the tests, and I'm the only one that can end this."
"I can't let you do this," Dean said in a choked voice.
"You don't have a choice. I'm doing it, with or without your support."
"Why must you do this?" Castiel asked.
"Because this ends it once and for all," Sam said, looking the angel in the eye. "Our family was torn apart because of a demon, and we were not the only one. Countless humans are taken as vessels and their lives are ruined. I can stop that ever happening again."
Dean frowned. Sam's words made sense, and if the sacrifice was demanded of him, he would walk into Hell without a moment's hesitation. But it wasn't him, it was his little brother, and he couldn't let that happen.
"How can you be so calm about this?" he asked. "You know what you're walking into, and it will be worse this time. Not only are you going to hell, you're locking yourself in there. You're closing the gates. Cas won't be able to get you out this time."
"He's right, Sam," Castiel said. "I cannot save you if you seal the doors. There are limits even to a Seraph's powers."
"I know," Sam said simply. "I've thought about this, and I'm still doing it."
"Why, Sammy?" Dean asked. "Why do you have to do this? There have always been demons in the world. Why do we have to stop them now?"
"I'm doing this for Mom," Sam said in a heartfelt tone. "And Jess. And for all the other people like them."
Dean knew, with that statement, that there was no talking his brother out of this. There was nothing Dean wouldn't do for his family, and Sam felt the exact same way. This was revenge for their mother and Jessica. Sam had lost so much because of demons. This was his way to get even once and for all. Though it would come at a terrible price.
Dean wanted to cry and rant and rage against his brother, but he did none of those things. He merely looked into his brother's eyes and asked, "Is there anything I can do?"
Sam smiled sadly. "You can take me there. I need to get to Wyoming."
"I think if I can get to the devil's gate there, I will be able to open it."
"How? We don't have the colt anymore."
"It will open for me," Sam said, no trace of doubt in his tone.
Castiel offered to take them to Wyoming, but Dean refused. He may not be able to talk his brother out of doing this, but he was damned if he was going to let it be over so soon. It was half a day's drive to the devil's gate, and he was going to make every moment last.
So, with a heavy heart, he loaded up the Impala the next morning and waited for his brother to join him at the car, giving him privacy to say goodbye to Kevin alone. Castiel was going to meet them in Wyoming.
Sam crossed the wooden planking and stowed his duffel in the trunk and then climbed into the passenger side of the car.
"You ready to go?" Dean asked.
"As I'll ever be."
Dean started the car and they pulled out onto the road. Steering slowly through the traffic, they got onto the interstate. Dean didn't press the accelerator as much as he usually would have. He was in no rush to get to their destination. He saw Sam casting him sidelong glances, but he didn't comment. Dean guessed he was in no hurry either.
Dean flicked on the radio and scanned through the channels until he came upon a college rock station he knew Sam would like but he would hate. Sam smiled and reached into the back of the car for the box of Dean's cassettes. He pulled out the one labeled Metallica and put it into the cassette player. As the familiar music started, Dean turned to look at his brother.
"Why'd you do that?"
"Because you hate college rock, and it was creeping me out."
"Sorry, I was just trying to…" Dean trailed off, not knowing what to say.
"You were trying to make it good for me," Sam said. "I get that, and I appreciate it, but you don't have to. Can we just pretend this is a day like any other and we are driving to another case?"
Dean frowned. He didn't know how he was supposed to do that when it wasn't any other day. He was driving his brother to Wyoming so he could throw himself into Hell for the second time. It was literal hell for him to be making this journey, when what he really wanted to do was turn the car around and head in the opposite direction.
"Please, Dean," Sam said in a quiet voice. "Just pretend for me."
Dean looked over and he saw that's Sam's hands were fisted in his lap. He was taut with tension, and Dean realized that as hard as this was on him, it was a hundred times worse for Sam. He was facing Hell and he was doing it with more grace and bravery than Dean was capable of. If Sam wanted to pretend it was a normal day, then Dean was going to grant his wish.
He cranked the radio up harder and grinned as Sam winced. This was normal.
They came across a small town called Hemingford in Nebraska, and they stopped there for lunch. It was a quiet affair. Dean was struggling with all the things he thought he should be saying, but knew his brother didn't want to hear. They had a pretense to keep up.
When they arrived in Wyoming, Castiel was waiting for them at the old cowboy's cemetery. It seemed ironic to Dean that once again he was in a cemetery preparing to watch his brother sacrifice himself.
"You sure this is going to work, Sammy?" he asked, hoping in his heart that the doors would stay firmly closed.
"I'm sure," Sam said.
Dean pulled the car to a halt, and with reluctance, he climbed out of the car. Sam climbed out and strode towards Castiel where he was waiting at the doors.
Castiel smiled sadly as Sam approached and held out a hand to him. "Sam."
Sam shook his hand. "Thanks, Cas, for everything."
Castiel looked back at Dean and smiled. "I will take care of him this time. I promise."
Sam smiled. "I know you will."
He turned to Dean and Dean took a step back. He didn't want Sam to speak, because to speak would be to say goodbye, and he wasn't ready for that. He wanted to grab Sam and drag him away from this place, to somewhere safe. He wanted to turn the clock back to the day Sam killed the hellhound, he wanted to throw himself in the hound's path and take the blood himself. More than anything, he wanted to stop this tragedy from happening.
"It's okay, Dean," Sam said softly. "It's going to be okay."
Dean shook his head. "You don't have to do this."
Dean lurched forward and threw his arms around his brother in a tight embrace. He clung to the back of his jacket remembering the few embraces they had shared over the years. The last of which had been the day they reunited after Dean returned from Purgatory. He wished there had been more, but it was too late now.
Sam patted his back gently and then pulled away. "You've got a lot of work ahead of you. I'm closing the gates, but there are still going to be demons out here. You have to track them all down and kill them.
Dean nodded. "You know I will."
"And if you come across that son of a bitch Crowley, make his death slow and painful."
Dean forced a smile. "You know it."
Sam patted his arm. "I'll see you, Dean."
That was the problem. Dean would never see his brother again. Once he stepped through those doors, it would be the end. There was no returning this time. He knew why his brother was saying this though, he didn't want to say goodbye, and Dean didn't want him to. He feared the words would break him.
Sam took a deep breath and turned away from Dean. "I guess this is it then."
Dean raised a hand as if to grab his brother again, and then he let it drop back to his side. He couldn't stop him, as much as he wanted to. He had to let his brother do this.
Sam walked towards the mausoleum and raised a hand. As his palm touched the door, there was a clicking sound as the lock unlatched. The door opened a crack and Sam curled his fingers around the door. He dragged it open, pulling heavily on it. Dean started towards him, preparing to help, but Castiel gripped his arm.
"He must do this alone, Dean."
Dean nodded jerkily and watched Sam wrench open the door. Behind the door they caught a glimpse of a fierce glow, and Dean knew it was the fires of hell burning.
"Sam!" he shouted. "Don't do this!"
Sam turned and smiled. "Bye, Dean."
Sam stepped around the open door and through it without looking back. The second his foot crossed the threshold, the door slammed shut behind him.
Dean lurched forward, not knowing what he was going to do, but unable to stop himself. He reached the door and he tried to wrench it open, but it would not shift. His fists hammered on the doors and he bellowed his brother's name, but of course nothing happened. The doors remained resolutely closed.
Dean's knees buckled as the weight of what had happened settled over him and he knelt of the floor.
Tears pooled in his eyes and slid down his cheeks. He made no attempt to halt their flow; instead, he relished in the feeling of release it gave him. It was some small slave to his aching heart.
He rested his forehead against the cool metal separating him from his brother and felt a shudder work through him.
Sam was gone, and this time he wasn't coming back.
Dean placed a hand flat on the door, imagining Sam doing the same on the other side.