It’s Jack, hands pressed to the bloody self-made opening in his chest, who notices first.
“Sam,” he says as Sam grips his shoulders, ready to rush him outside and figure out where they are; head home if they’re close, to a hospital if not. “Lucifer’s vessel. He’s still alive.”
Sam freezes. He turns almost in slow motion, needing every extra second he can get to steel himself to look back upon the body that he’s so long associated with… with the thing that has shaped and shattered his life since he was six months old.
He can tell instantly that Jack is right. Its… his face is contorted in a grimace, limbs twitching where they lie splayed on the floor of the church. The blood on his shirt spreads like his heart is still beating.
“Get him,” Jack says, stepping away from Sam. He’s pulling out his phone. “I’ll call Mary.”
What’s he going to say? We don’t have time? You’re hurt?
Both of those are true, but not so true that they obscure the simple fact that, in his heart, Sam isn’t a good person. Hasn’t been since he tasted demon blood. Maybe he was born bad.
Because he knows Jack is right, the man on the ground is an innocent; and he knows just as well that if Jack wasn’t here, or if it had been Sam who noticed first, Sam would have left him to die without a second thought.
“I’m not hurt as bad as him,” Jack insists. His legs are shaking, but he’s still standing. “I didn’t stab that deep. He’s human, Sam. We can’t let him…”
He doesn’t really remember what Jack says after that. He knows Jack learns they’re just over the border, in Nebraska. He vaguely remembers ordering Jack to keep pressure on his wound. But most of his thoughts have fled out of his body and into the blank Somewhere that his mind has turned to since those earliest days in the Cage, the empty place where Lucifer can’t hurt him quite as bad.
He presses his own shirt down onto the wound his brother made, keeping his mind as far away as he can so that the memories of the last time his flesh was in contact with this body can’t come as close.
He comes back to Earth when his Mom and Bobby and a few of the refugees show up, and he has to tell them what happened even as he’s picking up the vessel and carrying it – carrying him into the car. Gets a bit more grounded when the body and Jack are in the infirmary and he needs his hand steady to paint sigils on the walls of one of the few empty bedrooms left (because a dungeon’s no place to put a man that injured he says to Mom because he knows it’s true and he feels like he has to, not because he cares).
Telling the others what’s happened pulls him even closer into the present. Having to stare at their horrified eyes and slack jaws as they learn that the thing that ravaged their world now has free rein of their sanctuary just makes it all the harder for him to run away.
But it’s not until one of them asks, “So, what do we do now?” and all eyes turn to him for an answer that his foothold on the world becomes permanent, as he realizes they all expect him to lead. And a leader can’t run away. A leader can’t go curl up in his room and let his mind float off into an empty, open nowhere just because he’s using his own resources to take care of the form of the thing that has made him hurt in ways he never knew a person could hurt.
He takes a deep breath, and he forces himself to pretend to be the man they think he is.
The first time he goes to check on the vessel he can only stay a minute before he flees to the bathroom, hands shaking so badly he can barely lock the door behind him. He wretches, but nothing comes up (when was the last time he ate?).
He knows how weak the vessel is, that there’s a good chance he won’t pull through (a fact he mostly blocks out, unwilling to face the potential implications of what it says about Dean). But seeing him lying there, no matter how weak it looked, how fragile—
The devil is the father of lies, after all. And Sam wouldn’t put it past him to be playing, to shoot up suddenly with red eyes and a smirk and a “Hiya, Sam,” before going back to the torments his soul spent hundreds of years enduring.
He can’t believe that it’s over. That he’s really, permanently free from Lucifer. It’s never that easy.
Forehead pressed against the porcelain rim, Sam does his best not to think.
He runs into Cas as he exits the bathroom two hours later with his hands shoved deep in his pockets so the shaking doesn’t show. Cas pauses and stares at him with that look in his mind that reminds Sam how old he must be, and how tired. His eyes flicker to the door of the room where the vessel is being kept. When they return to Sam they still look tired, but there’s a deep, sympathetic understanding there too. Cas knows what he went through; he made Sam’s pain his own.
He doesn’t say anything, or ask if Sam’s all right. He just nods and keeps on walking, and Sam is more grateful for that than he can really express.
His name is Nick. He tells an elaborate story about being tricked by Lucifer (what else is new) with visions of his dead wife and child. He says he doesn’t really remember anything, staring at Sam with a guileless expression that, logically, Sam knows is probably sincere, but in which he can’t help seeing an undertone of cunning, of malice.
(Sam can only remember flashes of Lucifer’s true form, the worst of the memories taken away by Cas. So when he has nightmares, it’s Nick’s face that he inevitably sees.)
Mary is the one who advocates for keeping him in the room, with all its particular wardings in place. “We can’t be sure,” she says, tight-lipped, as a core group of them discuss the matter. “It’s not safe to just let him wander around when he could still have a piece of Lucifer inside him.” The others all agree.
Logically, Sam knows they would have accepted the proposal if it came from him. But he’s still grateful Mary brought it up first. Admitting everything that comes back up whenever he sees that face – that would be peeling away the emotional callouses he needs now more than ever. He can’t be anything but strong if he wants to save Dean; can’t let the others know how the thought of Nick wandering the Bunker, sitting at the dinner table with them, running into him from around a corner or in the gym or in the bathroom – how that makes him want to go inside his bedroom and lock the door and move his dresser and bookcase in front of it, and just stay there inside, alone, until Nick is gone.
It's easier to pretend that the Devil lies in the wounded man who sleeps chained to his bed than to acknowledge where he really is – than to acknowledge he’s in Sam’s blood and in Sam’s head and in all the cracks across his soul, in every place where Sam is Sam and maybe even the places where he isn’t anyone. Easier to pretend the problem is Nick, not his fucked-up, broken mind.
Sam wonders if they can all see what he sees in the mirror, the way that his body isn’t his because Lucifer lies right under his skin. He wonders if he’ll ever see himself again.