(right click and download, please) and text
standing on the edge of nothing
"Kill it," Bently says, slapping down three telegrams and a copy editor's proof scarlet with corrections. "The future's in automobiles, not rail. Schmidt, have that murder on my desk in ten and make it bloody. Miss Jones. Miss Jones! Tell her I don't give a hoot about her pinko bookleggers. If it says banned in Boston on the cover, it's bunkum. Winchester -"
Winchester looks up.
"Winchester, get off of your behind. I got a story for you."
Sam has a story. It's about a young girl. Her name's Louellen Rowe. He opens his mouth, and Bently says, "You said that a month ago and came back with a story about ghosts. Ghosts!"
Luellen's got a wasting disease and a convenient line in miracles. It's a little old fashioned, but the Examiner's more about expose than education.
"Circulation went up three thousand," Sam says, and puts his pencil down.
"Huh," Bently says. "Son, I got real live load of baloney for you here. There's a fella in Madera says he's God."
"You want me to prove it?" Sam asks, deadpan. He's written coy bordello advertisements masquerading as inflamed indignation, righteous disbelief about bribery that ignores the Examiner's flexible coffers, and played fast and loose with more murders than he cares to remember. Religion's not that different.
From the desk across the way Clarence looks up and says, "You can find one of those on every street corner, and that's not counting our own dear evangelical Aimee Mac Pee."
"This fella says he does miracles," Bently says. "Says he's creating heaven on earth. Paradise. Some valley up in Yosemite."
"So. What's the beef?" Sam asks.
"This is," Bently says, and slams a leaflet down on Sam's desk.
It's made of rough handmade paper and the ink's blurred, but Sam reads All Men Are Born Equal and rolls his eyes. He's heard that one before, and it's no more true now than it was then. He looks up, and Bently leans over him, all tweed elbows and smell of cigars and lunchtime whisky. Prohibition's nothing but another headline to his editor.
"You remember when Senator Barrat's daughter went missing?" Bently says.
"Yup," Sam says. Two months into this job, he'd done the legwork for the story, but it had been Sarah-Jane Jones' name on the byline. These days he writes his own. Sam's always been able to play to the crowd, and newsprint's just another kind of smoke and mirrors.
"Police released the evidence. Read it," Bently says, and he's got to be bent up over that one. There isn't a policeman in the city that Bently hasn't got on his payroll.
Sam looks down. 'All Men Are Born Equal', he reads, and then 'The greatest commandment is Love. White or colored, man or woman, find your home in the Community of Believers.' He's heard the same thing, give or take a segregational shade or two and a varying degree of vitriol, twice a day and three times on Sundays. Sam's not a churchgoer, but every street corner in San Francisco's got its own profiteering prophet.
"So," Sam says.
Bently says, "Word is, there's all sorts up there. Kikes, spades, homos, all pretending as God made them equal, and Senator Barrat's daughter bang in the middle. Find me the dirt, son. I want white slavery. Mormons. Child sacrifice. Blasphemy. I want filth. I want," and he slams his hand down on the leaflet, "to sell newspapers."
"Boss," Sam says, tight-lipped.
"I don't care where you stick your disease ridden dick," Bently says, leaning forward, low voiced. "But my readers sure as hell do. Get me my story."
Bently says, "You drink at Tait's, you get tarred and feathered right alongside every one of them jazz-loving dolled up sissy boys. You ain't a bad kid, Winchester, but there's fifteen more where you came from and don't forget it, and if you think that's a friendly warning, you're right. Now. Scram."
Sam's standing. His fists are clenched, but Bently's already halfway to the sports desk. Sam doesn't need this job. He can walk out of here any time he wants to put his hat on -
"Don't sweat it, kid," Clarence says, looking up, and on the way to Bently's office Schmidt cuffs the back of his head.
It's not family. They're not even friends, and they'd sure as hell sell each other out for a byline in less than a heartbeat. But Sam appreciates the thought, all the same.
The leaflet's watermarked. He starts at the printers.
"Reverend's money's as good as yours," MacGregor says. He waits pointedly, and Sam slips a dollar over the counter. MacGregor taps it on the counter, but the silver rings true. "There was a boy brought the text every week," he says, "and another to pick it up. Only customer I ever had cut their own dies," he says, and indicates the characters on the leaflet. He's middle aged, running to fat, pink-flushed. It's his name over the door.
"Where was the church?" Sam asks, and MacGregor sniffs. "Where do I find the boy?" he asks, and MacGregor shrugs.
Sam leans in. "I hear they're the front for a white slavery ring," he whispers. "Women and children. Just gone, like that. Poof," he whispers, and snaps his fingers.
MacGregor looks back, both ways, leans forward. "I hear different," he says.
"What?" Sam asks.
"I hear they live in paradise," MacGregor says. "I hear no one goes hungry and no one gets hurt. I hear there's no price on love. I hear there's a place for everyone, black or white," he says. "Or red," he says, and when he leans back there's a woman standing behind him at the printing press with her hand on her swollen belly. She's tall and beautiful, and her cheekbones are high and her hair is black, and she watches Sam with unblinking, incurious eyes as if he is utterly irrelevant to both her and the child she carries.
"Ask someone else," MacGregor says, and rolls the dollar back.
He asks in the downtown churches and chapels where he's welcome because he's white and well dressed, but no priest there will admit to knowing the Reverend Castiel. He asks in the stockyards and the coffee houses along Embarcadero. He trawls his way down Market Street, past the whores and the pretty, painted boys and the workingmen's clubs and the seaman's missions, the shops and the street traders and the beggars and the reformers with their placards and furs. He asks on the street corners where the Mexicans line up for work and he asks the Chinese coolies waiting on the docks. His Spanish is sketchy and his Chinese non-existent, but he recognizes a brush-off when he sees one. He asks the Japanese students at the mission and gets blank stares and handshakes, and in an Irish teashop off Third, he slips into a booth and passes a folded greenback to a man in a police uniform and hears nothing but details he already knows.
The leaflet crumples in his hands, Sam's feet are sore, and he can't make a story out of nothing. He goes home, and eats his landlady's fried chicken and greens, and when she asks him what he's writing he shows her the leaflet and she frowns. Mrs. Eleanor Glenville's the one person Sam pays on time and up front. She's been teaching school for the last thirty years and has three educational pamphlets and a newsletter to her name, and Sam listens when she says, first, seen that before, now where... and second, ironic, Honey, I'd check the newspapers.
Early next morning Sam turns from the hissing of the electric cable cars and the bustle of Market Street into the massive stone entrance of the San Francisco Library. Off the column-lined balconies of the staircase, in a reading room, he finds a librarian who brings him boxes of periodicals and great stacks of newspapers hung on poles. In shadowed silence he stands at a tilted desk and leafs through papers until his eyes blur and his fingertips turn black, and there he hits his first lead. It starts with an advertisement in a neighborhood newspaper that lasted twenty single-page issues, which tells him the Reverend Castiel and the Church of Believers would like to thank donators to the cause and have gone to Paradise, Madera. DiMargolis, he reads, O'Hannessy, MacCleod, Harris, Perez de Alon, Winchester, a shock to the gut in black and white for all Sam knows he's not the only one of that name, Xu, Everleigh, Milk, MacGregor....
Sam takes his lunch on the steps of the library, throwing crumbs to the seagulls, and watching the society ladies shopping in their silk shirtwaisters and painted parasols. Then he goes back to the desk. He follows bylines and parish notices and four line infills, and Sam reads visionary sermon and doctrine of tolerance and ecstatic congregation and spectacular showmanship, but he can't find a single quote or a solitary named witness. He makes a list of churches and a list of dates; he draws himself a map and dots it with place names, and when he's done and thinking his way through the facts he turns around to his brother and says, "Dean, if -"
Dean is not there. But Sam can feel his brother's presence as surely as if Dean was just around the corner, lingering in the stacks and box files like the scent of tobacco and the smell of the old sour leather of their father's coat.
He slams his notes together. He walks out of the library and down three blocks: he follows his nose and his ears to the first speakeasy he finds, and every step he takes sounds as if it has a double echo only he can hear. When he asks the barman for two Long Island Teas, hold the ice, there's a moment when he can't understand why Dean's hand is not reaching for the other glass.
The last time he saw Dean was five years ago and counting, but Sam still leaves the second glass on the bar, full.
His landlady is writing at the kitchen table. Sam, unexpectedly sore in all the wrong places, tries for a cheerfulness he knows to be false.
"Honey," Mrs. Grenvielle tells him, in that slow southern drawl that reminds Sam tonight of dust, and the taste of stolen watermelon, and his brother's smile, "Honey, you look like the devil's got his claws in your shadow. Sit down. Sit."
"Rough day," Sam says, and wonders if now might be the time to be moving on. Four years in the same town, too many nights in the same bar and his name in the newspaper twice a week: if Dean hasn't tracked him down now, he won't.
Mrs. Grenvielle smiles at him and nods to the jug of iced tea on the counter, and Sam pours for both of them. There's fresh mint shredded into the ice, vivid and tart. He says, "No one's talking," and his brother raps him over the head and says, 'That's only a cause you're not listening.'
Sam spins in his chair, and Mrs. Grenvielle's eyes snap up to the space behind his shoulder.
"- shoot," Sam says. He drops his head in his hands, runs his fingers through his hair, and takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry," he says.
"Accepted," Mrs. Grenvielle says. Then she says, "Who was that?" and Sam looks up so fast he almost cricks his neck. "That wasn't nobody," Mrs. Grenvielle says. She lays her papers aside, reaches for her needle, threads it, and ties off on a purple shirt that is neither hers nor Sam's. The fabric has thin silk stripes through the cotton, like ribbon.
"He's not real," Sam says, and his landlady arches an eyebrow at him in a skeptical flicker more charitable than Sam deserves.
"Sure didn't think that was a ghost, if that's what you're meaning," Mrs. Grenvielle says.
Sam can't help himself. He looks back over his shoulder again, and for a moment, he can almost see Dean leaning against his landlady's dresser. In Sam's memory Dean's arms are folded and he's grinning, and Sam's stomach knots and his breath catches in his throat for the loss.
"First thing I thought when I moved out here," Mrs. Grenvielle says, and bites off her thread, "Was that my daddy wouldn't know where I was. He died young. But there were nights when me and my mama could still hear his footsteps on the porch. He never meant to intrude."
"Dean's not dead," Sam says, quick and hard and sure. "I'd know."
"I know that," she says. "I know dead when I see it." Then she says, "When I met you, I thought, there's something eating that boy. It wasn't what you did for my Abiah got your feet under my table. But I can't mend a broken heart, Samuel Winchester. Only God can do that," she says, and smiles at Sam so gently he looks away. "I ain't your mama," she says, and then she reaches into the shellac box that holds her needles and thread and trimmings. "Ladies sewing circle today. I did some asking."
The leaflets she passes across the kitchen table are just as crudely printed as the one Sam has in his pocket, and the printer's the same, but the text is different. 'Community of Believers,' Sam reads, and 'Lay your burdens on the Lord. Be at Peace.' It's more than a little ironic, he thinks, because there's nothing he'd like more than to lay his burdens down, but no God he's acquainted with would be willing to carry them. 'Put your faith in the Lord,' he reads, and he can feel his mouth pull down at the corners. Mrs. Grenvielle's Pentecostal. Sam's undecided. Closest he's ever come to God is his brother's hands on his skin, and given what came afterwards he reckons that's not what the good Lord had in mind.
The translation's the same Spanish, the same character glyphs Sam can't read. It's the same community, and he knows it because this time there's a name as well as a place and a time and a date on the leaflet, and although the date is two years past the name is the Reverend Castiel's and Sam knows the church.
He says, "Thanks." Then he says, "How did you get these?"
"Honey, there's a tale to that," Mrs. Grenvielle says, and she flips the shirt and Sam refills the glasses and stirs the pot on the stove, because he might have been raised on the road but he knows his manners. "Those leaflets you're holding, they belonged to Amelia Lowberry's youngest. Jeremiah. Jeremiah... I wouldn't say he was one of God's innocents but there's no denying he wasn't all there, on account of Amelia waiting on the midwife too long. He was a willing boy, though, and Mr. Trepannier at the grain store took him on fair and square. The foreman there was Simeon Ladyman, and he used to sing in the choir at Bethel." She stops. Sam's nodding. "Now. There was a revival in '19, and one of the preachers who came was the Reverend Castiel. It caused words at the time," she says, "A white man preaching to us black folk, and half the church didn't go and half went out of curiosity. We lost a few folks that year on account of the 'flu, and gained a few too, so everyone was a little jumpy. Amelia, she's wedded to all God's children being equal under the skin, and Simeon went and she went and she took Jeremiah with her."
"Well," she says. "The Lord put his hand on that boy in the form of the Reverend, and he never looked back. The way Amelia tells it, Reverend Castiel never had a church, but he preached most nights and twice on Sundays and Jeremiah was running all over town on his coat tails. He went to the white folk churches on Mission and the black churches here in Bayview. He went out to the fields for the Mexicans and into the Chinese missions - there weren't a person in California that man didn't have the Lord's word for. And Jeremiah went with him. He wasn't the only one, and he was forever poking at his mama to come with him. Firstly Sundays, and then any other day of the week, but Amelia's been going to the Bethel Mission as long as I have and she wasn't budging. She says now, she should have," Mrs. Grenvielle says, and fastens off the thread, snaps it short and shakes out the sleeve.
"April sixteenth," she says. "Last year. Jeremiah comes home and starts packing. He said Lord told him there was a special place just for him, and he was going to find Paradise. It's anyone's guess," Mrs. Grenvielle says, "if that was the Lord or Reverend Castiel speaking, but whichever one of them it was, Amelia could not make that boy see sense. He wanted her to come with him, just up and leave. It was like the Children of Israel going to the Promised Land, he said. Well, Amelia wasn't leaving, and she says she thought he'd be back when he got hungry. It's been over a year," Mrs. Grenvielle says, "and she hasn't heard a single word."
"Nothing?" Sam says.
"Nothing," Mrs. Grenvielle says, and she shakes out the shirt and folds it down exact as a pattern cutter. "So, if you find the Reverend Castiel, she'd be obliged if you'd have a word with her Jeremiah and remind him that he left his mama behind him, and she'd like to know if he's alive or dead. She sent those," Mrs. Grenvielle says, and nods at the leaflets.
Sam says, "I'd be obliged if you passed on my thanks," and adds, "There's a girl missing. Elisabet Barrat, the Senator's daughter. The police found one of those leaflets in her things."
"So that's it," Mrs. Grenvielle says. "I was wondering why you were asking. Ain't that the way," she says, and stands up. There's a pot on the stove, and she lifts the lid and smells it, abstracted. "Wash up," she says, "And get yourself a plate."
"Ten dollars on Guilledo at the Athletic Club, trust me, the man's got a left hook like -"
"Pull it. That's Klan business, and the old man's in it up to his neck. Hell, half the Assembly -"
"Ya think she was all dolled up for her mama? Pacific Heights, son, for crying out loud, what d'ya think?"
"Six blocks away from Neptune's? Too far. Drop the stiff in the doorway and make it bloody."
"You're not working for Hearst, kid -"
"Hey," Sam says, sliding sideways between a stack of files and a precariously balanced hatbox, no lid. It's half past one and Bently's having lunch at his club.
"Winchester," Sarah-Jane acknowledges. She doesn't even look up from the typewriter. She says, "You tell me, Winchester. Four years hoofing it out on the fashion pages and he gives me horoscopes. Five, and I get one lousy rich kid running away from home. Do I look like Louella Parsons to you?"
"Uh, no?" Sam says, and Sarah-Jane flashes him a look that doesn't even notice he put a clean collar on his shirt for the occasion.
"Cash or check, big fella?" Sarah-Jane says, wry. She's got a clipped East Coast accent and a sense of humor so dry Sam's never sure if she's joking or not.
He rolls his eyes, and Sarah-Jane leans back in her chair and folds her arms. Her hair's bobbed, her bangs razor-cut straight and gleaming. Sarah-Jane's hard edged from her elbows to her polished T-straps, a woman who's fought for her place in the world, and Sam doesn't know what she sees in him but he's grateful for the alliance all the same.
"Spill," she says. "I got five."
"Elisabet Barrat," Sam says.
"You got the leaflet," Sarah-Jane says.
"Got another kid missing, too," Sam says. "Seems like the church disappeared. Looks like the kids went with it. I hear they're looking for the Promised Land."
"Aren't we all," Sarah-Jane says. "So. You wanna give me the low down? What've you got?"
"Fella named Reverend Castiel," Sam says. "Came out of nowhere, spent four years preaching, and then he's gone. Last of these leaflets got printed a year past. Newspapers say the man was running meetings upwards of four times a week, from Orange County right up to Oakland. Then nothing. My guess is, when he went, he took our Betty with him, and my kid, Jeremiah Lowberry. Jeremiah's sixteen. His mama wants him back."
"Jeremiah," Sarah-Jane says. "Yours black?" She raises an eyebrow as she asks. Sarah-Jane doesn't pluck her eyebrows. They're emphatic.
She's right. Bay City Examiner readers will dip a hand in their pockets for poor, vulnerable, blonde Elisabet. They won't for Jeremiah. Sam nods, sharp.
"Look," Sarah-Jane says. "Ain't nothing you or I can do about that one, Winchester. One missing black kid ain't ever going hit the headlines here. You'd be better taking that one to the California Eagle. And I'm telling you now. Our little princess ran away with some charlie Daddy isn't going to drink with at the country club. Forget it."
"I don't see a difference," Sam says. He can feel the irritation tighten his mouth, but Sarah-Jane rolls her eyes at him. They both know how it is, but that doesn't mean he has to like it. He says instead, "She took her maid with her."
Sarah-Jane shrugs. "You really think she pulls up her own pantaloons?" she asks, and glances back at her typewriter. The first line on the paper reads, 'If you knew how easily you could make your own bread with Pillsbury's Gold Medal Flour, you'd be baking every day! Every sack the same -' "Look, Sam," she says, "I'm not saying I don't care. But I'm telling you, our Bet was no angel." She's already leaning forward, fingers poised.
"How do you know?" Sam asks.
"Women's intuition," Sarah-Jane says. "Same way as I know how to bake bread. Comes with the territory."
Sam sighs. He says mildly, "You add the water after the yeast."
Sarah-Jane glares at him and says, "Fine." She rips the paper out of the roller and feeds in a clean sheet. 'If you knew -' "I heard off Market Street," she says, so quietly Sam has to strain to hear her over the clatter of keys. "Daddy liked a little brown sugar on his toast, you know what I mean? Rumor has it the kid found out, kicked up a stink."
Sam says, "Thanks."
"Don't mention it," Sarah-Jane says, and glares vengefully at the keys.
Out of work hours, Sarah-Jane wears tailored velvet suits and hats with a rakish tilt, and the redheaded woman on her arm is as stunning as any starlet. She and Sam drink in some of the same clubs, but they don't talk about it in public. Not in 1924, in San Francisco. Word has it, there's places in New York where a woman can still step out with her girlfriend in public, and a man with another man, but Sam's never wanted any more than a friendly touch on his dick from any of the men he's laid hands on save one. And there's no place in the Union he could walk into with his brother on his arm. Never will be.
"Where's my story, son?" Bently snaps at him, back sooner than Sam calculated, and Sam stumbles to his feet and says, "A couple of days, it's -"
Bently's already gone.
"Bastard," Sam says under his breath. Pulling his notes together, he takes them down to Tait's, early and angry enough to be careless. It shouldn't make a difference that Jeremiah's black and Elisabet's white, or that Sarah-Jane's in the life and Sam's on the edge of it, aching for somewhere to belong. This afternoon he's not looking for company, but the boys at the bar shuffle and pretend to swoon all the same and the piano player breaks into Gershwin's The Man I Love and winks.
Some day he'll come, The man I love, And he'll be big and strong -
He and Dean had stolen an organ grinder's monkey just for the hell of it, way back in Tulsa, '13, let it loose in church, and afterwards Dean had clapped him on the shoulder and said, "Well, that was a barrelful of laughs, Sammy," like he was some kind of cheap vaudeville act. Sam had -
"Thanks," Sam says.
Sam had laughed.
He'd lost the trail in Detroit, in '20, but he can still hear Dean's voice clear as if his brother was standing next to him.
"Mrs. Lowberry?" Sam says, hat in his hands. "Mrs. Amelia Lowberry?" When she nods slowly back at him Sam walks forward. She's tiny, Jeremiah's mother, and Sam hunches his shoulders and ducks his head. He's got the act down pat for women who are old enough to pinch his cheeks rather than take him dancing. "I'm Samuel Winchester," he says. "Sam. Mrs. Glenvielle's lodger." He waits for the second slow nod before he goes on. "I'm working on a story for the Bay Area Examiner, about the Reverend Castiel," he says, and pauses for a second, but her face is impassive. "Mrs. Glenvielle mentioned your son. Ma'am, I'm sorry for your loss," Sam says, and the words aren't as rote as they usually are because Sam's still aching himself.
"She mentioned as you were asking," Mrs. Lowberry says. There's a pause before she speaks that probably has something to do with the color of Sam's skin.
"I'd be grateful for any help you can give me, ma'am," Sam says. He adds, "It isn't just your son missing. There's another child, too."
"There were more than two gone," Mrs. Lowberry says. "But not as many as you'd think. The Reverend, he knew how to pick them. Migrants and Mexicans and kids with no family. He tried for me," she says, and glances at the flowers. "But he got my boy." She shrugs. It's a small shrug, dismissive, but she's not looking at Sam and the light through the arched windows shows him the fine lines around her eyes.
"We thought he was God's creature," she says.
"Sorry?" Sam says, startled.
"When he spoke, it was like the word of the Lord," she says, and her hand closes hard around the rim of the vase. "Equality. Freedom. Love. He could hand out the words on a plate, but I know it ain't that easy. Jeremiah didn't."
"You're the first person I've met who can describe him," Sam says. "The Reverend. Castiel."
Mrs. Lowberry looks down at her hand. She uncurls it carefully, picks up the scissors, and pulls a California lily from the flour sack at her feet. "Nell says as you're a good boy," she says, and Sam shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot as she looks him up and down.
She says slowly, "He wasn't nothing to look at." Snapped, a leaf falls to the floor. "But he didn't need to be. Miracles and fireworks, that's what he had, and a voice could twist you around bad enough not to know up from down. When he spoke... when he spoke, you could almost believe there was a place where everyone could live in peace. Paradise. And when he preached - there were always crowds. Singing. Black folk, white folk, all together and praising the Lord. I remember standing in a field outside Redwood City and there were Irish families and Chinese and Mexican and Filipino, and everyone was smiling and holding hands just like paradise is supposed to be. Jeremiah, he loved that. And those people - Jeremiah, he's not stupid, but he's not - the midwife - but those folks, Reverend Castiel's folks, they never looked at him like he was dirty for something he couldn't help."
"Can you tell me what happened?" Sam asks.
Another leaf falls, ripped from the stem. Another.
"Wasn't anything I could do to change that boy's mind," Mrs. Lowberry says, and looks down at the scissors in her hand as if she cannot remember why they are there. "April," she says. "April sixteenth. He came home late. He was lit up, his eyes were so bright. He said, Mama, we're gonna make paradise on earth. That wasn't unusual, you understand. Then he said, pack. We're leaving tomorrow."
"You didn't go," Sam says, and she shrugs again.
"I told him, your family's here. This is your home. You're not going." Mrs. Lowberry's hands are shaking. She tries to put the scissors down, but the plinth is too small, and Sam closes his hand around hers. "He was gone in the morning," she says. Then she swallows and looks up. "They knew," she says. "They took trucks. Seed, tools, machinery. Someone planned that, what they did. It wasn't, we leave tomorrow, for those folks. Family," she says, and snorts. "Seems like the only family that mattered to them was the church."
"Did you know how many people went?" Sam asks.
"There were a line of cars on the Mission Street," she says. "I learned that after. They were singing hymns when they left."
"They disappeared," Sam says.
"They went south," Mrs. Lowberry says. "That's all I know. Government's giving away land in the hills to white folk with a dollar and a shovel to spare. I did a lot of asking," she says. "Must've been a hundred, two hundred people gone and no one noticed where. You'd think it was a miracle."
"That so," Sam says, and he wonders whose palm he has to grease at the BLM to see the records.
"There's people that know," Mrs. Lowberry says. "White men." Her mouth closes hard. "White men without children," she says, and Sam ducks under his bangs.
He says, "If I find Jeremiah -" and she shakes her head.
"I ain't hoping," There's six inches of flower stem left in her hands, leafless. She tucks it back into the sack, pulls another. "Tell him I miss him," she says.
"I will," Sam promises.
"If you come back," she says.
He puts his hat back on, going out of the church porch, but the two women talking by the gate still break off their conversation and stare at him, silent. He's white and they're not; he's intruding, and although Sam's never picked his acquaintances by the color of their skin and he wishes things were different, his smile's still more guilty than polite.
Sarah-Jane snorts. "Honey, you're in paradise," she says, and raises her glass. The Neptune's serving fruit cocktails and soda. Sarah-Jane can remember the bar before prohibition, when its glittering whores and sharp-suited hustlers had made the place notorious even on the Barbary Coast. Sam can't. "Welcome to America. Land of the free," she says, and one of the busboys stifles a cough behind her.
"Practically," Sam says.
"Do I look like a pioneer to you?" Sarah-Jane says. "Rifle in one hand, baby in the other?"
"Huh," Sam says. He adds, "You sure can shoot straight, for a woman." He's grinning, and Sarah-Jane rolls her eyes at him. There's a Derringer in her purse and, given something with a little more of a kick and a longer barrel, they both know she can split a pip at fifteen feet. Sam's held the card.
"Our Reverend Castiel and his merry band left town April seventeenth. Bently tells me they went to Yosemite and the notice says Madera. Here, I know they left Mission and went south, and chances are the government's granted them land. Where would they go?"
"Paradise? Huh." Sarah-Jane shrugs. "I'd find some valley somewhere," she says. "Settler territory. Water. Land. Oranges. Vines. A still. Somewhere where the neighbors aren't curious and the law stays away."
She's frowning. Sam waits. It's not just Bently's half-veiled threat that's keeping him hot on this one story. It's Mrs. Lowberry's face and her missing son, because Sam knows how that feels and it cuts to the bone, and it's the Reverend's promise of paradise, because Sam's heard that one before in carnivals and churches all over the Union, and he didn't believe it then and he doesn't believe it now.
"BML's giving away land, sure enough, if you want to spend the next twenty years grubbing out roots and milking cows. Register's a closed record. Everyone's running from something," Sarah-Jane says, and quirks an eyebrow at Sam so directly he has to glance away.
"Right," Sam says. "So. Desert island. What do you need?"
"Books," Sarah-Jane says. "Paper. Pens. Ink." She thinks. "Wood. Fish hooks. Nails. Hammer. Gun. Matches. Candles. Flour. Potatoes, salt beef. Seed -"
"Seed," Sam says, and stands up.
"- cod coming in thick on the banks -"
"South Pacific? Sell, dear boy. The future's in oil."
"- Midwest markets down again -"
"- they'll live on next to nothing and clothe themselves, and you've only got to pay 'em twenty dollars a month -"
There's a man in a faded corps jacket crouched outside the wagoner's with empty eyes, a pinned-up sleeve and a begging bowl, and a girl on the corner with hitched-up scarlet petticoats who can't be more than fourteen.
"Clam chowder! Fifty cents a bowl! Clam -"
Sam ducks in the doorway and finds the shadowed interior cool after the sunshine of the street. Like every grain store he's ever been in, Trepannier's is stacked with barrels and casks, packing cases and sacks and baskets. At the back of the store two great barn doors open into a yard where trucks are being loaded, and dust weaves through the sunlight streaming into the shop. Sam's boots snap and crunch over chaff on the floorboards and there's an elderly Chinese man in the corner, sweeping.
Behind the long, trestled counter, a man with a black waistcoat and old-fashioned sideburns is writing in a ledger.
"Mr. Trepannier?" Sam asks.
"I'm not buying," he says, without looking up.
"I'm not selling," Sam says. "I'm from the Bay Area Examiner. Mr. Trepannier? Mr. John Trepannier?"
He rolls his sleeves down before shaking hands, Trepannier, but there are calluses on his fingers. "What can I do for you?" he asks.
Sam says, "I'd like to talk to you about a sale. Around April, last year."
"This a government matter?" Trepannier says, and raps his fingers once on his ledger.
"No," Sam says. "I'm trying to trace someone. A couple of people. I'm looking for the Reverend Castiel."
Dust swirls around the desk, puff of smoke in the sun-striped shade of the doors. The old man's fumbled his broom.
There's a dollar bill folded in Sam's fingers, but Trepannier's not buying. He looks at it and frowns: he's got a considerable length of nose to look down. "Castiel?" he says, slow. "Now there's a name I haven't heard for a while. Did someone pass you on to me? Who?"
Sam shrugs, makes the bill vanish. No skin off his nose if a man doesn't know what's good for him. He says, "You know how it is."
Trepannier taps his fingers again. Stares at Sam. Says, "Sure. I sold him a couple of loads of seed corn. A few beets. Nothing unusual. You want to see the paperwork, it's all in order."
"Did you ship it out to him?" Sam asks. The trucks are painted.
Trepannier smiles, thin. "Cash only," he says. "Can't feed a man on faith."
"Even when Mr. Simeon Ladyman's one of his congregation?" Sam asks, and knows he's touched a nerve by the way John Trepannier's eyes narrow.
But Trepannier says, short, "Mr. Ladyman and I parted company. Mr...?"
"Winchester," Sam says.
"Winchester. We agreed to disagree, Mr. Winchester, two days before the Reverend picked up his goods."
Sam says, "And where -"
He stops. Trepannier's frowning, hand held up, his wedding ring glinting. "How tall are you?" His voice is sharp.
"What?" Sam asks, taken aback, and Trepannier's eyes, narrowed, measure him up from top to toe and shoulder to shoulder. His fingers roll on the ledger.
"Your name Samuel?" Trepannier asks, slow, and Sam nods.
"Yes," Sam says.
"Well, I'll be dammed," Trepannier says. He looks at Sam odd, as if he's looking for someone he should know behind Sam's eyes. Then he says, "Would never have believed it if I hadn't seen it. Doggonit, but that boy was right about you. I got a letter for you," he says. "Wait here."
Bemused, uneasy, Sam waits. A loaded truck rolls away from the yard, and an empty one draws up to the loading dock. Two men brush past him, rolling barrels through the store out onto cobbles. The old man with the broom is glancing at Sam from the corners of his eyes.
It's five minutes or more until Trepannier comes back with an envelope in his hands. "If you hadn't mentioned the Reverend," he says, "It would have slipped my mind."
But Sam's lost all sense of sound. There's nothing but the beat of his own heart, loud as gunshot, sudden as a sucker punch, and his stomach's trying to crawl into his throat.
He knows those careful capitals, the shape of his own name, printed. He knows.
"How long?" he asks. "How long have you had this?" His voice comes out cracked.
"Last time? Must be September. Fall, last year," Trepannier says. "When the Reverend bought the second load. Surprised me," he said. "Never thought of that boy as religious." He's still holding the letter. Sam can't look anywhere else. "Odd thing is," Trepannier says. "Boy knocked me out of bed nigh on midnight to hand this over. Gave me a bottle of... a bottle, and said you might be coming. Description matches," he says.
Sam opens his mouth. Nothing comes out.
"Guess it's yours," Trepannier says, and hands it over.
Oh God damn it Dean. So close. Dean's handwriting. Dean's letter - and Sam, every thought splintered and torn open, thinks, 'no wonder I was thinking of you.' He looks at the counter and it's the counter where Dean must have stood, his boots on the same floorboards. Dean must have seen the same trucks, the same road. He could have been just around the corner, in the same speakeasy, drinking the same whisky from the same damn glass, and Sam wouldn't have known.
Five years gone and Dean's sent him a letter. Sam's hand is so cramped around the envelope his knuckles ache. He says, "How did he look?"
Trepannier shrugs. "Fine," he says.
"Did he say anything to you? About where he lives? Did he leave an address? What did he say?"
"He said you were tall," Trepannier says, a question in his voice Sam can't answer. "He said, uh, something about college?"
"Idiot," Sam says. "Still stuck on -" and then he thinks. He says, "What second load? Was he with the Reverend? Where did they go?" He's leaning over the counter, hands fisted. "Where was he living? An address? Come on, anything -"
Trepannier takes a step back, blinking, and Sam takes a deep breath and leans back himself. "Sorry," he says.
He gets a short, sharp nod of acknowledgment, and Trepannier says, "The delivery went to Richmond, on from Madera, but the driver came back from up the river," he says. "Fresno Falls," he says. "That's where I'd look," he says.
"Thanks," Sam says. His toes twitch in his boots, his shirt collar's too tight, his hat's too small. "Thanks. Thank you." The sun's a startling white out, the dust in his throat sandpaper. His heart's thudding against his ribs. He's as far out on the edge as he was back in Minnesota, back when a man died because of him, back when he thought he could hunt Dean down within days, weeks, scared and running on sour coffee and jerky and adrenaline. Five years later, nothing's changed, and although Sam's done everything his brother ever wanted for him, kept his head down, earned his degree, got himself a job and a bank account and a three piece suit and a place in the sun, he's still been marking time.
Time's up. He's leaving. Wherever Dean is, he's going, and if that's some godforsaken valley in Yosemite, Sam's on his way.
It still hurts, when Sam puts his hand on the door, because his brother's been there before him and is not there now. He glances back and Dean's stood by that counter. Like Sam, he'd have seen the store and the yard, Trepannier writing in his ledger, shaking his head, and the old man with the broom.
The old man with the broom is gesturing, sideways, behind Trepannier's head. Sam frowns. Jerking, the man waves his arms, points at the door, circles his fingers. He's pointing to the alley beside the shop.
Sam looks down at his letter. He's impatient to read it, itching, urgent, but he's pretty damn sure Dean's not going to give him an address and there's a chance Trepannier's sweeper knows something Sam doesn't. He looks up and nods. He walks out of the door and around the side of the store into the alley, leans against the wall and waits. He tucks his brother's letter in his jacket pocket, and then in his shirt, considers his billfold and then under the sole of his socks. He runs his fingers over the cotton of his shirt just to feel the envelope under, and then he fingers the seal and strokes his thumb over his own name in Dean's writing. He can barely believe it's real. He can't believe it's real.
Company startles him and shouldn't, and Sam reaches for a gun he hasn't carried for years. He hasn't done more than open his mouth before Trepannier's sweeper closes it, both hands pressed over his own in exaggerated mime.
"What is it?" Sam hisses.
He gets a hushed tsk-tsk in response, and guesses the man understands more English than he speaks. Sam asks, frowning, "What was it? Was it the newspaper? Trepannier? -" and on Castiel's name he gets an emphatic wave of a hand.
"You know him?" Sam asks, puzzled, and in answer the man tugs open his jacket. Carefully, he pulls out a length of yellowed silk, fragile and threadbare, and when the stuff falls away he's holding a photograph in the palm of his hand. The photographer's backdrop is faded and worn, a South Western Express steaming across the prairie in clouds of smoke as wide-eyed buffalo flee the track. But under it, a young man and a girl stare gravely at the camera, stiff in the way only a minute of frozen exposure can make a person. The man's Chinese. The woman's white, and the wedding ring on her hand is illegal in twenty-eight states.
"Son," Trepannier's sweeper says, and looks at Sam. "Son. Daughter." He points at the picture. It's worn around the edges, a little faded, a little limp, and it's being held as carefully as if it were glass.
Sam lets himself touch the pocket that holds his letter, once. He's lived most of his life on the wrong side of the law, in one way or another and sometimes more than most, and what he feels for his brother isn't legal in any state of the Union. Sam reckons as that's his business, not the government's, and he thinks the same about this couple in the photograph. He says, "They went with the Reverend Castiel?" and the man shakes his head sharply, and at least Sam knows enough to know what that means. He points to himself and says, "Sam Winchester," feeling like an actor with a bit-part in a silent film, and then he points at the couple in the photograph and asks, "What are their names?"
"Liu." The old man stumbles over, "An. An-ee."
Sam's smiling and trying not to nod his head and feeling painfully inadequate. He's taking a guess that this couple has vanished with the Reverend although he can't be sure, and he gets out his notepad and his pencil and turns to a clean page, writes both names down, and then he passes the pad to the old man and asks him, "Could you write that in Chinese?"
It's not a promise, but it's close and the man seems to know it, shaping characters so carefully he could almost be wielding a brush. Liu is easy: Annie, he writes so carefully in English, checking up with a glance at Sam on each letter in a way that says he cares. Sam knows there's a story there. He may never hear it.
He says, "And you? What's your name?"
It's Li. "Lao Li," The man says, with a duck of his head. When he looks up his eyes are hopeful, and his hands are clumsy and slow re-wrapping the photograph, and Sam hopes he's going to be looking in the right place for this man's family when he goes for his own.
His damn stupid, infuriating, crazy brother.
old man bows and smiles and bows again, and Sam, awkward, bows back, and
they could have been there for a very long time had someone not shouted
"Lee! Lee!" and the old man stumbles over his broom, walking backwards.
Sam taps his jacket pocket where the notebook is and does his best to
"Delivery for Rattigern! Delivery -" someone shouts, muffled, from the street, and the newspaper boy cries, "- Evening News! News! Orange County growers say no to unions! US Army starts around the world flight! News!" There's a billboard on the street: Douglas Fairbanks, Thief of Baghdad, with a crazy, careless grin that reminds him of nothing so much as Dean's face the moment before the balloon goes up.
It's almost dark. If he runs, Sam will catch the trolley car he can see swinging along the Market Street line. He's twenty minutes and one rain shower from the quiet of his own room, and his knees will be shaking for all of them.
San Francisco's a city of grubby hotel rooms and dilapidated lodging houses, and Sam feels like he's lived in most of them, but his attic room and his landlady came courtesy of a favor he did for a fellow in Gilroy and he's careful not to take advantage. He takes his boots off at the door and, with the candle Mrs. Glenville leaves for when the electric goes out, he tiptoes up the stairs, past the framed photographs of W. E. B. Du Bois and Sophia Packard, the bookcases and the newspaper rack. For all Sam's fit as a fiddle and built like a barn door, hand on his pocket, he's still short of breath by the time he ducks into his own small room.
Everything's changed. Everything's brighter, harder, purposeful, urgent, but as he learned growing up in motor inns and bunkhouses and barns across more states than Sam cares to remember, he still hangs his waistcoat and his jacket from the nail and drapes his shirt over the washstand to air. Then he sits down on the bed in his undershirt and drawers and stockinged feet with Dean's letter in his hands, and for a moment, before he opens it up, it's the chance of everything Sam's ever wanted right there in his hands.
The room smells clean of vinegar and starch, but there's a breeze twitching at the curtains and rattling the paper spills in their jar. Rain splatters against glass and shingles alike, sudden and hard, but the evening's sticky with heat.
The letter's the first word Sam's had from his brother in over five years. He's smiling still, when he opens the envelope, but his hands are shaking and cold sweat prickles the back of his neck as it hasn't done for years.
candle flickers. Sam swallows, and clear as his own shadow against the
wall his brother's voice echoes his as he reads.
I ain't got no notion if this letter will get to you, but Mr. Joseph Trepannier here at the store has always been a gentleman in his dealings and I've got no reason to think he won't be so now. I described you to him good and well and he's promised to keep his eyes open for a kid seven feet tall and thin as a rake, asking for me.
Sammy, I got no call to think you'll even spare a thought for your big brother these days, but I'd lay a bet you're still stubborn as a mule and twice as stupid. I heard as you were asking after me back in Kansas City, and there's a girl in Detroit swears she knows your face, so I guess if you're reading this you're still looking after my ass on the trail.
This here ain't easy to say, Sammy, so I'm only going to say it once and we'll call it quits. What happened in Minnesota, whatever words you got to say and I'm guessing you got a few, it weren't right in the eyes of God nor man. I'm not proud of leaving you on your own and I'm still sore about not being around to see you grow up straight as a boy should be, but there's some things plumb impossible and you gotta realize that's one of them right there. Sammy, if you're reading this, stop looking. Find yourself a nice girl. Get into one of those fancy colleges. I'd like to think of my Sammy with a gold watch on his waistcoat and a diploma on the wall, and if there's a Winchester can do it, it's you.
Your loving brother,
I guess you might think I'm a traveling man, but I gotta tell you I found
my home right here in California. Got a little piece of heaven up in the
hills and good company to share it with, and it feels like the Lord's
got his hand over me at last, so there's no call to worry like I know
There are two fifty dollar notes in the envelope. It's five month's rent, a hand tailored suit or the down payment on a brand new Chevrolet, four weeks' wages for a workingman.
"Dean," Sam says, and he runs his fingers over the words on the page as if he can see Dean writing, his hand cramped around the pen and his teeth biting into his lower lip, because Dean left school behind him with the Oklahoma dust and that was before Sam passed sixth grade. Sam's brother is clever with his hands and the straightest thinker Sam knows, but he's not a man who finds writing easy. Here, though, he's rounded out all his words and printed careful on the paper, so that Sam will know exactly what he's saying.
"I'm coming for you," Sam says, and the rain rattles against the window and the candle flame flares, and if Sam was an imagining man he'd almost think Dean was listening. He's half-hard in his drawers at the thought, a perverse and unsanctified transgression that's sharply familiar, but in his imagination Dean, looking, merely tilts his head. His mouth is curled at the corner, sly and secret.
A man died, because of that smile, because Sam couldn't keep his hands off his brother.
"I ain't stopping, and I ain't gonna back off," Sam tells Dean now. His hand is flat over the words that say different. "Way I see it," Sam says, "isn't me you're running from."
Sam's been poor. He's ridden the freight cars more often than he's paid fair and square for his ticket, but with the Examiner's steady pay packet he's in funds, despite his battered boots and weatherworn hat. He'd pulled both on without even thinking. Sammy's clothes, not Sam's. It's Sammy's rifle slung over his back, easy, familiar, and it's only when he catches the wide eyes of the small girl with the rag-curled hair and the petticoats that he realizes he's out of place now in the city. The thought's more relief than regret.
He finds his berth, stows his sleeping roll and his knapsack, and as the train shudders into motion he takes his seat in the dining car. Pullman Service. The china's white, the glass is sparkling, and Sam unfolds his napkin with Dean's letter laid across his plate and staring back at him as if he could use it as a compass.
'I found my home right here in California'
The train's a rumbling, rhythmic background to the clatter of silver cutlery on china. Outside the windows, a shower of rain blurs the evening into the indistinct shadows of lodging rooms and warehouses, and Sam pays for his lamb chop and peas from the Examiner's purse. By the time his plate is cleared away they're out of the city, and evening softens the farmland into indistinct, soft grays, but the dining car gleams in electric light. Sam refuses dessert, accepts a cigar, and smokes it hanging over the rear railings of the observation car, watching the blue of the Sierra peaks fade into the night sky.
Sam's sharing his berth with a rancher from Iowa and an English Royal Navy Lieutenant with a startling, gap-toothed grin. The Lieutenant's on his way to New York and thrilled, but Sam's not feeling conversational: he sets his shoulders against the man's enthusiasm and unfolds Dean's letter again.
'Got a little bit of heaven up here in the hills...'
Their father had always been a traveling man, following work through the dusty Midwest states, cattle trails and stockyards and bars. Sam's childhood was a patchwork of bunkhouses and barns and an education snatched from stolen primers and newspaper sheets. They'd slept under the stars often enough, he and Dean, and they'd grown up on the road. Sam's damn sure his father thought more of the whisky bottle than he did of his sons, and none of them paid much heed to the law. They'd been cowboys, ranch hands, drifters, sharks: Sam can still throw a game if he needs, although it's Dean who can rig a sting with stories and smiles until Sam himself could swear a con was real.
It's been four years since he came to San Francisco, a Stanford student enrolled on forged references and someone else's stolen dime, his boots still dusty and his heart in shreds.
He'd had dreams, when he was younger. Him and Dean and a stake of land that was theirs. Through Kansas, through Oregon, as their father worked where a foreman would hire him, as Dean grew tall enough to do a man's work for a man's wage and Sam went to sixteen different grade schools, Sam dreamed of standing still. A fat cow, a flock of chickens, a patchwork quilt. A shelf of books. Later, a tractor, after the day Dean had driven his first car and lit up like an electric streetcar. Hell, a Packard. By the time he was fifteen Sam had twenty two dollars tied up in his neckerchief and a battered, bound copy of The American Farmer he'd dragged through seventeen states.
He'd wanted Dean in every way that counted, then. His mouth. His hands, the curve of his back and his ass, his thighs: the quirk of his smile that was Sam's alone. Sam's dreamed of his brother tumbled under his own weight, and Sam's alone, in every state he's ever traveled through. Still does. He'd always figured that Dean knew.
In Minnesota, with a dead man between them, he'd learned hard and fast that Dean's dreams were not the same as his. That farm's a long way back. His hands are smooth; his shirts machine made, and rolled up in a pair of socks in his knapsack is a certificate from Stanford - Samuel Winchester, B. A. He's still hustling for a living, but Dean's not going to see it that way.
Sam's never wanted a pocket watch.
After the Express, the smaller engine of the branch line seems interminably slow. Sam can't sit still, stalking between the rattling wooden seats, snatching glances through the soot-smeared windows at hog wallows and farmsteads outlined by long morning shadows. The countryside's flat farmland, rough edged, untidy. Corn prices have halved in the last four years, beef costs as much to raise as it makes at market, and the strain is starting to show. Sam, watching, can't concentrate on newspaper or notes. If he's right, Dean's come this way before him, travelling south down the coastal plain and then, like Sam, east to the mountains. Dean's seen the black oaks and the irrigation creeks, the battered vineyard and the branch stations with their peeling paint and forty-five feet platforms. Sam's following his brother's footsteps down the line, and although Sam knows Dean is long gone, he stares out of the window as if the trail's still there, as if he could glimpse Dean's cocky, bowlegged walk, and the tip of his hat with the shadow of a grin under the brim.
The trip from Berenda takes three quarters of an hour, and the last shades of a golden sunrise are still brightening the sky when the train pulls into Raymond. With a through Pullman ticket the hotel serves Sam breakfast, griddle cakes, eggs any way he wants and as much coffee as he can drink, and by the time he's done he knows that the sweet young couple who shared his carriage are on their honeymoon and the tall, thin man with the monocle is a Frisco publisher.
"Are you here for the hunting?" the man enquires over the breakfast plates, looking at the faded roll of Sam's blanket and his rifle.
Sam waits a second too long before he says, "No." He shrugs, and adds, "Not game." He's never shot for sport.
"The fishing, then?"
Sam nods, noncommittal, and gathers up his belongings. Trucks and wagons crowd the street, carrying lumber and granite to Santa Fe and San Francisco and stores up into the mountains, but an incongruous, old-fashioned stage coach and team is waiting for the railway passengers. The horses doze in their traces while a familiar pile of trunks is strapped onto the coach roof. Yosemite's on the tourist trail, and in summer the trains will be crowded with campers and sightseers. Now, in spring, only the occasional visitor is braving the colder weather. Snow can fall from October to May, here in the mountains.
But Dean's been here before, Sam thinks, his back to the shouting teamsters
and the coach, looking down at the slow, wide flow of the Chowchilla River.
Dean's walked this road. His brother would have been camped above the
river bed, boiling his coffee too strong in their battered mess tin and
frying hash. "Sammy! Grub's up."
Sam can pick the spot both of them would have chosen.
"Are you going to Yosemite too?"
Startled, Sam says, "No," and has to look down. It's the girl who'd stared at him on the platform back in San Francisco, her hair in pigtails and her dress freshly pressed gingham.
"My daddy says we're going to Mariposa. He says there are really big trees." She's got a New England accent, this child, and her eyes are wide and her cheeks flushed.
"Your daddy's calling you," Sam says gently, and watches her run into her father's arms. He'd run to Dean the same way.
The trunks are loaded, and Sam's almost the last of the passengers to swing up into the coach. The smell is so familiar he closes his eyes for a second, sheep's wool and leather and mice and wet clothes, a traveling home in states across the Union. Squeezed in the center of the bench seat, Sam nods to his fellow passengers, drops his hat over his eyes and waits out the ride.
"Is he a real cowboy?"
It's the boots. And the hat. Under the rawhide brim of it, Sam's smiling, although his boots are pushed hard against the floorboards and his hands fisted in his pockets.
From Raymond, rattling and thumping, they follow the line of the river. Although the road's graded, it's frost-cracked rough, and the coach rocks unsteadily through the wooded hollows and small hills. As the trail takes them slowly towards the mountains there are fewer farmsteads, and instead patches of black oak and maples and dogwood line the road. Between the trees the river sparkles, alive with sunlight and movement. It's not the broad-backed beast it was at Raymond but a swiftly flowing creature, and Sam glimpses cut pine logs forty or fifty feet long swept down with the water: the Sugar Pine Company at work. Here, the trees are young and sparse and the woods already logged out, but higher in the mountains the loggers are still working.
Dean's traveled this road. Dean and the Reverend Castiel's company of believers. Here, on the same journey, Sam has to wonder what ties his brother to the preacher's church. Dean's not a man who gives his allegiances lightly, if at all. 'I got no call to think you'll even spare a thought for your big brother...'
Sam's finding it hard to think of anything else. He's so close.
The horses have slowed, and the publisher elbows Sam in the ribs. "Fresno," he mutters, as they pass a feed store, a post office, a hotel, a blacksmiths' with the carcass of a Model-T coach-built charabanc outside, and Sam's already pulling on his jacket.
"Hope you find what you're looking for."
"Thanks," Sam says, and tips his hat.
He's stiff, getting out of the coach. Three years of city living does that to a man, although Sam's never forgotten the rough and tumble of growing up on the trail and in Frisco he'd taken his energy out on a downtown gymnasium. Market Street nights had honed his reflexes and his big city smarts, kept his guard up and his chin high, but it's not the same as a life spent on the road and his body's gone soft with his bed. He needs directions, a horse, a bath, and a shot of whisky, although he's well aware that all of these are means to an end.
Five years down. He's not the boy he was when he let Dean push him away. He's had nights when he can't think of anything else: the blood's on his hands, but he still doesn't regret the moment he pulled the trigger, just what came after.
There's a livery stable right behind the feed merchant, but the only animals there are the lathered, steaming team from the Raymond coach, and the stableman looks at him as if he's asked the impossible. It's planting, he explains, and Sam sighs. He can make do with a mule, but there are none of those to be had either. Mr. Overhead's due back tomorrow, he's told. Try then.
A bed and a bath he can have, in the single, winter-battered hotel, although the bath's a pitiful luke-warm thing in a tub he can only sit down in with his knees tucked under his chin, and the towels are threadbare. They're clean, though, and Sam changes his shirt and heads down the street to the bar in search of directions. Despite the advertised mineral waters and soft drinks, the place is sawdust floored, dimly lit by kerosene lamps, and smells of tobacco and wood smoke and sour whisky, same as every other bar Sam's ever frequented. Swing doors to the street, a brass spittoon by the doorstop and a set of antlers on the wall the span of Sam's spread arms, a few tables, a group of men huddled around a poker game: a dusty piano with a cracked keyboard and a silent radio. There's a poster for a Chautauqua in Madera, two months out of date, two hand written notices for farm sales and someone else offering fiddle lessons. It's a long way from San Francisco.
The fire's welcome. Sam drops his hat on the bar and nods to the bartender. "Been a dry ride," he says. "What've you got?"
The bartender looks at him hard, measures his travel-worn clothes and his eyes and the set of his hands. Nods back. "Kentucky apple juice?" he asks, and Sam smiles his thanks. He doesn't ask for ice. Dean's always taken his whisky straight, and Sam slams the first shot just as Dean might have done, standing at the same bar. It's good whisky. The burn's warm, not acid.
Sam turns the second shot in his hands, looking down. "Looks as if there's a fair few logging camps around," he says carefully. "I saw the trees in the river, on the way up."
"Right now there is," says the bartender. "Visiting?"
"I guess so," Sam says. "Pleased to meet you. Sam. Sam Winchester." He's hoping for recognition, but it doesn't come.
Trethallen." The man's in his forties, running to fat on a big-boned frame.
His hands are scarred, reddened. Worker's hands.
"Nah," Sam says. "Looking for someone."
"Ain't many people we don't know hereabouts," Jem says.
"I'm looking for a man named Castiel," Sam says. "Reverend Castiel. Heard as he'd settled here, him and his church."
Behind him, the poker table is suddenly silent. Jem ducks his head, picks up a washcloth and runs it over a glass already clean.
Sam says, "My brother wrote me. Said, he'd found a piece of heaven right here. Took me a while to get my boots on."
Jem snorts. "Paradise? Last thing that place needs is another mouth to feed," he says. His mouth's drawn tight.
"That so," Sam says, although the rush of relief is so strong he almost flushes with it: he's in the right place. He says, "I wasn't planning on stopping," and at the back of his mind is the feel of his own hands on Dean's skin.
"Good," Jem says, and nods, short and sharp. "There's something downright hinky about that place. Ain't nothing personal. That Reverend Castiel. Should have laid him out and sent him home first time they came through here. Him and the rest."
"Can't say that I'm fond," Sam says. "I don't know the man." His hand's tight on the glass, although his voice is steady.
"You take my advice," Jem says, "You get up there, you truss your brother up if you have to, and you get the hell out. Last winter was a killer," he says, "And this one's gonna be worse."
It's still April. Sam nods. Those were pretty much his thoughts, too. He says, "Word in Frisco was that the Reverend's a little askew."
"That's one way of putting it," Jem says. He puts up the glass, wrings out the washcloth, and leans on the bar. "We live and let live hereabouts. I ain't got anything against those darkies or Mex-i-cans, man can't help the color of his skin. But folk like that should stick to their own, same as us. Reverend Castiel," Jem spits. "Don't need to know the man personal to know he's a fool."
Rural America's not San Francisco, and even there scratch below the surface and most folks would say the same. On the road, definitions are less clear-cut: Sam's always been more concerned with the color of a man's money than his skin. He says, "So I'm guessing he came through?"
"Way Parson tells it, the man'd sooner set foot in a bear pit," Jem says, "On account of all the gambling, fornicating and drunkenness we got round these parts."
"That I can drink to," Sam says, and the Examiner buys bourbon all round before Sam can add, so carefully, "Still. I'd thank you kindly if you could tell me what direction I'll find my brother."
"Tanner went up there," Jem says, and nods to one of the men at the poker table. "In January, with Parson." He's looking at Tanner and Tanner's looking back, wiping off his mouth with the back of his hand. He's a tall, lean man with a wispy moustache and weathered cheeks, and the face he pulls looks like he's bitten into something sour.
"I'd be grateful for the advice," Sam says, leaning back against the bar, nice and easy, harmless.
boys," Tanner says, and brings his empty glass to the bar. Behind him,
one of the poker players reaches for the radio. There's a burst of static,
harsh, and then a man's voice says, 'RCA Farm and Home Hour. In the
week when Chicago stock prices fell by...'
Sam nods. "Sam Winchester," he says. "My brother's there. It took me a while to find him, and there's a few other people I heard of on the way up here. Seems like the Reverend's setting up his own town."
"You're right there," Jem says.
Sam nods to the bottle, waits. If there's one thing he's learned from the Examiner it's when to stay silent.
"Thing is, there ain't no way a hundred people can live off of the land up there," Tanner says. He's got a slow drawl, laconic. "Madera, maybe. Not here. Any fool would know the soil's too poor and the season too short."
"We thought they'd last a month," Jem says. "And then head back down with the first snow. It's happened before."
"It was a hard winter," Tanner says. "A hard winter and a cruel spring. Pass was closed November to... when did it open, Jem?"
"Twenty eighth Feb," Jem says. "January, the deliveries came in by mule. Damn near had a dry bar for New Years. God bless the bootleggers."
"Parson starts to fuss come the end of January," Tanner says. "Truth be told, talk here was... well, we'd not seen hide nor hair of a one of them for a month or so. February, we get a truck up from Madera with a load of feed. Driver says it was ordered back in the fall." Tanner says, "That place drifts up like a bitch in winter. Can't get nothing but a mule over the pass and that's pushing. So Overhead and me and a couple of the boys with nothing better to do, we load up, and then Parson says he's coming along for the ride on account of his Christian duty. Takes us three days to get up there, and every day we're looking up at the sky and hoping it'll stay clear. Parson and God ain't always on speaking terms, see."
"Sunday, we get there. There's cabins, but nothing moving. Well," Tanner says, and coughs. "We get those mules down into the valley, and we start unloading the critters, and Parson's knocking on doors and, let me tell you, that was a lot of people. So me and Richardson, we're trying to parcel everything out fair, and then Parson starts shouting."
Tanner's eyes slide to his empty glass. Sam obliges.
"Seems Parson had mentioned how living up here weren't the best idea, and Reverend Castiel took it hard. We were all sinners in his eyes," Tanner says, "And he wanted Parson to take his tainted goods right back where they came from. Parson weren't having none of it. If those people weren't hungry then, they were gonna be. Thing was, minute the Reverend starts mouthing off, the place goes quiet. You could tell," he says, and hawks up a gob of phlegm, "If'n he'd said walk off a cliff they'd have done it. Parson's beside himself, and me and the guys, we don't know rightly what to do. We could have just left the stuff, but odds are they wouldn't have eaten it. That's Reverend Castiel for you."
Sam draws in a breath, whistling, through his teeth.
"We don't think much of the Reverend around these parts," Jem says.
"What happened?" Sam says.
"Some fella," Tanner says. "He says something to Parson that stops the yelling, and then he talks to the Reverend all quiet like. The Reverend turns right around and he says something about manna from heaven, and danged if he doesn't start leading one of those mules off like it's his'n. Well, Overhead nips that one off, and we drop everything off in this cold store they got built, and we turn tail and get the hell out of there. Never did get paid," Tanner says.
Sam says, "They're still there?"
"A three four of the families came down, when the pass opened," Tanner says. "Heading back to Frisco fast as their legs'd take them. Rest are still up there, s'far as I know. There's a fella comes down for the papers, once in a while."
"That so," Sam says.
"Ain't no way next winter's gonna be any easier," Tanner says. "Not a man jack of them with any sense. " He spits again. "Be the Donner party all over again, and I'm telling you, I don't wanna see that shit."
"Parson wanted them thrown off," Jem says. "Captain Oscoff's said there's nothing he can do, it being the Reverend's land, care of the government. But there's something not right up there. Every one of them, hanging off the Reverend's words like..." He shrugs.
"Got no argument with that," Sam says. He's thinking of Jeremiah, all of sixteen and on his own, and Elisabet Barrat who has likely never set foot in a tent until she took a fancy to the Reverend Castiel, and of Liu and Anna and Dean. Dean. Sam says, "My brother's there. I'm going up."
"It was you after a horse?" Tanner asks. "Overhead's?"
Tanner looks at the bourbon, There's not much left in the bottle. "Could take you half ways there," he says. "Tomorrow morning. Early. Seeing as I'm promised to Morten's for the trap line."
"Thanks," Sam says, and upends the bottle.
It's raining when he heads back to the hotel. The stars are out. Looking up, blinking raindrops from his eyes, Sam wonders if Dean's watching the same sky.
Not long now.
The route Tanner leads them up is a logging track, winding up past a few small cabins into the foothills of the Sierra. Sugar Pine took the trees, but farming the land means clearing roots and stones before planting, and even then the mountain soil is poor, better suited to stock than crops. In the valley, a man could cut his hay in June and his corn in September, grow tomatoes and vines on south-facing slopes. In the mountains, the summer is shorter and the winter harder.
"Put a claim in up here," Tanner says, "A man's got to be either desperate or touched in the head." He adds grudgingly, "The Reverend picked his spot. It's a sweet little valley he's got."
Sam asks, "Do you know it?"
Tanner shrugs. "I hunt some," he says. "Deer, in these parts. Bear and cat, further up. I know it." His rifle, like Sam's, is slung over his back.
The countryside is mixed, groves of young maples and black oak huddled down in the valleys, while the hillsides are scattered with bristle cone pines and Saratoga. Logged out, the trail itself winds through open glades green with ferns and native grass, half hiding the weathered stumps of felled trees. The clouds are still low, hiding the mountaintops and wreathing through the regrowth of sapling pines, so that Sam and Tanner climb into the mist, and although it's not yet raining the wet grass and the brush of a cool spring wind promise more.
Walking, Sam allows himself to fall into the rhythm of his own stride, a long easy trail-eating lope that would have been out of place on San Francisco's crowded streets. In Frisco, he'd have been alert for the spluttering roar of an automobile or the rattle of streetcars. The city is never quiet. Sam falls asleep to the sound of the trams and wakes to the distant whistle of the Chicago Express. Here, the only sound is the rustle of his boots on fallen pine needles, and the occasional chatter of disturbed wildlife. The mules are a meditative, swaying procession of hooves and ears and saddlebags, and Tanner's an almost silent companion, content to amble along the trail and pass an occasional comment. Once, Tanner stops the mules and both of them watch a bobcat drink from a creek, water gleaming in stiff whiskers.
Tanner gives him a glance that's half abashed and half challenging. "Never did sit right with me to kill a beast when there's no need," he says.
Late that afternoon, just as the damp of the mist begins to harden into rain, Tanner draws the mules to a halt. The trail forks, one branch leading north, the other turning off west to the Sierra. "Nine miles," he says, "Or thereabouts. Don't turn by the blasted oak, where the trail goes west. It'll be faint, but keep north. You'll more than likely see sign of the wagons going through. Couple of trucks, too." He shrugs. They've both seen the ruts, the snapped branches and the scraped bark. Some of the scars are fresh. There's been a truck along the trail in the last week or so. "When the ridge starts to climb, you know you're right." Pausing, he adds, "Watch out for bear."
"Thanks," Sam says, unstrapping his knapsack. The mule flicks an ear at him, irritated and unbalanced. "Safe trip."
Tanner grunts at him, clicks to the mules, and Sam watches all three of them head on along the wider trail. Then he shoulders his knapsack, frowns at his own, narrower track, and starts walking. Freed from the constraint of the mules' slow pace, he can stretch his stride, and even though he still doesn't know if he's looking in the right place for his absent brother, there's a sense of urgency now as he walks.
That night he camps in a clearing just off the trail, caches his food against bears and fills his canteen from a stream so clear he can pick out the pattern of scales on a basking trout. Although Sam's tinderbox is full and his kindling wrapped in his knapsack against the rain, the evening is fair, and Sam dines on salt pork and fresh bread and counts himself lucky. He's asleep before the moon rises over the tree tops.
He dreams of Dean's face, shadowed, with the lines at the corner of his eyes and his mouth incised into his skin. Then of Dean's back, the bunch of his muscles and the nape of his neck, the tense spread of his thighs and Sam between them, hard.
That's not unusual.
The morning's grim. Sam wakes to a persistent drizzle which has already soaked the outer layers of his blanket and driven last night's fire down to muddied ash. An hour later the rain is steady, and the clouds linger over the tree tops. Sam's clothes are wet through, his bangs drip into his eyes, and wheel ruts hidden by spring growth and puddled with rain ambush his stride. It's miserable going for Sam, and getting the wagons along this trail must have been soul-destroying labor. Over a year later the ruts still sink eight or nine inches in the thin, acid soil. Sam plods on, his feet heavy with mud and his hat dripping water. His knapsack's soaked, his bread and cheese wringing, his coffee grounds miserably damp in their tin. His boots are so wet the leather sags away from the stitching. Only his hat is as solidly braced as it should be: Sam feels as if he's dragging himself along the trail inch by inch.
The slog up to the pass is brutal. Runoff rainwater cascades down the track of it, and the cloud is so low and dense that visibility's down to two or three yards. Sam's following the churned up morass of the wagon wheels, the snapped branches and wallows where the horses struggled up the rise. The going is tough enough for Sam. He can't imagine what it would have been like for the Reverend Castiel's congregation, burdened with goods and children.
By the time the trees start to clear, he's tired and hungry, and his muscles ache with a sore, prickling warmth that's got nothing to do with fatigue. He should eat, but his food's as sodden as his bedroll. Cloud and rain narrows the trail down to the sucking squelch of his own boots in mud and the rocks and thin grass of the ridge: Sam's left the trees behind and the cold, still air tells him he's climbing. The trail seems endless. Ten miles is a good afternoon's hike in sheep country. Up here in the mountains, it seems interminable. Sam could have been walking in nothing, the cloud's so close, coming from nowhere, going nowhere.
He only knows he's walking downhill because his weight shifts in his boots, cramping his toes. There are no trees, nothing other than the endless grey ghosts of the cloud: Sam peers through it, searching, but there's no sign of a valley. Only the wheel ruts trail onwards, and Sam follows them blindly. He's running on faith. Dean's walked this way before him. Dean's waiting for him, somewhere ahead in the grey shrouds of the clouds. Dean -
"Doggoneit," Sam says, the word shocked out of him. Looming up in front of him out of the mist is the blocked corner of a log cabin. The cloud's so thick he'd almost walked into it: and although the wood's soaked dark with rain, the cabin was built to last. It's solid. Sam lays a hand on it, looks at his own wet, muddied fingers and feels nothing but a surge of relief so strong his smile's dangerously wide. Where there's a building, there's people. Where there's people, there's Dean.
Hitching up his knapsack, Sam works his way around to the door. It's made of rough cut planks, but the edges are sanded off and it opens smoothly into lantern light and startled voices.
"Shut the -"
"- must've missed the patrol -"
Sam ducks under the lintel. He takes his hat off, shakes the rain from his hair, and looks up. The cabin's full of people. There are four crowded bench tables, men, women, faces staring back at him in shock. A small child arrested in an unsteady pirouette, earthenware plates and mugs and the smell of stew, hot and fragrant. The first thing he notices is that the crowd's mixed, Mexican, Chinese, black and white, intermingled as if there's no such thing as the color bar.
The second is Dean.
Like the shock of a silent bell, recognition crashes through Sam's body and leaves him voiceless and reeling. It's like seeing a stranger. Dean's older: he's broader in the shoulders, his arms muscled, his hands stronger than Sam remembers and his face harder. He's lost all traces of the childhood fat that had padded his cheekbones and his jaw line. But his eyes are the same, and the curve of his mouth, and although it's been five years Sam, his own eyes wide, breathless, knows then that he's as bound to his brother now as he was for all the years of his childhood. Dean's a sounding drum in his blood, bone of his bone, lodestone, compass, the one man he has always loved and always will.
The voices around him are muffled inconsequentiality. There's nothing in the world but him and Dean.
Sam can't even smile. He's fairly sure he can't move, until he realizes he's holding a hand out as if he expects Dean to stand up and touch him. Dean's not moving. Sam's not even sure his brother can move. Dean's caught, frozen, with a spoon caught in one hand and his mouth half open with shock and the blood draining so quickly from his face he looks like a washed-out ghost of himself.
Sam thinks, 'Shit.'
Sam thinks, 'What have I done.'
The thought hurts like the slice of a razor blade through flesh, numb before the blood comes. He lets his hand drop. He lets himself look down at the woman who has her hand on his shoulders, the woman who has been saying to him, "Are you alright? Are you lost? You must be soaking - come in, sit down. Eat something. We'll get you -"
She's small and round, her hair in an untidy bun, her eyes kind. "Sit," she says. "Please, sit. Here, near the fire. Did you come up from Fresno in this weather? You must be exhausted."
Dean's not moving. Dean looks as if he can't move. His face is so white his eyes stand out in the shell of it, so dark a green they're almost black. Sam's seen his eyes like that before, once, so close.
"Sit down before you fall down, son." It's a gruff, kindly voice, and when Sam blinks and shakes his head a tall man with a spade-cut beard is offering him a stool. "Let Harry take your knapsack," he says. "It's fine, we won't lose it. Sit."
Sam clears his throat. He manages a nod that's only a little uneven and eases out of the straps. The knapsack's so heavy with water it thumps down on the floorboards, puddling. Clinging wet and cold to his legs, his pants are so tight he has to hitch the knees up to sit down, and the soles of his boots slip uncomfortably against the floorboards.
He can still see his brother from the corner of his eyes. It's not enough. He lets someone drape a blanket around him, lets someone else pull his boots off, and he can't look away from Dean's face and Dean doesn't look away from his.
Blearily, Sam can see that bearded face bending over him. "Son, anything wrong with you a plate of stew and dry clothes won't fix?"
"'M fine," Sam says, and looks back at Dean. The spoon's down on the table. Dean's hand opens and closes on the length of it, unconscious flex.
"C'mon," that gruff voice says. A hand on Sam's face turns him to look at that kindly, bearded face, narrowed brown eyes, a frown between them. "You sure you're alright?" the man says, and Sam's reminded of a doctor that checked him over once in Chicago, the professional dry touch and the concern. He manages a nod, and then he can look back at Dean again. If he looks long enough, if he hopes hard enough, Dean might see him. Sam for real. Sam here. Dean might look back at him the way he used to do. 'Look at me,' Sam thinks, because his brother's eyes are dark with something he does not want to recognize as horror, although he's seen that look before, too.
Above him, someone sucks in a breath, holds it. "Do you know this man?" that gruff voice asks over Sam's head, harsher and more direct now, and the question is not for Sam but Dean.
Dean's eyes flick up, away from Sam's face. Slowly, deliberately, he raises his spoon to his mouth, and swallows, as if he'd given Sam nothing more than an idle glance. He runs his hand over his face as if he's wiping something away.
Then Dean says, "I've never seen him before in my life."
The last thing he remembers is Dean's face.
Sam opens his eyes and sees nothing. The room is pitch black and heavy. Searching, silent, Sam fails to lay a hand on his clothes, his tinderbox and his strike-a-light, or his two inch stub of emergency candle, and in the process realizes he's wearing nothing but a pair of drawers and a heavy homespun shirt, not his.
There's someone else breathing in the dark.
Sharp hissing flare in the darkness, a match lights, and a candle stutters into flame. Dazzled, Sam blinks, shuffling himself upright in the bunk. The hand that held the match to the candle is scratched, with scarred knuckles and ragged fingernails.
"Don't say a word," Sam's brother hisses at him, one hand slammed down over Sam's mouth and the other shielding the candle.
They're not alone. Around the island of candlelight, Sam can now hear the rise and fall of other men breathing, asleep. The air is warm with body heat and smells of wet wool and sour clothing, dusty mattresses and unwashed sheets.
Dean's hand tastes of sweat and soil, and his fingertips bite into Sam's skin. In the darkness, Sam tries and fails to see Dean's eyes. The vaguest outline of Dean's head and shoulders is all he can discern, near enough for Dean's harsh whisper to be heard by no one but Sam.
"We're not brothers, Sammy," Dean says, every word carefully delineated, as if Dean's been practicing the heft of them. "You don't know me. Do you understand? Nod." They'd never needed more than the shadow of a wink between them, fly and knowing. Now, Sam hesitates. Fingers tightening, Dean waits. Sam can hear the unsteady pulse of his breathing.
Sam shakes his head.
"For once in your life, can you just do as you're told?" Dean says, even quieter, with an edge to his voice, familiar exasperation and impatience. It's almost as if five years have never happened. The smell of Dean's skin is so shockingly intimate that Sam, feeling as if his gut's crawling into his throat, knows he'll never again be able to pretend any other man is his brother in the dark.
Last time he saw Dean there was a dead man between them. Dean said, leave. Now. Sam did. It's the biggest mistake he's ever made.
He shakes his head again, and then he closes his eyes and tips his head into Dean's hand.
"Sammy," Dean hisses. "Don't. Listen." His hands are shaking, a fine tremor that Sam would never be able to see. "You need to leave. I want you to take your gear and get out of here. Do you hear me?"
The touch of his thumb on Sam's cheekbone is the smallest of movements, a flicker of a caress that betrays Dean in every word he says. Sam doesn't move. If he moves, Dean's hand will lift, and Dean's hand on Sam's skin is a promise Sam needs to believe. Dean's hand is warm. Against the calluses - palm, finger pads, edge of his thumb, Dean, Dean - Sam's stubble pulls and catches, clinging. For a moment, there's nothing but the both of them and skin in darkness, a charged awareness that tumbles Sam's pulse into a beating drum, bristles every hair on his body and makes him catch his breath. The wood creaks as Dean shifts in his seat, and one of his boots shuffles abruptly against a rough wood floor. He's not silencing Sam, not now. His hand cups Sam's face, and his thumb turns over and over again against the line of Sam's cheekbone.
"Sammy," Dean whispers. He's closer. His shirt brushes against the blankets and his forearm is warm against Sam's chest, and when Dean swallows the faint shudder of it is as much Sam's as it is Dean's.
Sam says, "Dean." He lets his mouth brush against the hard warmth of Dean's wrist, the underside of it where the skin is so thin and pale in winter. He's surprised by the sound of his own voice, lower and rougher than it should be, and Dean's fingers tighten. Sam hasn't got any other words.
Then something cracks, wood on wood, outside. It could be a loose shingle, a wind-blown branch, a footstep - instantly Dean's as tense as he ever was with a gun in his hand and Sam with him. Snatched free, Dean's fingers snuff the candle, and Sam can almost hear the sound of both of them not breathing.
Twenty seconds later, candle, flint, boots, silent as a hunter, Dean's gone.
Sam, alone, squares his shoulders, tightens his jaw, and stares at the space where the rafters would be if there was any light at all. Then he lets the incandescent triumph of the moment swell from his toes to the top of his head. He's found Dean. Against all the odds, Sam has his big brother in the palm of his hand, under his eyes, pinned down and safe. Sam's not going anywhere.
He rolls over, tucks the blanket up to his chin, and lies smiling into the darkness until he falls asleep.
There's a stool kicked almost under the bunk. A pile of clean, worn clothes at the end of it, nothing Sam recognizes, but his own were all soaked through. His hat's on a nail, his knapsack below it, gaping open, his boots, sadly damp, tucked beside. No rifle, a thought Sam frowns at for a moment and then lets go. The door to the bunkhouse is open, and outside is hazed with pale sunshine. Sam's slept in. He's still tired, stiff and aching, and there's a blister on his heel that's sharply painful against the rough sheet. It doesn't matter. He's here. Dean's here.
Outside there's a rattle of boots on the steps, just enough warning to tug his pillow down and mute his smile. There's a boy at the door.
"Hey mister. You awake? Annie says if you want breakfast hot you need to hurry. It's ham today. And eggs. We killed a pig," the boy says. "We hung it up and cut its throat and collected the blood. In a bucket. That's where the ham comes from."
Sam says, "From the bucket?" and drags on a shirt and a pair of pants two inches short in the ankles. There are dry socks in the pile he bunches around the cuffs, like a stoker.
"No sir. The pig. Annie says we'll eat everything. The blood went into sausages. On a string."
"Annie sounds like a good cook," Sam says, struggling into his wet boots and knotting the laces. The conversation's unreal. The last thing he wants to discuss is breakfast: he's here for Dean, not the catering.
"She's great!" the boy says. "Except when it's oatmeal. I hate oatmeal. Are you ready?" He's shuffling from one foot to the other.
"Almost," Sam says, and bends over the bed to tuck knife and oilcloth into his belt unseen. He flicks a stray wax trail from the stool as well, just in case.
"Cookhouse is this way," the boy says. "Elder Edwards says I'm to ask you your name and be polite. I'm Harry," he says.
"I'm Sam," Sam says.
"Just Sam," Sam says, ducking through the door. When he straightens up he's surprised by sunshine, mountain cold and clear. It shows him the huddled rows of cabins, the rough fences and the muddied tracks, the plowed fields and the scrubby cattle and the white-washed church and the frame board house next to it, sharp shadowed against the dull green of the turf. There are people around, a cluster of men outside the church, a row of bent figures in the field, four women hanging up washing and others bunched around steaming half-barrels heaped with cloth. None of them are Dean.
"Looks like you've got a fine place here," he says, surprised by how established the settlement looks, although the barns are rough-built and the fences straggling.
Harry looks up. "It's Paradise," he confides earnestly.
"Sure," Sam says. In sunlight, Paradise is pretty enough, but the track's muddy, and his feet slip in their wet boots. Sam thinks, 'Sooner you than me, buddy.'
The ham is excellent, although there's little enough of it and no coffee. A woman Sam thinks he must recognize from last night passes over the plate and asks him if he wants tea or water: tea turns out to be a herbal brew Sam sniffs suspiciously and ignores. The cookhouse tables are long and lined with stools, and the hatch is crowded with dirty enamel cups and bowls: from the other side of the hatch comes the chink of cutlery and the splash of water. Sam recognizes the benches, bare now, and the long tables, the rafters and the serving hatch and the stove. Unlike the bunkhouse, the walls here have been lined and whitewashed, and the floor planked. It's the room he fell into last night.
"So... do you always eat here?" he asks Harry, who is staring longingly at Sam's plate.
Harry shrugs. "Most times. Sometimes we picnic," he says. "There's a water hole, but the little kids aren't allowed. School days, we eat in class."
"You go to school?" Sam asks, surprised.
"Week days," Harry says. "Not Saturday. Sunday's for scripture." He glances up, and drops his voice to a whisper. "It's really boring," he adds.
"That so?" Sam says. He looks at his plate, slides it across the table. There's a slice of ham and an egg left and he figures Harry probably needs it more than he does. The boy's thin, thinner than he should be.
Dean used to do that for him.
"I know why we're here," Harry says, muffled, eating. He's got his elbows on the table and his back hunched, and he's eating fast. "I don't need reminding all the time. We're special."
"Huh," Sam says.
"You must know," Harry says. "You're here too." He licks the last of the yolk from Sam's fork, sighs, and pushes the plate back. "Now you take it up to the hatch. And say thank you."
Sam does. The woman who'd served him is clearing plates. She's wearing an old fashioned, long dress with a plain headscarf, her face flushed and tendrils of hair curling steam-damp from under the cloth. Sam says, "Ma'am, much obliged. That was excellent ham," and she looks up and smiles briefly, rote, but suddenly the tilt of her chin is familiar. Sam's seen that face before, and not last night. This is Mr. Li's Annie.
"Mrs. Li?" he says quietly.
This time when she looks up there's a frown between her eyes. "What?" she asks. Her hands don't stop stacking. There are a lot of plates.
"Are you Annie?" Sam asks. "Mrs. Annie Li?"
"I don't answer to that name anymore," Annie Li says, and the frown is deepening and her face is paling. Like Harry, she looks behind her, so quick a glance Sam might have missed it if he hadn't been looking. "Just Annie. Don't -" She has to put the plates down. Her hands are shaking. "We left those people behind," she hisses. "We're happy here. We don't need to be anyone else."
"I have to go," she says, sharp, and she's gone, straight backed, shoulders braced under the grey poplin of her dress.
"What was that?" Harry asks, at Sam's elbow.
"I thought I knew her," Sam says slowly. "But I don't think she's the woman I thought she was." He's frowning. Then he says, "So what's next?"
"I could show you the schoolhouse?" Harry says doubtfully. "Or the pigs? We have baby pigs."
"Isn't there something you're supposed to be doing?" Sam asks, and hopes there is, because he's not here for the tourist trip.
"No?" Harry says. "Elder Edwards said I was to make sure you got breakfast and then show you around. I'm to ask where you're from."
"San Francisco," Sam says. They've walked, slowly, into the sunshine. The figures in the field are still working, a little further up the furrows, but Sam, squinting, still does not see Dean. He does notice the narrow furrows, carved by a single plow share, the hunched stance of men bent over a hoe, the piles of clearance stones at the edges of the field and the smoky bonfire. There's little enough land plowed for a community the size of the one he saw last night, and what there is looks ill-kept and haphazard, despite the workers in the field. Sam looks for grazing stock, and finds a corral of four mules and a herd of cattle: there are sheep on the upper meadows, dirty white against the green of the grass. Higher, the mountain tops are clear of cloud now, the snow such a bright white against the blue of the sky it's almost dazzling. Paradise is a beautiful place, but Sam looks at the fields and frowns. He wouldn't take a bet on the community being half way to self-sufficient.
"We came from San Francisco," Harry says.
"I know," Sam says. "It's a long way."
"And a child shall lead them," someone says behind him, and Sam, shocked, spins around on his heel.
There's a man behind him. Sam had heard nothing, no footstep, no rustle of cloth, but there's a man standing behind him so close Sam's almost flailing, stepping back fast and slipping in the mud. Shorter than Sam, his clothing is disheveled and his feet are bare and muddied, but he's got the face of a child, smooth and unlined and open.
Harry says, "Reverend Castiel!" Then he says, "Sorry, father."
"You're forgiven," the Reverend Castiel says, but his eyes are on Sam. They're wide and blue, and there's a startling innocence to them that Sam has never before met in a man who must be older than himself. It's disconcerting, that absence of sin, because Sam cannot remember innocence. For a moment he's cast back into the darkness of the night with Dean's hands on his skin and his own breath coming fast and uneven, and he knows - he's always known - he would have committed any sin to feel Dean's mouth on his, willing.
There's a moment when he thinks the Reverend Castiel can see that thought in his face, and then Castiel says, "Samuel." His voice is soft. The Reverend Castiel looks like any other man, untidy, unshaven, maybe even a little tired. Sunlight strikes his skin and the white of his shirt, lights his eyes and shadows his hands. "Welcome to Paradise," he says, but there's an edge to the words and he's not smiling.
Off-balance, Sam holds out his hand, but Reverend Castiel, head on one side, merely blinks at him. He says, "You came from San Francisco."
It's not a question, but Sam says, "Yes," all the same. He's thinking, this is the man Dean followed. This man, with his clean hands and his stare and his clean clothes and his bare feet. This man, who will never have Dean's back in a bar-room hustle or a fairground con. The Reverend Castiel isn't going to kick back with a half of bourbon and a stack of 78s, he doesn't look as if he's touched a gun in his life, and he sure as hell isn't going lay the gasoline while Dean gets the matches. Whatever's holding Dean here, it isn't anything Sam's familiar with.
"Be at peace," the Reverend says. He reaches out and clasps Sam's hand in both of his own: his hands are dry, a little cool, smooth. "Whatever troubles you," he says earnestly, "Leave it behind. Know that your brothers and sisters here accept and love you. Lay down your burdens." His voice is low, compelling, but his eyes are unreadable.
"I don't -" Sam says, thrown, and stops, because what the hell does he say to that? He's amused. What does the Reverend expect him to say? Thank you? For a moment Sam sees himself in a gingham apron and Dean at a farmhouse table with an untouched apple pie: Dean's got that uncomplicated, small-boy grin that Sam hasn't seen since his brother was... fourteen? Thirteen? Too long. Maybe they'll keep chickens, Sam thinks, and a house cow and a patchwork quilt, and Dean will come to bed late and warm his cold hands against Sam's belly, and maybe there's some place somewhere where that's okay, but Sam doesn't think he'll find it in his lifetime.
He shivers, and says, "I appreciate the thought, Reverend."
The Reverend Castiel's hands grip tighter and he looks at Sam as if he really sees him: the confusion and the anger and the aching hole that's Dean, gone, the hustles and the cons and the love. His eyes are wide and unfocused, and Sam shivers, for all he knows it's an actor's trick. It feels real.
"Reverend...?" someone says, "Father Castiel?"
When Castiel turns away Sam's suddenly cold. He shakes his head. "What in the hell was...?" he mutters.
"Please don't blaspheme," a woman says quietly.
Sam hadn't noticed anyone else, but when he looks up there's a couple of men, the bearded man he remembers from last night, who introduces himself as Joshua, and a stranger with sideburns and a rangy moustache, Elder Edwards. And an elderly woman with pince-nez and an improbably dark, beautifully styled chignon. She's got muddied boots under the hitched up hem of her dress and her hands are bare, but Sam recognizes class when he sees it and he dips his head in an awkward bob. "Ma'am," he says awkwardly. "I'm sorry." He doesn't like the way they're standing, blocking out the view of the fields and the cabins.
"Don't worry," she says. "It's a little overwhelming, isn't it, the first time. I'm assuming you haven't met our Father before?" She's smiling kindly at him, but her back's as straight as a schoolhouse blackboard and her eyes are sharp.
"I'd heard stories," Sam says awkwardly. He looks down at his hand again. He's not sure if it's actually tingling or if he's imagining the sensation. Electricity can do that, wired right down the back of a man's jacket and up his sleeve, but he doesn't think the Reverend's running that kind of show.
"All of them are true," the woman says, and she's still smiling. "It's Samuel, isn't it? Samuel who?"
Sam opens his mouth. He nearly says Winchester. He's so close to saying it, off balance and disconcerted. If it wasn't for the discipline his father had drummed into them young, running from bad debts and shows gone wrong, he would have done. He says, "Weston," and suddenly lying makes this whole thing just another con, another story to be teased out of a witness, another pool hall hustle or poker game in any other small town. He takes a deep breath and lets it out. He's Samuel Weston, just like he's been before in places a long way from here, a year younger than Sam actually is, born in Idaho on a family ranch, the last of four brothers, cut loose to see the world and far more naive than he thinks he is. "I don't think I've had the pleasure, ma'am," he says, and his head is ducked and his smile endearingly shy and Sam Winchester is nothing more than a shadow in the corner of Samuel Weston's mind, seeing everything and saying nothing.
"You're a long way from home, Samuel," she says, and then she turns and nods at the two men with her and they tip their hats to Sam and leave. "I'm Mrs. Katherine Demarais," she says. "You can call me Katherine. Walk with me a little. Tell me about your family."
So Sam does.
Awkwardly, he tells Katherine Demaris about Idaho, about the sky and the space, about moving to San Francisco and discovering that the city was not friendly to poor boys and immigrants, about hearing about the Reverend Castiel from his landlady. "Tell me about your family?" Katherine asks, and Sam embroiders on his mother, stalwart and worn, and his father, taciturn and distant, and how the ranch could not support all of them. He creates a brother named Jack and sends him to Chicago and marries the other two to local girls, and Katherine asks him delicately about his income and Sam admits cheerfully to being down to his last thirty dollars. She sighs, and Sam talks about growing up on the ranch, tending cattle and mending faces, and Katherine listens with her head bent towards the workers in the fields. It's practiced sleight of hand, and Sam's reading exactly what he needs to say by the shape of Katherine Demaris' mouth and her hands, but Katherine's reading him right back and it makes him uneasy. Sam mentions an Idaho pastor he knew once, and her face tightens, and then Sam talks, with an ingenuous naivety, about believing in justice and parity and how he had rebelled against being paid more for his labor than the Mexicans who had toiled alongside him in the heat of a California harvest.
Katherine smiles, and she says, "I guess you don't have many black folk in Idaho?"
Sam says no, but when he moved to San Francisco the man who shared his room came from South Carolina and carried the scars of his upbringing both inside and out. "It ain't right," Sam says, "That a man should be judged for the color of his skin. Or a woman," he adds, thinking of Sarah-Jane, and Katherine smiles at him again.
"That's one of the ideas that brought us together," she says. "The vision - do you know what a vision is, Sam? An ideal, a promise? - the vision of everybody working together in peace, black people and white people - every nation under the sun. Free to live together and love without prejudice or discrimination." Sam nods eagerly, and Katherine says, "That's what we're working towards, here in Paradise. We're not naive," she says, "We know it's going to take hard work and toil to establish ourselves. Last year was... Last year was hard," Katherine says, and for a moment she looks away, and Sam wonders just how hard it had been.
"And..." Katherine sighs. She puts her hand on Sam's arm and tilts her face up towards his. "It's difficult to believe, but there are people who do not want us to succeed. Paradise has enemies, Samuel. It's one reason why we govern our contact with outsiders, even our own families. I know it's hard," she says sympathetically, "But even the wrong word or two in a letter..."
Sam ducks his head. If he could have blushed, he would have done: he says shyly, hesitantly, "Ma'am, I... there was... my family..." He swallows. "We didn't part well," he says.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Katherine asks gently, and her hand on his arm is soft and warm.
"No," Sam says, and despite himself his voice cracks when he says the words and that's Sam, not Samuel, because he remembers what it was like when he was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and Dean was his whole world.
"Samuel," Katherine breathes.
Here, where Dean's shadow lurks behind every corner and each footstep could be his, the thought's so sharp it burns. He had been nineteen, in Minnesota, when he'd reached out for the first time and Dean had wanted him back. It didn't end well, then. He hasn't been whole since.
"Oh my dear," she says, and then she looks him in the eye and says, "Samuel, you know you're safe here. We won't judge you. We're a church of love."
Of course there have been other men and other women. There had been a man in Kansas who could have been Dean by the shape of his head in the dark, and another on Market Street who had the set of his shoulders, but none of them had been Dean.
Katherine says, "I know this is all new to you. But we're family, here. We'll look after you. And our father... our father Castiel has such love for us. This is a place of love," she says. "I'm so glad you joined us."
Then she says, "Now," and her voice is all warm practicality. "Let me tell you about what we've achieved."
So Sam admires the church, and the mission house next to it where the Reverend Castiel and the elders live, and the schoolhouse, and Katherine smiles and Sam looks for Dean and doesn't see him. He scratches a skinny piglet behind the ears, and suspects that this is the last litter the three elderly sows will produce. He inspects the herd of milk cows and their solitary, knock-kneed bull, and then Katherine takes him out to the fields. In Madera the fields were green with young growth. Here, the shoots are just breaking through, hazing the soil with the faintest tinge of spring. It's already late in the growing season, and the soil is stony and still littered with broken up tree roots. Field corners are piled high with debris, a haphazard attempt at clearing, and someone's had the sense to enrich the earth with soil from the animals, but the covering is thin.
Katherine says, "We baked our own bread from our own corn last year."
Sam grunts, looking at the furrows that slice up to the valley edges. They've plowed top to bottom on a slope, and run-off has already muddied the shoots and washed enough soil from the top of the field to pile up against the fence line.
"We had spring greens, and potatoes," she says, and Sam thinks of the back breaking labor and sighs. "This year we have cabbage and beans," she adds. "Oats for the cattle. We lost... we didn't plan to have to feed the cattle over the winter," she says.
Sam wonders if they'd expected the animals to eat grass buried under three feet of snow. He asks, "How many people live here?"
Katherine blinks at him. "I'm not sure," she says. "Seventy? Seventy two?"
With seven cows, three pigs and a handful of fields. Sam sighs. He asks, "I guess you get stores sent from Fresno?"
"Only for the first year," Katherine says. "The San Francisco community sent us supplies. Not as much as - This year we'll be able to look after ourselves." She says it proudly.
Sam thinks of Tucker and his mules, carrying stores over the pass in the snow. He wonders what would have happened if Fresno's Parson had not been a charitable man. He thinks, 'Lady, if anyone needs a miracle, it's you.'
"That's a few mouths to feed," he says mildly.
"Oh, I didn't count the children," Katherine says. "But God and our father will look out for us. Everything has happened for the best. It's a miracle," she says. "Reverend Castiel..." She says it so reverently Sam has to look back, and her face is soft and her eyes closed. "Reverend Castiel is truly touched by God. You'll see tonight at the meeting."
Sam asks, "Will everyone be there?"
"Yes," Katherine says. She adds, "I don't know what the San Francisco community does now. We haven't heard... there haven't been letters for a while. But here we keep our evening meetings. And on Sundays we have Morning Prayer and then Communion. It's important to worship as a community," she says, "Don't you think?"
"Of course," Sam says.
Then Katherine says, "But of course you'll know better than us. How is the San Francisco community? Is everyone well?"
Sam says, "I didn't find the community. I found your leaflets, and my landlady had been to some of the Reverend Castiel's revivals."
"Oh," Katherine says, puzzled. "But didn't you meet Simeon or Matteus? They went back to tell everyone what we'd achieved here. They said they'd write, but they must have been so busy..."
Sam says. "Ma'am, I'm sorry. I didn't meet anyone."
Biting her lip, Katherine looks down. The sky's darkened over the afternoon, and the wind has risen, pulling at her hair and tugging her skirts. It's a cool wind and it smells of rain, and Katherine's got her arms wrapped around her bodice and her wrap held tightly over her shoulders.
"I guess I missed them," Sam says, but he's absolutely sure that if the community had been active in San Francisco he'd have found them. He doesn't think Simeon or Matteus will be coming back, and he remembers John Trepannier's defensiveness and Lao Li ushering him out of sight. He'd lay a ten dollar bill down on the bet that Simeon Ladyman's gone back to his old job and doesn't want to be found.
Katherine shrugs. "I'm sure we'll hear from them soon," she says, and then she looks up just as the first scatter of raindrops fall. "It's raining again," she says
She doesn't move until Sam says diffidently, "Ma'am, should we get under cover?" and by then the rain's steady, slicking down Sam's hair and soaking through his shirt.
"I suppose we should," Katherine says, but she's not moving, staring up at the rain.
"Ma'am?" Sam says. He's not only damp, he's hungry. It's well past lunch time. It's almost evening.
"Oh very well," Katherine says, and gathers up her skirts.
Sam wears his hat to the meeting. Katherine's told him there's no need to change, that people will be coming from the fields just as they are, but for all his skepticism he's going into a place of worship and that means covering his head. He takes it off at the door and holds it in his hands, looking for both his brother and a seat on the crowded benches, and deliberately not noticing the murmur of interest as he ducks through the door, and Harry waves him over.
"This is Joshua," he says. Joshua's the man with the beard, the man who had looked after Sam last night, the man who had asked Dean if he knew Sam. The man who had stood with Katherine.
Sam says, "Hey Harry. Joshua. We met. I'm Sam. Sam Weston. I sure appreciated your help last night."
Joshua smiles at him. It's a slow, warm smile, approving. He says, "You look a lot better dry and fed."
"Feel it, too," Sam says, although he's still hungry. He's hoping the lack of lunch was carelessness and not usual: he's not a big eater, but breakfast was a long time ago.
The back of his neck's itching.
"Long trip from Fresno," Joshua says.
"Sure was," Sam says. "Glad to be here." He's aware the man next to him is listening to the conversation. People keep turning around to look at him. It's not surprising, if he's the first visitor they've had from the outside world for a while, but it makes Sam uneasy. He shifts on his seat, shuffles his boots, scratches the back of his neck. He's being watched.
When he turns around, Dean's leaning against the wall at the back of the church, looking at his fingernails. Dean's clothes are clean and his hands washed. He's not wearing a hat, and his hair's ruffled and untidy, as if he's been dragging his hand through the crest of it. Eyes down, his eyelashes are black and thick, and the set of his jaw is as stubborn as their father's.
Sam thinks, 'Gotcha.' He turns back, cocks his head, lets Dean know he knows.
"Good day today?" Joshua asks him. "We saw you with Katherine."
"Yes," Sam says. "She showed me -" Joshua's standing. Harry's scrambling to his feet. There's a rustle of boots and clothes almost drowned out by someone shouting, "Castiel!"
When Sam stands, the Reverend's at the front of the church. He's still barefoot, but he's wearing a white robe, absolutely plain, and his hands are stretched out in blessing and his face is quietly ecstatic. His eyes are closed. There's no dais, no lectern, only a table covered with cloth and Castiel himself. There's something about him that draws the eye. Even Sam, suspicious, informed, can't look away.
"Castiel," someone else cries, "Castiel!"
So slowly Sam's reminded of a silent movie, the Reverend Castiel opens his eyes. He smiles, small and contained, and he says, "Hush."
The room is almost instantly silent. Glancing at Joshua's face, at Harry's, Sam sees them utterly intent on their leader.
"Hush, children," Castiel says. "Let me tell you a story."
He lets his hands fall, tucks them into the sleeves of his robes, like a Chinese magician Sam saw once on a fairground stage. Then he looks at Sam. Once, sharp and hard, as if the Reverend's seen through every smokescreen Sam's been building. His heart beats sharp and fast: Sam can feel Dean's eyes on the back of his neck. He sucks in a breath, lets it out slow, lets his face fall into the same interested, alert expression he learned for Stanford.
"Once upon a time," the Reverend says, "There was a man with two sons. This man loved both his sons, but they were very different. The eldest was dutiful, and did everything his father asked. The youngest was angry and rebellious, and did not listen to his father.
"One day this man called both sons to him. He said, 'My children, I am getting older. I am going to give you your inheritance now, before I die. Half of everything I own will be yours, and you can do as you will.'
"The eldest son said, 'Father, keep your goods. I will serve you until you die, because it is right that a child reveres their father.' But the younger son took everything his father had to offer, and went away to the city, where he spent unwisely. He gambled. He drank. He consorted with uncouth people who liked him only because he had money to spend. It was not long before he had spent the entirety of his father's money and was left a beggar. For many days, he tried to support himself in the city, but his old friends did not want to know him and his old enemies spat in his face and called him names.
"When he could bear the shame no more, he covered his head with sackcloth and his body with ashes, and he went home to his father. He crept into the house like a thief, and stood at his father's bedside. He said, 'Father, I have been foolish. I should have listened to you and stayed at home. I have nothing, and I have crawled back to you. I beg you to give me a roof over my head and the crumbs from your table, and I will serve you in any way you wish.'
"But the father was so pleased to see his son that he rose from his bed and embraced him. He called for clean clothes and food: he sent to his neighbors to say, celebrate with me, for my son is home. He called for a goat to be killed and for bread and fruit to be brought, he called for musicians and dancers, and he opened his house to friends and strangers alike.
"The eldest son said, 'Father! This is your son who ran away, who wasted his inheritance and crawled home only because he had no other place to go. Why do you open your house to celebrate? Why do you call for food and dancers for him, when I, who have served you faithfully all these years, receive nothing?'
"'My son,' his father said. 'Rejoice with me. For that which was lost has been found, and my son is returned to me.'
"So too," Castiel says, "Does your father think of you."
He pauses. The congregation is silent. It's the money shot, the sting, the moment he's got them hooked.
Castiel says, "We welcome today Samuel Weston, who has come to us from San Francisco. Let us pray."
Abruptly, he bows his head. Beside Sam, Harry thumps down to his knees. Joshua kneels in a swift, accustomed folding; Sam, caught unawares, fumbles his way gracelessly down and is ambushed by the length of his legs, uncomfortably squeezed between bench and bench. The floor's bare pine. His knees hurt.
"As our father taught us, so we pray," Castiel says.
Head down and rote Sam recites the words of the Lord's Prayer under his breath, half-familiar and resonant. "Lord, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation..." He shivers. Behind him, Dean's voice is a clear, deep counterpoint, the note of it so distinctive Sam can unthread it from every other murmur.
"So be it," Castiel says.
Sam has his mouth open for the final amen. Wrong footed, he snaps it shut, and then scrambles back into his seat.
"We are blessed today," Castiel says. "Let us take a moment to be thankful for those blessings and remind ourselves of how lucky we are to live and worship in this place, surrounded by the love of our community. Let us give testimony to our thanks and praise."
When Castiel's wide gaze passes over Sam he shivers again, chilled. But it's a woman on the other side of the church he singles out, the woman who had looked after Sam last night. "Deborah," he says. "Deborah, tell us what you have to be thankful for today."
"We are all friends here," Castiel says. "Come. Stand."
She's a small woman, Deborah, wearing like all the women on that side of the church a long dress and a scarf over her hair, and she's flushed pink with embarrassment. When she stands, she would scarcely come up to Sam's shoulder, and her voice is thin in the waiting silence.
"Today..." She swallows, the sound of it clear. "Today we are thankful for the gift of food and of our fellowship." She stops, as a murmur of agreement comes from the congregation.
"Anything else, Deborah?" Castiel prompts.
"I am thankful every day for the gift of our children," Deborah says. "And today Marcie wrote her own name and Robbie helped in class. I am thankful... I am thankful every day for the gift of my friends here in the community."
"Deborah," Castiel says, chiding.
"I am grateful every day that my husband cannot follow me here to Paradise," Deborah says, and sits down.
Castiel sighs. "Let us be grateful too," he says. "Here is a woman who has been persecuted for her beliefs and suffered for her faith. I remember Deborah saying to me, as we prepared for this great journey to Paradise, that her husband forbade her to travel with us. He had no concept of what we are achieving here. Even though the church elders spoke with him, he remained obdurate. He believed that because Deborah is a woman, she should be subservient to his wishes. Yet we are all equal before God," Castiel says, and bows his head for a moment. "Deborah, thank you for your faith."
Then he says, "Charlie?"
Heads turn. Charlie's two rows in front of Sam. He's tall, almost as tall as Sam, but elegantly thin, and the tailored white of his shirt is a dramatic contrast to the blue-black hue of his skin. Even Charlie's cough is discreet, the turn of his wrist almost staged.
"You know me," he says. "Charlie Mantel. Grew up in Alabama, shipped out to Detroit with Union Pacific soon as I could. Fourteen years I spent on the railway. Coast to coast, Mexico to Canada, I've travelled this country. I was a steward on the Pullman cars," he says. "I believed that was something of which a man could be proud. I was," he says. "But I'm telling you it ain't easy when you're dealing with white folk. I been called every name you can think of and then some, and that wears a man down... 1919," he says. "In 1919, I took on Frisco to Chicago, and one evening I was coming off the Express at Third, and a kid on the platform passed me a leaflet. Well," he says, "I've always been a religious man, and something about it caught my attention. I'd never seen a church that didn't care what color skin a man had before. So not that night, but the next time we laid over in Frisco, I caught myself a trolley car and I went to see this church.
"Annie," he says, "Annie, I know you were there that night, and Katherine, and Edwards... that was the night our Reverend laid his hands on a baby girl who'd never been off her bed and she walked. Right in front of us all, she walked. He preached about love," Charlie says, "And for the first time I felt as if God was speaking directly to me, Charlie, and he was saying, you can make a difference. I left the service," he says, "And I joined the church. This church. For the first time I was seeing black folk and white folk and every other color of skin and nationality working together to create this community we live in. So I'm thankful for our community, and for the Reverend Castiel who leads us, and for the fact that there's no one here who's going to expect that uppity - their boots spit-shined or their sheets turned down and warmed."
There's a rustle of supportive comment, and Castiel says, "Thank you for that testimony, Charlie. Know that you are welcome here among us."
Then he says, "Do not forget. Here in Paradise we live amongst the converted, our fellow believers, our family in love. But outside this community are the men who would chain a woman down or kick a black man into submission. They would seize any opportunity to see us fail. By our very existence: by our charity and our acceptance and our beliefs we refute their tired prejudice and cruel laws. So be careful. Watch your words and your thoughts. The devil is always amongst us, tempting us to complaint, to nostalgia, to a moment's weakness. Remember what we work towards, our free and open society, and know that the tribulations of the present are stepping stones to our glorious future."
"Bless you, my children," Castiel says softly.
They stand, his community, when he turns and kneels in front of the altar. Joshua's got his arm around Harry's shoulders and Deborah is weeping a little into another woman's shoulder. Head proudly upright, Charlie's face is impassive.
Sam's thinking, if this is what the church is like, no wonder Annie and Lee joined. No wonder Jeremiah found living in Paradise more attractive than the petty jibes he must have faced every day. Sam's thinking, Castiel's almost persuasive, although Sam's by nature and upbringing both suspicious of miracles and skeptical of love. He thinks, surely they think they are creating something new and wonderful here, this community, and if the price they choose to pay is to sequester themselves here in Paradise, perhaps it's worth the price. To them.
But Sam reckons everything's a con, one way or the other. He just has to figure this one out.
Beside him, Joshua says, "Dinner in the cookhouse, Samuel. Rice and beans again." Katherine smiles at him from the line of people filing out the door, and then Dean brushes a hand across his shoulder, ducks down and says, so low Sam can barely hear the words, "Later. Here. Outside."
Dean's gone in a moment. To anyone else's eyes, he could have been picking up a dropped handkerchief or brushing mud from his boots. Sam, though. Sam is shocked into a sudden awareness of his own body, the brush of cotton against his skin and the clasp of his belt and the prickle of his hair against the back of his neck, and the aching heat of his shoulder where Dean had touched him so briefly. As if five years have never happened, Sam rouses to his brother's touch as he always has, half-hard and flushed, and the impulse to stand and follow Dean is almost impossible to resist. In that moment, Sam wonders if it is this community which has kept Dean from him, if it is by Castiel's word that Dean had always been three steps ahead of him, nothing more than the glint of a grin or the shadow of a tipped homburg.
Sam thinks, no. He thinks, as he looks at Castiel's bent head, 'You stole my brother from me.' Sam thinks, 'He was mine first.'
He stands up, and leaves Castiel alone in front of the altar.
Dinner is rice and beans, but there's plenty of it, served from great steaming cans set along the tables. It's a quietly social meal, and Sam eats flanked by Joshua and Katherine, answering questions about Idaho. He's being judged, he knows it, and he smiles and ducks his head and answers soft, and in between times he's looking at the congregation and taking the measure of it the same as he would a San Francisco mob or a speakeasy crowd. He can't work out which child is belongs to which family, or who is married and who is not: there's a woman who flirts with him across the salt who turns out to have three children and a husband at the next table. Two Filipino women who come in arm in arm, one skinny as a rake and the other built like a linebacker and both of them with the same dirty chuckle. A few mixed race kids, a few mixed race couples, an elderly man who tips Sam a knowing wink over the salt. He's too far down the tables to talk to Annie as he had hoped to do, but he knows he's right, because the man she's laughing with, soft and happy, is Chinese. They're holding hands, discreetly, just under the table. Two girls in the corner, one brightly blonde and one neatly cornrowed: one chattering and one silent, with a slow, sweet smile, make him wonder if that's Elisabet Barrat he's seeing. She'd taken her maid, but the two girls he's looking at are friends, not mistress and servant.
Jeremiah he'd seen the moment he walked in, because Jeremiah was sitting next to Dean, and the look in his eyes was so familiar Sam missed a step. He knows exactly how that hero worship feels, although for Jeremiah it's an innocent enthusiasm, and for Sam shot through with the sharp, black edge of desire.
Dean's good with Jeremiah. He's patient, and he makes sure Jeremiah eats tidily and carries his plate to the hatch, and he listens to Jeremiah talk with his head on one side and an absent smile that once or twice morphs into real amusement. It's not the first time Sam's seen his brother with a child - and for all Jeremiah must be seventeen now he's still a child in Sam's eyes - but it's the first time he's looked at Dean as an adult and thought, 'This is how Dean must have looked after me when I was young. This is how he must have looked at me when I was small.'
It's the first time Sam's ever thought beyond his own need for Dean's attention, his smile, his voice, his touch, to wonder what it had been like for Dean, trying to reconcile the child whom he loved with the man who wanted him. Dean's always been a man in Sam's eyes. He wonders, now, if he's always been a child in Dean's.
"- what?" Sam says, and turns around so fast he nearly knocks the earthenware cocoa mug from the table.
"Dean. Dean Winchester. The man you're staring at."
It's Annie. Annie with her face softened and happy, sliding onto the bench at his side while opposite, the man Sam thinks must be Liu is already sitting down. Joshua's gone, and Harry, and the man with the crooked, charming smile whose name Sam thinks is Jimeno. The three of them are as alone as they as they can be in a room full of other people, talking, and although Sam still catches Katherine's sharp stare she's too far away to overhear.
"Welcome to Paradise," Liu says. His voice is soft, a little accented.
"He's known the Reverend since before I went to my first meeting," Annie says. "It's because of him we have piped water. He built the furnace for the boiler. He's a good man."
"Annie," Liu says.
"Husband," Annie says, on a smile so gently intimate Sam has to look away. Then she says, "I'm sorry I was rude to you this morning. I'd never expected to hear that name again."
"I didn't mean to upset you," Sam says. "I'm sorry."
"It's not -" Annie shrugs. "It's just that, Liu and me, we came here to be just who we are, not Xiao Liu and his whore. Or that bitch -"
"Stop," Liu says.
Sam says, "I understand." They're older than they look in Li's photograph, Annie and Liu. There are laughter lines around Annie's eyes and her hands are worn, the knuckles swollen. The hair at Liu's temples is silver, not black. But in the photograph they looked uneasy, out of place, pressed tightly together and staring out at the world. Here Liu's sitting comfortably with his hands spread on the table, and there's a lift to the corner of Annie's mouth that's the smallest of smiles. "I didn't realize," Sam says, and then he thinks of Lao Li's face and leans forward. "I met your father," he says quietly.
Liu's face goes pale, and Annie reaches out a hand to him across the table. Their fingers intertwine, pinched. Annie's still wearing her wedding ring.
"At Trepannier's. The seed merchant. He looked well," Sam says. "But he showed me your photograph. He wanted me to ask you... I don't speak Chinese. But he knew I was coming here and he wanted, I think, to find out how you were. I don't think he'd heard."
Liu's biting his lip. He's looking at Annie, and then he glances up at Katherine and Joshua before he looks back. "I could write in Chinese," he says, so quietly Sam can barely hear him.
"We talked about this," Annie says. "He's not the only person in America who reads characters." But her face too is drawn, and her hand clutches Liu's as hard as he holds hers.
"No one who wishes us ill reads Chinese," Liu says. "And I could code it so that only he understood. Annie, he's my father."
"I know," Annie says.
"He'd wrapped the photograph in silk," Sam says, and he keeps his voice low. It hasn't escaped him that they're being watched. "He was carrying it with him. You, both of you, in a studio, with a backcloth that looked like a train on the prairie."
"I didn't know he'd kept it," Liu says. "Annie, do you remember -"
"My own mother threw us out," Annie says, "And your father took us in. He'd never met me before. He gave me your mother's hairbrush. I'll never forget it," Annie says, and her eyes too are bright with tears. "You'll need ink," she says.
"And paper," Liu says. "Annie, would you -"
"I can't see the harm," Annie says. Then she says, "Do you remember that first night? He tried to cook American food, and it was so..." She's smiling through her tears. "I shouldn't have thought he was like the rest," she says. "It just got so bad."
"I know," Liu says. "I'm not suggesting we go back. But..."
Annie says. "We can work in the schoolroom. Do a project for the children on alphabets and paint a letter at the same time..."
They're leaning into each other, speaking across the table so quietly that Sam can't hear them when he stands up and slides away. People have split into small groups. Someone's got a bible on a table: people are taking notes. In a corner, someone else is playing softly on a banjo, the strings muted, and other people are listening. The Reverend Castiel and Katherine are talking quietly, heads bent over a newspaper, although the Katherine looks up and smiles when Sam moves.
Joshua's beside him. He says, "You know Annie?" his voice low.
The hair stands up on the back of Sam's neck. It's a friendly query, no more, but he remembers Dean's voice. We're not brothers.
Sam says, "Never had a finer breakfast."
"You'll need it," Joshua says, laughing. "We need all the help we can get. Katherine says you grew up on a ranch. We'll be out tomorrow." He's not asking.
Sam says, "Sure." Then he says, "I'd be glad to help, sir. And if that's so, I'll turn in now, company permitting."
"Sleep well," Joshua says, and walks him to the door.
Half way there, Sam stops to pull at his boots. When he turns his head, Dean's watching him. He tips his head and watches Dean's eyelashes dip in acknowledgment, and then he stands up and says to Joshua, "Thanks again. I'll see you in the morning."
"Take care walking back," Joshua says. His eyes are on Katherine now, and he's frowning.
"Sure," Sam says, and yawns.
It's raining, when he leaves the cookhouse, a little, light drizzle of rain that barely dampens the grass. Even the sky is clear, and the stars are bright overhead in a way Sam's never seen them in Frisco. It reminds him of other nights and other places, camping out by the fire. Nights like this, the sky could be nothing more than pierced cloth and behind it all the glory of heaven.
"Shove over, you big lump," Dean says behind him.
Sam laughs, suddenly happier. He says, "Look up."
He can hear the impatient rustle of Dean's clothes: he can imagine the swift, uncomfortable hunch of Dean's shoulders and the pulled face. Stargazing, Sammy? He's expecting Dean's throwaway mockery - You big girl - but Dean says nothing. It's so quiet the stars almost sing.
Sam's got his hands in his pockets, balled against the chill of the spring night. He's not expecting the sudden, weighted heat of Dean's hand on his shoulder, the warmth of another body pressed against his, shoulder to shoulder, hip checked against hip. Dean smells of soap and ink, an unlikely combination.
"Sammy," Dean says in his ear, his voice lower, that close, and then he gives Sam the smallest of shakes and steps away. The space he leaves is cold.
"It's Sam," Sam says, and turns around. Dean's a skittish three feet away, but the stars are bright enough to share the careful, closed line of his mouth and his braced shoulders. "It's been Sam for a while now."
Somewhere between Minnesota and California, he's gained another inch on Dean.
"Fine," Dean says.
"So," Sam says. He shrugs. "I'm still here," he offers.
"I know. Hard to miss," Dean says, and shakes his head. "Look. Sam. This place."
"Your little piece of heaven?" Sam says, and snorts.
"You got the letter," Dean says.
"Five years," Sam says. "You bastard."
"Yeah, well," Dean says, and looks away.
"Then you drag me halfway up a mountain and tell me to scram," Sam says. "What the hell did you think I'd do? Leave you here?"
"What?" Dean says.
"I'm not going without you," Sam says. "So if you're staying, you're stuck with me. You think I'm just gonna walk away? Now? Think again. I'm not nineteen anymore."
"You think I don't know that?" Dean says. "You got... you got real tall, Sammy."
"Sam. Can read and write too. Got myself a job and a bank account. I've been around, Dean," Sam says. "That sweeten the deal any? Because we could hightail it out of here right now." He doesn't like this place. He doesn't like Joshua's watchfulness or the Reverend's stares or Katherine's polite, searching interrogation: he doesn't like Annie's wariness or Dean's closed off face.
There's a moment when he thinks Dean's going to say yes, because his face is still before it hardens, and then he knows Dean's going to say no.
"Then go," Dean says. "Because I sure as hell don't want you here."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Sam says. "Are you so busy playing happy family that you forgot your own?"
"That ain't got -"
But Sam barrels on. "Did you ever miss me the way I missed you? Like half of your heart's been ripped out? You ever fuck someone just because he looked like me? You ever wonder where I was?" He's got his hands on Dean's shoulders. "I think you did," Sam says through his teeth. "I think you wanted me just as bad as I wanted you. I think you were running scared in Minnesota and you've been running scared ever since."
"Fuck you," Dean says, harsh, but he's not moving.
"What the hell did Castiel offer you that I can't," Sam says, and under Sam's hands Dean's shoulders tighten and his head goes back.
He says, "Absolution." His voice is dry and hard.
"Right," Sam says. "You know what? I think you were asking the wrong man." He's so close he can see the way Dean's mouth tightens. Dean's not looking at him. Sam killed a man for Dean, once, although he reckons they've both got blood on their hands. Sam had shot a man down so fast Dean hadn't even known he was there until the gun went off. He'd do it again.
Sam says, "You want me to, I'd absolve you every damn night. On my knees."
He can hear the breath hiss through Dean's teeth. "Or does he do that for you too?" Sam says, cruelly.
"Jesus Christ. Sammy," Dean says, and under Sam's hands his brother shivers, sudden and abrupt. "No. No. This ain't - shoot," Dean says, and he's pushing Sam away, hard.
Sam's got his mouth open to start yelling when he hears the whistling. Someone's coming. He looks at Dean, and Dean looks back for a second, and then Dean turns around.
"I'm going where the cold wind blows, in the -"
"Josh? That you?"
"Pines, in the pines, tell me where did you - Dean?"
Sam creeps backwards, silent.
"Thought I'd find you here. You seen Samuel? Kid said he was going to bed half an hour ago, but he's not in the bunkhouse."
"Sure, I saw him," Dean says, smooth, nothing more than another easy lie. "Stargazing. Set off a moment or two back, surprised you didn't catch him."
"Cold night for it," Joshua says, and now Sam can see him, a dark figure set against Dean's familiar outlined shape.
"Could be worse," Dean says. "Think I'll be turning in myself, though. Patrol tomorrow." He's not moving.
When it comes, Joshua's voice is lower. "You know him."
Dean says, "No."
"That so," Joshua says. "I got eyes."
Dean says nothing. Sam's holding his breath.
Then Joshua says, "You think Castiel minds? You think anyone does? If he's... if you know him."
Dean snorts. He says, "You don't know Cas like I do." Then, quick and uneasy, he says, "Josh -"
"Fine," Joshua says. He says, "If he asks me, I won't lie."
"I'm not asking you to," Dean says. "C'mon."
He doesn't look back.
In the dark, Sam can't be sure, but he thinks that's his rifle Joshua's carrying.
Sam, aching, the basket on his back heavy with debris, could have wished them never planted in the first place. He heaves at a tree root the size of his own forearm, yells "axe!" and Harry brings it over to him from three furrows across.
"Hold onto that end, will you?" Sam asks, and sends three careful strokes down into the root. "And pull?"
Harry's expecting more resistance. He slips and tumbles down into the mud, and comes up grinning, waving the severed root like a banner. "Victory!"
Sam says, "Sucker'll be back again in two years. Only way to clear this stuff properly is to burn it out."
"That's what Dean said," Harry says.
"Well," Sam says. "He knows what he's talking about." He's not used to this Dean, the one that expects to be heard, handing out lists of chores and tools, setting targets as hard and sure as any foreman. "How're you doing over there?"
"Not as good as you."
There's a pile of stones where Harry had been crouched. Wordless, Sam tramps over, loads them into his basket and turns away to the field boundary. The edges are already heaped with unearthed, cleared rock drying in the sunshine. He's been here before, too many times: he washed the dirt off his hands years ago, but when he looks at the cleared rows and the piles of stone there's an unexpected satisfaction in honest labor.
When he looks down to the cabins, there's a mule coming up the track, loaded, slow, and with it Dean and Jeremiah and, on the other side of the mule, the Reverend Castiel with his hands tucked in the pockets of his robe and his head bent. Dean's demonstrating something with his hands and Jeremiah's smiling.
"Clear up! Lunch!"
That could have been him. That was him, ten years ago, with exactly the same hero-worship shining in his face that Jeremiah shows, and Dean had looked at him with the same patient tolerance.
Then Dean looks up and smiles, Dean's slow, irresistible, soft half-smile that's Sam's alone and always has been. It's utterly unexpected. Sam waves without thinking, just as he would have done when they were children, and then he goes to pick up his own basket of spoil and empty it, treading carefully between the young plants. When he gets back to the edges of the field there are blankets cushioning the grass and the bank of stones, and a stack of pails and a can of coffee Dean's pouring into tin mugs, and fresh water in a bucket with a dipper. Sam drops down on the corner of a blanket to wait his turn, tips his head into the sunlight and closes his eyes.
"Good work," Joshua says, and claps him on the shoulder: Sam smiles, eyes still closed, soaking up the warmth. He'd forgotten how good this could be, the simplicity of thinking of nothing but earth and stone and crop.
Someone sits down beside him. "Hey. You hungry?"
"Huh?" Sam grunts, sitting up. Dean's sitting next to him with a pail on his lap and a tin mug in his hand.
"Dean," Sam's brother says, and holds out his hand. "Dean Winchester. We met last night. You were looking at stars."
Sam shakes his head. "I don't believe you," he says, low, because Castiel's standing six feet away and Joshua's watching him and Jeremiah's sitting down beside Dean. Then he shakes Dean's hand. "Samuel," he says. "Sam. And tell me that's food." He's already got a hand outstretched for the coffee, and Dean passes it over. It's weak, black and bitter, but it's still coffee.
"Thanks," Sam says.
"Almost the last of the beans," Dean says. "Sorry."
"No, really, thanks," Sam says.
He gets another smile, this one swift but still real, and then Dean passes over hunks of fresh bread and white cheese and an apple, perfectly polished, just like the ones Sam used to have in his grade school lunch pail whenever Dean could find them. There's the same for Jeremiah and for Dean himself.
"So how come you're not breaking your back with the rest of us?" Sam asks, most of the bread gone and the heel of the cheese crumbs.
Dean shrugs. "Someone's gotta plan something around here," he says. "Should have been here a couple of months back when we were plowing."
"Haven't seen a tractor," Sam says. "Hoping there's one in the barn." His voice is low, but he knows Joshua's still watching.
"Up here?" Dean snorts. "Had enough problems getting the trucks up. And besides." He looks away, says absently, "Jer, don't eat that," and adds, "There's a few folks think what's good enough for their granddaddies is good enough for us. Going back to the soil. Plowed this the old fashioned way. Mule team."
Sam whistles. "Dude."
"That was nothing," Dean says. "Winter. Winter balled us up good."
"I heard," Sam says.
Rolling over, Dean stares at him. "Where?"
"Fresno Flats?" Sam says. "Trapper name of Tanner took me half way here. He'd come up in January. I hear as Reverend Castiel and the parson had words." He crooks an eyebrow.
"Could say that," Dean says, and looks away. "Hey. Jer. You wanna see what I got for you?"
Sam bites into his apple. It's sour: he picks the pieces from his teeth and turns it in his hands. The outside's perfect, but the inside is rotten.
"Christmas candy!" Jeremiah says.
"It's the last of it," Dean warns, and passes Sam a red-striped candy cane already sticky with heat. "You want?"
Snapping it in two, Sam passes half back. There's a moment when his fingers touch Dean's, unexpected warmth.
Dean says quietly, "We owe them. If'n they hadn't come..."
"How bad is it?" Sam asks. Joshua's talking to Harry, looking away, and Sam's rolled over, his elbows next to Dean's on the blanket. Dean's browner than Sam is, a farmer's rich, golden, year-round tan, but his hands are battered and Sam's soft. Sam'll have blisters by the end of the day, and they'll burst and he'll blister on top of them. Give it three weeks, he'll have calluses, but he's going to hurt between times.
Dean sucks the end of the cane. "Could be better," he says. "There's not many of us know how to work the land. They're learning."
"You know as well as I do what you've got planted isn't gonna last you over winter," Sam says.
"I know," Dean says. "But I'll thank you not to mention it."
"Head, sand?" Sam says.
Dean looks down. His mouth's stained pink, his eyelids dropped, and for a moment Sam can see nothing but the shape of his brother's mouth. The words are lost.
It's not the time or the place. Sam shakes his head, and hears Dean say, "... weeks overdue. Supposed to be sent in March."
"What?" Sam asks.
"Were you listening at all?" Dean says.
"Distracted," Sam says.
Dean stares at him. Smiling, Sam lets himself think of Dean's mouth, licks his lips, holds Dean's eyes.
"Hussy," Dean mutters, which is a long way from the caustic comment Sam expects.
"Tramp," Sam says, scrabbling.
He hopes Dean's got the wit to laugh it off. But Dean's eyes flick down, once, and when Dean looks back his pupils are wide and black and there's a flush spreading on the line of his cheekbones. Sam's seen that look before. He knows what it means. But he's never expected to see it on Dean's face, and Sam's not smiling now.
"Shoot," Dean says, and stands up. "Jer. Jeremiah Lowberry. Just what do you think you're doing?"
The boy's covered in mud, head to toe. Even his hair's plastered to his scalp, tight black curls springing through the drips.
"That boy needs a mother," Dean mutters, and then he shouts, "Bucket. Now."
Sam picks up his basket, and as he does he can see from the corner of his eye Castiel standing, so very still, looking back at him.
They're as close as sisters. Sam doesn't ask, although later he'll share kitchen chores and bible study meetings with both of them and find that Winona has a wicked sense of humor and Betty an infectious giggle. He clears the spiders from their trunks: Winona darns his socks, and one evening Dean comes in to find all three of them playing canasta with two sets of cards Sam had to draw himself and joins them. Sam counts it as a win, for all Joshua is frowning and Kathleen's mouth is pursued: he's not betting and the girls don't know it's a gambler's game.
Dean does. Dean studies his hand, plays hard and deliberate, but he's never been able to match Sam's poker face and Sam blocks him at every turn. Winona wins, Dean throws down his hand with a muffled curse, and Sam's broad grin is for his brother alone.
It fades when he looks up. Castiel is watching.
The next day the Reverend preaches on gambling, and Sam goes back to his bunk to find the cards vanished from under his pillow.
But he gets used to it. The unending labor, the plain food. The Wednesday night meetings and the Friday night meetings and the Saturday hymn singing and the Sunday prayers, the Monday study groups and the Tuesday testimonials. The endless reiteration of news stories Sam knows must be half real - the Japanese Immigration Act, the Racial Integrity Act, the Sterilization Act, the Klu Klux Klan marching in Washington - and half scaremongering: the yellow peril crowds column inches and the reds are blamed for bombs, mob riots and union meetings. At meetings, the Reverend Castiel inveighs against politicians, journalists, pamphleteers and broadcasters and writers: the only safe place to be is Paradise, he says, and his congregation prays for unity and digs for God, just as the Reverend tells them.
Yet at the same time there's a rhythm to the days which becomes second nature for Sam, a tired, content structure that leaves him nothing to think about but the end of the next furrow. He helps out in the school, takes his turn in the kitchens, and fixes the boiler when Dean's mired down in broken fencing. Annie sews him a blanket for his bed that will tuck under his chin and still cover his toes, and Deborah finds him a couple of shirts that actually fit from the community's stores. Joshua's watchfulness, Katherine's, even the unreadable constant of Castiel's stare, is merely something to be endured, the price he pays for the accepting camaraderie of this little community and Dean's slow smile.
That stare. Sam would put it down to jealousy, except that Dean's got the bank closed so tight he could be a government man. That stare follows Sam, fixes on him in the meetings and watches him in the fields. He looks up from his plate to see the Reverend watching him eat, catches Dean and Jeremiah and Harry after dinner for an impromptu, improvised game of baseball and finds the man standing silent by fourth base. He can't talk to Dean without being watched, and Dean doesn't seem to object. Sam's seen his brother walking by the Reverend's side, talking. Dean spends long hours in the house where the church elders discuss the fortnightly bundle of newspapers Joshua brings up from Fresno Flats, before the Reverend brings the news to meeting. Dean won't let Sam into the single cabin he built by himself, shies away from his touch, redirects the conversation whenever Sam looks like he's going too far when any of the elders are in sight. And if it's not Castiel it's Joshua, gently, inevitably present. Or Katherine.
It's frustrating as hell. It means Sam never does talk to Annie again about the letter, never gets the chance to talk to Elisabet about her father, can't mention to Jeremiah that his mother would appreciate a word in any way the boy could understand and not repeat. He knows now that post might arrive, but it goes only to the elders, and that the only mail which leaves the community are the Reverend Castiel's letters and those are taken by Joshua. Lack of contact is something the community seems to accept, but Sam feels as if he's been cut off from the outside world and doesn't like that thought. He's used to newspapers, radio, gossip; what he gets is a distillation of threats that sounds more like a call to arms than a discussion.
"God says to me," Reverend Castiel says in the meetings, like he's talking direct to the Lord which Sam doesn't believe, "God says to me that we should..." Work harder. Eat less. Study more. Give up coffee and other intoxicants, and Sam carries a grudge for that one, because he's smelled Dean in the morning, and Dean isn't paying any more attention to that one than Sam would. "Can't see as why God minds if it's a tractor we're using to plough and scatter," Sam mutters, and "Harry, don't forget there's decent people out there, same as us," and bites his tongue so hard over one of the Reverend's inflammatory articles Winona's sneeking glances at him and Annie corners him behind the cabins and asks him straight out if he thinks the article's a lie. Sam says yes, and says why, and Felicia starts to watch his face and not Castiel's. Joshua's starts to get real twitchy fingers, and Castiel never looks at Sam when he asks people to testify.
And Dean. Dean won't talk, although he watches Sam the same way Sam watches him.
Sam wants to write the Reverend Castiel off as a showman, a carnival shyster on the lam with a good line in baloney, but the community's real. There's no other place Sam knows where Annie and Liu could live in peace, where no-one bats an eye if Felicia and Mame share both a cabin and a bed, where the casual insults of the street are never heard. Folk depend on this community, need it, and slowly, reluctantly, Sam's as much part of it now as his brother. He fixes up the blackboard for the school, talks the elders into laying out the baseball diamond, and before long it's him and Dean looking at the fields and deciding what needs to be done, although Joshua's no more than a step away and Katherine's mouth is tight.
But the San Francisco community has vanished. The supplies due in March have not arrived. Messages still come for the Reverend alone, brought by Joshua who takes the one working truck down to Madera once a fortnight, but no grain. No flour, no beans, no fresh food: no dollars. Dean's eyes turn all too often to the gap in the trees where the track goes up to the pass, and Sam notes in his diary, 'May 18th. Out of coffee.' 'May 21st. Killed two of the piglets.' It's too early in the year to be killing stock. Sam says, uncomfortable, knowing that the deer still have young at foot, "We could hunt."
Dean says, "It's not that bad yet." But he's thinner, the lines at the corners of his eyes deeper.
Sam thinks he's begun to understand what holds Dean here, the responsibility Dean's taken on for this small group of people, although Dean won't talk about exactly what he's doing. It's been weeks. Sam begins to forget that he has a life outside Paradise, a job, an employer. His diary becomes something personal, although he still tucks the notebook into his belt and writes only when he's alone. There are days when he almost forgets why he came to Paradise. In the evenings, slowly, he inches closer to Dean, feeling his way, offering the tag-ends of stories and familiar pastimes, afraid to push for more, needing Dean's smile and his attention so badly he aches with the want. They're nearly the same age, they could be friends, and finally Joshua begins to leave them alone and Elder Edwards has stopped ostentatiously reading his bible at the next table. Sam tells Dean about Stanford, about the San Francisco they both know, about Chicago and Detroit. Hesitating, slowly, Dean tells Sam stories he doesn't know, until Sam can almost taste the smell of a Chicago stockyard or know how it feels to split open a fresh pack of cards on a Mississippi steamboat.
They never talk about Minnesota. It's a fragile, fractured thing, Sam and Dean talking.
Sam says, low, "Tired?"
Dean says, although he's lying. Even his voice drags on the words.
Dean's head rests on his folded arms, and there's a tidemark of dust and dried sweat across the nape of his neck. Sam could reach out and run his thumb over that mark, smooth it away. He almost does. He thinks about asking, second guesses himself, and when his hand twitches Dean sighs, almost silent, into his own crooked arms.
Sam says, "Dean -"
"Dean! Sam! Meeting!" someone shouts below them.
"It's Thursday," Sam says.
Dean's already standing. "C'mon," he says.
He gives Sam a hand up without even thinking about it, although Sam feels each finger clear as a bruise.
It's almost dark, but the lanterns are burning in the church windows and they're not the only ones called late. Annie's still brushing flour from her hands and Harry's tripping over his bootlaces, trying to fasten one boot while the other's flopping off his foot.
"What is it?"
They're almost the last to arrive. Only a few seats on the benches are free: Dean opts to stand as he often does, and Sam leans back against the wall beside him, shoulder to shoulder, the first time he thinks Dean will let him. People are concerned, turning around to talk to each other, turning back to look at the door through which the Reverend Castiel will come. Elder Edwards is standing in front of the altar, but he's shaking his head, equally confused, and his pleas for "Quiet! Quiet, please!" are ignored. It's late enough for some of the children to have been roused from sleep, and one of the babies is crying, little gasping, crotchety sobs.
"Has this ever happened before?" Sam asks Dean, quietly.
"Once," Dean answers him. He bites his lip, looks down, and when he looks back he's about to say more.
The words, though, would have fallen into silence. The whole church is suddenly, instantly quiet. Elder Edwards' last, helpless "Qu -" breaks off into echo, as he too turns to Castiel.
Everything about the Reverend is tense. The lines of his shoulders, the thrust-forward angle of his chin, the narrowed line of his eyes. His hands are square-fisted and his sides, his arms rigid, and when he moves it's with an awkward, aggressive uncoordinated rush. He is not smiling.
"The devil is amongst us," Castiel shouts, and if the church was silent before it is deathly still now. "We have failed in our vigilance. We are betrayed."
"Those whom we thought were our friends have lied to us," he whispers, and in that silence it feels as if the whole of the community is holding their breath.
"Have I not loved you enough?" Castiel says. "When was I false to you? Why did you turn against your father, your own family? How could you do this to us?"
A woman is weeping, softly, and Sam slides half an inch closer to Dean, close enough for their shoulders to touch. He doesn't take his eyes from Castiel's face, yet that blind, blank stare swings around to him as if Castiel's pinpointed the move.
"We are betrayed," Castiel says, and holds up his hand, clenched. In it, there's a roll of paper, and the black characters on it are so clearly painted Sam does not need to be closer to know they're Chinese. "Here, here in my hand," Castiel says. "Is a letter written by one of us. It is only by chance," Castiel says, and again his eyes sweep across the dumb-struck congregation,"That this was intercepted."
He bows his head. "I am lost to all reason," he says humbly. "I cannot think of what punishment we should give our erring children. My desire is to be merciful, and yet this... this wounds me, us, to the heart."
"My children," Castiel, says, "What should I do?"
Beside Sam, Dean says, clearly, loudly, "Exile." His is the first voice to speak, and the rows of heads turn to look back at him, but to Sam's horrified eyes Dean's standing forward, his head held high. "I vote for exile," he says again, clearly.
"What?" Sam says. He's never spoken up in the meeting before, but he can't believe what's happening. "Look," he says. "This is a misunderstanding. Liu and Annie -" Dean's turned around, his eyes hard, shaking his head. But Dean doesn't understand. Sam looks at Castiel over his brother's head, says, "Reverend, this wasn't written to hurt us. I spoke to Liu's father in San Francisco -"
"You," Castiel says. "You. You knew?" His voice is low, vicious.
"Yes," Sam says. "I -" Dean's dropped his head in his heads. "I -"
"Serpent," hisses Castiel.
Sam says, "There was no harm in it. No harm meant -" Dean's turned around, standing in front of Sam as if they were still in the schoolyard, his shoulders braced.
He says, "If Sam says there was no harm meant, I believe him. I vote for exile." He adds, "Sam is new to us." He doesn't explain or excuse.
Pale-faced and shaking, Harry too stands up and, eyes on Dean's face, says "Exile."
Sam puts a hand on Dean's back, out of sight. His muscles are cramped hard under Sam's fingers.
Another woman is weeping, and Elder Edwards is bent over, his head in his hands. Castiel's jaw is working, his eyes dangerously bright and on Dean, and even Sam knows that Dean's said the wrong thing. Half the congregation, though, is looking at both of them and not the Reverend.
"Exile," Joshua says, and stands. "Exile," Felicia says, and Betty, and Jeremiah says, "I can't! I can't!" even as the voices continue.
It's Jimeno who says, "Death," and it's only then that Sam realizes just what the choice is. Horrified, he looks from face to face, these men and women he has known and liked, deciding if one of their own will live or die. Jimeno isn't alone. He's just the first, and by the fierce triumph in Castiel's face, the one who has said what Castiel has thought. It's noticed. "Death," Katherine says, quiet and definite, and beside her Charlie shakes his head and mutters "Death" at the floorboards.
Few people are yet to vote. Horrified, aghast, Sam grabs at Dean's hand. "Dean" he says.
Almost imperceptively, Dean shakes his head. His hand is cold, sweaty, and his fingers are clenched on Sam's. "Later," he hisses.
"Exile," Sam says, clears his throat and says it again, loudly, clearly. "Exile."
He's almost the last to vote, but Sam's voice is enough to send the last, nervous rush into a flurry of votes. Winona's staring at Sam as she says it, pale and resolute, and behind her Harry's eyes are wide as he looks between Sam and Castiel. "Exile." "Exile."
Castiel's face has reddened with each voice. He says, "So be it," with such anger that the words are almost spat out, and then he rips the paper in his hands apart and says, "Annie. Liu."
"No," Sam yelps, although by the second syllable Dean's hand is over his mouth. He's absolutely electrified by shock and guilt. He knows exactly what that letter is and to whom it was sent and why, and it's nothing to do with betrayal. He twists under Dean's hand and tries to pull it off, tries to say, "This is a mistake. You don't understand. It's just a letter." But Dean's up in his face, dragging his head down to whisper in his ear.
"For the love of God, Sammy, shut up. Later."
It's almost impossible. Sam stares at his brother, horrified, and then he sees Annie, white, her hands clenched in her apron, walk up to the dais. Liu's behind her, staring at the letter.
"How could you?" Castiel asks. "How could you betray our community like this? How much do you hate us?" He looks as if he's going to strike Annie in the face, and then he looks at Sam, and Sam knows it's not just Annie and Liu he means.
"There is no excuse," Castiel says. "From this moment on you are no longer my children, no longer part of this family. Go. Go now. You are not welcome here."
"How could you?" It's Katherine calling out. "How could you? We were friends!"
Annie doesn't look around. But Liu does, and his face is so distraught Sam draws in his breath to speak.
"Shut up!" Dean mutters.
"Go," Castiel says. "Go. You are dead to us."
It's Annie who takes Liu's hand and leads him to the door. She doesn't look back, and her head is high and her back straight, and Sam's sure that it's her courage which silences the congregation. He tries to meet her eyes over Dean's hand, but she's not looking, and when the door closes behind them it's with a soft, final click.
Dragged down onto his knees along with the rest of their diminished community, Sam can't listen to Castiel. He glares at Dean, and Dean stares back at him under his eyelashes, head dipped. His fingers tighten.
Sam nods, once, and Dean lifts his hand. "Later," he mouths.
Later is so late the moon's set. Three hours on his knees, three hours of Castiel's voice screaming and whispering imprecations and threats, and Sam's so stiff he nearly topples when he stands up. Dean, too, moves awkwardly, but his hand's still tightly clenched around Sam's forearm and as soon as they're beyond the light from the door, leaving, he's pulling Sam aside.
"Come on. Sam, pull it together," he says. "Walk. Just walk."
"What the hell?" Sam says. "Were we in the same church? Did you see that? How could you just stand there?"
Dean says, "You think that was the first time? You think I -" He's pulling Sam away from the church, glancing back over his shoulder, and moonlight glints from the white of his eyes. "Sam, I haven't got time for this. You know Liu's cabin. How quickly can you get his stuff together? Now, before anyone notices?"
"Now?" Sam asks, shocked.
"Now," Dean says. "Come on. Can you?"
"Yes," Sam says. "Where do I meet you?"
"Drop it at the back of the cabin," Dean says. "I'll pick it up."
"On your own?" Sam says. "Hell, no."
Dean says, "Don't be a fool. Bunkhouse. Sam, please."
"Fine," Sam says, and runs.
When Dean brings the mule up to the fields for lunch he has dark shadows under his eyes and a limp, but the whole community is shell shocked, moving slowly, unable to meet each other's eyes. No one talks. People flinch from each other, uncertain, suspicious. Everyone's shattered, and among them Dean's exhaustion is unnoticed. It's the first time he doesn't sit by Sam at lunch and the first time Jeremiah doesn't come with him, and this time Dean doles out water and food without a single comment.
Five minutes after Dean, Castiel walks up the track. He's barefoot, dressed in white, oblivious to the patter of summer rain that muddies his feet and the hem of his robe. Sam has to turn away. He can barely look at Castiel without wanting to shake him, scream the truth in his face: he feels utterly alienated, and for the first time for weeks Sam's thinking of the outside world as escape, not intrusion. He still can't believe what happened last night, although it was Deborah and not Annie who had served them oatmeal at breakfast and Liu's tools are still tumbled in the barn unused.
Wordless, Dean pushes a hunk of rough bread into his hands, but all Sam can do is blink at the coarse grain. He can't imagine eating. He hadn't managed breakfast.
Sam eats, staring at his boots and chewing dry-mouthed, but the stuff tastes like sawdust. Feet pass backwards and forwards in front of his eyes. Jimeno's boots. Joshua's. Dean's. Castiel's bare feet cross and re-cross the track. Dean's again, stopped briefly, and Castiel's, toes spread wide, squeezing into the mud.
"Samuel," Castiel says, and his voice is so soft and gentle Sam looks up.
"Samuel," Castiel sighs. He hunkers down, ignoring the muddied grass, and his face is so transformed into gentleness and his eyes are so earnest Sam has to look away. "I know that this is strange to you," Castiel says, and his voice is so sympathetic and inviting that Sam opens his mouth. He wants to say, this is a mistake, and, it was only a letter, he feels as if his own guilt is written all over his face. Shame clogs his throat.
Castiel reaches out a hand. Flat-palmed, he holds it against Sam's heart. His fingers are chilled. Shocked, Sam stares down, looks up; Castiel's eyes are the blue of a summer sky and so very, very cold he shivers.
"Do you think I don't know who you are?" Castiel hisses. "What you've done? Do you really think you could hide from me?"
Slammed into ice, Sam's heart stops. He tries to gasp for breath, tries to say something, anything, but there's a lump in his throat unyielding as steel.
"Threaten me again," Castiel says, "I will destroy you."
Sam can't even move. His vision is starred, tiny silver specks: Castiel's face looks as if it is receding, white, at the end of a very long tunnel.
When Castiel takes his hand away Sam feels as if he's floating, suddenly, nauseatingly light. He pants for breath. Castiel's standing over him.
Castiel says, "Have faith, Samuel. Trust in me," and someone's heel slams sharp into the small of Sam's back and snaps his mouth shut. He nods, an awkward jerky thing.
"Sorry," Sam manages.
Castiel stares at him. Sam finds he can't look away. Castiel's eyes are wide and blue, but the black of his pupils is infinite, a black that drags Sam closer and closer, pulls him in, until he can think of nothing but the depth of it, wider and more encompassing than -
"You done?" Dean says roughly.
Sam blinks. He can look away. He does: his eyes are sore, as if he hasn't blinked for minutes, although Sam could swear it's been no more than a second or two. "Sure," he says, and his voice is hoarse.
"Work ain't gonna wait on you," Dean says, and it's then that Sam realizes he's the only one still sitting. Castiel's walking back down the track. Dean's by Sam's side, looking down, face set.
Sam blinks up. For a moment, Dean looks like a stranger, older, harder, distant. Sam shuffles to his feet, but Dean's already turned back to the mule. He thinks, 'What the hell was that?' If he closes his eyes, he can still see that earnest, captivating gaze. He needs to talk to Dean. He needs to talk to - he can't: he feels sick at the thought, has to duck his head back down between his knees.
Sam thinks, 'This is madness.' He thinks, for the first time in weeks, of his unfinished report for the Examiner and of the notebook he still carries, and of the telegraph office in Fresno Falls. He thinks of Annie and Liu, walking through the dark with no more than the clothes on their backs, and shamefully he remembers that he's never spoken to Jeremiah about his mother and now never will. He wonders where Dean went last night with Liu's clothes. He wonders what would happen if he left now, dropped his tools and just left, walked up the track and over the pass, nothing more than the clothes on his back. It could be done.
Castiel knows. Castiel knows, and there's only one person who could have told him.
He remembers what Dean had said to him, that first night, and he wonders what would have happened if the community had voted for death. He shivers now, thinking about it, and he remembers Castiel's face and knows that the man would have swayed the vote if Dean hadn't spoken up, first and so definitely the community had followed his lead.
Sam's got soil on his hands, but when he holds them up to the rain the stuff washes away between his fingers as if it was never there.
Beside him in the dark, shoulders pressed against the back of the bunkhouse wall, Dean's not looking at him. He says, "You should have gone when I asked."
"Too late now," Sam says.
"He knows what happened," Dean says reluctantly. "I didn't... I told you, I warned you, Sam, if there's anything, anything, he'll find out, you must have -" His voice has risen, ragged: he stops, ducks his head, shakes it. "Shit," he says.
Rolling his head against the wall, Sam looks at his brother. If he was ever - "I'm sorry," he says awkwardly.
Dean looks back. He sighs, makes a title card shape with his hands, says, dry, "Sheriff, lend me your gun. I want to do a little missionary work."
Sam has to laugh, shocked, harsh. They've both seen The Disciple. He says, "Do you remember..." and suddenly he's back there again, that tiny theater in Kansas, white sheet for a screen, moths crowding around the projector. They'd had a bag of peppermint Lifesavers between them, he and Dean, sweet and sticky, enthralled.
It's dangerous to remember. He says, "Liu and Annie?"
Eventually, Dean says, "Got them off the mountain. Far enough -"
"Far enough away from Edwards and Joshua," Dean says.
"You mean -"
"What the hell do you think I mean?" Dean hisses. "You think the guns are for show? How the hell do you think this place makes money? You think he's ever going to let anyone leave? Open your damn eyes, Sam, because I taught you better than this." He pushes off the wall, stands up. "Do I need to show you where we buried Con, last winter? You want to know what it took to get Simeon out of here? Paradise," Dean says, and spits.
He's a shadow against the stars, broad shouldered.
"Then why the hell are you still here?" Sam whispers.
In the middle of the field, Sam sits back on his heels and looks at the sky, and the clouds are so grey and low that the mountains have vanished behind a haze of rain. Heaven's a long way away.
Sam thinks of Annie's face and of Harry playing baseball with a whittled down ash spar and a cracked leather ball. He thinks of Dean's face and Castiel's soft white hands, and of a congregation that sways to the beat of a tune Sam can't hear.
He stands up. He leaves his hoe to be beaten into the mud, and he walks to the edge of the field. When he turns his face up to the clouds and opens his mouth to feel the rain on his tongue, he feels as if he could open all of his skin and let the rain wash through him, cleanse everything away, the endless night and endless days, Castiel's eyes and Joshua's unceasing vigilance. He's not lost. He's Sam, seeing clearly now, and what Sam sees is a scrabbling against nothing, a faith that's utterly hollow.
The harvest will fail.
The harvest will fail, and the community will fail with it. It's a thing held together by blind faith and vanity, and in that moment Sam wants to rip it apart with his bare hands, drag it down into the mud.
He can see the squall come. It's a darkening of the clouds over the ridge and a wind that turns the treetops into spindrift, a cat's-paw scurry of rain in the furrows and ruts of the field and then a blind wall of water. He stands watching it come, and around him people shout and run for the cabins, using shovels and baskets as makeshift shelters, but Sam opens his arms to the deluge and lets the force of it strip his clothes against his skin. It's almost bruising, every rain drop a singular blunt nail, washing the sweat and soil from his hands and laying him bare to the sky.
When the first rush of the thing is gone, he opens his eyes and sees a man walking towards him, over the field. When he blinks the rain out of his eyes, it's Dean. Dean with his hair plastered to the curve of his skull and his clothes shrunk tight against the rack of his bones, and for the first time in weeks Sam can see behind the closed front of Dean's existence.
Dean's exhausted. The shadows under his eyes are charcoal smudges. His skin clings so close to his face Sam can see the bones under it, his eyes sunk, his nose narrowed. The frown line between his eyes is a knife cut, and when he walks closer his feet drag over the furrows and his shoulders slump. The beat of the rain against the soil is so loud Sam can't hear Dean's voice, although Dean's shouting at him. Silent actor, his mouth moves, and he reaches Sam and then he stretches out and shakes Sam by the shoulders, and Sam still can't hear.
"What?" he yells, and Dean makes a gesture that's all exasperated impatience. "What?"
They could be alone. Rain curtains them. Moving, wet, Dean's mouth is so full it could be bruised. The pink of it is blurred by water, there's a raindrop in the cleft of his lower lip, raindrops on his cheekbones and on the stubble of his jaw and his spiked eyelashes. His eyes are almost grey, narrowed. Sam's brother.
When Sam puts out a hand and wipes the rain away from Dean's cheek with his thumb, Dean stops talking. Frowning, Sam does it again. He could hold Dean's face in the palm of his hand.
His brother's beautiful. Sam's never seen it as clearly as he does now. His brother's all the missing parts of himself, and Sam's all the missing parts of Dean. He could be looking in a mirror.
He says, "Dean," and watches Dean watch his mouth, and then a stray gust slams into Sam so hard he stumbles in the teeth of it: his hands slip and Dean's with them, and the two of them are propping each other up. Dean's shouting in his ear.
"- stupid, Sam, c'mon -"
Dean's tugging at his arm, and Sam follows. He feels as if he's walking in a dream, and at the same time everything's so real it hurts, the weight of mud on his boots and the warmth of Dean's hand on his arm, the push of the wind on his back and the pattern of raindrops in Dean's hair. He doesn't watch where they're going. He doesn't care. But the moment when Dean pushes him through the door and slams it behind them is a shock of clarity, the moment when in a cinema the screen flickers from movement to darkness and the house lights come up. The cabin's almost dark. There's nothing but the beat of rain on the roof and the rattle of it against the glass of a window. No one else is going to be out in this. They're alone.
"Hold still," Dean says.
Sam does. It's only now that he realizes how wet he is, soaked through and dripping onto the planked floor.
A match hisses, phosphor flare against the darkness, and then flickers gold. Dean's hand is cupped around it, a shield against the draft until the flame steadies.
"What the hell was that, Sam?" he asks.
Sam says, "This is yours."
Candlelight shows him a table, a bed with ruffled, rough blankets, an upturned barrel strewn with muddy clothes. A wash line in the corner is hung with woolens, and a pair of boots is kicked under the bed. There's a rifle propped in one corner Sam recognizes, and a hat on a peg he knows just as well. Dean's got three books stacked by his bed and a photograph in a silver frame.
"Yeah," Dean says. "Here." He's rummaging in the chest at the end of the bed, and then he throws something over that turns out to be a towel.
"You're soaking, you numbskull."
"Strip," Dean says tersely, and drags out a heap of clothes and a blanket.
"Strip. Clothes on the bed. You wanna catch your death?"
Sam doesn't move from his spot on the floor, but he reaches for the buttons on his shirt and only then realizes how clumsy his water-sodden fingers are. He pops the first button, rips the second one through, and then Dean's hands are under his and Dean's undressing him as deftly as he had when Sam was half the height he is now and Dean not that much taller. Shirt, undershirt, boots, and Dean swears at the wet leather of the laces and drags open the knots kneeling at Sam's feet. Pants, clammy and clinging, then Sam's flannel underwear, so wet it drags off of his skin. He doesn't remember the last time he's stood buck naked in front of anyone, but here, now, he's without shame.
"Dry off," Dean tells him, and thrusts the towel into his hands. "Get dry."
"Back soon," Dean says, and unlike Sam, still dressed and soaking Dean ducks out into the rain.
Slowly, Sam dries himself off. He's slick with rain, stiff with it. The towel's soaked in moments and the feel of it against his skin is dull and harsh.
Dean has a candle, a lantern by the door, and a rain slicker on a peg he's not wearing and should be. A bucket and an unlit stove. Nothing more. Stumbling, Sam kneels by the stove, opens it, and begins to set the kindling. Behind him the door slams open.
"Good to see you haven't entirely lost your mind," Dean grunts. Something slaps wet against the floor, but the room smells warmer, and when Sam turns around there are two steaming buckets on the floor and Dean's dragging in a zinc bathtub.
"Matches by the candle. Blanket, Sam." Dean's gone again, with the two empty buckets.
Sam lights the kindling, blowing the sparks into cautious flame, watching it catch on dry grass and twigs and then flicker around the dry, knotted lumber.
"Good. Get in," Dean says, and he tips both buckets again into the bathtub. "In."
Clumsy, fumbling, Sam does, knees up to his chin, elbows out. The water's so hot it bites into his bones. He tips his head back against the lip of the tub and closes his eyes.
Dean says, "I ain't washing you, Sammy."
"Soap," Sam says.
Outstretched, his fingers close around a bar of soap that's hard and dry and nearly untouched. "Privilege of rank?"
Dean snorts. Opening his eyes, Sam watches his brother undress in candlelight, lean, pared down to muscle and bone, elegantly flanked as a thoroughbred.
"Seen something you like?" Dean grunts at him.
"Wouldn't say no," Sam shoots back at him, more explicit than he's ever been, angry, unsettled, and Dean whips around with his shirt held up to his chest like a blushing maiden which Sam knows for sure he isn't. Sam's dick twitches against his thigh. He's suddenly aware of the weight of his balls, his dick, heavy and warm in the water. It's almost comforting. He's sloughed off any embarrassment he has left, somewhere between the rows of waterlogged corn and the bathtub.
Unblinking, steady, he holds Dean's eyes, and Dean looks back at him, until something patters down on the planked floor and Dean says, "Hell's teeth, leak," and reaches for a bucket.
Sam says, "Need to talk."
"Can't talk when you're naked," Dean says.
"Worth knowing," Sam says,
"Hadn't been for the rain, bath water'd be black before you got in it. If you're going to stand there, put a blanket on."
"Fine," Dean says, and sits on the edge of the bed wrapped in one, staring at his toes, the floor, the stove. Sam grunts and heaves and does his best to wash every inch of himself without sloshing water all over Dean's floor or losing the soap. He has to stick his legs out of the tub to rinse his hair, but Dean doesn't laugh. He should have.
"Yours," Sam says. The towel's useless, a soggy lump on the floorboards, but Dean throws a ragged flannel at him that does just as well. He finds a shirt, too small, drags it on, but leaves it unbuttoned. The heat's enough to blur the room in steam, wet clothing and bathwater.
The bathtub fits Dean better than Sam. "There's a tin by the stove," Dean says. "You'll like it." The heat of the bath has thickened and lowered his voice, and Sam feels the weight of it against his clean skin.
In the tin, there are a bare handful of coffee grounds. Sam's hands shake, setting the pot to boil. He fumbles a mug and a dish that'll do.
Dean's staring at the roof, head tipped back, eyes open.
"Could've mentioned you had a bathtub."
"Didn't know you were so interested. Never used to be," Dean says.
Sam laughs, surprised. He says, "Things change."
"I know that, Sam," Dean says, and then he rolls his head on the rim of the tub and looks at Sam straight on.
"You gonna tell me why I had to haul your ass inside? Standing out there like a struck pine."
"I was thinking," Sam says.
"Right," Dean says. "Next time, do it in the dry, huh?"
Sam says, "How long have you known the harvest was going to fail?" and he can hear Dean catch his breath.
The water in the coffee pot's boiling. Sam's never taken his as strong as Dean, and the grounds are old. Sam figures, he made the stuff, his choice. He reaches for the mug.
"You only just realized?" Dean asks.
"Took a while," Sam says equably, and pours.
Dean says, short, "Beet's rotten. Dig one up and you'll see. Corn'd be fine if we'd had two months of sunshine. Ain't gonna happen. Half the sheep got foot rot. Reckon as we might have six weeks of stores if we stretch it. You ever wonder why I was pushing so hard?"
"Castiel knows?" Sam asks, dry.
"He knows." Dean laughs then, a dry hack of a laugh. "He knows."
"What," Sam says, "Loaves and fishes?"
"Wet enough for the fish," Dean says. "Spare shirt on the bed. Pass it over."
Dragging up the stool, Sam does, and sits down, watches his brother dry off. Dean's careful enough to turn his back, but that doesn't help. Curve of his back, curve of his ass, wet, and candlelit: Sam can't look away and doesn't want to. He's still half hard, dick thick and heavy against his thighs, toes curling against the floor. The mug rattles against his teeth when he drinks and his hands are not steady, but Dean's face is fiercely abstracted and it's the first real chance they've had to talk since Sam arrived.
"Donations, right?" Sam says. "The con?"
"Yup," Dean says. His voice is unsurprised, but his hands have hesitated. "Pensions. Investments. Couple of endowments. Katherine's a war-widow. All for the good of the church," Dean says, and then, head bent over his buttons. "Should've run you off. Knew it."
"No point lying," Sam says. "Had my fill of it. And that's not your game." Then he says, "What is, here?"
Dean's hands freeze. He looks up. He says, "What the hell do you think?" and he's paling, mouth pressed together, eyes fierce.
"No," Sam says. "No."
Dean doesn't answer him.
Five years ago, in Minnesota, in a thunderstorm as bad as this one, Sam killed the one man who had seen them together and knew exactly who they were. They'd been looking for cover, some brawl in some bar, on edge, wet as all hell, tumbling together into the straw, and Sam had reached out and dragged Dean's mouth down to his. He'd done it so often in dreams the thing had seemed unreal, fanciful, half imaginary, until the moment when Dean had looked up, his eyes wide and black and his mouth parted. Willing.
When the barn door had swung open Sam had been nearest, quicker. He'd shot without thinking, meaning to miss.
He hadn't. John Winchester must have ducked, must have - he'd died. Whatever he'd meant to do, he'd died, and it had been Sam's gun and Sam's hand on the trigger.
never known what Dean did with the body. He'd been long gone by then.
Dean shrugs. "Weighs on a man's mind," he says, dry and flippant, but there's an ache under the words that hurts so bad Sam has to bury his hands in the blankets to stop himself reaching out. Sam had never known his father as anything other than a whisky fueled, unreliable wreck, but Dean had. Sometimes, when Sam watches Dean with Castiel, it reminds him of the way Dean used to look at their father.
Sam says now. "You told him."
"He guessed most of it," Dean says. "He's good at that. He had you pinned down a day after you got here."
"You're not good at looking away, Sam," Dean says. "You never have been." He flicks a wry grin in Sam's direction that's little more than the curl of his lip, and finishes up the buttons. "That my mug? Thanks."
Sam lies back on the bed, staring at the ceiling, listening to Dean fix himself coffee from the pot and the rain beat on the shingles.
"How long?" he asks.
"Three years," Dean says. "You were at Stanford."
Sam can't hear the sound of Dean's footsteps, but the mattress dips. He doesn't look down.
Dean says, "I got to thinking as we might be friends. Castiel. Cas. I was wrong," Dean says. "And by the time I'd figured it out, he had me down. Sam, you don't know. You got no idea."
Water drips into the bucket Dean's tucked under the rafters. It's still raining, softer, echoes of summer.
Dean says, "At least no one believes the bearded lady's gonna save their soul."
Sam says, "You could have left. You could have gone anywhere. Don't tell me -"
"He knows who you are," Dean says. Then he says, "He knew Sam Winchester went to Stanford. He knows you work for the Examiner. It's not hard to find out where a man lives, Sam, and you had to drink at Tait's. All he needed to do was drop a few hints in the right places."
"Hell," Sam says, and thinks, you knew where I lived. Then he thinks of Bently, and wonders.
"Sorry," Dean says.
"Not that. You," Sam says, and rolls over, sits up. "You think I care? What do you think I was doing, saving up for the white picket fence and the Cadillac? Dean, if you'd said, if you'd cared enough to actually speak to me, if you'd -"
Dean says, "Sam." It's a warning Sam ignores.
"Why?" Sam asks. "Why didn't you - was it Pa? Was that it, then, before? Because sure as hell you wanted me then just as bad as I want you now."
The shirt he's wearing is mid-thigh on Dean, white, dragged down at the back, and the nape of his neck is a hollow Sam wants to put his mouth to. He wants things with Dean he's never wanted with anyone else: he wants the tender skin at the back of his knees, the washboard lines of his ribs. He wants to run his nose down the trail of dark hair on Dean's belly and mouth his balls, spread his brother open with the span of his hands.
Dean says, "You had everything I ever wanted for you."
Sam says, "You liar."
Dean takes a deep breath at that one, looks around to meet Sam's stare. He says, dry, "Never been a mattress actress."
"No?" Sam says. "Don't see me advertising, do you?" Sam says. "That the best you can do? Because you might not know what you're doing, but I do."
"Right," Dean says. He fastens the last two buttons on his shirt. It takes him longer than it should.
Sam reaches for the mug. It's cautious, deliberate, but Dean doesn't flinch. "More coffee?" he asks.
"How can you - yeah," Dean says.
"You feel safer with your pants on?"
"Just pass the damn coffee."
Sam does. Dean knocks it back like it's whisky, wipes his mouth off with the back of his hand.
"Is it Castiel?" Sam asks. "Are you two...?" He can't think of a word.
When Dean chokes on his coffee, Sam's shocked silent. Sharp as white hot wire, anger strikes through his body. He can feel the blood drain from his face.
"No," Dean says. He sits up on the bed, elbows on his knees, cup in his hands. He's as pale as Sam feels in the candlelight, except for the flush over his cheekbones and the shadowed black line of his eyelashes, and the spaces between the bones of his hands.
"He offered," Dean says. "When he knew - he knows," Dean says, and when he looks up his eyes are almost black. "He knows about us. Us now. He said, if I wanted it that bad, he'd fuck me."
"Jesus," Sam says.
"That was six weeks ago," Dean says. He looks at the mug, puts it down next to the candle. "I don't think like you," he says. "I don't think quick, and I ain't got your smarts, Sam. But it seemed to me that a man who says he does everything out of love should recognize the truth of it. And he didn't."
"Dean," Sam says.
"C'mere, Sam," Dean says. It's not an invitation to touch and Sam doesn't take it as one. He sits on the end of the bed, gingerly close enough to feel Dean's shirt sleeve brush against his own, and Dean takes one of Sam's hands in both of his. He looks down at their joint, clasped grip, and then he bows his head.
"It's mighty rough to know you've been living a lie," he says.
Sam swallows. There's a lump in his throat. He feels flayed, as if every nerve he has is on the outside and hurting. If he could take his skin off and wrap Dean in it, he would. He's not crying. His eyes are damp, that's all, and while he's fairly sure his voice is going to crack if he speaks, Sam still manages to say, "What do we do?"
Soft as a whisper, Dean kisses Sam's fingers. His eyes are closed.
"Dean?" Sam asks, so quiet he doesn't know if his brother can hear him.
"Been carrying this one on my own for a long time," Dean says.
Rain on the roof's no more than a drizzle, but the drip of it into the bucket's as clear as a chime.
"You and me, right?" Dean says, and Sam says, "Yes," and all the breath leaves Dean's body in a shuddering sigh. Then he looks up under his eyelashes, and the corners of his eyes are creased tight with the ghost of a smile.
"You been drinking on the Barbary Coast, then, Sammy?"
"Yeah?" Sam says.
"Glad one of us knows how to do this right," Dean says, and stands up. His hands are on the buttons of the shirt, undoing.
Sam can't move. Thrown, open mouthed, he's looking at his brother speechless. Halfway up the placket, Dean reaches out a finger and shuts his mouth for him.
"I ain't as young as I used to be," he says. "Bed."
Sam finds his voice. "'S not a requirement," he manages.
"I know," Dean says, and shucks the shirt. Naked, he looks down, and then he pushes Sam backwards onto the bed. He crawls over Sam on the way to the blankets, and Sam brings his hands up instinctively and finds Dean rolling them both down into the sag of a rope sprung mattress, with his brother's elbow shoved into his collarbone and their knees tangled. He's got more Dean than he knows what to do with, suddenly rich after years of famine, belly to belly, skin under his hands, and Sam's wondering how he'd ever hoped any other man could be his brother in the dark. His hands are clenched on Dean's back, but his knees are trembling.
Shelter against the candlelight, Dean's hand cradles his face and tips it up. There's a moment when he's looking into Dean's eyes, and then Dean's eyelashes drop and, delicate as a girl, his lips brush Sam's, once, twice, a tentative exploration that almost stops Sam's heart and makes him groan and Dean almost laugh on an indrawn breath.
"Thought you were the one -" Dean starts to say, intimately amused, and Sam drags his brother's mouth down to his. Open mouthed and hungry, he licks up the cleft of Dean's lower lip and Dean opens for him on a gasp that's as much astonishment as lust. Ruthless on the back of five year's aching loneliness, Sam steals space, messy and wet, fever hot, licks Dean's teeth and the seam of his tongue and the ribbed arch of his palate, draws the breath from his lungs and gives it back.
Under his fingers Dean's hair is fine, softly damp, his back knotted with muscle and his thighs strung with it: he shivers when Sam's fingernails catch at the hair on his belly and yelps at a slyly pinched nipple, and Sam grins into the crook of his brother's shoulder and does it again. Dean rocks his hips in exquisite revenge, his dick as hard as Sam's, rolling and catching against Sam's own. The feel of it jolts down Sam's spine to his balls in flash-fire sparks.
"Oh," Sam says, hurting with the ache of it, and drags Dean's hand down to wrap around both of them, a panting, stumbled, venture. Dean's fingers are too tentative, too hard, and then - "Oh God," Sam thinks, "Oh God, no, not yet -" settle into a perfect rolling calloused stroke that galls Sam to the bone and shatters any pretense of control he has left. Sam's too far gone to know if it's Dean's neck or his cheek that he's breathing into, his legs spread and heaving as clumsily as an untried boy's, and he's, irrevocably, devastatingly going to come in Dean's hand.
"Like this?" Dean asks, voice a harsh whisper.
"Oh Christ, yes," Sam says, and realizes Dean's heart is thudding drum deep against his own and that any rhythm they'd ever had has been lost to the uneven, frantic jerk of Dean's hips.
"Sam," Dean says, his voice cracked. "Sammy."
Just in time, Sam looks up. Dean screams silently when he comes, and he's trying to keep his eyes open and failing. His dick jerks and spasms against Sam's, blood-hot wet, and Sam knows he's done. He spends harder and harsher than he ever has before, a black-out thunder-ball of need that racks him open and rolls him under and won't let up. The shock of it is a painful pleasure. He can't get close enough to Dean's skin, rocks and shoves them together, fitting hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder, tangles their hands and buries his head on the pillow and Dean's beside him. He's got words, but he can't say them, too entranced with the dazed, lazy curve of Dean's eyelids and the sharp smooth bite of his teeth and the softness of his mouth. Dean's shaking. Dean's hands are a broken, grasping mess of calluses and need, and Sam kisses every finger and both of the hollows of Dean's palms, the seams of his wrists and the raised veins and the small bones under them, and then the warm, furred skin of his forearms and the hidden tenderness of the skin inside his elbow.
"Sam, I can't," Dean says, wrecked.
But he can.
Boots thud up the steps. Sam rolls, desperately fast, off the side of the bed and Dean yelps, waking, grabs at the blanket and scrambles upright.
The door crashes open, unlocked. Sam's breathing dust, hips and elbows painfully cramped against the floorboards.
"Dean, Castiel wants - are you still in bed?" It's Elder Edwards.
"What?" Dean asks. His voice is hoarse.
"Weston didn't sleep in his bed last night. Castiel's asking."
Sam can't breathe. If he breathes, he'll sneeze.
"Give me two minutes," Dean says. "You know West - Samuel - went out to the barn last night?"
"He didn't say."
"Pass me that shirt. Nah, walked in with him last night. Why's Cas worried?" The bed shifts, creak and sway of the mattress; Dean's bare feet hit the floor. He scrabbles his pants up, drags on his wet boots - is the rain ever going to stop? - and says, "Fine, whatever, I'm coming."
He hesitates at the door. Sam, listening, can hear the hitch in his step, and then the slap of his palm against wood. The door slams shut.
'Goddamn,' Sam thinks, and then he does sneeze.
"Where were you?"
"Fell asleep in the barn. Why?"
"The Reverend was worried. After Liu and Annie..."
Joshua shrugs, but Sam's got the message loud and clear. He doesn't need the warning look in Dean's eyes when the water comes around at lunch. It's almost laughable: the rain's a mist of drizzle and they're all soaking, but Sam takes the tin mug and drinks. Eyes narrowed, dark, Dean watches him swallow.
When he sleeps Sam sleeps alone and undisturbed and is miserably aware of the fact. The bruises under Dean's eyes darken. They brush shoulders at the pump. Sam wakes cock-proud and leaking: at night, he buries his head in the pillow and tries not to hump the bed. Dean's hands had been bitingly fierce when he'd dragged Sam's mouth down to his. Sam plots hunts, fire, escape, watches Dean make notes and lists, mark up books, drag Joshua from field to field pointing at the furrows, the cleared stone, the half-grown corn and the straggling oats and the limp beets. Unspoken, they're preparing to leave.
It must show. Winona catches him one evening after prayers and presses a folded scrap of paper into his hand. When Sam looks, it's a letter. Sam himself, sleepless, writes up his notes by shielded candlelight: he has three separate articles marked up and ready to send and a telegram for his landlady that mentions Jeremiah's name. He's got the Examiner's twenty dollars and Dean's two fifties sewn into his belt, and the papers tucked into the inside pocket of his shirt.
run out of soap, oil, tea. The cask of salt in the storeroom is enough
for a few days, no more, although Katherine says it had been enough for
months the last time she'd looked. Dean's been using it for the cattle,
he says. It's an unexpected loss, small things that set the community
on edge, a shadow of failure.
They're on the same page, the same con, just like they used to be, and Sam's suddenly able to stretch out his legs and smile. Then he says, "You think Castiel knows?"
"Don't know," Dean says. "Don't care."
"I know you can't leave yet." Joshua's still scratching his head over the seed catalogues: there's no threshing floor, the new barn is still half-built.
"Not much longer. Told Edwards someone else needs to know what to do if I'm ill."
Dean's peering through the split screen. It's still raining, and the windshield wipers screech faintly over the glass, doing little more than smear water from side to side.
"Good," Sam says. He's got three telegrams and a letter burning a hole in his pocket. He can wait to tell Dean. He can wait.
He can't. In the front seat of the truck, pulled up just before the last rise, Sam goes down on his brother for the first time and comes rutting against his own hand, driven past endurance by the thrown back surge of Dean's orgasm. Both of them and the cabin smells of come and sweat and Dean's handkerchief is stiff with the stuff. They're disheveled and light-headed. But when they get down to Fresno Flats' Main Street, Dean walks into the hotel as if he owns the place. It's his dollars that buy a room, a bed and a bath, although by the time the disgusted busboy knocks on the door Sam's already naked and Dean's halfway there, his cheeks flushed and his mouth open on Sam's dick. By the time they bathe, teasing, intimate, the water's lukewarm. It's Dean who drags both of them out for food, fresh greens and fried potatoes and beef, better food than either of them have seen in months, and it's Dean who rolls over for his brother, later, on the half-forgotten luxury of a liberty mattress.
Sam reckons that's all the sacrament he'll ever need right there under his hands, Dean's freckled shoulders and the nape of his neck and his voice, his hands tangled in Sam's and his hips flush to Sam's own. Sam's as gentle as he can be, until Dean curses him out, and then he sets his teeth and grinds into Dean harder than he's ever taken any street hustler or pretty passing boy, and under him Dean spreads his thighs and takes everything Sam's got.
Afterwards, lying on the mess of sheets with his head next to Sam's and his eyes on the ceiling, Dean says, "Ain't ever gonna be easy."
"I know that," Sam says.
"Ain't no place..." Dean rolls his face on the pillow, looks at Sam. He says, "He's just like us. Castiel."
It's a non-sequitur with a reason. Sam lets himself curl his fingers around Dean's wrist, and nods.
"See," Dean says. "You see the worst of it. I remember how it was when he started. He knew it was a con, then. It was Frisco made him think it was real, but I didn't get that, not until after he made me - not until he'd dragged us half ways up a mountain. And by then there was Jer, and the girls, and Joshua, and I wasn't ever gonna have you so -"
"Kind of expecting you ain't gonna leave Jeremiah," Sam says.
"Damn right," Dean says.
"There's places..." Sam says, and Dean laughs, harsh.
"I ain't stupid. I can sniff out a sissy joint quick as you. But for us, Sam?"
Sam thinks about patchwork quilts. Patchwork quilts and a calico cat on the windowsill and a shelf of books. He opens his mouth to say so, but Dean's staring back at him with his eyes narrowed, and instead he cups his hand around Dean's face and looks back, as steadily as he can, until Dean's eyes close. Fear runs through him, water thin and ice cold in his veins: he cannot lose Dean. He cannot. He's terrified that Dean will refuse to leave the community, that Castiel will find some leverage to hold both of them there, that they will be trapped for the rest of their lives under the shadow of Castiel's hand. Worse, that Sam himself will be cast out and Dean remain.
He's got time, later.
In the grey dawn, Sam leaves Dean sleeping and walks to the post office. He sends all three articles, one telegram and a letter, and wonders as he collects the receipt exactly who he's betraying. Damp and chilled, he slides back into bed, and Dean doesn't ask.
On the drive back, Sam can't find a word to say. His hands are clenched, Dean's white-knuckled.
Rain puddles around the barns, drips through the shingles, leaves the church smelling of mold and wet clothes. The lines around Dean's mouth deepen. Sam thinks, 'Two weeks.' Then, one week and six days. One week and five days. Two more Wednesdays. There's an afternoon when Castiel comes out to the field with Dean and walks slowly up and down the beaten-down rows of corn. Dean's talking. Castiel stares at the horizon, the cabins, the sky. Every so often, he glances down at the soil and frowns. Behind him, Dean kicks a shovel, slams his fist into the palm of his hand and keeps talking.
The last Sunday, Sam could swear Castiel knows. Heavy as a brand, his eyes single Sam out at the back of the pews, fix on him intense and distant. Sam can't meet those eyes. He shifts from foot to foot, hunches his shoulders and fists his hands, and three rows in front of him on the other side of the church Dean's biting his lip bloody.
The Reverend preaches about forgiveness. He stamps up and down the aisle, electric and mesmerizing. And about love. Abraham, he says, loved God so much he was prepared to sacrifice his own son. "What would you sacrifice?" he asks, the words rattling around the church and echoing from the rafters, and he's looking at Sam.
He knows. He knows, Sam thinks. He must know. Guilt stains every moment Sam's looked at Dean's hands and imagined them on his own skin, every time he's sobbed Dean's name through clenched teeth into his pillow, his own hand on his dick.
"Or would you betray your own father?" Castiel asks. "Know that our God holds the instruments of justice in his hands. His wrath is mighty and his anger fierce: he will trample roughshod over his enemies."
"Romans 12:19," Castiel says, and sits down so abruptly that Deborah gasps.
On the last Tuesday, Joshua goes to Fresno and comes back with the Examiner.
It's not the first time Sam gets his own byline, but it's the first time he didn't know beforehand. He's called in from the field, wet, weary, ducking bemused once again into a crowded church. Elder Edwards is walking up and down at the front of the church. Katherine's praying. Hunched up against the wall, Jeremiah's eyes are wide and scared.
"I'm here," Sam says, although he knows he's not the man Jeremiah needs.
He hunkers down next to the boy and watches people turn uneasily between themselves, confused, uncertain, dressed in their work clothes. The field workers have tracked mud over the floor and the kitchen crew are still unrolling their sleeves and folding their aprons. The children, disturbed, won't settle. Elder Edwards is saying, "Please, sit down, everything's fine, Betty, I'm sorry, I don't know, if I knew I'd tell you -"
The door by the altar opens. Joshua comes out, and then Dean, and the shock of want Sam feels is familiar and sharp as a knife, and behind it the fear's an animal terror. Dean's so pale he could be bleeding out under his clothes, and there's a stiff drag to the way he walks that Sam's never seen before and hates. His face is drawn, his hands balled in his jacket pockets, and his shoulders are tight. When he looks up, unerring, his eyes snap to Sam's.
Sam almost reels. Once, once, he's seen Dean look like that, so hurt and so angry he could barely speak. It had cost him five years, that moment, when he'd gambled his heart on Dean's and lost. Minnesota. Sam had flinched then, let Dean go, and lost him. He does not flinch now: he forces himself to smile in reply.
Dean's face eases, around the eyes, and when he looks away it's with the smallest lift of an eyebrow, a skeptical exasperation meant only for Sam.
There are seats still at the front. Joshua's there, and Dean joins him, flat backed, arms folded, and then Castiel steps out.
'Shit,' Sam thinks.
Castiel as Sam has never seen him. Castiel white-hot with rage, flushed with it, so powerful a force the congregation silences between one footfall and the next. His compact, muscular body shakes with the power of his anger, his hands clenched, his jaw thrust forward, his brows drawn. He's so compelling that every other person in the hall seems washed out; unnecessary; irrelevant. The cold blaze in Castiel's eyes holds his audience spellbound.
Poised as an actor, he opens his hands. In them, almost shredded, is a newspaper.
Sam's so suddenly cold he can't even shiver. Disturbed beside him, Jeremiah whimpers, short and scared.
"The devil is amongst us," Castiel says, the words hammers. "Not content with stealing our own children into corruption, he has struck at our hearts. We are betrayed." Rage makes Castiel greater than he is: he looks taller, harsher, and when he raises his arms the shadow of them on the wall behind him is almost winged. Silent, he stares at the congregation, his own community, one by one. Katherine, Jimeno, Charlie, Cassie with her headdress still askew, Joshua, Harry, still clutching a forgotten basket, Xu. His eyes are so intently focused no one can look away. He holds them, terrified, in the palm of his hand. They are struck and trapped by that gaze: even Sam, sick with fear and, finally, hate, cannot look away. Castiel's eyes strike through him and past him and Sam thinks desperately of nothing, nothing at all. He clings to nothing. It's a rotten, shredded armor. Sam feels as if Castiel could squeeze his heart in one hand and crush out of it everything he holds silent. Dean. Dean. The telegrams, the letter, the comments and the articles, the scribbled journals in Sam's pocket and the dollars in his belt he's never confessed to having. For the endless, fleeting time Castiel stares at him Sam wonders if the man was ever sane, because from under his skin has burst this creature, black, blooded and jealous. And it's Sam's fault.
Then Castiel looks away and Sam glances at Dean and realizes he's torn his brother apart along with his church. Sam's never lied, but he's never told Dean what he was doing. Dean's been utterly blindsided by Sam's work, and what Sam's been doing is not just waiting for both of them to slide gently into the night. And in Castiel's hands, damning is the evidence.
"The devil has made his home amongst us," Castiel says. "He has taken one of our own and led them into temptation. He has offered the sins of lust and pride and avarice and, my children, one of you here today has taken those bitter gifts from his hands. None but one of you could have written the filth I have seen today. In these papers -" Castiel says, and he spills the sheets of print through his hands like a conjuror's trick - "In these papers is a tale of such false witness that my heart fails within me. I am struck dumb," he says. "Blind. Witless. We have nurtured such a serpent that only the hand of God will save us. Tell me," Castiel says, "Is it true that we tear children from their families, when here is the greatest family that we have ever known? Tell me, do we divide husband from wife, father from son, brother from brother? When we are all each other's mother and each other's sister? Do we go hungry, when it is written that the Lord will provide and that none shall be in want? The Lord has provided!" Castiel stops, and he's staring at Dean. "The Lord will provide," Castiel whispers, and Dean does not look away, although the heel of one boot twists sharply against the floorboards. "Our harvest will be like manna from heaven," Castiel says, and Dean's hand, the one Sam can see, clenches once and violently.
"Lies," Castiel says. "But lies which have driven our sisters and brothers from us. Lies which have dripped poison into the hearts of you, my children, and divided us. Lies which have taken and twisted the innocent love we bear each other - the love you have for me, your father - into nothing but despair. Like my father," Castiel whispers, "I will take this evil and rip it from my heart, that it not sully the love between us."
'He has gone mad,' Sam thinks. The words sound in his mind absolutely cold and clear. 'He is mad.'
Around Sam, people are shuffling in their seats, glancing sideways at one another, muttering. Dean is staring at the space between his boots, his head bent. Jeremiah has drawn his knees to his chest and sits rocking against the wall.
"An eye for an eye," Castiel says, "A tooth for a tooth. A child for a child. One of you," he says, "One of you here today is the devil among us. Know that I -" he has straightened, up, his head is thrown back, his throat working to scream the words, his arms flung wide " - I will destroy you!"
There is a gun in his hands.
'Jesus,' Sam thinks. 'Jesus, where did he -' and then he is as still as he can make himself stay as the black, yawning bore of the barrel centers on his own forehead.
"Is it you?" Castiel asks. "Sam. Samuel. Samuel Winchester. Is it you, Samuel Weston, who took my children from me?"
Sam is holding his breath. He dare not look away: he holds Castiel's eyes, desperately unblinking. 'Put the gun down,' he thinks. 'Put it down. Someone will get hurt. Put it down.'
Slowly, so slowly Sam barely realizes the barrel is tracking, and then in a quick stab of motion, Castiel points the gun elsewhere.
"You," he says, croons.
Sam thinks 'You bastard, you son of a gun, shoot me now if you're going to.' But Castiel's eyes and Castiel's gun have moved on.
"Pretty, pretty, Betty," he says. "Did you miss your jewels and your beaux so very much? Did you lie for them, Betty, the way you lied to your father about me?"
Betty's crying, silently, tears rolling down her cheeks, but her hand is tight in Winona's and she faces the gun head on and does not break.
There are six rows of pews and a step between Sam and Castiel. He paces it out in his mind, sweating, but every move he can make is weighted by the consequences of failure. He has no hope of knocking the gun out of Castiel's hands before the man can fire.
"Or was it you?" Castiel asks. "You? Which one of you hates me? Which one of you betrays me?"
Someone sobs out loud. Swift, ugly, Castiel moves. "You?" he asks. "Was it you? Are these your words?"
Dean is eight feet from Castiel. He's close enough to make the distance in two strides. Far enough away for Castiel to aim and fire, if he's quick enough. Sam stares at the back of Dean's head and does not look away.
"Traitor," Castiel whispers. "Destroyer." He's holding the gun against his own face, the barrel black and hard against his pale skin and the blue of his eyes. "Who? Who are you to bring the evil world down upon us? Who are you -?"
Someone gasps, and someone shouts, and Castiel aims and fires, the sound of the gun devastatingly loud, and a woman screams in the echo and a man says, very quietly, "Damn."
Across the church, Elder Edwards looks, puzzled, at his bloodied fingers. He looks up at Castiel, frowns, opens his mouth. Then his eyes roll up in his head and he slides to the floor, ungainly, his hands slapping against the pews and his head slamming against the floorboards.
Katherine's praying, although Edwards' hands clutch at her skirts.
"So perish all who oppose us," Castiel says, and blows the smoke from the barrel.
"Oh my God," a woman says, faint, clear, and Castiel smiles.
"You'll kill us all!" a man shouts.
"Reverend! Reverend! Castiel! Cas!" - and Castiel is still smiling, rocking on his heels, his eyes half-closed, one hand on the Colt's grip and the other stroking the casing.
"We are," he says, and the church is silent in an instant. "We are all guilty," Castiel says, and raises the gun again.
He is aiming at Dean. Just like an illustration of a duelist, sideways, his arm and the gun a pointed, deadly emphasis. "Aren't we?" he says, and once again his eyes scan his own congregation while he holds the gun on Sam's brother.
Sam is too far away. He is too far away and too late, although Dean has turned in his seat and is looking back at Sam and not at the gun. He's smiling, and in that moment Sam knows that Dean has forgiven him, has forgiven him everything and will forgive him everything.
"My beautiful Winchester," Castiel says, and the blush runs hot from Dean's neck to his forehead but he does not look away from Sam's eyes. "Do you love me?"
The gun steadies. Dean has turned back to the hollow threat of it, staring over the line of the barrel at Castiel's face.
"Do you love me?" Castiel whispers.
"Yes," Dean chokes out. "Yes."
"Enough?" Castiel asks. "Do you love him more than me?" His voice is conversationally quiet, and Dean's head goes back.
"... no," Dean says, but he can no longer hide the lie and they all know it. Castiel's head snaps back, the gun jerks in his hand, he -
"Sir!" Jeremiah calls out. "Not Dean! Sir, please not -"
Quick as a rattler's lunge, Castiel aims and fires. Dean goes for Castiel, Castiel spins, and Jeremiah screams as he folds to the floor.
"You hurt me! You -"
There's blood running over Jeremiah's fingers and spreading on his shirt, but Sam's already moving. Dean's quicker. His fist slams against Castiel's cheekbone and knocks him sideways, and the sucker punch that follows should have dropped him to the floor, but it fails: Dean's over-reached himself snatching for the gun. They're wrestling for it, pressed so tightly Castiel's face is crushed into Dean's shoulder, flushed and distorted, his mouth working. Dean's ferociously determined. They spin, slowly, locked together, and Sam is so close, a plank he cannot remember ripping from one of the benches in his hands, he's almost there -
Dean smiles at him over Castiel's shoulder, and the gun goes off.
It's like watching the curtain fall on a puppet show. To Sam's eyes, the way they fall takes forever, the spray of blood between them a rainbow, the folding of their bodies an obscene ballet.
Someone screams. Someone screams. And it might be Sam, because the sound of it is rage not grief and if Dean is dead he will tear Castiel apart, he will walk through hell to shred his soul, he will -
When Sam rips Castiel's body from Dean's, his brother, dazed, is staring back at him alive. It's Castiel who flops limply over onto his back, his eyes closed, a thin thread of blood coming from his mouth and his nose.
"Christ," Sam says, and wipes his hand down his shirt.
Where the back of Castiel's skull used to be, there's nothing but blood and bone and matter, horrifically shredded.
"He's dead," Sam says, very quietly, but Dean hears him and so does Katherine.
"Castiel!" she wails. "You killed him! Castiel! Cas!" - and then she says, standing, climbing up onto the bench, "We're doomed!"
A girl screams. A child cries out, another, and a man is saying, "Get a doctor," and another, "Get the guns! This means war!" and someone else shouts, ugly and loud, "We're under attack!"
"My children!" a woman cries out. "Ted! Kirst - !" but other women too are calling out and their voices mingle into a single, screaming wail.
"Save ourselves!" a man shouts. "Save -"
Sam stands up.
Sam leaves his brother and walks to the front of the church. Like Castiel before him, he stands looking down at the people of this small congregation, at the overturned pews and the crying children and the fear, and he says,
"Be at peace."
He spreads his hands out and he stands tall and he says, "Be still." His is a quiet voice in the wilderness. "Be still," Sam says, "Quiet," and he turns around for a moment and looks at Dean, bruised, dazed, whole, and then he turns back to the panicked, struggling congregation and raises his voice just a little, and he says, "What doest thou here?"
And Katherine turns around. Her head is on one side, her eyes and her arms are open, and she's listening to him. Behind her, Deborah looks back, her son in her arms, and behind her Winona and Betty uncurl from each other so slowly they could be stunned, and behind them Jimeno and Maria pick themselves off the floor. Joshua is looking at him. Jeremiah, terrified, standing, with blood soaking his shirt and his hand pressed to his shoulder. All of them. All of them are looking at Sam.
"Be still," Sam says, and his voice echoes, thin, in the rafters.
Slowly, the man with the plank in his hands puts it down. Silence ripples out from the front pews to the back, from the aisle to the doors.
"Remember who you are," Sam says, and Harry slips under his father's arm and stands in front of the first upturned pew, gazing up at Sam with wide, adoring eyes.
Dean will never look at Sam with that unquestioning faith.
And Sam thinks. Sam thinks of sending down to Fresno for the Sheriff and the parson, of explaining what happened and how it happened over and over again to lawmen and reporters and relatives and the community itself. He thinks of how he can tell people that there will be no harvest, that the harvest has failed as surely as Castiel has failed them, and he thinks of his bank accounts in San Francisco and John Trepannier bent over his ledgers with his yard and his trucks behind him. He thinks of Charlie going back to work on the railway cars and Yu pulling a coolie's wages on the docks, of Deborah searching for work with the baby in her arms and Betty and Winona torn apart. He thinks of Dean and himself back in San Francisco, of the pretty, painted, desperate boys on Market Street and the stifled laughter and the contempt in the working men's clubs and the despise on the busboy's face in Fresno. There's a moment, when Sam stands looking down at this small community, when Sam wants everything. He wants Annie and Liu to be free of the shackles of tradition, Jimeno and Maria and Charlie and Yu never to suffer just because of the color of their skin. He wants to love Dean freely and openly, in every way he can.
He could have that. He could have it right now. It's in the palm of his hands, in the faces of the men and women staring back at him, trusting him to guide them. All he has to do is reach out.
When Sam glances back Dean's heaved himself to a crouch, one hand on Castiel's pulse. He's still too pale, and blood spatters his shirt and his cheekbones, but his mouth is tight and his eyes steady when he shakes his head at Sam. Dean looks shattered, washed out, but somewhere at the back of his eyes there's still a fierce smile for Sam. Then Dean looks at the congregation. Sam knows he's looking at the men and women he's lived with and cared for, the family Dean made for himself though the years when he and Sam were apart. They're watching Sam, silent, waiting on his word.
When Dean looks back, there's a dawning horror in his eyes which is, Sam thinks, something to do with Castiel, and something else altogether.
But Sam already has everything he needs.
Man I Love
Right Here For You (If You Don't Get It-'Taint No Fault O'Mine)
Did You Sleep Last Night? (or, In the Pines)
stunning playlist available to download here: