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Go, said the bird

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Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children

Look carefully, down through the trees past the shadowed pond. The forest there quivers, yawns to an overlook, a jagged rock-face edged by sky and mountains. If you're lucky, if the sun burns cloudless and the wind lies still, you might see two little boys there, dancing. They'll clutch their hands together and spin, laughing, laughing.

Watch awhile and listen. You'll see the younger one stumble, scrape his baby-fat knee on a crooked tree root. His brother will kiss his tears away, murmur something in his ear. If the birds are quiet and your ears are young, you might make out his whispers: Dance it away, Sammy. Sing it away.

They're not there anymore, of course. Not for a long while. Nothing more than a memory's echo, now. But if you're patient, if you let time converge and drift through your fingers like smoke, you'll hear them.

A child's voice, a toddler's lisping mimicry, flickering over the mountains:

     Here we go round the prickly pear
     Prickly pear prickly pear
     Here we go round the prickly pear
     At five o'clock in the morning


1998 - North Carolina

Anchor yourself to the basics.

He was fifteen. His name was Sam. He was seated in the kitchen of his father's cabin, schoolwork spread on the table before him. His hair was wild, his arms were skinny, and he was wrong, twisted, a violation.

The basics.

His history textbook lay open in front of him. Sam hesitated, glanced at it. Lines of words marching to their end, black ink on crisp white paper—harmless, really, but Sam knew what it could do. He knew how the ink could dance, could dip and run and draw him away. How it could fog up the present and drop him someplace else, helpless.

This book dragged him to a grey street, a line of buildings on either side that gouged the sky like teeth. Alien eyes assessed him, peering through dirty windowpanes, around corners. He itched to run, shouldn't be here, he knew. This world was false, unreal. The air plugged his ears with cotton and coated his tongue with something slick and foul, but he pressed on, eager to taste, to feel. He needed to see the short skirts on painted women, the sharp heels that hobbled their ankles and bound them to the meager warmth of nameless beds. He needed to know the glittering eyes that prospered in this world, the broad figures in pinstripe suits that smelled of tobacco and whiskey and sandalwood.

Sam closed his eyes and saw lines of white powder on sticky tabletops, the shadow of gaslight and jazz and desperation. Children huddled in the corner, their faces blue with the press of winter, their voices drowned by the hiss of an impotent radiator. This world tasted of thin coffee and betrayal, and Sam was so deep in its tearing rhythms that he sensed neither his own rising bile nor the sound of the door closing behind him.


He jumped to his feet. The book slid from his hands and thudded on the floor, dust and bent pages and clumsy so clumsy and—

"Sir." Your name is Sam. You're fifteen years old.

"Where's Dean?"

"Out cutting wood, sir." You're in the kitchen; Dad is speaking.

"And you're in here, burning daylight, because?"

Sam swallowed. "I'm doing my homework, sir. The repeal of the Temperance Act, 1933, and what happened afterward—" His father eyed him sideways, and Sam's voice trailed off.

Skinny. Dirty. Wrong.

"Daydreaming," John spat. "You check the fences? Finish the milking?" John read Sam's denial in his too white face and reddened it with the back of his hand. "Chores first, schoolwork later. You know that, boy. You think the Temperance Act is gonna keep out the coyotes or put food on your ungrateful table?"

Sam shook his head, resisting the urge to rub away the sting on his cheek.

"Then get on it, boy. Don't want to see you back here 'til your work is done." John settled heavily into the chair and kicked his feet up on the table, muddy boots and all.

Sam scurried to obey. The air outside was cold, and the sun hung low on the horizon. He should have known better than to put off his chores, should have known he'd get too submerged in his reading.

Hold on to the facts; don't let go. Dean's words, three years ago, his brother's face pinched and white with worry. Hold on, Sammy. You gotta hold on.

He kicked up mud as he followed the length of the fencing, searching for holes or broken posts. The Winchesters' land wasn't large, but the grazing area for the family cow was entirely fenced in. He'd need to check the chicken wire, too, and the sheep in the barn, before he could turn to milking. By then it would be good and dark.

Sam bit his lip and sighed. The fences were fine; of course they were fine. They almost always were. A once-weekly check would be plenty. But when he'd complained to Dean, his brother had gone all wide-eyed and solemn and offered only the standard reminder that Dad knew best, Dad had been doing this a lot longer than they had, they needed to trust Dad.

As if Sam didn't know that.

Sam lingered outside the barn longer than he should, his eyes trained over the mountains to the south. Blue by day, nearly black at dusk, their peaks edged by the sapphire spread of sunset. The west was a flare of orange and crimson, painful even at the corners of his vision, and his toes were wet from damp earth seeping through the cracks in Dean's castoff boots.

"You should probably do something about me."

Sam startled, nearly fell, caught himself with one hand on the peeling wall of the barn. He squinted with the effort of searching in the twilight, but he was alone; there was no one, nothing.

"Fox in the henhouse and all that."

He followed the sound down to the rusting wire at the base of the coop, where a flurry of movement caught his attention. There, vague in the dimness, was a jaunty red fox, its compact muscles quivering with contained energy.

Sam checked off its features. Reddish tufts of fur. Slanted eyes, bright with glare from the setting sun. Tiny, mud-streaked paws crushing the heady scent from the patch of yarrow in which it stood. A straggler from his book-dream, most likely. Hold on to the facts.

"Thought you were supposed to be the smart one."

Sam snorted, disbelieving. Smart had never mattered for much.

The fox gave him a look that, if foxes could give meaningful looks, would have expressed vaguely put-upon tolerance. "Fine, then. I'll do the talking. Not much to say, anyway. Just wanted to tell you not to let your brother go on this next hunt. Bad news all around."

When Sam still didn't speak, the fox clicked his tongue. "Take my word for it or don't. Doesn't matter to me." And it was off, a brief flicker of orange and white, and then nothing.

Sam shook his head, wished he had some cold water to splash on his face, and slipped into the barn to deal with Rosie and the sheep.


Three days later, Dean packed up for the hunt with John and the rest of men around town. Sam watched him go.

It was tradition, this great stag hunt every autumn, a charm against the icy grip of Appalachian winter. The men would bring back other things, too, squirrels and rabbits and maybe a few wild pigs if they were lucky. The meat would be salted and smoked and tallied with the meager stores of corn and potatoes and crumbly cheese to form what was in Sam's mind a much more practical promise of luck.

The hunt served also as a rite of passage. All the males in the village were welcomed along after the celebration of their eighteenth year, and most of them went, eager to win feminine favor with embellished tales of danger and hunting prowess.

Sam wasn't keen on joining the men—a dangerous thought, he knew, and one he wouldn't dare voice. Dean would just laugh at his softhearted brother, but John would either fume or slump in defeat at his waste of a son. Neither outcome was particularly desirable.

Time was, Sam would have curled against his brother at night, stripped his fear of its power by whispering it to Dean. But those days were gone, lost with the dissolving of Sam's childhood the year he'd turned twelve and Dean had looked away in disgust or fear or simple loss of interest, who knew. Whatever the cause, the bond they'd shared had been broken, and Dean had shifted to the corners of Sam's mind along with everyone else.

But Dean was still Dean, and the fierce love and admiration Sam felt for his brother had simply muted, not disappeared, no matter that Sam would never merit a place by his side. So he stood to the back of the crowd and offered a small wave of support to Dean, once he was sure John wouldn't see. And then he went home.

He had work to do before they returned. The barn needed mucking, the henhouse a good scrubbing, the last it would get before spring. The work in the garden was Sam's favorite, though, and there was plenty of it.

There were small, papery cloves of garlic to press deep into the earth where they'd hide until the April sun drew them up into a tentative, hopeful green. There were mounds of old hay to spread on rows of carrots and beets, that thin layer just enough to keep them sweet and accessible in frozen ground. And then there were clumps of catnip and mint, echinacea and chicory root and rhodiola, the plump hips of the roses that curled around their cabin, strips of bark from the white willows down by the stream.

Winter was hard in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but Sam had learned, was learning, how to survive.

Sam had just finished gathering the chunks of hickory and cherry they'd need to smoke the meat when daylight petered out on the horizon. There was no need for a fire, not yet; the night air might be cold in the mountains, but his layers of scratchy wool blankets were warm, and he settled beneath them without bothering about his clothes.

It was sometime later, sometime deep in the still presence of night, that he heard shouting. He fumbled with his blankets, managed to find his footing just as the door crashed open and two men spilled into the room. It was too dark to see clearly, but Sam knew the shape of those figures outlined in the moonlight. Would recognize them anywhere.

"Dean! Dad! What happened?"

John grunted and heaved Dean onto the empty bed. "Took a bullet to the leg. Missed the bone." He eyed his younger son. "Think you can manage this? I'm needed back at the hunt."

It rose again, that familiar smolder of anger-turning-hatred, sharpened now by his sudden jolt to wakefulness. Years of John's distance, his blindness to Dean's devotion. The wounded acceptance in Dean's eyes when John dismissed him. And Dean's stupid, beautiful, uncrushable hope that if he could just do enough, give enough, then one day John might love him.

Sam clenched his fists, felt the blood and adrenaline crawling under his skin. Only John could make him feel this way, the father he hated and needed and feared in irritatingly equal parts. He knew nothing of fighting, had never spent much time tussling with the other boys behind the schoolhouse, but he knew what he wanted to do. Knew that he couldn't.

"Yes, sir," Sam said instead. "I can manage."

John nodded once and escaped through the slatted door, leaving his sons alone.

Sam pushed away his futile resentment and turned his attention to his brother. Dean's face was pale, his eyes closed, and a clot of blood and torn leather crusted on his thigh. He lifted Dean's hips with practiced tenderness and slid his pants off his legs, dropping them in a forgotten heap on the floor. Sam prodded at the wound with his finger. The damage wasn't extensive; John had been correct in his assessment, thank God. The last thing they needed at the close of the year was a shattered bone.

He lit the kindling in their old cook stove, set some water on to boil. Dropped in the needle and tweezers he'd need later and checked to see if Dean was awake. He wasn't.

Sam walked outside toward the patches of plantain and yarrow that grew wild by the barn. They'd best be used fresh, and his anger lifted a little with gratitude that there hadn't yet been a hard frost. The drooping white blossoms were easy enough to spot by moonlight.

"Perhaps you'll believe me now."

The crushed yarrow was pungent in his fist. Sam breathed it in—anchor yourself—and shifted his weight to reach for the plantain. A one-off book dream, or something like it at least, come back to pester him while Dean bled out on their bed. Not something he needed at the moment.

"Oh, come now. I'm not the one who shot your brother. There's no need for pettiness."

Sam selected a handful of the tenderest leaves and pressed them into his palm. "What do you want from me?" It couldn't hurt to ask.

"Just your attention. A little time, a little trust."

Sam nearly laughed. Would have, had he not been in such a hurry. Dean bloody and pining for approval, John absent as always, and Sam so broken he was chatting with his hallucination. Which just so happened to be a talking fox.

What a picture they made.

The fox's voice turned sharp with irritation. "Something is coming, young Samuel. You'd do well to be cautious."

Sam ignored it, kept working. Couldn't waste time on delusions. And anyway, it was gone once he'd finished gathering the herbs. He headed back into the single room of their house, forcing his mind to the task at hand.

The water was boiling, steam heady around the stove. He grabbed the pot of thick honey from its perch and poured a generous whorl into an earthenware bowl, crushing in the leaves with the blunt end of a pestle. The honey turned acrid as he worked, bright with swirls of fresh green juice that loosened it into a thin paste for warding off infection.

Poultice in hand, Sam fished his tools from the boiling water and rushed to his brother "Hey, Dean," he said, his fingers pressed lightly to Dean’s sweaty forehead. "I'm here. I'm gonna fix you up now, ok? Might hurt some."

Sam kept one hand on Dean's thigh as the tweezers gripped the bullet. He tugged it out carefully and removed as many bits of thread and dirt as he could. A thorough wash with soap and hot water took care of the rest. When his needle poised on his brother's skin, his grip on Dean's leg tightened in sympathetic warning. "Here goes."

It was over quickly, the tugging of thread to close the open wound, and Sam bit the string and tied it off with expert care. Dean had groaned and shifted a little on the bed, but he'd kept himself mostly still, and the stitches were neat and even. Sam spread a thick layer of ointment over his handiwork and covered it all in a loosely wrapped bandage. "Ok, Dean. It's done."

Dean heaved a sigh and muttered something nonsensical, elk and fir trees and maybe something about a cave. Sam checked for fever, then cleaned his tools and put them away. He'd mend Dean's pants in the morning.

When he finally climbed into bed, dawn had already begun its slow ascent. He wrapped his arms gently around his brother, cherished the brief moment of injury-induced closeness. Dean stirred and pressed himself tighter into Sam's chest, and Sam breathed deep the scents of leather and gun oil and the trees outside, the constant smell of Dean and home.

Sleep, when it found him, was dreamless.


The hunters returned late the next day, somber and a little wary, less laden than the village had hoped. There was no stag.

Uneasy whispers rose among the townspeople who'd gathered to celebrate the hunt. The Elders offered no answers, just clustered briefly together in conference before heading to the big meeting house on the commons. The villagers began to drift away, still gossiping, and Sam hooked his arm under his brother's shoulders and started for home. Dean kept his back straight and his head high, broadcasting his independence to anyone who looked. As if he were supporting Sam, somehow. Sam smiled, wriggled against him. He was glad for the contact. Dean could pretend if he wanted.

Sam and Dean, Dean and Sam.

It had been awhile since they'd been like this, the two of them. The realization hit Sam with a stab of wistfulness, of longing for the time before these walls between them, before Dean had closed himself off with whatever it was that haunted him now, before Sam had recognized his own difference and wrongness. Back in that simpler time when it had been Sam and Dean alone and together in the bright dream of childhood.

Dean kept quiet all day, too quiet, refused to discuss either the accident or the reason for the sudden meeting. Sam had long ago lost the ability to pierce his brother's stubborn armor, so he simply brewed him some tea—goldenseal to speed his recovery with a bit of ginger for sweetness—and settled down with a book.

Like it or not, he had to study.

This time, it was a history of the Great Civil War of 1971, written by Elder Bremen himself, memories of the man's experience blending with the facts and figures. The seventies had always fascinated Sam, intrigued him with thoughts of what life had been like before the terrible rending of their once-faithful nation. Brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, and all in the name of what the government had perversely termed "religious diversity."

He read for awhile, absorbing the stories of armed militia, imprisoned pastors, ransacked churches and homes. It started with the schools, his teachers always said, and Sam's reading confirmed it: there had been forced re-education and banned books years before the violence started.

Sam closed his eyes to see it. The thrum of marching boots on pavement, low and threatening, crowds parting like the Red Sea to a different sort of Moses. A crash of broken glass in the night, police at the door, searching, seizing, mindless of nightgowns and skittering children. A man lay facedown on the street, his head split like a ripe melon and oozing something thick and foul and Sam tried to turn away, tried to escape, but the fox met his gaze and said, "It's starting, Sam," and he opened his eyes, and Dean was shaking him.

"Sam, Sammy. Wake up."

The wall behind his brother was a wash of gunsmoke and spattered blood, but when Sam blinked his eyes, it flickered back to the familiar stack of hewn logs.

"Dad stopped by. We're wanted at the meeting house."

Sam blinked again. There had only been one other general assembly in his lifetime, at least that he could remember. He'd been five or six, too young to understand the heated discussion around him or the older women's tears when it was over, and he'd never thought to ask Dean about it later. The memory brought a pang of something to his gut: nerves, maybe, or dread. The same uneasy, jittery feeling he got when Elder Bremen's eyes met his during the man's pointed lectures in the schoolhouse.

When they reached the commons, nearly everyone was already there. Ella Matthews stood outside, tending the noisy cluster of small children and twirling her braid around her hand. When she saw Dean, the boredom on her face lightened with obvious interest, but he ignored her, gripping Sam's shoulder for support as he limped inside.

Sam didn't mind. Dean was nineteen. He had only a year or two left before he'd be married off to a suitable girl like Ella, leaving Sam alone with their father. If Dean wanted to delay the inevitable, Sam wouldn't complain.

The meeting house was abuzz with agitated murmur, terse words hushed under the heavy weight of fear. When they found their father, he didn't pause his conversation to acknowledge them, and Sam caught snatches of their whispers, his father's rumbling reassurance to the other man's muttered "risky."

They settled into the wooden pew, jostled their knees together. Whatever was coming, at least Sam still had Dean.

Elder Matthews, Ella's father and pillar of the community, rose from his seat. He stomped up to the platform, his knees creaking like ancient trees, and the murmuring quieted. "Brothers and Sisters, let us pray."

His voice rose and fell with practiced emotion as he prayed, thanking God for His blessings, beseeching His forgiveness and continued protection. Sam mostly ignored him; it wasn't anything he hadn't heard before. But the midweek assembly, that was new, and his skin crawled with uneasy curiosity.

Elder Matthews paused, took his time examining the congregation. Building suspense, Sam figured. The man loved his theater. But when he finally spoke again, his words came quick and steady, echoing through the room too fast for Sam to process. "After much deliberation," he said without flourish, "the time for formal announcement has come. We have spoken and been heard, and the vote has been cast. We are opening our arms to welcome a new member into our fold. Christelle Lafitte, please come forward."

Gasps of shock peppered the room, surprise evident on the faces of all but the Elders who'd made the decision. No one new had ever joined the community, not since the Winchesters' arrival fourteen years earlier.

The heavy oak doors swung open, and a woman stepped into the room. The thin fabric of her dress hung loosely over her figure, and the hair that framed the hungry angles of her face was wild with grease and twigs. A boy followed behind, about Dean's age, with a lazy set to his eyes that didn't quite mask the glint of wary determination beneath.

It was all very dramatic.

Sam wondered just where the Elders had hidden the pair, how long it had taken them to plan the meeting to best effect. He felt a weak pulse of guilt at the disrespect but ignored it. It was too fun to imagine them plotting over something so petty, too thrilling finally to have a joke to whisper to Dean. But when he turned to his brother, Dean looked away, a guilty red flush creeping up his cheeks.

Dean wasn't surprised. Dean knew what was happening. Dean hadn't said.

Elder Matthews' voice jerked Sam back. "By will of the majority," he continued, "We have decided to embrace Christelle Lafitte and her son Benjamin as full members in our community. The opposition has been heard; now is the time for celebration." He dismissed the crowd, reminding them of their obligation to return on Sunday, and stepped down to hesitant applause and a few halfhearted amens. Christelle looked fragile under all the attention, insubstantial. Sam sympathized; he knew how it felt, the oppressive weight of that scrutiny, all those eyes, peering, judging.

Sam shivered, looked for his brother, but Dean was leaving, slipping out the back without waiting for Sam. Sam chased after him, kept a few feet behind until they were alone. "Dean," he said, grabbing him by the shoulder.

Dean shrugged him off. "I'm fine, Sam. Good to limp all by my lonesome, see?" He gestured down at his injured leg, flashing his signature grin.

Sam sighed. "No, you're not. But that's not what I mean. The meeting, Dean. You knew. You knew they were coming. Why didn't you say?"

Dean chewed his lip and stared off to the side. "Dunno, Sammy. Didn't want you to get your hopes up if it turned out to be nothing."

"Get my hopes up for what?" He frowned, confused.

Dean squared his shoulders and kept walking. "I dunno, Sam," he repeated. "Just drop it, ok? We got chores to do."

Sam let him go. He should have known better than to think a stray bullet would solve any of their problems. Dean would tell him what he needed to know, nothing more to it than that.

When they crawled into bed that evening, Sam stared at the log beams above him, Christelle's skittish face imprinted on his eyelids. He pondered the fox's words and the day's events until he drifted into fitful sleep long after midnight.


The night that followed the strange meeting was cold and left behind it trails of frost and gritty snow that crunched beneath Sam's boots as he walked to school. The fox hovered at the edges of his vision, snapping twigs and bouncing in the fresh snow. Sam ignored it, figuring it would speak if it wanted to. It didn't.

The schoolhouse was hushed and buzzing much like the meeting had been the day before, though Benny wasn't there. Sam took his seat in one of the hard-backed chairs and did his best to shut out his classmates' gossip. It wasn't long before stern Naomi Bremen rose to start the day with prayer.

Sam closed his eyes and swallowed the resigned sigh that threatened to escape. He liked prayer well enough, or the idea of it at least, cherished the swell of peace that clung to his own silent prayers when he walked the length of the fences at night. But the God that echoed back in the stillness outside was something else, something different from the harsh power and heavy fist Naomi now addressed.

The thought filled him with familiar guilt, and he pushed it away, uneasy.

The day dragged on. Sam had once enjoyed school, had reveled in the strange lands brought to life when he read. As he'd gotten older, though, it had become clear that he was alone in that devotion. Books were his private escape; his fellow students couldn't follow him to the worlds he visited. And so Sam hid his love, and it faded in the hiding, eclipsed by the fear that had shattered his youth: fear of himself, of the Other. Fear of discovering they might be the same thing.

Benny was hauling water with Dean when Sam returned home, and John was nowhere to be found. They quieted at Sam's arrival, but he could tell from Dean's shuttered expression they'd been discussing something important. He didn't ask.

As he went about his chores, he found himself rehearsing the events of the day, trying to put his finger on just what had made it so strange. Naomi Bremen had been rigid as usual, unrelentingly doling out punishment on whisperers and gigglers. Her ruler hadn't found Sam, though; it hadn't since he was twelve and had scared off the last of his friends with his fantasies. He hadn't had anyone to talk to in class after that.

She'd lectured on that second Civil War, her long-nailed finger underlining the passages she quoted from her husband's book. That was all well and good, but then she'd wandered a little off topic, and her usual sharp manner was replaced with a glittering fanaticism Sam hadn't noticed before. "Lies and stories," she'd said, closing the textbook. "That's what the devil will tempt you with. Those things which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, that's what the good Lord says we're to think on."

She'd looked around the room as if daring them to contradict her. "Children, you know what we're hiding from. You know what's out there." They did: a world torn to pieces by greed and war, children starving, addicts bleeding out in streets. Young women and men prostituting themselves to the ruthless and powerful, desperate for the next hit, the next meal. None of them were foolish enough to want that.

"So if any of you find yourselves tempted, if anyone tries to lead you astray with falsehood and wild imagination, you tell your parents or Elders straightaway. Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction."

Sam hadn't heard much of the rest of the lecture. His mind had caught the word "imagination" and refused to move past it, and he thought about it again while he rushed through the milking. "Overactive imagination," that's what the Elders had said he suffered from when a concerned John had brought him in for examination three years ago. That and "beguiling spirits," whatever they were. The memory stirred a phantom ache in his back from the belt John had used to correct him, the long months of deprivation and scheduled discipline prescribed by the Elders that had continued until Sam could convince them he'd been cured.

Sam shivered and wondered why Naomi had chosen that topic for today. Everyone knew how the Devil worked, how he tricked and tempted you along the path to Hell. Everyone knew to be scared.

Your name is Sam Winchester. And then, quieter, a knee-jerk list of synonyms: twisted, abomination, wrong.

Dean stuck his head through the open door of the barn, and the sudden movement caused Rosie to kick. Sam jumped to duck her hoof and upended his pail in the process. The milk pooled around his feet, warm and sweet over the ripe scent of the barn. He glared at his brother, unsteady with the near miss and his jolting return to reality. Dean just laughed. "Nervous, Sammy?"

"Excuse me for not wanting to be kicked in the head by a cow," he muttered, shaking off both the fog and his boots.

"Sorry, princess," Dean said, still smiling and not looking sorry in the least.

Sam eyed the mess on the floor and sighed. "Dad's gonna kill me."

"No, he's not. He'll be at Christelle's until late. He won't even notice."

Sam looked up, surprised. "What's he doing with her? Wait. What do you mean, at Christelle's? They have a house?"

Dean cuffed his ear. "That's Mrs. Lafitte to you, squirt. Don't let Dad catch you being mouthy." He pulled up a stool and sat next to Sam. "They got set up in that old cabin by the stream, not too far from here. Think Dad's sweet on her."

Sam wrinkled his nose. "Gross, Dean."

Dean laughed, and just like that, they were friends again. Well, friendly, at least. And if it was strange that Benny banged through the door of the cabin to join their hasty dinner, Sam didn't comment. Better not to ask questions. Dean smiling and laughing and joking with him, that was enough.

That night, Sam dreamed of a river and muddy footprints, of dark eyes peering through tall, stately firs. That was it, a single image glimpsed in agonizing detail, but when he startled awake he was drenched in sweat and trembling.


John and Christelle were married in May. Small flowers poked through the grass, crocus and snowdrop and winter jasmine, and the breeze that shook the towering pines was tinged with warmth.

Despite the beauty of the day, the ceremony was subdued. The harshness of the preceding winter showed in gaunt figures and sagging clothes, in cracked and ridged fingernails and dark, hollow eyes. The budding trees did little to boost their diminished food stores, and that knowledge hung heavily on everyone.

The simplicity fit the courtship, Sam mused as he watched them take their vows. It had been a straightforward affair, driven by a shared sense of need more than any kind of love. The first time he'd really believed Dean's comment about their father's intentions, a particularly nasty storm had blown off a chunk of the Lafittes' rickety roof. Christelle had sent Benny for help, and John had rushed over, returning with the woman shortly after. He'd bundled her up by the fire and brewed her some chamomile tea himself instead of ordering Sam to do it, which was in itself eyebrow-raising. When he'd sat down next to her, and slowly, tentatively reached for her hand, well, that was when Sam knew.

They'd spent a few weeks at the Winchesters' cabin, John and Christelle in separate beds, their sons bundled up on the floor. Sam had grown accustomed to her quiet presence, her lowered voice. And it had been nice to have someone else help with cooking and cleaning and all of the work John had long since delegated to Sam. There was something about her, though, something wilting under John's bouts of anger, that made Sam anxious around her. Too much twitchiness reflected back at him. And then there was Benny, who worked hard and glowered harder, left little stamps of determined outrage all around the room. When their roof had finally been repaired enough for them to return home, Sam hadn't been sad. Five tempers in one snowbound cabin was too many to navigate.

The winter had been hard for more reasons than the relentless snow and his father's uncomfortable romance. Dean had all but disappeared once his leg had healed, and all he'd say whenever Sam asked was that he'd been with Benny. Even the fox was gone, silent since his last ill-fated warning.

Just hold on, Sammy. You gotta hold on.

The words of his books lay flat and lifeless these days. Sam should have been glad of it, he knew, but the absence of his habitual escape only added to the dark cloud blanketing his mind. He'd stopped speaking much and barely ate, unable to find an anchor strong enough to pull him from the dreams that encroached now on his waking moments.

Just hold on.

So he sat with Dean and Benny, observing their parents' wedding in silence. Dean was eyeing him with a strange intensity, and Benny looked thin-lipped and determined. Sam ignored them both and stared straight ahead, his fingers toying absently with the hollows between his ribs.

Dean nudged him with his elbow. "You ok, Sammy?" he whispered.

Sam looked at him, confused. Why did Dean care?

"Because you're my brother, dumbass."

Oh. He'd spoken aloud.

That was the other thing. When had Dean started swearing? His brother had always been one to follow rules, and the rules directing their language were clear: God did not smile on profanity.

Suddenly, Sam remembered Naomi's words from last fall, her dire warning against idle stories, and his curiosity flared for the first time in months. Dean had been spending an awful lot of time with Benny, and Benny came from Outside. Was that what had prompted Naomi's lecture? Was Benny filling Dean's ears with lies and temptation?

Dreams and imagination. You know they're not real.

Sam examined his brother carefully for any sign that Dean had changed. There wasn't much, just an unfamiliar looseness around Dean's eyes, a certain set to his shoulders. And his newfound love of questionable language, of course.

Dean noticed the scrutiny and cocked an eyebrow. Sam looked away.

After the Elder's droning sermon about God's plan and marital blessings, there was a dinner, a sparse feast to which everyone contributed. Ella Matthews had even baked a cherry pie, yet another in her long line of attempts to catch Dean's eye. Sam's lips quirked in a ghost of a smile when he saw it. If Dean hadn't noticed her yet, he probably never would.

As their friends and neighbors settled down to eat, Sam recalled the stories he'd heard of that first Thanksgiving. He wondered what they had eaten, whether they'd settled down to a meager table like this one or had celebrated with stuffed bellies and sticky fingers. Probably the former, he figured; no one was dumb enough to waste food before winter. He squinted a little, allowing the shapes around him to morph into taciturn Pilgrims at a similar table. It wasn't much of a stretch.

John and Christelle left soon after eating, whether in haste to consummate their marriage or to escape the somber, prying eyes, Sam couldn't tell. Both, maybe. Since the Lafittes no longer had use for their cabin, the new couple would be staying the week there. Benny had already moved in with the Winchesters.

The walk back to their cabin was slow, and Sam settled into the silence without noticing. If Dean and Benny hung back a little, that was nothing unusual, and Sam was deep in thought anyway, torn between basking in the breeze's subtle warmth and brooding over the new member of his family. He wondered whether he'd be expected to call her Mother.

When Sam put his hand to the doorknob, ready to enter the cabin, to lose himself yet again in the dulling rhythms of survival, Dean spoke. "Sam."

Sam paused, a twinge of concern wriggling through his numbness at the urgency in Dean's tone. "What?"

"Shit," Dean said, clearly flustered, and Sam turned to him, bewildered. Dean raised his hands as if to argue but then dropped them, saying only, "I have something to tell you, and I need you to listen, but—shit," he said again. "Let's just go inside to talk."

When Sam opened the door, there were bags packed and lined against the wall. The worry that had been brewing beneath his consciousness spiked, and he looked to Dean, eyes wide and hurt, hoping it didn't mean what he thought.

"Just," Dean said, running a hand through his hair. "Just sit. And listen. Before you freak out."

They sat at the low kitchen table, him and Dean, with Benny hovering awkwardly in the doorway. Dean took a deep breath, planted his elbows firmly on the table, and said the words Sam had been dreading to hear. "We gotta go."

The blood rushed from Sam’s face and something crashed in his ears, a sound like he imagined the ocean might make when a storm raged distant from shore. Anchor yourself, anchor yourself, but his anchor was gone, the ground dropped away, nothing left to grasp. The light hurt his eyelids, streaks of red-gold bursting and receding, trailing away in the blackness. Someone's arm on his hand, a voice in his ear. "Dammit, Sam. That's not what I meant. I mean we gotta go, all of us, me and Benny and you."

The earth quivered beneath Sam's feet, cementing and dissolving back to vapor, and the waves in his head kept right on crashing. Too much noise; he could barely discern Dean's voice through it. Dean shook him a little, desperate, said, "Listen to me, Sammy. I need to get you out of here. They're killing you; you can't think I haven't seen that."

Sam looked at him then, dazed, and Dean must have taken it for accusation, because he swallowed hard and glanced away. "God, Sammy, I'm sorry it took me so long. I've been wanting to get you out of here since Dad went nuts trying to beat your brains out. I just wasn't sure—I mean, what if they were telling the truth, and the world really was all shot to hell? And you were just a kid, I couldn't bring you into that. But then Benny came, and he told me these memories I have, they're real, Sammy, and I knew we had to go. As soon as possible. I've been packed and ready for months, but this is the first time we've been alone. We gotta take this chance, Sam. I don't know when we'll get another."

If that was an explanation, it was the worst Sam had ever heard. Dean had memories? Of what? And since when had Dean cared about anything Dad did, and besides, Dad had been right about Sam, he knew that now, and so what if his methods had hurt and not worked because that was Sam's fault, anyway, and—

"Stop it, Sam. Listen to me. Dad's not right. This place, the whole idea of this place—it's wrong. It's a lie, everything they've ever told us has been a lie. I know you're confused and this is—unexpected, but Sam. I need you to trust me. Look at me."

Anchor yourself to the basics. Your name is Sam. Your brother is Dean.

Sam met his brother's eyes and trembled at the depth of love and compassion and guilt reflected there, the understanding and friendship he'd thought he'd lost long ago. And he realized, fiercely, that no matter the cost, the loss, the suspension of disbelief required, he could only ever trust Dean.

Dean and Sam, Sam and Dean. The two of us against the world.

Sam opened his mouth, his breath clouding out in the cabin’s cold air. "Ok," he whispered, and all the tension flooded out of his brother. Dean stood and gave him a quick nod that promised more explanation later, and handed him a pack.

"C'mon, then," he said, gesturing toward the door. "Let's go."