There are noises in the cosmic grapevine about three women in Savannah, about prophesy and oracle and older gods than even they know the words for, and Dean hears about it from a waitress at the counter of a diner off the side of a North Carolina freeway. It's muggy outside: like collards and carrot tops and green gumbo, stewed until it's mostly brown, like mudslides and the thick scum left on everything after a storm.
Sue, whose brother is a sergeant serving in Afghanistan still, wears a yellow ribbon on the breast pocket of her server's uniform and snaps her gum as she tops off Dean's coffee. She talks about how she misses her baby brother and how she's real proud of him for standin' up for his country and fighting for the sake of freedom in the US of A; she tells Dean her momma's the best damn quilter on this side of the Carolinas and that she'd be happy to take Dean around this sleepy, southeastern town if he's gonna be round these parts for a few more days.
Sam drinks sweet tea and listens to her chatter at his brother, stacks Land O'Lakes non-dairy creamers into a pyramid and listens to newspapers rustle, the metallic slick and slide of spatulas and things on the hot griddle, the shouting of the Mexican short order cook. The diner smells like the meatloaf blue plate special and frying sausage and bacon, smells like the steak and eggs Dean ordered with black coffee. Sam looks at the counter's ugly, specked blue linoleum and the pleather covers of the diner stools, split open, with the fluff inside spilling out.
"Now what's this about oracles," Dean says and he drags out all the syllables in 'oracle' until Sue laughs, eyes bright, and winks.
"It's just highway chatter now, ya'll hear?" she says. "But trucker's've been comin' in sayin' there're three wise women in Savannah, set up shop in a rickety shack by the freeway shakin' and shiverin' and channeling the spirits they tell me."
"Any of them actually been to them?" Dean asks, leaning forward on his elbows.
Sue leans right back, and Sam doesn't know what the hell Dean is talking about when he says people like Sam better. People trust Sam more, because of his earnest expression and bashful bangs; people know Dean's trouble and follow him anyway. Sam follows him anyway.
"A few," Sue prevaricates and smirks. "Why—you lookin' to have your future read?"
Dean laughs and leans back. "No, ma'am! I am a man who appreciates the mystery of life."
Sam rolls his eyes and Sue wipes down the part of the counter in front of Dean's half-empty plate of egg detritus and steak gristle for the fortieth time. Sam's needed more tea for almost half an hour, and when he looks pleadingly at the other waitress in the diner, she just raises her brows in challenge before going back to her backdated copy of Cosmo, dog-earing pages for future reference.
Sam thinks meanly that she'll never get to use all their fashion tips—replacing drug store Cover Girl for the make-ups available only in New York, London, and Milan, that she'll never buy any Oscar knockoff dresses and never dine at Nobu. He thinks that no matter how much Cosmo she reads, she'll always work in this backwater nowhere with a special on Duplin county wines, and that she'll never be more than exactly what she is.
"Too curious, then," Sue decides with a grin. "They say that stuff killed the cat you know."
"Good thing I'm a dog, Sue," Dean laughs, and peels a couple of fives out of a wad he's keeping in his pocket. They taste like cheap-ass Bud and the smokehouse pool hall they'd been at the night before, where Dean let at least three hard bodies punk him before he'd ripped them all a new one on the green felt.
She rolls her eyes and laughs, but it's warm and sweet and well within her means, and Sam wonders how people sometimes know when things are beyond them. Sam's always wanted so much he couldn't have.
Sue wanders off with the cash to make change and Dean purses his mouth before saying, "You ever hear anything about the Southern mystics, little brother?"
"Not to my knowledge, no," Sam answers. "I didn't know the South had mystics."
"The South has Pentecostals," Dean laughs. "Signs and wonders. Trance-like states."
They once hunted evil snakehandlers in Appalachia. Dean hates snakes almost as much as he hates flying, which made it one of Sam's favorite memories from his childhood: his brother crawling up a tree and shrieking, "Back off! Fucking lizards of Satan!" before Sam said snakes could climb. There is, if Sam thinks about it, an enormous body of memory colored by fondness, washed of all the fear he must have felt as a kid and now just an absent collection of facts and anecdotes—stories about Sam and Dean and Dad.
Sam raises an eyebrow. "Are you saying you want to find the oracles?"
Dean gives him a look. "No interest in knowing the future, Sammy," he answers.
"You never thought about it?" Sam asks, curious. "About how this might all end up? About where you'll be in ten, fifteen years?"
"I know where I'll be," Dean says automatically. "It's just the company that changes."
And before Sam can start a fight with Dean about taking cheap shots, Sue comes back with their change and a white paper bag of lemon squares, dusted sweet with powdered sugar she presses into Dean's hands, saying, "I won't hear a word of it; it's on the house. From Sue," even as Dean tells her, "Ma'am we couldn't possibly, this is too kind."
"Ya'll drive safe now, you hear?" she tells them, and waves from behind the counter as they gather up their things and go. Dean gives her a backward glance and a wide, wide smile while Sam pushes into the sultry August heat, near-choking on the moisture, and runs his hand over the cheap aluminum handles of the door: sizzling hot on his skin.
The way Dean tells it, their parents were never in for psychics and all that paranormal mumbo-jumbo. They went to the local Methodist church, with their mother putting Dean in his Sunday best and combing John's hair; there was no praising of Jesus but Dean was always told not to take the Lord's name in vain, which is probably why he does it as much as humanly possible these days.
Dean does not take part in assorted ridiculousness indigenous to the area and does not care about his zodiac sign (which is Virgo) or listen to his horoscope when Sam reads it out loud to him from whichever trashy magazine he's found left behind in whichever trashy motel they sleep in whichever night. Dean does not believe in faith-healers (unless they have enslaved a reaper and under which circumstances Sammy is to let him fucking die, which is a direct quote Sam intends on directly contradicting for as long as they both shall live) or mystics. Dean believes there is the supernatural and the natural and that it is in the places that the twain meet where they drive with purpose.
"Our history, Sammy," Dean likes to say, grinning in an ironical way, "is of God-fearing Midwesterners. We don't partake in the devil's work."
"We are the devil's work," Sam likes to laugh back.
"Well praise be," Dean will say, and drop his foot on the gas until they've burned enough highway to burn the thought out of their minds—like they are now, driving straight down from Jersey to Ft. Lauderdale, where Dean knows a guy who knows a guy who knows of some sort of alligator with two heads and a taste for human flesh. Sam wants to know what the fuck kind of supernatural event that is other than nuclear waste getting into waterways and streams; he suspects Dean just wants to see a two-headed alligator.
"God damn it, Sam," Dean yells from the car. "Move your ass!"
Sam rolls his eyes and the man grins at him, brushy whisker's twitching, from behind the gas station counter and passes him a dollar thirty-six in change and:
2 Snickers bars
1 travel-sized mouthwash
1 package travel-sized Kleenex tissue
5 sticks of beef jerky
6-pack of Mountain Dew
1 copy of the Southern Pines Pilot
1 red, white, and blue lighter
"I swear to fucking God, Sam!" Dean calls out again.
"Twitchy sumbitch, ain't he?" the register man says, and Sam takes his time pocketing his change and folding up his newspapers, stuffing them under one arm.
"You have no idea," Sam confides.
The first psychic I ever really met was Missouri, Dean explains, gnawing at the wrapper of his Snicker's bar until Sam snatches it out of his mouth and opens it for him. Dean, who has this shit-eating smile on his face, just opens his mouth like he's working the neighborhood glory hole and waits for Sam to shove it back in there.
"I think I remember psychics from when we were young," Sam says, and helps himself to a Mountain Dew.
Dean shakes his head. "Shamans, priests, any and all kinds of people yeah, but Dad never went looking for fortune-tellers. I don't know, Sam. They creep me out."
"Psychics creep you out?" Sam demands. "Psychics?"
Dean scowls at him. "Bitch, shut your mouth."
"Of all the demons you've vanquished—"
"Vanquished," Dean repeats sarcastically, like he wasn't the one to teach Sam that word to begin with, when Sam was in the second grade and Dean fell in love with comic books for one whole long, soggy summer in Washington state.
"—Vanquished and all the spirits you've killed and that time you were almost eaten by a bear out of sheer stupidity," Sam continues, "you're creeped out by psychics?"
"Man," Dean argues, "they dig around your head! They—you know, prophesy. Don't you think it's a little wrong and strange to know that will happen before it happens?"
"Okay, wow, your powers of compartmentalization astound me," Sam mutters.
"Dude, if I knew what that meant, I'd totally be insulted," Dean says.
Sam just rolls his eyes; it's not worth the fight. Dean was never as dumb as he likes to pretend he is; somewhere along the line, Sam's brother decided it was easier to get by if everybody thought he was prettier than he was bright. Which Dean very probably is—but he is very, very pretty.
Or maybe it's negative reinforcement: Sam was always the smart one, Dean was always the cute one. And then somewhere along the lines of puberty all the lines got crossed and Dean went the way of slightly dangerous with a leather jacket and a five o'clock shadow while the girls in the Future Librarians of America club all wrote Mrs. Sam Winchester all over their Trapper Keepers. It might have been a fluke but it happened at three separate middle and high schools, so Sam thinks that in terms of sociology, it's statistically significant.
"Did you ever read up on the oracle at Delphi?" Sam asks suddenly and taps his fingers on the dashboard of the car, listening to Iron Maiden struggle out of the car stereo system. Sam's been tempted more than once to just set Dean's fucking cassettes on fire, but he has no real inclination to (a) see his brother cry (b) see his brother really pissed again or (c) see the face of baby Jesus when Dean kills him for destroying the Metallica mix he spent half of his tenth grade year making.
"A little, when it popped up," Dean says, and looks sideways at Sam. "Why?"
They pass a sign that says, South Carolina - 96, which makes Sam wonder about arbitrary numbers and wasting taxpayer money.
"I don't know man, oracles—they don't just pop up on the sides of highways," Sam says.
Dean laughs. "There is a lot of strange and fantastic shit people do not advertise, Samuel."
Sam raises an eyebrow. "Like being an oracle?"
"Like seeing the fucking future, man," Dean says. "I mean, did you tell everybody when you started channeling the spirit of Elton John?"
"Elton John isn't dead," Sam snaps. "And I'm not channeling anybody."
"It's just a touch of extra-sensory perception, then," Dean allows.
"Fuck you very much," Sam says feelingly.
"Okay, buttercup, whatever you say," Dean tells him casually.
Sam hasn't had any dreams recently—when he does sleep, he sleeps like the dead—but he has this twisted, childlike worry that if he talks about it, they'll come back. He can't tell if he's been cursed or blessed or some twisted crossing of the two. He keeps telling himself: You saved Dean's life. That's good enough. That's good enough reason to have this damn thing.
They roll past a South Carolina - 86 sign before Dean clears his throat to say, "Any particular reason you're so stuck on these oracles, Sammy?"
"Don't call me Sammy."
"Don't try to avoid the question," Dean tells him. "Come on, Sam."
Sam shrugs. It's hard to do in a contained space, even a car as big and gas-guzzling as the Impala. He looks out a window and ignores the hair that falls into his eyes. "I don't know. I just thought it was kind of interesting—that she used the word oracle specifically."
"Oracles channel gods and goddesses," Dean muses. "Give divine guidance."
Sam laughs. "Sounds good."
"Sounds like a tourist trap," Dean says meanly, but there's an altogether-too-nice smile on his mouth. "You need guidance in life, Sammy, I get you a copy of Our Bodies, Our Selves you can read in the backseat and commune with your inner woman."
"You know, for someone who acts like such a slimeball to women," Sam says innocently, "you seem to quote pretty easily about sociological feminist literature, Dean."
"Everybody goes through a phase as a teenager," Dean says, grinning conspiratorially, and Sam laughs all the way to the South Carolina - 76 sign.
Basically, it comes down to the fact that Sam doesn't know what the hell he's doing, and he's too chickenshit to ask Dean if he does. It's the sort of dilemma that's embarrassing enough when you haven't already been doing it for more than seven months; it's downright shameful now to start the conversation. Besides, Sam already knows Dean's answers. Dean will say, we're doing it to find the thing that killed Mom; we're doing it to find the thing that killed Jess; we're doing it because it's the right fucking thing to do! Jesus fucking Christ, Sammy!
"Plato went on a thirty-five year learning spree to prove the oracle wrong," Dean says suddenly.
Seth blinks. "What?"
"The oracle said no one was wiser than Socrates, and so Plato spent the next thirty-five freaking years being a petty little bitch and trying to one-up the S-man," Dean says patiently.
"I didn't know that," Sam says. "Why do you know that?"
"Ow," Dean mutters.
"No, seriously. Nobody knows that. Why do you know that?" Sam demands.
"My cassette player busted once in Alabama and I got stuck listening to NPR," Dean admits. "Cool story, though, isn't it?"
"Sure," Sam agrees. Dean's never read Plato, nor his recounting of Socrates, which is either wisdom or a sign of a distinct lack of curiosity. Sam read the Republic for one of his polisci classes and still hasn't recovered. He thinks that if he and Dean and his father were an island, and if they were the Kallipolis, Dean would be a protector because he lives and dies by his mission and doesn't seem to want anything enough to keep it.
"If you're into disproving oracles," he adds.
It would be a really fucking lonely city, Sam concludes, because his father would be a warrior, too, and Sam would be the lone merchant in a city of shining walls with no philosopher king, and he'd peddle fruits and wines to nobody and wait for war.
"Yeah, who does that," Dean says, distracted.
So the secret subtexual message that Sam isn't getting across is that he doesn't know what he's doing but the oracles might, and Dean's so God damn sure of himself that it fills up all the space, crowds out second thoughts and warring desires and Sam's uncertainty. Until Sam falls asleep listening to Dean's seemingly seamless confidence and wakes up to his brassy assurances that they're doing the right thing, they're fighting the good fight, that in the end, they're gonna be fucking golden.
"Okay, seriously, Sam? We're getting you the happy ball meds," Dean tells him.
Sam's eating Cheetoes out of the bag and his entire fist is orange. Dean's already made the requisite sexual jokes about citrus and Sam's already told him the requisite fuck off you pervert and now they're sitting at some picnic tables at a rest stop staring at the South Carolina border.
"Because of the Cheeto fisting?" Sam asks, baffled.
"Shit," Dean cusses, horrified. "No. And that's disgusting."
"But you just—"
"Dude, it's funny when it's fruit," Dean tells him like that's an accepted fact, and barrels on before Sam can tell him what a fucking psychopath he is:
"No, man, I'm talking about this preoccupation of yours with knowing the exact right answer at the exact right time. This oracle stuff in your craw? It's just you wanting to get all the multiple choice right on the test again."
"It is not," Sam argues, feeling his ears redden. There is a possibility Dean is right.
"It so is," Dean crows and points at him. "Look, you're getting red."
"I fucking hate you," Sam mutters.
"Mr. Sam Winchester, on the picnic table, with a baseball bat in his rectum," Dean declares happily, and mugs for an invisible crowd Sam has no doubt he actually sees. "Thanks, I'll be here all week."
For two kids who grew up on the road with a semi-alcoholic father who hunted paranormal shit for a (not real impressive) living, Sam can't help but think that Dean managed to sneak in a revolting amount of absent, suburban normalcy—which Dean loathes on principle. Sam's Psych 101 class says Dean's just lashing out because he never had that which he sees so commonly in others; Sam also knows better than to quote Psych 101 at Dean.
"Like you actually would argue against a little forward warning?" Sam says. "I mean, do you really not want to know what the best way to do things is? Life could be so simplified."
He could either fight dirty with dirty or logic; he's not going to win but he'd lose much faster if he tried to out-perve his brother, who once spent a solid three hours between Michigan and Indiana making up an insanely pornographic yarn about a bestial BDSM gangbang in which he was the central party favor for the sole purpose of making Sam say, "Dude, shut the fucking fuck up!" every five minutes. Sam would never tell him, but Dean's awesome like that.
"How is hedging your bets on somebody who sniffs shit and babbles at you in Greek any more reliable and safe than just throwing yourself into it feet first?" Dean replies.
"It sounds bad when you put it like that," Sam mutters.
"Because it is bad! They were huffing vapors, Sam. That's not divination, it's drug abuse."
"But they were right on a lot of big things."
"So am I," Dean says sympathetically. "Remember when I said disco was dead?"
"God," Sam says, and rubs at his face. "Let's get back on the road."
Sam feels like his ass has molded to the car seat, that they're never going to get off this road, and he feels rubbed raw like a sandpaper accident in eighth period shop. He thinks about Mom and Dad and Dean and Jess and knowing better—always knowing better but wanting more than he could (should?) have and taking bigger risks than Dean or Dad ever had in order to have them.
Sam's not fated for this life, that much he knows is true; the hard part is getting off the fucking freeway.
Dean's pounded every mile of blacktop in America, practically, and Sam thinks that one day, if Dean wrote a book about the Great American Roadtrip, it'd be the New York Times bestseller, no questions asked.
Dean could edit stories about demon beasts and vengeful spirits until it was just the fringe facts that made the cut: the rolling, green-gray wheat in middle America, dark trees in Vermont and ice slicks in Michigan. Dean could talk about how he'd been invited in for sweet tea in seven separate states, and been told over time to vote Democrat, Republican, against the government period, and for the rebel states because the end the War of Northern Aggression was still raging.
When Dean's not listening to the same tired Metallica albums, he's telling Sam all the stories from the four years he was at school and ignoring his family, like Dean's trying to build a bridge between where Sam is sitting on the other side of the Impala and what it's like to be in Dean's shoes. His entire life, Dean's been explaining things to Sam, and Sam might have stopped listening around the fourth grade, but Dean is still talking, and will until his voice gives out.
"I can hear you thinking from all the way over here," Dean tells him.
Sam shakes his head. "It's nothing. You want me to drive a while?" he asks.
"I'm good," Dean says, smooth and honey-brown. "My baby and I, we have a connection."
"It never gets less disturbing to hear you talk that way about an inanimate object," Sam laughs.
"Man, I remember the way you used to cuddle your G.I. Joe."
"At least it was shaped like a person," Sam says.
"A male person," Dean points out as they pass another I-95 South sign.
Sam's only been down this stretch of road a few times; there's too much God in the bible belt to leave much space for good, honest demon-hunting, but he remembers palm trees and Civil War forts, the Union Jack flag in small-town car-windows. He thinks he might have had cheese grits in a restaurant down here once when he was small.
"South's changed a lot since the last time you were here," Dean murmurs, like he's been reading Sam's mind all this time.
"Looks the same," Sam says softly as they drive through the county of Dillon toward Florence.
"Small towns, the nothing-spots between places, they always look the same," Dean says. "But man, I remember the first time Dad and me and you drove through these parts and there was nothing there but tobacco and trees. Last time I got fucking lost on my way to Kentucky and found the parking lot of a pharmaceutical company."
"Which one?" Sam asks.
"Who knows? It had a swirly symbol thing," Dean says, shrugging.
"All of them have swirly symbol things," Sam says disapprovingly.
"Which says a lot about their marketing and branding staffs, right?" Dean squints at a sign ahead and says, "Okay so Florence then Sumter then Clarendon "
"You should write a book," Sam says suddenly.
"Dude, about what?" Dean asks, perplexed.
"I don't know. Driving. You've driven everywhere."
"It's because I have that thing with flying, Princess, nothing to advertise," Dean says, rolling his eyes hugely. "Besides, what the hell could I write about? Women in white? Poltergeists? The wendigo?"
"Might provide a useful public service," Sam points out.
"Or, it could be sold under the SciFi/Fantasy section." Dean grins. "Plus, I'm not the scholar in the family. You want the great American novel, Sammy, you write it."
"But you're the one who lived it. Write what you know," Sam argues.
Dean's shoulders slump in shame. "I knew I never should have let you read Little Women during your formative years."
"Whatever," Sam laughs. "I saw you crying over the Giving Tree."
"I did not cry, Sam."
"Okay. So your eyes were watering from allergies."
"Man, I do not have allergies," Dean sulks. "I knew it was a mistake to you get a library card."
The first big fight Sam and his dad ever had ("I'm going to miss the science fair if I go!" and "Son, this is bigger than the science fair! Don't you get it, Sam?") Dean woke Sam up on a Sunday and walked him out to the county public library and got Sam a card. He was eight and the librarian at the counter gave him a thin, black permanent marker to sign his name on the back of the green plastic card. She smiled and said, "It's so nice to see a brothers looking out for each other," and "Not so many kids like to read these days." Then Dean gave him a duct tape wallet to put the card in and five one dollar bills and a roll of quarters for emergencies.
"What should I get?" Sam had asked, breathless at the walls and walls of books.
"Dude, do I look like I read?" Dean had laughed. "Get whatever you want."
Sam tried reading all the Goosebumps books because all the other kids in his class were doing it, but they were unrealistic and all the ghosts were lame and none of the kids threw salt or holy water on anybody. So he read the Little House on the Prairie books and Gordon Korman and the Yellow Brick Road and the Wizard of Oz; he read Ender's Game and secretly read a bunch of Star Trek novels which he kept hidden underneath a stack of old math homework under the seat of Dean's car. He remembers being halfway out of the state that time before remembering he still had three in the car and having a meltdown about stealing even as Dean herniated something laughing at his big fat loser of a baby brother, hiding Star Trek novels under his homework.
"Did I ever thank you for that?" Sam asks.
Dean blinks in surprise. "What? The library card?"
"Yeah." Sam smiles.
Dean's eyes round in surprise before he bursts out laughing. "Man are you easy. That thing was free: easiest present I ever got anybody."
One time, completely by accident about two months ago, Sam found the three Star Trek novels from forever ago in a tupperwear container of stuff Sam left behind when he ran away to Stanford. It'd underneath Dean's tricked out weapon's pavilion in the trunk of the car. The books haven't been read since Dad explained they'd mail the library an apology letter and some cash for the books, but they're still there, in almost-perfect condition, and Sam wonders why Dean keeps any of this shit—or is it just an elaborate conspiracy to make Sam feel like a douchebag for ever wanting to leave his family for something different.
The point is: Sam would read Dean's book. If for nothing else, to figure something out about his brother.
"He is not," Dean says defensively.
Sam gapes. "You're kidding right?" he demands. "No way—you're serious."
"God damn it, Sam, he is not," Dean insists.
Sam flashes the tabloid in Dean's face. "Did you see these pictures?"
"You do realize you're attempting to make a point with something called the National Tattler, right, Sammy?" Dean sneers.
"What, are you like a Claymate or something?" Sam huffs, annoyed. "Of course he's gay."
"Dude," Dean snaps, crinkling his nose in disgust. "What was that filthy word you just used?"
Sam blinks. "Gay?"
"No, fucker! Claymate—what the hell is that?" Dean demands.
Dean and Sam do not have long, heartfelt discussions about their mutual feelings on various social issues. Sometimes, when they're in the checkout aisles of all-night grocery stores and Dean is reading the most offensive headlines to him while they wait for the register biscuit to scan their seventeen tubes of Pringles Dean will say something like, "That's a real cock in the ass," about having sixteen alien babies. But then he'll say, "It'll be a raging bitch to get child support from that jackass," and Sam will be too busy rolling his eyes to dissect the potentially homophobic meanings behind Dean's diction.
Dean seems to see the world in two dimensions of inhabitants: awesome, and not awesome. When Dean was in eleventh grade, he had some sort of treatise about this.
"Clay Aiken fans," Sam explains.
"God damn," Dean says in hushed horror. "Claymates?"
"So you see what I'm saying?" Sam pushes, tapping his finger on the grainy webcam shots of Aiken attempting to get his seduction on with somebody (male) on the other end. Sam thinks all things considered, it's more sad than scandalous; Sam overhead somebody at Stanford say, "Clay? No way. He's too religious to be gay." Sam didn't know before anybody could be too religious to be gay, but upon reflection, it makes sense.
"Just because his fanclub is fucked up doesn't mean he's a skeezy queer," Dean decides. "I mean, look at the Southern Baptists."
Sam raises an eyebrow. "Point."
"Yeah, 'cause even the sweet love of baby Jesus can't save their asses," Dean concludes. "Also, are we seriously having a conversation about Clay Aiken?"
"Clay Aiken could still be gay," Sam says. He has no idea why he cares if Clay Aiken is gay.
"Whatever," Dean mutters.
"I mean—okay, do you hate gay people?" Sam asks, and he feels like a total moron when Dean gives him this look he reserves for guys who hit their girlfriends and people who sell life insurance. "Okay, forget I asked that," Sam adds quickly.
"No," Dean contradicts. "I might not have gone to Liberal Nut-Grabbing Bra-Burning-U, but with all the shit I see on this job? Who you fuck becomes way less important than what you fuck with." Dean raises his eyebrows at the tabloid that Sam's still holding up. "Claymates," he mutters in disgust one last time for emphasis.
Then Dean gets a phone call and excuses himself to go answer it where he actually gets you know, reception, and the night-waitress wanders up to top off his coffee and pat Sam on the hand. She purses her deeply-rouged mouth and her blue-shadowed eyes crinkle in a supportive smile as she says, "Don't worry, sugar. He'll come around," and gives him a piece of pie on the house.
"Oh, no, it's not—" Sam tries to tell her.
"Don't you worry about a thing," she hushes him. "We respect all kinds of love."
She's got a cross necklace on: fake, laboratory jewels thickly imbedded, but it's clearly dear to her, comfortable with age. Sam thinks about her and maybe her girlfriend and maybe a dog in a little house not too far from here; about her crawling into bed after a long shift, the murmuring rearrangement of limbs until they are tangled together, slow and molasses sweet. It's a good thought, he decides, that some people might not be too religious to be gay.
In the end, Sam says, "All right," and "Thanks for the pie."
Outside, the night is deep and huge, and the orangey lights from the highway barely cut into it, like tattered veils at a distance, pooling on the asphalt. Sam can hear the high, thin sound of cars rushing through wind and the rumble of engines in the parking lot. Over it all, the soft sound of dishes and voices in the truck stop and when Sam opens his eyes, the entire restaurant is burned out, bleached white from too-bright bulbs that he'll never get used to—not after a lifetime of midnight stops for eggs and griddlecake and sausage biscuits in flour gravy.
Sam's eyes feel dry and the skin on his face and hands feels papery. He bends his fingers, tightens a fist around the fork, feels the bone and flesh surge against the skin and wonders what it'd be like to burst out of it, what he'd be like if he shed his skin like a snake. But it makes him think about the skinwalker wearing Dean's face as he died and Sam shakes the memory out of his head, hearing it rattle and shriek. If Sam only takes one thing away from this journey he's on it's that he's sick of watching people he loves die—sometimes twice.
When Dean comes back and says, "Hey! Why didn't you get me pie?" Sam says, "Because you're an ass."
Behind the counter, the waitress winks at him and flashes him a thumbs up. Sam smiles back, because it's not the first time or the second time or even the tenth time that somebody thought he and Dean were Claymates. This time, at least, he got pie out of the deal and not a dirty look at the battered counter of a cheap motel.
Sam was gay once; it's like a rule in college: everybody's a little gay. Sam was a little gay for two months.
"It's okay, Sam," Jess had told him. "I've kissed more girls than guys."
"Wow," Sam had said. "That's—really hot."
She'd laughed. "Isn't it?"
It was just a thing he did. Driving around killing demons and werebeasts and fighting vengeful spirits is just another thing he does. Sam's still invested in being normal someday, but he's not so upset about the absence of it now.
Sam's listening to NPR so softly he might as well turn the radio off, but Dean's asleep, leaning against the car window and this is one small, passive aggressive victory that Sam will allow himself in their epic battle of driver versus cakehole.
After two months of radio silence immediately after Sam left for college, Dean sent him a postcard from Montreal with a picture of a goat wearing a dress on it. He'd written, "BITCHFACE. PS, DON'T MAJOR IN PHILOSOPHY," on it. Later that week, Sam sent Dean a White Stripes CD. Then Dean sent him a box from Omaha with a dead rat in it.
"Dude," Sam's roommate had said, mortified.
"I was trying to teach my brother about good music," Sam had explained.
His roommate had stared at him in horror. "And you sent him the fucking White Stripes?"
It doesn't seem to have made a difference either way because Dean is still listening to the same tapes he made obsessively on a AA battery-operated boombox that he either (a) stole from a Radio Shack in Iowa or (b) stole from a girlfriend who'd set his leather pants on fire. Sam's not sure which, but he still remembers the smell and the sound of Dean's voice carrying, shouting, "What the fuck are you doing, you crazy motherfucking bitch?"
"Is there a particular reason that you're so invested in bad hair metal?" Sam asks.
"Okay, we prefer the term cock rock, freak," Dean told him.
"Is that the royal we?" Sam rolls his eyes.
"That is the we at least didn't try to mail anybody a copy of the White Stripes we."
Sam colors deeply, and remembers the halcyon days of emergent emo bands. On his twentieth birthday, Dean had sent him a t-shirt with a square image of green grass on it, and in faux-advertisement bam boxes, it had written in big letters: EMO GRASS! CUTS ITSELF. Sam never wore it and used to keep it at the bottom of his wardrobe. It burnt away—like Jessica and the life Sam had made for himself—in the apartment fire.
He sometimes wonders if it wasn't easier to leave and run away with Dean because of all the things he doesn't have to ground him there anymore: there weren't any books to pack, any CDs to separate out, all the shimmers of their old life together are ashes and sparks, and Sam is free in the worst way.
It always hurts the most at twilight, when the sky is blue and pink and purple, a wash of Tijuana colors. Sam looks at that pale, bruised pink and thinks about the skin on Jess' eyelids, the delicate red of it with thin blue veins, how her lashes shuttered and moved as she slept, how she kicked away from him, her body an open parentheses, like she was about to add another detail with her long arms and legs, her tangled blond hair.
Sam has been angry and miserable, shipwrecked and nauseated. Sam has rolled left and right on a disagreeable line of thought; Sam has lost and he's found and Sam has stopped waking up with tears on his face. Sam will always miss Jess, not because he thinks that they had so little time together but because of all the things they could have been: it's not just the hugeness of the absence that stings, but the enormity of possibility.
Loss is a finite space but the future is limitless in scope.
"Dude, cut it out," Dean says suddenly and hits Sam, rough and with knuckles into Sam's collarbone, where it will leave a mark and maximize pain.
"Ow, fuck!" Sam yells and scowls, rubbing his chest. "What the fuck?"
Dean glares. "Seriously, Sam? I can see the smoke coming out of your ears. If there's something going on, just talk about it."
"I thought you said no chick flick moments," Sam says disagreeably.
He doesn't think he can ever talk to Dean about Jess, about how he feels not having her. It's not that Dean wouldn't understand, it's that Dean has been telling Sam his whole life why he and Dad burned like this, killing themselves to kill the thing that got Mom, and Sam has always thought they were the biggest motherfucking morons on the face of the Earth. He can't think of anything worse than saying to Dean, "Okay, I get it now. Finally, I get it now," because there's no apology large enough to make Dean understand that Sam has learned, that Sam knows now, that he's sorry he fought them when this was what they were fighting inside their own heads.
"Any chick flick moment can automatically be referenced by a manly cock joke or frequent use of the word 'fuck' or 'nuts,'" Dean explains. "Go."
"I was thinking how fucking nuts you are," Sam tells him facetiously.
Dean scowls. "Nastiest truck stop we see—I'm peddling your ass for gas money."
And if Jessica was an additional detail, then Dean is a hanging clause, a half-finished thought dissolved by ellipses before the punch line. Sam knows Dean better than anybody and it makes Sam's head hurt to think about Dean, wrapped up in layer after layer of secrets.
During his freshman year of college, Sam
(a) worked for 2 days at the student paper;
(b) met Agatha who introduced him to Derek who used to date Jess;
(c) read Light in August and hated it;
(d) read The Republic and hated it;
(e) read The History of the Standard Oil Company and hated it;
(f) got into a fight with Dean that lasted for more than an hour, and when he hung up he;
(g) threw up everything he had eaten for two days and hid in bed for two days because he knew, knew, knew like he had always just known things that Dean would never forgive him and he'd just lost his brother and he'd be alone forever.
Lying in bed gasping into his pillow and wishing he could die or kill Dean or turn back time or hating his father and how they'd been forced to grow up, Sam had felt like somebody was reaching into his chest—hollowing it out, scraping out all the skin and blood and bone with stubby nails. Sam knew of demons who could do that and he made a circle of salt (a very small one) around his dorm room bed and waited for it to pass—for something to come.
It took going to Stanford for Sam to realize that more than ghosts and demons and poltergeists, he should have always been afraid of himself.
During what is supposed to be his senior year of college, Sam
(a) drives three times cross country with his brother;
(b) punches six truckers along the way who think Dean is a hooker;
(c) develops some ESP, it's not a big deal;
(d) watches Dean get beat up;
(e) watches Dean dying, it is a big fucking deal;
(f) gets in a fight with Dean that lasts the entire stretch of road between Boulder, Colorado and the first rest stop in South Dakota, where they find an honest-to-God elk and forget all about how they fucking hate each other;
(g) watches as his brother throws up everything he has eaten for two days in South Carolina and lets Sam put cool motel towels on his forehead as he mutters "God damn cheese grits," and "Botulism."
Later that night, when Sam is listening to Dean's deep, even breathing from the next bed, he thinks that if going to Stanford taught him to be afraid of himself, being back on the road has taught Sam to be afraid for Dean.
Sam sits up and watches Dean sleep and thinks that eventually they will run out of interstate and reasons to keep running from the hugeness of absence behind them, from the enormity of lost possibility, and that when it happens, it will be—for the first time ever—Sam saving Dean. Sam helping Dean. Sam teaching Dean how to do this thing.
The car stops at a crossroads and Sam thinks he sees an honest-to-God tumbleweed they're so far out of civilization. Dean moans and whines and strokes the Impala, coaxing it and saying things like, "Baby, why you gotta be like this?" and "I give you the good oil, don't I?" When Sam suggests that maybe the car has run its course, Dean gives him a look like Sam just hit a toddler with a crowbar and covers the hood of the car protectively—like the Impala is Sam's next victim.
"Dude," Dean says seriously.
Sam rolls his eyes. "It's an old car, Dean."
"The term is distinguished, you bitch" Dean hisses.
"Whatever," Sam snaps. "We're 'distinguished' in Bumfuck, Nowhere."
Dean says they're still in South Carolina and Sam wouldn't believe him if it wasn't for the enormous billboard a few hundred yards ahead, with screaming yellow letters spelling out:
DONE TOURING BEAUTIFUL SOUTH CAROLINA? SEE SAVANNAH, GEORGIA!
CITY OF THE PAST! CITY OF THE FUTURE!
Sam bites his lip. "It's a sign," he hisses. "Don't you see?"
Dean stares at him from where he's crouched near the front of the car, frowning at the underbody.
"Of course it's a sign, you fucking retard," he says.
"No, I meant, like, it's a sign," Sam argues, scowling. "City of the future?"
Dean rolls his eyes so hard Sam can feel it from three feet away, and Sam glares darkly before he says, "We should go to Savannah."
The smirk that appears on Dean's face is enough to make him regret saying it out loud, no matter how much he feels it's true—no matter how much it's been singing underneath his skin since they left that truck stop in North Carolina.
"I'm serious!" Sam insists. "You know that ESP you've been making fun of me about—?"
"Oh, you are not using your Miss Cleo powers for evil instead of good already, are you, Sammy?" Dean laughs.
"The point is," Sam soldiers on, glaring darkly, "is that something is telling me we should go to Savannah. My instincts haven't been wrong so far, Dean. I really think we should do this."
Dean groans. "Oh, man—you can't play that card on me. That's just wrong."
"What card?" Sam asks, genuinely confused.
"The I'm so earnest card," Dean sighs, raising his eyebrows.
"I don't have an I'm so earnest card," Sam lies and furrows his brow earnestly.
Dean purses his lips. "Yeah, I don't believe you as far as I could throw your beanpole ass—and anyway, we're not going anywhere anytime soon since the car's—"
Which is the exact moment when the engine of the Impala rolls over, purring low and sweet and satisfied, like a cat or a lover and Dean boggles at it, eyes huge and Sam cannot help but think that he hears something in the air: high and sweet and like a laugh—muffled through a wall.
They stop in a motel in Beaufort County with a diner attached.
It's dinnertime and it's packed, men in workboots and women in office clothes, bright, primary-colored sweaters with appliqué flowers and kittens on them, teenaged girls in jeans and tight t-shirts. And all of their voices are soothing and sweet and roll over Sam like a comforting wave: he forgot, after all that time in California, how sweet it was to hear English with all its syllables elongated, to hear it spoken in the South, lazy and lingering.
A few of the overhead lights have blown and the diner is orangey with dim lights, and the clatter and bang of food being prepared in the back is overwhelmed by all the voices, so when Sam and Dean slip into the last open booth, they barely hear themselves move—just feel the worn plastic of the seats, the rough edges of the linoleum on the table.
"Don't fuck with my car anymore, Sam," Dean warns, reaching for a menu stuffed behind the ketchup and pepper.
Sam blinks. "I didn't do anything to your car!" he protests.
Dean narrows his eyes. "You fucked with my car until I agreed to go to Savannah."
The girls in the booth behind Dean are giggling, darting curious glances and whispering to each other, pointing at Dean's back and muffling chatter. All his life, Sam's watched girls in small town and strange cities fall instantly for the person they think Dean is.
"You're completely nuts," Sam informs him, and snatches the other menu, scanning his options. He's hungry, though he doesn't know how to put his finger what he wants exactly. He thinks, rubbed sage, and doesn't know why. Sam's never eaten anything with rubbed sage in it, but he remembers smelling it once, and how it felt like a green sneeze in his nose.
"Don't even start with me, Sam," Dean says, and orders a patty melt with cheese fries when a blond and unremarkable waitress comes over, order pad already in hand and says, "What'll ya'll be havin'?"
He points at Sam for emphasis. "Also, do not start with me about the food."
"You know I'm just going to laugh and laugh when you weigh six hundred pounds," Sam says, handing the waitress a yellowing, laminated menu and ordering the blue plate special. She bites her lip and it doesn't hide her smile before she turns back toward the counter.
"I'm sorry, Sam," Dean says sincerely, "I wasn't aware that while I wasn't paying attention, I'd turned into one of the contestants on America's Next Top Model." He opens his eyes hugely. "Quick, check my makeup."
Sam shoves at his shoulder and snaps, "You have to stop watching bad TV at laundry places."
"Beggars can't be choosers," Dean tells him easily, and pulls out the laptop.
Sam has watched Dean watch The Newlywed show and talk about how it's nice that Nick and Jessica are making it against all odds; Sam doesn't have the heart to update Dean on their latest developments. It's one of those strange, surprising things Sam has always known about Dean, but has forgotten he was privy to: how Dean loves family, wants a home, values all of these things more than almost anybody who has ever had one. Sam remembers how he started to take Jess for granted, how he took his mailing address for granted. In Stanford, Sam had a mailbox, and all Dean has ever known is his post office box number.
But in a lot of ways, Dean has always been older than his years, ever since he ran out of their burning house with Sam clutched in his arms, he's decided to make the best of it, even when the best of it's bad. Sam used to hate him for this. Sam wishes now he'd appreciated it as a teenager; it was never fair for Dean, to have to balance between their father and his brother, and drift like the ghosts they hunted between two very different worlds.
Dean spends most of the time waiting for their food siphoning off a wandering wireless connection to look up oracles and Savannah and Sam spends that time not-so-discreetly watching Dean work.
Dean doesn't seem to mind; Sam's spent most of his life watching Dean in one way or another and Dean is used to being watched.
"You're not freaked out by this?" Sam asks suddenly.
He reaches out to start stacking the plastic and foil packages of Smucker's apple and grape jelly—in bright, unnatural colors. In the seventh grade, his team (composed of: Jim, Anna, Chang, and Derek) once won a bridge-building contest: it was made out of popsicle sticks and glue and held up three bricks before crumbling.
"By what?" Dean mumbles, his eyes darting left to right across the laptop screen.
Sam stares at the jelly packages and starts to stack them up, like ballasts or foundations, and wonders if he can use coffee straws as the slats for a flat surface. It's like seventh grade again, and he's trying to talk to his older brother over breakfast because Dad hasn't come home yet.
Sam shrugs and watches his hands as he says, "By my—you know. My thing."
Dean looks up, his face pulling a tortured expression.
"Sam, you do realize that when I had the Talk with you in the sixth grade, those things I said about your privates applied to all boys, right?" Dean asks.
"I wasn't talking about that!" Sam snaps, and throws an apple jelly at Dean. Dean likes apple jelly, which is hilarious because he hates most apples since his stint in the orchard of pagan, murdering scarecrows.
"Jesus, all right," Dean says, flipping the jelly packet between his fingers. "You mean your tap into the Miss Cleo line?"
"We're coming up with a new name for it," Sam tells him fiercely.
"No, Sam, I'm not particularly freaked out," Dean answers finally and raises his eyebrows. "Are you worried about it?"
Sam looks at the remaining three jelly ballasts and reaches for the coffee straws, in a chipped blue mug, snug next to the condiment caddy, mottled with the fingerprints of the hundreds of people who have eaten here in this ambient noise and food smell before.
"No," Sam lies.
"Because you look so relaxed about it," Dean says sarcastically. Sam hears the sound of fingers flying over keys again, and he looks up, momentarily infuriated that Dean is going to let Sam keep feeling bad with such little fight and he knows the second he does that he's been faked out because Dean's eyes flick toward him and they are clear and warm and comforting. He says:
"We talked about this, Sammy: nothing's going to happen to you as long as I'm here."
It makes Sam color all over because Dean's right, he's being a moron. This is just another sign and wonder in a long series of them he's been seeing and ignoring for his whole life, and when the waitress brings their food, they talk about oracles and Greek mythology, about the power and mystery around these women of Delphi.
"I don't think they migrated, Sam," Dean says reasonably.
"I love how you can believe in everything except for fortunetellers," Sam scoffs.
"Fortunetelling is crap," Dean reminds him. He looks at his cell phone warily, and Sam has a sudden flash of Missouri calling, about her shouting into Dean's ear as Sam laughs.
"Scared, Dean?" Sam teases.
"No," Dean sneers.
"Excuse me," the waitress says, and when Dean and Sam look up at her, she smiles nervously and hands them a postcard. She says, "I just remembered as I was doing up your bill. Your aunties send this by post a few days ago, said you'd be stopping by with us. We've been holding onto it for you." Her hands and the fake, pink nails at the tips of her fingers sparkle as she makes a fluttering gesture. "They're real sweet old ladies, it seems. Been calling for days."
Sam blinks. "Excuse me?"
Dean kicks him under the table and flashes the waitress a smile. "Thanks, Corinna," he says, because Dean always knows the name of the waitress. It's one of those observational skills Sam has never managed to pick up.
"You drive safe down to them," Corinna tells Dean with a smirk. She's nearing forty and looks ten years older than that, sagging under the weight of her life, but Sam thinks she's interesting, with pulled-back brown hair and red, red lips, shiny from lipstick. She waves and wanders off to the register.
Sam and Dean stare at the postcard where it sits on the table between them.
On the back, it reads:
You boys hurry up now. Peach season is almost over.
And do not—I repeat—do not be stopping off on the shoulder where Billy's Girls Go-Go! is!
Dean reaches over to turn the postcard, and on the other side, it's a glossy tourist photo of Savannah, green and lush with life underneath a big blue sky. The blocky text in the right hand corner reads: SAVANNAH! IT'S IN YOUR FUTURE.
"Now I'm freaked out," Dean tells Sam vehemently the next morning.
They were shattered out of sleep earlier that day by a wake-up call put in by those same Aunties. The ladies at the desk reminded them to get on the road quick, and they'd make Savannah by evening.
"Now I am very freaked out," Dean repeats.
"I am also freaked out," Sam agrees.
"I am freaked out and I may never be able to eat peaches again," Dean declares. "Which fucking sucks because I like peaches."
"Peaches are a very delicious fruit," Sam says, because what the hell else do you say when you're being stalked psychically by three old women in Savannah?
On the right side of the road, Sam sees an enormous billboard for BILLY'S GIRLS GO-GO.
Dean stares at it, an expression of torn defiance and longing on his features and all Sam can think is that of course Dean wants to go to a sleazy strip joint just to fuck with oracles. Of course Dean wants to fuck with oracles. Kings and generals did not fuck with oracles back in golden era of ancient Greece, and Dean wants to see a few flashes of fake breast just to hack them off. Sam can't believe he's been sitting in a car Dean is driving for more than ten years now.
"We're not going!" Sam says preemptively.
"What, you're going to let three old ladies scare us?" Dean scoffs, but he stays in his lane.
Sam raises his eyebrows at Dean. "I've been scared by much less. Also, I get the impression that if we go, there'll just be another postcard waiting for us at the front desk."
"They have front desks at strip joints?" Dean asks inanely, fingers tapping on the wheel. He's jittery and Sam doesn't blame him; neither of them has ever savored the mystery of things—the mystery is usually where the large, angry, malevolent spirits hide.
"You would know," Sam snaps back.
"I've never needed to pay for it," Dean tells him proudly.
"Why when you can download it for free?" Sam mutters before the thought properly makes it through his brain-to-mouth filter, and Dean bursts into uproarious laughter, slapping his hand on the dash and saying, "I knew you wanted to go to college for the porn!" until they edge out of Beaufort county and into Jasper.
The winter Sam was fourteen he spent it mostly alone in a ramshackle house on the Outer Banks, nursing his broken foot and hobbling down through the icy, unforgiving beach winds to Pete's Grocery—the only thing on the island open year-round. Every Monday afternoon he bought five boxes of Kraft Mac and Cheese and a couple of cans of fruit, some popcorn and hot chocolate, bacon and eggs and milk and cereal and carry them home in a plastic bag with HAVE A NICE DAY in green on the side above a smiley face.
It was lonely and miserable and all things considered, exactly what Sam needed: a winter of stillness, staring out at the ocean licking away at the beach with gray, hungry waves.
Sam got exactly eight postcards that winter—each from Dean and filled with encouragement for Sam to lose his virginity and experiment with narcotic substances. Every time he found one in the mailbox of the rental it had felt so incongruous with the overcast sea-blue and gray and bruised of the beach—like a sudden burst of summer, like a vivid flash of warmth, because postcards are for sunshine and sunglasses.
That summer, Dean and their father drove through sixteen states and Sam still aches a little, thinking about how it was just another in a long list of things he was never a part of. Dean might think Sam is the good child, the fair-haired boy, but Sam has always known the truth: Dean is a storybook of people who have loved him too well.
Sam still has all eight of the cards, each dotted with Dean's laconic scrawl, neat despite itself, and Sam remembers divining hidden meaning out of the way Dean dotted his I's and crossed his T's. Sam remembers trying to read his brother from very far away and only seeing the reality of Dean like a blurry suggestion through a veil and hating it.
He remembers thinking it was like losing a limb, like moving a part of his body that isn't there any more, and being surprised every time he had opened his eyes and Dean hadn't been breathing quietly on the other side of the room.
When they reach Savannah, it is syrupy slick with suffocating condensation. Trees are drooping under the weight of their lush green leaves and Sam swears he hears the sidewalks burn—a low sulking hiss beneath the singing sweet tones of Southern American English coloring the air.
"Savannah's America's most haunted city," Dean says offhanded.
Sam blinks at him. "Really?" he asks, surprised.
Dean shrugs. "I mean, apparently somebody thinks so," he comments mildly and squints his eyes against the searing orange glare of sunset. Sam looks ahead, but from his angle, he sees the thick, dreamlike purple and luminous pink floating in the sky like layers in a tropical cocktail—fringed in the dark outlines of leaves.
"Did the oracles maybe specify where in Savannah they want us so desperately?" Dean asks, rolling his eyes and annoyed.
Sam sighs. "Oracles aren't known for their specificity."
"Okay, yes," Dean concedes. "But that was like, six billion years ago in Greece—this is modern day US of A—if these fuckers don't have a phone number and a mailing address then I'm getting back on 95 to kill some two-headed alligators."
"Is there anything at all supernatural about the two-headed alligator?" Sam demands.
"Maybe," Dean says defensively.
"Oh my God, you're seriously fourteen years-old," Sam accuses.
Dean screws up his face belligerently, like he's about to launch into a carefully thought out thesis on why Sam's a douchebag when half-naked hobo rushes out in front of their car and Dean shouts, "Jesus fucking Christ!" and slams on the breaks instead.
After Dean finishes cussing and stroking the Impala and checking her breaks and cussing some more, Sam asks the hobo what the hell that was all about and he gives them a toothless grin before passing along a delicate, pale-lavender envelope. He says, "Ya'll are late," and disappears again with a flash of his dirty, sweaty back.
"This is officially no longer funny," Dean fumes and snatches the envelope out of Sam's hands to break the delicate white candle-wax seal.
The carefully folded sheet of stationary Dean pulls out smells like magnolia perfume and it reads:
Dear brothers Winchester:
We are excited about our Imminent Meeting. We extend our Apologies over Dean's recent Health Crises (we suggested a diet of Soda Water and Saltines for that stretch of road—but the postcard was unfortunately Lost by its bearer through absentmindedness) but are Grateful to see you have Finally Arrived.
Drive straight from here; then take your first Six Lefts, then your first Six Rights and stop at the house with the magnolia grove.
Dean says, "Dude. What the fuck?" and Sam thinks that pretty much captures his feelings on the subject, too.
The house with a magnolia grove as it turns out is a sprawling, antebellum plantation house with a magnolia grove, thick and white and frothy with blossoms. They smell, from the rolled-down windows of the Impala, like perfume off a woman's wrist: sweet and indistinct, like skin and air.
As they creep closer down a gravel-dirt road, through the mist of green leaves and white foam of flowers, the brown fingers of branches, Dean stops squinting into the distance, through the deepening evening.
Sam has lost the "You need glasses," and "No, I fucking do not, Sammy," fight every single time he has picked it with Dean, which is approximately six billion and forty and counting. Sam can't decide if it's physical vanity or Dean's unwillingness to express anything less than perfect aim, though his experience has more than carried him through the difference all of these years.
When Sam was a sophomore at Stanford and during one of the many reiterations of this fight, he in desperation told Dean guys in glasses were sexy, so there is that slight chance that Dean knows that Sam was a little gay then, too.
"Holy shit," Dean breathes.
From behind the veil of flowers and sweeping fingers of enormous willow trees, bowing on either side of the lane and oaks, limbs heavy with green, curvy-round leaves, appears a house painted a sunny, creamy yellow, with a large, wrap-around porch covered in crawling vines and blooming flowers in a riot of purple and white. Their green fingers and leaves wound around fat, columns, undecidedly Ionic or Doric, rising two stories upward to ballast a balcony, with a white-toothed railing and windows running floor to ceiling along the second story.
And Spanish red brick made up an arched doorway over a green gate, in front of which Dean eased the car to a slow, docile stop and they stared, at the ghostly moss that grew over everything, like a layer of living spiderwebs, huge and ghostly, as the pink flushed out of the sky at last and darkness crept in, starshine edging the pointed roof—the gabled window—the ocean of trees behind the house.
"I think I saw this place in a movie once," Sam says quietly. For some reason, he doesn't want to break the stillness; but that's fine. He and Dean have always been able to be quiet together.
"Dude, I know I saw this place in a movie once," Dean answers softly.
Outside, the moon is creeping from behind a blush of clouds, and Sam looks at the angles and curves of Dean's face as he leans against the steering wheel, staring up into the sky through the window of the Impala.
Sometimes, Sam thinks about how Dean only really knows the world from the Impala's windows, and that Dean deserves better than the metal boxing him in.
"Place looks abandoned," Dean says, and adds, "sort of."
The grass is wild and overgrown up close, a crush of green, with elegant, wrought-iron chairs and tables, made in elaborate, painstaking whorls overturned in the pygmy jungle of weeds and dandelions. Sam wonders what this house looked like before whoever loved it had gone.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Dean asks nervously.
"Are we rehashing how you're scared of little old ladies again?" Sam asks with a wry grin.
"No," Dean hisses defensively, and even in the dim moon Sam can see the flush on his cheeks. "Im just saying the place looks pretty abandoned."
"They gave us explicit directions," Sam argues, and unbuckles his seatbelt.
Dean's eyes get huge. "In a freaking letter handed to us by a naked homeless guy."
Sam shrugs. "So their messaging system is a little buggy," he allows generously, and reaches across Dean's lap to pop his seatbelt, ignoring Dean's dirty look as he does it. "Now come on. If we make them wait to long, they could get pissed."
If possible, Dean's eyes get even larger, and he all but scrambles out of the car, muttering about the naked, homeless pony express, and how he can't believe he' getting punked like this.
Their boots crunch over the gravel and make hard, clapping noises against the groaning, protesting wood of the wide front steps, and Sam holds his breath as they fall into place next to one another at the front door—paint peeling and knob worn and worn-in brass. There's a porch swing swaying slowly front to back, the chains creaking like a low wail in the night and Sam wishes everything about this moment wasn't so terribly eerie—wishes he didn't feel like he was about to step into the parlor at the invitation of a creature with spindly limbs and bright eyes.
"Oh, now who's scared," Dean hisses, with all the maturity of the sixth grader, and Sam wrinkles his nose, gathering up his courage to knock on the door, his fists barely brushing the tired wood before the door sweeps open.
"Samuel Jefferson Winchester," says a woman in a lavender, embroidered robe, buttoned tight to a lacy collar, framing a round and rosy face with hazy eyes, "you will wipe expression of your face immediately or you will not cross my threshold, is that understood?"
Sam opens his mouth, eyebrows knitting together at the force in her voice and the white cloudiness of her eyes.
"Don't be dull, Samuel, of course I'm blind; that doesn't make me stupid. Now close your mouth."
Dean, because he can't help but be himself, snickers.
"Now don't you start, Dean Jenson," she says reproachfully. "For somebody who nearly died from a bad plate of cheese grits, you do not have the higher ground."
Dean scowls as Sam smirks. "Man," Dean mutters.
"You're both late," she tells the matter-of-factly, looking between the two of them with unseeing eyes. "And you'll both be wanting something to eat. Lord," the woman sighs, "goodness knows Rose is already up in the kitchen, stewing up a feast."
Dean brightens at that, smile bursting across his face, and he looks at Sam, saying, "Okay, so I think we're going to like it here."
The woman laughs and reaches over, patting Dean's arm affectionately as she says, "Now, do ya'll boys have your things?"
Sam says, "What, you can't tell?"
The woman actually hits him upside the head, honey-brown bangs flying everywhere and Sam yells, "Hey!" maligned, even as Dean doubles over laughing as she says disapprovingly, "Samuel, I speak to the higher forces—the higher forces do not care for your luggage."
"Oh, yeah," Dean chokes out, "I'm going to like it here."
"I'll go get our stuff," Sam mutters, and as he stomps down the porch again, he hears Dean say, all molasses sweet and charm:
"Ma'am—right, right—Violet, I won't hear a word of it—you couldn't be a day over nineteen."
Rose and Hyacinth are twin sisters, and have matching brown eyes, bright like the sea stones Sam remembers plucking from the North Carolina beach: sheer and gleaming in the depressed off-season sun—faint in the overpowering gray of the ocean. Hyacinth sits quietly at a corner of the table, and watches them with solemn interest as Rose pushes out of the kitchen chair and rushes straight toward Sam.
Rose, when Sam meets her, peers at Sam carefully, looks into his eyes and narrows her own until she seems to see something that satisfies her. Her expression goes affectionate and surrendered, and Sam almost takes a step back when she reaches for him—when she closes her papery-soft palm over his hands and gives him a smile.
She feeds Sam and Dean sweet yellow squares of cornbread, crumbling soft in their hands, and Dean sops up the gravy from her pot roast with it, moaning extravagantly around every bite while Rose laughs silently, her whole body shaking from it. Violet shakes her head, she says, "Lord Almighty, those sounds, you Winchester boy." Even Hyacinth, silent in her corner smiles benevolently, closes a hand over her mouth—but not before Sam sees a flash of perfect, shockingly white teeth.
This is why, Sam thinks, watching his brother overact and preen and shine, that people love Dean so well. He is delightful, he makes people delirious. "Crazy," Sam used to complain, in the backseat during long car trips across the lazy sprawl of the Midwest. "Dean is driving me completely crazy!" Dean is like ergot and Sam feels, like he's always felt, a little different, out of context, closely examined.
Nobody has ever made Sam so happy and angry and frustrated and insane as Dean, so Sam has spent his whole life seeking equilibrium—a place that would be far enough from his brother not to be rocked by him. His second year at Stanford he realized it was all in his own head: two decades of Dean letting Sam have his way, giving Sam what he wanted, letting Sam have what he needed—be it the last of the cereal or to be far away from Dean. It has left Sam colored in.
"They've been worried sick about you two, you know," Violet tells Sam finally, as Dean strikes up an animated conversation with Rose—who can't talk—and Hyacinth—who cannot hear.
Sam blushes. "We got caught up."
"Oh, we knew," Violet says airily. "We were worried about your poor brother—I didn't think a human being could throw up that much."
"Neither did Dean," Sam laughs.
"Lord," Violet sighs. "If those women knew we were talking about vomiting at the dinner table."
Dean, who has offered Rose his hand and is being taught how to sign his own name, isn't paying attention, and neither are the twins, who are laughing at Dean's shocking lack of dexterity. Sam remembers learning how to sign his name in college, during some sort of diversity week. Jess had been under a white tent and he'd followed her in and she'd said, "Look, Sam—it's your name," and he'd watched a woman move her narrow-fingered hands like a bird.
Sam is finally caught watching Dean when he catches Violet watching him, and unrepentantly, she says, "It's far past time you slept, boys. Tomorrow is a long day."
Dean asks, "Long how?"
"It's harvest time in the orchard, you know," Violet lectures, and starts to clear the plates. "And none of our other hands are here."
"They're beasts," Dean says bitterly, pulling his t-shirt up to rub the sweat dripping down his face.
"I'll go with that," Sam agrees, collapsing in the shade of a peach tree, near-drunk with the dizzy-sweet smell of peaches in scalding afternoon heat.
Sam swears he can hear things sizzling in the distance, the sound of the asphalt and tar melting, grass wilting, the slight hiss of water evaporating up into a perfect, white-cloud sky. Sam has stripped off his bedraggled mess of a shirt and rolled up his khaki pants. Dean is barefoot in the hot, brittle earth, and his short sleeves are rolled up, the legs of his pants rolled so he looks like a woman in a rice paddy—bending over a bushel basket of fruit and picking through to find the most perfect of them. Dean has eaten, at Sam's count, at least four of them, juice running sticky-sweet down his chin and on his neck, getting his hands tacky with dirt and all the insects are drawn to him—fascinated by this new and strangely unpetaled flower in the orchard.
"Slave drivers," Dean says, but without any venom, flopping down cross-legged next to Sam and still peering into the baskets. "Yes!" he exclaims, and reaches in carefully, smoothing his hands over the softly-furred curves of the fruit.
"Careful now—the spirits might tell on you," Sam warns, grinning. Dean holds baseballs and class goldfish, escaped from their bowls, and peaches all the same way: delicately, and Sam can almost hear Dean saying, "It's fine, Sammy. See? It's fine." Dean is always careful with Sam, and so Sam has never learned how to be careful with Dean.
"Hah," Dean mutters, cupping the peach in his hand. It is, Sam admits, perfect: a glorious shy cream and yellow and pale pink color, luscious and coy. Sam thinks that if there is a debutant among fruits, then it would be the Georgia peach. "The spirits have plenty to tell on me for—not including anything I've said this afternoon."
"It's only picking."
"It's only picking," Dean mimics. "It's also only like a hundred degrees out here."
It's too hot for Sam to argue with Dean, so he just leans back against the trunk of a tree and thinks to himself that no orchard that looks so small should take so much time to harvest. Sam swears that he'll never again listen to Dean's whims about finding oracles and should they come calling, they will turn right round and run away.
"Stop complaining," Sam tells Dean finally. "You could use the workout."
He says it mostly to make Dean yell, "What?" and "Are you kidding?" and so he'll pull up his t-shirt and entertain himself by sucking in his gut and talking about his rippling abdominals. Sam closes his eyes and smiles, leans his head back against the tree until he hears Violet shouting for them over the green lace of the treeline, calling them in to lunch.
Dean forgives the three fates immediately, moaning again around double-breaded fried chicken and collards stewed with ham hock, smashed potatoes with mushroom gravy. He says, "I couldn't—I really couldn't eat another thing," until Rose smiles indulgently at him and brings out the peach cobbler—still sunshiny warm from sitting in the bushel baskets Sam and Dean had hauled in that morning.
Then Sam is reduced to monosyllabic, extravagant noises, too, mouthfuls of brown sugar and oatmeal crumble top. There are syrupy sweet peaches, almost fizzy and with a slight bite that Violet explains with a wink and a whispered, "Brandy."
And Dean is certainly drunk with it, Sam thinks later, biting his lip hard to keep from laughing when he finds Dean asleep beneath an enormous walnut tree, a NASCAR2000 hat pulled over his face and a bristle of unshaved whiskers glimmering with afternoon light on his chin. Sam is sitting on the back porch of the house, rocking himself on the porch swing with a foot on the porch railing. His fingers going numb around a mint julep with fresh mint floating on the lip of the glass and he has been watching Dean sleep and scrub lazily at his stomach for the past hour, wondering why they are here and where they will go after—if this isn't another thing that was always meant to happen.
Sam thinks that he hasn't seen Dean this relaxed and happy in ages—since before Sam went away to college. He thinks of Dean on hazy hot afternoons on the banks of rivers and lakes, Dean reclining on the bed of Dad's truck, Dean looking around wherever they were until he saw Sam again.
"Samuel, will you stop that rocking for a moment so an old blind woman can set down?" Violet says suddenly, and Sam nearly wrenches his knee jumping to comply. She laughs at him as Sam complains, making clucking, soothing noises in between her teasing and saying, "Now you've learned your lesson, haven't you, brother Winchester?"
"Yeah, something like that," Sam says sullenly, rubbing at his knee.
Violet settles in, and Sam feels the worn, gingham cloth of her skirt on his legs, next to his knee, and feels suddenly self-conscious—caught.
"That brother of yours," Violet says quietly. "That brother of yours—quite a remarkable boy."
"That's Dean," Sam says.
"He took care of you when you were a baby," Violet says, musing. "He was your big brother and you were his baby."
"I was his baby brother," Sam corrects.
"No, Sam," Violet says gently. "You were his baby, he was always taking care of you."
Sam lets her murmur because he doesn't know what to add: it's true. Sam has always been Dean's baby, Dean's responsibility, Dean's. That's right, Sam thinks, that's right. Sam sees Hyacinth come up to them—tiny, padding steps, shuffling in worn slippers—she leans against the porch railing, where Sam's shoe had been before, and watches them, watches Sam more. She always looks distressed and wary when she looks at Sam, and Sam wonders what he's done to her, if he's said something, if she's figured him out, if she doesn't agree.
"You're grown now, Samuel," Violet says, like she's reminding him.
"I know that," Sam tells her, looking at her strangely before looking to Hyacinth. She seems worried, the brown, lined curves of her face sagging tiredly in the afternoon light. "Of course I know that."
"Good, good," Violet says to him. "Now go—" she puts a hand on Sam's knee "—go get that brother of yours out of the sun. He's going to look like a lobster if he stays out any longer."
Once Sam fetches Dean out of the sun, drags his still-sleepy brother into the house, where Rose and Hyacinth and even Violet fuss over him and Dean finds himself tumbled eventually into an enormous eyelet-coverlet bed, blindingly white and cloudlike.
Sam sits on the edge of the bed—it smells like bright, new sunshine—and watches Dean fall asleep again, undisturbed by Sam's gaze because Sam has always watched Dean. To Dean, this is breathing in and out.
And suddenly Sam is so happy he can't care that the oracles haven't answered the question he hasn't asked, that they seem to have predicted everything except how this will end. Even if Sam doesn't have his mother and has never really had his father, even if Sam lost Jess—Sam will have his brother.
"Yeah," Sam says, to himself and the quiet sound of Dean's even breathing. "It's true."
It's Hyacinth, finally, who draws Sam away, tiptoes into the room and tugs at Sam's elbow, pulls him into the hallway where the warm, orange lights from the sunset are melting the floors gold and red. Sam feels caught again, a little embarrassed, and Hyacinth, her unopened mouth still mobile, looks more worried than ever, wringing her hands.
"It's fine," Sam tells her, but he thinks he knows he's lying.
On the third day, after they have all forgotten about the contrary nature of oracles, Sam and Dean come in with the last of the peaches late in the soggy-hot day. That night, in the velvety dark, Violet serves tea and Dean helps Rose serve ginger cookies on the back porch—orange kitchen light spilling across the worn white wooden planks. Hyacinth worries more, sits in an enormous rattan chair and frets, hands smoothing over a set of worn tarot cards in her lap.
"Cool," Dean decides, handing Hyacinth a fragile, gold-flecked china dish of cookies, brittle and cool with a wonderful snap. "Read my fortune."
Hyacinth raises one beautifully arched brow at him and slaps Dean's hand away when he makes to reach for her cards, and Rose and Violet both burst into laughter at Dean's betrayed expression—as if he is no longer the favored child.
"Hey," Dean says feelingly.
"Now Hyacinth doesn't know a thing about telling silly fortunes with those cards," Violet supplies, sipping delicately at her tea. "She just plays with them when she's nervous."
Sam stares. Hyacinth stares back even as she lays out the deck—in the practiced hands of a woman who knows the hidden language of the tarot cards. Sam wonders if Violet is lying or if Hyacinth has, all these years—if these oracles are like Merlin, able to see everyone's fates but their own. Or if they're jealous and petty gods, with knowledge they won't share. They've been here for three days now and in between Dean's laughter and the food Sam all but forgot what he was here for—that there had been a question hidden beneath his tongue.
Rose puts a hand on Sam's knee and when Sam looks at her, she is smiling faintly at him.
"What—?" Dean asks, and when Sam turns to look, he sees Dean looking baffled as Hyacinth takes his hand and Rose takes the other.
"It's time, you brothers Winchester," Violet says, gently, and she closes her eyes, closing her palm over Sam's as he feels his free fingers twined with Rose's—paper soft—
And then Savannah disappears.
When they wake up—hours, hours on hours later, when all the tea is cold and the cookies are stale and the night has darkened the state again—their bodies ache and Sam has tears on his face and Dean is still moaning into Violet's comforting arms, eyes shut violently as his shoulders shake. But before Sam can yell, "What the fuck are you doing to my brother?" Violet looks up at Sam, her blind eyes piercing and freezes him in place.
"What—what's wrong with—"
"He's fine," Violet murmurs to Sam, over the top of Dean's hair. "He's just tired."
"I'm fine," Dean says. "I'm fucking—there's something in my eye."
"You are not God damn fine," Sam says, but he's still leaning against the porch, too weak to move or make fun of Dean for crying like a pussy and falling to the ground.
They are their knees on the back porch of a plantation house in Savannath, where three women have showed them, in a whirlwind of suggestions and images and a searing pain in Sam's arm, his shoulder, down his entire left side, the future that is now only a deepening blur of darkness. It's close enough that Sam remembers sounds, a smell, a feeling. It is elusive, this memory that is fading with every second, and Sam wonders hatefully at the nature of the future if you can't hold onto it, if you can't learn from it or plan for it—or if that isn't the point. That no matter how you try to circumvent your fate you'll just find an alternate path, another way to wander into the same fire to which you were due, no matter how far or fast you ran.
"But I don't remember," Sam argues, weak and wobbling, he can hear his voice waver. "I can't—I don't know what we saw—I don't know what we'll do."
"You'll do what you need to," Violet says, and Sam turns to see Rose and Hyacinth huddled together, murmuring soundlessly into each other's ears, stroking each other's arms, and feels a momentary ache to deep and empty he reaches out—strokes his fingers over the back of Dean's palm to feel the imperfect brown skin of his brother's hand and to know that he is there.
"Do we win?" Dean asks, and he is hoarse, his voice muffled in Violet's shoulder.
Violet smiles at Sam, over Dean's head, like they are sharing a secret: and Sam knows, suddenly, exactly what she means. How could they ever fail with Dean?
"Of course, Dean Jensen—how could you not?"
"Jesus," Dean says, shaky with realization.
"There'd better be a praise Him after that, Dean," Violet warns, and Sam barks a rough laugh, the last broken images of the prophecy disappearing from his grasp.
So he closes his eyes and lets them roll over him, a longing wave, and he sees, in a moment of shocking and utterly perfect clarity, Dean's million dollar grin and the shine off of an ocean at sunrise, the gray-blue water and tired yellow beach. He hears Dean say, "Good job, little brother," and Sam says, out loud, he thinks, "Thank you. Thanks for everything."
Two days later, after Sam and Dean have sweated the future and the past—"And twenty fucking pounds," Dean insists—out of their pores in the syrupy-hot of Savannah, they pack up their car, shoving their meager personal items into the trunk and saying reluctant goodbyes.
"No more botulism," Dean says, though he says it politely.
Rose raises an eyebrow at him while Hyacinth rolls her eyes. Violet just ignores him.
"I mean it," Dean insists, though he looks almost watery-eyed to be leaving despite Violet's invitation for them to return anytime, to come back and pick peaches and sleep, undisturbed.
"Thank you," Sam translates. "For everything."
It's not a real answer and there isn't a timeline, but he knows their direction know, that they are doing the right thing in what is maybe the right way. And he looks at Dean and thinks that this is right, too, that he shouldn't be scared anymore.
Sam hears dust and gravel crunching beneath his feet and he thinks about the first time he left, when he'd been so scared and furious and tired of pretending, of moving from place to place and it being an excuse—just another reason to lean on his brother, to look to Dean for any and everything. Sam thought, then, that he had to have distance to breath, to grow up, to get away, to cut it the fuck out, and now he thinks he knows better. If they've been doing the right then, then maybe Sam was never wrong.
Dean is slipping into the car now, saying loudly, "Get moving, Sammy," and Sam is going toward him because for the first time in his life, Sam knows what to do and how to get what he wants, and everything finally makes sense—
And that is when Violet takes his hand, and Rose and Hyacinth touch his arm, and they all say, as if in the same breath though it's one voice, whispering in his ear:
"He'd do anything for you—but you can't ask him this."
Sam stares, horrified, at three pairs of sad eyes, in suddenly matching colors of black like the inky night when they'd woken up after the reading, like the first time Sam had run away from this, when that is what he'd thought to himself: that Dean would do anything and he hated himself for even asking the question.
Sam swallows hard, around the marble ball in his throat. "But—"
"No, Samuel," they say again, six eyes drifting closed. "No, Sam. You can't."
Suddenly it's over, just another flash that never happened, and Sam finds himself in the front seat of the Impala, Dean fumbling around looking for a mix-tape he'd made his senior year and hasn't been able to find since. Dean says, "I know it's in here." He says, "Unless you fucking stole it." And when he sees Sam's face, he asks, "You okay?"
Sam blinks and breathes and readjusts, feels the edges of his fingers and the surface of his skin again, the hot thread of the sun, a shaft across his knees.
"Hey, Sammy," Dean says, firmer this time.
Sam realizes that maybe this is what they had wanted him to know from the beginning, that there was never any question of winning or losing or what they might pay to know. All of this, the diner in North Carolina and the motels along the way, the peaches and the orchard and Violet's measured voice and steady hands.
"You okay?" Dean asks, uncertain.
Sam nods his head. He's always known, anyway; he doesn't know why he thought it would change, that there wouldn't be loss the way he'd lost Jess, or that it wouldn't hurt to let it die.
"I'm fine," Sam lies, because even if it isn't, it has to be true. "It's fine."