Philistine knows how to do a potluck. Sam hasn't been to one since he was at Stanford, and that had been mostly keggers and Mexican food, not this sea of cowboy hats and boots and enough Pyrex to cover folding tables from one end of the dancehall to the other.
In the corner, two cub scouts are sitting at a small picnic table behind the sign: All Proceeds Benefit Winchester Boys. Help Support the Fight Against Lucifer!!!
Philistine apparently believes in exclamation marks as well.
Of course Dean insists on buying two ziplocks filled with brownies. The kids don't want him to pay, but he hands over his two quarters anyway. Dean tosses a baggie to Sam, innocently holding up his hands in mock surrender.
"What? It's for a good cause. Besides, these brownies are awesome!"
Right about then, two women come up to Dean and start talking. It already feels like everyone knows Dean, but that's how it is with Dean. Sam lets himself hope that maybe someday when this is over, his big brother can live in a place like this, surrounded by people who genuinely like him.
One of the women is explaining, "Of course, our book club can never agree which one we like best. I like the early gospels myself. Things were so much simpler then. But I still get cold chills when I go by mirrors. Praise God that you boys took care of Mary when you did. Poor Sam was feeling so guilty about his girl …"
It's too much for him right now. Sam walks away, knowing that Dean is being taken care of.
Sam stands near the back door and watches the gym fill up. It looks like everyone in the town has showed up to see them on their way. It makes him uneasy being in a room that's filled with so many innocent people. Sometimes, Sam remembers that poor vampire girl, Lucy, and how she was tormented by the sound of beating hearts. It's probably his imagination, but sometimes Sam thinks he can hear the demon blood running through his veins, pumping in and out of his heart, corrupting his soul inside and out…
"He worries about you."
Startled, Sam looks over to see Mrs. Wessell standing next to him. He doesn't know how long she's been there. He's been getting sloppy, letting things get past him.
"I was just going to go back and make sure we were all packed."
"Come sit with me a while."
He's not sure why but he doesn't say no. So he lets her lead him to a pair of folding metal chairs.
"Ma'am…what did you want to talk to me about?"
"Do you believe you're damned?" she asks.
Sam almost falls off his chair. His voice comes out in a squeak. "Excuse me?"
"Do you believe it doesn't matter what you do with the rest of your life? That you're cursed anyway?"
For a moment, Sam forgets himself, and his temper rises up. "What the hell does it matter what I believe? And what kind of question is that to ask someone? Don't you understand what I've done?"
"Yes, Sam, I do."
"Then you should keep the hell away from me. All these people should. I don't know what's wrong with you."
"Do you want some milk? I can get you some."
"A glass of milk. A tall boy like you, your bones aren't full grown yet and need the calcium. The prophet says you haven't been taking care of yourself. Stay here, I'll go get some."
Sam sits there dumbfounded while she disappears into the adjoining kitchen. She must have had it ready because she's back before he can get away. She hands him the glass, and he takes a tentative sip. It's good, really good actually. He can't remember the last time he had a cold glass of milk. He used to drink it all the time…
Then Mrs. Wessell hands him a plate of cookies, chocolate chip oatmeal, which used to be the kind Jess liked to bake. He wonders if Chuck included that sort of thing in his first book and if that was how Mrs. Wessell knew to bring them…
"Eat one honey," she urges, and Sam takes a bite obediently. It's warm, the chocolate chips still melting, and it reminds him of Jess and the way she would shove cookies in his mouth when they were too hot, straight out of the oven. Was it so unforgivable that Sam is grateful that Jess never has to find out what he's become?
"They're good, aren't they? I made those myself."
"Very good. It's been a long time since I had these. Thank you."
"Did Jess make them for you? Was it the last time, before she died?"
The cookie tastes like ashes in his mouth. He can't swallow.
Mrs. Wessell leans closer to him. "The prophet took a lot of care describing her, Sam. It sounds like she was something special."
Sam does not want to talk about this, any of this. He doesn't belong anywhere near decent people, his own brother included. Who is he kidding? No good can come from pretending that he is anything else but evil cloaked as a nice young man from Kansas.
"You're in trouble. Is it the demon blood still?"
Fight or flight kicks in… Sam stands up…because, what the hell?
He can barely get the words out. "How do you know? Chuck said....he…he said he wasn't going to put that in."
"He included it after…after you let Lucifer out. The prophet wrote that he'd been enabling you by keeping it out before."
The world spins, as Sam considers the ramifications. This means that every person in the room knows this about him. They know who he is and what he's done and they aren't running away from him screaming. He deserves revulsion and horror, not banners and balloons. Not a bake sale.
"If you know…if you all know about me, what I've done, then why this?"
"Sit down," she says. Her voice is like steel, and he can't help but listen to it. Maybe there is something about her holding him here against his will… "I'm not possessed, Sam," she says, reading his mind again. "I was possessed once when I was a child, but I haven't been since."
Sam stares. It makes sense, the way she talks directly at him, like they have something in common. They've met many children over the years who have been possessed, but Sam has no idea what it would be like to get over that.
"How did you get away?"
"My daddy was a plumber and didn't know what to do with something like that. He went from town to town until he found someone who told him what to do about it. He came back and exorcised it. Never came back, praise the Lord. But that doesn't change the things that I did. I don't remember all of it. I don't like to. But I can't forget. You're never going to forget Sam, but you can move on from it."
"You didn't have a choice. I did."
"All right, Sam, now you listen to me. Look over there. See that young man talking with Dean? The one with the hat?"
Almost every man in the room has on a hat, but Sam nods anyway.
"That's Eric Pedersen. He got himself addicted to meth when he was fifteen. He's been clean a year next month, but he broke his mama's heart a hundred times over. She's my best friend, and I'll tell you she's glad to have him back. Do you understand what I'm saying to you, Sam?" She gestures at the glass he's still holding. "Drink the rest of your milk."
Sam drinks it down. "If you're trying to tell me that being addicted to meth is the same thing as what I did, then –"
But Mrs. Wessell is blithely continuing on. "Over by the door, that's Annie Hunt. She had three babies with three different boys for daddies, and she gave every one of those babies away for other people to raise. She doesn't go a day without missing them. Do you think she's not heartsick about what choices she's made? I could pick out just about any person in this room and tell you a story."
"It's not the same. What I've done… it's bigger than anything anyone's done before."
"Sam. You go and look at your brother. Really see him."
Dean is across the room, gamely posing for a picture with a mom and a dad and about fifty kids.
"I see him."
"He forgives you. He loves you."
"I know that. But that doesn't change anything."
"That's bullshit, Sam."
Sam sits back in his metal chair, startled and a little amused. "Ma'am?"
"You listen to me now, and you listen good. Love cannot from its post withdraw. Nor death, nor hell, nor sin, nor law."
"Mrs. Wessell, I really don't understand what you're saying."
"It's my favorite hymn. And I'll tell you this – your real sin is pride, not letting Lucifer out, not listening to demons who filled your head with lies. It's you thinking you're the only one in the history of the world who is unforgivable. It takes a mighty big ego to think that way."
"You don't understand-"
"I do understand. And in case you're wondering how, it's because God told me, and he wants me to tell you. Chuck's not the only prophet around here. And Sam Winchester, you are not the adversary."
They've caught Dean's attention now. Sam can tell his brother's in full attack-mode and is coming at them from across the dancehall.
Mrs. Wessell leans over and to his surprise, kisses him on his uninjured cheek. "I know I'm not the only one who wants to spend time with you." Then she whispers in his ear, "The best is yet to come, Sam."
She takes his empty glass and plate and is gone.
But Dean's there and is shaking Sam by the shoulder until it hurts.
"Dude. What the hell's wrong? What did she say to you? Sammy?"
"I don't know Dean." Sam's eyes are filling up again, but he can't help it. "I think maybe I was wrong."
Dean frowns and keeps his hand on Sam's shoulder. "We've been over this. I know you're sorry for letting Lucifer out -"
"That's not it, Dean. It's…it's more than that."
"Really? You got more to be sorry about than that?"
Dean sounds kind of pissed. But Sam feels something real finally break inside. It's new and terrifying, but he's not broken by it. Not at all. He can hardly breathe, but somehow he's doing just that. He's breathing and he's still alive and the world hasn't come to an end. His life is worth more than the worst thing he's done.
"Hey, Sammy, you okay?" Dean's voice is gentler now, his hand still on Sam's shoulder, and Sam doesn't shake him off.
"No. But maybe I'm going to be."
Dean doesn't saying anything to that, but it's all right. For the first time in a long time, Sam kind of wants to find out what's going to happen next.
When Philistine says it's time to go, it's really time to go.
Dean is signing autographs and posing for an occasional picture when a teenage boy bursts into the gym.
"Prophet Chuck just updated! He says Sam and Dean have to go now. It's coming."
These people take their prophetic blogs seriously. Of course, Dean asks who exactly is coming, but the boy says that Chuck wasn't being real specific.
"Terrific," Dean says dryly, but the whole town of Philistine is already in motion. It's like they've already got this planned.
Bags have been packed. Stacks of blankets, first aid supplies, and boxes of canned food are waiting outside the Impala, and lots of people are loading it up. He and Sam don't even have to carry their bags to the car. Everyone wants to help. Dean notices that his brother is hefting a plastic jug of milk, along with his laptop.
"Where the hell did you get that?" he asks.
Sam looked at the jug of milk like he's never seen it before. "Someone just handed it to me when we were leaving. I don't know what it is with this town and milk."
Dean checks out the car before they go and notices that someone's already filled the tank. That's pretty damn impressive because his car is right where he'd left it, and he's kept the keys with him the whole time. It's obvious that people in God's best little town in Texas know enough not to touch his car.
Or his little brother.
He's not sure what the difference is, but something's changed in Sam. Dean never knew if he'd get him out of Bobby's house again, let alone interacting with a town full of people.
For over a year, everyone who's not a demon has been telling Dean that his brother is evil incarnate. That he needs to be stopped at all costs. Maybe they were right all along, and there was a time when Dean believed them, but these people in Philistine are good people, even if they are a little whacked. And they like Sam. They don't want to kill him. They want to stuff him full of cookies and milk and remind him to eat his vegetables. All right, they didn't feed him vegetables, but they would have if he stayed long enough.
Dean can't really explain why this is so important, but it is. He's been the only one looking after Sam his whole life, and that's okay. That's the way it's supposed to be, it's his job, and he's not turning his back on it. All the same, Dean doesn't feel nearly so alone, knowing that there's someone else who cares about Sam too. Who cares about both of them.
Dean's been thinking, and it turns out that Bobby was right. Dean is not the man his father was. Never was, never will be, and as far as Dean's concerned, he's made his peace with that. If his dad wants to come back from the dead to bust his ass for that decision, he can take a number. Dean's allegiance is with Sammy, for now and forevermore, so help him God, and everyone else will have to live with it.
Pastor Steve walks up to the car and holds out his hand. Dean takes it gladly. It's a firm handshake, trustworthy and strong, and it reminds Dean of his dad even though the two men couldn't be any more different from each other.
"Maybe we should stay. I don't like the idea of leaving all of you unprotected."
"It's not after us," Pastor Steve says. "You boys need to go. Godspeed and good luck to you."
"Thought you folks didn't believe in luck."
"Luck is for when God chooses to remain anonymous," the pastor says with a smile. "I don't think this is one of those times. We'll pray for you."
Dean isn't at all sure he wants anyone praying for him. His relationship with God isn't exactly cool, but he likes the pastor, so he simply thanks him and gets in the car.
Sam's huge body is hanging over the front seat, and he's trying to organize the bags that are piled up in the back. Dean knows that Mr. OCD won't give it up until he's got it just the way he wants it, but they need to get on the road. Chuck says there's some big bad on the way, and Dean is learning to have a healthy respect for their personal prophet of the Lord.
Dean pulls out a wad of cash from his pocket and waves it in Sam's face. Sure enough, it gets his brother's attention right away. Even during the apocalypse, Sam worries about their cash flow.
"Where'd you get that?"
"The church treasurer gave it to me after lecturing me on the evils of credit card fraud. It's from the bake sale, and I guess they had some kind of silent auction. I tried giving it back, but she got mad and said God was going to smote me if I didn't take it. These people are kind of badass, Sam."
"Yeah, they kind of are. But… they're okay, Dean."
"Yeah, they are." That's all Dean wants to say about it.
Dean turns the key in the ignition and takes a sidelong glance at his brother. Sam has his face pressed against the window like he used to when he was a kid and they were just passing through some random town.
There are people all around them, smiling and waving goodbye. Dean's been introduced to most of them but he'd never be able to remember their names. Maybe Sam will remember. Sam's always been good at stuff like that. Dean has no idea how to say goodbye to people who are sorry to see him go.
He makes a sharp u-turn in the middle of the road, careful not to hit any of the kids who are still running up and touching the Impala. Dean smiles at them and they stand clear. When he's sure they're out of the way, Dean floors it just to give the kids a show. He can't hear anything over the roar of the engine and the squealing tires, but he can see people still waving in the rear view.
It's awfully quiet in the car.
"What now, Sammy?"
Sam looks at him, surprised. Dean's been calling the shots lately, but he figures maybe it's time to bring Sam back on board. He doesn't trust his brother, and he's not sure he ever will. But they've got to start somewhere.
Sam waits a second before saying, "I've got some ideas. I need to do some research first, but I'm starting to understand more of what Zachariah told you. If we can figure out what both sides already know, maybe we can turn it against them."
"Sam, we got heaven and hell after us, not to mention all of Dad's old hunting buddies. I think we'd better lay low for a while."
"No, we can't hide from this. The demons, even the angels, I'm not sure they're as on top of this as they think they are… Dean, there's things that they don't understand. "
"Like what? I'm not following."
"Like that town for one thing." Sam looks straight ahead, and Dean can see that his jaw is working. "They don't know anything about people like that."
"I don't know if I understand," Dean admits. "Whole town of freakin crazy people, even if they do make awesome brownies… Sammy, I don't know if we're up for this."
I don't know if you're up for this, and I'm not letting go of you again.
"We can't give in. We're not letting them win this." Sam's talking more to himself than Dean. "Love cannot from its post withdraw," he adds so quietly that Dean's not even sure he heard it right.
"Okay, a little random, dude. You channeling George Bush or something?"
"Nope. Mrs. Wessell," Sam deadpans and then grins. Sam actually grins his dopey grin just like he used to, dimples and all, and then he gropes around on the floor of the car until he finds the gallon of milk. "Want some?"
"Nah. You're the one who's still growing."
Sam takes a chug and waits a beat.
"This as fast as you can go?"
Dean does a double take, before he gets it. Sam's actually baiting him.
"Shut your piehole, bitch," Dean retorts, but he's not kidding anyone… Dean's grinning so wide it hurts.
There's gotta be music always, so Dean cranks it up and pushes the pedal down until he can feel the hum of the open road like a song he'd forgotten. Sammy's drumming his fingers on the dash and rocking out a little, geekboy that he is. It's been a while since Zeppelin has sounded so good.
And you know - Dean hopes that Chuck remembers Philistine in his gospel, even though nothing all that important happened there. It's a weird little town with piss poor taste in its heroes, but it deserves a place on the freakin map.
* Thanks so much for reading! I'd love to know what you think of the story.