Author's Note: So, the real reason I wrote this? I was really disheartened when I went looking for fics related to the novel and found a whole bunch of other stuff instead. So this fic IS a real As I Lay Dying one, in response to my frustration, and my random need to write for really obscure novels. :)

Warning: HEED THE RATING. We all know Jewel Bundren has a mouth on him and this fic explores sexual themes. (I'm really quite ashamed of how many GDs I typed, but Faulkner started it. *finger pointing* The sexual implications, though... Eh, he probably wouldn't care about that, either. Especially since Faulkner himself explored sexual themes in the novel...)

Pairing: Jewel Bundren x Kate Tull


Secret Sin

She brushes through the peck of chickens, ignoring the clucking and fluttering movement about her as she makes her way to the henhouse to collect eggs.

You be extra-careful with them eggs, you hear? You know we aim to break even this year!

Seems she can't go anywhere, what without hearing her mother's voice grating in her head. She doesn't realize she's turning into her mother, a little more each day, but she would be horrified if she knew she was.

She looks up and out as she reaches the coop, her eyes flickering unbidden towards two fields over. Against the backdrop of the blazing mid-day sun, so bright it turns the blue sky white-hot instead, she sees through the haze of heat the mules tugging against the plowline, the leather strap cutting into his tanned shoulders. Stripped to the waist, she can imagine the fine glean of sweat on the well-muscled but wiry body, his hands against the plow to guide it. She can see his mouth forming words (even though she can't hear them) as he swears furiously at the mules, almost ready to physically strike them into working harder.

Her blood seems to burn slightly and it has nothing to do with the humid, horrible August weather; she can feel the trickle of sweat on her own body, sliding down her temples from her hairline and down the back of her thin dress, staining the fabric. Down her forearms to the bones of her wrists, between her breasts. She wonders, briefly, how it would feel for sweat to mingle, before her eyes widen in horror at the fact that she thought such a thing at all. God forgive her for such a sin as thinking about...about that!

At the same moment, against the sky, his head turns, as though he can sense through two fields that someone is watching him. Embarrassed, she flushes and diverts her gaze, angry with herself because she knows her mother would disapprove. Because she should disapprove. Because God would disapprove. Because he's just a Bundren – a good-for-nothing, lazy Bundren.

And yet...

The fact that he's been working that farm alone for the past year worms its way into her thoughts, and she can't quite shut it out and cling to the old lies that her mother has been spouting off for years. Because he's really not lazy at all, and deep down, she knows it. He can't be lazy and run it himself.

He never goes to church, preferring to spend his Sundays doing odd chores about the farm that is now his. Knowing that, as it's only him living there now, the work won't get done otherwise.

Besides, his belief in God isn't exactly strong, considering the events that surrounded his mother's death.

He swears profusely under his breath as he goes about his work, cursing the neighbors that won't shut the hell up about his family, cursing the broken lantern he needs to replace when he's next in town, cursing the cow that lows at him from her stall waiting to be milked, cursing Anse for being the good-for-nothing ass that he is, cursing the woman they try to force him to call mother just because she exists, just because she married his pa. The woman who insisted that the entire family move to town because she refuses to live in the country.

But he wasn't born a town fellow, and he's not about to try to live that way now, especially with her. He pushes the fact that his real mother was born a town woman to the back of his mind; he's lived on this farm his whole life, and there's no sense stopping now. He'll run it his self, goddamn it, or die trying, and he told them that a year ago when he finally got his pa to put the damn deed in his name. He'll get the fucking mortgage paid off and then it'll be his, not Anse's, not anyone else's, and if he has to work nights for Quick for extra money, he'll damn well do that, too.

As he mounts the porch, searching for the cedar water bucket, he hears the creak of wheels and looks towards the road. Vernon drives his mules with slow deliberation, in no hurry to get home from preaching, while his wife softly but clearly sings Amazing Grace on the seat beside him. In the back of the wagon, Kate's eyes jerk uncertainly towards his.

He notices the stain of pink that spreads over her cheeks, the way her gaze quickly diverts to her lap as though hoping he hadn't caught her staring. She looks up once more through her lashes and seems to be disconcerted at the fact that he's still watching her, so she turns her head to stare at the woods on the other side of the road instead.

She might suspicion that he's realized the flush of color in her face has nothing to do with summer heat, and everything to do with the fact that his shirt is sticking to his chest, showing off the sleek musculature of his frame. He narrows his eyes and watches as the wagon moves on up the road before he draws a slow, deep breath and turns for the bucket again.

Kate Tull wouldn't know what to do with him, anyways. He could frighten her easily; scare her off from ever looking his way again. Besides, her mother wouldn't approve of her attentions, and he doesn't much care for any of the Tulls. Damn vultures, the lot of them. And hypocritical. He can't forget how they kept hanging around while his ma was dying.

She makes her way across the rough, worn fields, the jagged ends of the cotton snagging at her legs and dress.

She isn't certain what's possessed her. She only thanks God that her parents are in town today, buying necessities. She told them she'd rather remain behind to tend to some sewing, feigning a headache to avoid further questions.

Instead, the moment they were a mile up the road, she packed a basket of cornbread and salt pork and made her way towards the old Bundren place.

His place, now, she corrects herself, feeling shameful that she's come this far. She should turn back immediately. She shouldn't have even stepped out of the door. She shouldn't feel the way she does about him, the way she's always secretly felt about him for years and years. Her mother talks incessantly of sin, and if she didn't know better, she'd think being attracted to Jewel is her sin.

She crests the hill and stops on the edge of a field, finding him making his way across it, his long legs striding purposefully towards the cotton house, his hat at an angle over his face to keep the hot sun out of his eyes. His shirt clings to his body, soaked in sweat, and unconsciously her thighs clench in anticipation of something she doesn't understand at all.

He suddenly sees her and stops, his chin tilted back and his frown evident. She wonders if he'll curse at her the way he curses at everything else for trespassing on his property. And so, trying to be brave, she straightens her back and walks to him, acting far too much like her mother than she realizes.

"Have you had anything decent to eat lately?" she demands, assuming the answer is no and knowing he'll tell her that it's none of her damned business and to leave him the hell alone. But Dewey Dell isn't there to cook for him, and Anse and Vardaman and Cash and that woman live in town now, and he's remained unmarried, though every girl in the county talks about wanting to be his wife. Something twists unpleasantly in her gut at the thought of him marrying, but she isn't sure why she should feel so jealous about it. Lots of young men want to court her, after all.

As if he guesses her thoughts, his eyes dart to the basket in her hands and he says hatefully, "Go home. I don't need your goddamn charity, Kate."

He starts to move again, away from her, but she reaches out instinctively and snatches his shirtsleeve, rolled above his elbow and almost soaked through with sweat.

"Don't you talk that way to me, Jewel Bundren!" she snaps, determined not to let his words take the wind out of her and make her feel like a child, though it's so hard not to. She isn't accustomed to swearing; no one in her house would dare to take the Lord's name in vain, or use any other type of profanity, lest Cora take a switch or a skillet to them. She seems to quiver beneath his pale glare, but manages to stammer angrily, "You're out here every day, working this farm by yourself, and I figure you must be hungry. Now are you gonna eat what I brought over, or ain't you?"

He stops and looks at her again, his eyes glittering so that her body shrinks in on itself out of sudden fear. He looks at her in a way that makes her wonder if he mistook her meaning – if he's really hungry for something besides food. He steps close to her, so much taller than she is, making her feel small and insignificant again, making her hate him and making her believe her mother's constant stream of disgust in his person. Making her wish she'd never come here. She should just turn and run away, right this second.

But the trouble is, she seems frozen.

He reaches, his lips curling in a sneer, and she feels his hand brush hers. The sweat on his knuckles slides against the sweat on her fingers. Her breathing hitches and she feels that odd brush between her legs again, more insistent, more...damp. It scares her and thrills her at the same time. Her eyes move to the triangle of his chest visible – a long, smooth strip of tanned skin, because he's unbuttoned his shirt further down then most men do. A lot further down then her father ever does. He notices the way she's tensed and his hand lingers, the rough hot pads of his fingertips skimming her wrist and up her arm a few inches, until she shakes herself and draws away from him sharply.

She sees his smile now – not soft and sweet like some of the boys in church give her on Sundays, hoping she'll agree to court them...but cruel and wicked, as though he knows everything she doesn't. As though he knows what his touch does to her and relishes the fact that she hasn't quite figured it out, yet. As though he wants to teach her.

Then he snatches the basket from her, leaving her in a state of semi-confusion and uncertainty. He doesn't thank her; he only says shortly, "You can pick the basket up tomorrow. I'll leave it behind the barn for you. Since," his eyes glitter with fury, "yer ma doesn't know you brought it up. Does she?"

And he leaves her standing along the row of cotton, trying to control her breathing. Trying to make sense of how he's made her feel. Trying to cling to derision instead of lust.

Dawn hasn't quite broken when he hears her footsteps coming up the path towards the barn, and he pauses in hitching the team.

She has to step inside the barn to get it, since he's placed it just inside the door on the back wall, and when she sees him, she stops.

After taking a long, hard look at her, he goes back to fastening the leather straps on the mules, the jangling of the harnesses louder then usual, it seems.

"You cook good." His voice is haughty, controlled. "Better than yer ma, leastways."

He senses her body stiffen, and he rolls her eyes at her reaction.

"Don't you talk that way about my ma! It ain't Christian!"

The word Christian does something to him, something bad; it makes the fury that always seems to boil just beneath the surface rise without check. In a sudden burst of anger, he throws the harness straps down and turns to face her, reaching her in four strides. Her body moves, as though she would make to run away before he can say what he wants, and he reaches out and grabs her wrist in a painful vice.

"You can go to hell," he snarls angrily. "The way you talk about me is Christian? The way you talk about my family? Don't think I don't know it!" He shakes her once, and she winces with a cry. "The whole goddamn county knows it! Most of 'em talk just as bad! You don't even know what it means to be Christian!"

She wrenches, trying to escape, her voice pitched and shaky. "You let me go right this second! Let me go!"

"No! It's high-time someone taught you a goddamn lesson," he growls, and he pulls her to him, trapping her against his body, closing an arm around her waist while holding her wrist to keep her from hitting him. It all sends a thrill through him, in a dark way, because she's frightened and he's glad of it. Little bitch needs to be frightened. Maybe she'll leave him the hell alone, then. He doesn't need her; he doesn't need anybody.

He kisses her before she can protest further. It isn't a gentle kiss – shit, it's not exactly a real kiss. It's rough and hot and he's gripping the back of her head while she struggles and pushes at him, the furious, high-pitched sounds in her throat egging him on to scare her even more. Making the blood curl low in his stomach. Their lips mash together in a tight line, for she's not kissing back, and he could care less. When he finally releases her, he actually pushes her away from him and she stumbles into the doorframe, breathing hard and eyes glittering angrily. She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand in a motion of defiance, grabs the basket, and leaves in a whirlwind.

He hopes he got the point across. That it felt damned good is just a bonus.

She avoids him. She doesn't go to see him again or sneak him any more plates of dinner. He can cook for himself, the son of a bitch. She's never thought that way before, never thought profanity before, but she does now. She doesn't look towards his fields or search for his face in church as she once did, because he won't be there anyways.

She listens absent-mindedly while her mother complains that he's committing sacrilege just like his mother did, only in his case it's by not attending services every single Sunday. And her mother blatantly refuses to call on him because he's as likely to curse her out the door as not. Besides, Cora never liked him anyways; he's a good-for-nothing Bundren like his father, and naturally, that gets her started in on Anse and the woman he married before Addie was even cold in her grave, and from there on to that tomboy girl who got pregnant and ran away to God only knew where, because Anse kicked her out and wouldn't have nothing to do with her.

On the opposite side of the coin, she catches her father's occasional remarks that Cora's statements regarding Jewel aren't quite true. After all, the boy's working at paying off the farm, which is more than Anse ever did or ever would do, and as it's just him there, he needs the extra day to get things done about the place, and God probably wouldn't begrudge him that much. Her mother scoffs at this notion, determined to believe ill of Addie Bundren's third child, and goes off on a tangent about the Sabbath being Holy.

But when Kate awakes one night, her nightdress damp against her hips and breasts, clinging to her body as she arches from sheer need due to the dream that is slipping away like water in cupped hands, she gasps for breath and panics. God help her; she's committing sin in her sleep and she can't stop it...! Will she be forgiven for such? The only thing she has to be grateful for is that her sister is married and doesn't share the room with her anymore; if Eula knew what she was dreaming, she'd tell their mother, and then she'd be in for it. And so she prays for her soul until she tries to drift back to sleep, tossing and twisting while her mind is full of images, of trying to be the good Christian girl her mother insists she be, while at the same time she imagines hands touching her in places she didn't know would sing until touched by a man.

Or perhaps not just any man, but him.

After a month or so, she learns how to touch herself in the dark, slowly at first, because it surely must be sin. Tracing her fingers over her hard nipples and down the taut plain of her stomach, feeling her skin twitch beneath her touch. She flinches when first she delves her fingers between her legs, seeking the point of her center that seems to throb whenever she wakes from her dreams. Eventually, she begins to imagine that they are Jewel's hands smoothing over her body instead of her own, and she bites her lip to keep from crying out in pleasure, lest her mother discover her horrible sin.

After nearly two months of dreaming and daydreaming about him, the truth strikes her between the eyes with the force of a hammer, and she begins to seriously panic. What has she done? She can't seem to stop, no matter how she tries. She's always secretly fancied him, despite how much her mother would object, and it's growing worse. So much so, that she begins to calculate.

She doesn't want to end up like his sister, pregnant and kicked out of the family, and the calendar in her head tells her what days would be appropriate and what days not.

Then she becomes upset with herself, because it doesn't matter, because he's made it evident that he hates her. Because she's been told that to be a good Christian girl, she should be pure on her wedding night. Because her mother would flay her alive if she knew what her youngest daughter was thinking, wanting. Because to want to rut with him is sin, even though it isn't a human being's place to discern what is and isn't sin. (Though her mother insists adultery is definitely sin...)

And so she hates herself, because she is afraid of committing sin and her mother discovering her secret.

It is the end of October when he sees her next, and her absence has been noticeable to the point that he often wonders if she's a coward for avoiding him, or if she's found another man to flirt with.

...But he wanted her to avoid him, didn't he? He scoffs himself for being such a goddamn idiot. It's better if he never sees the little cunt again. Too much like her mother, she is.

He is working in the cotton house when she appears in the doorway on a cool morning, wearing a thin dress and a knitted shawl against the chilly breeze, her face pale and drawn as she watches him intently.

His breath sucks in slow with pooling desire, mixed with quite a measure of irritation. "What the hell do you want?" he demands quietly, annoyed by her sudden, random appearance after two months.

She twitches, her eyes lowering and her hand clutching the shawl tighter. She looks upset. Nervous.

"Does your ma and pa know you came over here?" He throws the words at her, harsh and unfeeling, wanting to feed on his dislike of her family to obscure the strange feelings he's been experiencing about her lately. He's had a few women, but he never thought he'd be interested in one of Vernon's daughters, because he doesn't really like Vernon or Cora much.

She shakes her head a fraction, then whispers, "They went to town, today. Ma needed winter supplies."

He wrinkles his nose and steps towards her, until he's almost close enough for them to touch. Quietly, he hisses, "What are you doing here, Kate?"

The sound of her name seems to rouse her; she stirs and straightens, until her eyes meet his. "To see how you were gittin' on."

"Why the hell do you care?"

She closes her eyes, as though in pain. "I shouldn't, should I?"

"You know, you're just like your ma. Always meddlin'. Always acting so goddamn self-righteous, talkin' about everyone else like you're the only goddamn people goin' to heaven at the end."

He watches her body grow taunt, the way the movement makes her breasts jut slightly. His hands immediately itch to hold them, squeeze them between his fingers, make her cry out, to back her against the wall of the cotton house so she can't escape. He hasn't had a woman in a while now, trying to work the farm alone. It's amazing how fast his body reacts.

"I didn't realize you hated me so much. I'll leave you alone, then." Her voice is cold, as though she is trying to sound unfeeling. As though she wants him to believe his attitude doesn't bother her, that she could take it or leave it, when it's obvious otherwise.

Seeing her start to move to leave, he steps forward and grabs her arm, pulling her into the cotton house and against his body. Without waiting for permission, he kisses her for the second time in his life.

It's better then the last kiss. He's not idealistic so he doesn't think perfect; he just thinks better. Instead of being tight-lipped and furious, it's just hot. Her mouth molds to his and opens; he groans at the taste of her breath and backs her into the wall just as he envisioned. His hands slide beneath the shawl and cup the pert breasts he had just been glancing at, and he hears her moan of pleasure, low in her throat and needy even as she struggles. He keeps her hips pinned with his, keeps her where he wants her. And then suddenly, her hands work into his hair, her nails digging into his scalp and making him grunt in pleasure. He leaves her lips and nips at her neck. At this, she gasps and pulls away, jerking her head.

"No, wait! You can't leave marks! If ma –!"

"Hell," he growls. "To hell with your ma and pa both, damn it!"

As if to prove the point, he thrusts his hips against hers, his cock straining against his slacks. Her mouth parts open and her head tilts back against the rough boards, and he sees the fear in her eyes again.

"Stop, please stop," she begs, suddenly realizing the gravity of the situation.

"You wanted this, or you wouldn't have come here this morning. Say it, Kate. For once in your goddamn life, speak the fucking truth and stop hiding behind that bullshit your ma spouts off all the time."

She struggles, burying her face in his shoulder, nails digging into the biceps of his arms almost painfully, and he feels her body shift as though to put distance between them. She's still trying to deny what she feels, because she believes it to be shameful. She doesn't want to face such things. She doesn't want to believe Kate Tull could experience lust and need.

He tilts her head back by grabbing her hair and pulling, and kisses her lips again, hard and coaxing at the same time. His other hand is unfastening buttons on her dress, until he can he delve inside and his fingers curl around her breast, feeling it through the thin shift beneath. She arches, her nipple tightening against her will into his calloused palm.

Still teasing her lips, he breathes, "You sweet little bitch..."

Her breath hisses inward as he kisses her again, swallowing the cry she utters as she continues to push against him.

"Don't you call me that," she moans. Her breath is heavy and she stutters, her eyes slightly glazed. "I... I have to go home...!"

He ignores her and rubs himself against her, letting her feel the aching erection against her thigh, and he slides a hand beneath her dress and up her leg. She arches again, unwillingly, her body moving unconsciously against her better judgment. He likes that, savors it. It means that somewhere within her dwells a girl that wants to rebel against her mother. His fingers skate the inside of her thigh and up against her center, his eyes darkening upon the discovery of thick wetness gathered there. Sweet Jesus, the girl does want him. It slowly dawns on him that perhaps this is why she hasn't come by in two months. As he brushes his hand against the damp heat, she twitches, shaking her head furiously, tears slipping down her cheeks, whispering for him to please let her go and not meaning a word of it.

He leans forward to murmur in her ear, his tone soothing and swearing all at the same time, while his fingers rub tight, slow circles into her damp flesh. When her hips begin to undulate beneath him, he thrusts against her thigh, relishing the friction of the fabric of his drawers and trousers along his hard length and the sticky wetness that coats his fingers. She wants him. But he needs to draw her away from her mother's stupid beliefs before rutting with her; otherwise she'll just find a way to take revenge on him.

Against the sensitive shell of her ear, he continues to shhh her and murmur for her to let go, and after a few moments she begins to move harder against him, grinding herself into his fingers while begging for more instead of begging him to stop. He presses up, one knuckle into her tight heat, placing pressure upon her swollen clit. It's so tight that it makes his stomach ripple with pleasure at the thought of plowing into her. She spasms silently, hips thrusting forward, eyes rolling closed and head tilted back as her orgasm hits her and her knees buckle and she groans in relief. She's probably never experienced one before, and he likes the thought that he showed her that, first. He keeps her in place with his lower body, keeps her upright as she sags against the side of the cotton house. Breathing hard, he waits for her to come back down, listening to the heavy gasps and enjoying the tight grip she has on his arms.

After a few long, quiet moments, he whispers in her ear, "You should go home, Kate. Before I do anything else."

She shudders as he steps back, away from her. She just does catch her balance, and after a moment, she slowly buttons her dress and stumbles to the door, pausing once to look back at him. Then, before he realizes what she's doing, she darts forward and kisses him hard, before she bolts out and away from him.

He is still hard, still aching, but he doesn't mind as much as he thought he would. She'll be back, after all. He knows it.

And he can't help smiling for it, either.

When he walks through the church door the first Sunday morning in November, the congregation glances at him before the whispers break out like little fires through the pews.

He fights the urge to curse them all to hell as he slides sulkily into the pew closest to the door, in the very back.

Through the sea of heads and hats, he can just make out Kate's hair, where she sits next to her parents in the front row, because Heaven forbid Cora Tull sit any further back. With vindictive pleasure, he hopes God places her as far away from him as possible when the feast comes at the End of Time.

Preacher Whitfield, a man he's never much cared for, has the audacity to talk about the sin of adultery today, and he immediately wishes he'd never come at all. It's only serving to piss him off even more than he normally is, for while the bastard goes on about lust and sin, he can't help but recall his brother's taunting words.

Who is your father, Jewel?

He flinches, wishing to God he'd killed the son of a bitch when he had the chance, but Cash and Anse and the men from the asylum wouldn't let him. The differences Darl had pointed out to him back then, now rush to the front of his mind with amazing clarity.

You're a head taller than Cash and me, have you noticed it? Always have been, you know. You look different then the rest of us, too. Ma petted you more growin' up. That's why she named you Jewel. Isn't it obvious our pa isn't your pa? Who is your father, Jewel?

Who is your father?

Then he notices that Whitfield is stumbling through the sermon, occasionally glancing right at him and faltering each time he does.

He does nothing except glare back, wondering why the bastard is so damned fidgety. Just because he decided to show up in church today is no reason for a man of the cloth to get nervous. He never did like Whitfield much, though he can't say why. Besides, he's no saint and he doesn't need saving, but his mother would want him to be here, he reckons. That's the only reason he came at all.

That, and to see Kate.

What the hell is happening to him?

When the man finally shuts the hell up, Jewel is out of his seat before anyone else; out of the door and into the churchyard and the cold air. He heads immediately for the wagon and starts to climb into the seat, determined to skip a few more Sundays before returning him again, when he hears his name. Glancing behind him, leaning back, he sees Vernon hurrying across the dead grass.

"Wait a moment, Jewel," he says. "Cora wants to speak to you."

"Don't have time. I need to be gittin' home, Vernon."

"I understand," he says courteously, "but she wanted to invite you to dinner."

He wrinkles his lip, on the verge of saying something ugly, when Cora appears and looks up at him, a myriad of expressions on her face. She can't decide if she wants to be angry, or if she should be Christian.

"Come on over to the house 'round two and have some supper," she finally says. "We'd like it right nice if you'd join us, Jewel."

He struggles, wanting to say no. Wanting to tell her to go to hell and leave him alone, because he knows she dislikes him. But then Kate appears behind her, her eyes downcast and nervous, and he feels vindictive again.

"All right," he says shortly. "I'll come."

She places the greens on the table and goes back to the kitchen to fetch the bread, bustling about her work as deliberately as possible, so as not to look at him or give her own feelings away.

He and Vernon are out on the porch, talking about this year's crop and what they expect it'll fetch at market, how the winter is going to be a cold one, how the weather is coming in quick this time of year.

Her mother's lips are in a tight line; occasionally, she hums a few bars of this hymn or that one, or makes some murmured remark of how she knows her Christian duty and aims to do it.

Dinner is just as awkward as everything else seems to be. He doesn't want to be there and her mother doesn't want him there, but her father continues to chat with him about various topics and he answers in monosyllables most of the time, his body stiff and his manner affected. She notices his Sunday clothes are right nice, fairly new, and he's shaved and cleaned up right smart. It makes her body twitch at wanting to get him alone and feel his lips against her skin once more. To peal those nice clothes off of him...

He gives her mother a random compliment about the food; her mother tells him that her daughter cooked today, bringing her back to reality.

At this, he glances at her, his eyes smoldering and pale, narrowed, searching. She quickly looks back at her plate. He gives the compliment to her instead and she nods once to show she heard him.

Her mother then starts talking about the sermon, praising Brother Whitfield for his ability to captivate his audience and channel the will of God to the people of New Hope.

A red flush creeps up his neck towards his jaw as Cora goes on, but he says nothing except, "I thought he seemed nervous."

"Probably because he saw you, I reckon." Her father chuckles good-naturedly. "Probably wondering what'd happened to make you show up in church."

Jewel stiffens at this remark, but shrugs it off. "Well. There's lots to do around the place, what with it being just me. Can't afford to go every week. Nothing git done otherwise."

"Have you heard from Anse lately, Jewel?" her mother asks curtly, her lips in a tight line again.

"No. Cash wrote to say they was gittin' on well enough. Don't matter to me one way or the other, though."

Her mother looks surprised. "But... They're your family!" she insists.

He doesn't respond to this, except to rise from his seat and nod his head in mock-politeness. "I'd better be gittin' home. I've got plenty to do. Thank you for the supper, Mrs. Tull."

His lip wrinkles slightly, but no one notices except Kate. Her mother too busy fussing over him to stay for a spell (whether she wants him to or not), his father offering to help him with the cotton (whether he wants to or not). Jewel declines both, and Vernon walks with him to the front porch while Cora and Kate start clearing the table.

However, when her father finally comes back in, he looks thoughtful and wary. Her mother asks him what took so long, and he stands quiet for a long time before he finally says, "Jewel asked if he mightn't court Kate. I told him I'd think about it an' let him know."

Kate nearly drops the plate she's holding, and her mother stares in shock.

"Court Kate? Our Kate?" she nearly shrieks.

And before she knows it, her parents are arguing over the idea – her mother completely against it and her father debating and hem-hawing like he always does, before Kate stammers that Jewel has always been kind to her and she wouldn't object courting him. She likes him better than others, she says.

And even as she says such things, she struggles to ignore the fluttering in her stomach and chest, because he hasn't always been kind to her, and after what happened a couple of weeks ago, he hasn't even been good to her the way her mother would expect. But she's drawn to him, attracted to him, always has been.

He could take care of her, she adds. He's paying the farm off like her pa did on theirs.

Despite this, the argument continues for some time until her mother throws her hands up and starts singing (always the answer to everything it seems), and Kate finds sanctuary in her room, not certain what to feel or why.

The last thing he wanted was to be sitting on the Tull's porch every two or three days or so, having a strained conversation with Kate, knowing her parents are listening to every goddamned word.

He knows her mother wonders that her daughter likes him at all, because their conversations are hardly conversations. Quiet questions and one-word answers, mostly. It doesn't sound like two people who might possibly love each other.

Did you get your cotton sold in town?


That's good.

Minutes of silence between questions are common, nervous shifting on Kate's part even more so.

It'll be a cold winter.


Sadly, they do seem to discuss the weather every time he goes over. But then again, she can't easily ask him about sex, and God knows he can't kiss her in front of her parents. Cora'd kill him with an iron skillet if he did.

Got a letter from Cash yesterday.


Said Vardaman's doing pretty well in school. Better'n they expected.

Well, that's something.

Hmm. Suppose so. Never thought he was too smart, myself.

And so their only real interaction is whenever her parents are unaware – whenever she sneaks over to his place and meets him in the fields as he's tending to winter crops. She steals quick, hot, burning kisses that leave him twitching for more, though sometimes he's able to grab her before she runs off, and he kisses her senseless for five or ten minutes, before she finally pulls away and hurries home again.

It leaves them both wanting more, wanting to find each other in the dark. It leaves him cursing himself that he's going to be married to her with a mother-in-law that dislikes him and a father-in-law that can't make up his own mind for a change.

But Kate knows he's not like Vernon. She won't be running their household the way her mother runs hers. He'll go to Hell first before he allows that to happen.

She moans at the feel of him, hands alternating between clenching the worn bed sheets and his arms. She can't seem to anchor herself and isn't sure she wants to, but God! She must, or she'll spiral out of control.

Against her neck, he whispers and purrs in her ear, coaxing her, teaching her, teasing her, holding her hip against his with rough fingers that carve into her flesh as though seeking to brand her as his.

She marvels at the way their bodies seem to fit together, the way her taut stomach melds into his hard one, the way his lips rove over her body in slow, unhurried patterns, the way his thick blond hair muses beneath her fingers when she thinks to run them across his scalp. She never really noticed before, but he's the only one of his family with blond hair, now that she thinks on it. The others all have black hair and dark eyes. But not Jewel.

She feels as though she will fall through the ceiling when she comes around him, so hard that lights burst behind closed her eyelids as she gasps his name desperately and clings to his sweat-soaked body, one leg trembling against the mattress and the other shaking as it slips on his narrow waist. So far gone is she that she doesn't notice his smile in the dim light of the kerosene lantern or even hear the loving profanity as he swears to Heaven when he comes after her.

Minutes later, panting for breath with his weight comfortably on top of her, her fingers and lips gently tracing the sharp lines of his face that seem to relax only for her, she shakily questions if they've committed sin. They aren't married yet, though her mother has set aside a date in early spring and is already arranging everything. What have they done? What will happen now?

To her surprise, he props up on one elbow, cups her cheek, and sternly tells her that it isn't her place to judge what is or isn't sin, and if they love each other, it won't matter to God or anyone else. And if anyone questions their actions, then they can go to hell.

And as she gazes at him in wonder, he adds that if she turns into her mother, he'll fucking divorce her, and a shoving sort of mock-fight ensues, before she kisses him long and slow, and soberly mumbles that she must get home before her parents get back and realize she's not where she's supposed to be.

He releases her without question, and watches her dress by the light of the lantern while he lays sprawled on the bed, smirking.

He tugs at his shirt collar. It's damned uncomfortable. Everything is damned uncomfortable, really. He wishes the day were over and done, or wasn't even happening at all.

"How are you?"

"What the hell sort of question is that?" he demands furiously, turning to glare at Whitfield, who has seemingly crept up behind him. He really hates the man.

The pastor frowns at his language but merely diverts his eyes to the floor. And why the hell can't he ever look anyone in the eye?

After a few seconds, Whitfield says deliberately, "It is not uncommon for the young to feel nervous over such a monumentous event."

There isn't even a comment for such a ludicrous statement, except:


"Now, Jewel –"

"Why don't you get on to your pulpit, preacher, and stop worrying about me? People get married every goddamn day," he snaps, jamming his fists into the pockets of his dress slacks. "And you can keep it short and sweet, too. I don't want you to drag it on like you do your goddamn sermons, until all hours of the afternoon."

Whitfield looks as though he wants to correct such terrible sacrilege upon holy ground, but after a moment, he nods curtly and heads back inside the small church. He pauses at the doorway for a brief second only to say coldly, "Well. I'm sure your mother would be pleased with your choice. Kate Tull is a fine young lady."

"It doesn't much matter what my mother thinks," he growls, resisting the temptation to strike the man across the jaw, "seeing as she's dead."

"Now see here – it's not Christian to speak that way of the dead, and I certainly won't stand to here you speak that way of your mother." He almost sounds angry about it, for some reason.

"There's lots of things that aren't Christian, but I sure as hell don't need you to tell me what they are or how to speak of my mother."

Whitfield struggles a moment, before storming into the church, clearly furious. Jewel ignores him and goes back to wishing the day were over, hardly bothering to nod at the guests arriving in their Sunday best who give him fake, polite smiles.

When Cash arrives with Peabody, a few of the men-folk standing about the church yard greet him cordially; Cash nods to each of them before heading up to his brother.

"Pa couldn't make it," he says apologetically. "Mrs. Bundren weren't feeling too well and he didn't think he could leave her. With her nerves and all."

"Good," he snarls viciously, gazing out across the land. "Didn't want neither of them here no ways."

Cash runs a hand behind his neck. "Fraid I can't stay too long myself. Seeing as Peabody drove me out..."

He nods once to show he understands, and asks absently, uncaring, "How's Vardaman?"

"Got in a spot of trouble a few days ago. Mrs. Bundren wouldn't let him come for it. That's why he's not here either. Stole some bananas from a general store. I'll be durned if I know where he done got such a notion."

"Dewey Dell?"

"Taint heard from her." Cash sighs heavily. "No idea where she done gone."

"Her own fault." He doesn't much care one way or the other about Dewey Dell, either.

"I'd like to know who else's fault it was, myself."

"Could be anyone, knowing Dewey Dell."

"Well. Might be inviting y'all to come to mine soon enough," Cash goes on, keeping his weight on his good leg as he looks about the churchyard.

He doesn't respond to this. Cash wrote to tell him about the nice young woman he met in Jefferson already, at church, no less. Instead, after a few long moments, he spits into the dust and shrugs. "Well. 'Preciate you coming out."

"Glad to do it."

Whitfield steps back out, looking stiff and irritated. "It's time," he says shortly.

They look at each other, resigned, and together, Cash and Jewel enter the church.

Some people say they're ill matched, and there are some times she can well believe it.

Her husband has a ferocious temper that she positively hates. She wonders how she never noticed it before, or if she was just blind to it while they were courting.

She can't help being a bit like her mother every once in a while, even if she's not aware of it, and that pisses him off to high heaven, for some reason.

She's more religious then he is and occasionally he'll snap at her to stop that goddamned singing so he can think straight for once.

She gets angry with him for using the Lord's name in vain and he tells her he'll say what he goddamn wants to say, and to stop her goddamn nagging.

He storms out to the fields without speaking to her some mornings and she feels lonely, which turns to anger and frustration. She often wishes she could knock him on the head with a skillet for his surliness.

But then...

Then, she sees their two sons going about the chores on a farm they now own in full, and she thinks that not many can say that. Not many own their land outright. Not many have the drive her husband has to try and rise above the rest.

Or when her husband vindictively locks their bedroom door at night to keep the same two young boys from barging in on them while they make love. She can't help but smiling at him when he does that, when he hollers at them through the wall to get the hell to sleep. She can't help but draw him into her arms then, and bite her lip to keep from crying out in pleasure as he teases her in the dark.

Her mother can say what she wants, complain as much as she likes (and she does...God knows she does - she's always telling her daughter that Jewel is a selfish, selfish man who doesn't love anyone, let alone his wife).

But Kate blocks Cora out with memories of lying with her husband in their bed, curled up next to him, listening to the steady rhythm of his heartbeat while he sleeps. Stroking his hair and his chest, revealing in the fact that he once told her he'd never, ever cheat on her, though she didn't understand the furious expression on his face when he brought it up and she hasn't dared to ask him about it again, because the first time she did, he only muttered something about Darl.

She knows it's far from perfect. But still. He's hers.