Disclaimer: I don't own the Winchesters.
Summary: Sam's first semester at Stanford starts out well, but soon he finds himself desperately missing his family.
September is Elation
September is elation. It is freedom, it is independence, it is opportunity. It is Sam on the same footing as everybody else for once, Sam and sixteen hundred other first-year students.
He is no longer defined as Dean's brother, John's son. Instead he is just Sam, freshman psych. He deflects questions about his family—brief but exaggerated mentions of an alcoholic father and a delinquent older brother (which makes him laugh internally), and his mother's dead, and usually that shuts them up.
His classmates babble excitedly about living in dorms, but he has slept in hundreds of motel rooms, and the antiquated nature (to put it politely) of the dorms is not novel to him. His friends are thrilled by being able to eat out whenever they want (which is often, cafeteria food being what it is), but Sam is nonchalant; he has eaten in more fast-food places than these kids ever will.
For the first time, Sam is the one who has done these things before. Sam knows how coin-operated washing machines work, where exactly to put the soap, how much laundry will fit in an industrial machine. Sam is the only one who's ever shown up in a new town without a guidebook and hotel reservations. Exploring and navigating a new place is old hat to him.
Sam is the one who's not scared, the one who's experienced enough change to take anything in stride. He doesn't quite blend in, but his differences here are seen as strengths and not weaknesses, and he revels in the comfort of having a place to belong.
October is exhaustion. It is research, it is studying, it is learning. It is mid-term exams that classmates freak out about, and fifteen-page papers that they begin the day before they're due, but not for Sam. He is comfortable in a library and taking notes, and thinks he's attended Winchester U, School of the Supernatural, all of his life. He knows how to extract information from primary sources, from musty books and dusty shelves. This constant instruction and education and memorization is nothing new; the only difference is that here, his life does not depend on it. This ready-made excuse for slacking off, that the consequence of failure is no longer lethal, does not even occur to Sam. This, he was made for.
November is family. It is loneliness, it is desolation, it is heartache.
He recognizes the emotion for what it is, and that is enough for him. His friends, however, use words like "homesick" in casual conversation, and he shudders at each mention.
It is nearly Thanksgiving, and the guys look forward to watching football with their fathers and brothers, and the girls plan to shop with their mothers and sisters. They tell stories about turkeys and stuffing and cranberry sauce, and Sam has never eaten a home-cooked turkey in his life. Sam feels a hole developing in his chest, one where these memories should fit. He hates his friends' stories, and loves them. When his best friend lurchingly asks if Sam wants to come home with him for the weekend, Sam doesn't hesitate before saying, "Yes. Oh, yes, please."
Andrew's family gathers at his grandparents' house in Berkeley for Thanksgiving. Andrew has two parents, two grandparents, one great-grandmother, two sisters, one brother-in-law, two nephews, three aunts, four uncles, eight cousins, one cousin-in-law, and two dogs. They are all there (except the dogs), all day, for lunch and for supper and some overnight.
Sam is overwhelmed. He loves the energy, loves the kids racing all over the house, loves the smells emanating from the kitchen, loves the easy familiarity everyone has with one another, and somehow with him, loves the games of charades and rummy and Snakes and Ladders. He partakes in the camaraderie with relish, but now and then he has to stop and step back and just watch, because it's too much to take in all at once. He feels Andrew's concerned eyes on him, and he shrugs sheepishly and says he's never seen so many people in one house together, and so happy. Andrew bites his lip and says, carefully, "It isn't all fun and games, Sam. But it's Thanksgiving, right, so everybody tries."
And Sam silently nods, thinking about his past Thanksgivings—he remembers taping construction-paper turkeys, made from a cut-out of his hand, onto the back of the Impala's front seat and driving, because the holiday meant that missing a couple of days of school would be practically expected, and John could tackle a case or two, hundreds of miles away.
Sam is remembering his earnest lies about visiting relatives out-of-state and wonders why his teachers ever believed him. He'd been so naïve; his fantastical stories had been as plausible as fairy tales.
He blinks and exits his reverie. "Sorry. I was thinking about something else. What did you say?" He smiles sweetly to assuage the worried frowns of Andrew and his grandmother.
"I was saying," says Moira Thompson, "that you are entirely too skinny. Everybody else always gains weight when they go away to college. You—you need fattening up! Come," she orders, grabbing Sam's arm and tugging, "you come to the kitchen. I'll cut you some pumpkin pie. You need it." She barely comes up to Sam's elbow.
Sam stumbles, surprised by the old woman's forcefulness. A slow smile spreads over his face, and when he glances back at Andrew, he is laughing.
Lunch had been buffet-style, people balancing plates on their knees and spread throughout the house. Dinner is a formal affair, and the men carry in an extra table and the kids round up chairs, and the dining room is filled to capacity.
Once everybody is seated, all twenty-eight, Andrew's grandfather, at the head of the table, speaks. "Before we eat, I want us to reflect on all we have to be thankful for." There is a solemn silence, the earlier gaiety tucked away behind serious and thoughtful expressions, and Sam is afraid to move. "Moira, why don't you start us off."
Sam is initially confused, but apparently he is the only one. Andrew's grandmother speaks of being thankful that the whole family is together, under one roof. She speaks of emigrating from Ireland as a child, and her family's poverty, and how they were grateful for family. How it was the only thing they had. How they relied on each other for their very survival. The way she speaks, it is obvious that everyone has heard these stories before, but they all listen attentively as if it were the first time.
Sam is scared to death. He is holding onto the seat of his chair with both hands, as if it were the only thing holding him down. He is staring straight ahead, over Auntie Bea's head, at a slight mark on the wall. He focuses on it with all his might, because walls he knows.
Beside Andrew's grandmother is Uncle Dan, and as much as Sam tries to block out his voice, he hears it anyway. That memory-hole in his chest is growing rapidly, and the thought crosses his mind that he's learned enough calculus this semester to figure out its rate of change of volume. He tries to concentrate on delta-X's and delta-Y's but Uncle Dan's enthusiastic appreciation for his job filters through anyway. He loves his co-workers and his boss, and the pay (there are chuckles around the table), and the fact that he just got promoted to regional manager, and the family, hearing this news for the first time, cheers.
Sam restrains himself from clapping his hands over his ears as he listens to Jeff, eight years old, expound at length about how he is thankful that he can play basketball on Thursdays and that his dad is the coach. He listens as Aunt Sarah is thankful that all of her children are in college, are interested in their future, that they're studying hard and getting good grades.
Andrew, sitting on Sam's right, notices his friend vibrating. He leans over and as he starts to whisper a question, Sam suddenly bolts from the table. The other twenty-seven dinner guests gape as they hear running footsteps and a slamming door.
Andrew stands, shoots the table an apologetic glance, and leaves the room. His mother follows him.
"Is Sam okay? Is he ill?"
Andrew shakes his head. "I… I don't know. But—I think he's been having a hard time with all the emphasis on family stuff. I guess his family's not really close."
Mrs. Thompson purses her lips and nods. "That poor boy." Impulsively, she hugs her son. "Let him know that we don't mind his absence but we would enjoy his company." She returns to the dining room.
Andrew finds Sam in the bathroom. The door is shut, and he tentatively knocks. "Sam? Are you all right?" He's going to feel awfully stupid if Sam just had to pee or something. Sam doesn't answer, so he continues, "Can I come in?" He slowly opens the door.
Andrew feels sorrow. Sam has his hands on the counter and is leaning on it, head down, but Andrew can see his reflection in the mirror, and tears are streaming down his cheeks.
Sam turns slightly to acknowledge Andrew's presence. "Sorry," he chokes out.
Andrew shakes his head. "No. Don't be. Sam…" And he doesn't know what to say. He has no idea what it's like to be kicked out of your own house, to be disowned. He can't come close to imagining it.
When Andrew met Sam, Sam seemed so worldly-wise: he knew everything and had been everywhere (in the country), and Andrew is floored to discover that Sam's life is missing something fundamental. Sam is so outwardly confident, sure of himself, but in actuality he is achingly vulnerable.
So he walks over to Sam and puts a hand on his shoulder and decides that he'll invite Sam home at Christmas, too, because family doesn't necessarily mean you have to be related.