Title: Ex Aequo

Summary: Sam moves into a Stanford dormitory and stands in the hallway, watching the hustle and bustle.

Much thanks to Big Pink, who made me think about why I was writing certain things.

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ex aequo: on equal footing

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Arms wide open is not his first thought.

It's I have never seen so many people in my life, but he doesn't have time to gawk because everyone he sees says hello to him. He introduces himself as Sam from Kansas a million times, and he's pretty sure no one will remember that tomorrow.

He tries to convince himself that he doesn't mind. After all, historically, he learned to be wary of other kids pretty quickly. He learned to become part of the background at once, in a new school.

By the time he was eight, he could pick out the misfits before the first bell rang, and the popular kids before the teacher took attendance.

But here, in the burgeoning four-story dormitory, he's lost all sense of perspective. Everybody looks excited, worried, young. There's enough nervous energy to power the state for a year, he figures. He doesn't know why they have to buy power from Canada.

He's used to being thrown into the status quo, into a situation that's halfway through and holding steady. Appearing out of the blue and yet having to blend in from the start. He's used to picking up clues from shuttered looks and whispered words, from riddles exchanged by friends and neighbors, colleagues and peers.

Here? Here, there is no status quo, nothing rock-steady, nothing reliable, not yet.

No Dean, no Dad. It floats through his head, unbidden, cutting through the giggles and happy shouts of his dorm mates. Already they seem to get along like ants at a picnic.

In elementary school, Sam knew to avoid the well-liked kids, the popular kids, because they asked too many questions. They asked where he was from, why he moved, where he lived now. They asked him over to their houses and expected a reciprocal invitation. Their parents glanced around the schoolgrounds for his parents, and he had Dean. They said, "I'll give your mom a call and we can arrange a playdate with you and Evan for tomorrow afternoon. What's your phone number?" He had a lifetime of excuses, but each one wore at him.

He thought he was done with those times, but he learns now that he isn't. Even more than freshmen, there are moms and dads and brothers and sisters here, carrying boxes and bags and smiling and laughing. Goodbye hugs and tears, soon wiped away and replaced by big grins. He sees polite introductions with roommates. Already, there are offers to come visit at Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving? he thinks. Thanksgiving is eons away.

Shrugging, he supposes that most people actually plan ahead, especially for the holidays. His dad plans hunts meticulously, but the in-between times? Sam knows his dad would forget meals if he and Dean didn't speak up.

Sam wonders now if Dean will bother.

Sam forces away that train of thought before it derails, and notices someone stumbling down the hallway, overloaded with boxes, and he rushes over to open a door for the man, like he's been doing all day. In elementary school, he was unfailingly polite, because if he weren't, the teacher would take what Dad called an unhealthy interest in their family. Sam had seen the repercussions of a teacher's reactions to Dean's insubordination often enough to know he was better off avoiding that.

But here, instead of vague disinterest, Sam is fawned over by the parents of his dorm mates. This isn't going the way he expected at all.

He feels like a washing machine on spin cycle.

He wants this, he reminds himself. It's just that everybody's feeling unsettled. And for the same reason, for once, he says pointedly to himself. They're all in this together. They're leaving home for the first time, going to be without their families. He thinks for a minute, rephrases. We're leaving home for the first time, going to be without our families.

But it doesn't work, because he doesn't have a home. Nominally, it's Kansas. In actuality, Sam doesn't remember being in the state, ever.

He remembers a year in Duluth, and Wilmington and Scranton and Springfield. He could rattle off the names of twenty towns in South Dakota, if you asked him to.

But home has no meaning, no meaning other than Dean and Dad and the car, and he thinks that, now, it's only the car who can stand him. Only the car who might want him back. He is the black sheep, and what has he done? Won a scholarship to Stanford. He chuckles without humor. Because that makes all kinds of sense.

His thoughts are getting dangerous again, and he tries to curb the anger, and the grief. His brain, however, is stuck on misfits, like himself. In elementary school, Sam knew to avoid them, because they were even more visible than the cool kids. They showed up on everybody's radar screen. They were teased and discussed and speculated about, and the less said about the Winchesters, the better.

He learned that the hard way, like almost everything else. First grade in Boise, and the class was learning about the water cycle. He remembers raising his hand and proudly announcing that salt keeps ghosts away. He remembers the teacher saying, "Sammy, we don't tell tall tales in this classroom," and trying desperately to explain that he wasn't making things up. He remembers being mortified when he burst into tears because Mrs Nolan continued to scold him. He remembers that things went downhill from there, that between Sam and Mrs Nolan, they kicked up such a fuss that John Winchester had to visit the principal to sort things out. And he remembers that they moved away from Boise pretty quickly, too, which, in hindsight, was a good thing. At noon recess, later that day, Sam thought it was strange that, while playing crocodile tag, nobody ever tagged him. He was the fastest runner in the class, but he always let the slower kids catch him. But today, he never got a chance to be 'It'. He didn't realize why until he overheard his best friend whispering to another boy, "Sammy's stupid 'cause he thinks ghosts are real. Pass it on."

For all the practice Sam's had at identifying types of people, he really can't tell if there are any misfits here. They all look the same, so many eighteen- and nineteen-year-old kids that they blur together into a pastiche of images. This head on those shoulders saying these words. He is dizzy from the bustle and laughter and life, and he has to sit down or he might fall over.

He tells himself it's not actually a big deal. Hundreds of thousands of people have done this before. He is not the first, the only.

He feels like the first, the only.

The past is safer—his family is good at the past. He remembers being thrilled by the idea of carpe diem in ninth grade when he saw Dead Poets Society at school. He came home and gave his father a blow-by-blow description of the movie. Dad was perusing the evening paper, and when it seemed that he wasn't even trying to listen anymore, Sam exclaimed loudly, "Carpe diem!"

Dad answered, "We do."

And Sam stared, uncomprehending for the longest while, and then getting it and thinking, "Oh yes, seize the day to track down something fourteen years gone," and immediately he felt a wave of shame and guilt.

He wanted so badly to befriend the average kids, because their lives were predictable and routine. But Sam couldn't hang out with them, either. They were always sort of quiet and only had (only needed) a couple of friends themselves, whom they already had, and there was no space for a random arrival from Delaware, or Ohio. Not unkind, but not what you'd call open, either.

No, it was the kids at cheap motels and rest stops he befriended. That instant friendship that springs up when you spend more than half an hour—compressed into five or ten minutes if you're still allowed in a McDonald's Play Place—with a perfect stranger. To whom you tell all your secrets but not your last name. To whom you don't dream of lying, embellishing the truth, although you'll never see him again.

Nobody can tell—or cares—if you're cool or not. There's no frame of reference, no reputation holding you back, or up. No need for pretenses, because there's no basis for comparison.

It's no strings attached, a tryst from real life, except this is more real. More honest. Instant acceptance, no-holds-barred truth.

He sees a blonde girl hug her family (mom, dad, and two little sisters) and keep a brave face until the car's left the parking lot. Then—for an instant, before the girl hurries back to chat with her roommate—he sees the façade crumble, and she looks as lost and alone as he feels.

With a start, Sam realizes that this, right here, right now, is exactly the same thing as those happenstance rest-stop friendships. All these kids are flung together by chance, and all they have in common is geography. They may come from a town where everyone knows their name, but nobody knows them now. They may come from a family of twelve, but it's just themselves now. There is no history here.

For once, he isn't coming late to the game. For once, he knows as much as these kids do. There are no secrets, no background. All men are created equal. Smiling to himself, Sam wonders if maybe Abe Lincoln spent his first year of college in a dorm.