He sits for hours, his ass and legs going tingly, then numb, then coldly cramped. His eyes stay scratchy the whole time, closing when the stink of chemically cooled air and plush fabric overwhelms him. But the sight of the garish Greyhound upholstery – magenta stripes on a dull grey background – is too triumphant to shut out for long, and he watches the shadows march inexorably across it. The ugliest sight in the world is the back of Dad's head. (Look alive back there, Sammy; you'll be doing the incantation. Dean, you get those blades sharp. Be ready the minute I stop the car.) He'll never have to look at the back of Dad's head again. He's moving forward with his eyes open.
Steve Mitschele, pre-med, has never shared a room before; he's only got sisters, whose dolls he used to steal to slice open, making Y-incisions with a seam-ripper after the knives and scissors had all been confiscated. He says all of this in one breath, eagerly explaining just how it is his stuff is spread out over both extra-long beds, both sturdy desks, and both four-drawer dressers, and Sam can see he's waiting for the moment he can shake hands with Mr. and Mrs. Winchester, assure them that he and Sam will soon be thick as thieves. But Steve's voice stutters and halts when he sees that all the company Sam keeps is a big camping backpack, a duffel, and a tall canvas bag. Sam sets them down - one two three - with three heavy thumps. "I'm Sam," he says, offering his hand. He heads for the window. "Mind if I take this bed?"
Orientation knocks him flat on his ass. His well of defiance dries up; there is nothing here to pit himself against. All the old dichotomies – he's the dreamer and Dean is the doer, he's the baby while Dean is Dad's boy – superficially true and fundamentally incomplete, no longer apply. There is no anchor dragging him to an unwilling stop. All he needs to do is figure out which way is forward.
At the alcohol-free party the seniors throw for the freshmen, Steve clings to him and Sam's disgusted to find himself clinging right back. He's faced down all sorts of nasty things with nothing more than a quick tongue for a dead language; that and Dean, more shadow than brother. There's nothing to be afraid of here, even if he's doing this alone. That's how it's going to be from now on, and he might as well get used to it.
He hangs on his RA's every word. He'll have only himself to blame if he misses the secret to college, to life, when a red-shirted senior speaks it. "Intro to Western Art. Great way to meet women," Juan winks, and he flushes dumbly at the thought of the women - not just girls - now living all around him.
It turns out that they're just girls after all, shiny and gleaming like new toys, their long glossy hair smelling like all kinds of delicious things. Though they are dressed like he is, just jeans and t-shirts, there's always some artless hint of femininity: diamond earrings, a rose or a heart tattoo, brightly lacquered nails. He finds their easy confidence alluring and foreign and doesn't know what to do with their coats of armor, so he sits alone in the dark, taking carefully detailed notes on the slides that flash by on the screen.
At 9 a.m. on a Friday morning, the darkness of the auditorium should be soporific, but there's a buzz in his brain. They're covering early Christian iconography, and a persistent sense of misalignment jars him. The images are on the screen simply because of their beauty, but he's used them, made them into weapons and fought with them, guarded his heart and his brother's back.
His uneasiness grows throughout the lecture, and when the final slide is put up, it bursts into full bloom. The archangel Michael, wearing shining armor and a grave smile, stands ready, bright hands curled around his weapons. The image is somehow uncomfortably familiar, though he knows he's never seen it before; it rings discordantly in his mind like a sloppy translation.
The lights come on, and he blinks and turns to retrieve his backpack. There, sitting two seats over as he has for the past three sessions, is the archangel Michael, brown face lit by a sudden grin as he catches Sam's eye.
"I'm Ben," he says, and holds out his hand.
Somehow Sam falls into step at Ben's side, watches him flash easy smiles at the girls who seem to come out of the woodwork just to greet him. They cross the quad, go past the high-rise dorms, and end up in the park. He drops behind, still clutching his Stanford-logo bag like a lifeline, as Ben bumps shoulders with the group already huddled there, laughing and exchanging complicated handshakes. "Guys," Ben says, "this is . . ." – and here he ducks his head – "sorry, man, I didn't catch your name."
"Oh, I'm Sam."
"Sam, huh?" a tall blond guy with a chest like a barrel rumbles. "Already got one of those, sorry." He points to the short kid with wire-rimmed glasses and dreadlocks, who nods amiably at him.
"Well, what's your last name, Sam?" Ben asks, elbowing the blond in the ribs.
"Like the rifle?" the other Sam asks, taking him aback.
"Yeah, like the rifle," he says, feeling his worlds collide.
"Awright, Win, you're on my team," Ben nods, and Sam likes the way his brand-new life gets a brand-new nickname, one promising victory and bestowed with careless grace.
"Wait, what are we playing?" he finally remembers to ask, unzipping and shedding his hooded sweatshirt.
"Best game in the world." Ben grins, dropping a soccer ball at Sam's feet.
He dribbles the ball, getting used to the heft of it - (know your weapons, son) - and circling around Ben, who's bouncing on his feet, a toothy grin on his face.
The blond guy is shaking his head, heaving a big, put-upon sigh. "So it's me, Sam, and Jorge against you and Dave and . . . Winchester. Can we get started already?"
"Mark," Ben says, still hopping and smiling, "shut it." He shakes his legs loose and says with a sidelong glance, "Ready, Win? Your move."
Sam puts the ball into play.
"Dude," Ben says to Mark after he's zipped by him and scored again, "you better haul ass if you're gonna catch your plane." He high-fives Dave for the corner kick, then Jorge and the other Sam just for the hell of it, ducking nimbly as they swipe at his head with amused exasperation.
He hooks an easy arm around Sam's neck, and Sam can almost feel full lips on the underside of his jaw when Ben mumbles, "Nice pass."
"What time is it?" Mark pants, dragging his arm across his dripping face.
"Quarter to one."
"Shit, man," Mark groans. "I gotta shower and grab my stuff." He swallows hard. "Would you drive me to the airport?" he mumbles.
Sam's peripheral vision has always been sharp, and he can see Ben melodramatically making his eyes even bigger somehow. "You're gonna let me drive Betsy? Don't I need to shower before I get in her?"
"You're not even sweating, you ass," Mark points out, pulling a key off his keychain and holding it out. "She's in the lot behind Bilnick."
Ben takes the key as Mark jogs off and quirks an eyebrow at Sam. "So, Win, wanna go for a ride?"
"I thought seniors were the only ones allowed to park on-campus," Sam says, once again one step behind Ben, like the guy is his personal Pied Piper.
"Yeah, we are." Ben stops in front of a long convertible, pearly blue like a robin's egg.
"Oh. So, wait, why are you in a 101 class?"
"Padding my schedule to stay registered as a full-time student," Ben says with a shrug; "jumping through scholarship hoops. You?"
"I'm a freshman," he admits. The apparently surprising truth comes more readily than an attractive lie; he didn't get here by following Dean's lead in everything.
Ben's eyes go wide with disbelief, but there's a smile in them. "Man, you suck. I still get carded every time I go out. Must be nice to be eight feet tall."
"Eight foot two, actually," Sam deadpans as he gets in the car and pulls the door shut. "So where's Mark going?"
"His girlfriend's at school in Chicago," Ben says, starting the car. He makes a face at the top-forty pop that pours out of the speakers. "He doesn't deserve her. Listen to this shit. I hope you were raised to know better."
He pulls out of the lot and negotiates a tangle of one-way streets, pulling up in front of a weathered-looking house on a residential block. Mark climbs into the backseat, setting his overnight bag next to him.
"Dude," Ben says, stepping on the gas, "wash off some of that aftershave before you give Val a kiss from me, okay?" He laughs when Mark smacks him upside the head. "Cut that out, Miss Daisy."
He comes home after Professor McAllister's Expository Writing class to find a sock hanging from the doorknob. It feels like trying to guess the punchline to an elaborate and unfamiliar joke, figuring out what it means based on some formative experience he alone has never had. Dean neither advertised nor hid, beyond locking the door, and Sam has no idea what he's supposed to do now. A sock is a really stupid signal, he realizes; it says nothing about how long it's been hanging there or how much longer it will act as a cotton barrier between him and his stuff, the books he needs for Medieval European History specifically. He sits on the thin, dirty carpet, rests his back against the cold wall, and waits.
There's something odd about the girl walking his way; he squints a little against the sunlight, trying to figure out what it is. A few more steps and he can see it: her hair is dark brown, but her face is framed by two thick streaks of turquoise. The hair dye makes him think of war-paint, of camouflage, of the endless crusade he's quit, and he forgets to shift his gaze from her face.
She tosses her head defiantly and glares up at him, then stops him with a hand on his arm. "Sam? Sam Winchester?" she asks, disbelief tingeing her voice.
"Yeah." He pauses, trying to work out who she could be. He can't remember ever meeting a blue-streaked pixie. "Sorry, I . . ."
She nods, apparently unoffended. "Irene Wilkins," she says, squeezing his arm. "Parkside High, Plainfield, Oregon," she prompts.
He can only shake his head in apology and she shrugs. "Don't worry about it. Boy, you just shot up, didn't you?" she asks, frank admiration in her eyes.
"You look great," he says. "Very nice," he adds when all she does is smile.
"Not that you remember what I looked like before," she points out, laughing a little at the pink that climbs his cheeks. "Hey, you doing anything tomorrow night?"
Other than starting his history paper while Steve mumbles the names of all the bones in the human body to himself, his schedule is wide open. "No big plans," he says.
"There's a party this girl in my drama class told me about."
"Pick me up. Matalind, room 301."
He spits pink into the sink, and if his gums are bleeding, that might be a sign that he's flossing just a bit too vigorously. He has no idea what time he's supposed to meet Irene, and he suspects that going all the way to her place to find out would banish him from all future parties. He finger-combs his hair, but it still looks straggly. A mop top might be cute on a two-year-old, but it loses its charm a few decades down the road. It's too hot for a button-down, so he pulls out the darkest tee that's not lying limp in the faded blue duffel, now his designated laundry bag.
It hits him when he's at her door that he's slouching down to look more like Dean.
He knocks (one two three four five) and hears whispering. He backs up a step and looks around, sees the whiteboard with scrawled messages and smiley-faces, the collage that covers the corkboard – cute boys, inspirational quotes, and a few puppies. He jumps when the door opens abruptly, and a tiny Asian girl with an immensely complicated hairdo looks him up and down and leaves, a little wobbly on her heels, tripping on her too-long jeans.
He knocks again on the open door. "Hello? Irene?"
He walks in and sees Irene sitting on her bed with her face buried in her hands. The turquoise is gone, replaced with crimson, and the brown is pinned up. Her shoulders shake a little and he suddenly realizes that she's crying silently.
"Is something wrong?" he asks, grimacing at his own stupidity. If there are prizes for the dumbest thing to say in any situation, he feels sure he's a serious contender. "I mean, can you tell me what's wrong? Maybe I can help," he amends, as if she's going to look up and say that she needs help exorcizing a pesky spirit from the communal shower.
"C'mon, Irene," he says, sitting next to her and putting his hand on the nape of her neck. The knot in her halter top rolls awkwardly under his palm, so he moves his hand down, resting it over the tattoo between her shoulder-blades.
She shudders again, then sniffs and lifts her head. "Sam," she says quietly, wet blue eyes locking onto his, a match for the turquoise she purged from her hair. She leans over and rests her head against his bicep, and he realizes how very small she is. She's taking deep breaths, consciously trying to even out her jagged respiration, and it seems to help when he slides his arm around her waist.
"Jeff," she says, stammering a little, "my b - my ex - knocked up some girl he was apparently seeing over the summer. He just called to tell me the good news."
"Oh," he says. This is human drama, the likes of which he's completely unprepared for. He almost wants to ask if the other girl could possibly be a succubus, but he glances down at Irene, crumpled against his dampened arm like a flower, hair smelling like strawberries, and he can't bring himself to hurt her with idiotic questions that have no place here in the heartland of Normal. "Wow."
She keeps leaning against him, and he doesn't know if there's something else he should be doing. He squeezes her a little tighter, and she's so light that he ends up half-pulling her onto his lap. "Hey," she breathes, looking up at him through drenched, spiky lashes. "Hey," she says into his mouth.
She tastes like cinnamon, stale and spicy, and her tongue burns against his. He flinches and shuts his eyes. He can feel her wiggling on his lap and that draws his attention to his suddenly alert dick. He can taste her tears. He should stop this.
He gets his hands on her shoulders and his eyes pop open. She's undone her top and his fingers are skating across her breasts. They're high and small like unripe plums, her nipples pink as a rabbit's nose. He can see blue veins across her chest, her pale skin lighting up like a sunrise.
She wiggles some more, giving herself room to get her hands on his fly. She's saying something and he struggles to make sense of the sounds coming out of her mouth. "Do you have?" she asks and he shakes his head before he even realizes what she's asking. There's only a packet of salt in his wallet, protection of an entirely different kind, and he can feel the wires in his brain crossing, dangerous sparks igniting.
"Give me a minute," she says and he's impressed that she can form complete sentences. She slides off his lap and pulls his jeans and underwear down past his knees. Before he can do more than blink, she's kneeling in front of him, and her mouth is on his dick. The heat of her is unbearable and he gasps and chokes on something that might be her name.
"Not so fast," she says, one hand clamping mercilessly around him, the other rooting around under the bed. She drags a small shoebox out and pulls a condom from it. She holds it out to him, keeping one firm hand on his frustrated cock, and his fingers stutter and slip on the shiny packet.
He finally rips it open and she catches the condom and rolls it on him. "Shh," she soothes, and he realizes those little whimpers are coming from him. She pushes him down.
His head is pressed painfully tight against the cinderblock wall and he's far too tall to fit sideways or even diagonally on this narrow bed, but then she crawls on top of him, her skirt hitched up and her panties gone, the dangling ends of her halter top trailing along his thighs, and she could cut his head right off if she'd just keep moving her hips like that.
"Uhh," she groans, leaning forward to rest her weight on her hands when he comes, and as he floats back down into his body he can see a shadow of red dye smudged on her forehead. She pulls his hand toward her, guiding his fingers to where she wants them, and he numbly tries to oblige. She rocks herself on him, pushing his fingers hard against her, and cries out.
She waits while he wilts, and he knows he should say something, mark the occasion. It takes him several moments to come up with something. "You're beau–"
"Better now," she interrupts, wiping her watery eyes and flushed cheeks with the side of her hand. She climbs off him, pulls the hem of her skirt down, and turns back to him. He sits up and she kisses his cheek. "Thanks, Sam."
Mr. Paley's professionally jovial smile is fading. "Mr. Winchester, I'm afraid I don't understand."
"I need a job," Sam repeats. "Isn't this the work-study office?"
"Yes, but," Mr. Paley appears to be wishing a hole would open up in the ground and swallow either him or Sam. Possibly both. "You were awarded a full scholarship. This means your tuition, room and board, even your books, are all taken care of. The university cannot offer you more than that."
"I understand that," Sam says, sitting forward a little. "But I have no savings. I need a job, and I just thought this was the logical place to start."
Mr. Paley seems to like the word logical; he settles back in his chair. "Oh, I see. Well, there is a Gap store downtown; they're pretty good about hiring our kids. That's probably the closest you're going to get, since all the official work-study positions at the libraries and the dining halls were assigned over the summer. I could check one more place, though." He turns to his boxy beige computer and types busily. "Ah! You're in luck. They need another aide in the Student Financial Services office. How does that sound?"
Sam smiles. "Great," he says, and shakes the man's hand.
He fills out a schedule of hours he can work at the SFS office, and Ms. Palmer shows him where he'll sit, how to use the ten thousand buttons on the phone, and how to enter records into the database.
"See you tomorrow!" she calls as he's leaving, and he waves, stepping out into the bright sunshine.
A girl with a shaved head sticks a flyer in his hand, saying, "You gotta come. It'll be awesome."
"Yeah," he says automatically, but she's moved on. He shakes his head and keeps walking, entering his room to find two girls on his bed, Steve on his own, and another guy sprawled out on the floor between them. "Hi," he says, surprised, then cottons on. "Study group?"
"Study group," Steve confirms, looking stressed as he tries to smile, so Sam makes it quick, drops his stuff, shoves a sweatshirt and a paperback into his bag, and leaves. He heads for the dining hall; an early dinner never killed anybody. He's figured out by now that it's easier to load his tray in one shot than to keep refilling his plate, so his mac and cheese crowds his meatloaf and green beans and cornbread nearly off one plate. Pierogies, pork stir-fry, and apple turnovers are piled on another, and he fills the gaps on his tray with bowls of butterscotch pudding.
He takes his time eating, reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, underlining passages to discuss in class. When he's cleaned his plates and can barely move, it's still early. He pulls the flyer out of his pocket. A student production of Arms and the Man, starting in forty minutes. Sounds like a plan.
She's radiant as Raina, little girl lost, a woman falling in love; somehow the red streaks in her hair seem less like an anachronism and more like a manifestation of the character's personality. She gasps and keens, and he's pulled out of the performance; he knows that's not how she sounds when she cries. She bows her head in defeat, and he remembers looking down at her dark hair as she moved her mouth on him, hot and sure.
She comes out for her curtain call wearing a crooked smile.
He waits outside, lingering with the smokers, until she finally emerges in a faded jean jacket and cargo pants. His throat closes when he remembers what she looked like, all pink and white and fragile on top of him. "Irene!" he manages and she turns. Her eyes widen with surprise, but her smile looks real.
"Sam," she says, waving him over. Most of the cast is clustered behind her. "Guys, this is Sam," she says. "We're gonna get going," she adds as she takes his arm. She waits until they're on the wide path back toward Matalind to break the silence between them. "So . . ."
"You were great," he says.
"Not the point," she says, stopping them both with a tug on his arm, biting her lower lip nervously. Her teeth are tiny and a little dim. "About yesterday, Sam. That was totally unfair."
He's beyond confused. "I wasn't all that interested in the party, Irene," he says with a shrug.
She gives him a sharp look, her head tilted far back so she can meet his eyes. "No, I shouldn't have jumped you like that. I . . . just . . . I was upset about Jeff and you were right there and . . . it was totally, totally not fair to you. I don't even know if you have a girlfriend, and I just climbed on top of you. That's not me. It won't happen again. I am so sorry."
He's stunned. She's completely serious, apologizing for the first great thing that's happened to him since he got here. "Don't say sorry," he protests, pulling his arm from her grasp, holding her face in his hands and leaning down to kiss her. She stands perfectly still for a moment before taking a small step back.
"I don't want you to be my rebound guy, Sam," she says. She lets that sink in, then reaches up to get her arms around his waist. "I'm saving you for something much better than that."
"Yeah, what's that?" he asks, pulling her close and breathing in the scent of strawberries again.
"I could be the friend you've been waiting your whole life for," she says into his chest. "We could be unstoppable." She smiles up at him, friendly, no hidden promise.
His heart sinks. "Yeah," he says awkwardly, leaving one arm around her and starting to walk again. Her shoulders relax with each step. Light from the lamps lining the path - one two three four - shines on her upturned face. "You really are beautiful, you know."
"So you like the red?" she asks easily, fingers tugging at one lock, stretching it so she can see it.
"Blue was better," he says; "it matched your eyes."
"Hands that size, Win could probably catch anything," Dave says, pushing open the screen door and tossing beers to Jorge, the other Sam, and Mark. He nods at Sam and relaxes into the last beat-up armchair on the screened back porch, twisting the cap off his bottle.
Ben follows close behind, balancing buckets of chicken. He sets the food down on the coffee table and turns to Sam, smiling sweetly. "So, Sam, what would you like to drink? There's apple juice, or soda pop, or maybe you'd like some iced tea?" Sam gapes a little and Ben widens his eyes virtuously. "I'm not going to corrupt anyone underaged, no matter how overgrown."
Sam grins and pats Ben's head. "Just get me a beer, pretty boy." He leans against the wall and waits. Ben comes back with two beers and plunks himself down on the lumpy couch, strong legs sprawled open. He presses one into Sam's hand. "See how much better you are at handing things off than throwing them?" Sam asks, knowing he's playing with fire. "That's okay, not everybody can be quarterback material."
"This is what I've been saying," Dave interjects. "If those monster paws of yours can catch even Ben's sorry-ass lobs, I want you on my team every time we play football." He reaches forward to grab a drumstick and then passes the bucket down.
"Saaam," Ben singsongs, hooking one foot around Sam's ankle and yanking him down so that he falls on the couch, "you punk, you can't be a great wide receiver without a great quarterback. Ergo, I am a great quarterback."
Sam hoists his beer, not a drop spilled, and snatches the bucket of chicken before Ben can dig in. "No, I've just got great hands," he says, before he pulls out a piece and takes a huge bite.
"You know, it's funny," Irene says as she slurps up an extra-long noodle.
"What is?" he asks, twirling noodles around his fork - much easier than chopsticks; he still can't figure out how she's managing it.
"You." She steals a piece of beef from his box. "You've got to be the tallest person I've ever seen but you never act like the biggest guy in the room."
He reaches for his cherry soda and tries to smile. "So? Why is that funny?"
"I'm just – in my movement class, we're learning how to stand, how to hold ourselves, inhabit a character's body and space, you know? Like this one person was abused, and tries to make herself look as small as possible. Or this other guy's a cop, never reaches for things with his gun hand. But you don't act like you look at all."
Because the biggest guy in the room was always his big brother, and if anyone wanted to get at him, they had to go through Dean first, and no one had ever managed that. Sam gulps down his soda and spears some of her chicken. "What, you want me to admit I feel like the Jolly Green Giant around you?" He can't quite meet her eyes.
She lets it go. "Yeah, Sam, that's it exactly." She grins up at him. "Would you, though?"
"Ho ho ho," he booms, holding up a green bean.
"Professor Goran," he says nervously, hovering at the door to his office. "You said you wanted to see me?"
"Come in, Sam." He puts down his stained coffee mug. "I wanted to talk to you about your paper on Charlemagne's coronation; have a seat."
The office is small and crowded with bookshelves and papers, and Sam kicks over a stack of journals when he tries to fold himself into the rickety wooden chair. "Sorry," he blurts, leaning forward to scoop them back up. There's nowhere to put them until Professor Goran takes them from him and drops them on the floor on the other side of his desk. He can't quite figure out what to do with his empty hands, so he pulls his backpack onto his lap and plays with the zipper, flicking the pull-tab back and forth between his fingers.
"Your paper was very promising, Sam," Professor Goran says, smiling at him. "And your class participation has been consistently impressive. I wanted to talk to you about your options."
"Yes. The history department here is a particularly strong one, and it's a major that business schools, law schools, and of course grad schools all like to see on a transcript." He points a bony finger at Sam. "You could have a very bright future with us."
Sam hasn't thought about the word "future" without dread for too long; his smile feels totally fake. "Thanks," he says politely as he leaves the office.
"Dude, Win, over here," the other Sam says, beckoning him closer and looking over his shoulder at Ben, jogging across the field to retrieve the frisbee.
"What's up, Jones?" Sam asks as the rest of the guys join the huddle.
"It's Ben's birthday next Friday. We're throwing him a party at the house. Can you make it?"
"Yeah, of course. Do you need me to bring anything?"
"No, we got it covered," Mark says.
"Is it a surprise?"
"Nope," Ben says, swiping his foot at the backs of Sam's knees, and Sam lurches ungracefully before rounding on him. "Weak, Sam, weak," Ben taunts, grinning and dancing out of reach. "Any other questions? I'm a Libra, one-eighth Cherokee . . ."
"And you love disco music and umbrella drinks, we know." Jorge smirks. "We'll have plenty of both on hand just for you. And a big cake with a naked girl inside."
"Well. My three favorite things. This will be the best birthday ever," Ben deadpans, pulling Sam close to stage-whisper "Kill me now."
"If you guys don't beat UCLA that afternoon, we'll all kill you," Mark rumbles.
"No pressure, though," Jones adds.
"Good times," says Ben.
Sam lets his eyes close. Professor McAllister is walking up and down the aisles, and either her sharp voice or the click of her heels on the linoleum will alert him when she approaches.
"You'll notice that there are no grades on the papers I'm handing back. You will be performing your first peer review of the semester. I'll split you into groups and you will mark each other's work, paying particular attention to the checklist of common errors that's on the back of your syllabus."
She goes through the list alphabetically, and he opens his eyes in time to meet hers as she says, "Villay, Wert, Winchester." The names are unfamiliar and he looks around briefly until the discussion of On the Road begins. He slumps back in his chair and lets someone else take the lead for the moment.
Professor McAllister ends class five minutes early so everyone can find their groups. Standing in the corner to stay out of the way, Sam sees a girl with a cloud of light brown hair sitting quietly at her desk, waiting for the rush to end. He walks over and squats down next to her. "My last name's Winchester. Is yours -"
She looks up with a shy smile. "I'm Susan Villay. Sue."
He grins at her, and her shifting gaze makes him glance around. A gorgeous blonde girl waggles her fingers at them.
"You must be my group," she says, a wide smile on her shiny pink lips. "I'm Karla Wert." Her silver bracelet slips down her arm when she holds out her hand.
"I'm Sam, and this is Sue." He shakes her hand. "So, when do you want to do this?"
"I've got class tomorrow night," Sue speaks up.
"And Friday night is definitely out." Karla tosses her hair back. "Does tonight work?"
"Not for me. We could do it Saturday," he suggests.
"Not at my place." Karla rolls her eyes. "My roommate's got her girlfriend staying over."
"Well, my roommate's going out of town for the weekend, so my room should work."
"Where do you live, Sam?" Sue asks, biting her lip.
"Cullen, 107." Her face clears in relief. "Noon?" he asks and she nods; he catches it out of the corner of his eye as he follows Karla's short pink skirt out the door.
The plush seats in the new theater are incredibly comfortable and he slouches a little, hooking his knees over the empty seat in front of him. The play itself makes very little sense, but Irene is a marvel, livening up the dress rehearsal with her energy. She radiates empathy for her bereaved roommate, laying a gentle hand on the girl's arm, keeping her voice measured and soothing. Her entire demeanor changes, becoming bright and relaxed when the rehearsal ends; his applause sounds loud in the empty theater.
"Really, the play is pretty horrible," she says, as they walk to the dining hall. "I mean, who doesn't see the plot twist coming a mile away?"
"Well, yeah," he agrees. "It is awfully convenient that he turns out to be her long-lost twin brother. And that the adoption agency kept such great dental records."
She giggles, high and melodious, and hugs his waist hard as they keep walking. "You're a real straight shooter, Sam," she says; "you're the best."
Ms. Palmer's hand on his shoulder startles him out of his industrious daze, and she squeezes apologetically before letting go. "How are you doing here, Sam?"
"Great," he says, trying to remember what he's supposed to be telling her. "I've entered the data from these files, and I still need to sort through that pile."
She smiles and carries off the stack he's already finished with. He stares at his starfield screensaver and zones out again, willing inspiration to strike. Ben's birthday is tomorrow and he still can't think of what to buy him. There's got to be something Ben wants; he just wishes he knew what it could be.
"You keep twisting around like that, your head's gonna pop right off your neck," Ben's warm voice says low into his ear.
"How'd you get here?" he asks, wondering how he missed the seat next to his being claimed, turning to face him. "And why are you dressed like that? What, you got attacked by a gang of accountants?"
Ben grins and runs a hand down his silk tie, smoothing it flat against his crisp dress shirt. "I always dress up on game day. No point breaking my lucky streak." He turns to pull a notebook from his bag, and his voice is muffled. "You coming to the game?"
"Yeah, man, of course," Sam says, surprised he has to ask. He looks down at his own notebook, open and ready, and suddenly remembers the gift he's clutching. "Oh, hey, uh, happy birthday," he says, holding it out. The ink from this morning's Stanford Daily has left the paper and bonded to his sweaty fingers, but Ben still looks thrilled.
"Really? Thanks, Sam." His mouth purses in a mischievous smile. He tears away the layers of newspaper and takes out the plastic case.
"It's a three-cd set," Sam says proudly; it cost half his first paycheck. "All Brazilian music," he continues when he only hears silence, and Ben's eyes lock onto his. A good gift wouldn't need any explanation, but he can't seem to stop babbling. "'Cause you were talking about watching Brazil beat Germany in the World Cup this summer, and . . ." he trails off, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks at Ben's confused gaze.
"Sam," Ben says quietly. He nudges Sam with his knee. "Sam. You motormouthed freak. I love it. Thanks."
When Sam looks back up, Ben's head is bowed and he's reading the track listing. "There's gotta be something on here I can make you dance to tonight," he mutters, and Sam punches his arm in sheer relief.
It must be a big game; the stands are packed with fans in red, one large pocket of yellow-clad people sticking out like a sore thumb. Sam smiles and introduces himself to Mark's girlfriend Val - tall, pretty, red hair - and bumps fists with Jorge and Dave and Jones. The Cardinals are in a tight huddle, arms slung fraternally over shoulders and around waists, and as they break apart into discrete pieces, he can see Ben, who's shed his formal clothes for a uniform that he wears like a second skin. The dark red draws out the gold from his brown skin, makes the white of his smile and the 5 printed just below his heart shine crisply.
He's got boundless energy, his long, strong legs efficiently eating up yards of Maloney Field, and Sam can see that the fluidity of his sturdy body is directed by a strategic mind; he's in the right place to block a shot or make a pass too consistently for mere luck. He's talking constantly, speaking only for the other boys in red; there's a buzz in the air that Sam is sure is his voice, even if the words are unintelligible from this distance, and it kicks up the excitement already palpable in the stands.
Ben goes flying after a nasty foul, landing in a crumpled heap, but he shakes it off while the crowd hisses its displeasure at the ref. His kick sends the ball arcing high and true, needing only the slightest deflection from his teammate's forehead to land in one corner of the goal.
He throws his head back and laughs, covered in sunlight and glory, every clean bright line of him picked out in brown and red and white.
Sam pushes open the front door, realizing from the way everyone pauses to look over that Ben isn't even there yet. Mark is in the back, a head taller than the rest of the crowd, and Sam makes his way past the food and knots of laughing people, trying not to knock a drink out of anyone's hand. "Where is he?" he asks, nodding when Dave holds up a bottle.
"It's the last home game of the season," Jorge yells over the pulsing music. "Soccer boys probably went out for a quick drink. And his parents were supposed to call at some point."
He doesn't bother to look over every time the front door opens, but he's pounding back his second quick beer when he hears the latch click and he turns to see Ben standing in the doorway. There's a general cheer, people shouting Ben's name and whooping it up, and he steps inside and shuts the door behind him.
Sam comes out from behind the kitchen counter in time to see Ben's face light up as a beautiful girl with caramel-colored skin walks into his arms. She's tall enough that her wide, mulberry-painted lips settle comfortably on Ben's as their arms wrap around each other. "Angie," Ben laughs delightedly; "you made it."
His mouth is stained with her lipstick, and Sam can see mulberry on the cheeks of every guy and girl who presses close to greet the birthday boy. Ben's voice is happy and warm, enveloping everyone in the house, and Sam finds his knees have locked. He leans against the counter for support, grabbing another beer from the fridge. He fumbles with the cap and looks down at his hands, concentrating on their labored movements.
"This for me or you?" he hears Ben say just as a slim-fingered hand closes around the bottle. His eyes move up, from old grey sneakers to worn-thin jeans stretched over strong thighs to a moss-green henley that pulls snugly across broad shoulders.
"It's mine, but you can have it, man," Sam mumbles, finally looking at Ben's wide smiling eyes. Ben's hair has had too many hands in it; it's sticking up in disordered tufts. "You can have everything. It's your birthday, isn't it?" There's still a smear of maroon on Ben's dark pink mouth, and there's red lipstick by his ear. Ben's face dims a little and Sam keeps talking because he really can't remember how to stop. "Nice shirt, by the way. That new?"
"Yeah, my sister sent it for my birthday," Ben says, peering up at him, dark grey eyes shining through his lashes. "You okay, Sam?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" He pushes away from the counter and nearly trips, saving himself only by throwing an arm around Ben's neck. His head hangs low and he breathes shallowly. "I don't feel so great," he admits.
"C'mon, Sam," Ben says, carrying most of his weight. "You just need some fresh air." Sam barely bothers to help, and Ben has a bad moment of trying to keep him upright while opening the back door. Sam's head lolls a bit and his nose presses against the soapy-smelling nape of Ben's neck.
"Sam. Sam, stay with me, man. How many beers've you had, anyway?" Sam leans his head against the back wall of the house and holds up two shaky fingers, wishing he'd eaten something before downing any alcohol. "Two? Two beers?" Ben's voice rings with disbelief. "Are you telling me two beers got you this wasted? Or are you flashing me a peace sign?" He sighs but relief seeps through his voice. "Built like a redwood, and such a lightweight."
"We're not at war, are we?" Sam slurs. He's getting awfully sleepy.
"Why would I make a peace sign unless we were fighting?"
"I don't know, man," Ben says, sounding amused again.
"We are fighting," Sam mumbles, shivering a little in the crisp breeze. He tries to point accusingly at Ben's face, at the evidence overly friendly lips have left on his skin, and ends up spearing the air a foot to the left. "Everybody got a birthday hug and kiss except me."
"Dude, it's my birthday," Ben says lightly, pushing him back so he can rest against the wall.
"Then lemme give you a hug," he says, leaning forward and pitching into Ben's arms. His wraps himself around the warm body holding his up, his cheek resting comfortably on Ben's thick, soft hair. "Hmmm," he hums contentedly as Ben rocks him gently while the air goes dusky and dark.
The knocking is so soft he wonders if he's imagining it. He opens his door, still drying his hair with a towel, and sees Sue. "Sorry," she says; "I'm early. I'm always early. I can wait out here in the hallway."
"Don't worry about it. Come on in." He stands out of the way while she limps through the doorway. He shuts the door and clears off his bed, hastily pulling up the covers and smoothing them out.
"Actually, a hard chair is better for me," she says, pointing to the sturdy wooden one tucked in at his desk. "May I?"
"Yeah, of course," he says, dropping the towel on the bed to pull the chair out for her. "I'm sorry."
"Not your fault," she says with a bright smile. "At least I can still walk." He can see sweat beading on her upper lip, so he hands her a bottle of water from Steve's small fridge. "Thanks." She drinks deeply, then caps the bottle and looks around the room. His walls are blank and the only things scattered around are books and clothes. She meets his eyes directly. "Looks like you're starting over too."
He's saved from answering by another knock on the door. Karla smiles brightly at him and breezes in, waving to Sue and settling herself on the bed. "Your pillow's all wet," she giggles and moves to the center of the bed.
He hangs up the towel and sits on the bed. Karla's pressed up against him, and Sam has to make an effort to keep his eyes on Sue's essay rather than on the toned, tan skin of Karla's thigh. She shifts, crossing her legs, and he jerks his eyes back to the paper lying limp in his hands.
When they trade papers again, Karla leans forward, and her shirt falls open enough for him to see how little she's wearing underneath it. He finishes reading her essay, adding commas haphazardly, watching her china-blue eyes track his comments on Sue's paper, her silver bracelet glinting as she makes her own notes in the margins.
The sound of Sue uncapping her bottle of water reminds him of her presence, and he looks over to see her eyes resolutely down. She braces herself to get off the chair in one movement, stern brown gaze pinning him to the bed when he starts to get up to help her. "I'm fine, Sam," she says, but he can see the tension in the set of her mouth. Karla looks up from the paper on her lap, eyes flicking back and forth between them, bracelet slipping down her arm as she runs her fingers through her sleek hair.
Sue stands, leaning one hip against the back of the chair, taking the essay Karla holds out. "Thanks," she says, dropping it in her bag and slinging the straps over her shoulders. "I should get going; see you guys on Monday." She makes her way to the door and closes it carefully behind her.
"Oh my God, what happened? Was she in an accident?" Karla leans into him to whisper as though Sue is lingering outside the door, eavesdropping.
"I don't know. I didn't want to ask." He can see right down her shirt again. He's always had a weakness for brainy blondes, looking like ice but feeling like fire. She leans back a little, meeting his eyes with a small and purposeful smile.
"So," she says, tilting her head, "what's the deal with the Spartan decor?" He frowns his confusion, so she elaborates, walking over to his desk, perching on it and letting her foot rest on his knee. "No pictures, no mementoes; you don't even have a beer-can pyramid."
He grins and follows the line of her trim leg with his eyes. "Sorry. I'll start working on that one right away. But don't I get points for minimalist decoration?"
She smiles sharply, baring her teeth. "Not if I find out you have a girlfriend and you only put her picture out when she visits."
"There is no girlfriend," he says, standing up and pulling her close. She tastes like peppermint, her hair runs through his fingers like water, and when they hit the bed, their essays crinkle loudly beneath them.
Karla's walls are covered in photographs he hasn't bothered to look at yet. While she's in the shower and he's still stretched out under her baby-blue duvet, her roommate packs up her stuff. "Bye," he says, and she stops and looks at him quizzically before closing the door behind her. He throws off the duvet and springs up to grab his jeans from the floor, fishing in the front left pocket for a stick of gum, and crawls back into bed.
When Karla comes back she's wrapped in a pink towel, smelling like peaches and gleaming from the water that streaks her tan skin. She drops the towel and stands in front of him, her eyes glinting at his morning erection. He lets his eyes sweep slowly over her, amazed again by the sight. She's got no tan lines at all, and just the thought of her bare to the sun and slick with lotion gets him breathing even faster.
He pulls her down on top of him, one hand heavy on her back. He licks her nipple and grins when she grinds down and starts to speak. They've got two hours before class, and he knows by now how to make this last.
Her hair shines on his pillow. Her eyes are screwed tightly shut and her voice has lost its sophisticated polish.
"Sam," she says, sounding strangled; "tongue." He spreads her thighs with his hands, licking at her, and her head thrashes from side to side as she digs her heels into the bed, muscles shaking under his palms.
"No, no," she finally groans, "I want your fingers," and he works one hand between her legs while he kisses her breasts. He's teasing her now, not giving her enough, keeping all of his touches whisper-soft, and she cries out in frustration; she likes giving orders, and he likes denying her by following them to the letter. It's been a few weeks, and she still hasn't caught on.
When he finally moves up her body and thrusts into her, her arms tighten around him in sheer relief. She doesn't need to speak now that she's getting what she wants, and she kisses his chin, digging her fingernails painfully into his shoulders when a clever motion of his hips pulls her climax from her.
She goes limp. He pushes into her a few last, urgent times and comes, burying his face in her scented hair. It's slick and cool like it has nothing to do with her tanned and sweaty body. Her eyes open, pale powder-blue like a misty mountain-top; lighter than Irene's, he thinks suddenly, and she frowns at him from underneath plucked brown eyebrows as if she read his thought.
He gets up to throw out the condom, and by the time he's turned back, she's already shimmied into her dress. He pulls on his underwear and jeans while she sits on the bed to work the straps of her sandals, then hands her her purse. Her goodbye kiss feels a lot like their first.
Karla's eyes have pretty much stopped issuing any invitations, so he's free tonight. He thinks about heading over to Matalind to see Irene, but the sky is filled with heavy black clouds and thunder rumbles threateningly. He picks up the pace and gets to his room to find it empty.
This would probably be a good time to do laundry, but he's feeling far too lazy for that. He scoops his dirty clothes off his desk and chair and walks to the closet to dump them in the blue duffel. His eye falls on the green canvas bag that's been sitting untouched in his closet since he shoved it in there back in September. The day before that, he'd been pulled into Dean's arms and felt a kiss - warm, soft lips surrounded by stubble - scrape briefly against the underside of his jaw; when he'd been released, this barracks bag was in his arms and he was turning dazedly to board the Greyhound bus, unable to see Dean through the dirt on the glass door and the glare on the Impala's windshield.
He sets his jaw and pulls the bag from its dark corner - he'd forgotten how heavy it is - and unties the drawstring that's still in one of Dean's neat knots. The stiff canvas sides mean he can't root around like he could in a duffel; he just has to take things as they come, reversing the order in which Dean buried them. The first thing he finds is a single piece of paper, torn messily from a spiral notebook. "Sammy" cuts diagonally across the faint blue lines in black marker, the S strong and the rest collapsing on itself in Dean's looped cursive. That's it, no note, no pearls of wisdom; just his name, and already he's sensing that he might not be able to get through this.
Three packages still in shrink-wrap come out next - one of white boxer-briefs, one of black t-shirts, and one of crew socks, the good kind where the elastic doesn't snap or give. He's never really liked doing laundry, having to relive all of their hunts through bloodstains and rips, and whenever his turn came up on the unbalanced schedule, Dean usually managed to find extra clothes they hadn't yet pulled from the packaging lying in a dresser drawer or at the bottom of a battered duffel.
There's a small brown envelope next, with his name printed on a white mailing label; it's what the report cards from his first high school used to come in, and inside it he finds several worn tens and twenties and fifties. He sets it down on top of the underwear and reaches into the bag again.
His hand closes on a cardboard box. He pulls it out and starts laughing. It's a large box of individually-wrapped condoms; he wishes he'd known about this before Irene, before he'd had to make that uncomfortable run, half-hard, to the pharmacy three blocks from Karla's dorm. He turns it over and over in his hands, but he can't find a note from Dean. There isn't one on the bag of rocksalt either but he has to admit that both items are pretty self-explanatory.
Next is the wooden box that Dean made in eighth-grade shop is next; he remembers how hard Dean had worked to make the lid airtight. The protective symbols look as fresh as if Dean'd just carved them. A few of the paperbacks they used to swap back and forth are tucked inside. Back in the bag, his hand encounters something soft. It's the red corduroy shirt they both liked to wear on fall mornings, on evening hunts. He shakes it out and the framed picture of Mom and Dad that Dean put on top of every dresser goes flying. He looks at her and sees Dean in the wide eyes and soft smile, the hand spread protectively on his father's chest. He turns it face down on top of the books.
Something is rolling loose inside the bag, and he fishes around for a minute before coming up with several rolls of quarters. He wonders if Dean imagined the coins being inserted into a washing machine or a pay phone. He wonders if Dean's number is the same as it was eight weeks ago, if he's still living in that little yellow house near the lake. He wonders if Dean's still waking up lonely.
He pulls the last item out, and the bag topples over, relieved of its duty. It's his baby blanket, its plush white fabric worn thin by repeated washings. The grass stains from its tenure as a cape during Dean's exuberant Batman phase never quite came out, but it's still whole. He peels back one corner to reveal a curved, razor-sharp blade; each fold cradles another weapon, a prime example of the Dean Winchester school of packing. He tests every blade with his thumb, inflicting small, painful cuts that sting but refuse to bleed, as if he's just skin and bones and nerves. He puts the sheet of looseleaf, the money, the blanket, the weapons, and the salt back in the bag and tucks it away in its corner of the closet. The books go on his desk, the quarters in the top drawer. The condoms go under his bed. The packages of clothes get tossed inside a dresser drawer on top of the photograph. He turns out the lights, gets under the covers, and lies awake, listening to the pounding of the rain.
He's never slept through a storm without Dean at his side, and he realizes that's still true; sleep eluded him the entire night. When his alarm sounds, his eyes are at half-mast. He shuffles to the bathroom, stumbles back to his room, and pulls on yesterday's jeans and the first shirt he can grab. He's looking around for his bag when he feels something heavy in his hand. He's palmed a roll of quarters, and he tightens his fist around it.
He worries the flap with his sliced-up thumb as he walks to the dining hall. There's a pay phone tucked in one corner of the lobby. He dials the number with quick sharp jabs and hears the operator's untroubled voice directing him to push his quarters into the slot. He cradles the phone against his shoulder and rips open the brown paper, pouring the coins into his palm. George Washington's profile, the bitterly precious word LIBERTY embossed above it instead of a crown, shines sternly against his hand as he considers the possibility that Dad will pick up. That he'll hear stony silence or another cutting lecture. No one can hold on to bitterness like John fucking Winchester. Even if he gets Dean on the line, Dad will know somehow, will make Dean pay all over again for his part in letting Sam go.
The operator's monotone drones in his ear again, echoing even after he hangs up the receiver and heads down the stairs to the cafeteria. It will be four years before he can see his brother again, and he hears her voice repeating relentlessly four years, four years, four years. He wants the time to fly away, wants to be safe again.
He wants Dean sitting across the table from him. His bacon and eggs and juice crumble to dust in his mouth.
"You've never seen Being John Malkovich? How is that possible?"
"I've never even heard of it," he says, pausing to watch all of the ways in which her indignation will manifest. Irene's rants are his favorite spectator sport.
Each point is being ticked off on her fingers like she's scolding him. "Okay, first of all: Catherine Keener is in it. And so is John Cusack. And -"
"And - let me guess - John Malkovich?" She's trying very hard to ignore him, walking a little faster now, as if her little legs are going to leave him in the dust. "You still haven't told me what it's about," he says in his most reasonable tone, steering her through the crowd outside the student center with a hand on her back.
She lights up again, and he finds himself smiling at how irrepressible she is. "It's about . . . identity. What makes you who you are. Who makes you who you are. Whose voice you hear in your head." She trails off as she stops in front of her mailbox and twirls the combination lock.
"Meet you by my box," he says, moving away, trying not to think about what she just said. He knows very well who made him into who he is, who wouldn't let him go without a kiss. What he doesn't know is why it's always Dad's unforgiving voice in his head instead of Dean's. He pounds his post office box with his fist before opening it.
There's a photocopied flyer inside, a single sheet of bright orange paper with a cartoon turkey strutting happily above a message in large block type. "In honor of Thanksgiving, all classes will be suspended after Tuesday, November 26. Classes will resume on Monday, December 2. All dormitories must be vacated by 6 p.m. on Tuesday, November 26. Dormitories will be re-opened at 6 pm on Sunday, December 1. Have a safe and happy holiday!"
Irene's purple hair catches his eye as she comes around the corner and he summons up a smile. She picks up right where she left off, relaying her favorite scenes from the movie, but her voice is just a buzz in his ear.
He's almost finished his Thursday afternoon shift at work when it hits him that he could probably stay in the SFS office over the break. The couches are pretty comfortable and it's not as if he's a stranger to sponge baths with liquid soap over restroom sinks, patting himself dry with rough paper towels. He's still got a few days to plan this all out - more than enough time to work out what exactly he needs.
He finishes entering the last set of figures and glances around the quiet office. He closes the spreadsheet and gets online, wondering if he can figure out what Dean's hunting this week, what his honed, precise weapons and bright, careless smile could be up against. Internet Explorer crashes immediately, and he shuts down his computer unsatisfied.
It turns out driving the Impala while your brother bleeds out on the back seat and your father keeps interrupting his prayers and first aid with curses (Goddamn you, Dean; don't you fucking die, please God) is actually excellent preparation for playing Project Gotham Racing on Dave's Xbox. He wonders if that's what it says on the box. Maybe he should go into marketing.
Then again, maybe not.
He hands his controller off to Jorge, who'd fallen silent once he saw Sam didn't actually need any advice, and heads through the kitchen to the bathroom. He's coming back, drying his hands off on his jeans, when he hears an odd quiet fall over the den. He peeks in and hears Ben say, "Angie deserves the best," holding a small dark box. Jones takes the box and opens it, and Sam can see the diamond ring shining triumphantly against black velvet.
"'Bout time, man," Jorge says, turning back to the game. Sam strides back into the den, snatches the controller back, and takes the first corner with complete recklessness, the car tilted dangerously on two wheels. Jorge slaps his head then crows, "Holy shit!" as the car lands safely, Sam's fingers maneuvering it deftly.
"So when are you gonna ask her?" Ben asks, and Sam promptly crashes his car.
"Right after the pumpkin pie," Jones says. "Thanks for holding on to this, man. I know she would have found it if I'd kept it at home." His raises his voice a little, verging on the melodramatic. "Now, if only Angie and I had a ride to the airport, I'd be all set."
"Subtle, dude," Mark snorts. "When's your flight?"
"Wednesday morning," Jones answers.
"Mine too," says Ben.
"Mine's Tuesday night, and these fuckers" - Mark points to Dave and Jorge, now playing head-to-head and crashing into each other every fifty yards or so - "are out of here even before me. So I can drive them and you can drive me, but . . ."
"I could drive you guys out on Wednesday morning," Sam says, surprising himself. He grins to cover his confusion and looks at Mark. "Would you trust me with Betsy?"
Mark opens his mouth, but Ben beats him to the punch. "When are you skipping town, Sam?"
"I'm, uh, sticking around, actually," he says, more to his sneakers than to any sentient being.
"Where?" Jones asks. "Don't the dorms kick y'all out?"
Sam shrugs, his head jerking up in surprise when Mark says, "Why don't you just stay here over the break? You know, house-sit?"
Ben's smiling at him. "Really?"
Mark points a meaty finger at him. "Yeah. But no touching Betsy except for airport runs. She's a one-man kind of girl."
Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday Sam counts off as he drops his last five clean pairs of underwear into the emptied blue duffel, counts again as he matches up pairs of socks, then once more for t-shirts. He throws in an extra pair of jeans. It's surprisingly hard to concentrate with Ben patiently answering all of Steve's questions about the horrors of the MCAT, their quiet voices weaving together as he tries to remember what he'll need from his room. Books, he remembers. If he can get through the last novel for McAllister's class and write at least the outline for his final history paper, he should be in pretty good shape. And he really should go through his pre-calc textbook again and see if it makes any sense this time around, so that he doesn't walk into next semester's calc class completely blind. He drops the books and his notebooks into the bag, slinging its long strap over his shoulder.
He turns to see Steve and Ben still deep in conversation. "Steve," Sam says, "have a good vacation, man."
Steve sticks his hand out for a shake. "See you in December, Sam. It was nice to meet you, Ben."
"I'll see you around," Ben says, following Sam out the door. They leave Cullen and walk downtown. "Nice guy, your roommate," Ben says.
"I guess." He's never really given it much thought, beyond being glad Steve's nothing he'd have to take care of.
"It makes a big difference, having a roommate you're friends with," Ben says; "I got lucky with Mark."
"When'd you meet him?"
"We were roommates freshman year; Sam and Jorge lived next door. And Dave was Jorge's lab partner, and his roommate was insane, so he ended up staying with us most nights."
"You've all been living together since freshman year?" He doesn't really know why he's so surprised; the guys are clearly close. Maybe it's just that Mark has been the least welcoming of all of them, the one he assumed was on the periphery of the group that revolved around Ben; the idea of strong bonds connecting all five throws that picture completely out of whack.
"Yup." They turn the corner, leaving the dorms behind, and the stores come into view. He sees the Tower Records where he bought Ben's birthday present. Ben nudges him as they cross the street. "That pizza place there? Does awesome slices. And they'll be open over break."
It hits him, then, that of course the dining halls won't be serving, and the cash in his wallet is minimal. A few blocks down he sees a grocery store and breathes a sigh of relief; a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a couple gallons of milk should see him through until classes start again. Next to it is a pharmacy.
"Shit," he says, nearly dropping his bag as it hits him. Ben peers worriedly up at him. "I forgot to pack my toothbrush." Ben's relieved smile makes him laugh. "Can I just . . . ?" he asks, heading across the street for the automatic doors.
He's always kind of liked pharmacies, arsenals for everyday life, with orderly rows of shampoo bottles and neat stacks of toothpaste. He finds a toothbrush and a stick of deodorant as he walks the aisles with Ben at his side. Heading for the register, he sees a sale bin holding packages of white boxer-briefs. Buy one, get one free; he likes that motto and he'll be out of underwear by the time the break's over, so he snags two packages and smiles at the girl with a name he can't pronounce.
Ben's keys jingle in his hand, and as he pushes the front door open he says over his shoulder, "Nobody wanted to cook today, so there's probably take-out in the kitchen. You can drop your stuff by the couch and grab a plate." He's pulling his cell phone out of one pocket as he shoves his keys back into the other. "I'm just gonna call my folks."
Sam kicks his duffel between the legs of the end table next to the couch and follows his nose to the kitchen. The entire counter is covered in disposable aluminum containers, mostly empty now. It looks like some kind of Asian food, and he doesn't really know what's what, but he gets a plate from the cabinet and puts a little of everything on it. He sits down at the table and begins to eat. Mark comes down the stairs, bellowing over his shoulder. "Five minutes or you're missing your flights!" he warns, stepping into the kitchen and seeing Sam. "Hey, man," he says.
"Hey," he says around a mouthful of spinach and fiery chicken and rice. He remembers that it was Mark who extended the invitation to stay. "You all packed?"
"Yeah." Mark scrubs a hand through his short blond hair. "I am, but those two kept insisting it would only take ten minutes, and it's been an hour. When they come down, tell them I'm waiting outside, okay?"
Sam nods and turns back to his food. Ben strolls into the kitchen with his phone tucked against one shoulder. "I love you," he says, then laughs. "See you tomorrow. Bye." He hangs up and looks at Sam. "Gimme one sec; just want to confirm my flight." Sam watches Ben punching numbers into his tiny silver phone and takes another bite.
His mouth is suddenly on fire. "Gaaaahhhhh!" he slurs, spitting the mouthful back on his plate. He jumps up to get a glass of water, anything, and startles when he feels Ben's hand on his arm. Through teary eyes he can see Ben holding a spoon out to him. The moment he closes his lips around the spoon, he feels relief; something cool and soothing slips down his throat. He swallows and blinks away the tears. Ben's still holding the container, and he peers inside and sees yogurt studded with small bits of tomato and cucumber. He looks up, sees Ben is still on hold, and whispers, "Thanks," as he drops the spoon in the sink. He sits back down and pushes his fork through the mess on his plate, spotting a wicked-looking maroon pepper. "Never again," he says as Jorge and Dave gallop down the stairs, bags in hand, shouting goodbyes.
Ben finally hangs up and gets a plate for himself. "Sam," he says, spooning mound after mound of unidentifiable food on his plate, "there's a trick to eating Indian food; didn't anyone ever tell you?" He gets out another spoon for the yogurt concoction and sets it by his plate on the table. "This stuff'll save your life," he says, nodding wisely, and the roar of Betsy's engine cuts off whatever he says next.
"Mark, Sam'll be fine," Ben says patiently as he maneuvers around the airport traffic. He catches a glimpse of Mark's face, set in unhappy lines. "I mean, Betsy will be fine; Sam will treat her right."
Sam nods solemnly, trying to convey his appreciation for the trust being bestowed upon him. He catches Ben's eye in the rearview mirror and fights a grin. Mark's swiveled all the way around in the passenger seat to assess Sam's fitness once more. Mark sighs and nods reluctantly. Ben pulls up at the curb and the two of them get out to wrestle Mark's luggage out of the capacious trunk. Looking in the mirror, Sam can see the trunk being slammed shut and the guys breaking apart from a hug and Ben comes back around and settles himself in the passenger seat. "Let's see how you do, Sam," he says, and Sam scrambles to get behind the wheel.
After opening the front door and stepping into the house, Ben cocks his head, listening to the murmur of expressive voices, and turns to Sam with a bright smile. "I love this episode!" he says, racing to the den, already giggling at the Simpsons rerun Jones and Angie are watching.
He stands behind the couch and pushes Jones aside, wrapping his arms around Angie and kissing her forehead when she wordlessly tilts her face up for him. "You guys hungry?" he asks when the commercials begin. "We ordered pretty much the whole menu from Bombay Palace. Going once, going twice . . . ."
When nobody says anything, Ben turns to Sam and shrugs. "Looks like the leftovers are yours, then. Just watch out for chili peppers." Sam follows him as he goes to the kitchen to put away all the food, humming as he tosses the empty aluminum containers in the trash, pausing just long enough to say, "Garbage collection is Saturday morning, by the way, and they come early." He finds lids for the half-full containers and stacks the food in the fridge. "Anything in here is fair game. Just don't eat the pasta unless you're desperate; Jorge did a little experimenting."
Sam wets a paper towel and wipes down the counter and table. "I can do the dishes tomorrow," he offers.
"Thanks, man." Ben smiles, and they go back to the den to watch John Waters save Homer's life with a tiny robot Santa.
Ben yawns and stretches and heads for his room, mumbling a sleepy good night as he goes. "Baby, we should get to sleep," Angie says; "we gotta be out of here way too early." She turns to Sam. "In case I'm too tired tomorrow morning to remember, let me say thanks now for driving us to the airport." She nudges Jones with her shoulder. "Up," she orders as she stands, leaning back down to kiss him when he makes no move to comply. "At least tell me where the sheets and blankets are, you lazy ass," she smiles.
He realizes that Angie and Jones are planning to sleep on the sofabed, and he doesn't know where that leaves him. While Angie is rummaging through the closet, he pulls his duffel out from under the end table and walks up the stairs. Only one room - the last one on the left - has a light on, so he makes his way down the hall. The door is partially open, but he knocks anyway, and it slides open a little more from the pressure of his hand.
Ben's taken off his shirt and is balling it up and throwing it in the direction of his closet. It falls short, and Sam grins. "Told you you were a sucky quarterback."
"Hey, Sam. What's up?" Ben asks, kicking the shirt into his laundry bag.
He shifts a bit, suddenly aware of how big a favor Ben and his roommates have already granted him. "Um, it looks like Sam and Angie are gonna be sleeping on the pull-out couch," he says. "I didn't know where I should bunk."
"Oh." Ben bites his lip. "Well, I didn't ask any of the others if you could sleep in their rooms, and if the den's taken, then . . . you could sleep in here with me."
"Are you sure?" Sam asks, relief rushing through him; there's no way he'd be able to find a motel room he could afford.
"You don't kick, do you?" Ben asks. "Or hog the covers?" Sam shakes his head. "Then we're fine. I'm gonna go pee; make yourself at home."
Sam pulls the pharmacy bag from his duffel and liberates his new toothbrush from its plastic shell. He hears a flush, then running water, and he scrambles to find a free corner to shove his duffel into. Ben comes back, his face scrubbed clean and rosy; he's wearing metal-rimmed glasses and has his jeans draped over one shoulder. "Bathroom's all yours," he says; "second door on the left. If you need to borrow a towel, they're on the top shelf."
The bathroom's not as clean as lots of motel bathrooms, but it's nice, using a space that is clearly part of a home and doesn't smell like industrial-strength bleach. He takes his time brushing his teeth, then deposits his white brush next to Ben's orange one in the chipped Marvin the Martian mug next to the sink.
He walks back to the bedroom and sees Ben leaning over the bed, shaking out the top sheet so it billows like parachute silks, straightening it but leaving it untucked. He smoothes the sheets down with his hands and straightens the crumpled blanket. Sam walks toward his bag, lying in front of the closet. He pulls off his shirt and drops it in the bag. His hands are on his fly when he realizes that sleeping in the same bed is totally different from sleeping in the same room, ridiculous as it sounds. "Ben," he says hesitantly, "I, uh, didn't bring anything to sleep in." He's never even owned pajamas; he slept in boxers or thermals, depending on the weather, and always had Dean's heat at his side or in the next bed over.
Ben's face is blank for a long moment. Then he says curiously, "Damn, Sam, what did you remember to pack in that heavy-ass bag of yours?"
He grins to sell the lie. "Porn. Lots and lots of porn."
"Well alright then," Ben laughs. "Um, in the closet, bottom right shelf. Should be a pair of sleep pants." Sam goes digging and pulls out dark blue drawstring pants emblazoned with a pattern of orange soccer balls and yellow bolts of lightning; he holds them up and makes a face. "Shut up. My sister gave 'em to me." Sam slips off his jeans quickly and hastily pulls the cotton pants on. The cuffs are about four inches above his ankles, thanks to yet another growth spurt, and he knows he must look ridiculous, but when he looks back over at Ben, Ben's sort of frowning gently. "I wonder where my red ones are?" Ben mutters as he stands next to Sam and rummages through the shelves. He finds a faded pair, soft red plaid, and steps into them gracefully. "Hit the lights; we gotta be up at the ass-crack of dawn."
Sam lies down and pulls the flat sheet, softer than he's used to, up over his chest. He looks up at the ceiling and hears Ben breathing quietly next to him. He turns so he's lying on his side, moving as carefully as possible, and the last thing he remembers is Ben murmuring, "I thought you said you wouldn't steal the covers, Sam."
It's weird, sitting around a house all day, being able to walk from room to room, following the sunlight and napping in puddles of it instead of cleaning weapons or doing research or enduring calisthenics. He eats bowl after bowl of corn flakes, letting the dishes accumulate in the sink. He flips through all hundred and fifty channels twice in rapid succession, settling on cartoons. Tomorrow, he'll get started on all of his work. Tomorrow.
The campus is suddenly packed with people again; he doesn't miss the quiet of the long holiday weekend one bit. "Sam!" he hears just before Irene jumps on his back like a hyperactive six-year-old. "You doing anything tonight?"
"No. I was just going to stare at the walls of my room and go catatonic."
"Sarcasm needs a light touch, Sam," she chides as she slides down. "I'll pick you up after my rehearsal tonight."
The heavy backpack she's carrying when she knocks on his door makes her looks more academic than he's ever seen her. "No, you can't carry my bag," she says when he reaches his hand out to her. "You're like a cave man, I swear. Just come on."
He tugs on her ponytail. "I know better than to ask where we're going."
She beams up at him. "A smart cave man," she amends cheerfully. She leads the way out, past the dorms, finally stopping in the middle of the deserted quad. She slings the backpack off and rolls her shoulders before pulling out a blanket. She spreads it out on the grass and seats herself, patting the spot next to her. Once he's sitting beside her she digs in the bag again and pulls out rolls, cheese, lunch meat, and bottles of water. "Get cracking, man; do I have to do everything myself?" she says, so he starts to make her a ham-and-cheese sandwich. She takes several quick bites and flops onto her back contentedly. "This is the life." She turns to look at him. "I missed you, Sam."
"After less than a week?" he scoffs, his eyes sliding away from her face.
She rolls her eyes. "I forgot you were such a boy," she says, finishing her sandwich with one gargantuan bite. "Just for that, no candy for you."
He pulls the bag away from her before she can even get a hand on it, surprised by how heavy it still is. "Jeez, Irene, no joke, how did you carry this?" He peers in and sees several slabs of chocolate and more bottles of water.
She kicks him in the shin. "I'm stronger than I look, Sam."
"What are we doing out here?" he finally asks.
"Spending some time together."
He lies down next to her while she tells him the latest news from Plainfield, Oregon, and he thinks he can remember the tiny house with the curving floorboards, the wet ocean breezes that they trained in, and the way Dean's bare toes would curl as he made omelets in the chilly kitchen.
They talk the whole night through, trading dirty jokes and gossip. The sunrise is pearly rather than brilliant and Irene's mouth tugs down. "It followed me. Stupid storm. Rained all of Thanksgiving and now it's going to rain here too?"
He looks up at the sky. "Not today," he says and feeds her the last rectangle of chocolate. He gathers all of their trash while she folds up the blanket and packs it away and then he gives her a piggyback ride home.
Jorge's lining up his corner kick when it starts to rain, a slow and steady drizzle. Sam looks up to see Mark's panicked face. "I left Betsy's top down!" Mark calls as he runs off the field, breaking up the game.
"Leave it, man," Ben says, as Jorge bends to pick up the ball; "I'm gonna run some drills." Jorge shrugs and jogs off with Dave and Jones. Sam watches as Ben toes the ball up and bounces it on his legs methodically - thigh, thigh, knee, shin, ankle, toe - one leg at a time, manipulating the ball down and back up, then keeping the ball aloft as he switches between the inside of each foot and the outside. The tapping of the ball in play is steady like a metronome, Ben's body shifting precisely to achieve perfect balance with each new maneuver. When the ball finally comes to rest between Ben's feet, Sam whistles in admiration and Ben whirls to face him. "Sam," he says, clearly surprised, "I thought you took off. Sorry, man - did you want to keep playing?"
"No," he shrugs; "just didn't feel like going home yet." He shakes his damp hair out of his eyes as best he can. "I can help you run your drills, if you want," he offers lamely, clumsily cradling the ball with his feet as Ben sends it to him in a smooth pass.
All he has to do is throw or kick the ball; he doesn't even have to aim, since Ben wants to improve his anticipation and his reaction time, and is running around like a maniac, bursting with energy. The rain has gotten harder, and there's a chill in the air, but it's sweat that makes Sam's shirt cling to him.
He's marveling at Ben's grace when Ben's foot slips in the mud and he goes sliding a few yards on his belly. He doesn't get up, just shakes silently, and Sam tries to remember splinting procedures as he runs over. "Ben?" he asks anxiously, getting a hand on his shoulder and turning him face up, fingers tightening as the quivers continue.
Ben's laughing, glee so strong he's gone nearly silent. Sam takes one look at him and lets himself collapse too, giggling like a loon as he lies in the mud. They lie like that for long moments, gradually getting themselves under control.
"Dude," Sam says, flinging out his arm. His fingers brush the inside of Ben's elbow and his words are lost as Ben rolls off his back.
Sam blinks and Ben is hovering just above him, grey eyes looking like silver bullets as the storm continues, keeping the rain off Sam's face. And then Ben dips his head, catching Sam's lower lip in his teeth with a touch soft as silk, letting it slip through the tender grasp of his own lips. Sam winds his arms around Ben's neck without thinking, and Ben's weight is pushing him into the mud-soft ground.
Before Sam can get used to the feel of Ben's lips against his, before he can open his mouth and let his tongue slide against Ben's, Ben pulls back, stands up, and reaches down to help him up. The rain beats sharply against his face, stinging his brain back to life. He's not sure how he ended up here, splayed out in the mud and breathless from his friend's mouth. He's not even sure if he should be angry or apologetic but he takes Ben's hand automatically and lets himself be hauled to his feet.
He can feel mud inside his jeans, a slow wet slide, and he drops Ben's hand and hears him say something. He squelches along, one step behind Ben, walks numbly up the front porch steps and into the house. Ben takes off his shoes and socks, pulls off his shirt, and steps out of his shorts. He gathers everything up and heads for the stairs, turning to look for Sam, still dripping dumbly in the foyer. "C'mon, Sam," he says, "I thought you said you were cold." And suddenly a hot shower sounds like the best idea in the world, so he kneels and struggles with his tight, wet shoelaces and wrestles himself out of his clingy clothes and follows Ben up the stairs. He stands in the doorway and lets Ben take his muddy clothes and replace them with a soft bundle, then push him gently toward the bathroom. He drops the bundle on the counter and peels off his wet underwear.
The hot water is fantastic, and he feels almost human again as the mud slips down the drain. He scrubs at his hair and skin and stands under the spray while reaching a long arm out to pull a folded towel from the top shelf of the built-in hutch.
The bundle on the counter turns out to be the sleep pants he wore last week, a brand-new pair of black boxer-briefs, an unfamiliar green shirt, and a neatly folded pair of socks. He dries off and gets dressed and Ben passes him silently in the hall.
He sits on Ben's bed and waits. Ben comes back wearing his red pajama bottoms and a bright yellow shirt with "Tanglewood" printed across it. He sits next to Sam, flexing his bare feet. Sam watches his brown toes curl. "Why did you . . ." he starts, but when he meets Ben's eyes, wide and hopeful behind his glasses, he chickens out. "Why did you need to run drills? Season's over, you don't have to be doing that much work."
Ben looks away and nods, then shrugs, his lips tightening. "It's not work if you love it," he says simply.
Sam makes a fist. He can do this. "Why . . . why did you stop?" He can't quite bring himself to finish, but the important stuff, the meat of the question, is out there.
"Because I want you to be sure," Ben answers him, eyes down.
Sam spends the silence that follows wanting Ben to raise his eyes, lift those long lashes, and pin him with a silvery gaze. But when he leans forward to kiss Ben and those big eyes flutter shut, disappointment is the last thing on his mind.
"Dude! What's Manny gonna think if we show up without you?" Dave complains.
"That you're looking to get all liquored up on his dime?" Ben hypothesizes, and Sam laughs at the deadpan response.
"True, but you're the one who's actually friends with him," Jorge points out.
"He likes you guys," Ben protests, then changes tactics. "Anyway, it's not like he's going to notice I'm not there. You know how crowded his blow-outs get." He stretches his legs, resting his feet on the coffee table, and drapes his arms along the top of the couch. He wriggles happily into the cushions. "I'm not going anywhere tonight."
"Hey, you guys ready?" Mark asks, coming down the stairs. He shepherds Jorge and Dave out the door. "Later," he calls as he pulls the door shut.
"You know . . ." Ben says, and Sam wonders how he can fit all that wicked promise into two little words, "we never did figure out what we wanted to do tonight."
"I thought you knew," Sam says, pinning Ben beneath him.
"Oh, here we go again with another From Here to Eternity moment."
Ben sighs. "Sam, man, have you been living in a cave all your life?"
"No," he sulks.
Ben leans up to kiss his frown away, but it reappears when Ben climbs off the couch. "I'm starving. You hungry, Sam?"
Except for the heavy patter of rain, the house is quiet when Ben finally comes to bed, and Sam latches onto him instantly, lying half on top of him, covering his mouth with his own. Ben's mouth is hot and wet and makes Sam feel like he's dissolving. Ben's tongue against his makes him shiver, and Ben rolls them over, moving his lips down Sam's neck.
Sam's hands feel heavy and clumsy as they slip under Ben's shirt to stroke his broad back; the skin he touches is like velvet. He squeezes Ben's ribs involuntarily when Ben's tongue swipes at his Adam's apple, again when Ben bites gently on his earlobe. "Oh . . . you . . ." he mumbles, unsure of how Ben knows those spots when he wasn't even aware of their sensitivity. His fingers are digging into the soft skin just below the waistband of Ben's stupid red pants, trapped between elastic and heavy muscles. They slip free when Ben slides down a bit, one warm palm on his belly, plucking at his shirt questioningly.
It feels like the first dive into the deep end of a pool, pressure hammering at him from every angle. He pulls frantically at his own shirt, finally just holding his arms up so Ben can slip it off; his hands land on the bright fabric of Ben's infuriating shirt, but Ben strips it off before Sam can tear into it.
He pulls Ben back down, tangling their legs and pressing their mouths together. This time, Sam bites down, turns the kiss rough, and Ben eases his hands up Sam's arms, shoulders, and neck, so that he's cupping Sam's face as he gentles the kiss. Ben's fingers, long and strong, are buried in his hair, teasing his scalp, and Sam can feel himself starting to tremble again.
He shifts, pinning Ben beneath him once more, determined to make him shake. He licks along Ben's throat and tries the Adam's apple trick, but Ben's fingers keep threading through his hair serenely. It's only when he laps at the hollow of Ben's throat that Ben jumps, pressing his leg firmly between Sam's. His grinning bite on Ben's collarbone earns him a painful twist of his hair.
When he starts to kiss his way down Ben's chest, fingertips hovering at his waistband again, though, Ben gets his strong thighs around Sam's ribs and says, "Sam, we have to stop." His voice is nearly breathless. "I don't have any condoms."
He presses his face into Ben's belly and growls. "Are you serious?"
"I wouldn't lie to you, Sam," Ben whispers. "I'm sorry. It's just been a while." His hands are making apologetic strokes up and down Sam's arms. He pushes the hair off Sam's face and brings him down with soft kisses and little touches, cradling him until Sam feels his bones go liquid, his weight sinking into Ben. Ben rolls to the side and Sam slides off him; he tucks his face against Ben's neck, kissing it once more before he drifts off to sleep.
It's only when he's in the shower, quietly and efficiently jerking himself off, that he realizes there were plenty of other ways last night could have ended. There are lots of things they could have done that don't require a condom, especially since he trusts Ben. Ben's been treating him like some blushing virgin, like he isn't the guy who kept up with Karla for weeks and had Steve gaping admiringly. He can certainly handle Ben, who's apparently perfectly content to stay safely at second base.
His grip on himself fumbles when he thinks about third base. He's never once thought about what it might feel like to take someone else's dick in his hand or down his throat. He doesn't know what being in another guy's mouth would be like. It's a whole different ballgame, and he can't even see home plate; this, with its top or bottom and spit or swallow questions, is a thinking man's game. He tries to consider the options but he has no context at all, so he shuts off his brain, strokes himself surely, and steps out of the shower after cleaning himself off.
He examines his own body as he dries off, trying to think logically. He's never liked getting into a situation without knowing what exactly to expect; too much can spiral out of control too quickly. But this is Ben, who makes everything as easy and comfortable as breathing. Ben, who he liked long before they kissed. Who'd never given any indication that he'd wanted to kiss Sam until their mouths had fit together and they tumbled into each other. Who's done this before. Who, with his euphoric kisses, was giving him time to figure things out. Ben, it hits him, is being patient.
He steps back into the bedroom and sees his clothes from yesterday in a warm, dry pile on the bed and Ben doing homework at his desk. It would have been so easy for Ben to let the momentum keep carrying them along. He wraps his arms around him, rests his chin on Ben's shoulder, and says, "I love second base." Ben turns his head to face him. "You make me feel safe," he says like he's auditioning for the female lead in some schlocky flick. Ben smiles up at him, his eyes warm and bright.
His life right now is coffee in the computer lab and coffee in the library, final exams and final papers looming large over him. He knows more about Thomas Aquinas than he does about his own roommate. The conjugations of fifty-seven irregular French verbs have taken up residence in his brain.
He steals a sip of Ben's coffee, wrapping his hands around the mug. "How long is Christmas break?"
"Three weeks," Sam parrots back. "You and me alone in this house for three weeks. I kind of like the sound of that." He nudges Ben's shoulder, takes a bite of his bagel. "You okay, man?"
"Yeah," Ben smiles. "Just waiting to hear my parents' flight landed safely." He adds more milk to his corn flakes and checks his watch again. "Don't you have a French final to get to?" he asks, slicing the rest of his banana and tilting his head back for Sam's hurried kiss goodbye.
He's feeling drugged from Ben's hands, all firm palms and trailing fingers, dizzy from Ben's kisses, when he laps like a kitten at the hollow of Ben's throat.
Ben's hips stutter and his strong fingers pull Sam back up to his mouth. "I've got you," he murmurs, rolling them over and kissing Sam senseless. Sam's tongue feels too large for his mouth, and his jaw hangs open as Ben traces an irregular path down his chest, licking and biting and kissing, his hands wrapped around Sam's waist and his thumbs sketching small circles on his skin. Sam lifts his hips involuntarily when Ben's tongue traces his lower left rib, and Ben slides Sam's underwear down, plucking it free of Sam's legs with his clever feet.
He's completely naked, and Ben is looking at him, up and down from head to toe. His dick only keeps rising under Ben's gaze, and he blushes and reaches for Ben's black boxer-briefs. "No fair," he mutters, working them down, and Ben shimmies a bit to help but stays silent. Now there are no barriers between them and his heart is pounding like a jackhammer and he wants Ben to keep looking at him with those big adoring eyes while somehow also closing them and concentrating on using his talented fingers and beautiful mouth.
He gets his wish. Ben strokes one wide hand down his sternum and spreads Sam's bent legs, settling himself between them and caressing his knobbly knee. He can see just a flash of Ben's pink, eager tongue before that luscious mouth closes around the head of his cock.
By the time he opens his eyes again, Ben's have shut, long eyelashes resting above the hollows of his cheeks. His tongue is tracing ridges, his throat is opening, and Sam can barely remember his own name. He comes in a blind rush, choking and gasping.
Ben's soft kisses, dropped high on the insides of his thighs, bring him around. He can feel Ben's shoulder moving in a steady rhythm, and he spreads his legs wider to see Ben holding his own dark, flushed cock, stroking it slowly. He twists his hips, turning them both to the side, and reaches his hand down. Ben keeps one thigh between Sam's but lets his hands meet behind Sam's neck.
Holding someone else's dick is like staying in that disorienting upside-down moment on a rollercoaster. He has to remember to reverse all of his regular motions, the snap of the wrist, the flicker of callused fingers, the stroke of the palm. The more slowly he moves, the faster Ben breathes, and when Ben's eyes get wide and he crushes Sam to him, Sam can feel stickiness from his elbow to his fingertips.
"Too many delivery boys have seen me in my underwear in the past two weeks, Sam," Ben says.
"Lucky them," Sam dismisses.
"We have got to get out of the house and buy groceries." Ben pouts, but ruins the effect when he can't keep a straight face. "C'mon, man, no one's asking you to cook." He starts making a grocery list. "You don't even have to come; I know what you like."
But Sam is not going to let Ben out of his sight, not when he's wearing that soft green henley that outlines his shoulders and stretches across the firm planes of his chest. "You just want to race shopping carts with the blue-haired ladies."
"Well, I am a thrill-seeker," Ben agrees absently as he adds a few more items to the list.
Trailing behind Ben as they walk through the aisles, Sam chalks up another point in the shirt's favor; it hangs a scant few inches past his waistband, allowing a clear view of Ben's muscular legs and curved ass. He sticks his hand in Ben's back pocket and Ben smiles, kisses him quick behind the ear, and turns to frown contemplatively at the rows of cereal boxes. "Do you even eat anything except corn flakes?" Sam asks, pulling his hand free to snag a box from the top shelf and toss it in the cart.
"Yes," Ben says, managing to sound indignant, but Sam stops hearing him the moment he spots the Apple Jacks box.
"You want to tell me the Apple Jacks story, Sam?" Ben asks.
He blinks, confused by the request. "You mean, the story of how they were invented? I don't know, man."
Ben just keeps looking at him. "No, I mean the story about why you haven't said a word since you saw the box on the shelf. What's going on with you?"
"What do you mean?" he stalls. He pulls out his biggest grin. "Sorry, man; we haven't exactly been doing a lot of sleeping, and I guess I just got tired."
Ben's face is dimming, his eyes stretched wide and sad and serious. Sam takes a shot at saying what he can. "I . . . I didn't think they had Apple Jacks in California." He hopes that's enough, that Ben will subside, let things remain unspoken.
Ben gives him another long look and then turns away. "Sandwiches okay for dinner?" Sam nods, relieved that Ben isn't pushing. "I need to work up an appetite. I'm gonna go run drills."
Sam sits silently at the kitchen table, hating that something so small triggered such an intense reaction from him, wondering when the fallout from being John Winchester's son will end. And he suddenly resents that Ben has been patient about this too, never once asking why it is that he has nowhere to go when the dorms close, or prodding for information in vulnerable moments. All that he's ever told Ben is his name, and that was apparently enough to earn him a seat at the table and a place in his bed.
If Ben wants to know, then he's about to get an earful. He has no right to be so trusting.
He finds Ben in the park, lining up goal kicks and aiming for the top corners of the net, each kick a little less tense, a little more instinctive, until he's moving not to forget but for the sheer pleasure of it.
Sam keeps walking until he's close enough to see the flush on Ben's brown cheeks. "Ben." Ben spins, smiling and squinting in the sunlight, and Sam is struck again by how much he envies his innocence; Ben doesn't fall into a fighting stance when someone approaches, doesn't have a knife hidden on his body.
The words start pouring out of him like he wants to smear them all over Ben, pull him down to a place where "family" means more than shared toothpaste or smiling snapshots. "My mom was killed when I was a baby and my dad went crazy because of it and we moved all the time. We crisscrossed the whole country maybe a dozen times, enough to know what kinds of cereal and cold cuts they'd have in New England but wouldn't have heard of at the Four Corners. And when we were in New Jersey, this one fall, we got free school lunches and my brother used to save his milk and sometimes swipe some extra cartons so we could have Apple Jacks for dinner. And the milk would always be a little sour from sitting in his locker, but that was the best he could do since Dad was gone most of the time."
He can still remember how often the thick paper of the cartons would refuse to rip, how Dean would sometimes let him hold the knife and slice them open, his fingers guiding Sam's on the handle. He remembers Dad stumbling back into the apartment over the garage, two weeks late, his side ripped open, yelling for Sam to lay down salt and for Dean to administer first aid.
Ben sits in the grass, traps the soccer ball between his feet. "Where was your dad?" he asks quietly.
"Fuck if I know. Not with us." His throat is clenched tight as his fists.
"And where is he now?"
"Probably trying again to complete his suicide mission, maybe make it a two-for-one deal, a double blaze of glory." He's not sure if his legs will take him the length of the field at this point.
"Sam," Ben says, waiting until their eyes meet. "What's your brother's name?"
"Dean," he says, and sinks to the ground.
He lets Ben strip him down to his underwear and put him to bed when they get home, and he's almost asleep when Ben finally crawls in next to him. He doesn't say anything or turn to face him, but he reaches behind him and draws Ben's arm around his waist.
He can feel Ben's warm body pressing up against his back, and he opens his legs, letting one of Ben's slide between his. Ben presses a kiss between his shoulder blades and he's out like a light.
When he wakes up, Ben's arm is still snug around him, dark gold in the wash of sunlight. He turns, suddenly ravenous, and he bites down sharply on one of Ben's collarbones. Ben's choked sigh tells him everything he needs to know, and he nudges Ben's legs apart to settle between them. He braces himself with a hand by Ben's waist and licks a long slow line up the underside of his cock. He uses his mouth and teeth and fingers, rough but not uncertain, merciless even after Ben shudders. He frees his mouth long enough to catch Ben's dazed eye and say, "Ready?"
Ben nods after a moment, twisting awkwardly to pull a condom and a small bottle out; he rips open the little square packet. "Come here," Ben says, and Sam crawls up the bed, kneeling in front of Ben and canting his hips. Ben drops a kiss on the head of his dick and rolls the condom on. He pulls one of Sam's hands to him, squirts some lube on his fingers, and guides the hand to his entrance.
And suddenly the heady feeling of mastery leaves him. He closes his eyes. His fingers are cold and wet and Ben is spread out before him and he has no idea what to do next. Ben's hand is brushing the hair back from his face, then looping around his neck to pull him down. Ben kisses him for long moments, wrapping his legs around him and cradling him close.
When Sam sits up, he pulls Ben with him. He reaches for the bottle and wets his fingers again. He pushes one careful finger into Ben, waiting until Ben lets his lower lip slide free of his teeth before pulling free and pushing it back in. "More," Ben whispers; "you have to stretch . . ." his voice drops away as his back arches at the second finger inside him. He splays his fingers as best he can, though the pressure Ben's body is exerting against them is immense. Ben's own fingers are digging painfully into his shoulders, and his heels are pressing heavily against the small of his back. He fumbles for a few moments, losing precious seconds after he pulls out three stiff fingers and before he remembers there's no lube on his dick. But Ben is lying pliant and warm beneath him, smiling up at him when he lines himself up.
He pushes all the way in on one steady stroke, tearing noises from Ben's throat, and going still at the sensation. "Sam, Sam, Sam," Ben is chanting, so he draws back slowly and thrusts forward more quickly, setting a rhythm. Ben is bucking underneath him and Sam only has time to look at his flushed face once before he comes and collapses on Ben in a tangled heap of limbs.
"How is he stressed already?" Irene whispers. "The new semester starts tomorrow."
"That's just Steve's gift," Sam says. "Come on, I know where we can hang out. There's someone I want you to meet." He leads the way to Ben's house, unlocking the front door and almost running smack into Mark.
He's never seen Mark so pleased to talk to him. "Win!" he smiles, completely missing Irene, tucked against Sam's back. "Ben's in my room." He gestures vaguely at the second floor of the house. "Checking email, I think. See you, dude." He claps Sam on the shoulder as he leaves the house, and Sam locks the door automatically behind him.
He leads Irene up the stairs and finds Ben sitting in front of an expensive-looking computer. He bends down for a quick, firm kiss and then glances behind him. "Irene, this is Ben. Ben, this is my friend Irene; we went to high school together. Briefly."
Irene is a consummate actress; she doesn't blink an eye at the revelation. Sam realizes disbelievingly that she actually looks thrilled. She smiles her big pixie smile at Ben and gets an even bigger grin in return. "Have a seat," Ben says, pointing politely to the bed and pulling Sam on his lap. "So, high school, huh? Was he a big goober then too?"
"Oh, no." Irene shakes her head. "He was just a wee little goober then." She looks at Sam. "You grew, what, six inches after you moved?"
"Nine," he grins, smacking Ben's thigh sharply; he should have known that putting these two together was just asking for trouble. He turns back and sees his name on the screen; Ben's writing an email to his sister.
". . . Oregon," he hears Irene say as he turns away from the monitor, "but I spent Christmas break in Virginia. I stayed with my sister and spoiled her kid. I am so going to be Lola's favorite aunt."
"How old is she?" Ben asks.
"Sixteen months. She's just starting to walk, and you know how babies walk like their heads are too heavy for the rest of their bodies?" She jumps up to demonstrate, and he can see Ben fall for her charm as she waddles around like a penguin. "She's just the cutest thing ever, I swear. And so tiny."
"You thought she was tiny?" Sam asks, nearly losing his seat when Ben jostles his legs and smiles sweetly at him, already Irene's defender. Irene digs in her bag and pulls out a picture. Irene and Lola are facing the camera with huge matching smiles, their hair in identical pigtails, but all Sam sees for a moment is the vulnerability of that small body, the tremendous effort it must take to keep it warm and safe and happy. Dean did that for him, kept doing it even when he didn't know how.
Irene plucks the photo from his hand and he snaps out of his trance, turning to face Ben as best he can. "Dude, what is up with Mark? He almost hugged me just now, and I didn't even think he liked me."
Ben smiles and presses his nose against Sam's spine. "No, he likes you. He was just convinced you were straight and going to break my heart." He catches Sam's eye and shrugs. "He's a little overprotective."
Sam thinks back to the first pickup game, Mark's surliness. "Wait. How long were you crushing on me?" he asks, but Ben just smiles at Irene and rolls his eyes, squeezing Sam a little tighter.
He grimaces, squeezing the bridge of his nose tightly, but nothing seems to relieve the headache. It's been building for a few days, and he's been getting increasingly short-tempered. He knows he's close to saying something unforgivable, so he walks out of the house one night after dinner, right in the middle of one of Jorge's meandering stories.
Steve looks stunned to see him, but doesn't close his laptop. Grateful for the silence, Sam looks around and realizes that the room is a sty; dirty clothes lie all over the floor in clumps, winding around empty soda cans and potato chip bags.
His own bed is rumpled, just like he left it, and he can't remember the last time he changed his sheets. He strips down and crawls in anyway, not bothering to set an alarm; he needs the sleep more than he needs to discuss Twelfth Night with a bunch of English majors who are all fixated on the sociopolitical ramifications of cross-gartering yellow stockings.
The shrill ring of Steve's cell phone wakes him up. He crawls out of bed, head still throbbing mercilessly, and snatches the phone from Steve's desk. He collapses back under the covers and peers at the display. "Home" he reads; "Friday, January 24, 2003, 10:10 a.m." It's Dean's birthday.
He doesn't let himself consider the consequences before he dials the last number he had for Dean, his thumb shaky and too big for the doll-sized buttons on the phone. It rings ten, twenty, thirty times and Sam counts them off grimly before hanging up. Dean's probably out, trying to make the most of the brief daylight hours to make his plans and set his traps for whatever evil is making the most noise.
Three hours later he tries Dean again, talking himself into believing that Dean's out at some diner, one eye on Dad, the other on a cute waitress just a little too old for him. The birthday-boy pie and coffee she brings him will have to substitute for what he really wants, so long as Dad is sitting across from him, attention fixed, as always, on his journal.
When he tries late at night, there are no comforting pictures to fill the silence. It is blank like the blacktop under the Impala's worn tires, dark like the night they drive through and kill in, unforgiving like Dad's cold eyes.
Ben's eyes are extraordinarily bright tonight, broadcasting his delight. The house is packed with people; Sam can hear at least twelve separate conversations being conducted in the den. He sees Angie's diamond ring flashing on her finger, Irene smiling coyly at Dave, Mark pouring more ice into the blue cooler. He slides his hand into the back pocket of Ben's jeans and pulls him close, kissing him thoroughly, and Ben melts in his arms.
Ben is always responsive, ardent, but tonight he's virtually glowing; every touch makes him arch up, light and shadow sliding over his skin. "Sam," he sighs over Sam's heart, his arms slipping down to trace the contours of Sam's body.
"What?" Sam slips his hand down between them, fingertips dancing roughly along Ben's length, probing into his heat. "What?"
"You're . . . just . . ." Ben breathes, winding his arms around Sam's neck, bringing him into the rhythm.
Sam guides one of Ben's muscular thighs over his shoulder. "Yes," he agrees, hissing as Ben opens willingly for him, and swallows Ben's long moan.
Ben is brown and pink against the green sheets, his body unnaturally flushed from fighting the bug that's taken down the engineering department. He's tucked himself into a tight little ball, and his eyes are glassy and miserable.
If there was ever a time Sam made a silent wish that he could have Ben in bed all day, every day, he takes it back. It's been days, and Ben is still sweating and shivering and Sam can't tell which is the real problem and which is the meaningless reflex. He picks him up, trying not to notice how uncharacteristically clumsy Ben is when he sets him on his feet. Ben shakes and tries to burrow into his side as Sam strips the bed again, laying down fresh sheets as quickly as he can. Ben crawls back in immediately, arms and legs giving out instantly, nearly knocking over the bottle of ginger ale on the bedside table.
Sam stands at the edge of the bed and looks down at him lying on his side, legs curling like a child's. He clenches his fists, feeling infuriatingly helpless. He doesn't know how to fix this; all he can hope is that the doctor at the student health center was right and Ben's body will recover if he just gets enough rest. But Ben keeps calling him, his eyes cloudy and his voice thready. "Sam."
His pleas are wearing out his raw throat, and Sam's body reacts before his mind can process anything. His hand drops to Ben's hip and pivots there as he walks around the bed, climbing in on top of the covers and tucking them more securely around Ben before lying down and pulling him back against his chest.
His hand clasps Ben's over Ben's chest and the tremors diminish into nothingness. He strokes Ben's hair, smoothes it back from his flushed face, and put his lips on his neck, behind his ear. He murmurs into Ben's skin, promises and charms that had been breathed against his own flesh and bone a lifetime ago, words that still mean safety. Ben stills and sleeps and Sam's anxiety bottoms out so suddenly that his tears catch him completely off-guard.
He looks over at Ben's perfect profile, letting his gaze linger, but Ben is mesmerized by the action onstage. Irene shines, fierce and implacable; she breathes life into the words he read for the first time just a few weeks earlier.
When the lights come up for intermission, Ben sinks back in his seat. "She's fantastic, Sam," he says; "I almost feel bad for Lear when she rips into him."
He grins with pride, then realizes what Ben said. "What are you talking about? King Lear's the tragic hero; you're supposed to be on his side."
"No," Ben argues. "He passes on the responsibility of being king but wants to keep all the perks? That's not right."
"Man, where were you when I was writing my twenty-page paper on this stupid play?" Sam gripes.
"Waiting with my ass in the air for you to stop writing and get back in bed," Ben says, leaning over the armrest to steal a kiss.
"The usual, kids?" Doris asks as they walk into the diner, heading for their regular table.
Irene is still riding the high from the performance, and she's effervescent. "So then Cordelia - this girl Janine - says to me that she and Kent have been getting together during intermission, and would I like to join them in a threeway. Two minutes before I have to say 'Pluck out his eyes'!"
Ben laughs. "That's just great comedic timing," he says, and Irene giggles.
Doris comes by with their milkshakes. "Back with your food in a minute," she says, her gaze lingering on Ben, who smiles his thanks.
The minute Doris is out of earshot, Sam grabs Ben's chocolate shake. "Dude," he says, raising the straws of his shake and Ben's simultaneously, watching the chocolate cling to the straw while the vanilla slides down like water, "your shake is at least twice as thick as mine." Ben scoffs, and Sam turns to Irene for validation. "Doris likes you."
Ben ignores him, reading the dessert list instead. "Maybe I'll get peanut butter pie," he says, nodding at Irene's hopeful gaze to assure her that he'll share.
"You keep eating like that and there'll just be more of you for Doris to love," Sam says, smirking; his ankle is nailed by a sharp kick a moment later, and he turns betrayed eyes on Irene, who's got her head on Ben's shoulder.
Sam's nursing a beer, his head in Ben's lap, when Mark tosses some mail on his stomach. "Thanks, man," Ben says, tearing his eyes away from the soccer game on TV. He reaches out to scoop it off of Sam, who sits up a bit to dodge Ben's elbow. He leans back against Ben's side, hearing the rip of an envelope being torn open; he feels it when Ben's breathing accelerates.
"Sam," Ben says quietly. "Sam. I got an interview." He sounds like he can't quite trust his own grasp of the English language. "Harvard Med." He gulps down some air and opens another envelope. "Johns Hopkins." By the time he's done, there's a snowstorm of paper on his lap, crushed when Sam shifts to sit on his lap and kiss the breath out of him.
Ben gasps when the cold beer bottle clinks gently at the top of his spine and shivers against him in a way that somehow makes Sam think of sorrow. It takes a moment for Sam's brain to catch up. All but a couple of the schools Ben named are on the East coast.
He leans his forehead against Ben's, unable to keep from touching him. He wants to ask how much time they've got left, but the words freeze in his throat. "Sam," Ben whispers against his mouth, "I'm not going anywhere just yet. These are just interviews."
Sam closes his eyes. "But you are gonna go." Ben deserves this, has worked hard for it. And the idea of Ben as a doctor, reaching out with those friendly hands and wide smile, using his mind to figure out how to make people feel better, makes sense in a way it would be stupid to deny.
"Yes," Ben says simply, sitting back to look him full in the face, and he can't think of anything to say after that.
A lifetime of cheap motels with stained carpets, threadbare towels, and missing lampshades rears its ugly head when he walks into the lobby of the Four Seasons with his arm around Ben. He gapes at the leather and wood and crystal and silk, nearly twists his ankles on the plush carpeting. His hands drop to cover the holes in his jeans, and it's only when Ben turns to him with nervous eyes that he remembers that it doesn't matter how this place makes him feel; Ben needs him.
He nudges Ben with his hip, steering them to a couch in the corner of the lobby. "We're early," he says. "You've got forty minutes before your first interview."
Ben nods, looking around like he can't remember how he got there. Sam kisses him to stop his mind from wandering, and Ben's mouth opens under his as he relaxes, finally smiling against Sam's mouth.
Sam grins down at him and pulls the tie from Ben's bag. "Flip your collar," he says. He winds the silk around Ben's neck and looks at the shadows his long lashes are casting on his cheeks; every detail is unbelievably sharp as he looks at Ben and ties his tie. His fingers slip into the soft dark hair above Ben's nape as he flips the collar back down and Ben looks up at him with happy, bright eyes.
They sit close together until Ben checks his watch and stands, his hand warm and damp on Sam's thigh, thumb rubbing at the skin bared by the biggest hole. "Wish me luck," he whispers, picking up his bag. Sam watches him get smaller and smaller as he walks across the lobby and rises in the soaring glass elevator.
It's hard to concentrate whenever Ben looks at him, but especially now, when Ben's hair is wet and spiky from his shower and his eyes are sleepy behind his glasses and all he's wearing are black boxer-briefs. Still, Sam makes an effort. "What?"
"Spring break," Ben says again. "Jorge and Dave asked if we wanted to drive down to San Diego with them and stay in this place they rented. Sam and Angie are going to Georgia to plan the wedding and Mark's gonna be in Chicago. What do you want to do?"
He can't think when Ben's catching the lamplight like that, like it's sunshine sunk into his skin. "I . . . I don't want to go anywhere," he says honestly. "I've been everywhere; I just want to sit still and be home." It looks like Ben understood his mumbling a little too well, and he rolls over, pressing his face into the cool pillow.
"Whatever you want, Sam." Ben snaps off the light, and a hand finds his hip in the darkness.
Sam's hips flex furiously as he slams into Ben, pushing him further up the bed with every thrust. Ben mumbles in a voice as dazed as his eyes, "You're new," then bends his back like a bow as Sam wrenches him to completion just before he comes.
He knows it's neither fair nor nice, but he's safe, Ben is safe, so Sam doesn't bother biting his tongue. They're lying together, sweaty and sated, and Sam whispers, "I'm new? Dude, I've been here for months now. Remember?" Ben blushes a little, murmurs something inaudible, and buries his face in Sam's neck. "No, seriously, man, what does that mean - new? Cause I think I've gotten pretty good at all of this," Sam says grandly, waving his hand in a sweep over the rumpled bed, knowing Ben won't disagree. Ben still doesn't respond, so he pokes at his ribs and prods, "Ben? Ben. Ben?"
Ben kisses him hard to get him to shut up, more teeth than tongue, but Sam keeps his eyes open, makes them plead, and Ben breaks the kiss with a sigh, rolls off the bed, and walks to the door. Sam follows him into the bathroom, mouth open to apologize, and Ben closes the door and grabs his arm.
"You're new," Ben says, low and clear. His chin is almost on Sam's shoulder, and Sam is facing the full-length mirror that hangs on the back of the door.
"I'm sorry," he says, trying to turn, but Ben's grip on his shoulders keeps him locked in place.
"This is what I see when I look at you, Sam," Ben says. "I see slanted eyes and a wicked smile. I see shoulders like a charioteer's, hips like arrows. Huge hands, flat little ass."
His fingers are tracing everything he describes, and Sam can't look away. He's completely spellbound by Ben's vision of him, a wondrous whole made up of old and beautiful pieces of the past, rearranged in an extraordinary new way.
"I'm sorry," he says again. He wants to do this for Ben, find a word for each part of him, but he knows he can't, can't pin him down to one word when Ben means everything, so he holds Ben's face in his hands and kisses him back to bed.
Irene shows up with a pile of books under one arm and a determined look on her face. "I'm here to take your mind off things," she announces firmly. "We're going to talk, then we're going to do work, and you'll be so busy that you won't have time to miss him."
Already he's feeling a little better. "How was the tour?" he asks.
"Why Chuck decided that it made sense to tour San Francisco high schools with a production of King Lear is beyond me. Every night when I went out for my curtain call, I'd hear some charming boy yell out, 'Way to go, Gonorrhea!' or something along those lines. Because 'Goneril' is apparently the most hilarious name in the universe. Were you aware of that?"
"No," he giggles, and she socks him in the stomach.
When Ben comes back, there's less tension in his shoulders. Even his walk looks a little more fluid.
"I liked Harvard the best," he says, sitting Indian-style, a pillow between his back and the headboard. "They're doing the kind of research I want to get involved in, and they've got the funding to do it." He falls silent for a moment. "But Boston is really expensive; I don't know if I can afford to live there. If I went to Yale, I could live with my parents." He smiles tenderly at Sam. "I can't stay here; I'm sorry. But we'll figure everything out once I get my loans and stuff."
He brushes Sam's hair off his face, going still for a moment before swinging his legs off the bed and heading downstairs to make dinner.
"Does that make sense?" Ben asks again, not even letting his eyes drift back to his own work, and Sam feels horribly guilty for being so slow on the uptake. He's never liked math, figured he'd never need it, and that's one thing that didn't change when he traded one life for another.
"No," he sighs. "Sorry." He drops his head on his arms on top of the textbook. Ben's book is open to a diagram of a circuit that looks even worse than the integration he's been struggling with. "Hey," he says, ready to change the subject, and putting his most winsome smile on his face, "you don't happen to know of any classes that would fulfill my hard science requirement and not make me use math, do you?"
"I do," Jorge says, strolling into the kitchen to raid the fridge. "Psych 302. Early Childhood Development. Total cakewalk, if you get Masterson. She lets you use your own childhood instead of doing research."
Having to dredge up his childhood sounds like a total nightmare, so Sam just smiles and turns back to his calculus. But Ben looks interested. "Like what?"
Jorge talks around the egg roll shoved in his mouth. "Like, you know, um, what was your first word, and what is the significance of that word? Does that word have significance, or is it our own cultural bias that invests the event with such importance?" He grins. "I totally aced that class, man." He strolls out of the kitchen with a couple of take out cartons.
Ben turns back to his books, his long fingers curled around a mechanical pencil, and Sam forces himself to look down at his own work. He concentrates on making his mind blank, but he was never any good at that; his brain was always too busy to hunker down for a wait. All he can hear is Dad's voice, the one time it approached tenderness: Sam was holding Dean's hand and Dad had a death-grip on the other. The steady beep of the heart monitor filled the silence, and Dad cleared his throat and started to speak. It took him a moment to realize that he wasn't talking to Dean.
"After your mother . . . Dean stopped talking. Wouldn't say a word. He'd look at me like his voice had been scared right out of his throat. Didn't realize until months later he'd been talking all along, but only to you. I'd find him in your crib every night and he must have been whispering to you all night long, because your first word was 'Sammy,' just the way Dean used to say it, almost like a song."
Dad stopped talking abruptly, like he'd just run out of things to say, and Sam looked at his own hand, too small to hold Dean's the way he wanted to, to wrap Dean up safe and secure.
"Sam?" he hears, and looks down to see Ben's strong hand spread wide on the textbook, looks up to meet Ben's worried grey eyes. "Take a break, man," he says, shaking Sam's shoulder gently; "your eyes are gonna bleed if you stare any harder."
He nods and walks slowly up the stairs. He crashes into sleep the moment he lies down.
He's trying not to think about how badly he must have blown his calc final. The important thing is that exams are over; his first year is done.
No, the important thing is that he's got Ben's head in his lap. He pulls up some grass and throws the pieces idly at Ben, watching as they drift down, resting against his cheek, clinging to his eyebrow. Ben's wide hands are pressed against the earth, grass and clover springing up between his long fingers.
"What do you want for your birthday, Sam?" Ben asks, his eyes still closed, the sunlight picking out the blue veins in his eyelids.
His heart tightens all over again, marveling at how restful, how easy things are with Ben. He doesn't even have to think before he says Ben's next line right along with him: "Or should I just surprise you?"
He grins down at Ben, who's opened his eyes and tilted his chin up inquisitively. "Yeah, surprise me. If you can." He doesn't resist when Ben twists, an arm around his waist, and pins him flat on his back.
Ben's mouth is soft and hot and slow, and he can feel himself getting drunk on lush lips, the sunshine, the velvety feel of Ben's back against his knuckles. The shrill song of the birds in the trees rings persistently in his ears, and he pushes up until they're sitting side by side.
Mark jogs up a few minutes later, dumping his heavy bag at the edge of the field and dropping his body next to Ben's. "It's over, man," he says, and Ben reaches out to bump their forearms together. "Four years," he shakes his head in disbelief, and Sam looks at him and Ben, the sun lighting them up, and sees the weary happiness they've earned in them.
He's about to get up when he sees Jones walking toward them, Jorge and Dave behind him.
"One last game?" Mark asks, standing and grinning down at them all. Jorge pulls the soccer ball from his bag and tosses it on the ground. "Gentlemen," Mark nods at each of them in turn, then swipes the ball away with a clever kick, and Ben laughs as he steals it back.
"Dude, you okay?" he hears Jorge say, and he looks over to see Ben with a hand clapped to his face and blood dripping between his fingers. The guys are crowded around Ben, but they part readily, making room for him, and Ben tries to grin at him, but his lips are slick with blood.
He pulls Ben's hand away and tilts his chin up. There's a long tear in the skin at Ben's temple, dangerously close to his left eye. He uses the hem of his shirt to wipe Ben's face, holding his head with one hand.
"Must have been a rock," Jorge says, and the guys all murmur agreement. He looks at the fresh blood welling up from the thin slice, then away to smile into Ben's eyes.
Ben smiles back and tries to blink, but his eyelashes are heavy and sticky with blood, and his left eye stays shut. His eyelids are quivering like an animal caught in a trap, like Dean's did when blood - his own and a werewolf's - glued his eye shut until holy water washed it all away. Just like Dean's. Just like Dean.
Sam looks his hands, red and tacky with blood, and wipes them on his shirt. He steps back and spins, vomiting uncontrollably. He heaves for so long that he gets lightheaded and he falls to his knees, panting.
"Sam," he hears Ben say, before someone - Mark - hauls him to his feet and gets his legs moving. He lets himself be dragged along. When he closes his eyes he sees Ben, smiling up at him with Dean's eyes, Dean's mouth, Dean's heart.
He felt from the moment he met him that he fit at Ben's side; he was sure that he belonged in Ben's bed. He knows everything about Ben; he thought he knew it from what Ben has told him, but it's because Ben is generous and loving and admiring in the way Dean's always been.
Christ, how did he never notice that Ben looks just like Dean? If Dean's skin and hair were darker, if his eyes slipped from green to grey. He's been fucking a guy who could be his brother.
He wakes up with his face pressed into a pillow. It smells like Ben until he sighs and he smells the foul taste in his mouth.
A hand touches his spine, stroking his bare back soothingly. "Sam," Ben says softly. "Sam, are you feeling better?"
His stomach lurches again, but there's nothing left to come up. He sits up abruptly and knocks Ben's hand away. "Don't touch me." Those hands - Dean's strong, veined hands and elegant fingers - have been all over him.
Ben sits back and watches him with those wide, stolen eyes, a butterfly bandage glowing against his dark skin, shadowed by his soft hair.
He looks away from Ben, scopes out the desk, the dresser, the floor. When he's sure his legs won't fold under him, he stands. No wasted movements as he grabs his backpack and stuffs his books and clothes in it, tuning out the sound of Ben's worried voice.
He pushes past Ben, trying to squirm by him, shoving him away when Ben doesn't get out of the way quickly enough. His skin is crawling at the thought of what he's done to Ben, whether it means it's what he wants to do to Dean. Blood is singing discordantly in his head as he finally makes his way downstairs, past the guys, and out the door.
Every day he stands in the shower for what feels like hours, scrubbing roughly at his skin, his dick, his lips. His heart slams in his chest and he feels raw beneath the spray of painfully hot water. His skin glows red all over; pink circles the drain when he gags again and spits. He wants to feel clean and new, but showers won't wash away the wrongness at his core that stains him through and through. Maybe it will work better tomorrow.
He's savagely glad now that he couldn't afford a cell phone, that he and Steve never bothered to get a phone for the room. If Irene and the guys want to talk to him, they'll have to come and yell through his door.
It's none of their business anyway. The only one who has a right to know is the only one who hasn't hounded him, and it twists his stomach all over again. Ben's undemanding silence is just what he'd expect from Dean.
If he can just get through this last week, it will all be over. Graduation is on Friday, and the guys are moving out of the Phoenix Street house. He buries his head under his pillow again, ignoring the pounding on his door. Now he has something to work toward, and he starts the countdown in his head. Three days left, three days left. He falls asleep with his fists clenched. In his dreams they pound into Ben without mercy.
"Pomp and Circumstance" drifts through his window before he slams it shut. He paces around the room, willing these last few hours to slip by. The blank walls of his room look like they did the day he moved in.
He gathers up all the stickytack Steve left littered on his walls and molds it into one big ball. He'll get a new beginning when he moves into the summer dorm tomorrow, so he finishes packing and strips the sheets from his bed. He keeps the light on and sits on the floor, waiting for morning to come.
He nearly steps on the girl, and he's about to snap something about the dangers of sitting in shadowy spaces when she jumps up with a ready smile.
"Hi! I'm Jennifer."
"Hi," he says as his stomach rumbles.
"What's your name?" She peers up at him through short lashes.
"Sam," he says shortly. "Look, I'm gonna miss lunch if I don't get going." That's not quite true, but he doesn't want to drag this out. He's tired of looking at people and wondering if they know, if they can see it written on his skin.
"Do you want some company?" she asks, and he looks at her for a moment. She's cute, sandy hair spilling over a wide pink face and big blue eyes. He shrugs.
She comes apart under him within five minutes. The next girl keeps his mouth busy for a whole night. The girl after that never gets anywhere near his bed; her little fingers work him so surely that he ends up slamming into her against the wall.
He buys navy blue swim trunks, a combination lock, and a few plush towels with one of his paychecks. Every morning he goes to the older campus gym and swims for an hour before going to work at nine; it's hot enough that he's grateful for the air conditioning. He swims again after work, and the only thoughts in his head are of dinner and sleep.
He dreams of Dean.
One girl won't kiss him on the mouth because that would be cheating on her boyfriend, but she puts her mouth everywhere else. Another screeches when she comes and her eyes roll back in her head when he clamps his hand over her mouth. The one after that gives him a lapdance.
He loves the feel of the water - i this /i water - against his skin. The pool is nothing like the muddy, leafy lake where he first learned to swim. It's clean and well-lit, orderly blue tiles marking the lanes and the depth changes. Water carries sound, but there's only silence around him, giving him space to breathe.
There's one girl who bends her dancer's body in every way imaginable. Another leaves imprints of her teeth all over his skin. The next one sucks on his fingers as she rides him hard and fast.
His hair is rough from too much shampoo and the whites of his eyes are pink from the chlorine, but his new roommate only has eyes for the large, half-empty box of condoms sitting on top of his desk.
"Nice, dude," he says, handing Sam a beer. "I'm Zach. This year's gonna be sweet."
He's got over a thousand dollars in the bank now, under his legal name. He's got a casually generous roommate, who always orders too much food and beer. He's got at least a dozen phone numbers on scraps of paper in his desk next to stacks of notecards and a ball made of rubber bands.
He looks up from the course catalogue on his lap to see Zach pointing at him. "First real bash of the year, and you and I are putting in an appearance," Zach says. He opens his mouth to protest, then realizes there's no reason to stay in his dorm room on a Thursday night. He gets off his bed and Zach high-fives him. "Wingman!" he crows.
The music is loud, the bass thumping, and the beer is ice-cold. He settles back against the wall, taking long pulls at his beer and watching Zach make his move on a girl whose chest size and hair color are equally unbelievable. The minute the girl puts her hand on his arm, Zach looks over with a grin, and Sam raises his Bud in a toast to his prowess.
He heads to the back of the frathouse, where he joins the crowd judging a wet t-shirt contest. The girls are tan and unabashed, and the guys shout their approval.
"Seriously, man, how many times a day does this show come on?" he asks, as the Law & Order theme music starts up again.
"Shut up, I don't think I've seen this one," Zach says, sounding exhausted, the sheets still tangled around him. "Wait, what are you eating?"
"Your sister dropped by this morning," he explains, licking the frosting off his fingers. "She made me a cake. Angel food, since I'm so sweet."
"You ate the whole thing? Bastard," Zach grumbles. "I like Bec's angel food cake too."
"She said you can have yours when we go to her place for dinner," he grins. "I'm going to the library. Meet you back here at six." He tosses the tupperware over to Zach. "I saved you a piece, man; what kind of roommate do you think I am?"
Becky has his chin in a vise grip. "Don't move," she orders, blowing on his cheek. "It's perfect. Look."
She spins him to face the mirror, and he angles his face to see the "SU" she's painted on his cheek in red and white. "Stop admiring yourself, Narcissus," she scolds, drawing hastily on her own face. "And Zach, get off my bed; if you get any paint on my bedspread, I'll kill you."
Sam is squeezed in between Zach and Jerry in the stands, and he can feel the roar of the crowd inside him; he goes along with the urge to yell and whoop and holler. He's jumping up and down and hugging everyone in reach when they win on a beautiful extra-point kick. He grins wide and bright when Becky turns her camera his way.
"You are the king, man," Zach says when Sam slides a new box of condoms under his bed, tossing the empty one in the trash.
He snorts and snags a Red Bull from the mini-fridge and tries to concentrate on his linguistics assignment. But it's hot and sticky and he could not care less about glottal stops. "Fuck it, man, I'm gonna go for a swim," he says.
He dives in and the water closes around him, comfortingly cool and heavy. He floats on his back, staring up at the bright overhead lights until he can only see black, and he keeps his eyes tightly closed as he begins his laps.
He burns, peels, and emerges tan from a week in the sun at Jerry's beach house. Jerry grills burgers while Sam builds a bonfire and the girls dance and clap when Zach and Ryan get back from another beer run. The firelight is soft and he sinks into the sand, happy and full. He feels like a different person in this new skin.
"It's not a birthday party, Sam!" Becky sounds exasperated. "It's an end-of-the-year party that happens to be the day before your birthday."
There's a flaw in her logic somewhere. "Why are you having it that day instead of the weekend after?"
"Because you'll be packing to move into the summer dorm and Zach and I'll be back in St. Louis, idiot." She turns back to her take-home final.
He looks down at his notes on Savonarola, pen hovering over the half-finished outline. He doesn't want to think about the way the campus will clear out for the summer, the uncomfortable quiet that will settle heavily over everything as he types numbers into a spreadsheet in the SFS office. He wraps his arm around her instead and says, "Thank you," waiting until she looks up at him before adding, "little Becky."
He wakes with a rope around his neck. His eyes pop open, slitting against the sunlight pouring in through the windows. This is not his dorm room. He sits up a bit and the pressure around his throat goes away; he looks down and sees that it's hair, not rope, and the long locks are slipping down his chest.
All that he can see of the girl in the bed is bright hair and a round, tan ass. He shifts again, hoping to jostle her awake. She doesn't stir, and he thinks maybe his best bet is getting out of here, away from that pretty ass and long blonde hair. That is, if he really wants to leave; he's already changed his mind ten times about that since he woke up.
He gets out of the bed, rubbing at his eyes. He finds his underwear immediately and slips it back on. He stumbles over his flip-flops. With one last glance at the girl's back, he heads down the stairs. His shirt is hanging off the back of a chair. He doesn't see his jeans anywhere; they've got his keys and wallet in them, so he's stuck.
He goes back to the bedroom and crouches down in front of the girl. Her face is hidden by her arm, and he coaxes the arm away with soft little touches. She's got plump pink lips and a mole between her thin eyebrows. She's wearing a short white nightgown, twisted underneath her belly.
"Hey," he says softly, feeling like a prize idiot. He wishes he could remember her name; he wishes even more that he could remember last night, since she's got a smile on her face. "Hey," he says again, shaking her shoulder tentatively.
Her eyes crack open. "Hey yourself," she says, drawing the covers up and turning to lie on her back.
Her eyes close again and he lunges forward. "No, no, wait!" he says, bracing himself on his hands, framing her hips. "Where are my jeans?"
"How the hell should I know, Sam?" she mumbles. He feels like a complete shit now. She peers at him and sighs, finally sitting up. "Sam," she says, snapping her fingers in front of his face to get his attention. She gets out of bed, and he rises with her. She's tall and fit, completely beautiful with her tumbled hair and pink skin; the smell of vanilla drifts up from her body. "Hand me my panties, would you?" she asks, pointing to a scrap of lace on the floor. She shimmies them on, her bare legs flashing, then ducks down. "Aha!" she cries, clutching his jeans in a fist. She stands back up and he's startled again by her height, the length of her scented limbs. "Not so fast," she says, holding the jeans behind her as he reaches for them. "What do I get in return?"
This is a game he's never played; the mornings after have always been waking up in his own bed to silence and sometimes a phone number printed carefully inside a heart, never this flesh-and-blood reality. "What do you want?" he asks warily.
"Hmmm." A little wrinkle forms above her nose when she purses her lips. "Breakfast," she says, so offhandedly that he knows that's just the beginning of a long list.
"Great!" he says, before she can get any further. "Breakfast. I can do that." He holds his hand out for the jeans, and she looks at him assessingly before handing them over.
"Thanks. I didn't want to give your housemates a free show." He pulls them on but doesn't bother with the fastenings; he stops in the bathroom to pee and gargle some Scope, then heads downstairs to the kitchen.
Her fridge holds cases of beer and soda, a few bottles of wine, a carton of skim milk, a pitcher of water, and an egg. He's pretty sure not even Wolfgang Puck could whip something up out of Diet Coke and egg yolk.
The cabinets are mostly empty. In one, high above the sink, he finds a box of Froot Loops and a few bowls and plates and mugs. He pours the cereal into a bowl and then the milk, remembering only afterwards to sniff it. It smells okay, so if he can just take the bowl up to her bedroom, he can go.
Of course she chooses to come down the stairs at that exact moment, her face lighting up when she sees the box of cereal on the counter. "Toucan Sam!" she says, digging in a drawer and fishing out two spoons. She drops one in the bowl and begins to eat with the other. "C'mon, Sam, don't you want any?" she asks with her mouth full as she winds her long hair into a messy knot high on her head. "You could at least have breakfast with me."
She drops into a chair at the kitchen table and looks up at him. Her eyelashes are brown, still spiky from being pressed into her pillow; her eyes are blue like the tiles at the bottom of the pool. He looks at her just as they flash with mischief; he glares and she grins, caught. "Yeah, I'm fucking with you," she admits, "but that doesn't change the fact that you don't remember my name."
He hangs his head and she laughs. "Come on, Sam. What's the last thing you remember, Sam?" She pushes a chair toward him, her leg stretching long and lean, and he wants to take a bite out of it.
He sits and grabs his spoon. Froot Loops are delicious, even if they're staining the milk all sorts of weird colors. She fills the bowl back up, waiting for his answer. "I remember the party," he says hesitantly. "And I remember doing body shots off some girl." He looks through his bangs at her. "That wasn't you, was it?" She just shakes her head, looking amused. "That's really it."
"So you don't remember Rebecca introducing us at your birthday party last night? Or saying that I smelled good enough to eat?"
"You still do," he says, and she blushes, and victory is his.
Somewhere between the kitchen and the front door she pushes him up against the wall and hikes his shirt up. The Sharpie she pulled from a kitchen drawer is in her hand and she makes her mark on him.
The chlorine in the pool makes the edges bleed a little, turn from blue to green, but even after he scrubs at his chest with soap, the four soft curves remain printed above his heart: j-e-s-s.
He knocks at her door, hair still wet from the gym shower, and she yells, "It's open!" in a way that makes him wonder if she ever locks her doors. She's got paint all over her hands and arms. Her smile is neither quick nor slow; it's just there before he can catch hold of it. It doesn't seem to shift any of the planes of her round face, doesn't change a thing.
"Hey," she says, bright and unsurprised, turning the easel around to face the wall. "Let me just," she holds up her hands, "clean up a little."
He wants to show her the marks on his chest, say something about how they match, but she runs up the stairs on her long legs before he can open his mouth. He hears water running upstairs, and the radio over it. She's singing along, loud and off-key, and he tunes her out as best he can.
It's her scent that he notices first, vanilla sweetness over skin. He closes his eyes for a moment to breathe her in and then he hears her coming down the stairs. She sounds like money; he opens his eyes at the faint tinkle of her jewelry. A heavy locket rests on her chest, above her blue tank top, and a slim sinuous thread of gold circles her wrist.
She looks like she sounds, like something he could never afford, and he wonders all of a sudden what he's doing here, in his frayed shorts, his too-long hair dripping water on her hardwood floor.
She takes him to a restaurant a few blocks from her apartment, nods casually at the bartender, and walks confidently to a booth halfway down the row on the left. The light above the table is bright, and her face shines. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail, partially covering the swell of her left breast. He opens his menu to keep from staring at her, scanning the list of burgers that start at ten dollars.
She douses her fries with mayonnaise, catches his disbelieving eye, and shrugs, "Holland. Spent a summer there."
He looks down at his half-eaten burger, the fries that have gone soft and cold from pickle juice. When he looks back up at her she's watching him.
"What?" he asks. She just shakes her head and keeps looking.
Flashes of memory flicker in his brain when he's finally back in her bed, snippets of the first time they did this, and it's throwing his rhythm off. He keeps smoothing her down, running one hand over the flat of her belly and her hip, like he's rubbing a rabbit's foot for luck.
She makes a sound, halfway between a sigh and a gurgle, and twists them around, straddling him. Her breasts are heavy in his hands and her hair tickles his stomach; he wonders who got to be on top last time.
Then she's leaning down, resting her forearms along his sides, forcing the angle of penetration into something sharp and nearly unbearable, so that they're panting into each other's necks, hot and pained breath the only sound over the rustling of the pale blue sheets.
He lets her limbs lie over his, nearly as long, but rounder, softer, and waits for her to sink right into him. He closes his arms around her.
"I'm sure you'll be very happy here," the real estate agent says, standing a little too close to Jess, who smiles and leans into Sam like she's snuggled into him every day of her life and not just for the last four months.
"I just want to look at the bathroom one more time," she says. "I can't remember the color of the tile."
The agent's cell phone rings and as he checks the screen and connects the call, Jess grabs Sam's hand and drags him off to the bathroom, closing the door with a click. "Could that guy be any creepier?" she hisses, rubbing her hand up and down her bare arm. She leans back against the door and looks up at him. "So what do you think of the place?"
He takes in how perfectly the pink door frames her golden head, how her smile has slipped into something more private. But she's waiting, one eyebrow cocked in a show of interrogation, and it's a pleasure to submit, as always.
"It's a nice place, but they're asking for a lot of money. How many people are you planning on cramming in here?"
"Just us," she says, reaching out to play with the hem of his shirt.
He stares, waiting for her to crack a smile, but she looks up at him with limpid eyes and he has to work hard to keep the frustration out of his voice. He wants what she's offering so badly but he knows it's impossible. "Jess. I can't. I can't afford it."
Her frown smoothes out. "I know that, Sam. I can."
It shakes him a little to hear that she's aware of the difference between them; he's been keeping up with her all summer with his savings, rationing each new paycheck. "No," he says firmly.
"Sam," she says, and he braces himself for some impassioned plea. But she just repeats her earlier question. "Do you like the apartment?" He nods reluctantly. "Well, I do too. Living here would make me happy. Living with you would make me happy. Do you see how simple this is? Just move in with me."
He still wants to protest but the agent knocks loudly on the door. "Miss Moore?"
Jess opens the door and looks over her shoulder at Sam. "I'll take it," she says.
The space overwhelms him. He's accustomed to living in a single room, four thick, dingy walls around him. Now he's got a whole warren of rooms, big, bright, and airy, with Jess as constant company. He has no idea how they're going to fill it all up. Even after all the furniture they pick out from an artsy secondhand store is delivered and they've set aside the small room with the skylight to be Jess's studio, he thinks he can hear an echo when he calls for her.
She sets him to work, painting each room in a different color; he can't see how this is going to work, but he trusts her eye. They sleep with every window wide open to dispel the paint fumes, but they're still a little high for days.
Her studio is the first room he finishes and she disappears in there, radio blasting, while he moves to the bedroom. His arms and back are a little sore and his brain is on autopilot; the shadowy green she picked for this room is almost hypnotic. It takes him a few moments to be aware of her standing in the doorway, photographing him.
"What are you doing?" he asks, setting the roller down. He plucks at the bandanna she tied on him to keep his hair out of his face. Her fingers smooth it back down, then trail down the side of his face. She runs the flat of her nails along his cheek, opening her mouth before his even lands on it. His hands can almost span her waist, and his fingers dimple her soft back. She groans and steps back before he can push her against an unpainted wall.
She hefts the camera in her hand again, pointing it at him. She cocks her head. "You know, you're the first person I've met who doesn't duck away from a camera in their face."
He shrugs. It's not like he's all that familiar with cameras; Dad never had one, and all of his class pictures had gone unclaimed. "Let me see?" he asks, holding out his hand.
She places it in his palm, watching his fingers fold around the bulky zoom lens. He picks it up and aims it at her. Her smile gets shaky for a moment before she tosses her hair back to look confidently at him.
He snaps a picture, saying, "You don't run either." She smiles her real smile then, white teeth gleaming, and he clicks again.
She laughs at him, tells him he's wasting film and that the photography students who develop the rolls of film she drops off think she's a complete narcissist. But the camera is his now; he likes the weight of it in his hand, and the only thing he wants framed in its sights is her. She doesn't lock herself away; her thoughts and feelings are right there on the surface, offered up freely. He takes pictures of her painting, cleaning, on the phone, blow-drying her hair, sleeping. There are pictures of her naked, her tall frame bursting past the edges of the print. There are close-ups of her face, her eyes glittering above her round cheek, her plump lips out of focus. He keeps them all in a box under their bed.
His gusty sigh nearly blows out the flame of the fat, cherry-scented candle in the middle of the table. She looks up, still forking Thai take-out onto plates. "Something wrong?" she asks, licking her fingers.
"Sam." She slides his plate in front of him, and he sweeps his papers away and closes her laptop.
"Just. I didn't realize how much of this French history class was going to be in French. And I can't seem to find translations of a lot of this stuff."
She gets a gleam in her eyes, sitting across from him, picking up vegetables with her chopsticks. "If I translate your stuff . . ." she says, then pauses to chew, "will you wear whatever I give you to Cindy's Halloween party?"
He tenses. It's not a big deal to her, and he can't make her understand without saying too much. She comes around the table to sit in his lap. "Baby," she says, then whispers, soft and breathy in his ear, "après moi, le déluge." He nods and she kisses him.
"Oh my God!" Jess pouts when she walks in, holding several shopping bags. "I thought it was hard finding costumes for a girl my height. It is almost impossible to find something that'll fit you."
She drops the bags and sits on the futon, eyeing him critically. "You must have been a nightmare when you had your growth spurt."
"That's what Dean always said," he says, his mind still on Cicero.
She goes still, half-predator, half-prey, like she can't help herself from pushing. "Dean?" Her voice is studiedly casual. "You call your dad by his first name?"
He looks up and she looks away, at the bags, reaching in and refolding the clothes inside. This is the first, last, and only time he's going to say this.
"Dean's my older brother. I don't call my dad anything. My mother is dead."
He moves his books off his lap and goes to the kitchen. He opens the fridge and looks over at her. Golden hair is spilling down her back. She's sitting on the edge of the futon, her knees together and her toes pointed inward. She's still keeping her curious eyes off him, so he relents.
He pulls out a beer and cracks it open. "There's not a lot to say. My dad's a drunk, can't hold down a job for more than a few months. Ex-Marine."
She's waiting for the rest and he braces himself. With his absence, Dean took on mythical proportions in his mind. But now he's grown up, made his mistakes, and knows he doesn't need Dean the way he always thought he did, the way Dean always thought he did. Dean's no longer his oxygen. He steps back from the fridge, takes a long sour swallow, and considers Dean with a clear mind. "My brother's right there with him. Following in his footsteps. A drifter."
She's snuck up on him, and she wraps her arms around him and kisses his ear. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she says, and she rocks him in her arms on a cloud of vanilla.
"Mmm," Jess says. "A little lower." He kneads his fingers into her back, easing the muscles beneath her soft pink skin. "Painting a fresco is worse than an hour of pilates," she laughs, moving her hair out of the way. "You'll have to come see it when we're done."
She wiggles when his fingers start to tickle rather than soothe, and he kisses the top of her spine. She settles back against his chest and reaches for the remote, clicking the TV on. "Oh, I used to have such a crush on him!" she says, and he looks up at the screen.
"The guy with the cane?" he asks incredulously. The guy's old and seems to be playing a complete dick.
"No, the other one. He hasn't aged a bit. Wow." She looks awfully impressed by this guy, who's got pale skin, brown hair, and brown eyes. Totally ordinary. And short.
"You know, I used to want to be a doctor," she says, and he tries to picture her swathed in a white lab coat instead of covered in paint. "Then my sister was born and she was sick all the time and I realized I hate hospitals." She laughs. "Wonder how different my life would have been."
"My roommate freshman year was pre-med," he tells her. "You would have hated it."
"Probably," she says, and snuggles back against him.
"I think we should host Thanksgiving," she says at the next commercial break, twisting around to look at him. "We've got the space. It'll be fun. We can invite all our friends."
It's best to know all the details up front. "What would I have to do?" he asks warily and she grins.
"Just sit there and look pretty. Also, help me clean the place, be ready to go out for ice and beer at any time, help me clean up after. And carve the turkey."
"I don't know how to carve a turkey," he protests, even though it doesn't sound too bad. He thinks about mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and stuffing and apple pie with vanilla ice cream, all the things sitcom characters sit down to in November.
"I'll show you how to hold a knife, Sam," she says, rolling her eyes, "and you can Google turkey-carving if you want diagrams."
"Wait, are you cooking?" He's never seen her cook, and he remembers hauling only one small box of pots and pans up three flights of stairs.
"Oh, ye of little faith. I'll be baking. I'll leave the cooking up to Julia's."
"Let me get this straight," he says, and she frowns, unable to read his tone. He doesn't quite know if he's angry or charmed, and he supposes that's making her job more difficult. He looks at the stuff spread out across the bed. "You threw out all my underwear."
"Don't say it like that, Sam!" she huffs. "I bought you some new clothes. You needed them and between your classes and the SFS office you don't have time to go shopping."
"And . . . along the way I got rid of your ratty old underwear and bought you beautiful silk boxers," she says, looking pleased.
"What makes you think I want to wear red underwear?"
"Wouldn't you, if I asked you to?" She laughs. "We won't go right to the red. We'll start off slow, with the blue, and work our way up."
He looks at her, smooth and bright and so goddamn beautiful, and it turns out he's charmed after all by the way she looks after him. "Thank you, Jess."
"I love you, Sam," she says, her voice a medley of pretty chimes, and her eyes glow when he pins her down against the heaps of silk, murmuring it back all along the length of her neck.
"You've never been on a plane before?" she asks, more kind than curious. He shakes his head and the cabdriver looks inquisitively at him in the rearview mirror. "Piece of cake," she says.
"Yeah." He's not nervous about the flight; it's the thought of meeting her family that's got his stomach in knots.
She holds his hand while they wait to check in, leaning into him and making him feel like the luckiest guy on the planet. He has a bad moment when he shows his phony driver's license after they ask for government-issued identification, but it passes muster; he forgot that his student ID wouldn't be much use in the real world.
She's nuzzling against him when they're jostled, knocking them into the girl in front of them in the security line. She turns, and it's Irene, her hair long and brown. "Sam!" she exclaims. Her gaze follows his arm to where it's curled around Jess's waist.
"Irene," he says, keeping his tone cool and light.
She just looks at him for a moment, her eyes big and her mouth twisted down at the corners, before she turns back around, her shoulders stiff and tense. He shakes his head when Jess looks at him questioningly, whispering, "Later" into her hair.
They get through security, the buckle of his new belt setting off the machines, and wait at the gate. "That was my ex," he says before Jess has to ask.
"Ahhh," says Jess, resting her head on his shoulder. "She clearly wasn't good enough for you."
"Jess!" he hears just as a smallish lump runs full-tilt into her and Jess staggers backwards, laughing. Once the lump stops moving at top speed and turns her face up to greet him, Sam can see that she is a pretty little girl, petite and flaxen-haired, delicate in a way Jess is too robustly healthy to be. She's small for twelve; if he had to guess, he'd have estimated ten.
"I'm Celia, Jessica's sister," she says, holding her hand out formally. He shakes her hand. She's got the same pretty dimples around her elbows as Jess.
He turns to discover that Jess got her smile from her mother and her height from her dad. They're both hugging her and he can hear "chérie" in a light, accented voice and "pumpkin" in a lower one.
Celia's edged back around to stand behind her dad, and Sam's left looking at the four of them, happy and whole, and tries to push back the sick spines of envy as they knife their way through him.
There's snow on the ground, but the driveway has been neatly shoveled. The house is large, dove-grey with black shutters; there's a Christmas tree in the living room and candles waiting to be lit in each of the windows.
The guest room has two twin beds, and for a moment he's reminded of the cheap motel rooms he and Dad and Dean used to share, only two beds necessary because one of them always had to keep watch. But the carpet is creamy, the walls blue as lapis lazuli.
He drops his duffel between the beds, then kicks it under the one near the door. He runs his damp palms over his chinos, standing in front of the mirror to straighten the collar of his green shirt.
He sits at the kitchen table while Jess and her mom and Celia all bustle around getting dinner ready. It's making him uncomfortable, but he's not sure enough of himself to offer to help out; that seems like a greater intimacy.
"Sam," Mr. Moore calls out from the living room, "can I have a word with you, son?"
Jess shoots him a reassuring look as he gets up. He goes into the living room and sits gingerly on the edge of the couch, waiting with his guts tied up in knots.
Mr. Moore is sitting in a brown leather chair, his back straight but not stiff. "Jessie tells me you're a scholarship student."
"Yes, sir," he says.
"That takes a lot of smarts, a lot of hard work. You keeping up?"
"Oh, yes sir. I'm majoring in history."
"Bright young man like you must have a plan for the future." Mr. Moore smiles, looking friendlier by the second. "What's it going to be, Sam?"
He sinks back a little further into the plush comfort of the couch, looks at the leather-bound books in neat lines on the bookshelves. He thinks about having a job where she'll look proudly at him across the kitchen table every morning. "I've been thinking about law school, sir."
"A practical-minded man." Mr. Moore nods approvingly. "That's a good degree to have in your pocket."
He stands and shakes Sam's hand like a benediction, and Sam can't quite believe that he's passed the first round with nothing more than words he's made up on the spot. "We better get to the kitchen and make ourselves useful," Mr. Moore says, clapping him on the shoulder.
It's driving him crazy, not being able to touch Jess in the ways he's used to, not being able to wrap himself around her at night. Her parents are permissive, but there are limits, and he's still working on winning over Celia, who pops up at the most unexpected moments.
He knocks on the door of their bedroom one morning, looking for advice on which shirt she'd bought to go with his new brown pants, and sees Celia lying on her stomach on her bed, talking to Jess, who's seated in front of the mirror holding a hairbrush. He catches her reflection's eye and she hands the brush over without a word.
The lights framing the mirror are pink, and her face is rosier than ever as he slides the brush over her long curls tentatively. He makes his next pass a little harder, remembering the way she'd tug a brush through her hair with enough force to tip her head back. Her neck elongates as he drags the brush down, catching small knots; she looks at him as he puts down the brush to untangle them with patient fingers. Her hair is still a little damp underneath, lying heavy in his hands, and he wishes he could crush her to him and make her eyes drift closed in pleasure.
He's very good at charming adults; his teachers have always taken a shine to him, rewarded his intelligence and perseverance with A's. But now, when it's so much more important than any report card, he can't seem to catch any of the lines the Moores are tossing him. They're opening up the vault of family history, bilingual inside jokes and baby pictures, and he's standing there, dumb and gangly, unsure of how to respond to her father's hearty humor or her mother's terms of endearment.
He's evidently got their approval, but somehow that's not enough, or maybe it's too much; he wants to pull Jess away and run, back to their home, back to safe ground.
The apartment feels empty without Jess, even with the smell of the cookies she baked for Becky's Desperate Housewives viewing party lingering in the air. A second batch is in the oven, and the buzzer sounds just as he's getting hungry. He pulls the baking sheet out and remembers he has to let them cool for at least ten minutes before scarfing them down.
The flowers and fruit she was sketching occupy most of the kitchen table, so he eats standing at the counter, clutching a cold green glass of milk. He sorts through their mail, tossing the junk and the flyers in the recycling bin near the door. There's a birthday card from her grandmother, and he realizes he's got less than a week left before January 24th.
He goes to the closet and pulls out the barracks bag, upending it impatiently, searching for the envelope of money. He'd forgotten how much was in there; it's enough to take her out to the best place in town and buy a jacket, tie, and shoes to get in the door.
He calls Daviot for a reservation, haphazardly stuffing the contents back in the bag while he's on hold. He flops onto the bed, his belly full, sighing contentedly.
She looks more beautiful than he's ever seen her, in her thin high heels and a frilled pink dress that makes her look like Venus rising from the foam. Her hair is pinned up with the mother-of-pearl clips Celia sent, the pink rose he bought her drooping under its own weight near her temple. It falls and burns in the flame of the candle stuck in her cream cake just as the violinist finishes playing "Happy Birthday."
She picks the petals out of her cake with careful fingers and smiles at him, her eyes dancing in the flickering light. "Love you, Sam," she mouths, then blows the candle out.
"This was the best birthday ever," she murmurs against his neck as they let the taxis drive by and walk home. Her thin wool coat is leaving cream-colored clumps of fuzz all over his black blazer and she bends her head to pick at them. He squeezes his arm around her and kisses the top of her head, reveling in her perfumed warmth.
She gasps and wobbles on her heels, and he looks up to see a man in the shadows in front of them. He's holding a knife with a wickedly serrated blade, and it gleams with deadly promise. "Your purse and your wallet," he says, cool and unruffled.
Jess is shaking, enough so that she jostles Sam's arm as he reaches for his empty wallet. He tosses it on the ground. "Your purse, baby," the man repeats, stepping closer to catch the strap and pull it away. His fingers reach back up to brush Jess's neck.
The hand holding the knife relaxes ever so slightly, and Sam pounces. "Jess, run!" he roars, grappling with the man, gripping his greasy blond hair to pound his skull into the pavement. The man swipes at him with the knife, and the blade sinks into his abdomen.
He can hear Jess screaming as he looks down at the knife sticking out of his gut, shifting to press a knee into each of the man's wrists, resting his weight on the man's torso. "I am going to kill you," he promises thickly, remaining unmoved as the man thrashes beneath him. He gets a good grip on the man's jaw and holds his head still, then leans down to hiss in his ear. "You think you're my first kill? Not by a long shot."
Jess's screams have given way to torrential tears, and he looks back up to see one cop leading her away, another approaching him carefully. He rises unsteadily, swaying on his feet.
"No hospitals," he says, and the bigger cop pauses in cuffing the man to laugh disbelievingly.
He's had bruises before, in more places than he can rightly remember. He's sprained each wrist twice and his left knee once. His right ankle broke when he was fifteen, his right arm when he was eleven, and three of his toes when he was ten. He can feel the twists, the wrongness in those bones when he runs his hands over them in the shower.
The raised, irregular line the mugger's knife marked underneath his bottom left rib is the first permanent scar his body bears that's visible to others' eyes.
She's had one song on repeat most of the morning, and he finishes the logic games section in his free practice booklet as the chorus rings out again.
"I think this is our song," she says when he appears in the doorway with a cup of coffee. She takes a long sip, then hands the mug back. "How are you doing on the LSAT?"
"Fine," he shrugs, feeling the new scar stretch painfully.
"Sam?" she asks softly, her hand hovering above the wound. "Please -"
"Don't worry about it. I'm fine."
She frowns, eyeing him doubtfully. He looks back at her with a level gaze. He doesn't want to talk about that night ever again. The memory of her shaking like a leaf, screaming herself hoarse, still haunts him like the grip of her fingers around his as they sat in the ER, soaked in blood. He doesn't know if he'll ever get over seeing her brightness tarnished in that way.
Something clicks behind her eyes and she steals the mug back. "I've got a great idea for Valentine's Day," she says, bubbly again and he sighs in relief.
"No cards, no presents, no dinner reservations," she elaborates over pancakes, slapping the Sunday comics out of his hands.
"Sounds good to me," he grins. "What's the catch?"
"No, think about it. People do all that stuff to find what we've already got."
His heart catches at the earnest look on her face. She goes from demure to vixen in the blink of an eye. "So my plan is to spend the whole day in bed with you. Does that plan meet with your approval?"
"I might need you to elaborate on it a little," he says, pushing his chair back away from the kitchen table and pulling her onto his lap. "Would any other furniture be involved?"
He's ready for her when she gets out of the shower, grabbing her and pulling her down. He never remembers how heavy she is until she's on top of him, and then his muscle memory recalls how pleasingly she uses her weight.
Her hot blue eyes have gone fuzzy at the edges, and he wants to roar with triumph that he can do that to her. Her breath comes fast against his cheek.
Her eyelids are already drooping in invitation, and he lifts his knees, tilting her forward into his kiss. His hand snakes up the back of her shirt, tenting the tight material, and he curls it around her ribcage and finds her nipple with his thumb. She's squirming against him like she wants to burrow into his chest, her hands cupping his head with a fearsome grip, and her tongue is fast and sloppy against his.
She breaks free and mutters, "God, Sam," as she sits back a little, hurried hands opening his jeans and tugging at his boxers. "Now," she says, shifting her hips and knees just enough to peel her boy-cut panties off, settling back over him with her toes tangled in the waistband of his jeans.
"Yes," she hisses as she sinks down onto his dick in one endless moment, the crown of her head pushed tight against his shoulder, her hands gripping the cool metal frame of the futon.
Her hair tangles between their mouths when she rocks back and finds his lips again. She shakes it back and grabs his shirt in her fists.
"Love you," he swears when she slams down onto him again. "God, love you."
His fingers dig into the soft flesh padding her hips, his thumbs catching the hem of her shirt. Her hand slips into his hair and tugs, and she digs her teeth into his neck, sharp little bites that syncopate with the slaps of her ass against his thighs.
She throws her head back as she screams and goes suddenly limp, loose hands dragging down his arms as he pushes up forcefully two, three, four times and comes, sinking back into the futon mattress and pulling her forward. She lies on his chest and they breathe in time with each other.
"Happy Valentine's Day, Jess," he says.
"Sorry, I didn't quite catch that," she lies, panting and grinning at him, squealing when he flips them and looms over her.
"Do we have company?" he asks when he gets back late from the library. One of these days he's going to get a microfilm machine that works on the first try.
She shakes her head with an odd smile. "Whose is that, then?" The bag on top of the kitchen table is soft brown leather, expensive-looking.
"Take a look," she says, and he frowns and steps forward. The tag dangling from one of the handles has his name on it. There's an envelope peeking out of the front pouch. He opens it to find two plane tickets.
She's watching his disbelieving eyes. "That's probably my parents calling about spring break," she says when the phone rings.
He thinks he protests, but they say don't be silly and our pleasure, chéri and you saved Jessie's life, we can never repay you. He finally hangs up, remembering only then to ask, "Where are we going?"
Paris in the springtime is a cliché for a reason. The air is sweet with the perfume of flowers; the sunlight seems warmer, richer somehow. It follows Jess like a spotlight, dancing across her hands as she tears a croissant in half, as she raises her café au lait to her lips.
They stand in front of the Mona Lisa, jostled by countless other tourists with cameras. They pay the fee to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower and look down at the vast swathes of land laid out before them. They wander among the statuary at the Rodin Museum, kissing in front of the Gates of Hell, and he thinks she might be rewriting his destiny.
Jess speaks French in bed every night that week, teaching him all over again with gentle kisses and greedy touches. Her mouth dips onto his skin as his fingers curl around her.
"Finally remembered my existence as soon as your girlfriend left town, huh, you fucker?" Zach says when Sam shows up on his doorstep with a six-pack. He grins. "At least you buy the good stuff. Come on in."
They savor the good beer over a huge dinner, then get trashed on the shitty Miller Lite that Zach has in the fridge. They play video games until dawn, when Zach finally crashes.
Sam throws his controller down and half-heartedly tries to clear away the clutter he's responsible for. He gives up after a few minutes and walks to the old gym.
He dives in, the water shockingly cold and thick against his skin, and he does laps until he's sore.
He buys every book of LSAT practice tests he can find and goes steadily through them, one section each day. He has no problem finishing in the allotted time, but he can't concentrate on the reading comprehension passages, five hundred-word excerpts from the most boring texts imaginable.
He finds vanilla candles at the arts and crafts store where Jess buys her sketchbooks. He finds it easier to focus on his work when the place smells like her.
She calls every night from Madison. "I miss you," he says instead of hello, and she just says his name, whispering because Celia's asleep in the bed next to hers. He likes it best when she doesn't even talk, and he can hear her quiet breaths.
He takes the June LSAT, just to see how he'll do. He's always been good at standardized tests, and anyway one day is much like the next without Jess around.
His results come three weeks later, far earlier than he expected, and he sits on the futon, puts his feet on the coffee table, and rips open the envelope. 174 is the number printed next to his name. He can't quite wrap his mind around it.
When it sinks in a few days later, he starts researching law schools and loans. He talks to a career counselor who looks over his transcript and his LSAT score and says something about the possibility of another full ride.
Jess can hear something different in his voice that night, but when she asks, all he says is that this is the longest summer of his life. "Oh, puppy," she says, and he laughs.
He starts to call her during the day too, and she talks to him while she's braiding Celia's hair or stretching canvases or driving to a coffee shop to meet her high school girlfriends for a quick bite. She offers up long discourses on the spectrum of reds used by Rubens, the lameness of bouquets of roses, the drawbacks of Wisconsin weather. He hears her say she loves him.
"Good luck, baby," she says, kissing him long and hard before handing him a new box of #2 pencils and a plastic Toucan Sam figurine. "I know the LSAT will bow down before you." He grins and walks downtown instead of across campus. He's only got a few hours to work with.
He's buzzed into the shop and has to turn his backpack over to the security guard behind the main desk. He browses the display cases, looking at each ring carefully. He's done his research - color, cut, clarity, carats - but he doesn't have a picture of what he wants in his head.
All he's sure of is that she'll light up when he offers her the ring, that it'll be all she wears when she comes to bed that night. Her flesh will warm the metal, and it will be smooth against his back when she holds him close, loving him.
She's bragging to her parents about the interview, and he slips his arms around her waist. "He's got a shot at a full ride to law school too." He kisses the side of her neck. "The interview's in a few weeks." He traces her ear with his tongue. "I'll call you when we find out and we'll celebrate," she says, smiling up at him.
"Did you just jinx me?" he teases after she hangs up.
"Not possible," she says. "I've got a good feeling about this. It'll all work out, Sam; you'll see."
She's never been wrong before, and he lets himself believe in the future he can see so clearly. He nips again at her neck. He'll go back to the shop after the interview, and he'll come home to her, pull out the ring, and kneel. She'll laugh and cry and hold out a trembling hand; he'll take her to their bed and lay her down.
He licks at her while he works her with his fingers, dimly hearing her strangled screams as she quivers beneath him. "Sam, Sam," she says, gasping, running her fingers over her breasts. She comes apart so beautifully, a whirlwind of pink and gold.
Her lips are swollen but she runs them over his skin insistently, her hands locked in his. She sits up and sinks down on him, and her eyes are the brightest things he's ever seen. He bucks up without warning, spilling her across his chest, and he holds her tightly to him.
She's flat on her back, a wide crimson sash across her waist, her hair spread out around her head like a sunburst. Her forehead wrinkles, the way it does when she's concentrating, but she doesn't relax into a smile when she sees him. Her eyes are burning when they lock onto his.
He realizes suddenly that he's looking up at her, that she's not in their bed but above it. Flames roll out of her belly before he can scream.
He cringes violently, waking himself up with the motion. He hasn't dreamt of fire in years, but his body remembers the drill, and he reaches out for Dean, lying in the bed next to his.