For Deanish, for the SFTCOL(AR)S Secret Summer Santa Challenge, Round 2.
And before I say anything else, I totally want to pimp her. Deanish writes amazing, intense, involved fics, and is one of my more recent joys (yes, I am slow!). If you have not read her, do yourself a HUGE favor and do so now! You will be glad you did.
With that (very important bit) said, her prompt was, "I'd really like something about how [Sam actually got to Stanford -- the actual trip itself." She even provided lots of helpful info, like the price of a Greyhound ticket. As you can see, hon, I took your advice to heart.
And now for the blah, blah, blah (insert disclaimer here): The title is from the REM song, which sort of fits and sort of doesn't...it has the mood I was looking for, so it served as the musical inspiration.
With absolute gratitude to Faye, Kaly and Tyranusfan, who make me so much better than I would be alone. And I'm not just talking about writing.
Spoilers for everything, but particularly lines from Bugs and HotH and the lack of sentiments from Scarecrow.
And away we go...
Cameron, MO 4:55 p.m.
Sam pays for the ticket with a mix of crumpled bills and assorted change—real money he's earned himself over the past four years. Sacking groceries, mowing lawns, odd jobs here and there for neighbors when they stayed somewhere long enough to have any…there had always been work when he'd looked for it, one of the advantages of mostly living in rural communities.
The money's not much, but it's cold, hard cash. He hadn't planned on using it for this—at least, not exactly. He'd been saving the money for school in general, used a small portion to pay for his applications, for transcripts to be collected and mailed from half a dozen different high schools. A fair portion, too, had made its way into the Impala's gas tank, the arsenal in the trunk, a couple of eleventh-hour reprieves when they were running and needed a place to stay.
He and Dean had always contributed when it was needed, though it was one of the few things Dad never asked of them. Sam had never begrudged it, though; keeping a roof over their heads and food in their bellies was a responsibility shared. And for Sam, it was about keeping them honest almost as much as keeping them safe. Money earned meant one less hustle, one less fraudulent credit card, one less worry about jail and child services and separation.
And now, it's his means of buying a one-way ticket to the ultimate separation. The irony doesn't escape him.
The attendant doesn't make eye contact, just counts off the tally as she slides scarred quarters into her drawer. She presses a button and the ticket pops up, almost the size and shape of an envelope, his name—his real name—in the corner and SAN JOSE printed in caps along the bottom. Not the final destination, but close enough.
The station's not that crowded—a Tuesday afternoon, no holiday, not exactly prime-time—and he settles himself into an empty corner to wait, using his bag as a backrest. He holds the ticket between calloused fingers, smudging the ink when his thumb presses too hard.
It's just a flimsy piece of paper, industrial-blue card stock that would curl into ash at the slightest hint of flame, disintegrate into an unsalvageable mess of pasty fiber if it got a little wet. Just a piece of paper, worthless to anyone but Sam.
But to Sam, it represents…everything.
He holds it like it's made of glass.
He's first in line when they call to board, no bag to check, just the big, worn backpack he's had since junior high. It's heavy, but malleable; he doesn't have a seatmate, so he settles it in the seat by the window and takes the aisle for himself, long legs sprawled out into the walkway.
The bus is more empty than full, and Sam can see across through the opposite window. He thinks he sees a flash of black as the brakes release and they start to move, a figure propped against it in gray relief. He leans over, not sure what he'll do if Dean is watching, not sure if Dean is even there or if it's just a product of wishful thinking.
Before he can make up his mind, they've turned the corner, and the flash is gone.
He turns his eyes back to the seat in front of him, head pressed against his own, and tells himself it doesn't matter. That everything's going to be okay.
Right at this moment, though, it's hard to believe.
Lawrence, KS 8:40 p.m.
Righteous anger can carry you a long way, further than most people would figure, sometimes even far enough. But when the second stop pulls them into Lawrence, Sam's escapes him in a rush that leaves him breathless and more than a little sick.
They'd transferred buses in Kansas City, so it's not a real layover. He doesn't have to get off, doesn't even have to move, which is a good thing, since he's not sure he could stand if he tried.
You want to go, then go. But you stay gone, you hear me? Don't even think about coming back.
He rubs at his forehead, fighting the pressure that's been building there for what seems like years. The pain is sharp, radiating; he feels like his head might explode.
A hand falls on his shoulder and he looks up, startled, already reaching for the backpack.
"You alright, son?"
Sam swallows, throat tight and raw. The old man stares at him with open concern and he pastes on a smile, makes himself nod. "Fine, sir. Thanks."
Fingers tighten briefly over his jacket and then let go. Sam straightens, clears his throat, pretends the stinging in his eyes is just fatigue.
The bus pulls out with a hiss and a jerk and they head deeper into the twilight.
The rest of Kansas is a blur, paling against the Technicolor of painful memories, of lifelong grief.
They stop in Salina, long enough for Sam to stretch his legs, get a drink of water. He's stiff from sitting in the same position for so long, and it feels good to get up. He reaches high, twists and bends, and it almost makes him smile, thinking of how the Impala, for all it age and utter lack of ergonomic-correctness, is far more comfortable that a thick-cushioned, reclining chair of a seat that's actually been designed for long-distance travel.
His body remembers the space behind his father's seat that's cradled him since before he could walk, the front passenger seat that still feels special whenever he and Dean are allowed to ride alone. His father's car, his family's car, where Sam is no longer welcome.
The smile fades and doesn't return.
He dozes through the next layover, not really asleep, just drifting, his mind rolling back through the argument, picking at pieces, cringing at the things he wishes he hadn't said and the things his father had.
Dean called him an idiot after, as he was throwing clothes into his bag, hands shaking too much to even attempt any kind of order.
In retrospect, he probably was.
It wasn't like he'd kept the idea of college a secret. He'd been talking about it in some form or another for years, since before he'd even really known what it was.
Ten years old, and shocked at the idea of getting to live at school—all the time—and have access to a library that dwarfed every mid-sized Carnegie he'd ever been in. Thirteen, and being led through the Special Collections at Loyola by a professor friend of Pastor Jim's who'd specialized in Demonology. Sixteen, and sitting in the guidance office of a school he'd only attended for six weeks, his father looking as uncomfortable as when they'd had The Talk, scanning brochures and listening to his counselor talk about potential and opportunity and future.
Dad had never said anything about it, just ignored the conversation like not acknowledging meant it didn't exist. Instead, he'd upped the tempo of Sam's training. Pulled him out of school before the quarter ended, moving them across three state borders before he was ready to settle again. And tightened his already iron control over his sons, trying to make sure there wasn't time for anything but hunting.
Never one for subtlety, his dad.
So, yeah. Definitely an idiot to believe things would go any way but poorly.
Denver, CO 6:15 a.m.
There's a long layover in Denver, and they switch buses again. Everyone's moving slow and jerky, like the zombies Sam remembers from the Sam Raimi movies he and Dean had devoured as kids.
The coffee kiosk is already open and doing a pretty brisk business. Sam doesn't have much in the way of discretionary funds, will be surviving the remainder of the trip off two apples and three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches Dean had shoved at him before he'd walked out the door. But the $1.07 he spends is more than worth it, the coffee bitter and black and potent.
He washes his face and brushes his teeth in the blue-tiled men's room. He doesn't do more than glance at his reflection, not sure who he'll see. Not sure who he wants to see. He ducks out of the way as a small group stumbles in, makes his way to the windows and sits on the floor. He tucks his bag under his knees and sinks into the all-too-recent memories from the last time he was here.
They'd been camped in a little town outside Morrison, doing recon on a shapeshifter. Dean was sent to get the mail from their box in Topeka when the hunt was over, and when he'd returned, Dad had headed to Provo to replenish their silver bullet supply. As soon as Dad pulled out, Dean tossed the envelopes—thick and heavy—onto the cracked Formica table. Sam had known what they were immediately, but didn't say anything, stomach suddenly in knots of fear and something else…something that maybe felt like anticipation. He'd pulled them closer, fingertips only, like they might scald.
Princeton. Notre Dame. Rice. Stanford. All his eggs in four little baskets, spread across the country.
He opened them slowly, one by one, pulling out stiff sheets of embossed letterhead. Congratulation, Mr. Winchester…Pleased to welcome you to the Class of 2006…Please fill out all enclosed forms… Sam had stared at them in a kind of stunned giddiness. Dean had stared at him until Sam looked up, his brother's expression unreadable. "Looks like you got in."
Sam just nodded, words still elusive, already re-focusing on the papers before him. The letter from Stanford stood out from the rest, crimson amidst a sea of cream. Full scholarship. Tuition and books plus a small stipend toward housing. Need and academic-based.
Everything he'd worked for, sitting right there in his hands. It was a little overwhelming.
In the silence, Dean had moved behind him, reading over his shoulder. As Sam flipped through the subsequent pages, Dean made for the refrigerator, grabbing a beer and raising it toward Sam. "Guess congratulations are in order. I mean, you got what you wanted, right?"
So many layers to one little question. And the smile on Dean's face was anything but joy.
Something inside Sam had shriveled then, faced with his brother's look of hurt. Betrayal. All the elation of just a moment before bled out of him. "Dean..."
Dean had never said much about Sam's college aspirations. He'd changed the subject when he could and poked fun when he couldn't, calling them geek hotels and acting like academia was a step below law enforcement, in terms of the respect he gave it. Still, Sam had thought, when the time came, that Dean would support him.
Watching Dean now, it was obvious how wrong he'd been. Dean waved a hand dismissively and set the beer down, untouched. He grabbed his car keys, ducked his head. "Going to go get us some dinner. I'll be back in a bit."
"Dean." Sam stood this time, took a step toward him, hating the pleading note in his own voice but craving some sign of approval.
There was none to be found.
He followed Dean out the motel door, willing his brother to turn around. Dean made for the car, reaffirming that he wouldn't be gone long, never meeting Sam's eyes. Sam watched the Impala back out of the motel lot, saw it jump a little as Dean floored the accelerator, and felt the first sparks of righteous anger spring to life.
He'd been pissed at Dean a hundred times over the years, for a myriad of reasons, big and small. And Dean had been pissed right back. They'd annoyed each other, aggravated each other, purposefully pushed each other's buttons. They were brothers; it went with the territory. And maybe he'd always known Dean never understood the part of him that didn't just want but needed something more than this, needed something beyond a life of transience and isolation and fear. Just like he didn't understand how Dean could keep blindly following orders, towing the line without question, never looking beyond what was right in front of him.
But he'd always believed that Dean would have his back, even in this. That Dean would know how much this meant to him and be happy. Be proud.
In truth, Sam was far more hurt than angry, but the anger gave him fuel, gave him purpose, paved the way.
He'd dropped his acceptance packet for Stanford in the grocery store's mailbox before the clock had even struck midnight.
Dean still wasn't home.
Green River, UT 3:30 p.m.
It's mid-afternoon when they cross the state line, and Sam feels stretched out, blurry and so far beyond tired. It's a familiar feeling; nerves on edge, shoulders tense, eyes bleary and stinging. Familiar, except he's used to having Dean with him, trading insults or jokes to keep each other awake, or just quiet and focused, knowing they were watching out for each other.
He wonders what they're doing now, if they've already packed up and moved on, if Dad was mad at Dean for driving him to the bus station, if they talked at all about Dad's ultimatum and how wrong it was…
Or if maybe he's the only one who feels that way.
Eighteen years and Sam still doesn't understand it. They've given everything to the hunt, for as long as he's been alive. They've gone without family, without friends, without any permanent home. They've been worn down and worn out and injured and they've failed, time and time again. They're no closer to finding and killing the thing that killed Mom than they were the night it happened. And every hunt takes them that much closer to the brink. If one of them dies, if he loses Dean or Dad, what then? When does it end? And when it does, how much more will they have sacrificed?
Evil is everywhere; it's all Sam's ever known. Sometimes, he feels like he could drown in it. And it's never going to end; there's no cease-fire, no closure. The hopelessness of it is overwhelming. And even so, he never planned on deserting his father and brother. They could have called if they needed him, whenever they needed him, if they were really determined to keep doing this forever. Sam would have helped with research and contacts, maybe even learned a trick or two to keep them safer, keep them whole. They're family and he'd never in a million years thought that going to freaking college, of all things, meant that he'd have to lose his.
Sam pounds a fist against his leg and swears in frustration. The woman who'd taken the seat across from him in Grand Junction clucks a little in disapproval and he turns away, forces his fingers apart, squeezes his thigh instead. There'll be bruises there in a few hours.
They've lost so much already; he never thought he would have to leave all that was left behind.
Las Vegas, NV 10:10 p.m.
Las Vegas feels like mourning.
Sam remembers the last time he was here—not just remembers, but breathes it, the people, the sounds, the smells, the heat that radiates up from the streets and sidewalks in waves.
They'd been outside Albuquerque, between hunts and escaping the snow, when Dean turned 21. He'd slapped a fake ID in Sam's hand, waving his real one in his own. After a rather too-detailed lecture from Dad, they'd hit I-40, bound for bright lights and big city and all the sin they could fit into 24 hours.
The drive itself had been maybe the purest time of happiness Sam had ever known. Just him and Dean and the road. No constant thrum of anxiety for the hunt to come. No Dad glaring at them disapprovingly when they got too loud or too unfocused. No research, no planning, no leads to follow. Just freedom. They'd sung along with the Ramones and Bon Scot until they were hoarse, windows rolled down even though it was only a smidge above 40 degrees most of the way.
They'd found a motel way off the Strip and Sam had sprung for a cab so they wouldn't have to risk the Impala to car thieves or tourists. Not to mention the fact that Dean had promised they'd both be drunk by dinner.
They played pai gow and blackjack and craps, blowing through a tight little pile of twenties Dean had been hoarding from his last few rounds of hustling. Sam hit a small jackpot on a nickel machine, and Dean cashed in the winnings for one-dollar bills, determined that they weren't leaving town until Sam had a lap dance.
Almost everything from that point on was a blur, one scene blending into the next like the turn of a kaleidoscope, alcohol turning everything a pleasant shade of cool. But what still stands out clear and sharp is Dean coming back to the motel with him, even though Sam had been sure he'd take advantage of one (and maybe more) of the pocketful of phone numbers he'd acquired through the evening. How they'd found a Stooges marathon on the motel TV and camped out on the floor, laughing and leaning into each other until they passed out, still comfortably buzzed.
The next day had found them sleeping late, then stumbling to a $2.99 breakfast buffet before folding themselves back into the car. They'd winced against the sharpness of the sunlight, tired and aching and quiet on the drive back, for the best possible reasons.
Everything had been amazing, then. The lights, the pulse of music that came from every corner, the constant crush of people, the hilarious discovery that slot machines really were everywhere, even bathrooms. The outrageous free shows, both planned and not, on display at each of the casinos. The unnatural heat of the desert in winter, abnormally high temperatures holding steady well into the evening. The way that everything seemed bigger, brighter, more, a rush of all things possible, converging in this place that never even seemed to pause, much less sleep.
Everything is wrong, now. Too harsh, too fast, too loud, too crowded. The heat is cloying, like vines climbing over his skin. Sam's head pounds and his tongue feels thick and dry, like he's been wandering lost for days. The whole city presses against him, battering him, spotlighting everything he's given up. Everything that's been taken.
For the first time since boarding the bus in Cameron, he truly feels alone.
RS Barstow Travel CT, CA – 2:00 a.m.
It's a new day when they cross into California. It's pitch black outside the windows, though, and nothing feels any different. Same hum of tires over concrete, same muffled snores and heavy breaths from the passengers around him, same voice in his head saying this is home now, this is where you belong. Same feeling of loss, rather than comfort, hearing that voice.
Claremont becomes El Monte becomes the glitter of Los Angeles. They stop to switch drivers in a huge terminal, filled with almost as many people as there were in Vegas. It's a younger crowd here; kids his age, some younger. Everyone looks tired and strung out and Sam tells himself it's just because it's still not quite five in the morning.
L.A. becomes Bakersfield, Fresno, Madera. Sam feels like they're chasing the sun, the day growing brighter as they head north. Los Banos, then Gilroy, and now it's not even an hour. His breath quickens, and he draws the backpack into his lap.
They reach San Jose in the early afternoon. This time, Sam's last off, waiting until the aisle's cleared before he makes his way down. He pauses on the steps, feeling the bus driver watching him.
And then, there he is.
He heads to the rest room first, changes the wrinkled shirt he's worn for the last 50 hours or so to a clean tee and blue button-down. He smoothes his hair back, and looks himself in the eye for the first time since he left Missouri. "This is it," he whispers, but it still doesn't feel real. He's still not quite sure who he sees.
That changes abruptly when Sam buys his CalTrain pass. When the man in the ticket booth asks his destination, he slides over a $5 bill and says, "Palo Alto." The man gives him a two-zone pass and a Sacagawea dollar and doesn't seem to notice that Sam's hands are shaking.
This is it, the final step, and for a moment—just one swallow of air—he almost changes his mind.
But Winchesters are made of sterner stuff, right? Even Winchesters who have left hunting behind. History behind. Family behind. It doesn't make him any less, does it? Weaker? Incapable? Doesn't make him less because he chose a different path?
Sam frowns, shrugging his backpack a little higher on his shoulder. He knows Dad's answer to that question. Thinks he knows Dean's, too, however much it pains him. But now, maybe—finally—it's his own that really matters.
There's a woman getting on the train in front of him. She's slow, limping, a huge purse held like a baby in her arms. She struggles to lift her foot over the narrow gap between concrete walk and rail car and loses her grip on the purse.
Sam doesn't have to think about it, just leans forward, scoops it up, holds a hand out to help her the rest of the way in. She leans heavily, leading the way to the far row of plastic benches. Sam deposits the purse beside her, and they sit.
"Whoooo," she breathes, winded but happy, and keeps his hand in a tight hold. "Thank you, honey. Nice of you to help an old woman."
Sam blushes, ducks his head, shoves his other hand deep in his pocket. "It was no trouble, ma'am."
"'Ma'am' he says." She chuckles approvingly. "Honey, somebody raised you right."
His blush fades, and his hand goes limp in hers. He clears his throat, but doesn't know what to say.
Someone did raise him right, in those ways, at least. Sam hasn't forgotten. He never will.
It doesn't make it hurt any less.
"Where you headed, honey?"
The train pulls out with a screech and a shimmy that pushes his shoulder against hers. San Jose grows smaller as Sam watches out the window, bleeding into the distance, becoming a memory. Joining all the other memories now behind him.
The future's there in front of him, eight stops away—just minutes—laid out for the taking. There's no going back. He's nervous and uncertain and lonely in a way he'd never even thought possible, and this might be the single biggest mistake he's ever made. But there's no going back.
Sam squares his shoulders, and finds them somewhere in him, the feelings that aren't anger or fear or doubt. Instead, they're the ones that really brought him this far. Hope. Belief. A want that's so deep, it's in his bones.
No going back.
"Stanford," he answers, clear and strong. And the train pushes on northward.