Sam felt almost sorry for Ms. Krajewski. She had a really crappy office in a really crappy school, where no one ever admitted to needing guidance. His future was sewed up just as tight as all of his classmates', even if he wasn't staying put in this one-horse town.
"Sam," she said, looking at him over the edge of the file in her hand, like she needed a barrier between them to assert her authority, "I really think you have an excellent shot at a top-tier school, with your grades."
She couldn't be more than twenty-five, only ten years older than he was, and he had to squelch the urge to take her hand and tell her everything would be okay. She evidently took his silence for sincere interest, and launched into a fairly impassioned speech about all of the doors that college could open up for him, how universities loved self-motivated kids like him, and how all he really needed to round out his dozens of applications was a strong showing in extracurricular activities.
Sam smiled, gently, and promised to think over everything she'd said, fingers crossed behind his back. He took the brochures she was holding out, figuring that at least he and Dean could use them for target practice later on; there was one picture of smiling undergraduates in their caps and gowns that really needed a knife or two to spice it up.
The college spiel started to get a little old, when every teacher and guidance counselor across the country started chanting it like they'd all been programmed. Like The Children of the Corn or something.
What was the point in listening? No one would ever be able to drown out Dad's words, about duty and honor and sacrifice. Sam just shrugged as affably as he could whenever the topic came up; he didn't want to think about why he never let himself spin fantastic lies about Ivy League schools and legacies going back several generations and "the Winchester buildings" like he so easily could have. It wasn't like he was ever going to see these people again, anyway.
Mrs. Goldblum changed everything, possibly because she used the best of Dad's guerrilla tactics. She pulled him out of class at odd times, barked at him like a drill sergeant for ten minutes, and then wrote him a note so he could rejoin his class, dazed and disoriented. She was a master strategist.
"Mrs. Goldblum," Sam said on his seventh visit to her office, crammed full of paper and photographs of her children and grandkids, hoping to cut her off at the pass this time, "I'm not going to college."
She waved away his words like they were pesky flies. "Nonsense! A boy with a brain like yours shouldn't be turning down opportunities so easily."
"How do you know what my brain -" he said, startling and nearly giving himself a bitch of a papercut when she waved the thick, stapled file of his transcript under his nose. "Maybe I'm just a suck-up, and that's why I got good grades."
"If you managed to charm your way into all of these A's, with all of these different teachers, then you should be able to change my mind with your mighty powers of persuasion." She raised her eyebrows and hopped up to perch on the edge of her desk. She fixed him with her beady eyes and said, "Go."
"I . . . uh . . . don't want to go to college."
"It's for losers."
She yawned dramatically, even patting her open mouth with a weary hand.
"I can't afford -"
This time she made a sound like a buzzer on a game show, a loud croak that sounded like a diseased frog. "Yes, Samuel, you can. Even application fees can be waived, as you very well know, because I myself have told you so at least three times in this very office."
She peered at him from her perch. "Sam," she said gently, "I'm not in the business of giving up on good kids like you."
He nodded, unable to speak because his stupid throat closed up at the way she was looking at him, like she knew him through and through and somehow liked him anyway. "I'm going to give you some information, and we'll meet tomorrow morning to go over it, yes?" She hopped down from her desk, and suddenly she was just this little old lady again, shorter than he was even when he was sitting down. Pointing up at him, she said, "If you've got the discipline, I've got the energy."
Sam smiled at her, and her answering grin went from ear to ear.
Dean, of course, was there to pick him up, as promised, but - shocker - he also had some girl pressing him up against the car; Sam knew that was his preferred pose, since he could keep an eye out while still having his "frisky" time. God, Dean really should be neutered as a public service. Sam was just flabbergasted that nothing they'd hunted had tried it yet, but he guessed that bad guys weren't real big on their civic duties.
Sam cleared his throat pointedly and managed to contort himself practically flat so that he could slide by them into the passenger seat. When he looked out the window, all he could see was Dean's butt, the little red tag on his jeans right in the middle of his field of vision. Sam rolled his eyes and dug in his bag for the materials Mrs. Goldblum had handed him, figuring he had at least ten minutes to kill, given the strenuous tonsil hockey Dean and the purple-haired girl were engaging in, and that he should get a head start on reading the brochures through before Dad found them and made confetti out of them.
The course catalogs were pretty wild. Sam couldn't imagine going to a class all about sexuality in advertising or literary forgeries, where everyone would show up and be interested and want to continue class discussions over coffee. He hid the catalogs under his mattress, but they made his bed lumpy and perversely incriminating, in a way that Dean's porn somehow never did to his mattress.
Looking through the glossy brochures, even examining the pictures with an eagle eye, he couldn't tell who were the rich kids and who were the scholarship kids; everybody dressed alike, in what was pretty much the Winchester uniform - faded jeans and whatever shirt looked at least passably clean. He wouldn't be the new kid, or the one who lived in that dirty motel, or the one who most often didn't have a single friend but always had a big brother.
He'd just be one in the crowd, not standing out in any way. But the crowd itself would be special - the smartest kids in the country, not grizzled hunters who had only one topic of conversation - death, death, and more death. He couldn't wait to get there.
And how hard could college applications be, anyway?
Sam groaned in frustration and buried his hand in his hair, twisting it a little to keep his eyes from closing. He should have tried to write at least one of the application essays before fighting his way through the twenty-five problems Mrs. Statler had assigned in Trig. Sam had never thought triangles were so fascinating that there needed to be a whole year of everyone's high school career devoted to them.
He glared down at the paper in front of him again. Name the person - living or dead, fictional or real - with whom you would most like to have dinner. You have no more than five hundred words. Thomas Jefferson? No, because five hundred words wouldn't be enough to explain that while he admired the man's commitment to democracy, his inventiveness, and his literary merits, he was smart enough to know all about Sally Hemings too. Madeleine Albright? No - he didn't want them to think that he was trying too hard to prove his commitment to feminism. Plus, between Jefferson and Albright, there might be some weird fascination with Secretaries of State that he didn't want to reveal, let alone explore.
He was idly squishing his face between his hands, praying for inspiration, when the perfect, unassailable answer popped into his brain. His mother.
Although for most of my peers, sitting down to a home-cooked meal across the table from a loving mother is an everyday occurrence, for me it would be a unique experience. There. He already had the first sentence, and the rest of the essay was unspooling in his mind, concise and creative and perfect.
A pang at using her death hit him, deep in his gut, and he quashed it ruthlessly. It wasn't like he was doing anything Dad hadn't done already, waving the banner of her death around, and anyway, he knew his mother would have wanted this for him. She would have been glad to see him go off to school, even if she would have kissed him goodbye with tears in her eyes.
She would have taken his side. He knew it, in his heart, and he bent his head and started to write.
"Go, go, go!" he shouted, watching as Dean whizzed by, totally focused on the knife flying toward him. Dean snatched it out of the air in mid-arc and plunged it deep in the . . . chestal area of the ugly thing Dad had identified as a centicore.
"Nice work, boys," Dad said, clicking the stopwatch off. It pissed Sam off to no end, seeing Dad leaning against the Impala just like Dean usually did, all careless leisure, like he wasn't asking his own children to fight something that they should have been able to run screaming from.
"Sam!" Dad snapped, and Sam guessed, from the worried look on Dean's face, that he'd spaced out. "What else is the centicore known as?" Dad asked, making it clear with his exaggerated patience that he was repeating the question.
"Uh, eale, sir." Sam wasn't going to get into how hard it had been to find a knife carved from bone, or how pointless the whole exercise had been. Dean had known how to run and hunt and kill before tonight, and Sam had mastered research by the time he'd finished middle school.
"Yale, sir." As if he didn't already have college on his mind.
But Dean broke out in a big grin when Dad nodded his approval, and Dad even sprang for burritos and sodas, so Sam just sat back and tried not to think too much.
"Sammy, are you getting shorter, or are you wearing the floor thin with all of that pacing?" Dean drawled as irritatingly as possible as he sprawled on the couch, eyes glued to the hot rod magazine in his hands.
Sam just sneered at him and kept pacing. He needed to figure out how to break the news, how to sell it; no one he knew had ever won an argument with Dad.
"Well, I know you didn't get some poor girl pregnant, since you're still saving yourself for Meg Ryan," Dean said, still not looking up from his stupid magazine. "Or is it Winona Ryder now?"
"I slept with Cindy Ballard two months ago, she came twice, and just . . . shut up, Dean," Sam said, not breaking stride.
Dean popped out of his sprawl faster than a jack-in-the-box. "You did? Why didn't you tell me, man? We could have celebrated!"
"For your information, Dean, most siblings don't go around sharing details about their sex lives with each other." God, why couldn't Dean just shut up?
But now Dean was looking intently at him. "What's the problem, man? Tell me and we'll figure it out together."
Of course that was when Dad walked in, still hobbling just a little because of his wrenched knee, with sandwiches from the deli down the block.
Sam's meatball sub was congealing right in front of his eyes, but anything he said would have been lost, drowned out by the noises Dad and Dean - especially Dean - made as they savored theirs. Sam waited until Dad had finished chewing his last bite before clearing his throat and starting the conversation.
"Dad," he said. "I got some really great news, about an amazing opportunity." Dad had a way of hiding his attention when it suited him, and Sam couldn't get a read on him; he braced himself and plowed ahead. "I found out that I got a full ride to Stanford, and I'm going - I mean, I need to be there by the middle of September." There - that should be humble and conciliatory enough, while still emphasizing how much he wanted this.
Dad didn't say anything for a few minutes, and Dean had apparently forgotten how to chew. There were storm clouds brewing on Dad's face, and Sam figured he needed to say something to turn the distance - California was just about two thousand miles from where they'd been circling - into a positive, or at least a non-issue. "Stanford - well, it's Ivy-level, but it's in California, so the weather should be good, and they don't give out a lot of full scholarships. So, you know, um, that's good."
There was an even longer, even worse silence, and this time the anger was clear on Dad's face; he looked like nothing so much as a predator, locking Sam in his sights. "Well," Dad finally said, his voice all silky as he cut right to the chase, "it sounds to me like you've got all of this worked out real nice for yourself. You want to quit. You think you're too good to hunt, that's fine." He stood, and his chair teetered behind him before crashing to the ground. His shadow stretched long and dark across the table.
"Dad!" Sam protested. "That's not what I - I was thinking, I could go there, and between quarters I could come back, help out on hunts, you know, and . . ." he cast desperately about, grasping at straws, "and even do some research while the school year is going on."
Dad's eyes were ice-cold. "You just want it both ways, don't you, Sam? You want to go off to your fancy school and still expect you'll have a home to come back to -"
Sam totally lost it then, jumping to his feet and snarling. "Oh, like we've ever had a home! We've moved every month for the past year and a half, so just spare me all the 'old Winchester home' shit!" He gulped down some air, forced himself to calm down. "All I was saying was that I could come back and hunt with you when school's out -"
"You don't know what a team is, what family is," Dad snapped back, one emphatic finger jabbing at Sam's face. "You can't just come and go as you damn well please. You have to commit. Or you're out."
"What are you saying?" Sam whispered. In his worst imaginings, he'd never come up with this level of awfulness. He couldn't believe that Dean wasn't even saying anything, that he was leaving this all up to Sam.
"Choose, Sam. Your family, and this job, or four years of overpriced education that's never going to get you anywhere."
"Dean?" Sam asked.
"Don't you look at him!" Dad roared, and Dean, who'd been still as a statue, his eyes unnaturally wide and his jaw slack, flinched at that.
"You walk out on your brother and me, we won't be here when you come crawling back," Dad said flatly.
"Fi -!" Sam started to shout, before Dean spit out the meatball that had been in his mouth all that time and yelled, "SHUT UP! Sam, can it. And Dad, he's not walking out on us. He's trying to make this work, and you're not letting him." Dean took a deep breath. "Sammy, if you go, you can call me day or night and I'll pick up. You got me?" Without another word, Dean righted Dad's chair and walked out of the crappy apartment, eyes locked unseeingly in front of him; where he was going was anybody's guess.
The door slammed shut, and Sam looked warily at Dad out of the corner of his eye. "I don't want to choose. I shouldn't have to. Mom -"
"Your mother would have wanted you to stay safe, Sam," Dad said, but his voice was softer, like he couldn't speak about her in rough tones.
"I will be. And I'll be back every break, I promise. Dad, please."
Dad didn't say anything, just sank back into his chair, looking like he'd been struck blind.
Dad came out and said yes the next day, short and clipped, and Sam would have cheered, if he'd had the breath.
Dad stepped up his training, concentrating on things that could be done even in front of an audience, like running; Sam shaved a full two seconds off his time for the quarter-mile. Dad also started coming up with pop quizzes whenever he could catch Sam for thirty seconds straight, tests that made even Trig seem like a breeze.
Dean was somehow even worse. From his vast memory bank of cheesy eighties movies, he'd assembled a guide to college life that Sam was sure bore absolutely no relation to reality. He didn't need tips on what to do when horny sorority girls wanted to double-team him on a waterbed whose mattress was filled with beer, and just because he knew how to hack into someone's computer, that didn't mean that he'd slack off and change his F's to A's at the last minute.
When Dean was eagerly trying to explain the finer points of the orgies sure to follow all of the toga parties on campus, Sam put his hand over his big brother's face and pushed. Now that was awesome.
Sam wasn't quite sure what exactly he'd been expecting, but for some reason the news that he'd be the valedictorian of Great Western Plains's class of 2002 hit him like a bowling ball to the stomach. He'd kind of always wanted to go to his own ceremony, unlike Dean, that heathen, but he'd also always figured that Dad's track record of wandering feet meant that he wouldn't be walking and would simply have to get his diploma from a P.O. box. It wasn't like Dad had anywhere to hang it, after all. For all he knew, Dean's could still be in the box they'd rented in a North Carolina post office.
And now he had to go to the ceremony. Even Dad would see that. The whole town would be up in arms if the valedictorian snubbed them - that was definitely the way to spin it.
He trudged happily along with the rest of the seniors to the football field for practice. The sun was shining for the first time in three cloud-covered weeks, and he closed his eyes and lifted his face toward the warmth. A sharp elbow to the ribs startled him. "Man," Dex said, his voice loud over his ever-present headphones, "don't you hear Mr. E calling you?"
Sam shook himself, seeing Mr. E looking right at him. "Val and Sal, any time you want to come up here, we could get this rehearsal going." Val and Sal? Sam wondered. Oh my God, he means valedictorian and salutatorian. They should have gotten the Latin teacher to run rehearsal, not a gym teacher.
As soon as he got to where Mr. E was standing, a pair of burly hands descended on his shoulders and swiveled him this way and that. "You'll lead the graduates in from over there" - swivel left - and you'll walk in rows of four to over there" - swivel right - "and then when everyone's lined up behind you, you'll start filing into the seats." The pressure on his shoulders suddenly got unpleasantly firm. "Don't sit down when you get to your seat. You'll all sit together, on my signal. Got it?"
It wasn't nearly as complicated as most of Dad's plans, or Dean's harebrained schemes, but Sam knew he had a tendency to flub the simple stuff because he was always worried about the more intricate stuff sure to come up next. "Got it, sir," he said, and Mr. E's eyes narrowed like he suspected that the title was mocking rather than involuntary. With one last squeeze, Sam's shoulders were finally released, and Sam went back to his seat, resolving to get Dean to give him a massage before they went to bed.
He couldn't believe it, but Dad and Dean were both there, sitting on the aisle - of course, because easy access to fighting space was of paramount importance at a high school graduation in the most boring town in the contiguous forty-eight states. Both of them were squinting at him through the late afternoon sunshine. They looked totally out of place next to the other families dressed in their best, with their jeans and beard-rough faces, but their eyes were drilled on him like they couldn't even see any of the other students, let alone their parents and siblings.
It looked like they were sharing one program between them, and Sam swallowed when he saw their heads duck down to look for his name, shining in metallic gold lettering. He played with the edges of his gold National Honor Society cord while he sat through the speech Leigh Clarkson, the senior class president, made, all about how they'd been through so much together, going to school with each other for twelve awesome years, and clapped automatically along with everyone else when she finally ended with an analogy to baby birds leaving the nest to make their own way in the world. He thought savagely of natural selection and smiled.
The ceremony dragged on as the sun started to sink, and Sam could barely hear half of the speeches over the humming of video cameras, and every few seconds another camera's flash would go off, brief and bright like a super-charged lightning bug. He was getting a little sleepy, actually, just sitting in his tent of a gown, dying to scratch under his stupid cap, the warm air still and heavy around him.
Whoops and hollers shattered the peacefulness of the scene as soon as his name was called. He blinked out into the audience, saw Dad and Dean standing and fist-pumping and grinning like a couple of Cheshire cats. A little murmur of disapproval ran through the audience, but the other seniors laughed, loosened up, and the rest of the evening flew right by on the strength of those cheers.
And after, when all of his classmates were posing with their parents for the cameras, Sam was weighed down by the weight of his dad's and his brother's arms, looped over his shoulders, as the three of them walked with their heads held high toward the prettiest car in the parking lot.
"Rooooooaaaaad triiiiiiip," Dean hollered obnoxiously, and even Dad smirked a little at that. Sam sighed and slumped down in his seat, mutely pleading with Dad to shut Dean up. "Dude, if you think I'm letting you go off without one last hurrah, then you're even dumber than you look," Dean explained carelessly, polishing the last of the knives.
"Dean, I have to be in Palo Alto in ten days for orientation."
"What, like sexual orientation? Come on, you can skip that."
"Ten days is plenty of time for us to drive you to California, Sam," Dad said, turning the page of his newspaper. In his wildest dreams, Sam had never envisioned Dad being there when he walked into his dorm room for the first time. "You need anything you don't already have in your kit?"
"Um," Sam said stupidly, trying to read the list still clutched in his hand. A lifetime of living out of duffels meant he actually did have most of the essentials already. "Just, um, extra-long twin-sized sheets."
Dean snorted. "They saw you coming a mile away, didn't they, Sasquatch?" He shook his head. "Don't worry, I'll set you up real good."
Sam felt his stomach knot with anxiety.
Maybe if you weren't from a family of freaks, the sight of a college campus swarming with people, about half of them in shirts and visors in a peculiarly eye-catching shade of red, wouldn't have been so intimidating. The only familiar sight around was Dean's face, set in smug lines because he'd insisted on leaving the Impala at home; he'd put his foot down and said that he wasn't letting his precious baby within a thousand miles of the insanity of move-in day at the dorms. Score one point for Dean's dumb movies, at any rate.
The truck was more convenient in any case, and they each grabbed a bag from the flat bed after locking up. Sam spun around when he felt a hand on his back that wasn't Dean's, and had to look down, down, down until he saw the top of some girl's head. She had to be four-ten, at the very most, but she looked large and in charge with her clipboard, Stanford shirt, and practiced smile. "Name?" she asked, popping her gum.
"Winchester," he said. "Sam."
Her lips moved as she scanned the thick list. "Samuel J.?" she confirmed. "You're in Oak Creek. Step over to the table over there" - she pointed to a clump of trees with tables clustered around them - "to pick up your keys, your orientation packet, and your Good Stuff bucket."
No one else had his family waiting in line with him, but Dad and Dean were acting like top-flight secret service men, and there was no good way to ditch them. Sam consoled himself with the thought that given the size of the crowds, it was highly unlikely that anyone else was paying even an iota of attention to him.
At least, until Dean opened his mouth. "Winchester, Samuel J.," he announced, jerking his thumb at Sam. Without even waiting for the girl seated behind the table to flip through her folders, he steamrolled right on. "He's the one who got a full ride, so if you need any help with your homework, gorgeous, I'm sure he'd be happy to oblige."
"Dean!" he hissed, trying to smile in a way that indicated humility and non-threateningness. Or
whatever the right word was.
But the girl seemed to have a decent sense of humor, because she just laughed it off, handed Sam his stuff, and wished him good luck.
Sam felt like a pack animal, burdened with all his duffels. Dean had snatched the Good Stuff bucket from him, and Dad was forging ahead like he didn't care if they followed, and not carrying a damn thing.
The universe was clearly looking out for Sam, though, and he'd have to give his guardian angel a high-five at some point, because Dad got his almost immediately. Sam knocked on the open door of his room, interrupting the conversation already in progress inside. "Hey, you must be Dale, right?"
"Yeah, you're Sam?"
"Yeah. This is my brother, Dean, and my dad." Dale nodded politely at them, but of course Dad and Dean looked suspicious.
"Isn't anyone going to introduce me?" a voice practically purred, and Sam turned to see Dale's mom, or possibly his much older sister, or aunt, or legal guardian, giving Dad the come-hither eyes and slinking over to him with her hand out like she expected him to kiss it.
Given that Dad was more likely to take a bite out of it than play nice, Sam privately wished her luck on her doomed quest.
"Bonnie Southey," she finally said, sidling up to Dad when it became evident he wasn't going to do the gallant thing. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Dad twisted his wedding ring, and looked briefly at Dean in what Sam could only describe as a beseeching manner. It was hilarious, as was Dean's dropped-jaw pose of idiocy, but the effect wore off pretty damn quick when Sam realized he'd never seen his dad with any woman, that he still wore Mom's ring, and that for his fidelity at least, Dad deserved better.
Besides, Dale's embarrassed blush indicated that Sam had approximately three seconds to save his relationship with his new roommate. "Dad? Can you and Dean go get the rest of my stuff? Dale and Mrs. Southey and I can figure out which side of the room is mine."
Dad shot him a look of gratitude and disappeared so fast Sam was surprised there wasn't a puff of smoke behind him.
"Turn off the goddamn lights, Sam," Dale whined weakly from his bed.
Sam grinned, finished tying his shoelaces, and launched into a loud and off-key lullaby. He hit the lights as he left the room, still humming, and left Dale to his dreams of busty blondes. Stretching his quads and planning out his route, he left the building and squinted into the sunlight that was just cracking the horizon. This early, it was still crisp out, but it was nothing he couldn't handle. He set out on his run, concentrating on his stride, looking at the girls jogging nearby, their long hair streaming out behind them.
College was awesome.
"She decided to do study abroad," Sam moaned into the phone, lying on his bed and walking his feet up the cinderblock wall.
"Aw, Sammy, what'd I tell you about the dangers of older women?" Dean asked, sounding only a little amused underneath it all. "The girls here'll get your mind off her."
"Yeah," Sam sighed, thinking of Erica's smile. And maybe her cleavage in that purple dress she liked to wear. He'd bet that the purple number would be a big hit with the boys in France. "Where are you guys, anyway?"
"Montana, but we're heading to North Dakota in the morning. When're you coming home?"
"Three more finals, and then I'll need coordinates," Sam said; he couldn't believe he was already done with his first quarter of college. "I gotta head to the library. Tell Dad I said hi."
"Tell him yourself in a couple days," Dean answered. "See you soon."
He took a small detour to the campus store before heading to the library; he didn't have a lot of money saved up, but it was still worth it to get the red Cardinals coffee mug for Dean and a Stanford flask for holy water that Dad could keep in a jacket pocket.
Sam fiddled with the Velcro on his new ankle weights - Dad's Christmas gift to keep his workouts as difficult as possible - twisting the cuff on his right ankle to keep it positioned properly. He stood, then noticed his shoe was untied, and crouched back down.
Something slammed into him, and he toppled over. "What the -" he spit out, twisting to get his sights on his attacker.
A totally gorgeous girl was sprawled on the blacktop next to him, long blonde hair spilling every which way over her. Her knee was bleeding, but she was staring at him, looking like she didn't know whether to laugh or apologize.
"Um, not my finest hour," she finally said, then snorted and burst out laughing. "I'm really sorry! I thought you were getting up, and I figured I could get into stride right behind you."
"Why?" Sam asked, looking to make sure she wasn't cut or scraped anywhere else that he could see.
"I figured the sight of your butt would motivate me," she said, grinning at him while she redid her ponytail. "Like a mechanical bunny at a dog-track."
"Oh, um," Sam stuttered, considering the bizarreness of her simile. Mechanical bunny? "I see."
"I'm Jess," she said, extending a scraped hand toward him.
"Sam," he said. He got to his feet and pulled her gently up while shaking her hand. She was tall and curvy, and the sight of her - any part of her, really - would be enough to motivate him too. She smiled like she could read his thoughts and brushed herself off. "Come on, then, if you're coming," he said, jogging backwards to keep her in sight.
Jess smiled at the challenge and put on a burst of speed, breezing right by him. He whooped and caught up.