New fic here. It's complete, but needs to be posted in parts because of its length.
It's called "Sunshine State." Sam/OFCs, Sam/OMC, Sam/Jess. Sam spends three years at Stanford.
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. He 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.
On to Part 2