Betas: sistabro and callowyn
Series: Not Such as I Was
Pairings: Sam/Arthur, pre-slash
Timeline: Pre-canon, Stanford-era
Disclaimer: None of the canonical characters contained herein belong to me and this work is not intended for any profit or other commercial purposes. Title from the Modest Mouse album of the same name.
Contents include: Language, disturbing dream imagery
Summary: Everyone needs their secrets, Arthur knows that, but there’s something huge he’s missing here and without it, Sam’s a puzzle he can’t quite solve.
September 4, 2001
Arthur's sitting in a diner booth across from the Winchester kid (emphasis on 'kid'), who's sucking down a milkshake like he’s going for a prize, giving these tiny groans of pleasure every time he pauses for breath. Arthur looks down at the milkshake in front of him, wishing he could block the sounds as as easily as the visuals, both of which are just a little too interesting to the baser parts of him. He takes a sip as a way to distract himself. Then he lets out a noise of his own, startled, because it's exactly how he likes them, just like—
"Where's yours from?" asks Sam.
They’re sitting in a diner; the question doesn’t make sense. There’s no way Sam could know what Arthur was just reminded of. "If you’re asking what flavor this is, the answer is vanilla mixed with hot fudge." Arthur holds up a finger to forestall the usual question. "Totally different from a chocolate milkshake. The fudge makes it melt faster." Then he frowns. "Didn’t you hear me order?"
Sam smiles and Arthur would be distracted by that, except that this whole situation is suddenly bugging him—why the hell is he taking the Winchester kid out for milkshakes? That's so sappy that it overpowers even the taste of a milkshake the way they make it at Tierney's Diner down the street from his parents' house. Everything here is way too sweet—and where is here, anyway?
Meanwhile, Sam says, "One, I asked exactly what I wanted to know, because mine's from a soda fountain in Texas and I doubt you’ve ever had the pleasure.” He looks at Arthur’s shake with a smile that’s almost wistful. “Two, I know there’s a difference with fudge: my brother used to order them that way sometimes." His expression shifts again and he looks even younger, like a kid turning in a late homework assignment. He takes another demure sip of his own milkshake before continuing. "And no, I didn’t hear what you ordered, because you never did."
The din of the other customers around them dies down, like everyone in the whole diner is waiting for Arthur's response.
"This can't be a dream,” Arthur says, refusing to turn and start checking for soft spots. “I can smell. I can taste. I can read all the words on the menu." To prove it, Arthur points to the wall over Sam’s head. "Hamburger, two dol—" But even as he reads them off, the words on the menu change. Suddenly he’s looking at entries like "Your favorite food when you were a kid, free; Your favorite thing to do, free; Something you've always wanted to try, free." Arthur swallows hard as he looks down at sugar packets labeled "Do you believe me now?" He starts to stand but the exit sign overhead flashes to him, one word at a time, "CALM DOWN OR THEY WILL HURT YOU."
Indeed, every eye in the diner is locked on Arthur. He's thinking up a Beretta M9 to shoot them both out, trying not to panic. Yes, Sam builds the most realistic dreams anyone has ever shared: Arthur's been in one already and Mal can't shut up after every time she takes Sam down. But has Mal been so obsessed with that realism that she's forgotten to teach Sam about Limbo?
Sam reaches across the table and grabs Arthur's right wrist before he can reach for the gun now holstered and cocked at his side. "You really don't want to do that, Arthur," he whispers, his eyes casting about, looking at the projections. Sam's grip on Arthur is firm, his long fingers warm, gun-callused, and he's running his thumb up and down the inside of Arthur's wrist, which is both soothing and totally unfair. Even as Sam’s voice stays soft and calm, however, his projections become more menacing; light glints off the enormous knife the cook's brandishing. "We should probably get out of here."
Arthur keeps his voice low and his eyes on anything but Sam's face. "Do you even know about Limbo, Sam? Or soft spots? We don't need to leave the diner, we need to end this whole dream. Now."
Sam's grasp loosens. Arthur sighs in relief and starts to pull away, but then Sam twines their fingers together and holds tight again. "Actually, you told me everything there is to know about them earlier tonight." Sam tilts his head so that Arthur has to look at his face, bangs flopping into his hazel eyes. "We're going to walk across the street to the park. There aren't going to be any soft spots, I promise."
There are seventeen ways Arthur could break Sam's hand or arm right now; he could think up a grenade in his left hand if he had to. Sam squeezes Arthur's hand once. "Trust me, Arthur."
Arthur lets Sam lead him out of the diner.
As their feet hit the sidewalk outside, Arthur realizes he's the one clutching Sam's hand now, but he can't make himself stop; he's too busy looking for any of the surreal warning signs that mean he could walk into a soft spot and never walk back out. But if Sam hadn't said anything, Arthur still wouldn't be able to tell they're in a dream. There are kids on the playground, watchful parents sitting on benches nearby, flowers in full blossom with bees buzzing around them. Nothing blurs along the horizon or at a distance: every detail holds up to close inspection. This is a whole new kind of dangerous.
"What is this place?" Arthur asks as Sam sits them down on a bench in front of the fountain.
Sam shrugs. "The fountain's in Portland, the diner's from Texas and Tampa, the park is sort of a mash-up of a whole bunch of places. Mal's scared that if I build dreams out of whole memories, I might lose track of reality." Sam huffs out a breath, looking sheepish. "Sorry about dream-napping you, but to be fair, you pretty much did the same thing to me right after we met."
A stray drop from the fountain hits Sam's jeans and Arthur watches, fascinated, as the water sinks and spreads into the fabric. The physics are perfect. "I guess so," he says.
Sam squeezes his hand. "What's the last thing you remember?"
Arthur blinks and it takes him a few moments to bring it back to mind. "I was in my office, filling out the paperwork on... on Achun. Specialist Nol." Tears prick unpleasantly at Arthur's eyes but he pushes them back. "Which is exactly why we should wake up now, Sam. She was an even better builder than me, but that didn't stop both her and the subject from dropping through to Limbo on a routine training run." Arthur turns to look Sam in the eyes. "You may not think they're out there, Sam, but I've lost—Achun was the only other survivor of my AIT class, did you know that?"
"You lost a lot of people, you told me." Sam looks down and Arthur thinks he may have finally won. "I’m sure you already know I have too."
Arthur does know that already, but he doesn’t remember telling Sam anything of the sort. "Did you look through my files?" he asks, suddenly furious. Sam lets his hand go. Arthur would stand up if he had the courage to trust the ground beneath his feet.
"You offered to give me a ride home once you finished the letter for your friend,” Sam says. “I sat there and waited. One second you were awake, staring at a blank document, the next thing I knew you faceplanted onto the desk and started to snore." Sam looks up, with his eyes all round and dewy. “I didn’t want to have to wake you up to talk.”
Arthur's fury takes one look at those eyes and sort of rolls over. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter instead. Sam frowns at that, but fuck him. Not like it's real nicotine anyway. And Sam still has a lot of explaining to do. "So what, then? You looked through all my confidential files—which is technically treason, by the way—managed to get the PASIV out of a concealed, locked safe, then hooked us up without any training on timing or dosage-to-weight ratios?" Sam's jaw quirks to the side and Arthur nearly chokes on his smoke. "There's more?"
Sam bites his lip. "I only looked at the files you had on me—which were a complete violation of my civil rights, by the way.” He doesn’t look sorry at all, the little brat. “I did crack the lock on your safe, though beneath your desk hardly counts as concealed. There was a manual on the dosage stuff in there, and I've been watching Mal when she does setups." Sam looks down again. "I knew your weight from carrying you out to the car." The cigarette slips from Arthur's fingers even before Sam adds, "Which I had to hotwire, because I couldn't find your keys in the office, and I didn't want to root around in your pockets."
"Nice to know you recognize some privacy boundaries," Arthur snaps as he lights a new smoke. "So not just dream-napping, but real-life kidnapping and multiple counts of grand theft to go along with the treason. That’s pretty fucking impressive, even after seeing the list of warrants out on your father."
Sam winces at the word 'father,' Arthur notices, and reminds himself that Sam's just a kid; his childhood isn't his fault. "That's one of the things I wanted to talk about, actually," Sam says.
"And in the waking world, this conversation is taking place where?"
Sam shrugs. "My dorm room. The bed isn't great, but you won't have as bad a crick in your neck this way." Like that excuses any of it. "It's probably about one thirty in the morning by now."
Arthur takes a long drag, staring at Sam—the multiple felon, the medical miracle, the guilty object of his own most secret daydreams. A kid who left his equally felonious family behind by somehow cobbling together the grades he needed for Stanford, a runaway who still flinches every time someone mentions family. Arthur's on his next cigarette by the time he's calm enough to speak. "You've got me here now. So talk."
Sam watches Arthur take another drag, and then his gaze drops. “So I—I guess first I should say thank you, to you and Mal, because this shared dream stuff is just—I mean, wow. But at the same time...” He stuffs his hands in his pockets. “Honestly, when I got to your office, I was trying to find how to say I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Arthur pities Sam’s naïvité in thinking the government would let the most important discovery in dreamshare since the concept was proved walk away from their project just like that. It almost works to cover his bubbling panic at the idea of Sam leaving. “But?”
“But—” Sam sighs, shoulders slumping. For a long time he doesn’t say anything. The sky in the park is getting darker. “Do you know why I came to Stanford?”
John and Dean Winchester’s arrest records flash through Arthur’s mind, along with the three-page list of schools Sam attended between ages six and eighteen and abandoned cases from Child Protective Services in five different states. He takes another drag. “I imagine the full ride had something to do with it.”
Sam laughs. “That wasn't a reason, that’s just what made it possible.” He casts a quick, suspicious look at the people in the park, then stares down at his hands. Most of the projections, Arthur notes, have stopped moving. Sam says, “College was it for me, you know? I went for so long thinking the only thing I’d ever do was—what I’d always done, and then one day one of my teachers says well, what about college, and from then on everything I did was about trying to get in somewhere. To get out.”
Out of what, Arthur wants to know, because he’s not stupid enough to think the bits that got onto Sam’s permanent record are the whole story. But his attention strays to the projections across the park, who have begun to move again—but not in the carefree play he’d seen before. The child-shaped ones are twitching in ways humans usually don’t, their limbs hanging loose and almost-jointless in their sockets. Undulating. "Your childhood was fucked up, I'm getting that," he says, pulling at his tie.
“I thought, once I got to college, I’d get a chance to be normal,” Sam says. There’s a wet ripping sound, and Arthur jumps, horrified, when the child-projection closest to him splits its limbs right down the middle. The new appendages wriggle, thinner and more flexible, getting used to their new freedom. But Sam seems oblivious, still talking. “If I could just start over, find someplace where I wasn’t the freak—”
“Sam,” Arthur says warningly. Across the park, the young projections have turned on their parents, tearing them apart with too many limbs and too-sharp teeth.
“Wouldn’t that make it worth it? Leaving—leaving everything? Wouldn’t it?” Thunderclouds churn overhead, thick and strange-colored. “And then I come here,” Sam says, “and I sign up for one simple sleep study, and then it turns out my dreams are the key to some whole secret project that wants to pick me apart. Turns out I’ve got a whole different flavor of freak in my grapefruit.”
“Sam!” Arthur snaps, because the older projections are just bloody smears now and he doesn’t want to find out what happens when the children are finished with them.
Sam looks up at him. “But then there’s you,” he says, and the thunder stops.
“What about me?” Arthur says, watching Sam’s face instead of the massacre drawing to a close around them. Everything goes very still.
“You’re scared,” Sam says.
Arthur trips over a whole spectrum of possible responses to that, from outright denial to no shit Sherlock, and gestures inarticulately at the projections. But when he turns to look, the park is back to normal, and utterly empty.
“You are,” Sam says. “You’re scared of Limbo; you’re scared you’re gonna fall through a soft spot like all those people you trained with and never come back out. I get it.”
Arthur’s mouth snaps shut. Nobody but Mal has been able to read him this well, and she had months to get to know him first, and Sam’s just a kid. Sam smiles a little.
“But I can fix it,” he says. “My dreams don’t have soft spots, you see? And I figure, if my nightmares can make someone else’s go away—” He shrugs, looking sheepish and very, very young.
“You shouldn’t have to—” Arthur begins, even though what is he saying, this is exactly what he wants and anyway Sam does have to, sort of. “It’s not your responsibility to look after me,” he says instead.
“I know that.” Sam’s grin turns wicked. “If it were, I’d’ve made you stop smoking.”
Oh, that is just not playing fair. Even less so when Arthur looks down and realizes that sometime during their conversation, the pack of cigarettes disappeared right out of his hands.
“I know at least twenty ways to kill you,” he feels compelled to point out, but Sam’s laughter ruins his delivery. He stands up with a huff, straightening the lines of his suit, and Sam grabs his arm.
“Okay, okay, I’ll take you back. I’ll keep doing the project. Just—two conditions, okay?”
Arthur is not at all sure he can give Sam everything he wants. Still, it would be easier for everyone if Sam’s participation in the project was voluntary. "Those conditions are?"
"One: I get to stay in school. At least three-quarter time; enough that people don’t ask questions." Sam still hasn’t let go of his arm.
"I think we can manage that," says Arthur.
"Good.” Sam grips his arm a little harder. “The second is, stop digging into my past."
The official file on Sam Winchester already has everything about him that was put on record, but Arthur knows that’s not what Sam means. Sam stares up at him, supplicating, even though he’d tower over Arthur if he stood up.
"I know most of it’s bullshit, but what's in your files right now is plenty enough to know. I won’t let the rest of it get in my way. Just please, Arthur, stop looking.”
That’s a hell of a temptation to look even harder. Everyone needs their secrets, Arthur knows that, but there’s something huge he’s missing here—something huge and possibly tentacled—and without it, Sam’s a puzzle he can’t quite solve.
On the other hand, they’ve been in this park for fifteen minutes, and oddly-behaved and shaped projections aside, the dream itself seems as real and stable as it did when they first left the diner.
“That’s what you want?” Arthur says finally. “Your Stanford career stays as normal as it can under the circumstances, and no one else goes sniffing around your life before this?” Sam nods, and Arthur adds, “That’s not much to ask, considering.”
“Yeah, well.” Sam stands up and oh, Christ, the dimples are back. “You and Mal have done enough for me already; I don’t want either of you dropping into Limbo from a bad dream. And I—” He pauses, and shuffles a little. “I like you, all right? I won't let you fall, I promise."
The pinkish tinge to Sam’s cheeks might be Arthur’s imagination, but his own face is hot enough that he’s definitely blushing. Dammit. “Sam—”
What Arthur took for an approaching boombox in the background resolves into an old R.E.M. song getting louder in his ears. Arthur's been so convinced by Sam's world, so focused on his words, that he's forgotten to even think about a musical countdown. Before he can give Sam a reply, he blinks and then he's lying on an extra-long single bed with cheap airline headphones on his head.
Arthur turns on his side. The PASIV sits on the room's single wooden chair, already powering down as Sam blinks awake on the tiled floor, his head resting on a rolled up duffel bag. Other than the desk and an alarm clock reading 1:35 am, there's nothing else in the room except for a few clothes in the closet. Sam clears his throat. "So, we have a deal?"
Arthur presses his lips together. This kid is going to get him into worlds of trouble he can't even begin to imagine. But he says "Yes," because he can't say no, not to someone who's offering to compromise his lifelong dream in order to spare Arthur pain. He’ll come up with some way to shut down interest in Sam’s background, and stifle his own urge to pry, if that’s what it takes. Embarrassingly, Arthur discovers he would do pretty much anything to see another smile like the one he's getting now.
He hands over the headphones and his cannula and watches Sam wrap the needles in a ball of tinfoil before tossing them in the trash. Then Sam flushes the lines with the bleach/saline solution and coils them neatly inside the case. Anyone else would think he's done this a thousand times before. Mal and Sam are definitely right about one thing: they'll have to come up with some method to keep track of dream versus reality soon, because Arthur's having trouble even now believing that this man can possibly be real.
But the criminal habits might be an issue. "My car keys actually were back in the office; did you leave the steering column open or am I going to have to start from scratch?"
Sam shakes his head. "Worry about it in the morning, Arthur. You should go back to sleep, you look like shit."
"You're—" This dorm room is a single. Arthur's not fool enough to ask to share the bed, but he'll trade places.
"I've slept through worse, trust me.” Another clue he’ll have to ignore. Sam clicks the case shut and stores it under the bed, hovering near Arthur’s midsection. “Come on. You know PASIV sleep doesn’t count."
"Yes, Mal," says Arthur, because it's hard to argue while he's having trouble keeping down a yawn.
Sam moves to the door and checks the dead bolt, then looks down at something on the threshold that Arthur can't see. "I'd say sweet dreams, but let's just go with, 'Didn't I tell you to go to sleep already?'"
Arthur flips Sam off as Sam flips off the lights, and he flashes Arthur a grin in return. From what he can tell in the dark, Sam grabs a shirt from the closet to use as a blanket, then drops off into sleep almost as soon as he's on the floor.
Arthur doesn't fall asleep so easily. He tells himself that it's because he has to win at least one battle with Sam tonight. And if listening to Sam breathing safe and sound under his guard is more relaxing than sleep ever could be, then Arthur isn’t going to think too much about that.
This entry was originally posted at http://moragmacpherson.dreamwidth.org/89