Dean is a noisy thinker. When he’s trying to figure something out, he paces up and down and talks out loud to himself. But not Sam. It takes him less than two weeks to figure out how the copper rods in the strongbox work. He’s really quiet, thoughtful and careful, doesn’t test his ideas on Dean, just works it out silently by himself. Dean whistles, sings, talks the whole time while he’s building and trying to match up the boards in the way Sam had showed him. Sometimes he’ll just stop and watch Sam’s quiet concentration, and Sam will look up at him and make a response to something Dean had said and already forgotten, showing that he’d been listening attentively the whole time.
Sam joins Dean’s Science class a few days after the clones arrive. The teachers had realized how smart he is and moved him up into an older group. Sam is a year and a bit younger than Dean - physically he looks younger but intellectually he’s way smarter than most people Dean knows, even grown-ups.
During one lesson, when the teacher is demonstrating an experiment wearing protective fine-mesh metal gloves, Sam gives him a look across the group of students. Dean, who had been watching Sam anyway—it’s becoming a habit—picks up the silent communication from his impassive expression and slips the gloves into his bag when the teacher’s back is turned.
They use the gloves to slot the copper rods into wooden casings that they fit into grooves drilled into the tree house. Dean vaguely misses the surprise of how much the tree house used to change overnight but at least they can now finish constructing the walls and roof without the daily chore of trimming the new growth. The boards grow tightly into each other, a living structure, orderly and organic in a way that it wasn’t before when Dean was doing it by himself.
It takes them another three months to finish it. They would have completed it earlier, but Sam catches a flu virus, and Dean spends endless days nervously waiting for him to recover. It surprises him how quickly he’s become used to having Sam around, how scared he gets at the thought of him not being around anymore.
Seven kids are dead after the outbreak. Five real kids and two clones. The clones have a slightly better resistance to the viruses.
Sam is thin and pale when he returns to school. Dean brushes up against him in the lunch queue and gently nudges him to express his relief and happiness at seeing him. He does it surreptitiously. They don’t acknowledge each other at school. Sam smiles slightly, his eyes lowered.
At the clearing Sam is bemused by Dean’s care but doesn’t embarrass him by drawing attention to it. He tries really hard to eat everything Dean brings him and dutifully wraps up in a thermal blanket as he watches Dean working. He’s too weak to do anything himself. Dean downloads books for Sam on the battered old pocket-reader he presents Dean with when he’s asked what else would make him feel better. Dean doesn’t ask Sam where he got it from. Clones aren’t allowed to read fiction. They’re banned from taking certain classes at school and Literature is one of them.
Dean is kind of envious and jokingly says as much.
Sam doesn’t do angry in the way most people do, but Dean’s starting to recognize Sam’s particular brand of fury. He gets this blank expression and retreats behind a wall of cold silence that is impossible to break down until he’s ready to let it go. It’s very frustrating.
He doesn’t talk to Dean for hours after he makes the joke. Dean gets it and feels bad for being so tactless. It must be crappy to actually want to read books and then not be allowed to. He practices remorse by being quiet and undemanding and is eventually forgiven. It’s like a ritual between them. Dean behaves like an ass; Sam goes into silent mode; Dean feels really bad and tries to make it up to him; Sam forgives him.
Sam is the only person Dean’s willing to play that game with, mostly because he knows Sam doesn’t play it like a game, not in the way that people like his mom do. His mom uses her silence and unhappiness like a weapon.
Dean gradually kits out the tree house with a pair of air mattresses, some posters, and games, and an old chess set. Sam is obsessed with chess. All that quiet, concentrated strategizing appeals to something in his character. He doesn’t like playing on Dean’s tablet and insists on a real board with real pieces.
They slip into an easy routine of spending their afternoons exploring the biopark and setting traps to study the mutated animals. They play games of soccer in the clearing, computer games on Dean’s tablet in the tree house and do their homework together. Dean’s Math and Science grades rapidly improve with Sam’s help. He’s a good tutor, never gives Dean the answers, explains things patiently to him and just waits with a resigned air if Dean gets frustrated and starts kicking things.
Sometimes when they’re out in the reserve, Sam will indulge Dean in role-playing games where they’re hunters or soldiers, but he never really commits himself to the fantasy, so it all feels a bit weird and stilted and childish.
One afternoon, Sam sort of tricks Dean into reading aloud the first chapter of his class novel while Sam’s fitting together the smaller components of Dean’s electronics project for him. Dean couldn’t say no when Sam asked him to read. He needs him to complete his project because his blunt fingers are literally incapable of the fine, delicate work that Sam does with such ease.
And somehow after that they end up regularly taking it in turns to read aloud to each other during the final half hour they have at the biopark before Dean has to go home and Sam has to go back to the institution. They lie on the air mattresses in the tree house, tired after a busy afternoon, listening to the soothing drone of each other’s voices.
Dean doesn’t remember when he starts to genuinely enjoy it for his own sake rather than it just being about looking forward to Sam’s stupid, lazy-eyed happiness, the way he looks at Dean like he’s sharing some big secret with him as he’s reading. Maybe it’s when Sam starts to lose his self-consciousness when it’s his turn to read and allows himself to be engrossed in the story, the way he frowns sometimes and raises his eyebrows, absorbed by a new complication. Dean hopes he doesn’t wear that same goofy expression when he’s reading.
Disgraced teachers and sexy stories
About a year after they become friends, a new Literature teacher arrives at school, a young, serious-looking guy who walks around the classroom with a dreamy expression quoting stuff. He doesn’t last very long. He gets arrested at school—literally dragged from his classroom and out the front gates by government men accompanied by Geneticore guards—for teaching banned literature. But not before Dean had hacked into his personal reader and copied his library as a gift for Sam.
Dean gets to choose the first book they read from the disgraced teacher’s library after winning rock, paper, scissors. He chooses it because it’s an action-filled war story set on another planet. The summary also makes it sound like there might be sex in it and he’s happily anticipating Sam’s embarrassment.
It’s written in a weird, sarcastic sort of style that Dean finds difficult to voice at first, but once he gets into it, he forgets about everything else because he’s so wrapped up in the story.
He’s in the middle of reading a really tense scene when Sam suddenly jumps up and exclaims, “I have to go!” He’s already halfway down the ladder before Dean can even finish the sentence he was reading. He looks at his watch and realizes how late it is. Sam has just ten minutes to make it back to the institution. He normally needs double that, and he isn’t allowed to be late.
Sam refuses to talk about the institution and tries to get around Dean’s questions by pretending to answer them, even though he doesn’t really, so in Dean’s imagination it has become this unknown, secretive place that swallows Sam up at the end of the day, a huge, grey factory of kids where lateness is probably punished with violence.
Science fiction and haircuts
“Why is that funny?”
It’s the next day, and by some sort of complicit, silent agreement they had flopped onto one of the air mattresses as soon as they arrived at the tree house so they could read the book. Sam had shrugged and avoided the question when Dean asked him if he’d gotten into trouble for being late. Dean could see it was futile to push the point, so he just started reading.
Sam is now staring at him narrowly, his forehead furrowed in a frown, lying really close next to him. It was Sam who first started lying on the same mattress with him. It makes sense. They don’t have to raise their voices to make themselves heard when they’re reading. Dean has grown to really like it, the warmth of Sam’s body next to him, his quiet breathing and the feeling of being cocooned in a completely private space of their own.
“I wasn’t laughing.”
“Your face squinched up as if you were thinking it was funny.”
“He’s suggesting they eat the poor people to solve the hunger and overpopulation crisis!”
“And you think that’s funny?”
“It’s not ha-ha funny. It’s like a bad joke.”
“I don’t understand. He’s on this other planet so he can help this alien race, right?”
“And they’ve just had this terrible war. Everybody’s starving and there are all these people suffering and the main character, who is the good guy, is suggesting they eat the poor people, butcher them and label the meat according to the region they’re from, like animals?”
Dean starts snorting with laughter. “It’s meant to be a joke, Sam. It’s not like these vegetarian rebels are going to take him seriously.”
“Yes, but why is it funny?”
“It’s funny because it shouldn’t be funny. Because it’s gross and horrible and cruel. Anyway, he doesn’t mean it.”
“I know that. He means it as a criticism of the elite ruling class. I’m not stupid. I understand that. I just don’t understand what makes it funny. Why did it make you want to laugh?”
“I can’t explain it if you don’t get it. Jokes don’t work like that.”
Sam sighs. Dean sighs even louder and continues reading on his own in silence. Sam huffs again and rolls onto his stomach so that he can read with him. They jostle a little for shoulder space and then partly forget each other except as a physical presence sharing body heat. They read at pretty much the same pace. Dean is maybe a little quicker but there isn’t much in it.
When they get to the dirty part of the book, it’s a whole lot more explicit than Dean thought it was going to be. The main guy in the story is in bed with an alien woman he has fallen in love with and the writer goes into detail about the smooth, cool texture of her naked, blue skin and the way her forked tongue wraps around the guy’s dick as she goes down on him.
Dean is lost in wondering what that would feel like when Sam makes a surprised sound next to him. Dean glances sideways to see him blushing as he’s reading. Sam turns his head and gives him an embarrassed look through his thick fringe.
Dean doesn’t know why he does it, it’s a weird thing to do and he regrets it immediately, but he can’t seem to help it. He lifts a hand and gently parts Sam’s fringe, tucking one thick curtain behind his ear. Sam draws in a startled breath and then his eyes drop to Dean’s mouth.
(And that’s what Dean thinks about later when he’s touching himself in bed: the way Sam’s eyes had lingered on his mouth and how Sam’s lips had parted when he looked up again to meet his gaze. Dean spends a lot of time with Sam, or thinking about Sam when he’s not actually with him, so it’s not surprising that he slips into his thoughts when he’s doing this too. It’s happened before. It doesn’t really mean anything. Dean has skim-read the books on adolescence his mother gave him and they’ve covered it in Sexual Development lessons at school. He’s been told that arousal and procreation are to be celebrated, but with the proviso that it’s in the right context, of course. Homosexuality is illegal, as is the unauthorized breeding with female clones because they’re Geneticore property. Sam is a boy and a clone. It’s a double complication. Dean wonders if maybe the two cancel each other out.)
Dean lowers his eyes first and gruffly asks, “You done with this page? Can I scroll to the next one?”
Sam nods and swallows hard.
“I don’t know how you can even see through all that hair. You seriously need a haircut.”
Sam nods again. “Yes, I know.” His voice sounds scratchy.
Dean tries to read the next page but he can’t concentrate anymore and the words just blur on the screen. Sam is a distracting, searing heat next to him. He can feel himself starting to sweat. Sam tries to casually move away from him so they’re not lying so close together.
Dean quickly asks, “Do you want to play soccer?”
“Yes!” Sam answers with obvious relief and jumps up.
They play a quick game, both of them clumsy and uncharacteristically out of synch with each other, before calling it a day.
The next afternoon Dean brings a pair of scissors with him.
Sam is skeptical at first but finally concedes to a haircut. He sits on a fold-up stool and Dean moves around him, frowning at all the long, unruly bits that need trimming. It looks like somebody used garden shears to cut his hair before.
Dean lifts a section and neatly cuts an inch off the ends. He runs his fingers through Sam’s hair, trying to lift another equal section and as he does it he lightly scrapes his nails against Sam’s scalp. Sam sighs quietly, a soft whooshing of air.
It reminds Dean of how warm and compliant Sam had been in the dreamy, pre-sleep fantasy he’d been having in bed last night, the way he’d allowed Dean to touch him, to be close to him.
Surprised at this overlapping of fantasy-Sam and real-Sam, Dean cards his fingers through Sam’s hair again and watches with fascination as goose bumps spread their way down Sam’s neck and shoulders. Like it’s contagious, Dean’s skin prickles with awareness. He discovers that it’s really nice being this close to Sam. He likes the warmth coming off Sam’s skin and the way he smells. He has an excuse to let his fingers press against the nape of his neck and just behind his ears. Sam shivers when he does it. And Dean discovers he really likes that too.
Sam’s tightly clenched hands are resting on his thighs, his posture rigid, as Dean circles him, snipping away, pretending not to notice his reactions.
Compelled by a mischievous instinct to see how far he can push things, Dean stands in front of Sam, one leg between his thighs, the other on the outside of Sam’s right knee. He clenches slightly so Sam’s leg is firmly wedged between his and lifts Sam’s chin so he can consider his thick fringe. Sam looks up at him and Dean’s cocky arrogance disappears immediately at the expression on his face. The emotion is being held in check, but it’s there on Sam’s face. He’s flushed, looks frustrated and really unhappy, like he’s in pain.
Dean wants to wipe away that expression and instinctively knows what course of action will help him do it. Tightening his fingers on Sam’s jaw, Dean stops breathing for a couple of seconds and sways forward. Sam draws in a soft breath, his mouth vulnerable and slightly open. Dean can feel the thudding of his heart against his ribcage. He’s on the edge of a sheer cliff, part of him wanting to turn back to safety, but another part, the part of himself that is drunk on vertigo, is encouraging him to jump.
Before he can make a decision either way, a flock of birds noisily take off from the nearby trees. The sound breaks the enchantment of the moment. Both of them startle. Dean drops the scissors and they land, sharp end first, on the bridge of his bare foot. He squawks loudly and starts jumping up and down on one leg. Sam bursts into nervous laughter.
Dean rubs his foot hard to counteract the sharp, shocking pain. The skin is broken and beads of blood smear against his skin when he rubs it. Embarrassed, he leans down and picks up the scissors, shuffles on his feet, waits for a look of agreement from Sam before he steps closer again, feeling clumsy, too tight and contained in his skin, his fingers thick and awkward.
It isn’t like it was before. Sam sits in the stool like a statue with his eyes closed and Dean feels ungainly, thinks he’s breathing too loudly and tries to take little sips of air through his mouth. Neither of them says anything and the silence is a heavy, awkward presence in the clearing.
Afterwards, he steps back to survey his handiwork. It’s not exactly professional-looking but it’s better than it was.
“Do I pass inspection?”
“You look a bit less like a scarecrow I guess. You’ll do.”
Sam stands up and brushes away the hair sticking to his neck and forehead. “Thanks, Dean. I’m going to go now. I’ve got some stuff to do for tomorrow.”
“Oh, okay.” Dean’s surprised and bit hurt. He feels dismissed. Sam wants to leave early because he doesn’t want to read the book with him and he probably thinks Dean is being weird and perverted. Dean’s face flushes with embarrassment. “Sure, whatever. I’ve got to get home anyway.”
Things are a bit weird and uncomfortable between them after that. A constant, hidden tension charges the air when they’re together. It’s exhausting, frustrating and exciting at the same time. And it drags out for weeks.
Then something happens to snap the tension between them and shift it elsewhere.
Secrets and lies
Dean never learns the whole truth of what happened to Sam at the institution. Not even later. It’s something Sam never talks about.
It starts with him not turning up at the clearing one day. Dean worries about him all afternoon and hardly sleeps that night. The next day he confronts Sam in the bathroom at school and Sam just blows him off with an excuse about how he’s got all these extra chores at the institution.
He doesn’t turn up at the clearing the next day either, nor the one after that, and the one after that. Dean doesn’t know what to do. It’s difficult for him to find an opportunity at school to talk openly with Sam. He’s confused, can’t understand why Sam has suddenly become so closed-off and withdrawn. He finds himself pacing his room at night when he’s supposed to be sleeping, having imaginary conversations with Sam instead. At first, he remembers how his dad used to pace rooms all the time and that makes his anxiety less embarrassing, but mostly he worries about turning into his mom.
Sam eventually turns up at the clearing, but he’s got all his icy barriers up and makes Dean feel stupid for constantly asking him what’s wrong by replying to his questions with barely concealed scorn. Dean didn’t even know that Sam could do sarcasm. He thinks of clever come-backs afterwards and reconstructs their conversation in his head so that he has the upper hand.
Things go on like that until Dean’s feeling brittle as old glass. Sam comes to the clearing only intermittently, and even when he does, it’s like he’s not really there. When Dean tries to push him for answers, he just stops turning up and totally blanks him at school as if they were strangers until Dean has to back off.
It comes to a head one afternoon when they’re playing soccer for the first time in weeks. Sam trips over the ball and as he falls his shirt gets twisted up so Dean can see nasty, purple bruises all down his side. Sam covers himself quickly and tries to get up but Dean pushes him back down to the ground and straddles him. It’s a flash point, one that Dean is not going to let go. They have a tug of war over Sam’s shirt that Dean finally wins, pulling it up to reveal the marks on his body. “What happened? Who did this to you?” he asks fiercely, knees on Sam’s arms, pinning him to the ground.
Sam stops struggling, lies there and stares up at some point just to the side of Dean’s face, refuses to answer, becomes blankly absent in the way that he can do that.
And Dean just starts to cry. It comes from nowhere but he can’t help it. They’re tears of frustration and anger because he doesn’t know how to get through to Sam. He’s just so scared Sam is going to carry on retreating further and further away from him and there’s nothing he can do about it.
“Please just tell me. I want to help you. Why won’t you talk to me?” His voice breaks and Sam looks up at him, a glimpse of his real self visible in his expression when he notices Dean’s tears. He frowns and reaches up to wipe Dean’s cheek. It’s such an unconscious gesture that more tears well up in Dean’s eyes.
For a fraction of a second Dean thinks that maybe he’s finally gotten through to him, but then Sam looks away and his eyes glaze over. “You can’t help me,” he says in a monotone. “Get off me, Dean.”
Dean wants to insist but he knows if he pushes too hard Sam will just disappear from his life for good, knows it like he knows his dad will never suddenly walk through the front door one day. He rolls off and lies there on the grass staring up at the sky, tears leaking out the corners of his eyes as Sam walks away.
Just when he thinks he can’t handle it anymore, that something has to break, things shift again.
Sam arrives at the clearing one afternoon in a state of feverish excitement. He’s jittery, pacing up and down, talking constantly, none of it making much sense. He doesn’t stay for long, suddenly jumps up during a game of chess Dean initiated in the hope that it would settle him down and says he has to go.
“What do you mean you have to go? Go where?”
Sam’s leg is bouncing up and down and his bottom lip is caught between his teeth. “I just have to go. I have to go now. There are things I need to do. I don’t have to tell you everything. You don’t give me space to even breathe sometimes.”
“I don’t— You don’t—You never tell me anything.” Dean hides his hurt. “Fine, if you find me so suffocating, then just go.”
Sam doesn’t look back, sprints across the clearing and disappears into the forest.
Dean sits there, feeling desolate, too unhappy to allow himself the emotional release of tears, before getting up and tiredly making his way back home to another sleepless night.
None of the clones turn up to school the next day. Dean hears that a supervisor at the institution died after he fell down a flight of stairs and broke his neck. There are rumors floating around that he was pushed. The clones are back in class the next morning. A few of them look like they’ve been through hell and Dean overhears two teachers talking about how they were interrogated by Geneticore security men. Dean guesses none of them said anything because nothing else happens after that.
Sam, of course, refuses to talk about it. He lies and says he didn’t really know the supervisor. He got worked over by the security men—one of his fingers is broken and both his ears are really swollen and red—but they didn’t get anything out of him because he knows nothing. Dean guesses he’s probably the only person on the planet who can tell when Sam is lying and that’s only because he has spent hours and hours watching him closely.
“Could one of the cloned kids have pushed him? Why would they think that? Sam, are you listening to me?”
Sam’s staring up at the tree house above them, eyes unfocused, his mind obviously elsewhere. He turns and looks at Dean, coolly responds, “It’s boring when you go on and on about the same things. I told you—I don’t know. Stop asking me so many questions. You’re as bad as a Geneticore security officer.”
Dean sucks in a startled, wounded breath.
Sam stands up. “Let’s just play soccer, okay?” He puts his hand out to pull Dean up. “I come here, Dean, because it makes me feel... safe and happy. Please stop interrogating me.”
Dean clenches his jaw and looks at Sam’s outstretched hand for a few silent seconds before finally accepting it.
Dean’s pretty sure Sam’s bruises were caused by the supervisor, and he’s probably not the only cloned kid who was being hurt by him. The Geneticore institutions are shrouded in secrecy and the originals who work there probably have free rein to do whatever they like to the clones. A lot of people barely view the clones as humans. They’re expendable. So the supervisor got killed and the clones aren’t saying anything about what they know.
Dean looks at Sam as they play soccer and wonders if he has it in him to kill someone. The thought makes him shiver. Dean has this very grown-up moment of realizing that probably everybody has it in them if they’re pushed far enough.
Dean supposes if clones don’t have a soul, as his mother believes, then they don’t have to worry about placing it in jeopardy by doing really bad things. He thinks if that were true, then it could make the clones very dangerous and that it’s probably a good thing they were designed to be passive.
Being in love with Sam
After a while things start to go back to how they were before. Well, not quite the way they were before. Sam is changed by whatever happened at the institution. He’s harder, less innocent, even more secretive, and that’s saying something.
It’s probably because of some stubborn, masochistic streak in Dean’s nature that Sam’s elusiveness just makes him more adamant to hold on, to force him to open up. Sometimes he just wants to crack Sam open like a nut.
At the age of sixteen he realizes he’s in love with Sam. Exactly what that means he’s not entirely sure, but he thinks IN LOVE is probably the term for it. It’s not a pleasant thing, being in love with Sam: it’s a frustrated yearning, a constant pretending. Sam is an unattainable secret hidden behind armor-plated walls and moats and mazes.
But Dean is stoical by nature and accepts that this is his fate, to secretly love a person who lacks the essence of personhood, a copy of someone else who Dean will never know. He thinks about Sam’s original sometimes, wonders if things would be different with him, if they’d be closer, if the real Sam would love him back. He tries not to let his mind wander too far down those avenues, though. It’s a betrayal of this Sam, his Sam, and it’s dangerous. Men die now for being in love with other men. There are live execution videos online, a warning against wasted love and the wasting of precious seed.