The little boy with the mop of dark hair and pretty multi-colored eyes wasn’t just the cutest thing Dean had ever seen. That was a given. No, the real reason Dean couldn’t take his eyes off the kid, couldn’t stop smiling, could feel his chest expand and his heart pound, was that Sam was perfect.
Dean didn’t understand why that’s what he thought or felt. It just was.
Being assigned to Sam was a given, too. When Ms. Elizabeth introduced them, matching them up the way all newcomers got matched up with fourth-graders, Dean took Sam’s hand and flashed a cocky grin of triumph because he already knew.
“Sam’s your little brother now, Dean,” Ms. Elizabeth said, although she didn’t need to. “Yours to look after from here on out.”
Pairing the newbies with older “siblings” was an essential part of the way the system worked. Babies and toddlers were raised to the age of five in infant care centers by adult Carers, who were clones themselves, of course. When the five-year-olds transferred to school, they were partnered for the first year with an older child, just long enough to transition to school life in general. The older children modeled appropriate behavior, helped the littles ones adjust to new routines and expectations, and cared for their basic needs. Dean had had his own big brother, an older boy named Alastair, who was in middle school now. Alastair barely acknowledged Dean when they passed in the hall these days. Dean had been a burden and a responsibility that the older boy was clearly glad to be rid of, although technically Alastair was supposed to keep an eye on Dean for the duration of his stay at Seven Gables. Alastair did the job, but he obviously didn’t feel any lasting obligation or fondness for Dean.
Sam was Dean’s for life.
“Come on, Sam,” Dean tugged the little boy’s hand, and Sam looked up at him, hazel eyes wide and watchful. “I’ll show you around.”
For the next four years Sam and Dean were practically inseparable. They ate together, played together, even slept together, since Sam had nightmares and it was easier for his Tutors if Dean just stayed with him all night.
“Nothing bad’s gonna happen to you, Sammy,” Dean told the little boy as he held him close after one particularly nasty nightmare. “Not while I’m around.”
“Promise?” Sam sniffled, burrowing under Dean’s chin, rubbing his tear-soaked face against Dean’s chest.
“Promise,” Dean agreed firmly.
By the time Sam was nine years old, Dean knew he wasn’t ever letting him go.
When Sam was ten, they moved him up to the middle school. His test scores were off the charts. The day it happened, Sam announced that he couldn’t sleep with Dean anymore.
“Jake says I’m too big,” he explained to Dean, pouting adorably. “He says boys don’t sleep together in middle school.”
“And you care what Jake thinks?” Dean was hurt.
Sam blushed and looked away, and it made Dean furious for reasons he couldn’t quite figure out at the time.
“Fine,” he snapped. “Sleep with Jake, for all I care. Let him be there when you have nightmares.”
Dean stomped away before he could see the look on Sam’s face, telling himself he didn’t care.
But of course he cared. He knew his feelings for Sam were complicated; it wasn’t exactly normal to be so attached to his little brother. None of the other older siblings ever slept with their littles after the first year, not to mention spending every spare moment in their company. Besides, no matter how much it hurt to admit it, Jake was right. Sam was ten years old at that point, in a class with twelve-year-olds. He needed to start learning to be more independent. He needed to grow up.
Dean lost his virginity a week later.
Seven Gables was a boarding school for clones, one of a large number spread across the country, although Dean had heard that most of the others were more like prisons than schools. He didn’t know what he’d done to be so special, to be brought to Seven Gables to begin his training. It was an elite place, reserved for the best and brightest students, and he knew he was one of the lucky ones, just to be there.
The locals called it St. Lucy’s School for Terminals.
When he first heard the nickname, Dean assumed it was in honor of one of the Cloning Project’s founders, Lucy Lockwood. By the time Sam arrived at the school, six months after Dean’s ninth birthday, Dean realized the name referred to Lucifer, Prince of Darkness. Seven Gables students weren’t considered lucky by the local population. They were considered creeps and freaks, Children of Satan, when they were thought of at all. Definitely not human.
Dean tried not to think about that. It wasn’t hard to do. The children never left the school. All supplies were brought in by delivery once a week, by mostly silent delivery people who wouldn’t meet the eyes of the curious students. Gardeners were also outsiders, but the children did much of the general upkeep of the grounds and school buildings themselves, so they had minimal contact with anyone from the outside world other than their Guardians. Even the kitchen and cleaning staff were clones.
The Guardians were the only originals who lived on the campus. There were five women and two men, most of whom taught in the high school. The younger grades were all taught by Tutors who were not much older than the seniors. They were clones, of course, just like their students, but they had been to college, and there was an air of glamor about them. The Tutors had lived in the outside world. They knew things, understood things, even though they, too, had once been Seven Gables students. Among Dean’s group of friends, there was more than a little excitement and competition to become just like them, and Dean was pretty sure the entire school felt the same.
“You must study hard, follow the rules, be an example to your peers around the country at other institutions,” Ms. Emily told them during morning assembly. “You must set a good example for your younger brothers and sisters here at Seven Gables. One day, some of you may become Carers or Companions. Some of you may be assigned to work in an infant care center. Some of you may go to college and come back here to be Tutors, or serve as Guardians at one of the other schools. All of you will serve the Great Purpose, but some of you will be lucky enough to serve in other ways as well.”
By the time Dean was fourteen, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be going to college.
For one thing, he hated to study. His grades were nothing to crow about, and he just wasn’t an artist, no matter how much painting and drawing he did. It wasn’t that he didn’t have talents, though; he was good at sports, fixing things, and hanging out with his friends. And Sam.
Oh, and girls. All the girls.
It didn’t hurt that he’d been blessed with devastating good looks, as Josie told him the first time she kissed him. She and her group of friends took turns dating him during his first two years of middle-school, and it was good. The Guardians didn’t seem to mind if the students hooked up, although they were strict about diseases and hygiene.
“Your bodies must be kept healthy,” Ms. Emily told them on more than one occasion. “You must stay clean and strong so that you can grow up and fulfill the Great Purpose for which you were created. The entire world depends on you, so you must be careful not to damage your bodies while you are young.”
They all knew what the Great Purpose was. They had been hearing about it since they were too little to understand. At fourteen, Dean had more important things to think about, and becoming a Donor someday off in the distant future felt like the least of his concerns. It was inevitable, and he accepted it, as did everyone else at the school. It didn’t seem worth worrying about, since there wasn’t anything he could do about it anyway.
Sex was much more important, much more exciting, and way more interesting.
It wasn’t forbidden, since the clones couldn’t conceive babies, but it wasn’t encouraged or condoned, either. Each dormitory room contained ten to twenty beds, and a Tutor slept with them most nights, ensuring they went to sleep on time and got the appropriate amount of rest. Nevertheless, the middle-schoolers were a creative group. There were rooms in the main house where no Guardian or Tutor ever entered, spaces under stairs and in closets that Dean remembered from his days playing hide-and-seek.
Dean lost his virginity in a broom closet on the fourth floor with a girl who was four years older, shortly after Sam stopped sleeping with him. He and the girl met regularly for sex in the closet for about a week after that, then it was over. Dean had a couple of other sexual adventures with older girls after that, including a particularly bold girl named Rhonda who insisted he put on a pair of her pink silk panties and nothing else while she did things to him that made him blush when he thought about it later.
Those girls were gone by the end of the year, off to one of the holding centers where they would await their next assignments. Dean never saw them again.
That fall, a new Guardian arrived.
She was younger than the other Guardians, and when she was introduced at morning assembly she seemed a little overwhelmed. Dean imagined he’d feel the same way if he had to stand up in front of the whole school and be introduced like that. There were over five-hundred students at Seven Gables, ranging in age from five to eighteen. In Dean’s grade alone there were 40 students, and although he knew every one of them, he was only close with his little group of ten who had always been assigned to the same sleeping and eating areas. He couldn’t imagine trying to get familiar with all five-hundred and twenty-six students.
“This is Ms. Kim,” Ms. Emily announced. “She will be teaching English and History in the middle school, along with Art and Music. We know you will all make her feel welcome and be on your best behavior. Show her how deserving Seven Gables students are of the fine education and high expectations we have here.”
That afternoon, during the all-school baseball game to honor the new Guardian, Dean hit a home-run over the fence, all the way into the field beyond. After his team finished congratulating him, he turned to find Ms. Kim watching him curiously.
“Why didn’t anyone go after the ball?” she asked, and Dean shook his head.
“It’s out of bounds, ma’am,” he said. “No one’s allowed off school grounds.”
“Ever?” She asked, clearly surprised.
“Well, we leave after senior year, of course. When we’re eighteen.”
“Right,” Ms. Kim blinked and looked abashed, like she’d forgotten that most basic of facts for a moment.
“Sometimes a kid breaks the rules,” Ruby said, and Dean could tell she was being mischievous. Leading on the new Guardian. “They never come back.”
“What do you mean, ‘Never come back’?” Ms. Kim took the bait, and Ruby smiled conspiratorially.
“Well, I heard about a boy once who climbed the fence to get his ball. They found him, three days later, on the other side of the fence, just lying there.”
Ms. Kim raised her eyebrows. “Really.”
Ruby nodded solemnly. “He was trying to get back in, but he just couldn’t.”
“I heard about a girl who walked right out the front gate, not long before we got here,” Meg chimed in. “They found her the same way, after three days, right outside the gate. Dead.”
“Huh.” Ms. Kim glanced between them, then back at Dean. “And you believe these stories?”
Dean shrugged. “We’re not supposed to go out of the school grounds,” he said. “It’s against the rules.”
“And you’re all such good little rule-followers,” Ms. Kim suggested, then shook her head as if to clear it. “Never mind. Good game, everyone!”
Dean couldn’t shake the feeling that Ms. Kim was mocking him, and it wasn’t pleasant.
It pleased him even less when he noticed her taking an interest in Sam.
Sam had been different lately. Quiet, withdrawn, sulky and quick to anger. The other students in his year had begun to shun him, tease and make fun of him, and not in a nice way.
“It’s their own damn fault for putting him in middle school two years early,” Ruby muttered when she caught Dean watching as Sam threw another temper-tantrum on the ball-field. “He’s younger and smaller than the rest of them, so of course they tease him.”
“He’s smarter than his whole class put together,” Dean said defensively.
Ruby looked up at him, and her expression wasn’t exactly friendly. “Maybe that’s his problem,” she said. “He needs to try to fit in more, stop being so different from everybody.”
“He’s not different,” Dean insisted. “He’s just special, like the rest of us.”
Ruby rolled her eyes. “Well, maybe he needs to learn to be a little less special.”
Dean watched as Ms. Kim spoke quietly to Sam, then walked with him back into the school.
At dinner, Dean got his tray and marched over to Sam’s table. Sam had been sitting alone for months, and of course Dean had noticed. He’d just been a little preoccupied, that’s all. Sex will do that to fourteen-year-old boys.
“Hey,” Dean greeted Sam as he slid onto the opposite bench.
Sam glanced up from his dinner and blushed before lowering his eyes to his tray again. “What are you doing, Dean?”
“Eating dinner with you, bitch.” Dean winked as he reached for his milk carton and tore it open aggressively. “You got a problem with that?”
“What about your friends?” Sam asked. “Why aren’t you sitting with them?”
Dean glanced over at the table where he usually sat, where Ruby and Meg and Lisa sat casting curious looks his way.
“I’m sitting with you,” he said with a shrug, turning his back on the girls. “Besides, they can do without me for one meal. They all need to find boyfriends.”
Sam blushed a deeper shade of red and Dean decided it suited him. It made his beauty marks stand out in a fascinating constellation that made Dean think of stars and uncharted galaxies.
“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask. What did Ms. Kim say to you today? You know, after the ball game.”
Sam looked up with a confused frown that softened into his signature dimpled grin as soon as he met Dean’s eyes. He looked away again immediately, shaking his head.
“Nothing,” he mumbled. “She just said I shouldn’t worry about whether I was good at sports or not. She said it didn’t matter.”
“Because you’re so smart,” Dean nodded. “Sports aren’t your thing but that’s okay because you’ll go to college one day. Become a Tutor.”
Sam huffed out a laugh. He couldn’t seem to look at Dean. “I don’t think that’s what she meant,” he said. “She doesn’t know anything about me or my grades yet. She just got here.”
“Right.” Dean nodded. “I just figured she’s been briefed. You know, before she got here. Ms. Emily probably told her all about you. Her best and brightest…”
“Dean.” Sam blushed again, keeping his eyes on his plate as he stirred his peas. “I don’t think they talk about us much. We’re not really that important to them.”
“Maybe not me,” Dean said. “I’m pretty sure they don’t talk about me. Or Ruby or Lisa or Meg. But you’re special, Sam. You’re grade A college material. You skipped two grades, and in six years, maybe less, you’ll be ready for college. And you’ll go, Sam! Think of that! You’ll go to college! And you’ll meet originals, maybe even pass for one…”
“Dean.” Sam raised his head, really looked at Dean for the first time. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
“Why not? Oh come on, Sammy. Of course it’ll happen. Of course you’ll go to college.”
“I won’t,” Sam shook his head. Stubborn kid.
“You will if I can help it,” Dean said firmly. “I’m counting on it.”
And just like that, Sam and Dean became inseparable again.
Or, at least mostly inseparable. They ate together and hung out together between classes and during a lot of their breaks and free time, and by the end of the year most of Dean’s friends had learned to accept the younger boy. Sam was tolerated because the girls couldn’t have Dean’s company without Sam’s, too.
Dean still found time to sneak away into the broom closet once in a while, although he turned down every offer from girls his own age or younger. He could tell it made Sam angry and sad, especially when the girl tried to get Dean to go steady with her afterwards. He shrugged it off, insisting that he didn’t want any long-term ties. He didn’t need the hassle.
“Love ‘em and leave ‘em, Sammy,” he laughed as he jostled Sam’s shoulder playfully to get him to lighten up and smile again. “You’re the only girl for me, sweetheart.”
“Shut up,” Sam grumbled, but Dean could tell he was pleased, too.
Over the next two years Ms. Kim continued to take a special interest in Sam. She tutored him privately, something none of the other Guardians had ever done with any of them. At the end of the second year she took a group from Sam’s grade on a field trip into the local town, outside the school, something that terrified Dean, although he only half-believed the stories about students who had been killed just for leaving school grounds.
When Ms. Kim returned with Sam and the others, she marched up to Dean and announced, “Next time, you’re coming, too. I couldn’t get him to focus on anything else. He was missing you too much.”
“Okay,” Dean frowned, not seeing the problem.
Ms. Kim rolled her eyes. “You don’t even get how much this messes with my whole reason for being here, do you?”
“Uh, no?” Dean stared blankly, and Ms. Kim shook her head.
“Never mind,” she said. “Next Monday, nine o’clock.”
It meant skipping class, and Dean wasn’t the best student to begin with, but he wasn’t missing the chance to leave school grounds. Sam was startled and pleased when Dean took his seat in the school’s rusty old van and Ms. Kim announced that Dean was coming along as a chaperone, to help her keep the fourteen-year-olds and one twelve-year-old in line.
In town, the group visited the art museum, traipsing silently after Ms. Kim as they moved from painting to painting. When they reached a room filled with medieval armor and weapons, Dean perked up, especially when Ms. Kim allowed them to try on the heavy chain mail shirt and helmet. She took their pictures with her phone and promised to print them out for their keepsake boxes as soon as they got back to school. Sam and Dean had their picture taken together, Dean wearing the helmet, Sam the armor. Ms. Kim rolled her eyes as Dean draped his arm over Sam’s shoulders and made a goofy face for the camera.
They stopped for lunch at McDonald’s because the museum cafe was too expensive. Dean guessed Ms. Kim was paying for it out of her own pocket, that the school didn’t cover expenses like this.
“You should have the experience of ordering food for yourselves,” Ms. Kim explained as they pulled into the restaurant parking lot. “You’ll all spend time in the outside world eventually, and you’ll need to know how to survive besides just the play-acting that we do at school. Now, I want each of you to look at the menu and decide what you want to eat, then speak clearly and confidently to the order-taker at the counter when you place your order. Can you do that?”
The students nodded obediently, and Dean went first, since he was oldest. “I’ll have a cheeseburger Happy Meal with fries and milk,” he announced to the oder-taker.
The order-taker wasn’t much older than Dean, but he made Dean nervous because he was an original. Dean hadn’t realized how terrifying it would be to actually speak to an original; the only ones he’d ever directly spoken to, besides the Guardians, were the deliverers and gardeners who came to the school. It terrified Dean that the boy could tell, that he would know Dean wasn’t real.
But the boy just glanced up at him for a moment before looking down at his ordering pad with a bored nod. “Boy or girl?”
“Boy or girl?” The order-taker looked up expectantly, and when Dean still didn’t understand, he clarified. “Is the Happy Meal for a boy or a girl? The toys are different.”
“Oh!” Dean huffed out a laugh. “Right. I forgot about that part. Boy, I guess.” He made a gesture that he hoped would make the boy laugh, but the kid was already looking down at his ordering pad again.
Dean stepped aside, trying to ignore the humiliation of the little encounter. He squared his chin and glared at Sam, daring him to do better. But of course Sam had been listening intently as Dean ordered, so his order came out perfectly.
“I’ll have a cheeseburger Happy Meal with fries and milk, please,” he told the order-taker. “For a boy.”
The order-taker didn’t even look up this time. “Next?”
Ms. Kim rolled her eyes when the entire group returned to their tables with the exact same order.
“What did I teach you at school?” she scolded. “You’re supposed to try to think for yourselves, not just copy each other. In the outside world, everyone does something different. You’ll stand out if you always copy each other everywhere you go.”
“But we ordered the same as Dean,” Jessica piped up, flipping her long blond hair over her shoulder. “He’s the oldest. Isn’t he supposed to set the example for the rest of us?”
Ms. Kim shook her head. “In the real world, people don’t defer to each other according to age,” she said. “You defer to someone if they’re your leader, or your teacher, but that’s not the same as when you’re in a group of your peers.”
“Isn’t Dean our student leader?” Jessica frowned. “I thought that’s why he came with us this time.”
Ms. Kim opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it, and obviously changed her mind. “I’m just trying to teach you how to behave when you’re out in the world, after you leave Seven Gables,” she said. “You’ll live in a holding center with older students from other schools, but they won’t be your leaders. You won’t need to defer to them or copy them all the time. Do you understand?”
Jessica nodded, although she still seemed confused.
“Ms. Kim, when we leave Seven Gables, how long will we live in the holding centers?” Ava spoke up.
Ms. Kim shook her head. Dean had a feeling the topic made her uncomfortable.
“It depends,” Ms. Kim said. “Some of you will stay only a year or two before going on to be trained as Carers or infant caregivers.”
“And the rest of us?” Andy prompted.
Ms. Kim took a sip of her drink, some dark bubbly liquid that Dean had never tasted. They’d been taught that soda was bad for their bodies. .
“Some clones stay in holding centers for as many as five or six years before they’re needed,” Ms. Kim said, looking down at the table when she spoke, her voice soft. Almost apologetic.
“You mean, before they start to donate,” Ava said.
Ms. Kim gave a slight nod, then looked up, straight at Dean. “You already know all this,” she said. “You’ve been told what happens when you leave Seven Gables. You’ve been told, but you don’t really understand what it all means, do you?”
“All I know is, Sammy’s going to college,” Dean said confidently. “Then he’ll come back to Seven Gables to be a Tutor.”
“If Seven Gables survives that long,” Ms. Kim said grimly.
“What do you mean?” Dean shook his head. “Why wouldn’t it survive?”
Ms. Kim licked her lips, looked down at the table and shook her head. “Some people think it’s too expensive,” she said. “A lot of folks think clones don’t need educations. It’s just wasted on them.”
“That’s not true,” Jessica protested. “Education makes us better Carers. Better caretakers.”
“Basic training provides everything you need to do that,” Ms. Kim said. “A lot of people think your schools should just be training centers. Why teach you about Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson and Sir Isaac Newton? Teaching you about the best humanity has to offer can’t make you better humans. Can’t make you human at all.”
Dean felt indignation rise in his chest, making his cheeks warm.
“That’s not true,” Jessica said again. “Learning about the goodness and beauty in the world helps us understand how important our work is. Knowing all the greatness the human race is capable of gives our lives meaning.”
“You don’t really believe that, do you?” Ms. Kim snapped, suddenly angry. “You really believe the human race that created and enslaved you is worth your sacrifice? You think they care?”
The students were silent, and Dean could feel the tension and doubt in the air around them as they all waited for one of them to say something. Dean became aware of Sam’s thigh pressed against his under the table, and he suddenly had an overwhelming desire to squeeze the boy’s knee, to offer some comfort or reassurance.
But before he could, Ms. Kim pushed her chair back with a harsh scraping sound and got to her feet.
“You know what? Never mind,” she said, but they could all see she was upset. “You go on believing you’re doing a good thing. Forget I said anything.” She shook her head and took a deep breath as they waited for her to say something more, but all she said then was, “Come on, it’s time to go.”
She sounded defeated.
The drive back to Seven Gables was quiet. They all felt they’d failed some kind of test, disappointed Ms. Kim somehow.
Within a week, she was gone.
Ms. Emily explained that Ms. Kim had found more suitable employment. “She found she wasn’t cut out for the kind of sacrifice required of Seven Gables Guardians,” she said. “Of course we wish her well in her future endeavors.”
Life went on normally after Ms. Kim left, although Dean could feel the ripples of doubt that her presence left in its wake. None of the other Guardians ever suggested taking them on a field trip, and for a while the students who had gone out lorded it over the rest who had not, pretending a confidence and understanding of the outside world that they didn’t really feel.
The truth was, Dean was glad Ms. Kim was gone. She had unsettled him by giving Sam so much attention, by making him feel even more special than he was. Dean had always been Sam’s champion, but Ms. Kim’s interest in the boy had made Dean doubt his own for the first time. It worried him that she might know something about Sam that Dean didn’t, that maybe she could appreciate Sam better than Dean ever could.
It took him a while to shake his unease, but eventually other distractions took over his thoughts. A week before Christmas Ms. Emily announced the annual Christmas Bazaar, when the students were allowed to shop for gifts for each other. Dean grabbed his tokens and stood anxiously with the others at the door as the deliverers brought several boxes into the appointed classrooms and the Guardians unpacked them.
The students were allowed two visits to the Bazaar during the week, and when it was Dean’s turn he took his time walking the aisles, admiring and fingering the collection of treasures, plastic tokens clattering together in his pockets.
On Christmas Day Sam squeezed in next to him in the auditorium, where the middle and high school students were assembled to watch It’s A Wonderful Life on the big screen.
“I got you something,” Sam whispered as he pushed a small package into Dean’s hand. The package was wrapped in newspaper, old and yellowing, and Dean felt a warmth in his chest that almost blocked out his sudden stab of guilt.
“I didn’t get you anything,” he hissed back. “I didn’t have enough tokens.”
“It’s okay,” Sam shrugged and snuggled closer.
Sam’s gift was a brass horned pendant that hung on a long leather cord. Dean slipped it over his head and tucked it inside his shirt, never to take it off again. Sam grinned bashfully when Dean thanked him, and over the next six months Sam’s eyes dropped to Dean’s neck every time they met, just to be sure the cord was still there.
By the time a full year had passed since Ms. Kim left them, Dean felt pretty sure things had returned to normal.
“You know, he’s in love with you,” Ruby said as they huddled under the tree beside the playing field. It was their favorite place to stand together, during breaks from class when it was raining or otherwise too dismal to play ball.
“Who?” Dean was genuinely puzzled, mostly by the masculine pronoun. It wasn’t like he didn’t know boys as well as girls found him attractive; he just hadn’t thought about it very deeply.
‘Sam, of course.” Ruby raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t you know?”
Dean flushed to the tips of his ears, lowering his head as if he could hide his embarrassment. “No,” he shook his head. “He’s just a little boy. He’s only thirteen.”
“Yeah, maybe, but that kid knows what’s what,” Ruby insisted. “He understands things. Gives me the creeps, if you want to know the truth, the way he stares at you…” She shivered. “Doesn’t it creep you out?”
“No.” Dean clenched his jaw, raising his eyes to stare across the field, through the drizzle, to where Sam stood under a tree, near a group of eighth-graders. He stood alone, as usual, huddled against the cold with his hands tucked up under his armpits, stamping his feet to keep his small body warm. “No, he doesn’t. At all.”
“Where are you going?” Ruby called after him as Dean jogged across the field, toward the solitary figure on the other side.
“Hey,” Dean greeted the boy as he stepped under Sam’s tree. It didn’t provide quite as much shelter as the one Dean had been standing under with Ruby, but if Dean stepped up close, right into Sam’s personal space, their combined body heat provided some comfort.
“Hey.” Sam’s face split open into his signature dimpled smile, and Dean realized it had been too long since he’d seen it. He’d been too wrapped up with girls. Again.
“You wanna take a walk?”
Sam nodded, but he was sullen as they made their way around the school grounds, silent and withdrawn even when Dean did his best to cheer him up.
“He’s crushing hard,” Ruby told Dean later, when they passed Sam on their way to their eleventh-grade physics class. “He thinks you don’t care.”
Dean couldn’t have that. The next time he found Sam alone on the soccer field he tackled the kid.
“Come on, Sammy.” Dean crooked an elbow around Sam’s neck and hauled him in, all rough and tumble. “You’ll always be my little brother.”
Sam pulled away, shoving his hands into his pockets. “That’s just it, Dean,” he sulked. “I don’t want to be your little brother. Not just your little brother, anyway.”
“What’re you talking about?” But Dean knew. He’d always known. He just couldn’t admit that to Sam. “There’s nobody I’d rather spend time with, Sammy, I swear.”
At least he could tell Sam that much. Sometimes it surprised Dean just how true it was.
Over the next month Dean did his best to deflect Sam’s obvious infatuation. He told himself it would pass; he remembered having feelings toward older boys when he was Sam’s age. It was just a phase.
By the end of the summer, Dean was pretty sure he had the whole thing under control.
The first time he saw Ruby slip her hand into Sam’s while they were standing at morning assembly, Dean saw red.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Dean hissed when he found Ruby in the hall later. He wanted to slam her into the wall, shake her till her head wobbled on her scrawny little neck.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ruby smirked, flipping her dark hair over her shoulder dismissively.
“You and Sam, that’s what I’m talking about,” Dean growled. “What’s going on?”
Ruby shrugged. “He’s cute,” she said. “And last time I checked, he’s available. Am I wrong?”
Dean was so angry he was shaking. “He’s thirteen!”
“You were thirteen when you got your first girlfriend,” she reminded him, although that wasn’t strictly true, since he hadn’t ever really had a girlfriend. But Dean knew what she meant. Ruby assumed he had had sex for the first time when he was thirteen, as she had.
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” Dean snapped. “Sam’s just a kid. He doesn’t even know what he wants yet.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure he know what he wants,” Ruby insinuated, hips swaying as she flipped her hair again. “I’ve just gotta convince him he wants it with me.”
“Why are you doing this?” Dean demanded, despair making his heart clench painfully in his chest. “You know you’ll just drop him, like you always do. Why would you hurt him like that?”
Ruby’s smile twisted, turning dark and cruel. “Because I can,” she said simply. “Because it’s the only way I can get you to think about me. And believe me, Dean, I’m going to make you think about me. With him.”
Dean watched her walk away, swinging her hips. Dean’s fists were clenched tight enough to draw blood.
All that fall, Dean watched them together. Sam kept his eyes down all the time when Ruby talked to him, low and close to his ear so no one else could hear. She held his hand everywhere, sliding in next to him at lunch or between classes in the hall. Sam blushed dark red when she pressed her lips to his cheek, rubbed her hand up his back.
But as far as Dean could tell, Sam didn’t return Ruby’s advances. He didn’t pull away, but he never initiated, either. Sam and Ruby didn’t disappear during study hall together, or right after dinner, the way Dean always did when he went off with a girl to have sex. Sam didn’t turn his face to meet Ruby’s lips when she kissed him.
Nevertheless, it hurt. Dean wasn’t sure why it hurt, and he didn’t really want to think about it very deeply. But it did, just as Ruby had promised it would. And even though Dean and Sam still found time to hang out together, Ruby was with them all the time, clinging to Sam as if she couldn’t stand to let him go, even for a minute.
“Why do you let her do that?” Dean asked when they had stood side-by-side in the boys’ bathroom, the only room in the school where they could be completely alone, unless another boy walked in.
“She’s my girlfriend,” Sam answered, not even pretending not to know who Dean meant.
“She’s demonic,” Dean said as he shook his dick and tucked it back into his pants. “Don’t trust her, Sammy. She’s just playing a game with you.”
“I know,” Sam sighed as he joined Dean at the sink to wash his hands. “But she keeps the other girls away. And she gets me. She really does. She knows how it feels to be a freak.”
“You’re not a freak,” Dean protested, reaching for the paper towels.
“Yes, I am, Dean,” Sam said solemnly. “We all are. We just don’t like to think about it. It’s like Ms. Kim told us. We’re not human.”
“That’s not true, Sam,” Dean shook his head. “You might not be an original, but you’re just as human as they are. You – You’re special, Sam. You’re smart and talented and you’ll be a Tutor someday. You’ll go to college. You’re better than most humans. Better than me. Definitely too good for her.”
Sam’s cheeks flushed pink and he lowered his eyes. “No, I’m not,” he muttered, voice low and miserable. “You don’t even know. The things I want to do sometimes…I get so angry. I think about hurting somebody sometimes. Maybe killing them. I’m bad inside, Dean. Twisted and ugly and really, really bad. You’re right to stay away from me.”
“I don’t stay away from you,” Dean insisted, ignoring Sam’s other words because they made no sense. “You took up with Ruby, not me. It’s never just us anymore because she’s always there. You chose that, Sam. I told you it was always gonna be you and me, man. I told you there was nobody else for me. I meant that, Sammy. I still do.”
“You want me to be your little brother forever, but I can’t,” Sam said fiercely, clenching his jaw and his fists. “I can’t, Dean! When I’m with you I want more. I want to be more than I am. I know it’s wrong, but I can’t help it. It’s how I feel! I know it’s dirty. I know you think I can’t be like that because it’s disgusting and creepy, but I am, Dean! I’m a freak! Ruby says you think I have a crush on you, you think I’ll grow out of it, but I won’t! I can’t! So I can’t be with you any more, Dean! I can’t!”
Sam pushed past him then, out the door, leaving Dean standing alone with his mouth hanging open.
When he walked back to class later, he couldn’t look at Sam and Ruby, huddled together in a corner of the hallway, her hands buried deep in his jacket pockets.
He could feel Ruby’s eyes on him, though. He could almost feel her little smile of triumph, too.
Just after Dean’s eighteenth birthday, Seven Gables had a visitor.
Mister, as the students called him, was an important man. Some said he had founded the school. Some said his family had donated the property and had an interest in its success. Some said there was a personal tragedy in his past. Someone he loved had died because cloning donation wasn’t yet an option.
Everyone assumed Mister was old, probably in his sixties or seventies. He had visited the school once or twice since Dean’s arrival, and it was assumed that he had visited the school other times before Dean was created. Seven Gables was said to be at least thirty-five years old, and Mister had been visiting since the beginning.
The students could tell that Mister was coming because the Guardians canceled classes so that all the students could participate in a general clean-up and sprucing up of the buildings and grounds. Hallways were mopped and walls freshly painted. Classrooms were cleaned with heavy-duty cleansers that made the students’ eyes and throats sting. It was the only time the students were allowed to use chemicals of any kind, since inhaling them could cause organ damage, and that was usually forbidden.
The smaller auditorium, the one where the older students gathered for Friday night movies, was repurposed for Mister’s visit into an art gallery. Students’ artwork was carefully displayed on pedestals and in display cases, all the chairs were cleared out so that more art could be hung on walls. The students who were currently preparing theatrical and musical performances were called in to prepare short samples of their productions.
On the morning of Mister’s arrival, the students lined up with their assigned classes. Sam and Dean stood across from each other, on opposite sides of the big assembly hall, awaiting Mister’s entrance, and for once Ruby stood next to Dean, since they were seniors and Sam was only a sophomore. It occurred to Dean that Mister came to inspect the senior class, but only in special years, when the senior class was particularly worthy.
Dean didn’t feel worthy. He wondered why Mister hadn’t waited another two years, till Sam’s class were seniors.
The rumble of a car in the driveway reminded Dean of something. Then he remembered. When Mister had come before, he had driven a sleek, black sedan. A classic, someone said at the time. A 1967 Chevy Impala. The real deal. Kept running all these years by some seriously talented classic-car mechanics who really knew their stuff.
Dean had become fascinated with engines on that day, and it had been his goal and later his job to clean and maintain the machines and engines at the school. He had a knack for it, as he discovered. It was his special talent, Ms. Emily had told him.
He felt a thrill of fear and anticipation, remembering that this sound had started him on a path toward developing the talent that made him special. Maybe that’s why Mister was back; maybe he needed Dean to keep his car running. Maybe that had been his destiny, all along.
Mister barely looked at him when he first walked into the assembly hall.
Of course, to be fair, there were so many faces. Mister didn’t see him because Ruby was on his left and Lisa was on his right and they were both beautiful girls. How could Mister notice him when there were so many others to look at?
When Mister’s eyes met Dean’s it was later, after the first introductions, after the Guardians had all taken their places and Ms. Emily had started her opening remarks. Mister sat stiffly in the place of honor, behind Ms. Emily, and his eyes were on the program in his hands, the one Ruby and Lisa and the others had spent all morning writing and proof-reading and printing. When he looked up, his eyes were tired, sad. Even from the front row, Dean could tell how tired he was. Mister looked like a man who had lost the war, whose whole life had been spent pursuing a cause that ultimately didn’t make any difference after all. Mister looked profoundly defeated.
When his eyes met Dean’s, they skimmed over him at first. Then Mister’s eyes flicked to Dean’s again, and for a moment the world fell away and Dean was looking into the eyes of someone who knew him. Recognized him. Loved him. Mister’s eyes widened, perplexed and clearly disturbed, and Dean watched as Mister moved restlessly in his seat for a moment, lips parting, leaning forward as if he was about to interrupt Ms. Emily to say something.
Mister looked like a man who was ready to stop the world, or at least this school assembly, to make an important announcement.
Dean was special. Dean deserved a deferment.
Then Mister frowned and his gaze flicked away again, back down at the program in his hands, and just like that, Dean knew the moment had passed. The connection Dean had felt wasn’t real after all.
Mister didn’t know him. Mister didn’t care about any of them.
Sam threw a fit on Graduation Day.
All the seniors stood in a line, awaiting their names to be called so they could cross the stage, take their assignments from Ms. Emily, marking the end of their time at Seven Gables.
When it was Dean’s turn he started across the stage with his heart pounding, the sound of blood rushing in his head so loud he almost didn’t hear the commotion on the left side of the room, a few rows back. But he sure heard Sam scream, “No!”
Dean froze mid-step, watched in horror as Sam pushed his way to the stage. “I won’t let you go, Dean! I won’t let you go!”
It took two Tutors and three juniors to tackle Sam and hold him down, then finally drag him out of the assembly hall. Dean watched helplessly, every bone in his body wanting to run toward Sam, to wrestle him away from his captors and gather him into Dean’s arms.
That would be useless. The Tutors would just tackle Dean, too. They would just hold him down and not allow him near Sam, and that wasn’t okay.
So he watched as Sam was dragged from the room, probably off to Ms. Emily’s office to await his punishment for being so disruptive. Outbursts were not tolerated kindly at Seven Gables.
Dean was shaking as he took the paper from Ms. Emily and walked off the stage to take his place next to Ruby.
“What did you get?” Ruby hissed. Her eyes were shining. It was an emotional day for all of them.
Dean uncurled the paper Ms. Emily had given him and his mouth fell open.
Mechanic. Seven Gables.
Ruby snatched the paper out of his hands, her eyes wide. “You’re staying?”
Ruby shared her own assignment, as caretaker-in-training at a holding facility called The Cottages, known for its charm and comfort, located somewhere in the Berkshires. She seemed pleased; getting out into the world to start living a more grown-up, independent life had been Ruby’s highest goal, and she was anxious and excited to get started.
After Ms. Emily gave her final address to the graduates, they were allowed to return to their dorm rooms to retrieve their one small bag of personal belongings. The transports had already arrived to take them to their new homes, so they were given only a few minutes to say goodbye.
Dean hugged each of his friends in turn, congratulating them on their assignments. There was mixed reaction to Dean’s.
“Sucks to be you, man,” Ash quipped as he patted Dean on the back.
“I’m so sorry, Dean,” Lisa said. “You must be so disappointed.”
But the fact was, he wasn’t. Being assigned a real position was in fact more than he could have hoped, and it sure beat training to be a caretaker or a caregiver, jobs he just didn’t feel he was cut out for.
“You’re an asshole, you know that?” Ruby said as she hugged him. “I was hoping you’d come with us. Maybe I’d finally get a chance to show you what an angel I can be, if you just give me a chance.”
Neither of them mentioned Sam, or the cruel trick Ruby had played on the boy. Dean wasn’t sure he would ever forgive Ruby for that. It hurt to think about all the lies Ruby had fed Sam over the past year, but in some ways she had made Dean see the truth, too.
Dean did love Sam too much.
Ruby turned all the way around in the van’s back window, so she could watch as Dean and Seven Gables disappeared behind her.
Dean never saw her again.