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The Language of this Foreign Country

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They run out of daylight. Dean pulls into a motel -- low, single-story, right out of Psycho -- and parks beneath the marquee sign advertising VACANC and AIR COND and ABLE TV in crooked black letters.

Sam gets out to stretch his legs while Dean goes inside. The place is almost deserted; there's only one other vehicle in the lot, an old Ford pickup with rusted-out fenders, and even the bar across the street looks like it's hurting for business.

Leaning against the car, Sam yawns and tucks his hands into his pockets. Through the window he can see Dean resting his elbows on the counter, chatting with a guy in a green mesh John Deere hat, handing over a credit card -- Sam wonders who they're supposed to be tonight -- and accepting a key attached to a comically large red keychain, a big plastic deal like gas stations use for their bathrooms.

Dean comes out of the office tossing the enormous keychain from hand to hand, then he chucks it and the car keys at Sam and says, "Four. Go on over. I forgot to ask about the laundry."

Sam catches the key and walks around to the driver's side of the car. For about ten seconds, he thinks about telling Dean that he doesn't have to make something up, that he can go ahead and say he's going to call Dad. It doesn't have to be a secret.

But Dean's already walking back toward the office, so Sam says nothing and drives the car over to their room.

~

Sam asked once, a few months ago, why Dean was so anal about always being the one to check them in, wondering if maybe there was some reason for it or if it was just another one of his brother's weird habits that no logic in heaven or earth could possibly explain.

Dean had answered, "Whatever," and slammed the door as he climbed out.

~

"You've got a real talent, Dean," Sam says when Dean comes into room number four.

Dean tosses his jacket onto the bed nearest the door. "Yeah?"

"You always pick the motels with the ugliest rooms."

They both look around for a moment, taking in the décor.

Ducks, ducks, and more ducks. That seems to be the theme of choice at the Forest Ridge Motor Lodge. Ducks in paintings. Ducks carved into the headboards. Ducks on the lampshades, which match the ducks on the wallpaper. Ducks adorning the bedside table. Ducks in the woodwork around the door and window. Ducks -- with a sinking feeling in his stomach Sam gets up to check, even though he already knows -- on the shower curtain and embroidered onto the thin white towels in the bathroom.

"They're kind of staring at us," Sam says. He flips off the bathroom light, but he can feel the little black plastic beady eyes behind him.

"Trust me, if any of them move, I'll blast their frickin' feathers," Dean promises, pointing a finger-gun at a contemptuous ceramic mallard on top of the television.

Sam smiles. "Oh, good. I'll sleep much better tonight, knowing I'm safe."

It's an opening. Sam watches Dean root through a bag for god-knows-what. It's a thank you, moron. It's an apology. It's a fucking anvil.

He waits for Dean to look up, catches his gaze, holds it for a long moment.

Dean looks away, pulling his jacket on again, and says, "You hungry? There's a place down the street."

You've got a talent, Dean, Sam thinks. You're a real pro.

But he says, "Yeah, starving. Let's go."

~

Whatever, excl., signifies a question deemed unintelligent or unworthy of response.

Sam has a list in his head. It's a dictionary or a phrasebook, something you'd find in the travel section of the store, small enough that you can keep it in your pocket and pull it out whenever necessary: Translation Guide For People Who Spend Every Waking Hour With People Who Never Say What They Mean. A few more months of compiling this list and he's pretty sure he'll be the world's foremost expert.

He could publish it. Make a killing. Go on Oprah. Retire in style.

You hungry? inter., indicates that the current direction of conversation is problematic or undesirable. See also: Ready to go? and We done here?

Sam has a list in his head, and it keeps getting longer.

~

The waitress is about fifty years old. She's got stark-white hair and coke-bottle glasses; she calls them "boys" and admonishes them that coffee will stain their teeth. Five minutes after they sit down Sam knows they'll be getting free dessert at the end of the meal. He ought to feel guilty about that in some undefined way, but the pie smells damn good and business is slow enough it's a real worry that if they don't eat it nobody will. Best of all, it's blueberry, not apple. They never eat apple pie anymore.

"She's totally going to give us free pie," Dean says, spinning his fork around on the Formica tabletop.

Sam rolls his eyes. "You wish."

"Hey, this place is dead. If we don't eat it, nobody will."

Tearing open a couple of sugar packets rather more violently than necessary, Sam makes a mental note to have a nice long chat on with the voice in his head when he gets a chance. He would like to know just why it has started to sound so much like Dean lately.

"You get a hold of Dad?" he asks. He stirs the sugar into his coffee, clinking the spoon against the cup, and leans against the smooth plastic back of the booth.

Dean slaps his palm down on the fork, stopping its spin, and gives Sam a look that's halfway between you little fucker and okay, score one point for you. He shrugs and says, "Left a message."

Sam feels something tighten in his chest and he looks down at the table. He didn't expect any different; he's long past that.

But he's pretty sure Dean isn't past it yet, and that's even worse.

He wants to say he'll call back and have it mean it's not your fault. He wants to say he won't call back and have it mean you don't need his absolution. He wants to say hope he gets the message and mean thanks for saving my life again, and again, and always, and again.

He wants to say we did good work and mean those kids didn't die because of you.

But he doesn't know that language well enough, not yet, so he says nothing.

When Dean changes the subject abruptly by bitching about the diner's pathetic taste in piped-in music, Sam lets him, and sips his decaf coffee and smiles at the waitress and looks forward to the pie.

~

Sam has another list in his head: a whole lot of things he's going to say to his father when he sees the man again. Sees him long enough for a real conversation, that is, not over the phone but in person, when nobody's bleeding and nobody's life is in immediate danger and there are no invisible demons in the room. Elephants, maybe, but not demons.

He's been making the list since November.

Tell me everything you know about it.

The first and earliest and it will never work, but it's worth a shot.

Why won't you let us help you?

Sam can be just as stubborn as his father when he has to; he learned from the master, after all.

Why didn't you tell him you were taking off?

Sometimes, on the longer stretches of road when they've run out of things to talk about, he prioritizes the list, just like he did with his assignments in school.

Why did you tell me never to come back?

He thinks about grouping the questions and statements for maximum effectiveness, like leading a witness on the stand: things about me, things about you, things about Dean.

Do you have any fucking idea how much he misses you?

It's a long list.

What does it want from us?

Sam doubts he'll ever be able to get his father to sit still for that long, much less listen.

~

Burgers and fries and pie cleaned from the plates, an embarrassing pat on the head and a coerced promise to return for breakfast, and they leave the diner to walk back to the motel.

It's quiet along the road, this two-lane highway that's nothing more than a way to get from here to there, and Sam can heard the semis roaring past on the interstate about a mile away. There are some signs of life at the bar now, trucks and cars parked under the neon beer signs in the windows, and Sam sees Dean eyeing the place speculatively.

"You want to check it out?" he asks.

"Nah." Dean shakes his head and turns back toward the motel. The window of their room is dark, the 4 on the door gleaming in the light from the streetlamp. "Doesn't look like much."

"Because if you want to stay out for a bit--"

Dean pulls the huge red keychain out of his jacket pocket and gives Sam an exasperated look. "I don't. Nothing to see anyway."

"Okay. Fine." Sam stands to the side as Dean opens the door, then follows him inside. "Hey, man, I was wondering--" trying to sound casual, like he just thought of it "--how're we doing for money?"

It takes a lot to really surprise Dean, Sam knows. Or, more accurately, it takes a lot to surprise Dean so much that he's willing to show that he's surprised.

When Dean turns around slowly, midway through the process of shrugging off his jacket, and stares at Sam like he just suggested selling the Impala for scrap metal, Sam figures that maybe this is one of those rare times.

"Why?" Dean asks, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

"I was just wondering," Sam replies. "I mean, you haven't been playing pool much lately, and..." He trails off with what he hopes is an innocent shrug.

"And what?"

"And nothing. I was just wondering."

"Sam, we've been on the road for seven months, and that's the first time you've ever asked that."

Sam knows that's perfectly true, but he says defensively, "I just thought of it now. Look, it's no big deal. Forget it."

"Right." Dean snorts softly and kicks his feet up on his bed, boots crushing the duck-printed comforter. He picks up the remote and turns on the television, steadfastly not looking at Sam. "Don't worry, I won't make you listen to all the ugly details of our criminal livelihood. I know you're delicate."

Sam bites back an annoyed retort and sits down on the other bed. "C'mon, Dean, I was just asking."

"You said you didn't want to know." Dean's flipping through the channels, sounds and images going by so quickly none of them are recognizable. "So I won't bug you with the details."

"I never said that," Sam replies.

As soon as the words are out, he knows that it's not true.

He does say it, has been saying it all along, every time he refuses to pick up a pack of cards, every time he waits in the car while Dean takes on yet another small-town local pool champion, every time he insists on doing something else -- anything else -- when Dean trawls trash cans and mailboxes and college mailrooms for discarded credit card applications. He says it every time he tries to convince himself that it's Dean job because Dean's the one with post office boxes in a dozen names in a dozen states, because Dean's the one with the swagger and the mean break and the ace up his sleeve. Because Dean's the one who's so good at ignoring the law.

"Well," Sam goes on, "it doesn't matter what I said before. I want to know now."

"Why?" Dean's stopped on the weather channel, and he's looking at Sam with real confusion and curiosity on his face.

"Because," Sam says, keeping his voice light, "that's our room and board, and I'm thinking I've been crazy to trust you with the funds all along."

There is a moment -- because I've been pretending I wasn't part of this and forcing you to take all the responsibility and it just now occurred to me and I'm sorry -- when he thinks he got it all wrong.

Then Dean gives a one-shouldered shrug and tosses the remote aside. "Okay. What d'ya want to know?"

~

When Sam is sixteen and gets the lead role in the school play, it's Dean who picks him up from all the late rehearsals, waiting outside the high school listening to music in the car, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.

"No way you're walking home after dark," he says, and Sam doesn't even think twice about why it's Dean and not Dad laying down that particular law.

I'd do anything for you means I'd do anything for you any way you say it, no matter the language.

Sometimes Sam thinks he has his own special brand of stupidity not to have understood that before.

~

When Sam is eighteen and leaving home, Dad says, "If you go, don't you ever come back," and Dean doesn't say anything at all.

And that's all that Sam hears through the roaring in his ears and the pounding of his heart.

There's nothing much to say about my family can mean everything and nothing and anything in between, depending on who's asking and who's listening. Sam spends three years counting on the fact that nobody else has the same translation book as he does.

~

When Sam is twenty-two and the world erupts into flames again, he doesn't hear anything except screams and pleas that are too much from his nightmares yet all too real.

The police and firemen came and left: heavy boots on the linoleum floor, suspicious questions and pens scratching on notepads, the door closing soundly behind them. He's in a friend's apartment, in a friend's bedroom, curled onto his side, trying not to hear the soft, stunned voices in the kitchen, trying not to see her terrified face when he closes his eyes.

Then there are footsteps in the hallway. The bedroom door opens and closes. Sam's eyes are stinging and hot; he squeezes them shut, pressing his hands to the lids, forcing himself to breathe evenly, focusing on the tension in his neck and the pain of the wound on his chest, five neat punctures from five cold fingers.

The bed sinks beside him. He smells smoke and leather, and he waits, listening.

He wants to hear she's not really gone. He wants to hear we'll kill that motherfucking thing if it's the last thing we do. He wants to hear wake up, it's just a nightmare.

But Dean doesn't speak. He reaches out, and his palm is warm through Sam's thin t-shirt. He runs his hand over Sam's back, up and down like Dad used to when they were sick or hurt or scared, a slow and steady motion that makes something inside Sam unravel and crack, even though the last thing he wants to do is break.

Dean doesn't say anything, and he doesn't move away until the sun begins to shine through the bedroom window.

A few months later Sam is in a bus station in Indiana, fighting down growing panic, listening to Dean's voice mail pick up for the tenth time, when he finally hears what Dean was saying that night in Palo Alto: Hey, I got you. It's okay. You don't have to do this alone.

~

The television is off and the curtains are drawn. The room is dark, but Sam can still feel the multitude of inanimate ducks watching him. He wonders just how badly Dean would tease him if he pulled the sheet over his head to hide from them.

The uncomfortable feeling in his stomach -- the one that had grown while Dean was talking about scamming credit card companies and Sam was trying not to think about what his brother could have done in another life -- was finally fading. It doesn't do any good to wonder about that sort of thing, about the kind of life where nightmares only happen in your sleep and the strangers who show up out of nowhere to kill the monsters never have to visit your house.

Sam turns onto his side, toward Dean's bed.

"Hey, Dean?"

There is a muffled grunt, then a groggy, "Yeah?"

"It wasn't your fault."

Dean is quiet for so long that Sam begins to think he fell back asleep.

Then: "Oh, for Christ's sake, Sammy. Go to sleep."

Dean rolls over and pulls the sheet over his head.

Go to sleep, imper., command used to deflect unwanted queries and signify that the timing of the present conversation is inopportune. See also: Not now and Ask me again in, like, never and Dude, I haven't even had any coffee yet.

Sam turns away, satisfied, and stares down the fiercest of the wallpaper ducks.