"Vocabulary"

Notes: A Supernatural fic. Pre-series. Sam's POV. The boys are straight in this fic. Spoilers only for the pilot. Louise Fitzhugh pokes her head in briefly.

Summary: Given a week to define himself, Sam watches Dean.


He hadn't realized there could be a downside to losing the baby fat. But there most definitely is one. This school had seen fit to couple ninety-minute classes with the hardest chairs known to mankind. Maybe demonkind too. They couldn't all have cushy thrones, could they?

He shifts a little in his seat, accidentally kicking Shelley's chair. He still hasn't grown into his newly long legs. She turns to give him an irritated look, but smiles when she sees he is meeting her eyes apologetically. When she sees his blush – and when is he going to outgrow that little habit? – she drops him a quick wink and turns back around.

Sam doesn't hear the rest of Mr. Krindle's lecture. It's only when he hears the surreptitious shuffling of papers, a sure sign the bell will ring in a few minutes, that he tunes back in, willing himself to forget Shelley and her shiny blonde hair, the way one long golden lock lingers on his desk.

"So, to further the quest for self-knowledge, each of you will turn in an assignment. Due Friday." Mr. Krindle pauses for groans, smiles, and spreads his hands in a placating gesture. "Relax, people, it's a short assignment. One word, in fact. You will complete this sentence: 'I am .' You may of course use an article if you want to use a noun to fill in the blank. As in, 'I am the bomb.'" He grins as they laugh. "If you choose to use an adjective, that's also fine. No phrases. One word. Distillation. Quintessence. Strip it all away and see what you're left with."


Monday after school

Krindle's assignment is already tickling at him. I am sixteen he tries. No good. That isn't exactly unalterable fact, although the connotations of "sixteen" and all the attendant trials and tribulations of being an adolescent make the sentence strangely meaningful. Or not. Maybe he shouldn't overthink it. Maybe he should go for a surface truth. I am a virgin. Simpler still. I am horny. No lie there. Years of watching Dean laugh into a girl's soft hair, drop a light kiss on a girl's freckled nose, walk up to a girl with the promise of pleasure in his eyes have made him all the more aware of his own body. He wonders how Dean would complete the sentence. Probably I am Dean, trusting his name to be enough. No need for explanation or embellishment. But he can't do that, because he doesn't even know if it should be I am Sam or I am Sammy. I am Samuel. He comes in mono-, bi-, and trisyllabic varieties, apparently. Stop. Back to basics. Start over.

He sees Dean pull up and he catches his brother's eye. He tosses his backpack into the back seat and swings himself into the front seat. "Sammy," greets Dean with almost absent-minded affection, one hand already out for a gesture halfway between cuffing him upside the head and tousling his hair. "Where is it?" At Sam's blank look he clarifies, "Your trig exam? Aced it, right?" He waits for Sam to smile and twist his long body toward the bag in the back seat before he peels out of the parking space and heads home. I am smart.

I am methodical he thinks an hour later as he carefully goes through all of the boxes they bring to each new apartment but never really unpack. How is it possible that their possessions include handbound texts any rare book room curator would covet but not a paperback dictionary? He goes in search of his brother. "Dean, I need to go to the library."

"Not tonight, Sammy. Dad needs me – us, if you can get your homework done in time – for a job. Tomorrow work for you?"

"Yeah." Might as well exhaust his own brain before he starts looking for inspiration from Webster's guide words. "You making dinner or are we ordering in?"

"Bought groceries today," Dean leans in closer and grins up at him. I am taller. I am tall. I am the winner. "Even something green."

"Lime Jell-O?"

"Salad in a bag, smartass. I remember the food pyramid."

"I knew that one brain cell had to be getting lonely in there; I'm glad it found a friend." Whoa. I am a dick.

Dean's grin doesn't falter; he simply shifts his weight and his gaze away from Sam. "See for yourself," he says, jerking his thumb in the direction of the fridge. The fridge where his trig exam is being held up by a pizza delivery magnet. I am sorry. "Thought I'd make that mushroom chicken Dad likes; recipe's right on the soup can." He reaches under Sam's arm to extract the milk, takes a long swig, and replaces it on the door. "Now get your work done," he orders, shouldering Sam aside to start pulling out ingredients. "We're going out tonight."


Tuesday

I am bruised. The Department of Youth and Family Services would descend on Dad and Dean. Scratch that. I am tired. Too true.

Dad had dug up reports of blood bubbling up from the ground at dusk in an empty field a few acres square. The vagueness of the reports had left a lot to be desired and made it a necessity to pack the fullest arsenal they could muster while still being discreet. He'd had a heavy leather satchel full of weapons and charms pushing down his shoulder for hours, slapping heavily against his thin thigh every time he took a step. Both areas are green-tinged and sore this morning, so he doesn't fasten his seat belt as Dad drives him to school and he keeps them angled toward his locker as he changes for gym, drained of all energy.

I am weary. Shelley has a silver ribbon in her hair today. The noble gases are helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon. Matt's watch beeps on the hour. Major General Ambrose Burnside gallops about and does heroic things. I am weary.

He sinks, exhausted and in an afterschool daze, into the soft grass and props himself up against the brick wall. No point in sitting near everyone else, looking up every time a "Hey man" is called out. They wouldn't be for him; they never were for the new kid. He wonders when he gets to stop playing the new kid.

He pulls out the list he's been compiling for Krindle's assignment. I am a warrior. Cross it off. Once again, protective custody would be an issue, or maybe they'd just throw him in a nice padded cell somewhere. Problem number two is, he is a reluctant warrior at best. He'd be perfectly happy never knowing why there is blood in that field or how an exorcism is conducted. He doesn't like the way his whole life has been co-opted by a quest for vengeance, a mission that can't be won; what is going to make up for the fact that he's never known his mother's touch, smile, love? And yet, I am babied is the next on the list. Because of Dean, who'd taken it upon himself to act as his mom, short of donning a long blonde wig. Dean, who's the source of every nickname Sam's borne, who taught him how to load a gun, who puts an unwittingly charming and inept smile on his carefully clean-shaven face whenever Parent/Teacher night rolls around, who had long ago whispered the powers of salt beneath shared covers. Dean, who just last night had gotten one strong hand square on his chest and pushed, so that the blood didn't seep into Sam's shadow as he rolled out the Latin chant. Dean, who treats Sam as special. Dean, who makes him realize I am lonely. Lonely when he stares out the window as Dad drives and maps out the latest plan of attack with Dean, lonelier still when he reads from texts while Dad nods and Dean, queasy from trying to read in a moving car, struggles to listen. It's ridiculous to feel lonely when it is obvious Dad and Dean are the outsiders; all of his dreams are so embarrassingly normal. But there it is – loneliness is the name of the game for a Winchester man who longs not for justice but for peace.

He closes his eyes and allows his head to fall slowly back and thunk gently against the wall behind him. He could have peace at the cost of the dream team Dad thinks he is forming, at the cost of the family Dean thinks he is building. Peace. The word, the promise of it, beckons like a siren.

He is just being lulled into a catnap when he hears soft female voices around the corner, borne along by a warm breeze.

"Who is that?"

"God, he's got eyelashes out to here."

A giggle, quickly stifled. "Oh. My. God. His mouth is just lush."

"No, no, wait. His mouth is to die for." Murmurs of agreement drift in the air.

Todiefor she said, a single word on a single exhalation. Sam smiles. Fantasizing that he is the object of desire. I am todiefor. Realization jolts him fully, unpleasantly awake. Todiefor isn't fun at all when it is literal, when something wicked had taken a young mother up on her offer of her life instead of her child's. He clenches his fists and jumps to his feet, disagreeably surprised when his shoulder and thigh twinge. He checks his watch only to find he's been sitting there for a few hours. He stalks around the corner to find Dean.

And there he is in plain sight but just out of earshot, leaning back against the hood of the car with his eyes closed. Dean lifts his heavy lids and looks completely unsurprised to see Sam standing suddenly in front of him. "Sammy," he smiles.

There is something off, something about the way he holds himself, braced against the clean black vastness of the car, about his silence. "How long have you been waiting?"

No shrug, no eye-rolling. Something is definitely up. "Not long. Just thought I'd soak in the sun for a few minutes." And then he knows that Dean has gotten hurt, that he wanted the heat of the sun to sink drowsily into his bones and relieve his aching body before he went in search of his younger brother, who has express and standing orders to wait at the front of the school with plenty of classmates around.

"Did you go back to the field without me? Is that why Dad had to drive me to school this morning?"

"Nothing major, Sammy. Just a midnight walk in the park. No point in dragging you out of bed."

There are no openings in that honey-over-gravel voice, so he settles for "Want me to drive?"

He gets an eyebrow raised incredulously over a moss-green eye. "Without a license in a town full of bored cops? Nope. Library, right?"

"Not tonight. Can we put it off till tomorrow?"

There is a brief struggle in Dean's eyes, but then he asks, "When's this project due?"

"Friday. Plenty of time."

When they reach home Dad is there, whistling off-key as he stirs a pot on the stove. He turns as they come in the door. "Think you might have knocked this one out of the park, son."

Dean straightens and his chin comes up. "It's done?" he asks.

"Done," Dad affirms. He turns back to the stove. "Soup and sandwiches on the table in ten minutes. Tomato and onion in your grilled cheese and bacon in mine and Sammy's."

Dean slurps his soup. Sam scarfs his down, getting up for seconds before Dean can gross him out by drowning his sandwich crusts in his soup.

Sam pretends to read about Josef K as Dean gets ready for bed. Dean mumbles, "You'll do the salt?" as he kicks off his boots and strips off his shirt. And now he can see the ugliness of red, blue, and black wending its way across his brother's body, bruises and burns, fresh and fading. Dean shucks off his jeans and finally allows himself to slump, to topple into his unmade bed; he curls on his side, the thin protruding line of his spine clear even across the room. I am scared. I am sorry.


Wednesday evening

He knows better than to try to cajole Dean into coming into the library with him. On a moonlit October night like this, Dean can only be lured from the brightness of the sky by a job.

He finds the room that houses the reference materials. A mammoth dictionary holds pride of place on an elaborately carved wooden stand situated in front of a window that overlooks the unlit yard behind the building. He goes over and starts flipping through, feeling like an old lady with a Bible in one hand and a pin in the other. Thankfully he's been spared an audience as the room is empty. He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and stabs the page with a digit. "Laconic" lies beneath his finger. I am laconic. True enough. He isn't a motormouth but he isn't a Trappist monk either. Of course, he never really speaks to anyone except Dad and Dean, so in the grand scheme of things, he probably is laconic. Not bad, but not the right answer. Try again.

"Dean Winchester," he hears, a voice coming through the window soft and sweet. "What are you doing here?"

"Waiting on my brother, just like I said I would when I called you this morning."

He can't hear any further conversation, and it's only a quiet little sigh that tells him that they've found a better use for their mouths. He retreats, not wanting to eavesdrop, but he's curious about the girl's identity. When he realizes how stupid he must look, standing stock-still in the middle of a room crowded with encyclopedias, he ventures back toward the window, and he's glad he did because this is the stuff he wants to hear. He wants to learn how Dean does it. "A girl named Lolita or Andromeda, she's gonna spend her whole life trying to live up to that name; it weighs her down," Dean says, his burnt-sugar voice low and clear. "But a name like Jane leaves you clear, free to be whatever you want." It doesn't seem to matter how meaningless the words are; every syllable resonates, and he's tempted to think that Dean's charm is just smoke and mirrors. But the kicker is that the smoke is Dean's sincerity and the mirrors are those he holds up to his audience; Dean always believes what he says in any moment, whether his conviction lasts or not, and as he tells the truth it becomes precisely what the world wants to hear.

"And what do you want to be, Dean?" Janie asks, just as Sam knew she would. He holds his breath to hear the answer.

"Nothing special," he murmurs, and Sam backs away, knowing the honest puzzlement in Dean's dark voice will be like catnip to Janie, that she'll lay herself down on the grass in the dark bright night and reach for Dean.

The library will be open for another hour. He leaves the reference room and pulls The Trial from his bag.


Thursday after school

Dean's eyes are cloudy rather than clear; the energy he should have spent recovering was lavished instead on Janie Gibbs. He watches his older brother build himself up, bit by bit, assemble himself like a weapon, beat by beat, as the therapeutic thump of hard rock energizes him and gets him drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. I am amazed. He doesn't protest as Dean turns the volume up.

"Dean," he says, trying to time it so there's a lull in the music. He looks over and Dean's looking back with a wide smile. I am loved. He looks away.

"Yeah, Sammy?"

He doesn't protest the nickname. "Dad got anything planned for tonight?"

"We get the night off, baby," Dean crows.

"Oh. Okay." He doesn't know why he can't just come right out and say that he wants Dean's company, that he wants to be five years old again, watching TV with his brother's protective arm thrown over him. He clears his throat. He darts a glance at Dean. "I found some of our old videotapes a couple nights ago." A few movies and TV episodes sandwiched between the Ramayana and a copy of the score of a Bach cantata – yeah, that was normal.

Dean shuts off the music and looks straight at him. "The Mystery Science Theater tape?" Sam knows that he doesn't have to ask; Dean's already offering it to him.

"Yeah. Viking Women and the Sea Serpent."

"Dude, none of the blondes in that movie can hold a candle to the priestess."

"Dude, she's evil. And a skank."

"Nah, she just knows what she wants and how to get it. I admire that in a woman."

"She's ready to nail that old guy!"

"That is a pretty sweet shag rug he's wearing."

"Do you have the thing memorized?"

"Keep it up and I'll sing the theme song," Dean warns as Sam follows him into the apartment.

Dad's sitting at the kitchen table, face and knuckles white with tension. He watches silently as Dean sheds his mirth and goes to him and lays one warm hand on his head, sunk low between his shoulders. "Dad?" Dean tries quietly. The dark face, dominated by red-rimmed eyes, tilts up, and Dean's hand slides off; he brings his bright bronze head in close instead.

But Dad looks past Dean and unerringly fixes his wide, hurt gaze like a bullet between Sam's eyes. "I didn't have anything left," he says hoarsely. I am hated. "There was nothing else."

"What, Dad? What is it? " Dean asks as he gentles one of Dad's fists open. There's a homemade silver bullet tucked away in there, and it rolls a little in Dad's palm as his fingers shake.

"Silver," Dad's breath hitches as he finally turns his heavy gaze away and rests its full weight on Dean.

Dean looks like he's been kicked. "Silver," he agrees gently; "twenty-five years." Dean doesn't move to take the bullet or leave Dad to his grief; Sam watches the two of them uncertainly.

He sees it when Dad's head snaps back and he studies Dean's face intently. There is a ravaged joy in his eyes and Dean lets him look his fill without fidgeting. Dad's voice is caught halfway between speech and breath, and it's hard to hear him, but he looks up at Dean like he knows he'll understand. I am overlooked. ". . . that crooked smile?"

"I remember, Dad. Sammy has it too," Dean says steadily.

"Only time she . . . that little half-smile became whole . . . moment I put you in her arms."

"Must have been beautiful."

"Only time," Dad repeats. He seems to make a decision and his hands grip Dean's shoulders like a vise. His voice clears a little. "It was for me but it was because of you."

He doesn't want to hear anymore. It's clear where all of this is tending. I am responsible. Dad had a wife and Dean had a mom and it's because of him that she's been snatched away. He turns and leaves before Dad can say what he will never let himself say, what Dean will never let himself hear, that Mom destroyed too much in sacrificing herself, that it should have been him slashed and immolated. They would have found a better way to survive, a better life than this.


Friday

He wakes completely unable to move. There's a lulling warmth behind him. His bleary eyes make out a forearm sprinkled with golden hair around his waist. Dean's spooned up behind him.

He rolls over without dislodging Dean's arm. Dean's wide eyes open, lingering in drowsiness only for a moment before coming into full awareness. "Shit, it's already seven," Dean mumbles. "Breakfast in ten, Sammy."

He wants to scream, to pin Dean down and make him admit that he hates this life, to choke out an apology for being so well-loved by Mom. But all he does is swing his legs over the side of the bed and walk in the direction of the bathroom, pushing his boxers down as he goes. There are no words big enough for all he needs to say.

There is silence.

Is there a word that can define him? For all of the sorrow and grief he caused, is it enough to say I am the catalyst? Can he dismiss all of the friction between himself and Dad with I am misunderstood? If he gives in to his dreams and leaves Dean behind, will he ever be able to look at his own reflection without knowing I am the betrayer?

His life is made of this: knowing what blood tastes like, keeping his back to a wall, sitting alone in every school cafeteria, playing the hero. And always Dean, who shines steadily beside him while Dad flickers ahead of them. He is defined by Dean. I am protected.

Always. I am protected.