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Dean is ten when Sam stops talking. Sam’s a good kid, always has been, and Dean’s usually proud of him but when he wakes his little brother for breakfast and Sam doesn’t answer which kind of cereal he wants Dean’s a little annoyed.


It’s too early for Sam to drag his feet or be a hindrance, too early for trouble, because Dean spent all of last night comforting Sam through some kind of nightmare. He’s tired, and dad’s not here to help, so Dean’s all on his own. He narrows his eyes and holds up the two almost empty cereal boxes.

“I said Lucky Charms or Cheerios Sammy. Speak up.” He wasn’t facing Sam the first time, but he is this time. He sees Sam’s lips move, sees his little brother’s face screw up tight and turn kind of red, and to Dean’s horror he realizes Sam’s throat is moving.

He can see the clenching, the tension, as Sam tries to make words come up from inside of him. After several minutes he manages a noise, but it’s not clear what it is. Could be frustration, or terror, or something else entirely but Dean’s feeling all of those things too so maybe that’s just him. He drops both boxes on the floor, not caring that the last of the Lucky Charms explodes outwards, crunching over the debris in socked feet before hitting his knees in front of Sam.

Sammy’s face is still screwed up tight, getting redder by the second as his little fingers move up and start clawing at his own throat. Dean grabs his hands first, holds them back easily and starts talking, because he has no idea what to do right now. “Sammy. Sammy stop. Breathe. Please don’t-oh god please breathe Sammy.”

It takes minutes of his talking, and then Sam’s not pulling his hands away anymore. His fingers are still tense though, and big hazel eyes meet Dean’s with panic still firmly entrenched in them. Dean wants to tell Sam it’s nothing to worry about, but he doesn’t think he can lie that well yet.

Instead he puts Sam’s little hands against his chest so Sam can feel his heartbeat and keeps his brother’s gaze. “I’m here for you Sam. I’m here. I’ll fix it.” When Sam was still a baby Dean figured out that laying his little head on his chest and letting Sam listen to his heartbeat was the best way to get him to sleep. It never surprised Dean, because for a long time the only way he could sleep was by touching Sam to feel him breathing.

Dean finds the list of emergency numbers on the nightstand beside the room’s only phone, and with Sam hovering behind him he scans down them and tries to remember who’s closest. He’d like to get Pastor Jim, because Sam’s always liked the man a lot, but Uncle Bobby is closer and time is more important than comfort. Dad’s not supposed to be back for another three days, and there’s no way to get a hold of him until he does.

Dean listens to the phone ring, taps his little foot impatiently on the floor and then the familiar gruff voice carries over the line. “Singer here.”

Dean closes his eyes for a second, and then there’s a tug on his sleeve, and he glances over to see Sam wide-eyed and pale, shaking like a leaf. He uses his free arm to pull Sam in and then croaks out, “Uncle Bobby?”

He hears a throat clear, imagines a lined hand pulling on a baseball cap, and then Bobby’s taking over and Dean’s so glad he starts crying a little. “Dean? That you boy? There’s trouble ain’t there. Where you boys at?”

Where are they at? Dean knew before Bobby asked, but at the moment his brain is too twisted between relief and fear. It’s hard to focus, but Dean bites his cheek so hard he tastes blood and then he can think clearly again. “Sterling, Colorado. At the Moonlight Motel off 6.”

He can picture the exit they took to get off the highway, can remember how the trees loomed over them as they pulled off into the parking lot. He hasn’t left the room in two days, but it’s all so very clear.

“I’ll be just a few hours. Keep the doors locked boy.” Bobby doesn’t ask what the trouble is. He’s gone in seconds and Dean’s left alone in the room with his little brother.

He drops the phone back on the cradle, turns fully to his brother and sees that Sammy is crying again, face red and screwed up as his mouth works silently. It has to be a curse, some kind of curse that Dean’s never heard of but Bobby will know. And if Uncle Bobby can’t figure it out dad will. Dad knows everything, and when he gets back dad’ll fix Sam up in moments. Dean just has to keep it together until then.

He wraps Sam in his arms, feels how much his little brother is shaking, and just croons noises at him and rocks him. Sam soaks his shirt, and then eventually falls asleep with his face pressed over Dean’s heart. When Sam’s asleep, Dean lets himself cry.



-----


Bobby’s been peering at Sam for an hour now, trying out different phrases and techniques, but nothing is coming up. He can see the exhaustion in his Uncle’s eyes, the despair that this is something he won't be able to fix. For the fourth time Dean tells him that the salt lines were intact, that nothing came in and they didn’t leave. That Sam just woke up this way.

Bobby finally gives in and they take Sam to a hospital. They’re there a long time, doctors coming in and out and Sam refusing to let go of Dean’s hand. Even when he was a bundle in a blanket Sam has never looked this frail or small, and something inside of Dean roars and screams for his little brother. Tells him that if he doesn’t fix Sam right now then he’s failing at everything that matters. He agrees, but he can’t see a way around it.

They have to sneak out of the hospital when the doctors say they can’t find anything physically wrong with Sammy. It’s code for them keeping Sam longer, that they think something is wrong with Sam’s head, and the only thing that holds Dean back from the doctor is Bobby’s hand on his shoulder.

There’s nothing wrong with Sammy’s head. Not a damn thing, and if that doctor hints one more time that someone’s hurting Sammy Dean’s not sure even Uncle Bobby could hold him back. They take the trip back to the motel slowly, Sam hanging onto Dean in the backseat as the lights whizz past. Dean’s not sure what to do now, because Bobby’s out of ideas and so is Dean. All that’s left is dad, and dad won’t be back soon. What if Sam needs something and he can’t tell Dean what it is?

Uncle Bobby stays with them, calling other hunters and trying to find out what could be going on while Dean takes care of Sam. With every day that passes his little brother tries less and less to speak, begins to simply sit sullenly with his head hung and his hands on his thighs. Dean can barely stand to see it. He tries everything he knows to make Sammy smile, but none of it works. He doesn’t even laugh when Dean rolls his eyes back up in his head and stretches out his mouth. Cartoons hold no joy, cereal means nothing, and the only thing Sam wants to do is sit still.

It’s the first time Sam has a nightmare that Dean realizes how serious the problem really is. Sam can make noises, grunts and whines, but there are no words coming. When Dean wakes up to an odd strangled noise he reaches automatically out to the other side of the bed and finds Sam, but he can’t seem to get him to calm down. It takes a minute to realize that usually Sammy whispers his nightmares to Dean, and then Dean tells him that they won’t happen. Assures him. Sammy can’t tell him now though, and Dean tries harder to calm his brother down then he ever has before.

Sam cries himself out again in Dean’s arms, little body going limp, and when he’s begun to breathe deeply Uncle Bobby’s voice is a light in the dark. “Dean, we’re gonna fix your brother. I promise.”


-----


Dad isn’t taking the news well. He stared into Sammy’s eyes for a long time, asked questions, and then started to tell Sam that it wasn’t a funny joke. That was when Uncle Bobby took his dad outside. Now they’re arguing, and Dean can hear them through the door of the motel room. He turns at some point to see Sam shaking, and then he wraps his arms around his baby brother and covers Sammy’s ears.

“You think this is a joke idjit? Look at the boy! Almost clawed his own damn throat out tryin’ ta speak and you wanna accuse him of playing a prank. I knew you weren’t the smartest man on the planet, but I never thought you were that damn dumb.”

Bobby’s voice is angry, but dad’s is even worse. The argument gets louder, until Bobby says something ugly to dad that Dean never thought he’d hear from his uncle, and then there’s the sound of a car door slamming and tires squealing.

When dad comes back in his face is lined and grim. He stares at Sam’s neck for a long time, both of them silent and serious, and then dad stands and turns to Dean. “I’ve gotta go out. I’ll be back in a few hours. Watch Sammy.”

When he’s gone Dean pulls Sam onto the bed and turns on the cartoons. His brother may not be laughing, or smiling, but Dean wants to give him as much comfort as he can. He holds Sammy and tries to stay awake until dad comes back, but darkness claims him long before that.



------


Dean’s fifteen and Sam’s eleven. His little brother hasn’t spoken in five years, has long since given up on trying as far as Dean can tell. Five years of trying counter-curses and miracle cures have given them no results. Dad still hunts, and Dean helps when he’s allowed, but Sam stays in the motel rooms. His brother has become a voracious reader. They move so much it’s hard to keep Sam in the special programs, so they’ve gone to a home schooling equivalent that works much better. Dean’s glad, because Sammy hated those programs. Hated being treated like he was flawed or broken, like a freak Sam wrote, and Dean hated it for him. Tore the paper Sam wrote the word on in his rage and then shook Sammy until his little brother stopped nodding his head to emphasize it.

He’s just gotten back to the motel after a two day hunt with dad, and Sam’s got a book Dean doesn’t recognize in his hands and a serious look on his face. When Dean grabs a beer from the mini-fridge and takes a seat beside his baby brother he glances over the pages. Pictures of hand gestures with words under them are spread across the pages, and he tilts the book up to see the little sticker on the spine. Sam has stolen this from some library.

“Did you sneak out Sammy? Hit a library and then come back while we were gone?”

Sam shakes his head emphatically, and Dean tries to think of the last time they were in a library as Sam writes out a response. It had to have been outside of Memphis. That poltergeist in the farmhouse, and they’d stopped at the small library to get Sam some Faulkner book his brother had been begging him for. Sam must have nicked it then. He takes the note from Sam and reads it, one eye on the page and one on Sam’s facial expression.

It’s American Sign Language. I thought if I learned it I could communicate without writing all the time.

Sam looks apprehensive, almost scared, and Dean realizes his brother thinks he’s going to make fun of him. More importantly, there’s only one person Sammy really communicates with, and if Dean thinks this is funny then Sam’s wasted all his time learning it. He has to glance upwards for a moment, bite his tongue, and wait for the burning in his eyes to dim.

“That’s a great idea Sammy. Why don’t you start teaching me.” If Sam hears the unshed tears in his voice he lets it go. Dean’s grateful, and to pay him back he doesn’t mention the glint in Sam’s eyes.

The lessons go better than he expected, but Dean finds that when it comes to learning for Sam he’s more than willing. He works harder than he ever did at history or math, applies the same focus to the gestures that he did when he was learning hustling or exorcism rites. Sam’s a patient teacher, and after a while Dean can keep up with his little brother. They can talk, and while it’s not Sam’s voice it’s good. Better than Dean ever thought it could be.

Sam never suggests it to dad, and Dean doesn’t bring it up out of deference to Sam’s feelings. It becomes their secret language, fingers flying along smoothly as they work out all the things Sammy has been hesitant or ashamed to write.

Dean learns that his little brother loves reading because he thinks the authors are as mute as he is. He learns that Sam wants to write himself one day, maybe a fictional account of their lives. Dean can’t help himself, it’s dark except for the slice of light coming from the bathroom door and dad’s asleep in the other bed so Dean signs his response to Sam. Who would be the hero?

He can see Sam’s face pull up, a look of disgust as if Dean’s question is beneath him, too stupid to even be considered. You jerk. Who else?

Dean smothers a laugh in his elbow, and then folds his thumb against his palm and jerks his hand away from his lips. Bitch.

Now it’s Sam covering his own smile.



-------


It takes a year of sneaking out to hustle the money Dean needs, but when he’s finished he can’t wait to put his plan into action. Dad has started to leave the Impala with them when he’s gone on hunts, in case Dean needs it to take Sam anywhere. He looks old enough at sixteen to drive it around, and Dean’s already got his fake license. He checks the local phone book for Radioshack listings, and finds one about twenty minutes away. Sam’s already settled down with a new Vonnegut novel, and Dean’s fairly certain he’ll be alright while he’s out.

It’s May 1st, and Dean needs to have this thing bought and hidden before Sam wakes up tomorrow or the whole damn plan is ruined. He expects to have some heavy geek as a salesman, someone who will talk down to him either because he’s younger or because he looks the way he does. He finds a lot of men do that, as if being handsome equates to being stupid. Dean doesn’t have to be modest anymore, he knows what he’s capable of now.

Instead the woman that greets him smiles brightly, touches him more than is absolutely necessary, and leads him around the section he wanted discussing pros and cons in a bright and cheerful voice. Dean gets Sammy’s present, and a date for the night. He takes her out as soon as her shift is over, uses his fake id to buy them both drinks with what money he has leftover, and then takes her back to her place. It’s not too far from the motel, but he calls the room to check in anyway.

They have a system for this, and when Sam answers he hits a button twice to let Dean know he’s fine. Dean waits for the sound of the tones before he speaks.

“Hey Sammy, something came up and I’m going to be a little late. You gonna be ok?” He can picture Sam’s face, knows that his little brother probably suspects the whole truth, but there’s no reason to spell it out if he doesn’t. There’s silence for a little bit and then the two tones come again. Sam understands. “Thanks man. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Stay inside and do your homework.

There’s a grunt, Sam’s way of mocking Dean’s solicitous nature, and then Sam hangs up. Dean turns back to the woman, Laura he’s pretty sure, and then smiles the way he knows is most effective. “Had to check on my little brother. Now how about that nightcap?”

Laura pours him a whiskey, the buttons of her shirt have been coming undone one by one as the night continues, and Dean’s pretty damn excited about the territory underneath the fourth one. She takes a sip of her drink and slides gracefully onto the couch beside him, one bare foot sliding up his thigh to his groin.

“That’s so sweet. He must not talk much for that to have been so short. My little sister talks constantly.” It’s obvious she barely cares about the conversation, but Dean’s willing to play along if that’s what she wants. They both know what this is. He takes the bare foot in hand and begins to rub it, watches the line of her neck when her head drops back in pleasure.

“Sammy doesn’t talk at all. Mute since he was six.” Dean rubs one strong thumb along the arch of her foot and hears her groan.

It’s going so well, he can imagine how it’s going to be pushing into her as soon as this small talk game is over, but her next words dampen his arousal in a way he never thought possible. “Oh I’m sorry. It must be hard living with someone who’s retarded.”

Her foot is on the floor in half a second, her cry of surprise mixed with one of disgust as her drink sloshes over her shirt. Dean puts his glass down and levels a gaze at her even as he’s gathering up his jacket. “Look bitch, Sammy’s smarter than any kid I ever met. Smarter than most adults too, and I’m including you in that.”

He hears her call out to him, accuse him of being an asshole, but he responds to her statement by slamming her door and heading for the Impala. He has to drive around for a bit, work the rage off before he sees Sam. He can’t repeat this to Sam, can’t explain the surge of anger or the aborted intimacy, because then he’d have to repeat the accusation that he knows Sam himself sometimes thinks. By the time his head is cool it’s after one in the morning, but Sam’s awake when he walks in.

Their eyes meet, and Sam raises one eyebrow and gestures fluidly. What happened?

And there it is, in seconds really, all of his anger is back again. It’s not fair that Sam thinks that about himself, not fair that the whole world thinks it really, because Sam’s so damn smart. So intuitive, and Dean tries to imagine how far ahead of the curve his baby brother would be if he could just speak. If nobody looked at him like he was special because of his lack of voice. People talk too goddamn much anyway. He shook his head and headed for the bathroom, growling out on his way there, “Nothing Sam. Go to sleep.”

He let the shower run until all the hot water was gone, beat off in the meantime to reduce some of the angry tension still locked inside of him. What did that fucking bitch know? She was the same as the school systems and the diner workers that looked at Sam with pity, as if he was less than something because he was silent. He wasn’t really, not totally silent, because he could communicate with Dean just fine. Did it all the time actually and fuck them if they thought they knew better. Fuck them for their condescension.

When he came back out Sam was still awake, and Dean stood in the bathroom doorway sharing a look with his little brother. The rule was that the bathroom light stayed on, so if Sam needed to talk to him then Dean could see the hand signs that entailed. Sam just weighed him for a long time before he bothered trying to get Dean to talk again. What happened? Was she married?

It’s Sam’s attempt at a joke, but Dean isn’t in a laughing mood. He shakes his head and clears his throat. “Go to sleep Sammy. Seriously. It’s no big deal.”

Sam’s eyes go wide for a second, and then Dean sees understanding rush in and take over. There’s sympathy, maybe a bit of pity, and then Sam’s hands are moving so fast Dean has to work to keep up.

You do not have to do that. Not for me. You deserve to be happy as much as I do, and I do not need you to give that up just because someone calls me-

It’s the meanest thing Dean has ever done to Sam since Sam lost his voice, but he turns off the bathroom light effectively silencing Sammy. Leaving his little brother in the dark. He hears the wordless cry of surprise. Maybe a bit of outrage there too, but Dean makes his way to the bed and pulls the covers up. Sam doesn’t make any other noise, doesn’t turn the light back on so he can finish his little speech. He just stays over on his side of the room, and Dean listens to his uneven breathing in the heavy silence and feels like the biggest jackass in the world.

The next day Dean plans on working extra hard at being the best brother he can, because it’s Sam’s birthday and he’s got that present out in the car. The one that started this whole fucking mess, but it’s good and Sammy’s gonna love it. Except Sam isn’t there when he wakes up. Sam’s not in the other bed, not in the bathroom, and not at the vending machine. When Dean sees that Sam’s duffel is gone he slams his way through the door and out to the Impala still wearing only his sleep shirt and sweatpants, and with no shoes on his feet.

He can barely catch his breath, can’t remember even the most rudimentary tracking lessons his father has given him over the years because in his head a cry has started. Sam’s gone. Sammy’s missing. He doesn’t have to wonder if Sam was taken, knows damn well what his baby brother has done. A part of him wants to blame Sammy, shout at him, because he knows better than this. Knows what’s out there, and how badly it wants to take the Winchesters away, find them vulnerable and alone. That’s what Sam is now after all, vulnerable and alone, and all his arguments against treating Sam like he’s special or handicapped are forgotten in the wake of all the things Sam can’t do without a voice.

In the two hours it takes him to find Sam Dean ages twenty years. He rides around the city with his head jerking back and forth, eyes traveling over every face desperately, and it’s a goddamn miracle that he doesn’t hit something with how little attention he’s paying to the road. When he finally rides past the park, empty in the middle of what is considered church time, he finds Sam sitting on a bench staring into a rapidly flowing little river.

He parks the car across two spaces without thinking, leaving it behind as his feet pound across the wet grass and carry him to Sam. When he gets even with the bench he finds Sam’s downturned face with his fingers and tilts it upwards so he can look fully into it. Someone has split Sam’s lip, and the blood has dried on his chin. There’s a petulant look to his little brother’s face that he doesn’t see often, the warning of oncoming adolescence Dean imagines, but underneath that is a world of pain and fear.

He has to close his eyes for a moment, take deep breaths, and try to get a hold on all the things running through his head. Finally he releases Sam’s chin, and then kneels in front of him and takes both of his hands. They’re long, large, promising that one day his little brother won’t be little, maybe will even outgrow Dean although the thought is kind of hideous. He presses his face against them and doesn’t miss that Sam’s knuckles are split and bruised, that it looks like Sammy gave better than he got. There’s the sound of birds, and in the distance church bells calling some congregation inside, but here between the two of them there is only silence.

“Sammy. Look at me ok?” Sam turns his face, mulishness fully settled in every line, and Dean bites the inside of his cheek to avoid saying the wrong thing. Three deep breaths and he’s ready to try again. “Sammy, I’m sorry ok? I wasn’t mad at you. I was never-Jesus kid could you just look at me?”

Sam finally looks over, eyes narrowed, and that’s when Dean sees the telltale sparkle there. Sam is trying not to cry, and Dean realizes that he hadn’t had any idea how bad he could feel. It’s Sam’s goddamn birthday, and Dean’s made him try to run away. Dean’s made him fucking cry.

“Sammy, please man, I’m sorry ok? I’m so fucking sorry. Don’t-please Sammy don’t do that.” But it’s too late, the dam has burst, and Sam is knuckling tears roughly out of his eyes as he tries to keep his chin stable.

So they’re in public, and Dean has rules about these sorts of things, but for once all of that falls aside as he grabs his little brother into his arms and squeezes him so tightly Sam groans in pain. He rocks the scrawny little body, muttering under his breath all the ways he’s a terrible brother and how very sorry he is. It’s not enough, never enough, because insulting Sam is one thing, but Dean silenced Sam’s one real form of communication out of spite.

After a while Sam quiets down, and Dean pulls back and catches the puffy hazel eyes. “Wanna go back now kiddo? I’ll make you breakfast.” Sam nods once, head dropping so hair can cover his eyes, and Dean tousles it the way that always makes Sam bat softly at his hands. It’s a testament to Sam’s mental state that he just lets Dean, that his head tilts slightly so that Dean’s hand is making more contact than it usually would.

The ride back is mostly soothing, Dean lets Sam pick the music and Sam chooses some easy listening station because the Beatles are playing. When they get back Dean tells Sam to wash up, laughs at the glare he receives, and then gestures towards the bathroom door commandingly. Sam obeys, and it gives Dean just enough time to sneak out to the car and pull his present from the trunk.

He follows dimly remembered instructions, opens the word processing program, and types one line in bold and big font. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY KEROUAC.”

When Sam comes out Dean’s already finished cleaning both of their breakfast bowls and pouring cereal, and he hears the high and surprised sound his brother lets out. He turns to see Sam staring at the laptop, eyes shining again but in a good way this time. He has just enough time to lower both bowls before Sam slams into him at full force, and then he’s getting the breath squeezed out of him.

When Sam pulls back the grin on his face is so broad it’s almost frightening, and the dimples are out in full force. Dean hasn’t seen them often in the last few years, and it’s so good to see them now he’d work a thousand more hours to buy Sam as many laptops as it took.

Sam’s hands fly. Thank you. Thank you. It is perfect. Dean nods, smiles, and then points to the cereal bowls.

“Eat breakfast first. Then you can play all you want.” He tousles Sam’s hair again, gets a grin in response, and then watches his baby brother choke on the cereal he’s swallowing instead of chewing while his big hazel eyes stare at the laptop. The look on his face is worth everything.


------


It’s four days after Sam’s birthday that the worst nightmare yet happens. Dean wakes to that hoarse screaming sound he hasn’t heard in a long time, and then he’s up and across the room before it can stop. He finds Sam buried under the covers and then a bony elbow clocks into his jaw and he falls backwards from the force of it. He takes a second to shake it off, get back up, and then he’s shaking Sam awake while calling his name.

Sam comes out of sleep with his mouth open, face red, and for one horrible moment Dean is back to that morning when Sam woke clawing his own throat trying to speak. Sam’s shaking too hard to form words, all he can do is let out that pained moan, and Dean’s horrified to realize Sam has wet the bed. That hasn’t happened since before he lost his voice, and Dean pulls his red-faced little brother from the bed and carries him into the bathroom.

He’s too afraid to leave Sam to do much about the bed, so he focuses on stripping Sam down and getting him washed. Fear has yet to give way to embarrassment, and despite the water being way past warm Sam shakes like a leaf the whole time. Dean didn’t realize his baby brother was made of bones and angles until this moment, and he promises himself silently that he’ll focus on making sure Sam eats more.

It’s a good distraction, one of many that he employs to not have to focus on the look on Sam’s face. The look that reawakens that little voice screaming at him that he is failing Sam in some untenable way. When Sam’s out of the shower he submits to having Dean dry his hair, helps half-heartedly with the rest of his body, and then slumps into Dean’s bed in clean sleep clothes. Dean grabs the sheets off the other bed and balls them up before putting them outside the door. If the maid gets them great, if she doesn’t then fuck them.

Sammy watches him the whole time, face expressionless now, and Dean finds he’s starting to miss the fear and panic. It would be easier if Sam wasn’t lying there impersonating a dead person. When the cleanup is done he slides into bed beside Sam and takes that bony jaw into one of his hands. It’s never ceased to amaze him how much of Sammy his hands can swallow, and while it’s less now than it was before, Sam still seems so fragile and small to him.

“What was it Sammy?” He tries to pitch his voice low and soft, comes off raspy instead. It’s the best he can do without howling.

Sam seems to consider it for a second, and then Dean sees the moment that he decides there’s nothing left to lose. It’s a terrible expression on Sam. You got tired of me being a burden. You left to go with dad. Nobody came back.

Dean doesn’t need more details, stops Sam’s hands and covers his face with them in the hopes that Sam will understand that it’s not like when he turned the lights out. He just needs a moment, because fuck how is he supposed to explain this to Sammy without losing his shit all over the place.

He speaks slowly, rubbing Sam’s hands with his thumbs while he keeps them against his lips. Maximum physical contact for maximum comfort maybe. “I will never leave you. You are not a fucking burden Sammy. Never have been and never will be. Who am I?”

He lets Sam’s hands go and raises a challenging eyebrow, waiting for Sam to figure it out. His brother, his brilliant little brother, doesn’t pick up on it very quickly. There’s finally an emotion there at least. Confusion instead of relief, but Dean has learned to take what he can get. Sam spells his name out slowly, a question instead of an answer, and Dean shakes his head because Sam has gotten it wrong.

He sits up a bit, makes a gesture like he’s grabbing the brim of a cap, and then brings both index fingers together. Sam taught him the common sign for brother, but Dean saw the less common one and the slight variation on it. Has always liked it better than the first one. The cap motion says boy, but the fingers together mean same, and that’s what he wants here. He makes the motion for same two more times before Sam grabs his hands and shakes his own head.

He points once to Dean swings one hand wildly around the other for whole, and then points to himself and puts his fists together, pulls them apart, broken.

“Stop that. Stop. You ain’t broken anymore than I am Sammy. We both got a lotta shit, I’ll give you that, but at the end of the day we got each other. You,” he points to Sam, “make me whole.” He signs it while he says it, adds emphasis as best he can.

Sam studies him for a long time, doesn’t sign anymore, and then with a straight face he does the motion for girl and same. Sister. Dean purses his lips for half a second and then punches Sam’s shoulder lightly.

“Yeah, well, you’re still the bitch.”

Sam doesn’t have any more of those nightmares for a long time.


-----


Sam’s sixteen the first time a girl hits on him. He’s spent the last four years working on his stories, but he refuses to let Dean read them. Which is ok, because honestly Dean has better things to do. At twenty he’s learned that if he doesn’t try at all women will basically flock to him. He balances caring for Sam with burning through every possible one night stand he comes across. He has the Impala full-time now, and he follows dad’s truck from city to city. Sam researches for them, finds hunts in every state, and Dean sees less of his little brother with each passing year.

They still talk, Dean still comes home to Sammy whenever he’s not otherwise distracted, but he’s got a life to live and Sam never seems to mind. It doesn’t hurt that Sam’s grown, seemingly overnight, and he’s already a few inches taller than Dean with no sign of stopping. His little brother isn’t little anymore, but he’s still a beanpole and when they spar Dean can still dominate him. But Sam doesn’t want to spar much anymore, gets a cagy look in his eyes when Dean suggests it.

He’d worry, really he would, but Sam knows that if he needs to say anything Dean will listen. So there they are in the diner, Sam’s graceful hands flying as he tells Dean about this experimental novel he read recently. When the girl starts to approach Dean prepares the usual speech, because she’s pretty but he’s out with Sammy right now.

She ignores Dean though, touches Sam’s shoulder and smiles brightly. Are you deaf?

Dean wants to grab her the minute she does it, say something cutting for her assumption, but Sam gives him a look before focusing on the girl. No. Mute. You?

Her smile wavers for half a second and then she responds, hands moving easily in the language that until now has been solely Dean and Sam’s. Deaf. Do you live around here?

Dean knows where this is going long before it gets there, knows the body language and opening lines. His little brother has accidentally reeled in a fish. He hesitates for just a second, and then pushes his way up and smiles at Sam. “I’ll be back in just a little while Sammy. Gonna run an errand or two.”

Sam shoots him a shocked look and then the girl is getting his attention again, and Dean slides out of the diner and away from the scene.

He watches the two of them from the laundromat across the street, absently folding socks as he catalogues each and every one of Sam’s smiles. It’s not hard, he knows all of them anyway, but it’s good seeing them again in such a rapid succession. It’s odd, this low pang in his gut that he can’t explain or understand, as he watches Sam talk to her.

Dean heads over slowly, ambling his way back across the street and sliding in beside Sam to look at the girl. He signs to her We have to go, and then gives her his most charming smile. She responds in kind, tells Sam how glad she was to meet him, and then she’s gone.

They drive back in silence, Sam staring out the window thoughtfully and Dean trying to keep his eyes on the road. There’s a strange train of thought in his head that he can’t seem to shake. When did Sam lose that little boy smell he once had? When did the scent of soap and innocence change to the musk and earth smell his brother has now?

It’s not like it’s the first time Dean is smelling it, but it’s the first time he’s actively noticing the change. Sam was once little Sammy, and now he’s someone else. They still talk at night, hands conveying hopes and dreams, but there’s a distance that Dean has begun to see, to really understand. He hates it. Still, Sam is his brother and if this is what he needs then Dean will make sure he has it. The kid is a teenager, and he needs space.

They start the hunt in earnest the next day, riding along one lone highway in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania until Sam taps his shoulder and points to the half-hidden trail entrance. The lore that goes along with the ten disappearances states that a young boy died out here, killed on some back trail, and that he leads female joggers into the marshy land beyond the beaten path until they’re lost.

The most recent victim was found after two weeks of searching, dead on arrival with one broken leg and a look of terror firmly fixed on her face, and signs of forced entry. Dean saved Sam the morgue trip, so this last detail isn’t one Sam knows. They go along one well-beaten path for a while until it splits two ways, one still dirt and rocks, the other overgrown weeds slowly erasing what was once a prominent trail. Dean studies the two, and before he can indicate his choice Sam tugs on his sleeve and points to the unused one, a familiar smirk firmly fixed on his face.

“What’s so damn funny Sammy?” He waits for the response, half his attention focused on Sam’s big hands and the other half on the trail they’re considering.

And I took the one less traveled by. Sam laughs low and husky, a broken sound Dean loves and hates that cuts in and out as the air travels through him.

“Frost. Great. Come on let’s get to it.” He’s not sure why he’s being curt with Sam. Maybe it has something to do with that low pang from this morning, or maybe it’s the new sense of unease he has about taking Sam out here. Dad is out tracking a werewolf three counties away, so he thought that Sam and Dean could handle a simple salt and burn with little trouble.

Their father has become more distant as the years pass. He and Dean butt heads sometimes as to what the best approach to Sam’s silence is, and it’s caused a tension Dean never imagined could be between them. Still, he doesn’t agree that Sam’s inability to talk doesn’t hinder his ability to hunt. There’s too much that could go wrong, too many situations where if Sam needed to get their attention he wouldn’t be able to. He can make sounds, but they’re never very loud and if Sam got hurt…

It’s doesn’t pay to think like that, so Dean moves forward, body in action and mind sliding into that place between training and intuition that always makes him so relaxed. The woods here are beautiful, rocky outcroppings interspersed with the green foliage. Dean wants to enjoy it but that sense of unease is growing with every step. Which is why he goes stock still in seconds, whole body whipcord tight when he hears the panting breath headed their way. The girl from the diner comes around the corner, and stops dead when she sees them standing there.

For a little while that’s how it stays, her big blue eyes taking them in as Dean and Sam stare back at her. Then Sam steps forward and signs to her. Hello again.

She raises an eyebrow, breath still coming harsh as her head tilts sideways, and then she smiles brightly. Hello. Are you deaf?

The unease flares brightly, and Dean reaches for Sam but his little brother is already moving forward with a smile just slightly less bright than before. No. I am mute. Do you remember me?

She gives him a funny look, glances once to Dean, and then rocks back on her heels. I am sorry. I must have forgotten. She looks distractedly at the wristwatch she’s wearing, an older analog one instead of digital. I have to go. Hope to see you again. She waves once, and then she’s gone like a shot heading deeper into the woods as the underbrush rubs against her bare legs and her ponytail bobs madly.

Dean watches her go and then turns to Sam, a smile he can’t explain turning his lips up. “Aw Sammy, we gotta talk about how to make a lasting impression.”

Sam gives him the finger and then begins to push through the overgrown greenery towards their intended target.

Four hours of trouncing through the woods turns out to be Dean’s limit, and he finally grabs Sam’s arm and pulls him back. “Sam this is bullshit. Let’s call it for the day and come back tomorrow ok?”

Sam frowned once, something troubling him enough to push it to lip biting territory, and then he shrugged and turned around. Dean followed him along the dimming path, and by the time they reached the Impala he had vivid visions of a plate of ribs and a reasonably comfortable bed.


------


They end up at the same diner the next day, Dean ordering a different greasy plate of meat, and Sam frowning at it even as Dean ordered his little brother’s grilled chicken. He waited until the waitress was gone to speak. “Jesus Sammy, at least try a cheeseburger or something. You look like a stick bug.”

Sam barely glanced at him when he responded. I do not want to be fat by thirty.

He watched Sam’s eyebrow raise, and then turned to see the girl standing beside him again. There was the same bright smile on her face as the day before. Are you deaf?

The humor is gone instantly, and the pale cast on Sam’s face shows he’s gotten the gist of this particular turn already. He answers anyway, as if he’s unable to do anything else. No. Mute. You?

Deaf. Do you live around here? There’s still that relaxed and questioning look on her face, and Dean slides over and makes room so she can face Sam. She takes the spot in the booth and then leans forward waiting for Sam’s answer.

No. My brother and I are passing through. Do you live here? He glances once to Dean, and Dean tries to figure out how they should handle this.

“Sammy, ask her what year it is or…I don’t know man. Anything. Maybe she’s an amnesiac.”

I just moved here. Beautiful place right?

The look Sam gives him is one of earnest desperation. Sam has no idea how to handle this, and Dean would love to help him but honestly he’s stumped too. Sam tries his damnedest though. Makes small talk, asks her about the year and the weather. She believes it’s 1995, and she’s earnest about everything. Bright, cheerful, friendly, and so dead she may as well be rattling chains and giving ominous warnings. In fact Dean would prefer that to what she’s actually doing.

I have to go. I am meeting someone on the trail today. Enjoy your lunch. Dean glances at his own watch and realizes that if they had stayed an extra three minutes the other day they would have known this part. They wait for her to leave and round the corner before Dean drops a twenty on the table and heads out after her.

There’s no script for this, ghosts have never acted this way before, and so the two of them sit in the car in silence as she heads into a building and comes back out a few moments later in the clothes she was wearing yesterday on the trail. Come to think of it she’s in the same outfit from the day before too, and Dean glances to Sam to see that his little brother is clenching and unclenching his hands rhythmically.

It must be hard, Sam’s first crush is a ghost, and Dean tries not to say it but it slips out anyway. “She’s the Casper to your Christina Ricci.”

Sam sits perfectly still for a full minute, the silence in the car spinning out as Dean’s half-smile becomes nothing but preparation for backlash. All he gets is a hand gesture suggesting he should head for the library.

 


---

 

Sam spends three hours in the depths of the library, doesn’t ask Dean for help or suggest a task for him. Just sits in the midst of microfiche and dusty periodicals while Dean jiggles his leg and taps the table. It’s the longest three hours of his life, because no matter what he does Sam doesn’t even look at him. Just keeps flipping and turning until his eyebrows raise and Dean leans in behind him to see the screen.

The article is short, bleak, describes the discovery of the body, half in and half out of the marsh, undressed and badly decomposed. There’s the typical newspaper shot of the police line, a suggestion of the macabre without a full reveal of it, and beneath it a shot of her smiling and holding up a sold sign in front of a small house.

Karen Murphy, aged eighteen years, raped and murdered three months after moving to the quaint little town. The waitress at the diner, the one Dean flirted with the last two times they’d been there, said she was a nice girl who always tipped well. Said she’d left the diner saying she was meeting someone, and that was the last time she was seen alive. Sam’s twitching now, an uncommon occurrence for him, his fingers jerking beside the controls, mouth moving but in the shapes of the words on the screen. He’s saying something else, but Dean can’t read it and Sam doesn’t say it with his hands.

Dean studies him a long time, studies the picture on the screen smiling out at them, and then lays a hand on Sam’s shoulder as gently as he can. When Sam finally turns around his big hazel eyes are hollow, and Dean’s afraid to look at them for long. Instead he lets go of Sam and stands back.

“We’ll salt and burn her remains after we find out who did it. Ok Sammy?” It’s not their job, not their thing to find human killers really, but he’s willing to do it. Willing to cross that line if it will give Sam even a second of peace here. Sam’s nod has no energy behind it; he looks like he’s been awake for five days really. He pushes himself up, rewinds the film and tucks it neatly onto its spool, and then he’s gone.

They follow the spirit the next day, and she leads them easily as if they’re not even there. Stops in a tiny clearing and leans against a tree with a relaxed look on her face. Dean’s not even sure what he’s expecting, because honestly she doesn’t have a victim here. All the dead people are women, and he and Sam don’t even vaguely qualify.

She looks around the little space, eyes lingering for a moment on one slightly thinner patch of grass, and then her eyes land on them and she raises an eyebrow. She waves once, looks confused, and then pushes off from the tree. This time it doesn’t escape Dean’s notice that she was leaning right through several branches.

Where is Ray? She looks almost concerned, as if something is out of place but she can’t put her finger on it.

Sam breaks rank again and steps towards her. Who are you waiting on?

Her eyes narrow, lips pursing as her hand taps at one half-bared thigh. Finally she seems to think answering is a good idea. Ray. He’s supposed to be coming to see me. Who are you?

Dean wants to cut in, to sign to her that they’re nobody and if she could just give them Ray’s last name that would be great. Sam has different ideas though. He moves his hands rapidly, fluidly, not a problem for her but a little challenging for Dean. Enough that he’s too focused on the words to realize what Sam is doing.

We are looking for someone who rapes and kills women. He raped and killed you. Can you tell us who Ray is so we can avenge you? Sam’s face is infinitely sad, lined in ways someone his age should never be. He holds his hand out, towards her, and Dean’s trying to grab him but it’s too late. Too late. All those times he fought with dad he brought up Sam’s silence, but never once did he think to mention how stupidly big his little brother’s heart is.

The ghost’s eyes widen slightly, and then she’s lunging forwards and grabbing Sam’s shoulders with shaking hands, holding on even as his brother begins to make that screaming noise Dean hasn’t heard in so long. He reacts without thinking, grabbing Sam and pulling even as he lifts the shotgun full of rock salt and goes to fire. He misses because Sam flails at the last second and knocks it away.

Suddenly Sam’s not making sound anymore, just standing there staring at her as she stares back at him, big blue eyes shining wet despite the fact they are no longer physically capable of producing tears. She rubs at her face for a moment, and then she turns to Dean. I am sorry. I am sorry. Please help me.

Then she’s gone, and it’s just him and Sam standing in the little clearing. He grabs Sam without thinking, sees the wince and pulls Sam’s shirts aside to expose heavy hand-shaped bruises on each shoulder. Sam’s pale, shaking again, and then his little brother pulls away from him and bends over into the bushes to void everything he’s eaten any time recently.

It takes a long time, but eventually Sam manages to fumble out whole sentences. This is after Dean half-carries his brother through the woods, until he's just outright carrying Sam and then tucking him into the passenger seat of the Impala. He gets Sam back to the motel room and tucked in, watches him sleep for a fitful two hours, and then when Sam wakes up his signing is sloppy but passionate.

It was a guy. He pretended to be deaf and hit on her. He knew the signs. He talked her into meeting him in the woods and then he raped her. Dean fights himself every time Sam makes the sign, hooked fingers raking the air viciously and the other hand extending one finger and pointing up. It's a perfectly violent gesture for a violent word. He killed her. Now she is stuck and we have to help. I know what he looks like Dean. I know where he lives. We have to find him.

He has to choose his words carefully here, because Sam is looking at him like if he wanted to he could just walk in and make the guy pay. Which, to be fair, Dean probably could. Hell he half wants to, but they need to keep a low profile. It doesn't change the fact that the girl Sam is so intent on helping is killing people. So Dean suggests they look the guy up, and then they find out he's dead. Which takes a lot of the complication out of the equation. It also explains why the bodies are showing up in a manner that Karen would never be responsible for, and Dean doesn't miss the tension that bleeds out of Sam when he sees that. So it's still a salt and burn, but now it's a double. Dean can handle that.

Except when they leave the next day Sam is still not quite right. He's too pale, skin drawn tight across his face and hands slightly shaky in his lap. He doesn't try talking to Dean, and Dean lets him sit in that silence for the entirety of the time it takes them to cross another state border and find a new motel.

Sam's getting older. He's blowing his way through the home schooling requirements, and he's already smarter than Dean. If this hunt has proven anything it's that Sam is not made for hunting. It has nothing to do with his inability to speak at this point. It's Sam in general. Sam is too caring, too much of a bleeding heart and that sort of attitude will get him killed. Dean knows it, and if dad was around to see what his son had grown into he'd know it too. Sam's gentle, sweet, and innocent. They can't expose that to this life for much longer. Not without ruining some of the things that make Sam Sam.

Maybe it's time to look into something else for Sam. Something that will let his little brother continue to nurture and hone his creative skills without putting him in the line of danger. Dean's so busy considering the possibility of giving Sam up that he misses when Sam starts speaking. It's only a finger tapping his shoulder hard that gets his attention.

This room is actually nice. Dean looks around at the clean looking comforters, the lack of water stains, and the subdued theme. He nods once and then realizes he should do more than that or Sam will get suspicious.

"Well, yeah, only the best for the Winchesters." Sam rolls his eyes, but it's good to see emotion coming off him. Something other than sorrow and fear. "Sorry your first girlfriend turned out to be dead."

Sam gives him an odd look. Not my girlfriend.

"Yeah but you were interested."

No, I was not.

Dean's willing to let it go. He has other things to think about. "Yeah, well, there's time for that then. One day you'll meet a nice girl and that'll be it. Little Sammys running around pulling things down and being a general pain."

What if I want something else? Sam looks pale again, apprehensive, and Dean take a moment before he responds.

"What do you mean Sammy?"

His lips pursed, face set in lines that speak of stubborn fear. What if I want something else? Someone else?

"Are you-uh-" Careful Dean. "-you hinting at something specific Sammy?" He followed Sam's eyes when they dipped, roved, and eventually found what they were looking for in Dean's face.

Yes.

Dean rubbed at the back of his neck for a second before nodding. "Ok. Well that's fine. Fine. You can find a nice boy then, and make-adopt-you know whatever. Your life man." He chucked Sam's shoulder once and then saw that his brother was still frowning. "What? No kids either?"

Dean I want this. I want you.

He stood, legs suddenly numb and unsure, and wobbled out of the room and into the Impala before going directly to a bar.

------

The research is done quietly without Sam's knowledge and only when he's sure his little brother can't see it. Dean finds the right school first, and then he applies for a scholarship for Sam. He has back-ups, but the one in Colorado is the one he wants. Sam, for his part, lets the whole thing go. He doesn't mention his confession, doesn't mention Dean's response, and forces cheer at a level usually reserved for manic housewives. Dean would say something about it, but his grin is just as broad and fake.

When the acceptance comes he collects the brochure and the information together and sits Sam down before handing it all over. He's aware he's babbling, that his voice is unsure and overly bright, and that Sam hasn't looked up or said a word since he started.

"-good school where you'll be able to get better at writing and meet other kids your age. Good kids, and good teachers, and it's all paid for. They really want you. I submitted some of your stuff, and they loved it, so they already know how freaking brilliant you are and they're really eager. It's a great opportunity for you Sam. The kind of thing that only comes once in a lifetime, and when you do well there it opens the door for colleges and it's gonna be great. Just great. What do you think?"

He's ready for the fight. Ready for Sam to throw things and shout, the wild gesticulations, and just in case he's boned up on the harsher words they never use between each other. He's ready. Except Sam doesn't do any of that. He sits with the brochure in his lap and his hands limp against the bedsheets for a long time in silence before he finally signs his response, each one slow and sure, without ever looking over at Dean.

Yes. I will go.

Dean's not sure why he's disappointed, but he swallows it down and hugs Sam tightly. "It's gonna be great Sammy. You'll see. They got horses and shit, and you're gonna love it. We'll head for Colorado tomorrow."

And they do. Dean plays the role of Guardian ad Litem, and he hands his not so little brother over to the dean of the private school with more trepidation than he ever thought possible. He gives Sam one last hug, notices that his brother doesn't hug him back, and promises to email all the time. Sam simply nods and turns away.

For the first year Dean sends Sam a message every day like clockwork. Their length depends entirely on what's going on, but each one tells Sam where Dean is and what he's doing. Asks about his health, his schoolwork, and whether or not he's making friends. In the wake of Sam leaving Dean finds himself on more hunts with his dad, and it's probably ironic that he hates it. When Sam was there Dean longed to be with his father, hunting the big monsters and making the world better. He longed to be a part of it, and to see how proud his dad would be when he recognized Dean's talent and sincerity. Except now that he has it he can't miss the fact that it only came at the cost of Sam.

Each letter promises that he'll visit soon, even if he doesn't, and that he misses Sam, which he really does. Occasionally Dean will go into justifications, explanations of his behavior and why it's for the best. Why Sam is gonna thank him one day. Because Dean isn't as stupid as he seems, and he knows what's going on. Sam's been deprived of the chance to meet other people, to make friends and connections, and in that weird vacuum his entire life depended on Dean. It wasn't love, and Sam wasn't weird or fucked up, at least not in that way. Sam just had an unhealthy attachment, a delusion that Dean was the only thing in his world, and this is what he needs. He needs to see other people and know that there's more out there for a kid like him. That Dean isn't his only choice.

So it hurts, and it makes Dean crazy to not know where his little brother is and what he's doing, but that's completely normal, and this is completely necessary.

Sam never responds to a single email.

----

Three hundred and seventy-two days after Dean leaves Sam in the capable hands of St. Sophia's staff and begins the hardest trip he's ever taken to Alabama to meet up with his father he gets an email back. It's a record-breaking four words, and Dean's so glad to see it he's willing to ignore the message itself.

I still love you.

No more and no less than that, and it's so Sammy that Dean is momentarily overcome. Dad sends him a questioning look, but Dean ignores it to open the response and start typing. He tells Sam about the hunt they're on in Southern California. He tells Sam about how strange the people are here compared to the Midwest, how difficult it is to blend in with people who talk to their phones instead of the person in front of them, and how much he misses good barbecue. There's a long portion in the middle where Dean relates a funny story about Dad, a poltergeist, and a pantsing, but mostly it's just straight recall.

At the end of that he indulges Sam's comment as best he can by telling Sam that he's been studying up and there's a condition he can't remember the name for right now that has to do with what Sam is experiencing. That it's like Stockholm Syndrome, and that Sam only feels that way because he was cut off from the world. That given time, and other people, Sam will come to realize that he doesn't love his brother as anything more than a brother, and then they can put this whole thing behind them. They'll be better, and when Sam's finished if he still wants to tag along for hunts while he writes or whatever he's gonna put his mind to, then he's more than welcome. In the meantime Sam just needs to focus on his schoolwork and his friends, and how are his friends and schoolwork anyway?

He gets a response two days later. Sam is succinct just like the first time, and Dean reads it with an icepack applied to the gash in the back of his head and smiles even if he doesn't want Sam to be saying this. All A's. Two friends. I still love you.

Then life takes over again, and they're traveling all over the country and fighting every single monster Dean's ever heard of and several he doesn't know until they have fangs or claws coming at his face. Dad is stern, commanding, and Dean longs for the days when it was just him and Sam going after things and then relaxing in the motel room as some movie drones on in the background. The way his brother's lips curl upwards and the dimples carve their way out underneath. The up-tilt to Sam's hazel eyes, and how they're more blue-gray than blue-green when he's happy. He misses the way Sam's long and delicate fingers knew exactly how to work out the knot that always forms in his neck, and how he always felt melted and relaxed when Sam was done.

Every day though Dean makes time to write an email, and the next day he has a response from Sam. It's never more than ten words, and it always ends with the same four, but Dean's ok with that. He's ok with anything that lets him know his little brother is alright. They end one hunt badly, Dean in the hospital for two days with cracked ribs and a nasty gash that just missed his femoral artery, and then he finds himself left behind for a week as he recovers and dad chases some lead on the thing that killed mom. He missed two days of emails with Sam, and when he opens the laptop and engages the mail program his inbox is flooded with letters from his little brother.

Dean's a little high, the hospital was generous with their painkillers, and he reads each increasingly panicked email carefully before hitting respond and typing slowly and cautiously. He tells Sam about the hunt, about the injury, and then includes a funny anecdote about a nurse, Dean's penchant for bad sexual jokes, and a lap full of jello. He leaves out the less funny moment regarding the catheter and him screaming at the same woman. He's still not terribly proud of that moment.

He expects to hear from Sam the next day, so he pushes the laptop aside and grabs the remote before finding Lethal Weapon and leaving it on. When he hears the ding he turns to the computer in surprise and sees that Sam has already responded. It's not words in the traditional sense though, but a link to some website that lets Dean download a "messenger" and a username for Dean to find Sam. He follows the instructions blearily, and when he's done the little window pops up to let him type to Sam. He's cautious, because this is all new, but it's kind of exciting too. Also? Really stoned.

Sammy?

How bad is it? Are you still alone? Why isn't dad there taking care of you? Are the wards set?

He can't help the laugh, and it makes his ribs ache despite the fog of the painkillers. Not bad. Yes. He had a hunt. 'Course they are. How's school?

Fuck school. I'm worried about you.

Well that's great Sammy, but I'm fine and school is important. You making lots of friends?

I have an average number of friends and an above average GPA Dean. Shut up about school. Dad should have stayed. You know you make terrible decisions on painkillers, and when they wear off you get nauseous. Who's gonna bring you ginger ale and rub your back?

For a second, one terrible second, Dean's tempted. Really tempted. Because this is Sam, and Sam is right. Dean does get nauseous when he comes down from opiates, and Sam used to do those things for him. More importantly it occurs to Dean that Sam is the only person on the planet who knows these things. The only one who has ever cared enough to learn them. It's the first time since Sam left that getting him back is a fully formed thought instead of a vague and indistinct longing.

You need this. Because he does. He needs it. He needs to break free and be his own man. A man who doesn't want his brother.

You need me. Jerk.

And Dean? Well maybe he cries a little, but it's because along with making him nauseous opiates make him a little emotional.

Bitch. I miss you.

He closes the laptop before Sam can respond. Before any more damage to his surety can be done.

----

The emails don't stop, and Sam never changes his messages until the day he sends Dean three whole sentences. Twelve simple words that make Dean crazy.

I graduate in May. I lost my virginity. I still love you.

He responds on auto-pilot. Ignores the rest of it and simply focuses on the graduating part, because that's the part he should care about. That's the only part he should care about.

Except he cares about the other two parts too. Suddenly the half-formed understanding of Sam as a man instead of little Sammy isn't so funny or obscure anymore. Suddenly it's a full-scale, earth-shattering, mind-blowing, goddamn revelation. He cares about Sam, and Sam's inappropriate feelings, and Sam's goddamn virginity. He cares.

Which leaves him two options. There's the Winchester way, in which he ignores all of it. He pretends that it doesn't mean anything and that he hasn't come to the understanding that Sam is picking up on a connection between them that Dean himself refused to see. He never tells Sam that occasionally, only very rarely, he has maybe seen Sam as someone else. Someone who could be more than a brother, more than a charge or ward, and what the fuck now he's thinking in Victorian language. Because things have gotten that fucked. He could pretend he doesn't know that Sam's hands would be sure and steady on him, or that Sam's lips are plush and soft, or that he can picture Sam's smooth pink tongue moving-

Yeah, he could ignore all that. It's the best option because at the end of the day there are too many factors. Too much that's totally out of his control. Dad, for instance, would flip the hell out if he caught even a whiff of what's suddenly running through Dean's head. The rest of the community, anyone really, would look at them and know. Except would they? Really? Dean's an excellent liar. Was he really considering this?

It took four hours at the bar before he ended up back in the motel room connecting to the messenger program and shooting off a message to Sam.

Who?

It took longer than he liked for Sam to respond. Who what?

Don't fuck around Sammy. Who?

My gym teacher.

Dean didn't remember how it happened, but the lamp was shattered on the other side of the room, his bag was thrown, and the nightstand was overturned. Mr. Harold Longian was going to have extra charges on his credit card come tomorrow…

What the fuck were you thinking? You were supposed to meet guys your own age. You were supposed to be hooking up with the right guys not some pedo asshole.

I don't want normal guys. I want you. In the absence of that I'll take what I can get.

I'll be picking you up at graduation. Stop sleeping with your teachers.

He closed the laptop before he could expose anything else, barely resisted throwing it, and went to sleep. The hangover the next morning sucked, but not as much as the realization that he really only had one choice. Take Sam or lose him forever.

----

The graduation ceremony was ridiculously formal. Dad couldn't come, a hunt with someone in South Dakota taking precedence. Dean blamed him for it viciously as he watched Sam walk the stage and accept his diploma before rejoining the rest of the crowd. They didn't throw their pointy hats, but they did cheer like crazy and Dean didn't miss that some guy hugged Sam tightly and his little brother tilted his head back smiling broadly.

He met Sam in the crowd afterwards and led him to the car. They drove back to the hotel Dean had gotten, nicer than any he'd ever stayed in before, and Sam stared with wide confused eyes at the room. At the flower petals on the bed, and the champagne, and the stereo playing Enya. Then he turned to Dean.

What the fuck is this?

"I-uh-because we're-" Suddenly it seemed so stupid Dean wanted to run from the room. Some weird compilation of all the bullshit movies he'd ever seen about a young man taking his young woman's virginity, and what the hell was Dean thinking? Trying to woo his brother into bed like a horny teenage boy on prom night. This was so stupid. Except Sam was smiling in that way he had, the way Dean hadn't seen in so long it hurt, and the dimples were nothing compared to the light dancing in Sam's eyes.

I am a boy Dean. But it was a nice thought.

Dean waved the comfort away and stepped further into the room. "It was stupid. You can just-" The breath woofed out of him when he hit the bed face forward and Sam was draped over his back. Sam, alive, real, and there. Sam pressing his face against Dean's neck and staying there. Sam.

They didn't speak, like this Sam wasn't capable and Dean didn't think he could force words out of his tight throat. Instead they stayed there, and he soaked in Sam's warmth and the way the breath ghosted across his neck and Sam's chest expanded and contracted against his back. He didn't know if he should break the silence, or even if he could. All he knew was that Sam was exactly where he fucking belonged, and sending him off to live with strangers had only proven that. His goddamn gym teacher.

Which brought up an important point. One heavy enough Dean rolled them both over so that he could see Sam, and they could speak properly. "What the hell were you thinking?"

Sam didn't need clarification. Yet another check in the 'why this is a forgone conclusion' column. My friend James said that it was best to get it out of the way with someone before you do it with someone you love.

"Your friend James is an idiot and an asshat."

His brother's eyes lit up again, dimples deep and hypnotic. Jealous?

"Shut up Sam." Then Dean did the unthinkable and leaned forward, captured Sam's lips with his, and kissed him. He waited for the nausea, or the lightning bolts, but neither came. Instead he found that Sam's lips were just as soft as he remembered them, that Sam's return kisses were hesitant and sweet, and that Sam's tongue was a ridiculously strong muscle even if it didn't get the workout most people's did. Dean learned that in his hand, at this angle, Sam's jaw was sharp and that a thumb brushed along his brother's cheekbone made him release a husky noise that went straight to Dean's cock. He learned that Sam's hands were strong even if they looked delicate, and that his fingers would twist in Dean's hair and pull just this side of painful.

He learned a lot of things.

Mostly Dean found out that this didn't feel the way he thought it would. It wasn't the crazy, all-consuming lust he had when he was going at it with a one-night stand. It also wasn't the world-shattering punishment he thought would be attached to incest. There was just a slow and deep burn in his belly, a need to be connected and intimate in a way Dean had never experienced before. It was just Sam, there and pressed against him and taking up all his attention the way he always had. With sex added.

Sam was under him before Dean realized he'd left out an important question. "Did you top or bottom?" He spoke it against Sam's lips, and didn't consider that Sam's hand were busy until his brother tried to jerk one out from where it was tangled in his shirt. Then Sam just gave up and mouthed the word 'bottom' against his lips. Dean nodded thoughtfully before pulling away. Stripping in front of Sam in this whole new context was nerve-wracking, but Dean managed it, and he managed to get Sam naked with little trouble. If he thought it would all flow organically from there he was wrong.

The lube was waiting, and Dean used it on his fingers before turning to see that Sam had already spread his legs and lifted his hips. It was…well it was goddamn mouth-watering, but Dean ignored it in favor of twisting his wrist in a vicious curve and sliding one finger into himself. He'd had a month to prepare for this eventuality, and while he couldn't say it was the most comfortable thing he certainly wasn't completely foreign to it. It didn't hurt that he felt smug when he saw the way Sam's jaw dropped, or how his cock twitched. Which brought up the question of when Sam had grown so much.

"You're gonna catch flies." He added a second finger and hissed before leaning forward and catching Sam's mouth again. His balance was dangerous, and he was grateful when Sam reached up and caught his shoulders to hold him steady. He'd never gotten past three fingers, was pretty sure it wasn't necessary, and the addition of Sam's mouth against his had him adding the third faster than usual. Sam ate his grunt, and then sucked on his tongue while Dean adjusted. He could do this. He was going to do this.

They stayed like that for a while, until the intrusion became a pleasant burn instead of an ache, and then Dean pulled his fingers out and pushed Sam down. The position was all new, Dean was usually on the other end of it, but he got Sam lined up and then slowly began to sink down. Fingers, it turns out, are a poor substitute for a real cock, and the burn was back with a vengeance. Unsure if the bandage approach was correct Dean just kept moving slowly, eyes roving over the way Sam's stomach muscles tightened, how his fingers twitched against the bedspread, and the way Sam's own eyes were dark and heavy-lidded as he panted and tried to hold still. Whoever said size doesn't matter had never done this, but Dean worked his way down 'til he was fully seated and Sam was buried within him. Then he remained perfectly stationary, thigh muscles already burning and ass aching as he adjusted to the girth of his brother. Again, the lightning never came.

Eventually Sam was moving, little jerks of his hips, and Dean decided he'd be remiss if he didn't take the lead here. He was the older one after all. So with one movement he put Sam's hands on his hips, and then he pulled up and sunk down again. Sam's head bounced against the mattress and Dean groaned low and deep at the sensation of it. Sam filling him and burning through him. Whatever he thought this would be all his expectations flew out the window the first time Sam pushed upwards and hit his prostate. There wasn't even any shame that he called Sam's name as his whole body whipcorded above his brother. He'd never found the spot during his experimenting, and it was just as promised. Fucking electric, boogie woogie woogie.

A rhythm asserted itself, but who started it Dean couldn't say. What he could declare was Sam's long fingers held his hips just right, arm muscles straining as he helped Dean move up and down on his cock. He could feel every slick movement as the muscles clenched and squeezed around his brother, and the burn in his thighs combined with the burn in his ass only pushed him further and higher than any sex he'd ever had before. Sam's throat was working, noises coming thick and rapid as his lips moved around words Dean couldn't catch. Which was ok, because Dean was blabbering enough for both of them about how stupid he'd been, how much he loved Sam, and most importantly how they'd be together from now on. No matter what.

He managed to get one hand off of Sam's chest and wrapped around his own cock, the dual pleasures of Sam battering his prostate and his slick fist working the shaft and twisting the head enough to push him closer and closer until he was gone. Just gone. The world grayed out, his body jerked helplessly on Sam's dick, and he spurted all over his brother and himself before he felt, fucking felt, Sam pulsing inside of him.

The websites had been pretty specific about what came next, and Dean couldn't say he cared much for the clean-up portion of anal sex. On the other hand, returning to the bedroom to find Sam stretched out over the covers where he'd been left, coated in sweat and still breathing heavily with one eye cracked open and watching Dean, was well worth it. Even better was the look of shock and horror when Dean dropped the cold washcloth on Sam's spent dick and laughed when his brother scrambled to knock it off.

-----

Dean is twenty-four when his brother breaks the fourteen year silence that his life has become. They've made a life out of their weird thing, and it works for them. Dean hunts, Sam researches, and sometimes his little brother helps more directly. They see dad maybe, maybe, once or twice a year, but their father has bigger fish to fry and they're happy just helping people. They take turns topping, and they make sure that neither has more or less power when it comes to that aspect of their relationship. The rest of their life though is dictated by what Sam calls 'Dean's freaky big brother complex'. Sam never does more than Dean is willing to let him, and they fight about that. They fight about a lot of things, and half the time those fights end up with Dean pressing Sam down into the bed, or Sam throwing Dean into the wall. His brother grows into his tall frame, chest expanding and muscles building until he could definitely take Dean if he really tried. He never does.

Sam is published now. Two novels under his belt and a third on the way, and Dean's so proud of him it hurts. If it bothers Dean that the protagonists of his novels are two gay men, partners, who hunt monsters in between bouts of ridiculously hot sex, then he never says it. He's pretty sure it doesn't, because every one of those scenes has to be researched just as thoroughly as the cases Sam puts in. The bank account attached to his pen name is full, and they rarely touch the money unless they want some luxury that exceeds the fake credit cards. In the meantime everything works well for Dean, and he's happy to just coast along doing what he does best with Sam at his back.

They're in bed, the last hunt miles behind them and the next a day or two away depending on how fast Dean drives. He's still buried inside of Sam, cock spent and body lax, and any second now his brother is going to push him away and go to the bathroom. Instead there's a choking noise, something thick and unhappy, and Dean jerks once before pulling out and twisting Sam around. His face is red, screwed up and angry. It looks too much like that first time, and Dean is full of the same childish panic he was then. He's helpless to do anything other than stroke Sam's sides and talk in the most soothing voice he can manage around the rush of adrenaline and fear.

"Sammy, Sammy it's ok. Breathe man, I got you. You're fine."

Sam's head shakes once, too long hair flying in his eyes, and then his mouth moves and the voice that comes out is croaky, quiet, but there.

"Dean."

For half a second Dean thinks it's his imagination, and then Sam's eyes fly open and the lines relax. His mouth is curling upward, the smile slowly over-taking his face, and Dean can't resist whooping with joy.

"Yeah Sammy. Dean. I'm Dean. My name is Dean." It's a ridiculous fucking response, and Dean knows it, but he can't stop himself. Sam apparently agrees, because his second word in fourteen years is just as tortured, but a little louder.

"Stupid."

And Dean? He laughs. Laughs until his stomach muscles cramp and his ribs ache. Laughs until he falls off the bed and is curled around his own midsection with tears streaming down his face and his hands shaking. Hysteria and relief mixing together. He knew, had done enough research to know, that the doctors had been right. That Sam's condition had been mental. The little sounds his brother could still make required working vocal chords, and Sam might not have known why he was silent, but Dean had suspicions. Half-baked ideas that had formulated and been rejected just as quickly.

Whatever the nightmare had been that night, whatever had gripped Sam so tightly that his little brother was cast into silence, it was gone. The shadow of it that had lingered in Sam's eyes for fourteen years was missing, and all that was left was a sparkle of relief and gratitude that Dean soaked in as his brother pulled him off the floor and held him close.

They may have been right, that Sam's voice fled in the wake of trauma and fear, but they'd been wrong about the need for therapy. Therapy was just words, and that wasn't what Sam needed. It had been action, Dean suspected these last few years specifically, that had freed Sam's frozen vocal chords. That had brought his brother's voice back to him.


-----


Sam talks too goddamn much, Dean thought as his brother blabbered on about the next hunt while Dean eyed his hipbones and considered the many ways he could shut him up.