Title: Sounds of Silence

Summary: Sometimes you can communicate what's important without saying a word. CSPWDT tag.

A/N: This one's for Faye. After all, a deal's a deal. And for my friends at the SFTCOL(AR)S forum--am I official now?

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Feelings sucked out loud.

Dean fixed his gaze on the road and curled his fingers around the steering wheel until his knuckles showed white. His eyes burned, the muscles in his back ached like a sonuvabitch, and his throat was tight and sore.

Damn Neil and damn his father and damn Sam and his "You need to talk about this" touchy-feely emo shit. Some things really were better left unsaid--the pit in his stomach and the anguish he'd seen on his little brother's face proved that.

He had to admit, though, Sam had surprised him. He'd braced himself for a gush of words--debate, denial, reassurance. All the things he didn't want to hear, but that he was certain Sam would feel compelled to say. It wasn't your fault. You've got no reason to feel guilty. I'm glad you're alive.

Empty platitudes meant to fill the hole inside him, they'd only have deepened the chasm.

Instead, Sam had just…listened. Not that he was unaffected by Dean abruptly spilling his guts--far from it. Through a veil of tears, Dean had seen his brother's eyes well up, his throat work, his hands twitch. But in the end Sam had merely eased closer until their shoulders touched, his gaze fixed on the surrounding hills. And Dean had been embarrassingly grateful for both the solid warmth and the silence.

When they'd gotten back in the car, Dean had cranked up the music until the dashboard vibrated. For the first ten miles he'd sensed Sam sneaking glances in his direction, his gaze sharp and assessing. Eventually, though, his brother had turned his face to the window, wrapping his arms around his middle in a gesture of self-comfort Dean had seen all too often growing up.

That had been hours ago. Since then the sun had set, the stars had emerged, and Dean had flicked off the radio, content with the hum of tires on pavement and the whisper of Sam's breathing. Yet every time he thought his brother had drifted to sleep, Sam would move, body twisting, long legs shifting restlessly, as if he were searching in vain for a comfortable position.

Right on cue Sam sighed, squirmed, and sat up straight, squinting blearily out the windshield. "Dean, it's getting late. We should find a motel."

Which was something he'd been avoiding, since concentrating on keeping the car on the road was providing a handy distraction. "It's not even eight o'clock. Another couple hours and we'll be at the road-house."

"The road-house?" His tone bewildered, Sam turned toward him with a slight wince.

For some reason it sparked Dean's temper. "Yeah, the road-house. Ash and his ass-kicking laptop? The demon? This ringing any bells for you?"

Sam made a pissy face. "I understand why we're going, asshole. But it'll be after ten before we get there. Don't you think we could use some sleep first?"

"You need to sleep, then sleep. I'm good." Okay, so maybe he was being a dick, but the last thing Dean wanted was to be cooped up in a motel room with nothing but Sam and the Home Shopping Network.

"Well, I'm not. My legs are cramping up and my… I'm hungry, and... Dude, we've been in this car for hours."

The slight whine conjured images of a chubby four-year-old, not the grown man seated beside him. Dean's lips curved in spite of himself. "Fine, you wuss. I saw a sign for a gas station and mini-mart up ahead. We'll fill up, grab some snacks, and you can stretch those freakishly long legs. Deal?"

Sam didn't immediately answer, a slight frown creasing his brow as he studied Dean's face. "Seeing Ash tonight--it's really important to you."

The intensity of his brother's gaze coupled with that thoughtful tone of voice left Dean feeling entirely too exposed. He hitched a shoulder. "Well, we're in the neighborhood. And I don't know about you, but I sure as hell could use a beer right about now."

Sam hesitated a beat longer, then sagged back into his seat with a soft puff of air. "Fine. But this time we're taking advantage of those beds Ellen offered."

There were so many ways Dean could have fun with that statement, but his heart just wasn't in it. He flicked on the turn signal, taking the off-ramp that led to the mini-mart.

He didn't realize how badly he needed a break until he uncurled from the driver's seat. Pressing his hands to his spine, he leaned back until he felt a satisfying pop, then moved to the back of the car and untwisted the gas cap.

Sam's face was a pale oval under the harsh fluorescents. "You want anything?"

He shook his head as he reached for the nozzle. "Nah. Not hungry."

He could feel the weight of his brother's gaze as Sam hesitated. "Dean..."

"Sam. Don't." Dean concentrated on the pump, swiping the credit card and punching buttons. Sam sighed, and from the corner of his eye Dean watched him head across the asphalt toward the store, his shoulders hunched.

Turning to lean against the fender, he stared blankly at the passing traffic. Lately it seemed anger was constantly simmering beneath his skin, just waiting for an excuse to boil over. Sam meant well, but Dean was so damn tired of the hovering, and probing, and worrying. Though he inwardly cringed every time he saw Sam's split lip, God help him, that punch had felt good.

And Sam… Sam had let him. Had stood there and taken it, just like he'd taken all of Dean's crap since Dad…

Dean shut his eyes against the burn of tears. He'd been a bastard, but recognizing it didn't help matters any.

He couldn't give Sammy what he needed. He was barely holding it together himself.

The pump clicked off, snapping him from his dark thoughts. Dean replaced the nozzle, then the gas cap while scanning the parking lot. No sign of Sam, and how long did it take to buy a soda and a lousy bag of chips? Grumbling under his breath, Dean went to track down his brother.

As he pushed through the glass door, a bell chimed, drawing a cursory glance from the clerk draped behind the counter. Evidently he passed the armed robber/mass-murderer litmus test, since the kid's gaze quickly dropped back to the magazine in his hands.

After several minutes of roaming the aisles, Dean's patience had frayed at the edges. Just as he was ready to interrogate the clerk--kid looked like he needed some excitement--Dean spotted a bathroom tucked into the corner behind a rack of sunglasses. Finding the door unlocked, he pushed in without knocking.

"Enough with the primping, Samantha, we're not--"

He broke off, narrowing his eyes. Sam was leaning against the sink, clumsily fiddling with something in his left hand.

"Dean." Flushing, his brother immediately turned his back. There was the rustle of plastic as he shoved the object into a plastic bag. "Dude, a little privacy. Haven't you ever heard of knocking?"

"You want privacy, try using the lock next time." Dean glided closer, moving around his brother. "What's going on?" His suspicion turned to concern when Sam pivoted to keep him at his back.

"I'm in a bathroom, jerk. What do you think is going on?"

Sam's voice sounded all wrong, annoyance covering guilt and something Dean couldn't quite put his finger on. In one swift movement he pounced, snatching the bag from Sam's fingers.

"Damn it, Dean! Give me that!"

"That's the bitch of being number two, Sammy. Older brother always gets a piece of the action." He deflected Sam's grasping hand with a twist and a hip check, but his brother's sharp cry of pain brought him up short.

"Sam? What the hell…?"

He reached for his brother, who had folded over, his face pale and sweaty as he clutched his right arm to his chest.

"I think she broke my hand."

"You're just too fragile. We'll get it looked at later."

Son of a bitch. How the hell had he forgotten?

Dean peeled open the bag, staring at the contents as guilt twisted sickly in his stomach. An ace bandage. Two cold packs. And a bottle of ibuprofen.

"Show me," he demanded, carefully keeping his voice level.

For a moment Sam didn't move, his eyes wide and wary. When Dean glared back, his brother dropped his gaze and slowly extended his right hand.

Holy crap. Sam's wrist and hand were swollen, dark bruising already extending up his arm. Tension thrummed through Sam's body and he seemed to be doing his best to gnaw through his lip.

"You can't treat this with some cold packs and a bandage. What the hell were you thinking?" Despite his anger at Sam's subterfuge, Dean dropped the bag into the sink and cradled the limb gently between his palms.

Sam grunted as Dean palpated an area peppered with bruises. "It's just a broken bone," he said quietly through gritted teeth. "It's nothing I haven't had before, and the pain's not that bad. It'll keep till tomorrow."

Dean snorted. "Right."

Sam tugged his hand from Dean's grasp and pulled it to his chest. "I mean it. We can still go to the road-house. I'll be fine."

"Screw the road-house. The only place you're going is the hospital." When Sam glared at him, Dean snatched up the bag and yanked open the door. "Move your ass, Sammy."

Sam shouldered past him, his gait stiff with pain and anger. Dean stopped just long enough to get vague directions from the punk behind the counter before following his brother to the car. Sam was already in the passenger seat, his spine straight and his injured wrist held protectively to his body. Dean fished a cold pack from the plastic bag. Cracking and shaking it with more force than necessary, he dumped it into Sam's lap.

"Start icing. There's a hospital about ten minutes from here."

Sam did as told, uttering a stifled hiss when the pack touched his swollen wrist. "Why are you pissed at me?"

Good question, Dean thought, turning from his brother's bewildered gaze. Deep down, he knew Sam wasn't really the one he was angry with. Like a slide show, images scrolled through his head: Sam squirming restlessly in the car. Pulling the door shut with his left hand. Pushing to get a motel room and turn in early.

All the little signs Dean should have picked up on. He knew his brother better than anyone, had always been the master at sensing when Sam was hurting despite his best attempts to hide it.

Taking care of Sam had been second nature to him for as long as he could remember. Since the night he'd clutched his brother to his chest and watched flames devour his mother, his home, and the only life he'd ever known.

It was more than an obligation or responsibility. It was a covenant. A promise.

I want you to watch out for Sammy, okay?

Yeah, Dad. You know I will.

He'd promised. But lately he was doing a pretty crappy job of it. If Dad were here, he'd…

Anger obliterated the pain so quickly he barely felt it. Didn't want to feel it. Dean turned the key, gunning the engine to life. "In case you haven't noticed, Einstein, that's your right hand. It heals wrong and you won't be able to handle a weapon, which pretty much makes you useless at covering my ass."

"Sorry," Sam muttered, slumping down in his seat and curling toward the window. "I just thought…" He shook his head.

"What?"

"Never mind."

After several minutes of strained silence, Dean popped in a tape and turned up the volume.

The hospital was small, the ER blessedly empty except for a woman with the flu and a man who'd come out on the worst end of a bar fight. Within fifteen minutes a nurse whisked Sam off to a treatment room while Dean filled out paperwork and handed over a bogus insurance card.

For the next hour he alternated between sitting in an uncomfortable molded plastic chair and pacing. The magazines were all at least a year out of date, the tiny television was broadcasting a "Trading Spaces" marathon, and the middle-aged nurse behind the desk was immune to the Dean Winchester brand of charm. He was trying to coax a cup of coffee from a vending machine that was obviously demon-possessed, when a forty-something guy dressed in scrubs and a white lab coat pushed through the double doors and scanned the room.

"Dean Martin?"

"Yeah." He abandoned the machine, striding quickly across the room.

"I'm Dr. Prescott." The handshake was warm and firm. "I've been treating your brother."

"How is he?"

"I'll take you to him."

Dean followed Prescott through the doors into an open area with curtained-off cubicles. Sam was lying on the second bed from the door, his arm in a navy sling. He blinked, one corner of his mouth turning up in a lopsided grin.

"Hey, Dean."

Dean stepped around the curtain and up to the bed. "How are you feeling?"

"'M good. Real good." Sam beamed at him.

Dean narrowed his eyes, taking in his brother's relaxed sprawl and slightly unfocused gaze. "Sammy, are you wasted?"

"Yep." Sam looked at the doctor, waving vaguely in Dean's direction. "He's the only one gets to call me that." It was probably supposed to be a warning, but in Sam's current condition it lacked teeth.

Prescott rubbed his jaw, stifling a smile. "I'll keep that in mind."

"Broke my wrist," Sam said to Dean, holding up first three, then two fingers. "Twice."

"Well you know what I say. If you're gonna do something, don't do it half-assed. Sit tight for a minute, okay? I just want a word with the doc." Taking Prescott by the elbow, Dean steered him around the curtain. "You mind explaining that?" he asked, his voice a low growl.

Prescott calmly returned his gaze. "Your brother sustained a fracture to the scaphoid, one of the small bones in the wrist located here." He indicated the area beneath the base of his right thumb. "He also fractured the radius--the end of his forearm. These types of fractures commonly occur when you attempt to break a fall with your outstretched hand. Sam tells me he tripped while taking a run."

"That's right." Dean inwardly smirked. From a dead girl.

"This type of fracture can be quite painful at the best of times, but in Sam's case the lack of any treatment coupled with the fact he actually continued to use the hand has caused a considerable amount of tissue damage and swelling." Prescott grimaced. "I'm afraid my exam and the manipulation necessary for the x-rays left him in a great deal of discomfort. He's had a shot of Demerol."

Dean grimaced. "I noticed." He shook his head. "That's my little brother--can't hold his liquor or his pain meds."

This time Prescott openly grinned. "He may be a bit loopy, but I guarantee he'll sleep like a baby. Any questions?"

"So that's it? He can go?" A knot he hadn't been aware of loosened in Dean's chest.

"I've discharged him. A nurse will be in with some instructions and a prescription for the pain. I've put him in a soft cast for now. In a few days, once the swelling goes down, he'll need to see an orthopedist."

"Got it covered. Thanks, Doc."

"You're welcome. Take care."

By the time the nurse instructed them on icing and painkillers, adding a stern warning about limiting activity (like, oh, say…gravedigging), Sam had passed from manic to mellow. He let Dean do all the talking and take charge of his instructions and meds, followed him to the car like a giant puppy, and passively allowed his brother to tuck him into the seat.

Jingling the keys, Dean jogged around to the driver's side and slid behind the wheel.

"Sorry," Sam slurred, the word heavy with regret.

Key halfway to the ignition, Dean paused and looked at his brother, who was spread bonelessly across the seat with his head lolling on the back. "For what?"

"By the time we get to the road-house, it's gonna be too late to talk to anyone."

With a huff, Dean shook his head. "Doesn't matter. We're not driving two hours so you can sleep on a cot. We'll get a room in one of those motels we passed on the way here. Preferably with an ice machine nearby."

"Thought seeing Ash was important to you."

The fact that Sam thought Dean would disregard his injury and continue on as planned brought home just how deep the gulf between them had grown. "Yeah, well. A geeky little brother trumps a geeky computer genius."

"'M not a geek."

"Okay, a klutz."

"Not one of those, either."

"Sammy, you let a dead chick tackle you and break your wrist."

"I didn't let her. And she was a really fast dead chick," Sam mumbled, his eyelids at half-mast.

"Whatever." Dean cranked the engine. "Don't go to sleep on me 'cause there's no way I'm hauling your ass into the room."

He'd pulled out of the parking lot and was headed toward the motel when he realized Sam was studying him. "What?"

His brother shrugged, his cheeks dimpling with the hint of a smile. "I missed this."

"Going to the hospital? You really are a freak, Sammy."

Sam snuffled a sloppy laugh. "Not the hospital. You, acting like you give a damn." He picked at the edge of his cast. "I know I get pissed off when you go all big brother on my ass, but it's mostly just an act. Feels good knowing you've got my back. I just...I want to be there for you too, you know? But I keep screwing it up."

Dean swallowed hard, deliberately keeping his gaze on the road. How could he have forgotten that heavy painkillers opened a direct conduit between Sammy's brain and his mouth? He should end this conversation now, before his brother spilled any other closely guarded secrets. Except...

"Why didn't you tell me how much you were hurting?"

"Maybe I didn't want you thinking I was too 'fragile.'"

Ouch. Even though Sam said it lightly, the words stung. As if sensing his thoughts, his brother clumsily patted Dean's knee. "Dude, I was kidding. I told you--I didn't think it was a big deal."

"So you were going to let me drive all the way to the road-house? C'mon, Sam, you had to know you needed a hospital."

Sam was quiet for a long moment, and when he finally spoke all the humor had leeched from his voice. "You hate sitting in a waiting room at the best of times. I figured an ER was the last place you needed to be right now."

Who knew you could be furious and heartbroken and guilty all at the same time? Of course, that seemed to be his normal operating system lately. Dean gripped the steering wheel harder and used his dad's Marine voice. "Sam. Look at me." Sam slowly shifted until his body curved toward Dean. "You ever downplay an injury to me again and I'll kick your ass. Understand?"

Sam clenched his jaw and his gaze skittered away, but he nodded.

After several minutes of silence, Dean got a tight enough leash on his emotions to add, "You don't have to worry about me, okay? That stuff I said earlier about me staying dead? It's nothing to lose sleep over. I just need a little time." And if you believe that...

Sam blinked, his eyes losing focus until he was gazing through Dean with a thousand-yard stare. "That's good. 'Cause, you know, I loved Dad, and I miss him. A lot. But I'm really glad you're alive, Dean. No matter what it cost." His eyelids slid closed on a sigh. "But I didn't think telling you that would make you feel better."

The road faded to an indistinct blur and Dean pulled to the shoulder, sliding the gearshift into park. Pressing his forehead to the steering wheel, he squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated on taking slow, deep breaths. When the sharp pain in his chest receded to a dull ache, he turned his head, drinking in the peace on his brother's sleeping face.

"You're right, kiddo. It wouldn't."

Rubbing the back of his neck eased a little of the tension in his muscles, but it seemed nothing could ease the weariness in his soul. Dean put the car into gear and pulled back onto the road.

End