Hey there, everyone! I can't believe it's been so long since I've posted here, but my new job is making it really difficult to find time to write, and I've had a bunch of deadlines for zine fics in the last couple of months. I'm going to have SPN stories published in Blood Brothers 4, Road Trip with My Brother 10, Rooftop Confessions 5, Route 666 #3, and Hunting Trips 5. If anyone's interested in ordering a copy of any of the above zines, PM me for more information.

This is a story I wrote last year for publication in Blood Brothers 3. Special thanks goes out to Swellison, pandora jazz, and Liafrombrazil, who each very kindly took time to send me feedback after reading the story in the zine. Zine stories usually don't get much feedback, so the encouragement was greatly appreciated. Thanks, ladies! Thanks are also due to K Hanna Korossy for the edit and the kind words, and especially to Jeanne for her enthusiasm for the story, for offering me the opportunity to see my fic in print, and for making my first-ever zine experience a great one.

I hope you all enjoy the story and will take a minute to let me know what you think!

The Silences Between

After his mom died, Dean was quiet for a long time. He didn't have words to say what he was feeling, so he let the silence speak for him.

He didn't know how to say how scared he was when he walked into a room and caught his big, strong, brave daddy crying. And he didn't know how to make him feel better. Mommy would know what to do, but Mommy was gone now. And Dean was too scared to ask where she'd gone, or why, or if she was ever coming back, because he didn't think he wanted to know the answers.

Grownups kept asking him if he was okay and he wasn't, but he didn't know how to tell them his tummy hurt like it did that one Halloween when he ate too much candy, every time he thought of his mommy. So he didn't answer at all, just looked at them with big haunted eyes until they turned away or nodded in understanding. Eventually, they stopped asking and he was glad, because the asking made other parts of him hurt, too.

He didn't know how to tell God he was mad at Him because His angels hadn't saved Mommy and watched over them like she'd said they would. He didn't know how to tell Him all he wanted was his mommy back, and if He couldn't do that, then what good was He? So Dean decided not to talk to Him at all anymore.

And he didn't know what to say to make baby Sammy stop crying all the time. He helped give Sammy his bottle, held him close in the big rocking chair, and tugged on Daddy's shirt to let him know when Sammy needed his diaper changed. But he couldn't tell him it would be okay, because it wasn't going to be okay, not ever again. And sometimes Sammy's tears made Dean feel better, because his own tears didn't always work when he wanted them to. Sometimes it felt like Sammy was crying for both of them.

So Dean did what he could. He climbed into the crib with Sammy every night and wrapped his arms around his baby brother. Maybe he couldn't lie to him and tell him everything would be okay, but he could protect Sammy, and let him know he wasn't alone.

And he didn't even need words for that.

xxxXXxxx

In that moment when baby Sammy had been placed into his arms, Dean had passed from brother to protector. When that later expanded to mother…father…teacher…trainer…friend, it didn't seem strange at all to Dean. Sammy was just his, and he took care of what was his. He would do whatever it took to keep Sammy healthy and happy. Even if that meant giving him up.

So he'd driven Sam to the bus station, stayed with him until he'd boarded, and watched until the plume of smoke from the bus's exhaust could no longer be seen. Then he'd returned to their motel—not home, not anymore—weary beyond words. Who was he now? He'd spent so long being everything Sammy needed him to be…and now Sam was gone. What did that leave for him? It was too exhausting to think about, so he went to bed and let the ache in his heart carry him into dreams of his family, together again: hunting, fighting, protecting.

It was days later that he noticed he hadn't spoken at all, to anyone, since Sam had left. What was there to say? It hardly seemed worth the effort to form words. No one really heard him anyway. Not like Sam did. John had taken off, only a note to show he'd ever been there at all, with a vague promise to meet up again when the next hunt was over. So who was there to talk for, even if Dean had felt so inclined?

It was several more days after that, when Sam still hadn't replied to his text message about keeping an eye out for sexy co-eds, or responded to the voicemail he'd left about the dangers of cafeteria food, that Dean realized he'd been included with their dad in what Sam was leaving behind. In what Sam had outgrown. Discarded, like a too-small shoe that pinched the toes, their life together, their family, had been cast aside so Sam could find where he belonged. Dean didn't begrudge him his dreams—it was something he'd always admired about Sam, his ability to dream—and he tried not to think of how his dream had just cracked down the center. Trouble was, without Sammy, without his dad, there was nowhere in the world that Dean belonged.

xxxXXxxx

Sam had only spoken once after he'd yelled Jess's name and fought Dean to stay inside their apartment to try to save her, and that was only to tell Dean they had work to do. After that, he was silent, the only noise he made wracking coughs from smoke inhalation, or wordless cries when he woke from fire-drenched dreams. He didn't speak otherwise, and the most Dean could coax out of him was a grunt, or, on rare occasion, a snort. When he'd shot for a laugh and ended up getting a wet, choked-off sob, Dean had realized the silence was all that was holding Sam together, and so he'd left him to it. If the kid needed a few moments—hours, days—of silence to mourn Jessica and the life they'd built, to mourn the dreams that had just turned to ash, well…Dean of all people could understand that.

He was always there, though, reminding Sam he wasn't alone, whether through a supportive hand on the shoulder during Jessica's funeral or a comforting arm around him when he woke from a nightmare, choking on screams, throat still burning from smoke. Dean remembered the lessons of his youth, and how words often failed when you most needed them not to, so he resorted to that unspoken communication he'd always shared with his little brother. Telling him without sound that he was there for him, shielding him from the phone calls he wasn't up to yet and the decisions he couldn't face. Protecting Sam from himself, gently forcing him to eat, and to sleep, and to breathe every day. Forcing him to live.

But he didn't utter platitudes, didn't try to tell Sam he knew what he was going through, didn't try to get him to talk. He just did what he did best: took care of his brother, loved him, listened to what he wasn't saying, and understood what he couldn't express.

xxxXXxxx

Silence and stillness were two words Sam had never learned to associate with Dean. So it was beyond strange to stand by his brother's hospital bed and see him lying there so quiet, so docile. Passively letting a machine breathe for him, and the world go by without him, and Sam thought this silence just might break him into pieces. He wondered if he'd gone deaf without Dean's voice to listen to, and took great satisfaction in the hissing of the ventilator, trying to imagine it was Dean's breath he heard, and in the beeping of the heart monitor, pretending it was the steady thump-thump of his brother's heartbeat. He spoke, to the nurses, to his dad, to his still, silent brother. Pleading with them, with God, to fix this. Begging Dean not to leave him, not when they'd just started to be brothers again.

He felt Dean's answering silence deep inside like a knife that cut through all his pretenses, all his illusions of independence and self-sufficiency, and left behind just a little brother who wanted nothing in the world so much as for his invincible big brother to wake up and talk to him, filling the silence with his snarking and complaining and lame jokes and incessant chatter…before his silence killed both of them.

xxxXXxxx

In the days after waking from his coma, Dean tried not to speak at all. His throat felt disused and sore, either from the days he'd been unable to speak or from the tears that tried to push their way out. It wasn't that he didn't have anything to say; he did, plenty. Only, those he wanted to say it to were well beyond his reach, and neither Heaven nor Hell was likely to open at his command.

So he took out his anger—so much anger—on the only thing he had left of his father. He pounded the Impala's trunk lid with every bit of his strength behind the crowbar, internally screaming all he wanted to say to the man who'd given it to him. It was too much—the I am so proud of you and the Watch out for Sammy and the friggin' secret he'd laid on Dean and the freakin' deal he'd had to have made to save him—and all Dean wanted to do was scream and rage, and his throat hurt from keeping in all the words he wanted to say, but he wouldn't talk unless he could open his mouth without screaming, so he didn't say anything. Just lit the funeral pyre and watched it burn, worked on fixing the Impala, and pulled silence around him like a bulletproof vest that would keep him from breaking into pieces. Using silence to buffer him from Sam's emo eyes and attempts at conversation that would shatter him, and from Bobby's pitying glances that made Dean feel exposed and vulnerable.

Couldn't they see the silence was a cushion he was leaning against to keep him from hitting too hard against the wall of his dad's final words? And he just wasn't ready to break it yet and risk facing the end of everything—everything—he'd spent his whole freakin' life doing. Look after your brother, boy. All that was holding him together was the silence, even though words clawed at his throat like knives trying to force their way out, and it hurt so much to keep them inside. But he couldn't…he couldn't risk what he might say, what he might scream, because if he opened his mouth even once to speak, he might never stop screaming, and who knew what might come out?

xxxXXxxx

Sam watched his brother in silence. Tried to pull words from him like a rabbit out of a magician's hat, with no success. Needing Dean to know he understood what he was going through, that he wasn't alone, that Sam was mourning, too. Needing his brother to share his grief with him, to let him in. Needing to wipe out those long, too-quiet days at his brother's bedside.

He saw the rage building in Dean, the volatile emotions inside him mixing with words unsaid, until it exploded from him in a violent assault on one of the few things he had left that he loved. And that was when he realized: the silence was all Dean could control in a world gone mad.

So Sam let his brother keep his peace. But he tried to show him he was there, could be leaned on, could be trusted with the weight of Dean's grief. Could carry some of the burden Dean always shouldered. He would keep waiting, keep asking, keep listening, until Dean was ready to break his silence.

xxxXXxxx

In the days after Sam's possession, the brothers didn't speak of it again. Sam watched for the next several days as Dean carefully studied him without appearing to. He didn't say anything about the couple of times he'd seen Dean looking for the anti-possession charm around his neck, or the time he'd caught Dean slipping holy water into his drink when he returned from the bathroom at the local diner they were visiting.

He didn't offer to make any solo food runs, either, but waited for his brother, telling him I'm not taking off again and It's really me with his silent, solid presence. And when he caught Dean favoring his left arm, he wordlessly tended to the mess that was his brother's shoulder—putting in stitches, bandaging him up again, bringing him pain pills—and looked into his eyes with reproach and sorrow, saying Why didn't you tell me? and I could have killed you, Dean and I'm so sorry. And Dean let him hover, let him fuss, let him carry the bags, though not without a huff of exasperation meaning It's not your fault, Sammy and Of course I forgive you, ya dope and Stop with the brooding already.

And when, during the next hunt, Dean tossed him the last clip of ammo and ran toward the creature carrying the kid away, trusting his brother to have his back, Sam finally got it. Dean meant all he hadn't said. He trusted him, didn't blame him, still believed in Sam's ability to beat this thing, to be good.

And when Sam unloaded his clip into the thing trying to tear his brother apart, Dean's grin before he passed out said how proud he was of Sam and that he'd never doubted him, not for a second. Sam caught him as he lost consciousness and shook his head. His brother, always with the grand gestures. Would it kill him to just say what he was thinking for once, instead of spelling it out with blood?

xxxXXxxx

Sam was too quiet and it wasn't like him. That was Dean's department, but he found that in the face of Sam's silence, all he could do was babble. For once, the silence scared him more than the words that lurked inside it, so he tried to fill it up, tried to push it away with an "It's not even that bad. It's not even that bad, all right?" And he was lying, of course he was lying, but maybe if he said it enough times, they would both believe it and believing would make it true. "We're gonna patch you up, okay? You're gonna be good as new. I'm gonna take care of you. I'm gonna take care of you. I've got you."

And still his brother was silent, and this wasn't the kind of silence where they communicated without words, this was the kind of silence that meant Dean was alone again, left behind again, and he couldn't, just couldn't face that kind of silence again. So he used words as weapons to push back death, to push away the reality that he was the last Winchester standing, that he was really all alone now, left behind for where he couldn't follow, everyone he loved gone…gone…and all that was left forever was silence.

And he couldn't deal with that, so he just kept talking, and wouldn't Sam be proud, always wanting him to spill his guts? So he did. He yelled his fury at Bobby, "You don't think I've given enough? You don't think I've paid enough? I'm done with it. All of it." And he bared his broken heart to a still-too-silent Sam, "It's like I had one job...I had one job...and I screwed it up. I blew it. And for that, I'm sorry. I guess that's what I do. I let down the people I love. I let Dad down. And now I guess I'm just supposed to let you down, too. How can I? How am I supposed to live with that?" And he shouted his frustration and helplessness, "What am I supposed to do?"

When there was no response—Sam was too still and quiet; he'd never been this quiet, not in the face of Dean's need—Dean ran from the silence, ran to the nearest crossroads and said what needed to be said and then, when bargaining was over, he sealed the deal in silence. One silent kiss, and it was done.

xxxXXxxx

Sam woke to silence. Silence and stillness so deep, they seemed almost ominous, and he knew something was very wrong. His brother wasn't there. Wasn't hovering, wasn't fussing, wasn't watching over Sam, and that just wasn't right…not when his last memory was of Dean finding him, Dean coming for him, running to save him.

Sam knew he was still in Cold Oak; he could tell by the ratty old mattress he climbed up from and the spotted mirror he used to check out the odd pain in his spine. But where was his brother? It wasn't like Dean to leave him—Dean never left; that was Sam's department—and it caused a cold frisson of fear to join the pain in his spine.

When his brother came in the door, looking relieved enough to fall over, and grabbed him in a painful and desperate embrace, holding on tight—so tight—Sam allowed himself to be distracted, to forget the fear. But in the back of his mind, he knew. Something about this just wasn't right.

xxxXXxxx

Free. John Winchester was finally free. After long, torturous decades in Hell, he had found a way out, an end to his suffering, and it felt like…mercy. Like pardon. A reprieve he didn't deserve but nonetheless grasped tight with both fists. It felt like cool, soothing water on a scorched throat. Blessed relief.

He stood for long moments, just taking in the sight of his boys. They stood tall, unbowed, unbroken. They were warriors, righteous and powerful, unafraid to look evil in the eye. Standing guard over those who couldn't defend themselves. They were brothers, loyal and fiercely protective, willing to go to the ends of the earth for each other. Standing together against everything the world threw at them. They were sons, longing and hopeful, looking to their father for approval and affirmation. Could it really all be over? A lifetime's mission finally at an end?

They were men, no longer the boys he'd known, and John wondered when that had happened, while he was looking right at them, or after he'd gone? Strong, solid, self-sacrificing men who could stand against the things that lurked in the dark. Firm in the conviction that they could make a difference; could turn their family's tragedy into another family's salvation. And it felt like…redemption. His sons had become everything he'd ever hoped they would and more: they were compassionate, caring, wise beyond their years…heroic. The very best of himself and Mary, and yet so much more than either of them.

With one long gaze, he tried to convey all he felt for his boys. Fierce pride. Unwavering devotion. Ferocious protectiveness. Unutterable love.

He looked at Dean, bloodied and battered and with his heart pouring from his bright green eyes. Son. The love of a lifetime packed into that one word. John smiled at his oldest. It was worth it, the deal I made. You were worth it, Dean. Don't doubt that. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Reached forward to clasp his shoulder, to squeeze. I'm proud of you, Son. I knew you could do it. Knew you'd finish what I started. Saw those eyes as they gazed at him, full of love and trust and grief and longing, drinking in the sight of him like a man too long deprived of light. Heard the shaky inhalation, and the relief it spoke of. So much relief, as if a crushing weight had been lifted and Dean could breathe freely for the first time in a year. John knew just how he felt, and smiled again at his son. You don't need to worry about me anymore. I'm all right now. At peace.

He looked at Sam, face hopeful and yearning with a hint of incredulous joy, hazel eyes wide with emotion. The wonder there made him look again like the little boy John had loved to watch discover the world. You did good, Sammy. Stood up to the demon, didn't give in to his plans for you. Showed him what a Winchester's made of. You keep showing 'em. You be good. Sam nodded, and John nodded back, dimples deepening in his cheeks.

He shared one more look with Dean, felt a tear slip loose to trickle down his cheek. Then backed away, not tearing his eyes off them. His boys. Such a beautiful sight, and one he'd never thought he'd be blessed with again. It felt like…grace. Like divine favor. After all of the things he'd done, all he'd seen, all the ways he'd messed up with them, they'd still ended up here, in this moment, evil vanquished…love uniting them…a family. You boys are the best thing I've ever done. I'm so proud of the men you've become.

John felt himself begin to flicker, to fade. Inexpressible light filled him, threatening to burst through his skin, and it felt like…joy. He gave them both a slow smile. I'm going to your mom now. You'll be okay. Take care of each other. The flickering was faster, the unrestrained joy harder to contain. He could feel the warmth of the light on his skin, though the night was dark everywhere else. Love you. And then he went home.

xxxXXxxx

Sam spent six months in the silence. Six long, bloody, lonely, obsession-driven months, while he searched for the trickster who could take back all that had been done and return his brother to him. He barely spoke to anyone, even Bobby. He had no time for words, for niceties. The only words he wanted to say were, "Undo this, please. Give me my brother back." He was saving those words for when he found the trickster—and he would find him, if it took 'til his dying day.

Until then, he held conversations in his head with Dean, promising to save him, telling him he was coming, urging him to just hold on a little longer. But he didn't make a sound as he dug the bullet out of his side and stitched his own wound, didn't make snarky comments when surrounded by vampires in the nest he'd walked right into, didn't call for help when he found a demon infestation in Death Valley, didn't make idle conversation with other hunters, didn't return Bobby's phone calls. He was saving his words to get his brother back, and then he'd talk until he ran out of breath, or until Dean's ears bled from the strain, whichever came first. But until he got his brother back…there was really nothing to say.

xxxXXxxx

It always amazed Sam how in sync they were when hunting. Even when they were at odds elsewhere, unable to agree on anything, arguing continually, once on a hunt, they just clicked together—two halves of a whole—and seemed to communicate on an instinctive, almost telepathic level. It was one reason he'd pushed for them to investigate the reports of strange killings in this town. They'd been at odds so much lately with Dean's deal coming due in just a few weeks and them no closer to figuring out how to break it, or even agreeing on the best path to pursue, that he'd thought they really needed this. A reminder of what a good team they made…that feeling of synchronicity, of connectedness.

It scared Sam to think it might all be gone in a few short weeks and he might never feel that way again, but he couldn't say that, couldn't add to his brother's burden. So he gestured with his hand for Dean to go left and low while he went high and right, and he watched for Dean to signal with his eyes to move now, and he widened his stance to say I've got your back, brother, always. And he told Dean without words that he was there with him until the end, that they were a team, and what happened to one happened to them both. He would never give Dean up, or give up on him; he would fight to the death to protect him. He hoped Dean heard all he wasn't saying. And from the flush that came to his cheeks and the embarrassed roll of his eyes…Sam thought maybe he did.

xxxXXxxx

Sam buried his brother in silence. He'd carefully tended to Dean's wounds at the motel the night before and dressed him except for the amulet, which he'd carefully placed around his own neck. Bobby had tried to help him patch Dean up, but Sam had just glared at him fiercely, his grip tightening on his brother's body. Dean would've known that glare meant He's my brother. I can take care of him. Sam didn't know, or even care, whether Bobby understood or not. It was his job to do, the last thing he could do for Dean now, and he would be the one to do it. He'd failed at everything else he'd tried to do for his big brother, but he wouldn't turn him over to anyone else's care, not even Bobby's.

In fact, the only time Sam had spoken at all was when Bobby had tried to get him to agree to salt and burn Dean's remains. Sam had just scowled at him in defiance, saying Dean would need a body when Sam got him back home. Bobby'd had the good sense to let it go, knowing it wasn't the time to push. Sam was on a thin ledge, and the slightest move could send him over the precipice.

But Sam knew Bobby loved Dean, too, so he'd let Bobby help him dig the grave, had allowed him to place a hand on one shoulder as they stood looking down at the crude pine box Sam had insisted on marking with protective sigils. He didn't want anyone or anything messing with his brother's body. Dean would need it when Sam brought him back. He'd stood silently while Bobby had recited a Bible verse and finished with a quiet prayer, then had helped him pound in the rough wooden cross they'd fashioned. But he'd waved Bobby off to the car when it came time to fill in the grave.

He could tell the older man didn't want to leave him there, but Sam needed the time alone with his brother. There were things he needed to say—so many things. He wanted to tell Dean what he meant to him, wanted to tell him how sorry he was and how much he loved him, but when he tried, the words had ragged edges that threatened to leave his throat bruised and bloody. So as he placed the shovelfuls of dirt into the yawning hole, he made each one a silent promise, sealed with the tears running down his face. I'm gonna save you, Dean. Thump. Another shovelful. Gonna get you out of there. Thump. The rattle of cascading soil echoed like dry bones. I'm coming for you, big brother. No matter what. Thump. Whatever it takes. Thump. I'll remember what you taught me, what Dad taught me. But I'm getting you back. Thump. I'm getting you back.

By the time he was done, Sam's breath was coming in harsh pants. Not from the exertion—he'd filled in too many graves in his day for that—just from the effort of breathing air in a world his brother was no longer in. It'd been like that since Dean…since the hellhounds had come. It felt like he was trying to breathe with a gaping hole in his chest, every inhalation raspy and unsatisfying, every exhalation deep and aching. It was like oxygen wasn't getting to his blood, like his body didn't know how to process this new kind of air, and he felt like he was suffocating, trying to breathe through a thick layer of sticky grief or a heavy veil of tears.

For a moment, just a moment while staring down at the pine box, he'd considered just lying down in the grave with his brother and not getting up again. At least down there he'd be breathing the same air as Dean for a while longer, would be able to breathe the scent of him—well-worn leather and gunpowder and engine oil—for just a little longer. But no, he had work to do. He was going to save Dean, if it was the last thing he ever did.

So he wiped his eyes with a sleeve for one last clear look at his brother's grave. Then he clasped the amulet in one fist and squeezed his eyes shut and imagined that moment when Dean was back at his side, and their eyes, their smiles, their tight, fierce hug would communicate so many things they could never say aloud. Sam would breathe out his brother's name in one long exhale, and it would carry out with it all the guilt, all the grief, all the despair. His next breath in would bring oxygen and relief and joy and peace and Dean.

And Sam would be whole again.

xxxXXxxx

Dean clawed his way out of the grave in silence. Heavy, suffocating, ominous silence that hung thick as a shroud around him. After his initial cries for help, he'd decided he preferred silence to the sound of his own weak voice, which made a raspy creak like hinges on a long-closed door. That had freaked him out almost as much as waking up in a coffin. The sound of dirt raining down as his pounding jarred it loose, his own harsh panting and groaning: all were quickly swallowed by the dead silence.

And when he finally pulled himself out, it was still too quiet—no insects stirring, no birdsong, no rustling of the leaves in the trees—as if the entire world was holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen next.

As for himself, Dean knew what would happen next: he was going to find Sammy. He would give his brother the tightest hug he could manage and breathe in the scent of him—soap and girly shampoo and old books and the frou-frou coffee he always drank—until the smell of the grave left his nostrils. And then, they needed to talk. His little brother had some explaining to do.

xxxXXxxx

Dean kept his silence. He knew Sam had questions, knew he wanted to know what Dean remembered from his interminable time in Hell, but found words weren't enough to describe what he'd seen and suffered, and silence was the only thing deep enough to convey the horror.

Even if he wanted to talk about it—and he didn't—Hell had eaten up all his words, had shoved choked cries and screams of his brother's name so far down his throat they had nearly suffocated him. They had lodged there, burning…burning so hot Dean had been sure he'd never speak again.

So he offered Sam his silence, willing him to understand what he couldn't, wouldn't, bring himself to say. Or force his brother to hear. He wished to God he himself didn't know the horrors Hell had to offer; no way was he going to paint a picture for his little brother. No, silence was Sam's best protection. It was all Dean could give to him now.

xxxXXxxx

Sam kept his silence. When Dean woke, shuddering and shaking, from nightmares of Hell, he didn't poke or prod or lecture. He simply held on and let his brother know he was safe, that he wasn't alone, that Sam was there for him and would listen to what he couldn't say, would hear what he couldn't put into words. He didn't utter platitudes, didn't try to tell Dean he knew what he was going through, stopped trying to get him to talk. He remembered that some words burned on the way out.

So Sam just did what he did best: watched his brother's back, loved him, tried to take some of the burden from his shoulders. Let him know he'd be waiting when the silence became too heavy to bear.

Sam knew the weight of silence and how its heavy thickness could press down on you until you nearly suffocated from it. He had spent long months in that silence himself. Now that he had his brother back, could see Dean's love and relief and pain and brokenness and need, he could wait for the words. He already knew all he needed to, but he sensed there were things Dean needed to say, burdens he had to get rid of before they destroyed him. It didn't matter; Sam could wait. He couldn't lie and tell Dean everything would be okay, but he could protect him and let him know he wasn't alone, not anymore. And he didn't even need words for that.

So when the memories pressed in so hard that Dean ran to the bathroom to throw up, Sam followed and supported his head and held on tight and took care of him until the worst had passed.

And he found that the most important things…you didn't need words to express at all.