#9 - Silence
(Sequel to #7 - Poison).They keep Sam sedated for the first day that he’s in the hospital, oxygen mask still strapped to his face and machines beeping quietly as he sleeps. Curled into a loose ball on his side, he looks disarmingly like the four-year-old brother that Dean had once cradled through nightmares and entertained with stories that he’d memorised from his own childhood. He seems peaceful enough, chest rising soft and steady, but there’s a vulnerability to him that Dean hasn’t seen for years.
Sam had been just eight years old when he’d first decided that he was going to conquer the world by himself. Rocked by the discovery that the first eight years of his life had been shrouded in lie after lie, he’d looked up at their father with his arms crossed over his chest and announced that he didn’t want to be treated like a baby anymore. Later that week, their father had placed a gun in his hands for the first time, and Sam hadn’t even cried when the recoil had threatened to knock his shoulder from its socket.
It had only been a matter of time before Sam could shoot as well as his brother, and only a year or so after that before he’d outrun him in a race for the first time. To Dean, he’d always been someone to shelter and protect, but until this moment he’d never truly seen his brother as defenceless – had always been reassured by the knowledge that should anything ever get past Dean, Sam would be able to deal with it himself.
It was ironic, in a way, that in the end it wasn’t a monster that had slipped through their joint defences – not a ghost or a wendigo, or a black dog, but a broken heater and the poison that it had pumped into the air. Nothing they could fight or destroy, but something so human and trivial that they’d forgotten that it was even a threat at all.
They’d been so consumed in protecting themselves from the things that they hunted, that they’d forgotten that the rest of the world could be just as dangerous.
“He woken up yet?”
Dean jerked, startled just as much by the sudden appearance of a hand on his shoulder as he was by the sound of his father’s voice. He hadn’t heard his father return from the latest in a long-standing series of trips to the coffee machine, but he was grateful for the steaming cup of gunk that was pressed into his free hand.
“Not yet,” He replied quietly, watching as his father stiffly crossed the room and lowered himself down into the seat opposite Dean, reaching out a hand to gently run the tips of his fingers over the warm skin of Sam’s upper arm, trailing down to the top of the cast protecting his broken wrist and then back up again. The youngest Winchester stirred briefly at the sensation, but settled back into his day-long sleep before he even managed to open his eyes. “But he’s fidgeting more than he was before, and the nurse seemed pretty sure that it wouldn’t be too long now.”
John nodded silently, running a hand over his face. Dark bags sat underneath his eyes, and stubble was beginning to darken along the line of his jaw; in the bright hospital lights, he looked more tired than Dean could ever remember. The tell-tale smell of whisky drifted off him, and Dean wondered if the coffee he held in his hand was doctored, or if he’d snuck out to the parking garage for a little liquid courage.
The thought made him scowl, and he brought his own coffee to his mouth, taking a deep drink of it to keep from saying anything that he might regret later. It wasn’t until he’d swallowed that he felt the fire licking at the back of his throat and realised that it wasn’t his father that he’d been able to smell at all. It was the alcohol in his own drink. Surprised, he lifted his eyes to the eldest Winchester, who simply shrugged a shoulder.
“Looked like you could use a little pick me up.” He admitted. “You haven’t slept since we found him, and a little liquid courage never hurt anyone.”
Dean though of all of the alcohol awareness campaigns at every school he’d ever been to, but bit back the snide remark that threatened to fall from his lips. The last thing that his father needed right now was for his obedient son to start lashing out and talking back – Dean was quite content to leave that to Sam, once the kid got better.
“I wish he’d wake up,” He admittedly quietly, taking another deep drink and slouching into his seat, kicking his legs up to rest his feet on the hospital bed near his brother’s knees. He’d toed his boots off hours ago, and he grimaced a little at the dirt that covered his dark socks. They’d never had the chance to change after the hunt, and he figured dimly that they should probably drag some clean clothes from somewhere before they started to smell, but he couldn’t bear to leave his brother’s side for even that long. “I hate seeing him so still.”
John nodded his head, taking a long drink from his own coffee. “I know what you mean. Jesus, he was such a handful as a kid – he’s just… always moving. Full of energy.”
Sam stirred again, forehead wrinkling a little, and his eyes fluttered. Dean dropped his feet from the bed, leaning forwards as Sam’s eyes opened fully for the first time, focusing fuzzily on Dean’s face.
“Hey there, Sammy,” Dean grinned, reaching forwards and stroking his hand soothingly through the kid’s hair. “How you feeling there, kiddo? You gave us quite the scare.”
Sam didn’t respond. Instead, the young man just watched him dazedly, frowning a little.
“Dean?” John asked, straightening in his own seat. Dean glanced at him, shrugged his shoulders lightly as he watched his little brother. Sam’s eyes were drifting, taking in the room around him.
“I don’t know,” He admitted. “The nurse said he’d be pretty confused, maybe…”
He trailed off when Sam turned to him again, smiling gently. “What’s going on in that head of yours, kid?”
He expected Sam to respond, or maybe to close his eyes and drift back to sleep, but instead the kid’s eyes widened. He looked panicked, almost scared, and Dean felt his stomach begin to sink with the realisation that there was something wrong.
“Sam? What is it?” He demanded, leaning closer. He was vaguely aware of his father moving, reaching for the small button that would make the nurses come, crossing the room in a few quick strides. “What’s going on?”
Sam was shaking now, eyes wide and locked on Dean’s face.
“Dean…” He said. There was something not right in the way that he said it; his voice was croaky from disuse, and Dean had expected that, but there something strange in the cadence of it - too loud in the quiet room. “I can’t…”
His eyes were wet and pleading, and when he clumsily lifted a hand and pressed it to his ear, shaking his head slightly, Dean felt sick with realisation.
Sam couldn’t hear them.
“It’s not the first time that hearing loss has happened after prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide,” The doctor explained apologetically, eyes watching Sam carefully. The young man didn’t move, curled up on his side and refusing to acknowledge any of them. “There’s a chance that, over time, you might find that it gets somewhat better. He might be able to hear loud noises, perhaps even music if you turn the volume up enough.”
John sighed softly, running a hand through his hair. “But it won’t ever come back completely?”
“Probably not.” The doctor admitted. “It’s hard to tell, with a situation like this, but if ever he could hear normally again… well, it’d be something for the record books. More likely, this is something that Sam will have to learn to live with.”
Dean dropped his head into his hands, his stomach churning uncomfortably.
The doctor continued. “There’s things we could try, of course. It might be worth trying him with a hearing aid, perhaps a cochlear implant – I’m not sure how much either of them would help him, quite honestly, but it’s possible that with their help he might be able to pick things up a little better. Even then, I’d be amazed if he could hear anywhere near within the range that he’s used to. It’ll be hard for him to adjust.”
“So what you’re really saying is that there’s nothing you can do. Isn’t it?” John demanded.
Doctor Nelson hesitated, and then slowly nodded his head.
“If the damage was in his ears themselves, then we might have been able to try some kind of surgery, but the problem is in his brain, and it’s just too risky. He’s still young, and I have every faith that he will be able to adapt, given time. As for everyday life, there’s things that he can learn to help him manage – sign language, of course. We can offer him classes to help him with lip reading... even speech therapy, to help him to learn how to keep talking as normally as possible.”
“He can already lip read,” Dean interrupted. The doctor looked at him sadly, eyes full of pity, but Dean barrelled on regardless. “We taught him it when he was just a kid. He’s good at it, too – can understand what people are saying from across the room and stuff.”
“That’s good,” Doctor Nelson nodded, still not looking entirely convinced. “It means he’s already got a way to communicate with everyone. I’ll leave a notepad and pen on the nightstand, too, just for now. Okay?”
Dean nodded his head slowly, letting his attention drift from the man and back to his brother.
Sam had freaked out at first, crying and shouting until one of the nurses had peeled his hands away from his ears and forced his head around, deliberately mouthed a threat to sedate him over and over until Sam got the message. He’d gone quiet then, flopped over onto his side and buried his head in the pillow, still trembling occasionally. It wasn’t until he’d sat down next to him that Dean had realised that, with his face turned away and his ears unable to pick anything up, Sam had effectively shut out the rest of the world completely. It wasn’t exactly a reassuring realisation.
He hesitantly reached out, placing a gentle hand on his brother's shoulder. Sam flinched violently, obviously taken by surprise, and his head lifted from his pillow just long enough to take in who exactly was touching him before he buried it again.
It wasn't exactly the reaction that Dean had been looking for.
For a moment, he considered just giving his brother a little space, giving him a little bit of time to process things by himself. In the end, it was the thought of Sam shutting himself off in a completely silent world that had him gently shoving the kid's shoulder. It took a few shoves before the younger boy seemed to realise that he wasn't going to give up, and he reluctantly turned his head across to look at his brother. One sight of his hazel eyes clouded in tears was all it took for Dean to know that he'd made the right decision.
"It's gonna be okay," He said, slowly and deliberately, watching the way that Sam's eyes followed the movement. "We'll figure this out."
Sam shook his head stubbornly, and when he spoke his voice was just on the wrong sound of loud as he clumsily tried to adjust his own volume. "There's nothing to figure out. I'm deaf, Dean. I can't hear anything - how can I hunt like this?"
"It doesn't matter," Dean interrupted. "You're a Winchester, and you're strong. If anyone can do it, you can. Besides which, those doctors don't know what they're talking about… they don’t know the things we do - we'll find some way to fix this. I promise."
Sam's eyes were wide and wet, and the trust in them almost brought Dean to his knees, because for the first time since Sam was eight years old, he'd made a promise to him he wasn't sure he could keep. There was no doubting that they'd do their best - explore every means that they could, supernatural or otherwise, and Dean swore to himself that he'd never give up - but there was no precedence here. No textbook Dean could skim through until he found the answer.
"I'm scared." Sam admitted, tucking his face back into the pillow as if ashamed.
Dean didn't let him hide, nudged him lightly in the shoulder until he turned back over. "I know. But I'm right here, and I'm not going to let anything to happen to you. To any of us. You understand?"
Sam nodded firmly.
Dean hadn't lied when he said Sam was a strong kid.
Understandably, the first couple of days had been rough on all of them, Sam in particular. Once the after-effects of the poisoning started to wear off, it was all too easy to forget that Sam couldn't hear them, to fall back on old habits that were impossible now. More than once, Dean had found himself chatting away amicably, only to realise that he'd had his face turned away and Sam hadn't picked up on anything he'd said. Hell, sometimes the younger man hadn't even realised he was being spoken to.
Dean wasn't ashamed to admit that he'd spent more than one trip to the bathroom snivelling into the sleeve of his jacket.
John was more distant than he had been in months, constantly watching his youngest son as if he expected him to break, and Dean could tell that by the time they were preparing to leave the hospital that it was starting to grate on Sam's nerves. He couldn't really blame the kid. Sam was holding up remarkably well, considering the circumstances, but he'd never been comfortable in hospitals, and now it was twice as bad. The constant visits from the doctors and nurses usually left him confused and upset, particularly when one clever individual noticed the word 'deaf' on his paperwork and tried signing to him.
That had been a particularly unproductive session. Mainly because after the idiot had signed half a conversation to Sam and almost reduced the younger boy to tears, Dean had lost his temper in the way only a Winchester could, and had escorted the young doctor out by the lapels of his lab coat. Security had been called, and it had been almost two hours and several walk-throughs of what had happened before someone finally managed to track down Sam's usual doctor, and Dean was permitted back inside the building.
Still, by the time that a week had passed since Sam had first opened his eyes, Dean was almost surprised to realise that they were adapting. He no longer had to constantly remind himself to look directly at his brother when he was talking to him, or make sure that subtitles on the hospital television were activated, and even John was slowly getting into the habit of waving a hand to get his son's attention before he started talking. The hospital had sent in a sign language instructor twice, and whilst the first session had ended in Sam confused and on the verge of tears, the second had been a heck of a lot more successful.
Dean still found the whole thing more than a little confusing, having only picked up how to spell both his name and Sam's during the process, but Sam had taken to it enthusiastically, despite the cast on his injured hand making some of the movements a little more difficult than usual. The next day, the day nurse that worked Sam's ward - Mandy - dropped off a book entitled, American Sign Language for Beginners and waved off their offers of payment.
Since then, the young man had dedicated a couple of hours a day to curling up around it and repeatedly signing unfamiliar shapes to himself.
Over the two days that had followed, Dean himself had come to recognise the one sign that Sam seemed utterly confident with - I love you.
It made sense that Sam, Queen of Chick Flick Moments himself, would master the one sign that threatened to turn Dean into little more than a pile of goo. Brat.
Still, Dean was just starting to think that they were getting the hang of things, and then the doctor happily announced that Sam was being released, and the reality of the situation seemed to come crashing in on him again.
Learning to cope in the hospital was one thing; a controlled situation where everyone knew that Sam was deaf, and where there was only ever a few people around him at once. Outside? That was an entirely different story. Outside of the hospital, people were going to assume that Sam could hear them and, more than likely, they were going to be assholes when they realised that he couldn't.
Outside were all of the things that Dean had done his best not to think about since they first realised what was wrong: people, and traffic, and music that Sam couldn't hear anymore, and school - the place that had once been the younger boy's refuge, but was now more than likely out of the question. How was Sam supposed to go back to school if he couldn't hear anything that the teachers, or other students, were saying to him? It seemed insurmountable. Impossible.
In fact, the only thing that kept Dean even reasonably sane as the doctor walked through the out-patient procedure that they were expected to follow, and his father signed the papers, was the fact that Sam looked even more scared than Dean was.
The kid was trembling slightly, fingers anxiously fiddling with the sleeve of his well-worn jacket, and Dean resisted the urge to fall apart after one quick glance at the kid's face. The last thing that Sam needed was to realise that Dean and John were just as scared as he was. He needed the two of them to be brave - hell, he needed them to lie and tell him that everything was going to be fine.
So that was exactly what Dean was gonna do.
“Hey,” He muttered, nudging the kid’s chin gently to make sure that those tip-tilted hazel eyes were focused on his lips, even as he forced them into the most natural looking grin he could muster. “You excited to be getting out of here, kiddo?”
Sam didn’t respond right away, but Dean knew better than to think that his brother hadn’t understood what was being asked. Despite his reservations in the beginning, the kid had soon realised that the only way that he was ever going to keep up was to admit if he’d missed something.
No, this was his brother not answering because he didn’t think Dean would like what he would have to say on the topic.
“Nervous, huh?” Dean prompted, smile becoming a little less forced as he slipped easily back into the role of protective big brother. “That’s okay. There’s a lot to be nervous about. We’ll figure it out though, alright? Just like we always do. It’s gonna take a little more than a hospital release date to have the infamous Winchester brothers running for the hills.”
There was a long pause, and Dean was just starting to think that his brother was going to ignore him again when the young man tipped his head in a small nod.
“Infamous Winchester brothers?” He questioned quietly, a small smile playing at the edge of his lips. Dean was once more impressed at the improvements his brother had made over the past few days – even after the doctor had warned Sam that his deafness would likely affect his speaking voice, the hunter seemed determined to keep that from happening. Rather than being reluctant to talk, Sam did it just as often as he had before, though he’d made his brother and father promise to inform him if he got something wrong.
“Damn straight.” Dean nodded, reaching over to grab his jacket off the end of Sam’s bed. “Now why don’t we blow this popsicle stand?”
Sam snorted loudly, giggling a little to himself as he slid off the bed. “I can’t believe you just said that. I thought you were supposed to be a big, bad hunter – not a kindergartner.”
Dean grinned widely, more than a little relieved that it seemed to have done the trick. Across the room, John rolled his eyes affectionately, tugging his own jacket off the back of the chair he’d been occupying as he rose to his feet.
“Good job, son.” He acknowledged. Dean instinctively glanced towards Sam’s face, expecting to be met with his ‘don’t-talk-about-me-like-a-kid’ bitchface, and his heart skipped a beat when he realised that Sam’s back was turned and he was oblivious to the fact that their father had even said anything.
Dean turned his back to hide the sudden stab of guilt that the realisation caused, squaring his shoulders and making his way towards the door. Sam tucked in close to his back, and Dean pretended not to notice when the young hunter’s fingers tangled in his belt loop. John brought up the rear, cushioning the youngest Winchester between them as if that would somehow help the two of them protect him.
The walk through the hospital was tense, Dean’s shoulders squared and eyes darting around as if in search of a threat; he knew he was being ridiculous. Nobody there was going to hurt Sam. In fact, until about five minutes beforehand, it had seemed like the safest place in the world. Now, confronted with the sober realisation that they’d no longer be able to hide behind white-washed walls and white-coat wearing professionals, Dean was inexplicably nervous.
There was so much in their lives that could go wrong – so much that did go wrong, on a daily basis. How much harder was everything going to be if Sam couldn’t hear?
Dean had suggested that they head to Bobby’s to try and figuring things out – it would be good for Sam to be somewhere familiar, somewhere that he felt at home, and they were closer to Singer Salvage than they were Pastor Jim’s rectory in Blue Earth. John had agreed after very little argument, which was unusual considering the fact that he and Bobby rarely went more than a few days without tearing each other’s throats out, but also pointed out that there was no way that they were going to make it all the way to Sioux Falls without stopping at least once.
Dean felt like his should argue the point, insist that they could trade off driving until they reached their destination, but he knew it wasn’t logical. Even if they didn’t find a motel room somewhere to get a decent night’s sleep, they were still going to have to stop for food sooner rather than later. The few granola bars stashed in their packs weren’t going to last them very long, and Sam could do with a decent meal after everything that he’d been through. It wasn’t like he’d eaten much in the hospital – the kid was a fussy eater to begin with, and Dean was sure that what little food he’d forced down his throat had only stayed down by sheer force of will.
Reluctantly, the two of them decided that they should drive for a few hours, before grabbing some food from a diner and settling down in a motel for the night, before finishing their journey the day after. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best plan they had.
Sam, curled up underneath a blanket from the trunk in the backseat, barely nodded his head at their plan before turning his head towards the window. Dean tried not to be hurt that Sam was shutting himself off rather than turning to his brother like he always had before; the eldest of the two Winchester brothers had always found pride in the fact that he was Sam’s first port of call when something was wrong. It felt unnatural for Sam turn away rather than seek him out, and he hoped desperately that it was nothing more than a passing phase. He couldn’t blame the kid for being unsettled, after all.
Dean settled against the Impala’s door, angling himself so that he could keep an eye on the younger brother in the side mirror, and wasn’t at all surprised when Sam’s eyes slipped closed just a few miles down the road. Whilst the doctor had explained that carbon monoxide was almost entirely unpredictable, he’d assured them that it was normal for Sam to sleep a lot more than he usually did. Considering the kid’s tendency to crash hard and fast when he was hurt or sick, Dean figured that the younger boy would be just short of narcoleptic for a while yet.
More surprising was the fact that he, himself, managed to doze off somewhere between Of Wolf and Man and The God That Failed.
He must have been more tired that he’d thought, because he didn’t rouse again until he felt a hand lightly shake his shoulder. Blinking his eyes open, he was more than a little surprised the find himself face-to-face with the storefront of a small mom-and-pop diner. He swiped blearily at his eyes, annoying by his own drowsiness, and studied the building before them.
It was fairly obvious why John had chosen it: the glass store front and open plan meant that it was easy to assess the number of people inside (twelve altogether, three of them waitresses), and a quick glance in the rear-view mirror enlightened him to the presence of a motel across the street, the large Vacancy sign flickering slightly.
“Good choice.” He acknowledged, cracking his back with a slight wince as he straightened in his seat.
John shrugged. “This is the only place for another hundred miles – it was more luck than choice. You think Sam would prefer it if we go in together, or if I go and order the food and then we just eat back in the motel room?”
“Only one way to find out,” Dean shrugged, turning his seat to gently squeeze his brother’s wrist. Sam awoke almost instantly, eyes snapping open to suss out who it was that had hold of him, and the older hunter offered him a reassuring smile. “We’re at the diner. Do you want to head inside, or would you rather me and you wait here?”
Sam frowned, forehead wrinkling adorably as he considered the two options. Eventually he sighed loudly, wriggling a little in his seat.
“Head inside,” He decided regretfully. “My legs are cramping.”
Dean nodded easily, immediately silencing the part of himself that was insisting they were better off waiting in the car. They couldn’t keep Sam wrapped up in bubble forever, no matter how tempting it might sound.
“Inside it is.” He agreed, swivelling in his seat and ignoring the slight squeak of hinges as he pushed the door open and climbed out of the Impala. He kept himself carefully facing away from the door, angled so that he could just about make out Sam’s outline in his peripheral vision, and adamantly didn’t acknowledge the slight hesitation before Sam was climbing out himself.
John, for his part, was already part of the way across the car park. Dean knew his father well enough to understand that this was John allowing Sam a moment of weakness – both of them knew that with John around, Sam would push himself past his boundaries without hesitation rather than look like he couldn’t do something. It was better for all concerned that their father removed himself from the situation.
After a few seconds of studying the diner front, eyes cataloguing everything that Dean had already taken the time to notice, Sam stepped forwards and slipped his fingers once more through Dean’s belt loop. The older brother couldn’t help but be surprised at the boldness of the movement – when Sam had done the same thing back at the hospital, he’d tried to be subtle about it, acting as if Dean hadn’t noticed even though both of them knew that he had.
This time, Sam immediately locked eyes with him, offering him a tiny smile. The sudden rush of pride Dean felt threatened to smother him, and he grinned widely as he tossed a casual arm over the younger man’s shoulders.
He could physically feel Sam’s muscles begin to relax underneath his arm as he steered the two of them into the diner, nudging his brother towards the booth that their father had slipped into, already studying the menu as if he hadn’t been paying keen attention to where his boys were the entire time. Dean appreciated the act just as much as he knew his brother did, and he felt the last of the tension leave Sam’s body as he broke away from the embrace to slide into the booth.
Dean followed him in just like he always did, sliding across the booth until Sam was pressed against the window just to piss him off. His brother snorted, shoving at him until Dean conceded the point and retreated back to his own half with a cheeky wink. John watched the two of them silently bicker with a soft smile playing around the edges of his lips, amused by their antics as if he hadn’t seen the same scene play out in hundreds of diners through the years.
Sam pinched his thigh with his uninjured hand in retaliation, thin fingers pulling the skin hard enough that there was sure to be a mark, and when Dean yelped he laughed as if he’d heard it.
It was the first time in over a week that Dean had heard his brother laugh, and his breath caught in his throat.
“Can I take your order?” A waitress interrupted, her cheerful voice shattering the easy atmosphere as sharply as if she’d screamed, and Dean sobered instantly. The woman was young, probably in her early twenties, and she faltered under the sharp look that Dean sent in her direction. It was irrational, and he knew it. There was no reason to be rude.
Thankfully, John chose that moment to interject, reeling off their order without a second’s hesitation. After a brief glimpse of their father’s most charming smile, the waitress seemed to forget Dean’s bad manners.
Sam snickered as she walked away, pinching Dean’s thigh again as soon as John turned his attention to the newspaper that had been wedged between two menus. The older brother’s knee jerked, slamming into the bottom of the table, and heads turned in their direction at the loud noise. Dean ducked his head a little, embarrassed, and felt Sam’s thin shoulder shaking next to him with silent laughter.
“Bitch,” He muttered under his breath, and knew that Sam had understood him when he nudged their shoulders together.
When he caught Dean’s eye again his smile was honest, if not as bright and wide as it had been just a few weeks beforehand, and there was no hesitation before he responded.
A/N: So, this little baby took it's sweet time. I knew where I wanted to take it, but despite having a deaf sister, I still had to do quite a bit of research to make it seem even remotely realistic. Happy to announce that this will be a 'verse, however, and there's already a few little ficlets in the works! Comments are food for a hungry writer ;)