It's a good thing Sam's not claustrophobic, because the apartment is small, a pre-war railroad flat smaller than most of the motel rooms they grew up in, the white-painted walls and high ceilings an attempt to make it look bigger than it is.
It doesn't get a whole lot of light, either--maybe half an hour in the morning in the bedroom, and about the same around two in the afternoon in the living room--but Sam doesn't mind. Dean's still a little sensitive to sunlight, and shy of large, open spaces.
For the first couple of weeks, they didn't leave the apartment. Dean stared out the window, or, when he was lying down, at the ceiling, dry-eyed and alert, fingers curled around the hilt of his knife, or the grip of a gun, like he was waiting for the next demon to attack. He went to bed and got up when Sam told him to, shuffling steps from the bed to the couch and back, until his strength started to come back.
He's still pliant and quiet--he hasn't spoken when he's awake since they got him back--but he's capable of showering and eating on his own now, though at first he only does when Sam tells him to.
Sam remembers the early sections of Dad's journal, his concern about Dean's long silence after Mom died, and how he eventually came out of it, and he thinks maybe this is the same kind of thing. He just has to be patient. Which has never been his strong suit, but for Dean he'll do it.
There's only one bedroom, with one queen-size bed that takes up most of the space, and they share it, curled together tightly under the covers like when they were little. Dean doesn't like being more than an arm's-length away from Sam, and Sam is mostly happy to keep him that close.
At first, Dean's too shaky to shave himself; Sam shrugs and lets it go, even when Dean's beard is all scratchy against his skin when they sleep. He makes himself ignore the gross way bits of egg or ketchup linger in the hair around Dean's lips, until he can't anymore and finds himself reaching across the couch to wipe Dean's mouth with his own napkin, vague memories of Dean doing the same for him when they were kids, except Dean slaps his hand away, practically snarling instead of submitting to the scrubbing the way Sam used to.
Sam considers any kind of response a triumph those first few weeks, knows just how to poke and prod at Dean from a lifetime of trying to get and keep his attention, and he puts all those skills to work now.
He teases Dean about the beard, calls him Grizzly Adams and mountain man, even Hagar the Horrible a few times, takes advantage of Dean's silence to get him back for years of being called beanpole and sasquatch and princess. Occasionally, he'll see Dean's lips twitch in what might be a smile, so he doesn't stop, doesn't even feel bad that Dean can't answer back.
Dean starts scratching all the time, fingers at the hinge of his jaw and scraping down, scritch scritch scritch the whole way, his nails definitely in need of cutting, but Sam doesn't give it a second thought until the morning he finds Dean in the bathroom, white-knuckled death grip around the handle of the cheap plastic razor Sam uses, face covered sloppily in shaving cream. He looks like a crazed Santa, and it would be funny if Sam weren't terrified that he's going to hurt himself.
It's not a straight razor, so it's not like Dean's going to accidentally slit his own throat or anything, but Sam still clenches his fists so hard his nails dig into his palms painfully and he has to take a couple of deep breaths before he can speak. "Okay, Dean, give me the razor," he says, grateful he finally learned to keep the fear out of his voice.
Dean looks up at him and wrinkles his nose, but hands over the razor with a slight but audible sigh.
Sam opens his mouth, ready to launch into a lecture, but the look in Dean's eyes stops him--Dean looks resigned, sad, and just a little annoyed. It's such a familiar look that Sam clamps his mouth shut, takes another deep breath (through his nose this time) and says, "Okay, let's do this."
Dean watches him warily, but Sam ignores the widened eyes and the slight flare of his nostrils. He tips Dean's face up, crowds him back until his ass hits the sink and he leans on it. Dean still doesn't say anything--Sam's not sure if that's a blessing or a curse in this situation--but the wariness on Dean's face has turned into skepticism. He might not be able to speak, but the raised eyebrow he's giving Sam says more than words ever could, especially since Sam isn't actually sure where to put his hands.
"I've never done this for someone else before," he says, "so just shut up and give me a minute." He keeps talking, as if Dean is answering him back, and in a way he is, with the minute twitches of his mouth and eyebrows. "I need you to keep still, all right? Can you do that for me?"
Dean rolls his eyes but stops moving.
"Don't worry. I'm not going to ruin your pretty face." Dean snorts and quirks his eyebrow again, and it's funny how for someone who isn't speaking, he's really loud. Sam takes another deep breath, mutters, "Well, here goes nothing," and when Dean falls still, Sam drags the razor down the straight line of his jaw.
Sam stops talking now, all his concentration on the razor, the pale, freckled skin of Dean's face that appears in its wake, and the soft in and out of Dean's breathing. Sam times his own breathing to it, the only sound in the room beyond the low trickle of water in the sink as he reaches around Dean's hip to wash foam and whiskers off the razor.
He's not sure he can hold Dean's gaze while he does this, so he's glad when Dean's eyes flutter closed. His palms are as sweaty at the end of the shave as they were at the beginning, but Dean's not nicked or cut anywhere. He's actually smiling a little, dabs of shaving cream clinging to his earlobes and the dip under his lower lip, the tight lines around his mouth eased away for the first time in a long time. He looks younger, especially with his eyes closed.
They stand there for a long moment, Sam cupping Dean's face gently, his skin warm and damp against Sam's palm, the razor in his other hand forgotten as the water runs over the blades, and then there's a rushing noise in the pipes, the unmistakable sound of their neighbor starting up her shower.
Sam lets his hand drop and shakes his head like he's just waking up. He grabs the towel off the rack and wipes Dean's face clean, and for once, Dean lets him.
After that, it becomes a regular thing; twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, Sam gives Dean a shave. He likes the ritual of it, the closeness, and the way Dean leans into his touch. It makes his chest a little achy that Dean trusts him so much, and he promises himself he's not going to let him down again.
The kitchen is a little longer than Sam is tall, and narrow; when he stands in the middle, he can lay his palms flat on the walls on either side without even straightening his arms the whole way (not that he was bored enough to try that one afternoon while Dean was sleeping or anything). It's more like a hallway that has a stove and a sink in it, and a new white refrigerator that doesn't even come to his shoulder. There's no room to keep the toaster out on the counter when they're not using it, so Sam deposits the English muffins on paper plates and puts the toaster back in the cabinet while it's still warm to the touch.
"Hey," he says, scraping butter across bread and watching it melt. "You hungry?"
Dean shrugs a shoulder diffidently and looks up at him from his place on the blue-striped couch that came with the apartment. It's about the size of the front seat of the Impala, which makes it feel a little bit like home. That's good, because there's no place else to sit, unless Sam wants to get down on the hardwood floor. There's no place to put a kitchen table, either, so they eat in front of the television, which Dean keeps tuned to the Cartoon Network when he's not watching SportsCenter or reruns of sitcoms.
Sam keeps one plate for himself and offers the other to Dean, who takes it with hands that barely shake.
They eat quietly, quickly, watching a random episode of some cartoon Sam can't even identify; he remembers spending hours in front of the television as a kid, watching Thundercats or Speed Racer, bright colors and cheap animation a distraction from the knowledge that he and Dean were alone and Dad might not come back.
The glob of chewed up muffin sticks in his throat, and he washes it down with room temperature coffee.
Dean has butter on his chin and on his wrist, but he doesn't eat the way he used to, whole-hearted and with abandon. He doesn't make those happy little eating noises that used to make Sam want to kill him. Sam wishes he would. Hopes he will again, someday.
He can't think about that, though, because at least Dean is here, smearing butter off his chin with the back of his hand and getting the remote all greasy as he flicks through the channels when there's a commercial. Sam makes a grab for it, and Dean lets him have it without a fight. Sam bites back a sigh, shakes his head, and smiles.
"I'm going to work," he says, standing up and gathering the paper plates and balled up napkins so he can throw them away.
Dean looks up at him, and for a split-second, Sam thinks he's going to speak, but he just nods.
"I'll be back before you know it," Sam says, shoving his feet into his sneakers. He hands Dean the phone. "Call me if you need anything."
Dean runs his thumb over the buttons, and nods once. Sam wonders what would make him call, and if he'd actually speak if he did, or if Sam would have to figure out the emergency from listening to his frantic breathing.
Sam takes a deep breath so he doesn't do any frantic breathing of his own, and forces himself to walk out the door, and not look back.
Sometimes, it reminds him of his first day of school, the way he'd turned back to wave to Dean every three steps, Dean watching him carefully with a smile Sam hadn't realized was nervous (and probably forced) until years later. Sam's not sure if he's himself or Dean this time around, or some combination of them both.
At first, Sam was leery of leaving Dean alone. When they finally got him back, he was a panicked, shivering mess, and Sam, Bobby, and Ellen took turns sitting up with him until he quieted down. Now, his hands still shake occasionally, and he still wakes up shouting and shivering, but he's mostly all right during the day.
Dean hadn't responded well to being alone at first, but he hadn't done well with people who weren't Sam, either. Even Bobby and Ellen had freaked him out those first couple of weeks. Sam thinks he might see things, the way he'd been able to see demons right before he'd gone, but hasn't worked up the nerve to ask. Doesn't think Dean would tell him right now, anyway, even if he could. Doesn't want to know what Dean sees when he looks at Sam.
So they live cheek-by-jowl with more people than they ever have before--Dad was never big on cities--but since Ellen and Bobby left, Dean doesn't actually see anyone but Sam anymore. The weird thing is, nobody else seems to notice or care. Sam's never even seen the couple who live across the hall, and he's spoken to the super exactly once, when the guy came to install a carbon monoxide detector. He's gotten to know his co-workers a little bit, but even they aren't inquisitive. Sam wonders if that distance comes from living on top of each other all the time. Either way, he appreciates it.
Of course, at work, Sam deals with people all day. He uses his bus ride to the garage--insulated by headphones and the secret comfort of the greatest hits of mullet rock on his iPod--to organize his thoughts for the day and brace himself for the chattering rush of people. Most days, he's perfectly happy to come home to Dean and a quiet apartment.
Sam doesn't know how Ellen scored the place, and he doesn't ask, just takes his money down to the post office on the first of the month and gets a money order to mail to the management company.
He's never been comfortable with the credit card fraud and petty theft that Dean used to support them with, though he'd grown resigned, even inured, to it over the past few years, and has few qualms about resorting to it himself when he considers it necessary. But he knows that they're going to be in one place too long for it to be viable, for regular purchases, anyway.
The first job he got, after he realized he couldn't leave Dean alone at night, was an eight-to-four shift as a waiter in the all-night diner around the corner. One of the things he's come to love about New York City is the proliferation of such places; in this neighborhood, there are at least five within a four-block radius, which means he can order food any time of the day or night.
It's a little weird, though, after a lifetime of roadside diner waitresses with big hair and blue eye shadow, to work in a diner staffed with old Greek men and young guys from South America, and it takes Sam a little while to get used to the difference.
He'd forgotten how much he hated waiting tables, though, dealing with rude people and their messes and the smell of grease and stale coffee for hours at a time.
He hadn't lasted long. He still keeps in touch with the guys there, though, since the place is only a couple of blocks away, and they make excellent coffee.
After that, he'd worked for a moving company for a couple of weeks, off the books. He hadn't minded the backbreaking work of packing boxes and carrying furniture, but the guys he worked with wanted to be friends, wanted to hang out and go out to bars after work, and Sam just wanted to go home and watch TV with Dean.
Now, he slides behind the wheel of a yellow cab, flips the switch to on-duty, and pulls out smoothly into traffic. The money isn't very good, barely enough to get by, but Sam's used to that, and he doesn't have many expenses beside rent, gas, and food. And he likes driving a cab, likes the feeling of control it gives him, even when he's stuck in traffic on Third Avenue or when his passengers talk to him like he's an idiot. It lets him set his own hours, and it's the closest he can come right now to normal, or what passes for normal in his world--a day spent behind the wheel, going from one place to another, and the horizon always up ahead, beckoning.
He's got the Impala stashed out in Queens with a mechanic friend of Bobby's, and that's like paying a second rent, but it's worth it to keep her off the street. He can only imagine what Dean would say to him if he hadn't done that. He wants to be ready for the day Dean asks about her. He hopes it comes soon.
He catches sight of an older lady in a business suit stepping off the curb, arm raised in the universal gesture of hailing a cab, and pulls over. He tells himself it's going to be a good day.
Sam talks to Bobby at least once a week, and to Ellen sometimes two or three times. Whenever Dean's made progress, Sam gets on the phone with them. In return, he hears about Bobby's dogs or what Jo's up to, as well as the details of other people's hunts and lives. The sound of Bobby's gruff voice on the phone makes him miss his father, and Ellen's laughter makes him want to pelt Dean with questions about their mother, and he thinks this is probably the closest to normal, to safe, he's been since he was at Stanford.
He misses the road, misses hunting, more than he ever expected. Mostly, he misses the feeling of freedom that came with it, Dean a solid, kinetic presence in the driver's seat, the steady beat of Metallica or Zeppelin on the radio as the miles rolled away. He laughs at himself for all the years he felt stifled and tied down, and now he'd give anything to be able to go back to that life, as long as Dean was at his side.
The first few weeks, Sam ordered in for every meal, and it was just like being on the road, except they never went anywhere. When the money started running out, Sam sat Dean down and explained that he had to go to work, and would Dean be all right by himself?
Dean had looked at him with wide eyes in his pale, thin face, head cocked to one side, like he was listening, though Sam couldn't be sure. He sighed in frustration, pushed a hand through his hair, silently chastising himself for his impatience, and was about to start over when Dean reached out, wrapped his fingers around Sam's wrist, and nodded. It was the first real response Sam had gotten from him since he'd been back, and Sam couldn't help but grin, wide and happy, all frustration melting away at this sign that Dean was here, even if he wasn't all the way back from there yet.
Now, Sam tells himself it took weeks for Dean to make that much progress, tells himself to be patient--he can hear Dad's voice reminding him, slow and steady wins the race, Sammy, whenever he wanted to rush into or through something as a kid.
He's in the shower, washing off the work day, when he hears a commotion. He jumps out of the shower, wraps a towel around his waist and barrels out of the bathroom.
Dean is at the bedroom window, the one overlooking the street. He's got the window flung up, and is hanging out of it in a way that makes Sam's stomach clench with dread. His voice is sharp with fear--he can't manage to keep it hidden this time--when he says, "Dean?"
Dean turns to look at him, and the smile on his face is brighter than the late summer sunshine.
"Sam," he says, and Sam's heart stutters and stops for a second before it starts beating again, so fast it feels like it might burst through his chest. Dean tilts his head towards the window, and Sam can see some neighborhood kids playing wiffle ball in the street.
Sam doesn't know what to say for a second, blinks back the tears stinging behind his eyes.
"You wanna go outside?"
Dean's smile widens, and he nods.
"Okay, okay." Sam drops his towel, grabs a pair of boxers from the pile of laundry next to the bed and pulls them on, then throws a pair of jeans and a t-shirt on top, ignoring the way his wet hair drips onto his shoulders. He tucks his keys into his pocket and, before he can second-guess himself, he takes two bottles of beer from the fridge.
He leads Dean outside and down the stairs, slowly, because Dean hasn't left the apartment since they arrived, and Sam and Bobby had practically carried him up the stairs then. Dean is winded after the two flights, and there are sweat stains on his faded green t-shirt, but he looks alive in a way he hasn't since he's been back, and Sam can't help smiling and clapping him on the shoulder as they head outside.
They settle on the stoop and Sam hands Dean the two bottles of beer, and then freezes. But Dean moves automatically, uses the ring on his right hand to pop the tops off, and hands one back to Sam like he always has. Their shoulders are pressed together even in the heat, and Dean looks even paler and more tired in full daylight, but he glances around curiously, grinning at the kids in the street and the girls who walk by, and for the first time in a long time, everything feels like it's the way it should be. Like the way it used to be.
Sometime early in September, Sam discovers the joys of ordering groceries online and having them delivered. At first, he makes sure he's always home when the delivery is scheduled, not sure Dean can handle the money or the interaction.
The third or fourth time, though, Dean rolls his eyes and shoos him out of the house, the entire set of his body saying, It's okay. I know what I'm doing, even if he's still not using his voice.
Once they've got a steady supply of fresh groceries, Sam learns to cook, more than just the eggs and cheese macaroni and hamburgers that were the staples of his college years. He watches cooking shows on the Food Network and waits for Dean to mock him for it, but Dean just watches with the same wide-eyed attention he gives everything these days. He learns that Dean really will eat almost anything--even some of the less edible disasters--but he really hates fennel and cauliflower and certain kinds of fish.
Sometimes, Sam visits with Costas, the cook at the diner, picks up tips on how to skin tomatoes and get the smell of garlic off his fingers. He starts with simple pasta dishes, learns to make tomato sauce, pesto, cream sauce. Likes seeing Dean clean his plate and give him a hopeful look for more. Likes seeing him start to fill out again, replacing the weight he'd lost when he was in hell.
"You keep eating like that, you're gonna have to start working out again, or we'll have to roll you down the stairs next time you want to go out," Sam says one night when Dean holds his plate up for more. Dean flips him off, and the movement is smooth; his hand doesn't shake. Sam swallows hard and laughs around the lump in his throat.
The next weekend, though, he gets up early on Sunday, pulls on a pair of sweats and a t-shirt, and says, "You wanna go for a walk?"
Dean stills and looks at him with wide, uncertain eyes. The silence stretches so long that Sam shakes his head and is about to say, I'm sorry; forget it, when Dean nods and swings his legs out of bed. He dresses slowly, carefully; he reminds Sam of a child, so touchy about his dignity, his ability to get the buttons into the right holes, lips pressed tightly together in what looks like frustration that his formerly nimble fingers aren't, anymore. He frowns at the way his hair--longer than it's been since he was a teenager--falls across his forehead. He pushes it off his face with an annoyed grunt, and Sam holds his breath, hoping for a smart remark.
He doesn't get one.
"Guess we're gonna have to take you for a haircut," he says awkwardly, caught between joking and seriousness. Dean or Dad had always cut his hair when he was a kid, before he'd started rebelling, letting it grow down into his eyes and over his collar, and he has no idea how to cut Dean's without shaving his head. He doesn't think Dean would go for that, though it might be worth it just to see how he'd respond.
Dean flips him off. It seems to be his favorite mode of communication right now. Sam wouldn't mind so much if it weren't his only mode of communication right now.
The sky is overcast, nip in the air reminding him that winter is coming. They walk up First Avenue--there always seem to be fewer people there than on Second--to Eighty-Sixth. When they pass the diner, Sam waves at César, who's sitting on a stool at the counter with the newspaper in his hands, looking bored, while Nick wipes the tables down. Marco, who usually works the overnights, is the only one actually working, delivering food to a couple in a booth.
Dean looks curious, so on the walk back, Sam pushes the door open and smiles in greeting at his former co-workers. He can feel Dean trembling next to him, puts a hand on his back, hating how tentative Dean is, knowing Dean probably hates it himself, which only makes it worse.
"Hey," he says, "this is my brother, Dean. Dean, this is Marco, Nick and César, and see the guy behind the grill? That's Costas. The moussaka was his idea, so stop blaming me."
Costas rolls his eyes at this insult to his special recipe, but doesn't stop smiling.
Dean manages a tight smile that looks more like a grimace, and he doesn't offer his hand. The diner guys understand, though, or think they do. Sam had told them Dean was in the army, just got back from Iraq a few weeks ago, and he should probably feel guilty about that, but he doesn't. Dean's just as much a casualty of war as any soldier. More even, because he'd been drafted when he was four and even death wasn't a discharge.
Dean's mouth is tight, and the tension in his body is palpable, so Sam eases him back out the door, cursing himself for pushing for too much, too soon.
He makes spaghetti and meatballs for dinner that night, warm and comforting, and they fall asleep on the couch during SportsCenter.
Sam wakes up when Dean clocks him in the jaw, arms flailing as he yells, Sam! Sammy!
Sam grabs his hands and pulls him in tight against his chest, murmuring, "It's okay, Dean. I'm right here. I've got you," the way Dean always has for him. He rubs Dean's back in between the tense set of his shoulder blades with one hand, pushes Dean's sweaty hair off his forehead with the other. "Come on, Dean. Wake up. I'm right here."
He can feel it when Dean wakes up, the startled hitch of his breath and the moment of sudden stillness. Dean's hands clutch at Sam's shoulders like pincers, and he holds on for longer than Sam expects before slowly pulling away, his breathing even, though his upper lip is beaded with sweat.
"Sam?" His voice is rough with fear and sleep, but his eyes are clear, and he's still got a hand on Sam's shoulder, warm and comforting through the thin material of Sam's t-shirt.
"I'm right here, Dean. It's okay."
Dean lets his head fall forward, coming to rest next to his hand on Sam's shoulder, and Sam's heart clenches tight at the show of vulnerability. Dean sucks in a long shuddering breath and Sam can feel his heart racing, feel the in-out pump of his lungs as he tries to get himself under control.
"Sam," he says again, not a question this time.
"Yeah. I'm right here." He repeats the words like a ritual, can feel their effect on Dean's breathing, the way his heart slows to normal, and his body stops shaking. "Come on," he says, when he thinks Dean is ready, "let's go to bed."
Dean nods, freckles standing out on his pale face like letters in a language Sam can't read anymore.
They crawl into bed and pull up the covers, and Sam lies awake as long as he can, waiting for Dean to fall asleep. He's pretty sure Dean never does.
The next morning, Sam wakes up around eight, sunlight slanting through the blinds and into his eyes. He's alone, which makes his heart clench in fear for a second before he realizes he can hear the low hum of the television in the living room. He stumbles out of bed to find Dean on the sofa, hunched over a bowl of Cheerios, watching cartoons.
"Morning," Sam says, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Dean grins at him, and the dark circles under his eyes stand out against his pale skin. He's got milk dribbling from one corner of his mouth, but he catches it with his tongue before it goes too far.
Sam shakes his head and heads to the bathroom.
He's at the kitchen sink, filling out his own bowl of cereal, when Dean says, "Just once, I'd like Wile E. Coyote to fucking catch that damn Road Runner."
"What?" Sam splashes milk all over the sink and stumbles over his own feet in his rush to get to the couch. "What?"
But Dean just goes back to staring at the TV as if he hadn't spoken at all.
It happens again three days later. Sam is making a ham and cheese omelet, humming tunelessly to himself, and Dean is watching SportsCenter in the living room.
"Roger Federer is not human," Dean announces when Sam hands him a plate full of eggs. "We should hunt him down and kill him. Maybe some of those hot tennis chicks would be grateful."
Sam stares at him dumbly, feeling like he's walked into the middle of someone else's conversation. "Who?"
"Roger Federer," Dean says slowly, as if talking to a little kid or something. He shakes his head and mutters in a low voice, "It's a good thing you can cook."
Sam laughs, delighted as much by the backhanded compliment, as by the fact that Dean is speaking at all.
When he's done eating, he reaches for the remote--there's a documentary about the Medicis on PBS that he's been meaning to watch--but Dean gives him a scornful look and snatches it away, holding it close to his chest.
Sam sighs and settles in for another night of watching the Mets chase the wild card.
He's afraid, once Dean starts talking again, that he'll ask what happened, and Sam isn't sure he's ready for that conversation--isn't sure he'll ever be ready for that conversation--so as long as Dean doesn't ask, Sam doesn't tell.
Just because he won't talk about it doesn't mean it's not on his mind--it's all well and good to think their enemies will leave them alone just because Dean needs time to heal, but Sam knows that's not how the real world works. When Ellen first brought them here, the morning after Sam ripped open the gates of hell to get Dean back, they'd set up every kind of ward Bobby knows, and while he was sleeping, Sam set up a few more. He's covered the white walls of the apartment with protective symbols painted in holy water, carved sigils into doorjambs and windowsills, taped down lines of salt at every entrance.
Lilith is gone--a fairly graphic example of why crossing Sam is a bad idea--but demons have never been the smartest creatures, so Sam uses everything he's learned to shield Dean, himself, and the apartment from whatever forces of hell might still be looking for them, all nothing to see here with spells and symbols even Bobby doesn't know, some of them in languages that were ancient when the pyramids were being built.
Sam prays--as much good as it will do him--that it will keep them safe, but he's always prepared, in case it doesn't.
Dean is still prone to nightmares, but he's sleeping more every night, and Sam can tell he's getting antsy at spending all day every day in the apartment. Sam comes home one night to find the DVD player spread out in pieces on the living room floor. He supposes he should be grateful Dean hasn't busted out the weapons for cleaning, or taken apart the laptop. Yet.
"The tray jammed," Dean says, pointing at the offending part with the screwdriver. "With the DVD inside."
Sam flaps a hand in exasperation. "Just make sure it works when you're done, okay?"
Dean snorts like he doesn't understand why Sam thinks it wouldn't.
Sam keeps up a running monologue while he cooks. He'd like to say it was for Dean's benefit--it was when he started doing it, because he wasn't used to silence with Dean around--but now it's become a habit. Admittedly, for a guy who doesn't talk much anymore, Dean is very present, even when he's shellshocked (and even more so now that he's started to come back to himself), but Sam is used to Dean babbling for hours about the sad state of music today, the proper way to tune an engine, or why the designated hitter is an abomination against all laws of god and man. When he was by himself the first time, after Broward County, he'd given in to the silence, gotten used to it, and he never wants to do that again.
So, he talks. Generally, he talks about what he's cooking (they've watched enough Food Network that he doesn't even feel stupid--much--when he does it), but he also likes to tell Dean about the fares he drove around that day, mostly people going from one office to another for meetings, their sharp suits looking wilted in the heat, but also the tourists going to the Empire State Building or coming from Ellis Island, and the trips out to the airport that make him wistful for long drives across the country, never lonely when it was the two of them in the car.
He's surprised he misses it, has always wanted to stop and stay and put down roots, but he realizes now that even Stanford was temporary--four years for college and then three for law school, and he'd have been gone from there as well, to whatever was next. Jess's death just forced him out a little earlier.
It doesn't hurt so much to think of her anymore. She'd have loved the apartment, the city, and the museums, so now that Dean's made some firm steps on the road to recovery, he takes the time to visit the Met, to stroll through the Greek and Roman sculpture gallery, to spend some time reading about Chinese calligraphy and early modern art. He tells Dean about the Arms and Armor exhibit, how the museum has a selection of Colt revolvers (and Winchester rifles), and Dean actually looks interested when Sam says they should go.
They go for walks in the evenings now, exploring the neighborhood, trying to work out some of Dean's cabin fever. Night falls like a hammer once they turn the clocks back, the smell of exhaust and dead leaves sharp in the chilly, autumn air, and Sam invests in scarves and gloves, but Dean refuses to wear his, instead layering on henleys and flannels the way he used to. He hasn't caught cold yet, so Sam doesn't fuss too much.
Dean seems resigned to people now, mostly ignores them, though a hot girl or cool car will turn his head, make his face scrunch in concentration.
They walk past some guy in an Altima completely failing at parallel parking, and Dean wrinkles his nose in disgust. "Dude," he says, "I could park a tank in that spot."
Sam knows he's only exaggerating a little.
Dean stops at the Altima's rear bumper and starts waving the guy back until there's only about six inches between it and the front of the car behind it. It takes a couple of minutes of pulling in and out, but the guy finally manages to swing the car into the space, with Dean directing him via hand signals. The guy waves at them in thanks (or so Sam prefers to think) and Sam starts walking again, but five steps on he realizes Dean's not with him. He turns and walks back to where Dean is standing.
Dean cocks his head and looks at Sam, hands shoved deep into his pockets, face half in shadow beneath the streetlight. "Where's the car?"
Sam sucks in a breath, surprised, even though he's been expecting--hoping--for the question for a while. "It's with Bobby's friend, Miguel. He owns a garage out in Richmond Hill."
Dean nods, turns his head, and Sam can see him swallow, see his jaw work for a second before he says, voice wistful and a little rough, "Can we go see her?"
Sam laughs. "Yeah, Dean. Yeah, of course."
The next morning, Dean is showered and dressed and leaning against the dresser, drumming his fingers on his knees, when Sam wakes up. "Come on, Sammy. Let's go."
Sam yawns wide and knuckles the sleep out of his eyes. "What?"
"To see the car."
"I--Yeah, okay, Dean. Gimme a minute here, okay?" Sam's actually a little surprised Dean's not bouncing on the bed next to him, like a little kid on Christmas morning, but possibly that's what woke him up in the first place, and now Dean's just trying to play it cool. Relatively speaking.
Sam takes a quick shower, hoping to wake himself up, and trying to figure out how to get to the garage without taking Dean on the subway, an adventure even at the best of times.
They end up taking the bus downtown to the garage. Dean occasionally makes snarky remarks about their fellow passengers, his attempts at whispering not always successful, earning them some hard looks.
"Use your inside voice, Dean," Sam hisses, ears burning in mortification after Dean helpfully points out that the guy sitting across from them is wearing one brown shoe and one black shoe.
Dean snorts but settles down, even gives up his seat to an old lady when the bus gets crowded. She pats his hand with her veiny, gnarled one and calls him a good boy. Dean turns to Sam and rolls his eyes, but Sam can see he's pleased at the validation. Dean curls his fingers around the metal bar, feet planted wide and sure as the bus bumps down Second Avenue. Dad's leather jacket still hangs a little loose on him, but he's regained most of the weight he'd lost, and though there are still circles under his eyes, and the lines around his mouth are new, Sam can see Dean as he used to be, strong and steady (when he wasn't cocky and obnoxious). The way he will be again, Sam is sure.
They get off two stops later, and there's an ease in Dean's gait that makes Sam smile.
Sam slides behind the wheel of his cab before Dean can argue about it. "You are so paying for the gas for this trip," he says, like he's not just as excited to go see the car. Like Dean has any money of his own at the moment.
Dean flips him off and flicks the radio on, and even though they get stuck in traffic on the LIE, it's still awesome, because Dean's sitting beside him, drumming in time to the music.
The closer they get, the quieter Dean gets, hands curled into white-knuckled fists on his thighs. Sam remembers what happened with the guys at the diner and hopes he hasn't made a mistake.
Miguel Pineda is about a foot shorter than Sam, and he's got a big black moustache that looks like a broom living on his upper lip, but Bobby says he knows his shit, and despite Dean's lessons, Sam doesn't know enough about cars to be able to tell.
Dean shakes the guy's hand without flinching, and asks a few terse questions that Miguel seems to answer to Dean's satisfaction. He leads them to a second garage on the back of the property, which consists of a big concrete yard full of guys working on cars, surrounded by a six-foot tall chain link fence.
Miguel pushes up the garage door and there in the dim light is the car, black paint gleaming, the grille like a wide smile greeting them.
"Hey," Dean says softly, laying a hand on the hood, the tense line of his shoulders easing. "Hey, baby." Dean talks to the car as he would to a beloved child; Sam is intimately familiar with the tone.
"I'll leave you to it, then," Miguel says with a nod, backing away.
Sam lays a hand on the roof of the car, the metal cool and smooth beneath his palm, and comforting in a way he should have expected but didn't.
Dean pulls the keys from his pocket, pops the hood, and bends over the engine, crooning softly to her in a way that would be embarrassing if Sam weren't used to it. To give Dean a couple of minutes (and to take a couple for himself), Sam goes around and gets into the passenger seat, the creak of the door familiar as a lullaby, and the embrace of the leather as comfortable as a cradle. He closes his eyes and breathes in the musty scent of old leather, salt, dirt, and rancid fried food--the scent of home.
Dean joins him after a minute or two, slides behind the wheel, mouth curved in a wide smile that makes Sam's chest ache, and Sam wonders why they didn't do this before, if he should have suggested it earlier.
Dean turns and gives him a wide, shit-eating grin, and says, "Thanks, Sammy."
Sam grins in response, and then has to turn his head so Dean won't see him blinking back tears.
They visit the car every few days after that, late in the afternoon after Sam's shift ends, and Sam's pretty sure the money he's paying Miguel to store the car doesn't cover that, but Dean makes himself useful when he's there, enough that Miguel asks him if he wants a job. There's a flare of something on Dean's face before he closes down, mouth curving in a half-smile that has no real emotion behind it at all.
"Thanks," Sam says when it's clear Dean's not going to speak, "but he really can't right now."
Dean's already walked away, slipped inside the Impala, his hands and forehead resting on the steering wheel.
Miguel chews his moustache for a second, nods, understanding in his dark eyes. "Okay." He walks back into the garage, subdued clang of metal and blare of Spanish music eating up his footsteps.
Sam wonders what Bobby told him, what he knows, what he figured out on his own, and then decides it doesn't matter; he's long past caring what people think of him and Dean, feels more owed by the world than owing at this point, and with more reason than he did as a teenager.
He slides into the car beside Dean, puts a hand on his shoulder. "Hey."
Dean's mouth twists in a bitter frown. "I can't."
"I want to." The admission is so quiet Sam almost misses it, and so surprising that he doesn't quite know what to say.
"Okay." Sam recalibrates everything he's expected, remembers Dean's dream, his wish, and thinks maybe he should have known.
"I mean," Dean scrubs a hand through his hair, looks out the window at the cement wall of the garage. "I don't know what I mean."
"Okay," Sam says again. "You don't need to figure it all out right now. You've got time." All the time in the world, as much as Sam can give him, in whatever kind of life he wants.
Dean shrugs Sam's hand off his shoulder and says, "Dude, you sound like my high school guidance counselor," but he gives a little rueful smile when he says it to take away the sting.
Sam laughs and gets out of the car. It's getting harder and harder to leave it behind, and Sam knows if he's feeling that way, it must be even worse for Dean, but they have no place to park it, and Sam's not sure Dean's ready to drive yet.
"Let's go," he says, the rumble of his belly as loud as the creak of the car door when Dean gets out.
"Miguel recommended a good Chinese restaurant a few blocks from here, on 111th Street," Dean offers tentatively, and Sam wonders why it sounds like an apology. "He said the pan-fried wontons with sesame sauce are awesome."
"Sounds good," Sam replies, smiling, apology accepted, even though Dean has nothing to apologize for.
By the time Thanksgiving rolls around--never a big holiday on the Winchester family calendar--their evening walks have turned into runs. Dean is winded and sweating the first couple of weeks, working muscles that haven't worked hard in a while, though the whole thing was his idea, mentioned casually over the newspaper at breakfast one morning, and put into action that night. Sam tries not to look smug, for the first time able to beat Dean on more than just sprints ("Dude, those freakish legs of yours might give you the edge in a sprint, but I'm the one with the stamina to go the distance," Dean insists, even after Sam finishes almost ten minutes ahead of him on their first five mile run). Sparring is next, working out with the heavy bag, and then each other, at the Y.
Sam tangles his fingers in the hair curling over the nape of Dean's neck and tugs, always willing to fight dirty, and Dean yelps, elbowing him in the chest to get free.
They lie on the mats, breathing heavily, and Dean shoves his sweaty bangs off his forehead. "Fuck this, man. I need a haircut."
Sam gulps down some air and says, "You want me to do that for you?"
Dean looks at him like he's crazy. "Fuck, no. Why would I want that?"
Sam is inexplicably hurt, even though he really doesn't want to be responsible for cutting Dean's hair. "I've done all right with the shaving, haven't I?" He knows as soon as the words are out that he's made a mistake.
Dean freezes, mouth pressed in a tight line, and then his hand comes up to rub his chin. "Yeah," he says, "I guess I can take care of that myself now."
Sam lets the silence between them stretch, hoping Dean will take it back, knowing he wants to take it back, and Sam wants him to, as well. But he doesn't. Sam sighs. "I suppose."
"Come on," Dean says, tapping Sam's chest with two fingers, then levering himself up off the floor. "If you're gonna make a whole big Thanksgiving dinner, we're gonna need pie, and I know just where to get it."
They order apple, pumpkin and pecan pies from the local bakery where Sam gets bagels every week, and Sam doesn't even complain about the ridiculous prices, because Dean is practically bouncing on the balls of his feet at the prospect of so much pie.
Sam's not sure he's up for cooking a turkey (and he knows Dean would complain about eating turkey at every meal for a week), so he roasts a chicken instead, with stuffing, and sweet potato pie according to the recipe he badgers out of Ellen.
They get up in time for the parade, and Sam would make fun of Dean being a little kid about it, except he's sitting right there next to him on the couch, waiting for Santa Claus to show up at the end, even though the only time he ever remembers watching the parade is with Jess's family during the one Thanksgiving he spent with them.
Dean goes for a shower during the football pre-game show, and Sam is waiting with the razor when he comes out, trying not to fidget and hoping Dean doesn't throw him out. Dean wraps his towel around his waist and rolls his eyes, but leans back against the sink and lets Sam lather his face with shaving cream.
It's routine now, or it should be, but Sam always takes the opportunity to catalogue the changes in Dean's face--his cheeks have filled out, no longer the gaunt hollows they were during the summer; the circles under his eyes have faded, though the lines around his eyes and mouth are deeper than they used to be. Sam likes to make him laugh, see those lines as a result of good things instead of bad.
Dean's skin is winter pale, his freckles faded, and there's the occasional glint of gray in his beard and at his temples, though the longer hair makes him look younger. Sam doesn't mention it, just runs his thumb lightly over the lock of hair falling over Dean's ear.
Dean raises an eyebrow. "That gray hair?" he says. "That's all you."
"Just saying." But there's affection in Dean's voice, and Sam knows he doesn't mean it the way Sam tends to take it.
Sam grips Dean's chin, turns his face this way and that, making sure he hasn't left any random stubble behind. "You're gonna have to start dyeing it soon."
Dean snorts in a combination of disgust and disbelief, the as if clear in the sound, and Sam laughs. He rubs away a little bit of foam clinging to Dean's cheek, the skin smooth and damp under the pads of his fingers. He leaves his fingers on Dean's skin a little longer than necessary, feeling a weird flutter in his belly and sudden wash of heat rising in his chest.
Sam doesn't think about it; he leans in, presses his lips to Dean's, which are warm and soft. He can taste toothpaste on Dean's breath when Dean exhales. Dean's hands come up to rest flat against Sam's chest, warm over his heart, not pulling him close, but not pushing him away either.
Sam pulls back to see Dean gazing up at him, eyes wide in shock and very green in the fluorescent light. Sam can hear the voices of the sportscasters in the living room, but he has no idea what they're saying, the sound blurry and distant under the loud beat of his heart, the quick heavy rush of Dean's breathing, and his own.
Dean's mouth opens but Sam doesn't let him get a word out, puts a finger to his lips and then replaces it with his own lips, pressing another soft kiss to Dean's mouth, and then a quick one to his forehead. Sam's whole body is trembling, and he stumbles over the small, raised lip between the bathroom and the kitchen as he backs away, holding Dean's startled gaze the whole time.
Dean closes the bathroom door, and it sounds like a gunshot to Sam, who sinks down onto the couch and covers his face with his hands, wondering if he's just screwed everything up.
After a few seconds, he heaves himself up off the couch--he still has a sweet potato pie to make, and Dean's not the only master of denial in the family.
Dean comes out of the bathroom a few minutes later and says nothing, but instead of skirting around Sam in the small space of the kitchen, he brushes close on his way through to the bedroom, touches Sam's hip and then his shoulder with gentle fingers. Sam closes his eyes and breathes a deep sigh of relief, the warmth of Dean's touch lingering on his skin.
When he's finished dressing, Dean insists on helping, which means he eats whatever mini-marshmallows Sam doesn't use for the sweet potatoes, and heckles Sam from the couch when Sam shoves him out of the way, because the kitchen isn't big enough for one of them, let alone both at the same time, and as grateful as Sam is to have Dean back (and that things aren't going to be weird), he doesn't want to screw up dinner because he can't concentrate with Dean hanging all over him, "helping."
As usual, Sam talks his way through cooking, finds comfort in the ritual of it, parroting back the instructions Ellen gave him on the phone.
Dean eyes him indulgently, affectionate smile on his face. "Who's the hottest celebrity chef?" Dean asks when Sam pauses for breath. "Nigella Lawson, Rachael Ray, or you?"
"No more Food Network for you," Sam says, throwing a marshmallow at him, which Dean catches in his mouth.
"You can't take away Paula Deen!" he says, outraged, through a mouthful of sugar.
"I knew you had a thing for her," Sam answers, laughing triumphantly. "She wooed you with butter and bacon."
"Who even says woo in this day and age? Freak."
"You're calling me a freak? I'm not the one with a crush on Paula Deen. Freak."
"Whatever." Dean waves a hand dismissively. "Our love is pure and true. And full of bacon and butter."
"Full of something, all right." Sam snorts, pointing his wooden spoon at Dean and then at the tray tables folded up next to the door. "Make yourself useful."
Dean sets up the snack trays Sam bought so they'd have somewhere to put all the food, and he wears a manic smile when he sharpens the carving knife against his whetstone. Sam watches his hands, so sure and careful with the knife, like it's an extension of his arm. He does a pretty decent job with carving the chicken, and the two of them stand over the cutting board for a few minutes, pressed together from hip to shoulder, just picking the crisp skin off and eating it, until the timer goes off, reminding Sam he's got the stuffing and the sweet potatoes in the oven.
Seattle is kicking off to Dallas for the four o'clock game when they settle down to eat. Dean is already growling at the television--he hates the Cowboys with a fervor he usually reserves for the Yankees, so he's rooting for the Seahawks just on principle. Sam sits down next to him, closer than he needs to, so their shoulders are touching, and Dean doesn't move away.
Dean looks at his plate suspiciously, pokes the slice of chicken breast with his fork. "Is this chicken cooked?"
"I don't want to get salmonella. That would really suck." He spears a piece of chicken on his fork and shoves it at Sam's face. "Does that look pink to you?"
"I've been doing this a while now, Dean," Sam says with a huff, though he sneaks a peek just to make sure it's not pink. If anything, he's afraid he might have overcooked it, but it's still nice and juicy. And not pink. "So yes, the chicken is cooked." He rolls his eyes. "I think I liked it better when you didn't talk."
"Liar." Dean takes a bite of chicken, face going still in concentration as he chews and swallows. "Hey, this is good, Sammy."
Sam grins, feels his face heat with pleasure at the praise. "Thanks."
They focus on eating for a few minutes, the sound of the game in the background, and Dean moans a little when he tastes the sweet potatoes. Sam doesn't even try to hide his smile.
They spend the rest of the evening eating and watching football. The pies are definitely worth what they paid for them, though Sam is already thinking that he could do better if he had time and space to actually bake, instead of a kitchen with no counter space and no table.
As they're washing up, when Sam turns to take the wet plate Dean hands him, Dean tips his head up, gives Sam a soft kiss. His mouth tastes of pie and coffee, and heat flutters under Sam's skin. Dean's soapy hand cups Sam's cheek softly, and Sam sighs into Dean's mouth just before Dean pulls away, licking his lips and then grinning. They jostle each other at the sink, the kitchen still too small to contain them, but now Sam doesn't mind. He thinks it's kind of cozy.
That night, Sam climbs into bed next to Dean, breathes in the scent of his skin, one hand laid flat over the steady beat of his heart, and sends up a grateful prayer to whoever might be listening.
A few days later, when Sam comes home, it's not the DVD player, but the weapons stash arrayed on a sheet on the living room floor and Dean sitting cross-legged at the edge, eyes focused on a rerun of The Simpsons, hands moving sure and steady as he cleans the guns and then sharpens the knives.
When Sam does the recycling on Wednesday nights now, he notices that there are more newspapers in the pile than there used to be--in addition to the Times, which Sam brings home himself, there are copies of the Post, the Daily News, and Newsday, as well as both free local papers, and the Upper East Side weekly. A quick rifle through them shows all the sudoku puzzles filled in, and a bunch of obituaries clipped out, black pen marks indicating where Dean had circled them before attacking with scissors.
Sam doesn't say anything about it--he doesn't want to push Dean into something he doesn't want to do, but Dean smiles more now, and more easily, which makes Sam smile, too.
The week before Christmas, Sam cuts his shift short, comes home early, thinking maybe they should go see the tree in Rockefeller Center. Dean's gotten better about crowds, and he's pretty sure Dean would enjoy the walk up Fifth Avenue to FAO Schwarz.
He tucks his keys into his pocket and says, "Dean?" even though the apartment is small enough that he can see Dean's not in it. "Dean?" he says again, this time unable to suppress the fear in his voice, panic climbing up from his belly to his throat.
He pulls out his cell, but Dean's phone goes directly to voicemail. There's no sign of a struggle, the salt lines are still taped across the threshold, and Dean's jacket is missing from the closet. Sam forces himself to breathe, to think, to close his eyes and see if he can feel any sign of Dean's presence.
He can't, of course. Whatever powers he had (has, though he doesn't like to think about them, likes to pretend they don't exist as much as he can), that was never one of them. He flicks on the light in the kitchen and sees the note taped to the microwave. At the diner. D., it says in Dean's blocky handwriting.
Sam crumples the note in his fist, going limp with relief. He leans against the counter for a minute to steady his heart rate and his breathing, and then heads around the corner to the diner.
Dean is tucked away in a booth in the back, playing dominoes with César.
"You cut your hair," Sam says, feeling stupid.
"Glad to see your observational skills are intact," Dean answers, running a hand through his newly short hair, making it stand up in random spikes.
"What are you doing here?"
"César is teaching me how to play dominoes."
"Teaching, feh," César says, laughing and waving a hand at Dean. "He's a shark, this one, winning all my tips."
"I told you," Marco says, passing by to top off their cups of coffee. "I taught him to play scopa and went home poor that night."
"That was beginner's luck," Dean says, grinning.
"Scopa, huh?" Sam asks.
"Let me give table three their check, and then I can show you," Marco says. "Maybe I can win back some of my money."
They all laugh, and Sam remembers when he was a kid, he'd always simultaneously loved and hated that his friends always thought Dean was the coolest, and wanted to be friends with him, too. Now, he smiles and slides into the booth next to Dean, glad Dean's around to have any friends at all.
They have a real Christmas in the apartment, small Charlie Brown looking Christmas tree in the corner, hung with whatever ornaments Dean picked up at CVS, and topped with a star that arrived in the mail from Bobby, of all people, with a note that he'd found it in one of Dad's storage lockers the last time he was in Dubuque.
They have eggnog--Sam realizes where he went wrong last year, and doesn't use quite as much brandy this time (he still hates the taste but Dean seems to like it)--and a few small gifts under the tree, and Dean turns on that televised yule log on channel eleven, which, according to everyone he's met here, is some kind of weird New York City tradition.
They also do some lazy making out in front of the television, the kind that makes Sam's face go hot when he thinks about it, and really, having Dean back is the best gift he's ever gotten; having him like this is something he hadn't even known he'd wanted until it happened. If Dean wants to stay here and work in Miguel's garage and play scopa with Marco or dominoes with César for the rest of their lives, Sam can live with that.
He takes the day after New Year's Day off, curled up under the comforter, basking in the heat of Dean's body, and wakes when Dean gets out of bed.
"Back in a bit," Dean says, pulling on his jeans and flannel.
Sam glances at the alarm clock, which says six twenty-five, so he rolls over and goes back to sleep.
He wakes again around eleven to the sound of honking down on the street, the kind of honking that supposedly gets you a three hundred and fifty dollar ticket if the cops catch you. He's heard stories from other cabbies about it, how rare it is to actually see a cop hand out a ticket for honking, and he goes to the window to see if he'll be witnessing such a momentous event.
It's Dean, blocking the street with the Impala.
Sam's phone rings and he fumbles for it, flips it open. "Dean?"
"Get your ass down here, man. I don't trust some of these crazy cabbies not to try and go around me, and if the paint gets scratched, I'm taking it out of your hide."
Sam yanks his side of the dresser open, finds nothing but one pair of boxers and a t-shirt. "Dean, where's all my stuff?"
"Packed and ready to go, Sammy."
"I'll be right down."
Sam rushes through brushing his teeth and washing his face, totally forgets to put deodorant on, and shoves his left foot into his right boot the first time he tries to put it on.
He takes one last look around the apartment, making sure they're not leaving anything important behind, before he pulls on his jacket and heads down the stairs.
Dean is waiting, white paper bag on the middle of the bench seat smelling of bacon and eggs and coffee. "A gift from Nick and Costas," Dean says as Sam slides into the passenger seat, already reaching for a cup of coffee.
"You ready?" he asks when Sam is settled in beside him, cup of coffee securely in his hand.
"Always," Sam answers, grinning widely.
Dean puts the car in drive.