Dean asks a young woman behind the counter to help him with the menu—“Even with these,” he says, gesturing to his glasses, “I can’t read those squiggles. And could you come around, please,” he adds, crinkling his eyes further with that Harrison Ford charm Sam half despises and half adores, “because my ears aren’t so good either.”
“And yet the half-blind guy unerringly found the prettiest girl in the place,” Sam grouses. Dean just smiles wider, and the girl heard him, too, so now Sam’s embarrassed.
But she repeats herself when Dean loses a couple of her words, without treating him like an idiot just because he’s wearing hearing aids, and she makes Sam an off-the-menu special after Dean informs her that what Sam really likes best is hot chocolate and coffee mixed together, none of this mocha nonsense. “Says he can taste the difference,” Dean confides to her with another what-can-you-do-with-little-brothers smirk, and she’s practically ready to take him home by the time she rings up their meals.
“You know,” Sam says, voice pitched loud enough for Dean to hear (table chosen as far away from the other patrons to make that less disruptive), “some would say you’re overcompensating for the coke-bottle glasses.”
Dean waves a dismissive hand. “What’s that, Sam? I’m a fine-looking bastard? Why yes, I am.”
Sam can’t help smiling anyway. Dean’s far enough out of his shell now that he can even deal with strangers’ glances—sensed even when not seen—and take this road trip with Sam, and that’s amazing enough to allow Sam to deal with Dean’s reflexive horndoggery.
When the doctor had said ‘never be 100%,’ Dean had heard ‘99%, sure,’ and that had gone about as well as anyone would have expected. Dean was used to being able to work through the pain with some PT and, latterly, some angelic healing. That wasn’t going to happen with his eyes or his ears, and there had been some pretty spectacular missteps before Dean accepted the new reality.
Because every mile he charted behind the wheel made Sam feel guilty, he’d kept the driving to a minimum for a long time, finding a place for them close enough to the grocery store that he didn’t have to take the car out just to pick up a gallon of milk. Dean had gone half out of his mind—that is, relative to Dean-standard—with inactivity before Sam had, in desperate frustration, slapped the woodworking tools down in front of him and demanded he carve a protective ward for one of the baby hunters who’d been in contact with Sam and needed some symbols incised into holy oak.
Sam still isn’t sure why Dean had gone along—might’ve been plain old boredom. But after that he’d begun to carve other things, mostly not for the supernatural (though his stakes, fire-hardened and cut in sharp-edged spirals to go more easily through clothes, were things of true beauty). He’d made puzzle toys, so intricate and clever that Sam occasionally struggled with them, and random miniatures—a bench, a guitar, a soccer trophy. Sam had taken a couple of pictures and put them on Etsy on a lark, and then without really planning to do so Sam had ended up running a business and just using his bookstore job to avoid becoming a hermit.
Which had left Dean in splendid near-isolation, letting Sam pick the wood and send off the orders and otherwise deal with the world. Sam had spent months allowing Dean his self-pity, and months more yelling at him about it (yeah, like that had ever worked; Dean doesn’t need eyes or ears when he has stubborn). Dean maintains that he doesn’t give a shit about other people anyway, now that he can’t kill supernatural bastards, and Sam occasionally pretends to believe him when he’s exceptionally tired of arguing.
Recent months have seen some improvement: Dean willing to walk to the ice cream store ten blocks away from their place, and even to go to the park with Sam on sunny days (Dean uses the treadmill in the basement now to stay in shape, listening to audiobooks through the dorkiest pair of full-ear headphones Sam has ever seen; Sam suspects Dean has no idea how he looks like that), but Sam’s nonetheless a little shocked that Dean agreed to a full-on journey out of town.
Dean’s motives, honestly, probably reduce to the money. Dean’s never been able to pass up an easy score. Dean had gotten a write-up in a collectors’ magazine—thank goodness that in these days of tight journalistic budgets, the interview had been done entirely via email, Sam reading out the questions (Dean heard him better than anyone else, or really just knew him better) and Dean making up bullshit answers that Sam translated into something sensitive and artistic. Anyway, this rich couple had seen pictures of Dean’s OK Corral, and nothing would do except that Dean make a dollhouse in the shape of their custom-built house.
When Sam had quoted the price, he’d added a zero just for shits and giggles, thinking that Dean would never lower himself to make a full-on dollhouse, but now he kind of wants to kiss both of them, because they’d said yes and yes again when Sam explained that they needed to walk around the place and get a sense of it.
Sam and Dean finish their meal and leave a nice tip for the girl. Sam guides Dean out with a hand on his back, the only help that’s been easy for Dean to accept. It sure doesn’t hurt that the contact helps calm Sam down; Sam’s bad days are rarer now, which he will never admit he attributes not just to quitting but to quitting with Dean.
While they drive to the expensive neighborhood in which the ludicrously expensive house sits, Dean turns his face towards the window, blinking at the sun on his face. Sam had asked, once, what it was like, and Dean had said it was like looking and hearing through three feet of water. Dean had been fairly drunk, which was why he’d given an answer Sam had been willing to believe, but soon after that Dean had mostly quit drinking. Sam hates his reason—can’t be a lush and not be able to find my own ass with both hands, Sammy, can’t do that to you—but likes the outcome more. And anyway they don’t have to talk about Dean’s abstinence, which is the key.
Sam and Dean are buzzed through the gate and stand shoulder to shoulder at the door, which opens wide enough to admit them both. Sam takes Dean around first, then starts taking reference pictures and getting paint chips and wallpaper samples from the interior designer, whom the couple have invited to oversee the proceedings and congratulate himself on his good works. The wife clearly thinks that Dean is some sort of idiot savant, sense of touch enhanced to compensate for what he lost, and Sam would tell her just how dumb she’s being if she hadn’t already written them a retainer check that pays for half a year’s rent in one go.
“Such an unusual design,” the husband says, holding up one of the pieces already in their collection: a player piano with working pedals. “How did you come up with it?”
Sam smiles. Tucked underneath or inside somewhere on all Dean’s pieces longer than two inches is the anti-possession symbol they share on their chests. Sam’s looking into trademark registration, since several people in the business have warned him that copycats will try to use Dean’s growing reputation otherwise. (Dean doesn’t know just how much time Sam spends on miniaturist forums. Sam’s silence on this point is a self-protective measure, plus it helps keep Dean convinced that Sam is a business genius.) “It’s a traditional protective symbol,” Sam tells the husband. “We like to think it brings a little bit of safety into each house.” Only enough to keep out a very tiny demon, he thinks, but stranger things have happened.
Dean has completed his careful circuit of the house, the charmed-but-nervous interior designer at his side. From the lack of breaking glass, Sam surmises that Dean didn’t knock over any Ming vases. Not that Sam expected him to—Dean’s got his grace, even if he doesn’t think so any more. Anything he can touch, he’ll remember, and Sam can help him on the details once he’s got the sense of the space. At least that’s the theory.
Dean’s even worse at keeping his emotions off his face now, either because he’s spending so much time with Sam or because something in his hindbrain thinks that if he can’t see other people’s faces then they can’t read his. Sam’s grateful, because now he can tell that Dean’s about to lose it, the subtle condescension from all three of the strangers here gnawing at his last nerve.
“Thank you so much,” Sam says, and takes over the glad-handing, getting them out the door in under five minutes with a promise to contact the architect if any follow-up is necessary.
He doesn’t say, that wasn’t so bad, was it? He knows Dean mostly thinks it was. But, damn, they can use the money. And if Sam knows his brother, which he most definitely does, Dean will carve some subtle insult into the dollhouse as payback.
Dollhouse, he thinks, and keeps himself from smirking, because Dean will know.
“Ribs?” he asks, because Dean didn’t piss off the rich assholes who want to give them money, and that deserves a reward.
Dean perks up. They don’t have a good rib joint anywhere near them, and Sam’s not above using food to reward Dean for coming out of his shell. “Jesus,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck, “I’m going to be working on this fucking thing ‘til practically Christmas.”
“It’s official,” Sam says as he watches Dean move himself to the passenger side, fingers trailing along the car (this means Dean is tired; he relies on his excellent spatial sense otherwise), “you can whine about anything, even folding money.”
Dean grimaces. “Not that I heard that, but I know the right answer is, whatever, bitch. Now get me my ribs.”
Because Dean can’t see it, Sam takes a moment to grin at his brother.
Then he gets in the car and heads rib-ward. Sentiment is fine, but good ribs are a meal.