He never realized how much he touched his brother until he couldn't anymore.
They were brothers, for crying out loud, that's it. They didn't hug, they didn't hold hands. Sure, they lived practically on top of each other most of the time, but Dean figured they'd be able to avoid bumping into each other coming and going for as long as they needed to.
It wasn't like he needed to touch Sam.
He almost smiled to himself thinking that for once, for freaking once, they had managed to catch a break with one of these things. This was practically a non-issue. It was something they could easily work around for as long as it took Bobby to hunt down the counterspell or the anti-curse, or whatever it was you called it when a grudge-holding witch laid some weird mojo on you for torching her dead grandson.
Never mind that the spirit of said grandson was vengeful with a capital V and had already killed two people.
Dean glanced sidelong at Sam in the passenger's seat of the car, his brother gazing out the window at the passing scenery with his head propped against his hand, and he had a passing urge to reach over and push Sam's hair into his eyes the way he sometimes did just to piss the kid off. But he didn't, of course.
"He's my family," she'd shouted into Dean's face as Sam emptied a canister of lighter fluid over the bones she'd laid out behind her house. "You don't understand! The longing for one of your own, seeing him right before you and unable to reach him. Every day that passes, being unable to touch him!"
The ghost flickered into being behind Sam, its dead eyes locked on Dean and its teeth bared in a snarl as it lunged toward his brother. Dean fired a round of rock salt past the old lady, dispersing the spirit. "Sam?" he called. "How much longer?"
"Got it!" Sam struck a match and cupped a hand around it as it flickered in the wind, trying to coax the reluctant spark into a full flame before he dropped it onto the prepared bones. As he let the match fall, the ghost re-emerged and shoved him to the ground with a violent force that knocked the wind out of him. He caught himself on his hands and knees, scrambling around just in time to see the ghost going up in flames along with its remains.
The old woman let out a sharp cry of grief and turned on Dean. "You should know this pain! Both of you," she hissed him.
Dean looked at her with something akin to sympathy and walked over to Sam who was climbing back to his feet. He held out a hand to help his brother up.
"Go ahead," the witch called out. "Touch him. The next touch from you will be the last thing he feels."
Dean looked at her, then back at his own hand, then at Sam. They both hesitated for a fraction of a second, and then Sam waved him off. "I'm good," he said dismissively, planting his own hands on his knees and straightening.
"Right," Dean said, pulling his hand back uncertainly.
Dean sat next to Sam on the couch with the space of a cushion between them as they recounted the episode to Bobby, but Dean noted that it was really no different from how they would have ordinarily sat. Dean made his fair share of MC Hammer jokes ("You can't touch this, Sam!") and Sam seemed to be trying his hardest to take the matter seriously. Because that was Sam for you.
Bobby suggested that they stay at his place, preferably in separate parts of the house, until he could figure this thing out, but Dean scoffed at the idea of letting such a trivial thing ground them.
"What do you think we're gonna do, Bobby, cuddle? I can keep my hands to myself," he promised.
So they drove on as they always did while they waited to hear from Bobby, and it was fine. Sam's long legs bent too far at the knee nudged against the passenger door instead of angled toward Dean, and Dean asked for the box of tapes under the seat instead of reaching. But it was, as Dean had guessed it would be, no big deal.
"You hungry?" Dean asked eventually.
Sam stretched his legs forward and shook his head. "Not really. But if you want to stop…?"
Dean shrugged. "Let me know if you see anyplace that looks good."
Several more miles of unremarkable Arkansas interstate passed before a bright red and yellow Biggerson's billboard bloomed on the horizon. "Oh, hey!" Dean brought his arm up and caught himself in the middle of an unconscious move to whack Sam in the shoulder. He froze and widened his eyes at Sam.
Sam's face bore the same expression, and then he seemed to force himself to relax with a big breath in through his nose, grinning a bit at how ridiculous this whole thing was. "Yeah, I saw it," he said. "Biggerson's. That works for me."
"How often do I do that?" Dean asked, unnerved, shifting up against the driver's side door to put more space between himself and his brother.
"More often than you probably realize," Sam said wryly. "Look, Dean, we don't even know if you're actually cursed or what. This could all turn out to be a big false alarm."
"Yeah, well. I'm not willing to take the chance."
"I know. I'm just saying… don't freak out, okay? We're fine."
"I'm not freaking out."
"You're a little on edge," Sam admitted.
"Dude, some witch cursed my ass with the touch of death. I'm trying to be considerate here and not smite you with it."
"I appreciate that." Sam laughed. He pointed up ahead. "Here's your exit."
A week went by with no word from Bobby.
Dean stopped counting the number of times he caught himself about to nudge his brother with his elbow or shoulder, hip-check him on the way to the bathroom, slap him on the back, or simply touch his arm to get his attention. It was unsettling, really. He began to keep a careful three feet of space between himself and Sam at all times, like an invisible buffer.
Dean had never felt so conscious of his own skin, aware of every movement and his proximity to Sam. Aware of the empty space between them.
He found himself wanting to talk to Sam all the time just to hear Sam respond.
Sam offered to get a separate room at the motel to avoid the inevitable close calls, but something in Dean wanted his brother where he could keep a literal eye on him. It was as if just knowing that he couldn't put a hand out and feel that Sam was there, warm, alive made him all the more desperate to see him and hear him breathing.
When Bobby finally did call, it was to let Dean know that he was no closer to finding a way to lift the curse. And to suggest that maybe he and Sam should take some time off. Or at least not hunt together for a while.
"No," Dean said, shooting a glance in Sam's direction. "No way."
Sam looked up questioningly from where he was leaning against the headboard of his bed, the glow of his laptop screen casting shadows across the angular features of his face.
Dean gave a quick it's-nothing shake of his head and turned his back, saying into the phone, "Not helping, Bobby. Just call me when you've got something."
Sam tipped the edge of his screen closed and tossed the laptop down next to him. "What was that about?"
Dean shrugged. "Still got jack."
"Okay. So. We'll keep looking."
Sam waited, but Dean didn't go on. He couldn't. The things he wanted to say had never needed to be said before, and he didn't have the vocabulary for it. He felt as though he was missing something that he hadn't even known had a place in their relationship, something that existed so far beneath their awareness of it that it might as well have been written into his DNA. He couldn't even begin to form words around the idea that touch communicated more than a conversation ever could, and that without it he was missing Sam in such a profound way that he felt abandoned and alone.
Sam was his brother. He didn't need to touch his brother.
Except that he very much did.
Dean sat down on the edge of the bed across from Sam and clasped his hands together because he wanted so badly to reach out and put a hand on Sam's knee, just to feel the solid connection of muscle and bone and Sam there. The urge built inside of him until he could almost feel it vibrating like a high-pitched keening wall of sound. He squeezed his fingers into a hard knot, focusing all his attention on the bloodless creases along his knuckles.
When he looked over at Sam, he saw Sam's hand on the edge of the bed clenched into a fist, too.
He stood up quickly, picked up his jacket and keys, and left.
He stopped when he felt enough distance that he could almost take a full breath again, pulling in at a gas station a few miles away, and called Sam.
"I'm a ticking time bomb," he said flatly.
"Dean," Sam said. "Come back. I'll get a second room. We'll be careful. It's no big deal."
"That's not a fix. Look, we don't even know if there's a cure for this. Whatever it is. This could be permanent. I can't be the thing that kills you, Sam. I can't wait around until the day I screw up and I have to watch you die."
Again. He didn't say, again.
There was silence on the other line.
"How much longer, Dean?"
"Until Bobby can—"
"No." The line went quiet again. "Until your deal's up. How much time do I have left with you?"
Dean didn't answer.
"Five months, two weeks and a handful of days, Dean. That's how much time."
"Don't you dare take that little that I have left away from me. We'll figure this out. We'll find the cure, or we won't, okay? But I can't… Just come back."
He hung up and drove the stretch of road back to their motel, opened the door to find Sam hunched over his laptop again. His brother glanced up and smiled as if there hadn't been raw pleading in his voice a moment ago, as if nothing had happened. As if Dean should have been able to walk past and punch him in the shoulder or squeeze the back of his neck. The enormity of what they had taken for granted for so long made Dean's chest ache.
But Sam smiled at him from across the vast, unreachable void and gestured at his screen. "I found us a job," he said. "An easy one. It'll be a good distraction."
"I don't think—" he started to say, and then thought better of it. Because Sam had done that for him, found a job. A distraction. And it was an infinitely better idea than waiting this out by just looking for new and different ways to avoid each other.
Instead, he edged as close to Sam as he dared and said, "Show me."
He had taken to watching Sam sleep.
It was creepy, he knew that. At least some part of him knew it. But there wasn't enough Sam in his days anymore and the need for it bled out into the long, quiet spaces that stretched out after Sam announced he was calling it a night and noisily flopped onto his side, one arm flung out over the edge of the bed.
It was like living with the two-dimensional idea of someone. A hologram.
He stood next to Sam's bed and let his hand hover inches from his brother's sleeping face, letting himself feel the tickle of the soft exhale of breath against his skin just for a moment before he stepped back, afraid that it was too close, too dangerous to be so close.
He touched the place on his hand where Sam's breath had been.
Then he went into the bathroom and closed the door with a quiet click and leaned against the sink.
"Okay," he said to his reflection as if it would do any good. "I get it, all right?"
"What do we know?" Dean asked, prompting Sam for more information about the hunt.
They had driven through three counties just after breakfast, each less populated than the last, to get to the town where the unusual deaths had occurred.
"Not a lot. It's obviously something with claws," Sam supplied. "Three people mauled on the outskirts of town."
"Coroner reports didn't say," Sam said. "But we're midway through a lunar cycle, so yeah. Most likely."
"Awesome," Dean said. "I'll take ten werewolves over a single goddamn witch."
Sam snorted a laugh. And the small prickle of warmth it brought up in Dean faded fast, leaving behind an ocean of ice because it wasn't enough, not even close.
Bobby called in the middle of an interview with one of the victim's neighbors, and Dean quickly excused himself, leaving Sam to ask about strange behaviors and disappearances.
"Bobby, tell me you found something," Dean said.
"Here's the problem," the older hunter said, cutting right to it. "There are any number of ways to remove a curse from a target, even if that target is a person, but I can't find anything this specific. And I'm guessing that with Sam's life on the line you don't want to chance it on an all-purpose cure-all."
"Wouldn't be my first choice, no. What kind of odds are we talking about?"
"I'd give it about fifty-fify."
"Those are shit, Bobby. You might as well ask me to put a gun to his head."
"That's why I'm still looking. But Dean…" He hesitated. "You might want to consider the possibility that that's the best we can do."
"Good enough, I know." Bobby sighed. "Call you if I get anything else."
Dean started to hang up, but then blurted out, "Bobby, wait. Can you just give me the all-purpose thing anyway? I'll do that in the meantime. Like insurance or something."
"It's simple enough. It's just salt water."
"I'll send you the words to the ritual, but yeah. Basically. Take a good long soak in the stuff. Hope you don't have any open sores."
"You're hilarious. Thanks."
In the end, Dean felt like he spent more time rinsing salt out of his hair under the shower than he had pouring salt into the bath and trying to "purge his mind of harmful thoughts," or whatever shit Bobby had told him to do while he said the words of the purification spell.
He tried, okay?
He didn't do magic. He did silver bullets and salt rounds and sure things. But he did his best.
In the end, he even didn't bother to tell Sam about it. Because "might" didn't feel like something he could pin any sort of hope on, and Sam deserved better than that.
The night of the hunt was cold, and he felt the air press around him where Sam's back should have been against his. Dean stood against the trunk of a tree and held himself still and upright, camouflaged by the shadow it cast.
Something rustled the underbrush to Dean's left, and he glanced at Sam, raising a hand as a signal: wait.
And then it bolted directly toward them.
Dean cursed and lost his aim, firing anyway but knowing the shot was off before it even left the chamber. He felt something rush past him with a snarl and a flash of fur as it darted through the trees further into the forest. Sam took off after it at a dead sprint, and Dean followed a short distance behind.
He lost sight of Sam quickly, his flashlight dodging along the dense growth of trees leaves, all painted a dull, uniformly washed-out gray.
"Sam!" he called out.
He heard his brother's gun go off, followed by an immediate sharp, wounded whine that pierced the still night air. "Sammy!" he called again, breaking into a run in the direction of the sound.
Then he heard something scraping the ground, a loud crack, and a yell that sounded like Sam's. And then, "Dean!"
He ran, calling Sam's name, and then suddenly pulled up short and scrambled backwards as the ground abruptly fell away, his stomach doing flips as he realized he'd nearly run over the edge of a steep and sudden drop-off. He heard a desperate, terrified sound coming from several feet below. Shit.
"Dean, here," Sam choked out.
"Sam," he said, going down to his knees and shining the flashlight down to where Sam was clinging to bare rock with both hands. "Can you climb?"
Sam made that sound again, shifting his hands and struggling for a better grip. "My leg," he said tonelessly, looking up at Dean through the gleam of the flashlight, and his eyes shone with the terrible knowledge that he couldn't, he couldn't make it back up on his own and he couldn't accept the help he needed from Dean to get him there.
"There's got to be a branch I can use," Dean assured him. "Something to reach down. Hang on."
Dean could see his arms and hands shaking with the effort of holding himself up, fingers wedged against the small, jagged outcroppings. He took the light off Sam, shining it frantically over the forest floor, then over low-hanging branches, looking for anything strong enough to bear Sam's weight. There was nothing, and every few moments Sam would let out another strangled cry that sounded like force of will itself, like he was losing his last bit of resolve.
There was no time and Dean couldn't think, all he could do was act.
He dropped to his stomach on the ground and hesitated only a fraction of a second before making the decision to reach for his brother.
Sam's grip slipped again, and Dean saw resolve harden in Sam's face.
"Don't," Dean pleaded when he realized what that look meant. "No, don't you do it, Sam. Don't you dare let go."
"Not gonna—do that to you. You can't—"
"Take my hand, Sam. It's a fifty-fifty shot. Better odds than we usually get."
Sam frowned. "What?"
"Trust me, okay?"
Sam looked at him searchingly. Then, with a look of abject resignation, he reached back, and Dean clasped his hand around Sam's wrist, the solid feel of contact traveling like a live wire through Dean's entire being.
Sam's eyes stayed locked with his. Alive. Alive.
Thank God, thank God, thank God. Emotions he couldn't even begin to describe flooded through Dean as he reached with his other hand, grabbing Sam's other arm as well and hauling him up over the ledge of the cliff.
Sam gasped in relief as he found purchase with his upper body and leaned forward, dragging himself the rest of the way with Dean's help and struggling to orient himself around a leg that was clearly broken.
Dean clutched Sam's jacket and pulled his brother into a fierce embrace that Sam returned. His hand clasped the back of Sam's neck, his fingers seizing his hair, and he couldn't let go. Sam was crying he realized disjointedly, not bothering to register the fact that he was, too, as he clung to his brother as if his life depended on it.
As if Sam's life no longer did.
"I'm sorry," he muttered at last, pulling away but not giving up the grip he had on Sam's coat. "There was a—a spell, it was only fifty-fifty that it would work and I didn't want to trust it. Should have told you."
Sam shook his head, holding on to both of Dean's arms. "Wouldn't have mattered," he said. "It still would have been your call."
"I could have killed you."
"Dean…" Sam put a hand on his brother's shoulder and gave it a firm shake. "But you didn't. Everything's okay." He bent over again, drawing in a breath and trying not to look like he was doubling over in pain. "Mostly," he added through his teeth.
"Right, come on." Dean grinned as he helped his brother to his feet, despite knowing that an uneven hike back through the dark woods would be a special exercise in agony for anyone with a broken leg. They'd get through it. He'd carry Sam if he had to.
Because he could, dammit.