It takes a while for Dean to pick up on it. In his defence, it's not something he's used to thinking about where Sam's concerned. They haven't been what anyone would call 'close' for years, and they were never all that touchy-feely to start with. They will—and have—give their lives and souls for each other in a heartbeat, but they're just not the huggy type.
There are certain circumstances where that restriction doesn't apply, such as when one of them has recently returned from the dead (which happens far too often in Dean's opinion). When Sam reappears one day as if by magic, lurking really obviously under the streetlight across from Lisa's house, there's maybe a five-second delay between Dean spotting him and gathering him up in a rib-crushing hold. Sam clings to him, gripping handfuls of Dean's shirt at his back, tucking his face into Dean's neck and pressing so close it's like he's trying to melt right into Dean's skin, but Dean is pretty much doing the same thing so it doesn't really register that there's anything wrong. Once he's reassured himself that Sam is alive, human, and set to stay that way permanently he goes back to their usual mode of behaviour, believing things can get back to normal again.
He says goodbye to Lisa and Ben and takes Sam back out on the road. It's like the weight of the entire world has been lifted from his shoulders. He likes her and the kid just fine, and he'll always be grateful for how they took him in, but this is where he belongs: behind the wheel of his baby on the open highway, Sam lounging in shotgun and squabbling over the radio. It's like they're back at square one but with all the bitterness and anger and bullshit left far behind them. They dance around each other verbally for a while, but as the first weeks pass and things stay on an even keel, Dean feels the tension between them decrease.
Mostly, anyway. Something's different about Sam since he came back, something in the way he looks at Dean when he thinks Dean isn't paying attention, and it makes his protective hackles go up. It's not sinister or calculating or anything he might reasonably have expected from a fresh-from-hell little brother whose last job was playing host to Lucifer; it's a kind of longing, if anything, although that description isn't exactly a comfortable one. Dean isn't the type of guy people long for, especially not Sam. He thinks he should be the one doing all the pining, if he were that type of guy. Which he isn't. At all. And he's really not comfortable with that line of thought, so he brushes it off whenever he catches Sam with that quietly despairing look on his face, figuring Sam will tell him if it's important.
Which just goes to prove how often the Winchesters don't learn from their own goddamn history, really.
Sam never says a word about whatever his problem is, because he's a stubborn bastard who thinks he can deal with everything on his own (not that this mindset is familiar to Dean, no sir). This is how things get to the point where Dean comes back from hustling pool one night to find Sam asleep at ten-thirty, curled around his pillow like it's a person, hands clenched in the slip and the most heartbreaking expression of misery he's ever seen. In thirty-two years of sharing beds and motel rooms Dean has never seen his brother look like this, not even after losing Jess. It brings home like nothing else the hard fact that Sam is suffering, and he either can't or won't talk about it, and it's up to Dean to figure out the fix.
It doesn't take all that long. Sam is easy to read when Dean stops avoiding the issue—half of the issue itself being his own hangup to start with. In the end it's pretty simple: Sam is starved for touch. He watches people on the street and when they go out to get dinner or breakfast, quick sideways glances at joined hands and kisses of greeting, stares at couples and groups draped all over each other in parks and on university lawns. Dean feigns obliviousness, but he notes how every time Sam's gaze will come straight back to him, and his face will take on the wistful edge that twists his gut into knots. Something clearly happened to Sam in the pit—maybe torture, maybe something else—and whatever it is, it's left Sam distrustful of everyone but Dean and yet increasingly desperate for physical contact.
Dean is self-aware enough to admit he doesn't want to just throw a hooker in Sam's lap and tip her for a full body massage. That wouldn't work, and he doubts he'd be able to leave the room anyway. Sam isn't the only one with trust issues anymore. And if he's brutally honest (which is a highly undesirable state of mind), Dean doesn't want Sam getting what he needs from anyone else. Looking after Sam has always been his job, even if he's fucked it up more than once, and he will see it through until there's literally nothing left of him to survive.
This decision leaves him floundering a bit, because seriously, he and Sam are really not that into showing their brotherly love. There's the odd clap on the shoulder or, when Sam was younger (and shorter, damn it), ruffling the mop of tangles he calls hair. They jab and poke and flick things at each other just to be annoying, and play the sibling version of footsie under the table occasionally—otherwise known as 'do your best to stomp your brother's toes to pieces'—but that's it. Physical displays of affection for Sam are foreign to him unless a lot of pain or death is involved. Dean doesn't think another near-death (or actual death) experience is what's called for in this situation.
He's just gonna have to man up and hug his brother. A lot.
There are pitfalls. Oh man, are there ever. Because once he starts to think about it he can't stop, and he can't pretend the idea of keeping Sam within arm's reach at all times isn't appealing. More than appealing: it's necessary, a requirement for his continued peace of mind. Dean could have gone the rest of his life happily denying this fact about himself, but now it's out there in the forefront of his mind and he's gonna have to indulge it for Sam's sake, and the worst part is he doesn't feel the slightest bit guilty. It feels wrong to be plotting ways to cuddle his brother, for crying out loud, and he doesn't even have the decency to be ashamed of himself.
On the other hand, Sam fucked a demon, so whatever. Dean is totally winning the 'shameful activities' contest so far.
Beneath his ongoing inner monologue Dean recognises that he's trying to make light of the situation, but frankly, Sam's angst is going to be quite enough for both of them to handle. He's too busy figuring out his plan of attack to worry about anything else. He's gonna start small: a hand on the back of Sam's neck in the car, pats to the chest, that kind of thing. The trick is to ease them both into it without Sam realising that Dean's onto him, because talking about it is the absolute last thing Dean wants to do. If he gets his way, they'll be spooning naked in the same bed by the end of the month and Sam won't say a word.
That thought draws him up short because wow, way to get detailed and uh, intimate. Dean blinks at himself in the mirror, razor halfway to his face. Sam is packing up their stuff in the outer room; Dean can see him passing back and forth in the open doorway behind him. He tries to picture it: both of them stripped to the skin, legs tangled and bodies pressed close, his face tucked into the back of Sam's neck and his arm slung over Sam's waist. It's something of a shock to realise he wants that, wants Sam right up close where he can see anything that might threaten him, wants to feel his brother's warm living flesh and put his hands all over him. Dean meets his eyes in the mirror, sees his open mouth and the flush on his cheeks that is definitely not from the tepid shower, and mentally readjusts his plan.
The first day goes spectacularly well. He puts a hand on Sam's back when they're loading up the trunk and ignores Sam's start of surprise, drumming his fingers in a quick rat-a-tat-tat before he moves around to the driver's side. That single simple touch is apparently enough to get Sam off-balance for the rest of the morning, if the dazed look in his eyes is any indication. Dean does it again when they stop for lunch, crowding next to Sam's shoulder with a hand on his waist while he smiles cheerfully at their waitress, ignoring her raised eyebrows. He briefly debates sitting next to Sam in the booth instead of opposite, but decides that might be too much too soon. Besides, this way he can get one of Sam's feet between his own and trap it there, their legs more or less entwined, and watch the look on Sam's face change when he realises it's not a prelude to war.
It's pretty awesome to see how much Sam gets out of such a simple thing. Dean is an ass for not doing something about it sooner, but he's determined to make up for lost time as quick as he can. He keeps up the touching throughout their lunch, tapping Sam's wrist to point at the menu, squeezing his shoulder when he gets up to use the rest room. When he comes back he bypasses the oh-so-available waitress lingering at the counter and runs his fingers through Sam's hair before he sits down. He feels Sam's momentary shudder, the way he pushes into the touch, and decides they'll be doing a lot more of that from now on. He raises his eyebrow curiously when Sam stares at him, and mentally high-fives himself when Sam subsides with a confused shake of his head.
The afternoon drive is another opportunity. Sam likes to doze after lunch if he's not driving; he sprawls out in the passenger seat and wads up a shirt or hoodie to use as a pillow against the door. Dean knows from long experience it's not that comfortable, but it does the job if he's tired enough. When Sam yawns and looks over into the back seat for something to cushion his head, Dean takes a deep breath and puts his hand on Sam's neck, pulling him closer.
"There's nothing back there," he says as offhandedly as he can (and truthfully, because he got rid of anything that might be used as a pillow while Sam was getting the check). "Just—here," and he angles his thigh and tugs Sam down toward it. Wonder of wonders, Sam actually goes without a fight, his head resting near Dean's hip and the length of his body spread across three-quarters of the front seat. Dean concentrates on the road and trying to appear unconcerned with this departure from the norm just in case Sam is watching him. After a few minutes he hears a quiet sigh and chances a look, and can't help smiling at the relaxation evident in Sam's face. He bides his time, drives another twenty miles, and then drops his right hand onto the juncture of Sam's neck and shoulder, fingers buried in his hair. Sam murmurs in his sleep and pushes closer, and Dean has to suppress the urge to pull over and get Sam in a full-body hug right the fuck now.
He's thankful for the long straight stretch of highway they're travelling, because it means he can keep touching Sam uninterrupted for the next couple of hours. Sam sleeps hard despite the awkward position, and doesn't wake until Dean slows down to take their exit off the interstate.
"...timezit?" he slurs, rubbing a hand across his face like a kid. Dean looks past his hands, both of them demurely on the wheel at ten and two, clearing his throat.
"Coming up to four-thirty," he replies. "That was quite the nap there, Grandpa."
"Shut up," Sam says by rote, spoiling it with a yawn. "I want coffee."
"Sure." Dean grins at him. "You want a pony with that, princess?"
"Bite me, jerk," Sam throws back without pause, but he's grinning back like he can't help it. "I want pie, too."
"Anything else I can get for you? A tiara, perhaps?"
"Do you want me to come over there and break your face?" Sam says, clearly exasperated, but Dean forgets to respond because yeah, he kind of does want Sam over here. Settled in close, like they're on a date in some backwater town where nobody knows the speed limits and seatbelts are still a thing of the future.
He clears his throat again and searches for a distraction, relieved to see a Starbucks sign up ahead. "There you go, Sammy," he says. "One grande raspberry vanilla latte with chocolate sprinkles coming right up."
"I'm gonna murder you in your sleep one night and they'll never find the body," Sam tells him, but his arm is slung over the back of the seat and his hand is brushing Dean's collar, and that's so encouraging Dean forgets to pretend annoyance and just grins wider.
Things go on like that for a few days. Dean gradually amps up the level of touching to include more private incidences: sprawling on Sam's bed instead of keeping to his own when they watch TV, mock-tussling with him for the remote and more often than not letting Sam win. He sees the way Sam keeps lighting up when it happens, looking a little less careworn every time, his smiles coming quicker and staying longer. If he also notices his own fast-growing attachment to having his hands on Sam, well—that's the general idea, after all, and he's not going to wuss out just because he likes it. He's not quite that fucked up. So he keeps up the casual petting and gives himself bonus points every time Sam falls asleep on his shoulder or leans against him in a 7-11, and starts thinking about the next level.
That comes sooner than he'd anticipated. They end up falling asleep together one night in the middle of a Halloween marathon, Dean propped up against the pillows and Sam's head somewhere near his hip. They weren't touching when they drifted off, but when Dean wakes in pre-dawn darkness he find himself flat out on the mattress with Sam blanketing his entire left side, arm and leg flung over him as if to keep him from running away. He's a heavy, furnace-hot weight pinning Dean down, and it feels fucking awesome. He's not awake enough to think about it; he just tightens his grip on Sam's neck and waist and goes back to sleep.
In the morning Sam is already up and dressed by the time he wakes. He smiles and hands Dean a cup of coffee as big as his head, but he doesn't say anything about the night before. For the first time, Dean kind of wants him to, and that's enough to get him up and moving before he has to actually admit he might want to talk about what's going on between them.
"What's the plan?" he says, when there's enough caffeine in his system. "Wait, wait, don't say it, let me guess—"
"—Library," Sam says with him. A tiny smirk curves the corners of his mouth. "Don't worry, we'll keep it short. Don't want you breaking out in hives or anything."
"Don't do me any favours, Sammy," Dean shoots back. He takes another swallow of coffee and stands up. "Okay. Shower, food, research, more food, beer, more research—here," he amends, "because I am not spending the entire day in a building with that much dust in it. Then something mindless and gory for us to mock on TV before bed. Tomorrow we get up and kill something evil and probably gross, save the town, do a bunch of laundry and then, brother mine, it is Miller Time." He claps his hands together in satisfaction and then spreads his arms wide. "Is that a great plan or is that a great plan?"
Sam doesn't answer him. He's got that look on his face again, the one Dean thought was gone for good, and it's a dozen times more painful to see now. There's about seven feet of space between them, but it might as well be the entire country for Sam. That's what it looks like, anyway—like everything he wants is right in front of him and totally out of reach. He's staring at Dean and his need is almost palpable, and Dean seriously cannot take another second of this.
He lowers his arms a little, but keeps them wide open so it's less of a victory sign and more of an invitation. The impact hits Sam a few seconds later, the shock wiping everything else off his face, eyes wide and confused. He seems rooted to the spot, unable or unwilling to make a move, so Dean does what he always does and looks out for his brother. He takes a step forward into the centre of the room.
"Hey, Sammy," he says, gentle as he can. "C'mere."
Sam is crashing into him almost before he's finished speaking. He's practically shaking in Dean's arms, trying to control it and failing badly, hiding his face in Dean's neck instead. Dean hauls him in close and strokes him from head to ass, mindlessly whispering, 'shh' and 'heyheyhey' and 'it's okay, everything's okay' until Sam calms down some. He walks them backward to the bed, falling down onto it and rolling them so he's on top, hovering over Sam.
"God, Dean," Sam groans, pulling at him, "can you just, sorry, I need it, I need—"
"Shh," Dean says again. He rests his weight on his elbows and sinks down until they're touching solidly everywhere between knees and chest, then presses down a little harder. He gets his hands back in Sam's hair and strokes it, tugs a little, winds it around his fingers. "It's okay, Sam, don't worry, not going anywhere." That's nothing but the truth; he's not sure he ever wants to move again. "Just tell me what you want."
"Can we," Sam begins, stutters, flushes and tries again. "Um, skin. Please, I—could you?" He's gripping Dean's t-shirt in one hand, and he yanks it upward a little in explanation. Dean grins and sits up on his knees, stripping it off with a little flourish. He grabs a handful of Sam's shirts and pulls him upright, twisting the cotton.
"You too," he says. "Yeah?" He slides his other hand underneath and over Sam's naked belly, up his chest to tap lightly over his heart. Sam shudders again and heaves his upper layers over his head, getting his hands on Dean's hips and shifting him closer by main force.
"Oh, Jesus," Sam breathes when they come into contact. "Dean." His arms wind tight around Dean's back, keeping him in place. Dean shoves his arms under Sam's and returns the favour, letting his head rest on Sam's shoulder and stroking as much naked skin as he can reach.
They stay like that for a while, long enough for Dean's legs to go to sleep. He doesn't suggest they move; if this is what Sam needs, then he'll stay here until his legs fall off altogether. He just keeps touching Sam, learning him by feel, deliberately not thinking about how much he's loving every second of this.
"I should tell you," Sam says finally, voice muffled in Dean's skin. "Why I—what's going on. In my head. I mean, well." He shrugs and laughs a little. "Not exactly normal brotherly behaviour, is it?"
"Screw normal," Dean says with a snort. "You don't have to say anything if you don't wanna, Sam. It doesn't matter." He turns his head, drops a thoughtless kiss on Sam's shoulder. "Like I said, I'm not gonna leave you."
"He wouldn't let me touch," Sam blurts out. "Not anyone. The whole time I was down there, I never even got close enough to breathe on anyone else." His arms tighten around Dean to the point of pain, then he relaxes. "Sometimes he took my sense of touch away altogether, so I couldn't even touch myself."
Sam was in hell for six months—sixty years, to him. Sixty years, almost a lifetime, with no physical contact whatsoever. And knowing Lucifer, plenty of torture in the form of Sam's loved ones appearing just out of reach, begging for it.
Dean almost wishes Lucifer were still free, so he could trap the bastard all over again.
He pushes Sam away a little, enough to see his face and get his hands on Sam's chest. Sweat is gleaming faintly on his skin, a slow flush working its way up from his throat, and he won't meet Dean's eyes. Dean leans in and kisses his forehead, hands gently circling Sam's throat, then sliding down to his waist and back up to his shoulders.
"Turn over," he says, wriggling back to give Sam some room. "I wanna try something."
Sam's gaze darts to him, wide-eyed, but he turns over onto his stomach obediently. Dean pushes him flat and drapes himself over Sam's back, worming his hands underneath to cover as much of his chest as he can. His legs are spread wide, bracketing Sam's; he presses another kiss to Sam's vulnerable nape and hooks his chin over one muscled shoulder, nuzzling under his ear.
"Okay?" he asks.
Sam's reply is lost in the sheets, but he makes out the words, 'ohfuck' and 'perfect', and that's more than enough.
They'll stay like that for a while, until Dean's stomach starts demanding breakfast. Sam will laugh and roll to his side, tipping Dean off his back, then he'll keep rolling until they're face to face, Sam's hands holding Dean's to his chest. Dean will dig his fingernails in with a smirk; Sam will start and let him go to swat at his head, and they'll wrestle for a minute or two to try and regain their equilibrium. When that's over they'll still be tangled together, comfortable with it now, until Dean demands bacon. They'll walk shoulder to shoulder into the diner and sit on the same side of the booth, Sam's hand on Dean's thigh under the table, stealing food from each others' plates and bickering like they always do.
When night falls and their self-appointed round of food, research, food, beer and more research is done—with the appropriate level of complaint from Dean, and an equal amount of mockery from Sam—they'll share the bed on purpose this time, Dean generously allowing Sam to be the big spoon. At about nine-forty-five, when the heroine on TV is in the gravest mortal danger, Sam will tip Dean's head back and kiss him, and Dean will give himself a million bonus points times infinity, forever.
He totally deserves them. His plan was genius, after all.