It's not the first time Sam's run hard into this, and he knows the rules. He knows them so well he thinks they're probably etched into his bones somewhere, that when he's dead it'll go into the grave or burn away to ashes right along with him.
They just-- They don't, that's all. It's like some kind of Geneva Convention rule. He and Dean, they just don't.
It's okay with other people. Even with Dad it was okay. Four years, and Sam can still remember what it felt like to hug his dad after all that time, how tight Dad had held on, and that he'd waited for Sam to let go first. These last couple of months, he's hung on to that memory harder than just about anything. It hurts just like everything else does, but it's something.
Dad was always like that. Curt, tough on them sometimes, but neither Sam nor Dean ever wanted for physical affection from their dad. He'd ruffle your hair, lay a strong hand on your shoulder, give hugs and pats and good night kisses when they were little, gentle cuffs when they were older, like a bear with two rambunctious cubs. It wasn't Dad who made this rule. This is about Sam and Dean, and lines they can't cross, and Sam knows all too well that this much hasn't changed. It's been this way since that summer in Wisconsin when Sam was fifteen. They don't talk about it. They've never talked about it. And now he's watching his brother cry and it's killing him and he wishes to God he could forget, just this once, that he and Dean might practically live inside each other's skin sometimes, but there are limits to that and they're sacrosanct, unbreachable.
"Dean," he whispers, harsh, because it's all he has.
Dean gives a little shake of his head, and he won't look at Sam. He's still trying to hold himself together, still fighting it, and Sam thinks maybe it hurts more to watch this than it did to watch his dad's body burn. His hands rest helpless and open on his thighs and his stomach is tied in knots and he can't move, can barely breathe for fighting the overwhelming instinct to reach out. He feels so helpless and inadequate he wants to break something, but he can't, he can't screw this up, no matter what it costs him. He only gets one chance with this, and he knows it.
It's not the first time he's wanted to break the rules. More times than he can count since Stanford, he's wanted to. When he'd wake up scared and shaking every night those first few months, sometimes he couldn't move because he didn't trust himself not to just get up and crawl into Dean's bed and slip in under his guard before he was really awake just like when he was little, when he could still fit easily in his brother's arms. When Dean woke up in that hospital, Sam had been so happy to see him open his eyes he thought his heart might just jump right out of his chest, and only the sudden rush of nurses and doctors had stopped him from crossing all their careful lines with a vengeance. All those weeks at Bobby's, when Dean didn't remember any of it, he'd felt like Dean's silence and the space he kept between them might make him lose his mind. But now...
"Dean," he says again, soft and uncertain, one breath from begging him let me, please let me, when he knows damn well that Dean's right, that there's nothing he can say or do to make this better. The only thing he has is the ugly truth of what he really knows about Dad's death, and if it was up to me to choose, I'd choose you every time, and Dean can't hear that. Words can't fix it, and the rules are the rules, and Sam starts to reach out anyway, knowing even as he does it that it's a mistake, that there's no way Dean will let him--
A sound escapes Dean, an unmistakable, breath-soft sob, and he's still not looking at Sam, face turned blindly into the afternoon sun as it sinks toward the pine ridge to the west. He wipes impatiently at his face and pushes himself away from the car, taking two steps away; his breath hitches and he uses the back of his hand to wipe his nose. "It's okay, Sam," he says, voice rough as the sharp rocks they're standing on. "I'm okay."
Sam sees himself in a flash as he moves, crosses the space between them in one long stride. Shut up, Dean, just shut up, you don't have to, he says, and he grabs Dean and turns him and holds on for all he's worth. He feels Dean stiff and resisting and too still against him for one long second before Dean yanks himself out of Sam's arms and stumbles backwards, betrayal twisting in his face--
Sam hasn't moved, of course. He's still leaning against the car like before, watching Dean haul the pieces of himself together with nothing but sheer will. Sam's chest aches like he's been swimming under water for hours. "Look, man," he grates out. "You don't--"
Dean turns around then, and his face is raw and open but there's iron underneath, some hint of the old Dean that's still holding the line, still unwilling to give even an inch when it comes to the thing they don't talk about, that they'll never talk about. "Don't," he says, and it sounds like it's splintered glass in his throat. And then something threatens to give way again, and Sam thinks God and Dean's not ordering him this time, he's asking. "Just-- can we not talk any more for a while? Please? Can we just--"
"Whatever you want," Sam says instantly, everything inside him aching. "Anything you want."
Dean lets out a breath. He looks like he doesn't know what to do with his hands, with himself, and that's so out of character it shifts the axis of Sam's world a little off-balance. "So we're okay?" Dean says.
It takes Sam a second to realize Dean thinks he still needs to be forgiven. "Dean--" His breath catches, a disbelieving laugh. "Yeah. We're okay. I just--" He shakes his head and makes a helpless, abortive gesture. "You were scaring me, that's all."
Dean's face twists in a painful half-laugh. "Makes two of us." He can't hold on to the expression though, and his eyes falter, bleak and awful to look at. "Maybe you're right to be scared." I don't know how to do this is written all over him, and that, Sam can't bear. He pushes himself away from the car, closing the distance.
"Dean. I meant what I said -- you don't have to do this alone. I'm right here." Dean looks up and something painful leaps in his eyes, and Sam responds to it without thought. "We're gonna make it through this, all right? You and me." He can't fix it, but this much he can do. "You with me?"
For a second, he's afraid he's pushed too hard after all. But Dean's eyes shine bright in the sun before he just nods tightly and looks away, and what Sam sees there is a little better than the terrible despair of a few moments before. Not much better, but a little.
"Yeah, I'm with you, Sammy."
The wind stirs Sam's hair from his forehead and he takes a breath. It hurts. Dean's alive and all Sam can think about is what it felt like to see him hooked up to the machines and how terrified he was when Dean's heart stopped and the doctors were working on him, and Sam had been so sure that the so-called miracle he'd bought for Dean months before wasn't good enough, that his heart was still vulnerable, still damaged somehow, and this would be the payment come due.
Dean comes toward him then. He leans his weight against Sam's shoulder for just a second in passing, and Sam puts his hands in his pockets, not trusting himself. "Come on," Dean says, and he's already moving away. "Let's go get that hand looked at."
It hurts Sam like a fist to the heart to let him walk past without touching him. But there are rules, and he's betrayed Dean in too many ways to count already -- ways he can barely face himself and hopes Dean never has to know.
Sam makes himself get in the car. He makes himself look straight ahead as Dean pulls back onto the highway, and he lets the two feet of leather bench seat between them stand empty, not thinking about how easy it would be to cross such a small space.
Dean's carrying enough for the both of them. He knows that, and it's why this one thing Dean's asked of him, he'll give, and go on doing it even if it kills him.