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For the Dead Keep Naught

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The night is clear and there's a last hint of spring in the crisp wind that blows through the parking lot. It's a welcome contrast to the smoky heat of the bar behind him and he tips his head back to stare at the sky, distracting himself by trying to remember the names of the constellations.

There's a blast of noise; loud music and raucous laughter spill out as the door to the bar opens. The sound is cut off suddenly as the door slams shut again. Sam doesn't turn to look, keeping his eyes on the stars and pretending that he isn't listening to the footsteps coming closer, pretending that he isn't listening for the fading limp that Dean's trying to pretend he doesn't have. It's a bitter pill, realising that they're still pretending with each other; that they still won't or can't be honest, even now.

"Sam?" Dean's voice is a mix of annoyance and concern and just a touch of impatience.

It's clearly a question, but Sam doesn't think that either of them would like any of the answers he might give, so he says nothing, just stays where he is, slouched against the Impala.

"Sam?" Less concern and more annoyance now. Sam just knows that this conversation isn't going to end well, but he can't make himself speak, because he honestly doesn't know what he's going to say and he might be pissed at Dean, at the girls fawning over him in the bar, at the job, at life in general, but he's not pissed enough to risk making things even worse than they are already.

"Damnit, what the hell is wrong? One minute you're fine and then next you're storming out the door."

"I just needed some air." It's such an obvious, stupid lie and Sam is caught between hoping that Dean'll just accept it for the brush off it is, and wanting his brother to push, to make Sam spill all the words that are hovering on the tip of his tongue.

"Right. You wanna cut the bullshit and try the truth this time?"

Sam shrugs, hating himself for being too scared to say anything, hating himself even more for feeling this way. Hating most of all that Dean doesn't get why Sam's angry.

"Gods sake Sam. I am not standing in a cold parking lot when there is beer getting warm in that bar just because you've got your panties in a bunch over something. Either tell me what the hell's wrong, or I swear, I'm gonna go back inside and you can star gaze out here on your own."

"You can always get that little blonde to warm you up." The words are out before Sam can catch them and Jesus, he really does sound like the jealous bitch that Dean's accused him of being in the past.

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" It gives Sam a perverse sense of pleasure to hear the faint thread of hurt under the anger in Dean's voice. Gives him some hope that Dean feels as strongly about this; about them, as Sam does.

"You don't want to stay out here, fine. Go back inside. I'm sure Cindy'll be more than happy to keep you warm tonight." He doesn't even recognise himself now, spite twisting his voice into something harsh and bitter.

Dean barks a laugh, then stops. Sam hears him take a couple of steps closer; the crunch of old glass under his boots and the slightest falter in his step.

"What the hell? You're jealous?"

Sam's fists clench in the pockets of his jacket and he has to resist the urge to throw a punch, because Dean makes it sound even more stupid than it is.

"Come on Sam. It's just a bit of flirting. You know, having fun, living a little. You know I'm not going home with her." The certainty in Dean's voice drains all the anger from Sam and leaves only the hurt. He knows. But that doesn't mean it stings any less.

He tips his head forward, the sudden change in position making his vision waiver a little, before clearing. Dean's standing nearly within touching distance, watching him.

"I know. It's just, it's frustrating, OK? I can't touch you in public and they're practically hanging off you. And we've not... I mean... since you got hurt. It's been hard, not being able to do as much as I'd like to. With you."

"Jesus. I don't think this is the place for that conversation." Dean looks around, as if someone might over hear them, even though the parking lot is empty, no-one here even knows that they're brothers and this isn't the sort of bar where they'd be risking a fight just for being seen as a couple.

"What? There's no-one here, Dean. No-one cares."

"I care."

"No, you just don't want to have this conversation at all. God forbid you should risk blowing that macho image and actually talk to me."

Dean flinches a little and his eyes flick towards the bar. "If you don't want to go back to the bar, let's just go back to the motel. We can pick up some beer on the way, OK?"

Sam wants to tell him it's not OK. It's not OK that just over six weeks ago they somehow slid from being brothers to being lovers in the course of one terrifying, wonderful night. It's not OK that Dean got hurt in a hunt the next day. It's definitely not OK that between pain, painkillers, and Sam's fear of hurting Dean, they've barely been able to do more than a few clumsy handjobs that Sam's sure haven't really satisfied either of them. He hates that the loss of something he'd barely tasted has left him feeling so uncertain.

He wants to blame Dean; for getting hurt, for not being able to give Sam the reassurance he wants, for acting like nothing has changed, for flirting with the girls in the bar instead of with Sam. He can't though, without blaming himself just as much.

He should have been more alert, should have stopped Dean getting his thigh ripped half open and nearly bleeding out on the backseat of the Impala before Sam could get him to the hospital. If he's honest, his own guilt and fear have kept him from looking for anything physical from Dean. He's been waiting for Dean to show him when he's ready.

If Sam's honest he's known all along that he was always going to have to be the one to take the first steps in their new relationship. He made the first move the night they kissed for the first time and he'll need to make the first moves again before they can get back to where they were before Dean's accident. And yet, he hasn't pushed, hasn't tried to take things further. And he knows that at least part of his reaction tonight is frustration with himself as much as with Dean.

"Sam?"

He must have spent too long lost in his thoughts, because Dean's moved closer, so he's standing right in front of Sam, looking worried. Suddenly, Sam's too tired to be angry anymore. He just wants to go back to their room and sleep.

"Sure. Let's go back."

Dean hesitates, then rests a hand on Sam's arm. It's probably the most awkward touch Sam's ever received from Dean, but he's clearly trying. Sam lets himself lean into the touch, soaking up what comfort he can. Dean moves a little closer still, fingers curling around Sam's bicep and tugging Sam towards him until Sam gives in and bends forward resting his forehead against Dean's.

"You know I wouldn't do that to you, right? I know it's been awkward, this last couple of weeks, but I don't, uh, I don't regret it. I thought you knew that."

Sam knows flirting comes as naturally and easily to Dean as breathing. Dean probably didn't even realise he was doing it. It makes Sam feel like an ass, and he tries very hard not to resent Dean for that too.

"I know. I'm sorry."

"Always said you were a girl."

"Fuck you."

"You wish."

And Sam does, oh he really does, even though he still hasn't shaken the lingering voices that tell him they shouldn't be doing this. But he's not sure they're ready for that yet, so instead he moves, pulling one hand from his pocket and using it to nudge Dean's jaw until he tips his head back far enough that Sam can kiss him, soft and gentle. Dean's stiff and unresponsive at first, then he relaxes a little and the hand on Sam's arm slides up, curling around the back of Sam's neck and sending shivers down his spine.

The sound of music as someone opens the door to the bar makes them both jump and Dean takes a couple of steps back, hands dropping away from Sam, grimacing a little as his leg obviously protests.

"Come on, let's go. My beer will have gone flat by now anyway."

Sam nods, body still wanting to press up against Dean's. Instead he waits until Dean's limped around the car and gotten into the passenger seat, then he takes a breath and pulls the car keys out of his pocket. He slides behind the wheel and nearly jumps when Dean's hand lands on his thigh.

"Gonna show me a good time, big boy?" Dean's got an obnoxious smirk on his face and his voice is all fake seduction. It's possibly the cheesiest, most ridiculous thing Sam's ever heard and yet, it still sends a trickle of arousal down his spine.

"Idiot." But he can feel the smile stretching his mouth, and Dean leaves his hand on Sam's leg, a warm, welcome weight as they pull out of the parking lot and head back to the motel. It's only a ten minute drive but Sam's conscious of Dean's touch the whole way.

It's crazy, the way Dean can mess with his head, with his emotions. He's flipped from anger and hurt to desire and wanting in no time at all.

He misses the warmth when they park and Dean pulls his hand away as he gets out of the car. Sam pretends that he didn't hear the faint hiss as Dean stretches the stiffness from his leg. He wants to offer help, but Dean probably doesn't really need it and sure as hell won't welcome it.

So he unlocks the door to the room and leaves Dean to follow. He starts fiddling with the coffee maker, then gives up when he realises that he's about to make coffee that neither of them will drink just to stop himself helping his brother. He's not sure which of them is the bigger idiot.

Sam turns when the door slams shut and the bedsprings creak alarmingly as Dean sits down heavily, left leg stretched out in front of him. He half-heartedly massages the thigh and just like that, Sam's done with standing by just to appease Dean's sense of independence.

He walks over to stand in front of his brother. "Come on, get undressed. That leg's all cramped up."

"I'm fine, I don't need mothering."

"Don't be an ass. You're crap at pretending it doesn't hurt and I want to help. So shut the hell up and strip."

"You know, I'd kinda thought hearing you telling me to strip would be hotter."

"Yeah, whatever. Here." He holds out his hand and Dean only hesitates for a second before taking it and letting Sam pull him to his feet. He pops the buttons on his jeans and Sam kneels, unlacing Dean's boots and pulling them and the socks off. He's very aware of his position and the way Dean shifts; the way his grip on Sam's shoulder tightens, tells Sam that Dean's aware of it too.

Dean takes a breath and then shoves his jeans down, over his hips and halfway down his thighs before Sam takes over, peeling the heavy denim off. Dean shrugs out of his jacket and the unbuttoned shirt he was wearing, leaving him in t-shirt and boxers. Sam sits back on his heels and looks up. It makes his pulse jump when he sees that Dean's half hard as well.

"Sam..." Dean's fingers tighten on Sam's shoulder.

"Sit down." Christ, his voice sounds rough. When Dean doesn't move, Sam puts his hand on Dean's stomach and pushes gently, feeling the muscles twitch under his palm, even through the fabric of Dean's shirt.

Dean sits, dropping back to lean on his elbows, watching Sam with narrowed eyes, legs splayed around Sam and God that image of his brother should not make him want to pin Dean down and drag his nails over his belly, nor sink his teeth into the jut of his hipbones.

He contents himself with trailing a hand up Dean's calf, feeling the hairs prickle against his palm. When he reaches Dean's thigh, he sits straighter and brings his other hand up, tracing the still pink and tender looking scar that starts just below Dean's left hip and curves down. The scar is about five inches long and about an eighth of an inch wide. The claw that tore through the skin was razor sharp, but fortunately not long. It didn't penetrate very deeply, but the wound wouldn't clot and Sam couldn't apply enough pressure to stop the bleeding, nor get a tourniquet above it. He'd been absolutely convinced that Dean was going to die. The memory still carries the bitter aftertaste of fear that had burned his throat the whole way to the hospital.

He doesn't realise that his hands are shaking until Dean rests a hand on one of Sam's. He can't help the way he clutches at it, squeezing too tightly. Dean doesn't say anything, just lets Sam hold on for a while. When Sam finally loosens his grip, Dean sits up and raps Sam's other hand with a small bottle. Sam recognises the unscented oil he bought to use on Dean's leg, to help ease the sensitivity and the tightness of the scar. He lets go of Dean's hand and takes the bottle.

"Smooth. Real smooth." He can't look at Dean yet, every raw emotion is going to be written across his face and he doesn't want to risk killing the tentative mood.

"If I wait for you to start, I'll probably die of old age." He pokes Sam in the side with his right foot and yeah, there are times when Sam's actually grateful for Dean's smart mouth and emotional repression.

His hands barely tremble when he opens the bottle and coats his palms liberally with the oil. He can feel Dean watching him, but he keeps his head bent and concentrates on working the tension from Dean's leg. Dean still tends to favour that leg a little because of the way the scar pulls sometimes, and the cramp that hits him is usually a direct result of Dean not taking things easy when he should.

Dean drops onto his elbows again, and lets his head fall back as Sam starts at the knee, digging his fingers into the muscles and forcing them to relax. He hisses when Sam reaches the scar but doesn't pull away and Sam gentles his touch, pressing lightly over the tender flesh. It's almost entirely accidental, when his hand moves further up and his fingers brush the sensitive skin between hip and thigh. Dean sucks in another breath and spreads his legs even more.

Sam feels a rush of desire and this is what he wants, what he's been craving the last few weeks. He slides his still greasy hand up the leg of Dean's boxers and God, Dean's hard, his cock heavy and thick in Sam's grip. The angle is awkward and the fabric restricts his movement, but he doesn't care, not when Dean starts breathing harder, arching his back and shifting his hips under Sam's hand.

"Sam. God. Get your ass up here, damnit." Dean's voice is wrecked. Sam rocks back on his heels and stands, stripping as quickly as possible, all the while trying to keep an eye on Dean as his brother pulls off his shirt and boxers.

It takes far too long for Sam to get naked, greasy fingers slipping buttons and zip. By the time he's finally done, Dean's shuffled up the bed and is leaning naked against the headboard, idly stroking his cock. The rhythm of his hand falters when Sam crawls up the bed on all fours until he's hovering over Dean. For a second he's unsure what to do next, but then Dean grabs a handful of Sam's hair and yanks his head down so they can kiss.

Sam settles onto Dean's lap, knees either side of Dean's hips, careful not to put too much weight on Dean's left leg, and wraps one hand around both their cocks. Dean shivers against him and his hips try to thrust. It's ridiculously hot and nothing like the awkward fumbling in the dark they've done until now, with Sam scared he's going to hurt Dean and Dean half stoned on Vicodin.

There's just enough oil left on Sam's hand and Dean's cock to make the friction bearable, but even if there wasn't, Sam doesn't think he could make himself move away to find the oil. Dean's fingers are pulling on Sam's hair and he's squirming against Sam, panting around a kiss that's getting messier by the second. Finally, he yanks Sam's head back, gasping for air and arching hard enough to almost lift them both from the bed as he starts to come. The sudden slickness makes Sam shudder down to his toes and he shakes Dean's suddenly limp hand out of his hair and buries his face in his brother's neck, biting down as his own orgasm washes over him. Dean jumps under him and his cock twitches against Sam's and the urge to bite down harder is almost impossible to resist, but Sam does, moving so he can press his forehead against Dean's shoulder instead.

There are several minutes where all he can hear is the frantic beat of his pulse and their gradually slowing breathing. Finally though, Dean moves under him, hands pushing gently at Sam's chest.

"Come on, get off me."

Sam half rolls, half flops down next to Dean. He's sticky and greasy and his hair smells of smoke from the bar and he could care less, not when he's pressed against Dean from shoulder to hip, his sweaty skin catching on Dean's every time one of them moves.

Dean's breathing slowly evens out and Sam lets himself close his eyes for a minute, intending to get up and have a quick wash and turn out the light, but before he can move, he slides into sleep.

Sam's awake before Dean the next morning, neck stiff from the awkward angle he fell asleep in, belly itchy with dried semen, and roastingly hot from where Dean's pressed up against him. He slides out of bed carefully so he doesn't wake Dean. His brother isn't usually a heavy sleeper and startling him awake has lead to more than one black eye for Sam. This time, Dean doesn't even stir.

The bathroom floor is pleasantly cold under his bare feet and he quickly turns the shower on, stepping under the spray the second it's warm enough. He keeps the shower short, just long enough to wash away the reminders of last night. The cool air makes his skin rise up in goose bumps as soon as he steps out. He wraps a towel around his waist and shaves absentmindedly in the half fogged mirror.

He catches sight of himself, and wonders, not for the first time, what the hell he's doing. There are so many, good, rational, practical reasons why he shouldn't be sleeping with his brother, not even taking into account the moral and legal implications. None of those reasons are enough to make him want to stop though. He needs this connection with someone and no-one knows him better than Dean; no-one accepts him, flaws and hang-ups and fucked up issues the way Dean does. Dean might tease, might mock, but Sam doesn't think there is anything he could confess to that would make Dean turn away. He doesn't have to hide with Dean, doesn't have to pretend he's something, someone, different.

The first time he'd looked at Dean and wondered, seriously wondered, what it would be like to kiss his brother, to touch him like a lover, he'd thought it just a passing fad and although it unnerved him, he brushed it aside and tried to forget it. But the idea kept resurfacing at random moments. The more he tried to ignore it, or pretend it didn't fascinate him in ways he didn't understand, the more persistent it became.

The day he jerked off in the shower and came with Dean's name caught on the tip of his tongue was the day he finally gave up pretending that he was disgusted or horrified by the thought.

He never meant to actually act on those thoughts. While he'd been pretty sure that Dean wouldn't ditch him, he wasn't keen on putting the theory to the test.

That evening was a complete accident; he'd watched Dean wipe the back of his hand across lips shiny with whisky straight from the bottle and had found himself leaning in to lick the lingering taste of cheap liquor from Dean's mouth without thinking about it.

Kissing Dean hadn't been as much of a shock as Sam had thought it would be. Feeling Dean kiss him back, hand fisted in Sam's shirt was the real surprise, at least until Dean had suddenly shoved him away, eyes wide and full of shock and something horribly like fear, breath coming in gasps. Sam had landed on his ass on the floor, staring up at Dean on the bed, sure that his eyes were just as wide as he tried to stay calm, but inside he'd been waiting for Dean to throw a punch or walk out. When Dean raised his hand, Sam closed his eyes and waited. He didn't expect the hand that had tangled in his hair and dragged him back up onto the bed.

"You sure, Sam? You better be sure, damnit." Dean's voice had been low and frantic and slightly broken and God, Sam'd never been more sure of anything in his life.

He'd never gotten chance to tell Dean that, because Dean had just pushed against him, mouth and hands stealing Sam's ability to form any kind of coherent thought.

In all of Sam's daydreams about showing Dean how he felt, he'd never imagined the way Dean's need would match his own; the way the years of training and working together would spill over into sex; the way seeing him coming undone beneath Sam's hands would be so powerful, so intense that it'd make something in Sam's chest ache.

They weren't gentle, that night. Fuelled by alcohol and a strange kind of desperation they'd wrestled as much as embraced; scratched as much as caressed; bit as much as kissed.

The finger shaped bruises had barely started to darken on his skin when the whole thing went to hell and he had had to deal with the possibility that he could have lost Dean when he'd felt as though he'd only just found him.

And that's enough to remind him that whatever reasons there might be for not pursuing a physical relationship with Dean, the only thing that really counts is what he, what they want.

Dean's still asleep when Sam leaves the bathroom; he's sprawled across the bed on his stomach, one hand curled under the pillow, sheets draped over the curve of his ass. Sam's tempted to crawl back into bed, but it feels a little strange and he hesitates. Sharing a bed isn't something they've really done; Dean too uncomfortable and too short tempered with the pain and Sam too worried about hurting him. In the end, he settles for getting dressed and heading out for coffee, because if he gets back into that bed, with a sleep pliant Dean, he's pretty sure he won't want to leave it again for the rest of the day.

Dean's in the shower when Sam gets back. The random thought that if Sam wanted to, he could join his brother there floats through his mind and he's caught unawares by both the flush of arousal and the sudden uncertainty. He knows it always takes time to feel comfortable with a new lover, but it unsettles him because it's Dean and some part of his brain thinks the fact he knows his brother better than anyone else still living should make this easier than normal, not harder.

He opens one of the papers he picked up with his coffee and flicks through it. He's not really looking for a hunt, but he knows that Dean's getting twitchy and restless and maybe he can find something to keep Dean from driving them both insane. He gets caught up in reading the local newspaper, unwillingly fascinated by the stories of a life and world he's never really been a part of, no matter how hard he tried to pretend he was.

A cool, damp hand on the back of his neck makes him jump and almost spill his coffee. Dean just laughs when Sam swats at him and curses. He steals one of the newspapers and the coffee that Sam brought back for him. He sits on the broken down old couch, coffee in one hand, newspaper spread over the ancient coffee table. They sit quietly for a while, just the soft rustle of paper as they read.

Eventually, Dean stands and stretches, grimacing slightly as he works the stiffness from his leg. The towel slips lower and if Sam wasn't so damned hungry, he'd definitely tumble Dean back into bed so he can run his hands over the smooth skin of Dean's belly and hips, maybe even learn how Dean likes his cock sucked. He's glad Dean isn't looking at him when a small shiver of desire crawls up his spine, although he can't help watching Dean dress. There's nothing overtly sexual about it, but the efficiency and the unconscious grace still makes him want to lock the door, close the curtains and strip every piece of clothing that Dean's just put on from his body.

They walk down the block to a cafe that serves a halfway decent breakfast. Dean's limp is almost entirely absent and he doesn't wince when he drops down on to the cracked vinyl seat. He looks more relaxed than he has at any time in the last month and a half and it makes something in Sam ease just a little.

When he orders the same as Dean, bacon and pancakes, and Dean smirks at him, he waits until the waitress has turned away before sticking his tongue out at his brother. Dean kicks him under the table and Sam raps his knife across the back Dean's hand before he can snatch it out of range. It's childish and stupid but he can't help echoing the grin on Dean's face.

Dean's brought the remaining couple of papers and they bicker over who reads what while they're waiting for their food. Sam wins, but only because he distracts Dean with the sports section. There's nothing in the rest that's worth even a cursory look and in the end, he gives up.

They've been in the same area since Dean was hurt and while the respite has been welcome, for him at least, and he knows that they can't carry on like this forever. He fires up the laptop, shifting it out of the way when the waitress returns.

He doesn't realise how engrossed he's been in trying to find them a gig until Dean jabs him with his syrup sticky fork and tells him to eat his breakfast before Dean does. He manages to resist the urge to pour salt over Dean's breakfast when his brother looks away, but it's a close thing.

He almost reconsiders when Dean finally gets bored with the paper and gestures with his knife, flicking butter over the table and narrowly missing Sam's coffee.

"Hey. Anything worth checking out?"

"Possible water sprite in Arkansas?"

"Yeah?"

"Lives in Mary Devonshire's garden pond, apparently. She's 87."

Dean pulls a face and licks a trickle of syrup from his thumb. Sam doesn't know whether to be disgusted or aroused. He settles on mildly disturbed and flicks to another site.

"Black dog sighting in Iowa?"

"Iowa? Probably a midget cow."

Sam makes a face this time, mostly to stop himself laughing. Dean just grins and pushes his plate away, curling his fingers around his coffee cup. Sam is briefly mesmerised by the idea that the same hand touched him last night. He shakes the thought off and flicks through the next few web sites quickly.

"Apparition in white in Memphis?"

"Dude, that's just Elvis."

This time Sam can't stop the short bark of laughter escaping. Dean's looking relaxed and playful and it's been so long since Sam saw either of those things on his brother's face that he'd forgotten how good they looked on Dean.

He jumps, banging his knees on the underside of the table and slopping the coffee out of his cup when Dean kicks him again.

"What the hell?"

Dean just leans back, slouching in his seat, a knowing grin on his face and Sam feels the faintest hint of heat in his cheeks.

"Shut up. And keep your feet to yourself."

He ignores the way Dean holds one hand up, as if in surrender. He turns back to the laptop as the waitress comes over to refill Dean's cup. When he looks back, Dean's used a couple of napkins to mop up the spilt coffee and he's just watching Sam. He doesn't realise Sam's watching him back at first and the expression on his face is calm, almost peaceful. Sam looks away again, feeling as though he's seen something he shouldn't have. He can't help wanting to put that look on Dean's face more often though.

He's so caught up in that thought that he nearly pages past a potential lead.

"I think I've found something."

Dean sits up, calm expression wiped away by eager anticipation.

"Come on then, what is it?"

"There's a manor house in Ohio; it was brought over from England in pieces and reassembled, complete with the contents about a hundred years ago. Apparently, it's got something of a bad reputation locally. Owners never keep it for long, tenants don't stay, or disappear without trace. There's also reports of wildlife and livestock that wander into the grounds dying of some wasting disease."

"Anything recently?"

"A year or so ago a couple of kids went missing. Their bodies were near the house. There wasn't a mark on them, but the cops who were first on the scene said that they looked about ninety. No cause of death was found, although supposedly, the coroner said it seemed as though they'd died of old age."

Dean grimaces and Sam knows exactly how he feels. All too often it seems to be kids that get hurt.

"There was some local petition to have the house pulled down, but nobody knows who actually owns it now, so instead it's been boarded up, contents and all, ever since."

"What do you think?"

"Sounds like there's definitely something odd happening, but I've no idea what it could be."

"Ohio. That's only a days drive or so. We could be there by tomorrow morning, even if we don't push it."

"OK. I'll see what else I can find out about the place on the way."

Sam closes the laptop and they leave. It takes them no more than twenty minutes to pack up and check out. Sam returns the room key to the hotel reception; when he gets back, Dean's got their stuff in the car and is waiting behind the wheel. Sam hesitates for a second with himself about suggesting he drive instead, but Dean looks so pleased, that he bites back the words and climbs into the passenger seat.

They stop three times on the drive. Once for lunch, once because Dean got an urge for coffee and danish at four in the afternoon, and finally at a motel for the night. Dean's driven the whole way and although he hasn't complained, Sam can see the awkward way he climbs out of the car while Sam's checking them in.

By the time Sam's crossed the parking lot, Dean's half perched on the hood of the car. He looks tired and as much as Sam wants to berate him for his stubbornness, he can't. He knows Dean hates being physically dependent on other people. Emotional dependence is another matter entirely and one Sam's not touching with a ten foot pole. He's learnt that trying to analyse and understand all the ways their family is fucked up just leaves him drained and frustrated. He might hate to admit it, but sometimes Dean is right. They aren't like other people and it doesn't matter what Sam wants or think he wants, he's always going to be different just because of what he knows; what he's seen.

He's driven himself half mad the last few weeks, wondering how and why he's ended up attracted to his brother; trying to pin down some reason, some aspect of their dysfunctional upbringing that could have caused it. He's read studies and papers online about incest and upbringing and he's pretty sure that he and Dean are textbook cases. But that doesn't make what he feels for Dean any less real or visceral. It doesn't change the fact that he wants Dean. He wonders if it should, but in truth, he doesn't much care.

He's read case studies of siblings who ended up sleeping together because their home lives were disturbed in some way, but however hard he's tried, he just can't see himself and Dean in those people.

Sam knows that he has no excuse; he's lived with near death experiences and sudden traumas since he was old enough to hold a weapon. He can't point to one specific event as some kind of tipping point He can't blame grief because while losing Jess will never stop hurting, over time it's become a dull ache that he hardly notices anymore. It wasn't alcohol and it certainly wasn't the adrenaline high from a hunt. It was as if the need, the attraction, had always been there, it'd just taken him a while to see it for what it was.

In the end, he came to the realisation that even in this, he and Dean just don't fit into someone else's neat little boxes. What they have, what they are, can't be labelled or tagged. He's still not sure how he feels about that. There will always be a small part of him that yearns for ignorance and the safety of bored domesticity and a house with a white picket fence.

He probably should be disturbed by the new, sexual side to his relationship with Dean; that's what all the textbooks tell him. And yet, he's never felt calmer, more content than when he's with Dean, even when they're fighting. Dean's a constant presence, a rock, the one unchanging, unfailing, unflinching thing in Sam's life. Dean can be a stubborn, contrary, childish, obnoxious dick without even trying, but Sam knows he would give his life and soul for Sam and that devotion scares and humbles him.

When he walks back to his brother, and Dean looks up and smiles, that real, honest smile that virtually no-one else ever gets to see, Sam knows it doesn't matter why they've ended up lovers, or what society might think of their relationship. He tells himself it doesn't matter that people would condemn them if they knew the truth and, when Dean's smiling like that, looking young and carefree, it's almost true. It's easy to ignore the problems when he's there in front of Sam; when he's Sam's, to have and to keep, just like Sam is Dean's.

So he bites back any comment about Dean's refusal to accept his limits and just tosses him the room keys. Dean slides awkwardly off the hood of the car and limps for a couple of steps. Sam grabs the bags from the trunk and follows him. He kicks the door shut and watches Dean make a show of dropping heavily onto the bed by the door, bouncing on it as if he's testing the springs.

When they don't squeak or groan, Dean throws Sam a look that somehow manages to be both coy and lewd at the same time. That hint of shyness is more seductive than anything else Dean could do as far as Sam is concerned. Dean's no stranger to sex and he's obviously had lovers of both sexes, but that glimpse of uncertainty soothes some of Sam's fears about how seriously Dean takes what they're doing.

"Wanna test out the bed, Sammy?"

Sam's caught between doing just that and laughing at the cheesy porn dialogue and the way Dean winks. Dean laughs then flops back onto the bed.

"Don't trip over your tongue there, stud."

"What are you, twelve?" Another laugh is his only answer. Sam drops Dean's bag onto his brother's stomach as he passes, dodging the leg that tries to kick him.

He ignores Dean's muttering and pulls the laptop and a jar of coffee out of his bag before tossing the bag onto the other bed. He fills the lime scale encrusted kettle and turns it on, before finding two cracked and chipped cups out of the cupboard and dumping a couple of spoonfuls of coffee in each mug.

While he's waiting, he starts up the laptop, flicking through some of the stuff he'd bookmarked earlier, before leaning back in the chair and looking over at Dean. His brother has pushed the bag onto the floor and he's lying half on the bed, feet still on the floor, fully dressed. His eyes are closed and Sam realises that he's dozed off. For a moment he just sits there, listening to Dean's soft breathing.

The sound of the kettle boiling pulls him from his thoughts and he gets up to make the drinks. He sets one cup by the laptop and crosses the room to where Dean is sleeping. He touches his brother's shoulder gently. Dean blinks slowly and looks at him blearily. Sam bends down and drops a light kiss on Dean's lips before he can talk himself out of it. It's a simple, almost chaste, but when he straightens, Dean sits up, as if following Sam's mouth.

There's something fiercely needy in the way Dean reacts, as if he's so starved for affection that he'd chase any sign of it, any touch. Sam's caught wrong footed and he doesn't quite know what to do. It's always been so easy, to take what he's needed from Dean, even before they were lovers, that sometimes he forgets that Dean needs too, far more than Sam does. Yet now, when it's clearly something that Dean wants, he hesitates, suddenly scared that he's making things worse; that he's taking advantage.

"Sam?" Dean's voice is sleep soft and he looks confused. Sam can't blame him; hell, he's confused.

"Hey, I, uh, made you some coffee." He holds out the cup, wincing internally when he realises he's holding it between them like a barrier.

"Thanks." Dean sits up fully and takes the cup. He curls his fingers around the mug, but he doesn't take his gaze off Sam. "What's up?"

Sam shrugs and Dean narrows his eyes. "Nothing. I mean, it's just... You're happy right? This is what you want? Us?" He didn't mean to say anything, but the words slip out before he can catch them. He hates that he sounds as whiny as Dean often accuses him of being, but he needs to know; needs to hear it from Dean.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

He starts to turn away "Forget it, it's nothing."

Dean's hand darts out and grabs Sam by the wrist. "Tell me the truth. One minute you're kissing me, the next you're acting like I've got something you don't wanna catch. What's going on?"

"I just wanted to know that you're doing this because you want to, OK? Not because you think I want it. I just wanted to be sure we're on the same page, here."

Dean's fingers tighten until Sam can feel the bones start to grind together, but Dean's looking at him intently, like he's looking for something, so Sam lets him look, gritting his teeth against the slowly flaring pain. He almost staggers when Dean lets go of his wrist without warning.

"Of course I want this Sam. Christ. You think I'd fuck with you, with us, like that?"

"No. No, I didn't mean it like that." He tries to catch Dean's eye, but his brother is looking away, fingers clenched so tightly around the coffee cup that Sam's half afraid he's going to break it. He wraps his own hand around Dean's, feeling the tension under the skin. "Dean. I needed to know I wasn't just taking. I gotta be sure this goes both ways with us. I gotta know we're equal partners in this. That's all, I swear."

Dean takes a breath and some of the tension eases from his body. "Yeah. We're partners. Always have been." He glances up at Sam and there's just a hint of that familiar smirk now, though there's still something tight and tense underneath it. He flexes the hand around the coffee mug and his fingers lace with Sam's for a few seconds before he gently pulls away and takes a sip of the drink. "You find anything else about this job?" He nods towards the laptop, still open on the table.

Sam hesitates, because he's not so sure this conversation is actually over, but whatever is still upsetting his brother, he won't get to the bottom of it by forcing the issue.

He flops down in the chair and picks up his cup, as much for something to do with his hands as because he wants a drink. He sips the now cooling coffee and tries to get his mind back on the job.

"Not much. The house was built in 1793 in Warwickshire. It was built over the site of a previous building that had been destroyed a few years before."

"Destroyed? How?"

"No-one seems to know, or at least, there are no records of what happened. But it seems that the locals considered the house and the land to be cursed. The guy who had the house re-built stayed there for three months after it was finished, then had a nervous breakdown and was taken to the nearby asylum."

"Any idea what caused the old boy to flip?"

"None, unfortunately."

Dean snorts and takes a gulp of coffee, "Typical. So what happened after that?"

"The usual. Like I said, there's been a string of owners and tenants. No-one stayed long and those that did had a nasty habit of disappearing or dying in odd ways."

"How odd?"

"Drained and withered, desiccated, I think was the term that they used a lot. As if all the life had been sucked out of them. Or as if they'd aged a few decades overnight; like those kids."

"Yeah, that's definitely odd. And disturbing."

"No kidding. Anyway, the house was empty for several years before being bought by an American, Samuel Kent. He had the whole thing, main house, contents and out buildings packed up and shipped over to his home state of Ohio in 1901."

"Great idea. Buy a house with a curse. As if we don't have enough of our own, we gotta import the damned things too."

"Yeah. Looks as though trouble followed and started again pretty much as soon as the last brick was laid. Kent disappeared a couple of weeks later and was never been seen again. Ever since then, the story has been the same as it was back in England; people disappearing and occasionally turning up dead and dried out. No-one's lived in it for over 30 years, but livestock have still been dying near the house. Only a few a year, but..."

"But enough that everyone made sure to stay away from the place?"

"Exactly. At least until those kids."

Dean grimaces. "So, what could do that to people and animals? Drain them like that? It doesn't sound like a vampire, or a striga and it's obviously connected to the house itself."

"Or something in it. Remember, Kent brought the contents over from England as well."

"Great, well, that narrows things down." Dean drinks the rest of his coffee, pulling a face when he obviously finds it cold anymore. He sets the cup on the floor and bends down to unlace his boots. Sam tries to concentrate on finding more information, but when Dean stands and practically shimmies out of his jeans, he gives up. He only realises he's staring when Dean walks over to him, naked. He extends a hand to Sam, who just looks at it, stupidly.

"Hey, wanna save water and share the shower?" Dean's obviously trying for his usual cocky tone, but it's off kilter and God, they really are bad at this. He takes Dean's hand, lets his brother pull him to his feet. Dean starts stripping him and Sam's powerless to resist, letting Dean pull his clothes off, one piece at a time. There's a reverential, dream-like quality to the way Dean undresses him and he just goes with it, gives himself over to his brother, trusting Dean to take care of him, just like he always has.

When Sam's finally naked, Dean goes to pull away, but Sam's quicker and he catches Dean's shoulder, pulling Dean close enough that he can wrap an arm around his brother's waist and slide a hand up Dean's jaw, thumb pressing gently into the soft flesh under his chin. Dean doesn't fight, just lets him tip his head back until Sam can't wait another second, tempted beyond reason by the hint of stubble and the vulnerable line of Dean's throat under his fingers.

He kisses Dean, and he opens up beneath Sam's lips, welcoming and eager. Sam shifts his grip, fingers sliding over Dean's jaw, while his thumb presses against the corner of Dean's mouth. Dean pulls back a little and his tongue flicks out to lick the tip of Sam's thumb. Dean's eyes are half closed, but he's watching Sam all the same. He traces the line of Dean's lower lip, then pushes gently and watches the digit slide into the warmth of Dean's mouth. There's a hint of teeth and God, all he can think about is pushing Dean to his knees and sliding his cock between those lips in the same way. Something dark and desperate in him wants to fuck into Dean's mouth, wants to watch those cheeks hollow as Dean takes him all in, teasing him with tongue and teeth and sweet, sweet suction.

It's easier than he expects to lean forward and kiss Dean again. He doesn't pull this thumb out and the feel of their tongues sliding against one another and his thumb is so damned good.

When he pulls back, and drags his thumb out of his brother's mouth, it leaves Dean's bottom lip slick and shiny and Sam breathless with longing. After Jess, he wondered if he'd ever feel this kind of desperate, all consuming need again. He certainly never expected to find it with Dean. But he can't deny that he has and he doesn't need to be told how lucky he is to have had it once, let alone twice.

It's what gives him the presence of mind to ease back, to quell the urge to just tumble Dean onto the bed and fuck him, just like this, with just spit and fingers; to force Dean to take it. Instead, he lets his hand drift from Dean's mouth, over his collarbones, across his shoulder and down his arm until Sam can take his hand. Dean looks half wrecked, but he grins when Sam pulls him gently towards the bathroom.

He presses Dean against the tiled wall and swallows his gasp at the cold ceramic against his back. He moves closer and tucks his own body tight against his brother's. It's impossible not to splay his hands over Dean's hips, his ass, to drag the tips of his fingers between the cheeks and feel the way Dean shivers under his touch.

Dean shifts against him, restless and needy and Sam pins him to the wall with hands and hips, holds him in place and spares a brief moment to wonder if he's strong enough to fuck Dean standing up, face to face with Dean wrapped around him, trusting Sam to hold him safely. Just the thought has his hips twitching, grinding into his brother, breathe coming in pants and gasps.

When Dean moves again and makes a sound, less pleasure, more pain, Sam realises that the position is putting too much strain on his still healing leg. He pulls back and turns them both, then shoves Dean down onto the fortunately closed toilet seat. He drops to his knees in front of Dean, caught by the way Dean's eyes widen and he seems to struggle for breath.

"Sam..."

He can guess what Dean's going to say and he doesn't want to hear it. He plants a hand in the centre of Dean's chest and pushes him back, then curls his other hand around the base of Dean's cock. Dean's hips buck, just a little and when Sam glances up, he's biting his lower lip, staring down at Sam's hand on his dick like it's the holy grail. There's a rush that's as much power as sex and he has to close his eyes as the sensation hits him in the gut.

He bends his head and Dean goes absolutely still beneath Sam's touch. Sam's not experienced in this, has only done this a handful of times and most of them while drunk, but it's really not that complicated and he's pretty sure Dean isn't going to critique his performance.

It's easier than he remembers, hand and mouth working together. He knows it's sloppy; he's drooling over his fingers and sometimes his rhythm breaks, or he draws back a little further than he intended and Dean's cock slips from his mouth with a pop that makes an perverse counterpoint to Dean's hitching breaths and gasped curses. Nevertheless, his jaw is starting to ache a little when Dean finally breaks; breathy murmurs of "Oh God, oh God..." that tell Sam it won't take much more.

Dean's hips stutter under Sam's hand when he comes and the taste and texture is just as bad as he remembers; he has to fight to swallow, only because it's marginally quicker to do that then stand up and spit into the sink.

He looks up and sweet lord. Dean's flushed and sweaty and panting, hands wrapped around the edges of the toilet seat, knuckles white. His bottom lip is red and swollen where he's been biting it. Sam wants to come on him, wants to mark him and complete that picture of perfect, delicious debauchery. He's standing up before he knows it and then Dean's dragging him down, making him spread his legs until he's sitting in Dean's lap, Dean's fingers stroking his cock with firm, sure movements, his other hand rolling Sam's balls and then pressing further back, just a hint of pressure and that's all it takes to push him over the edge. That and Dean's voice, whispering to him, promising they'll make every dirty little fantasy that Sam's ever had a reality, as if he's got a direct line into Sam's brain.

When Sam can think again, he's half ashamed, half territorially pleased to see that Dean's wearing long smears of his semen over his chest and belly and dripping from his fingers. Dean grins, and before Sam can do anything, he strokes Sam's slowly softening cock once, hard and Sam shudders. It's intense, almost painful and he really can't tell if he likes it or not. When Dean does it again, he has to grab his wrist and pull his hand away. Maybe another time they can play that way, but now, Sam just wants to get cleaned up and then sleep.

"Too much?"

"A little. Maybe... maybe another time."

Dean grins, pulls his wrist from Sam's grip then shoves Sam off of his lap. It's only Sam's quick reflexes that save him from being dumped on his ass.

"What the fuck?"

"You're heavy, I'm sticky and I want a shower." Dean wipes a hand down his chest. Sam wonders how he got to a place where seeing his brother rubbing his semen into his skin became a turn on.

They share the shower, bickering over the temperature and who gets to use the soap first and who's hogging all the water.

When they go to bed, it's the same bed and Sam falls asleep with Dean's hand resting on his hip.

Chapter Text

The next morning is clear and bright and Sam can already tell that it's going to be the first really warm day of the year. He's alone in the bed when he wakes, but he can hear Dean in the bathroom, humming something and there's a cup of coffee on the night stand beside Sam. He sits up and takes the mug. The coffee isn't hot, but it's still drinkable.

He gets out of bed and drags on clean clothes. By the time Dean emerges, Sam's onto a second cup of coffee. He's managed to find a map of the area near the house and a very sketchy floor plan of dubious origin. He studies it, peripherally aware of Dean dressing across the room, though he forces himself not to look.

Dean walks over, barest hint of a limp still haunting his steps and it's really not a surprise that Sam's heard Dean's usual tread often enough to know when it's ever so slightly off. Dean rests a hand on the back of the chair and reads over Sam's shoulder. He smells of soap and toothpaste, with a hint of shaving gel and deodorant. It is a shock when Sam realises that he's always been hyper aware of everything about Dean; not just his footsteps, but his scent, the cadence of his breathing, the feel of his presence in a room. He doesn't know how he could have missed it, now he's seen it. And he wonders, not for the first time, whether Dean's always felt the same about Sam; whether Dean figured it out before Sam did, because Dean hates talking about emotions, but that doesn't mean he's clueless.

He wants to ask, but he's scared of the answer. He doesn't know how he'll feel if Dean just doesn't get it, or if he says he's always felt that way. It doesn't happen often, because Sam's had this frantic drive to understand for as long as he can remember, but sometimes, even he realises that occasionally not knowing is the better option.

"That the layout of the place?" Dean's voice is quiet, close to Sam's ear and it's unexpectedly intimate in a way that Sam can't quite a name to.

"Yeah. Well, it's a the floor plan of the original building. I don't know if the internal layout was changed when the house was rebuilt." He can't help tensing, a little awkward at Dean's closeness, which is utterly stupid, because he'd had his mouth around Dean's dick last night and Christ, can you really get more intimate with another person than sex? Except, he knows you can and despite everything he doesn't really have that with Dean, not yet.

"With our luck, it's bound to have been." Dean moves away and Sam misses Dean's closeness almost immediately.

Dean sits on the bed, bending down to yank his boots on, his voice muffled by the position "Any thing on the contents of the house?"

"I found a ship manifest that I think might include the contents that Kent brought over, but honestly, I can't be sure. Also, there's a few hundred items on that list and who knows how much of it is still there after all this time."

"Anything that stands out?"

Sam slumps back in the chair. "Nothing. Without knowing what's responsible, it could be anything; a suit of armor, a book, a piece of furniture or even a weapon."

"Great. I guess we should go take a look, see if there are any clues at the house. Did the deaths happen at any particular time of day?"

"Take a guess."

"Fucking awesome. Just once I'd like to get a spook that hunts in the afternoon. Just once."

"Yeah, but then we'd be doing the scouting at night and I don't see how that's any better."

"Sam, shut it, OK? You're not helping here."

Sam doesn't even bother to answer, just gives Dean the finger. Dean grins in the particularly irritating way he has when he thinks he's pushing Sam's buttons.

"Come on, let's get something to eat, then go see if we can figure out what this thing is and how to kill it."

Sam grabs his jacket and follows Dean. They find a diner down the block and while it's nothing amazing, the coffee doesn't taste as though it's burnt, the food is hot and the service is prompt and polite.

When they're done they walk back to the motel room and pack a bag; shotgun, rock salt, hand guns, silver bullets, iron bullets, knives, crosses, holy water, matches, lighter fluid, a rosary and a bible, chalk, candles and an EMF meter.

The drive to the house doesn't take long, twenty minutes at most. When they finally pull off of the main road they immediately see the house, looming in the distance.

It stands alone and forlorn in the middle of a walled garden that's overgrown and wild. It's an impressive three storey building in grey stone. As they get closer, they can see that the windows are high and leaded, although there are more broken than intact. There's an air of neglect and decay, like a malignant aura around the whole place. A large wrought iron gate hangs half off its hinges at the entrance, rusted and buckled.

They squeeze through the gap and make their way through the tangled plants and twisted trees. The only signs that someone has been through here recently are a few snapped branches and some flattened grass, now wilted and brown.

The gravel of the drive crunches under their boots, loud in the unnatural quiet around them. It's a miserable, cold place, even in the full sun and Sam ruthlessly suppresses the shivers that want to run down his spine. It's a dead place, and he'd bet money on there being something evil here. He has the feeling that they're being watched and he wishes he could dismiss it as just his imagination.

They stop in front of the huge front door, the once dark wood bleached by the sun. One single crack runs almost the entire width of the door and black mould, like slime, has seeped out, pooling on the step, as if the door were bleeding. He's sure that the only thing still holding the door together and in place is the sturdy frame.

Dean reaches out and gingerly touches the door, which creaks alarmingly and suddenly breaks, the top half crumbling to dust and worm eaten chunks, while the bottom half falls forwards, spilling slime and bugs. Dean jumps back, trying to avoid the mess. Behind the rotten remains the doorway has been bricked up.

"Jesus." Dean brushes his hands on his jeans, as if he's trying to wipe away something unpleasant.

Sam shares the disgust in Dean's voice, as cockroaches and centipedes scuttle past his boots "Well, I guess at least we know that no-one has been in or out through this door in a few decades." Dean just pulls a face.

They move away, heading around the side of the building. All of the windows on the ground floor have been bricked up, the glass broken long ago. The windows on the second floor are boarded with large, heavy planks and rusty nails.

"Whoever shut this place up meant business."

"Yeah." Sam looks up, hoping to find a way in. "Hey, what about that balcony there? Looks like one of those boards might be loose."

Dean tips his head back and shades his eyes against the sun. "I see it." He slides the strap of his bag off his shoulder and holds it out. "Here, hold on to this."

"Forget it, you can't climb up there."

"Sure I can." Dean drops his bag and Sam winces at the clank as it hits the ground.

"Don't be stupid, you can't. You're not going to make that, not with your leg still healing."

"I'm fine. I can do it."

"It's not a contest, Dean. You don't have to prove anything to me. If you do this, you're just going make that leg worse and you'll be laid up again, maybe for longer this time."

For a moment Sam thinks that his brother is going to do it anyway, but then Dean turns away and kicks at the skull of some small animal, sending it bouncing grotesquely away. His whole posture is tense with frustration and anger. Sam keeps the rest of his thoughts to himself as well as his distance. These are the kind of moods when Dean's apt to lash out, sometimes physically and Sam's had enough black eyes that way that he's learnt to stay out of range.

"I hate this." Dean's voice is low and thick. Sam doesn't say anything, knows that words won't make Dean feel better, won't make that leg heal any faster. He doesn't know what to say; what to do. Before they became lovers, he'd have tried to offer consolation with some well-meaning but useless platitudes; even though neither of them would have believed, they would have pretended to. If it had been Jess, he'd have offered hugs and a sympathetic ear. But now, caught by indecision and uncertainty, he does nothing, though he hates himself for it.

"What, no words of sympathy? No promises everything'll be all right?" The tone is bitter and mocking, but Sam can't tell which of them it's really directed at.

It would be so easy to fall into this familiar game; to lash out, to let them get into a fight and while it might help Dean blow off some of that frustration, it's not healthy and Sam doesn't want to fight. He's sick of fighting with Dean, sick of the way Dean deals with every difficult emotional issue with physical violence, sick of the fact that even now, he still doesn't know how to help Dean, or if Dean even wants his help.

So he swallows words that taste flat and acrid in his mouth and instead he drops a hand onto Dean's shoulder, feeling the way tension has knotted the muscles tightly under skin he now knows is smooth and dusted with barely visible freckles. When he doesn't pull away, Sam steps closer and slides his hand from Dean's shoulder, down across his chest, until he has one arm wrapped diagonally around his brother's body. He doesn't pull Dean to him, instead he takes another half step, so that his chest is pressed against Dean's back.

He half expects Dean to pull away, or to make some lame comment, but he does neither and slowly he begins to relax a little against Sam. It's not a huge victory and it doesn't to solve their underlying issues, but at least it's a start. He takes a chance and presses his face against Dean's neck, letting his lips brush against the soft skin under his ear. Dean half turns into the touch and he brings one hand up and rests it lightly on the one Sam has curled around him.

The temptation to tell Dean that it will get better, to remind him how well he's recovered already is almost overwhelming, but he doesn't want to spoil this moment of peace. Besides, it's not like Dean doesn't know. In the first few days after he was hurt, he could barely put any weight on that leg at all, though most of that progress has been through Dean's sheer determination to get back to normal. But Dean has no idea of his own limits, no patience for taking things slowly and pacing himself. His stubbornness has set his recovery back as often as it's driven it forwards.

Dean's frustration and his refusal to stop when the pain gets too much has lead to more than one argument; Sam angry because Dean won't see sense and Dean angry because he doesn't like being told he can't do something. So far, half the time Sam's been right and the other half, Dean has. This is the first time that the ongoing battle of wills hasn't ended in a shouting match.

It's only a brief respite though, because before Sam can say anything, Dean's lets go of Sam's hand and steps forward, out of the loose embrace.

"OK, go do your Spiderman thing, and see if you can find another way into this place." There isn't going to be another way in, and they both know it. Not unless they make one.

"You know, we're miles from anywhere. No-one's going to hear us if we just break the wall over the front door down. Besides, for all we know there could be a wall behind those boards up there anyway."

Dean turns to face Sam and he looks like he'd love an excuse to work out some anger that way. "Sammy, sometimes I really do love the way you think."

Dean picks up his bag and they walk back to the car in silence. The day is really starting to heat up and the Impala is warm to the touch. Sam leans against the side of the car and closes his eyes while Dean hunts through the trunk for the sledgehammer. The sun is bright even with his eyes closed and the warmth of the sunlight in front of him and the car behind him makes him relax.

He half opens his eyes when he senses movement. Dean's standing in front of him and the expression on his brother's face is unexpectedly open; the look he's giving Sam warm and indulgent. It makes him reach for Dean, tugging his brother forward into a slow kiss that has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with love. Dean doesn't fight, just moves in closer, body pressed lightly against Sam's.

When he pulls back, Sam reluctantly lets him go. His eyes are closed, but he can feel Dean watching him. After a few seconds, he gives in and opens his eyes. Dean looks a little bemused, a little happy and a lot scared. Sam'd be worried, if he didn't feel the same way, most of the time. It's a lot like realising he'd fallen in love with Jess, and yet nothing like it at all. As much as he loved her, as much as he'd wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, there's a sense of permanence between he and Dean that goes deeper than anything else in Sam's life. He doesn't believe in fate, but sometimes, he really does wonder.

Then Dean clears his throat and turns away, slinging the sledgehammer onto his shoulder. Sam drops his head back onto the roof of the car. He jumps when Dean shouts over his shoulder. "Sam, come on. We've got work to do." But the words are softened by a grin and Sam thinks that they might not know what they're doing but maybe, just maybe, they'll get it right, in the end.

It takes them a good half an hour to knock down the wall blocking the entrance, even with both of them taking turns. Whoever closed the house up really did mean for it to stay closed.

Once they've cleared the rubble away, Dean shines a flashlight into the dead black space beyond, then steps gingerly over the threshold. Sam follows, clicking on his own flashlight and drawing his gun. The darkness inside seems to eat the light and the air smells stale and musty, with that sticky sweet undertone that tells Sam that something has died and decayed in the house.

Their boots kick up the layer of fine dust that coats the floor, leaving it hanging in the air for ages, motes dancing eerily in the beams of their flashlights. Behind the door is a long narrow corridor, which suddenly widens out into a kind of atrium, with several doors leading off it. Dominating the centre of the room is a large old fashioned staircase. They step into the atrium and Dean swings the flashlight slowly, from one side to the other.

A flash of something catches Sam's eye, but before he can say or do anything, Dean's firing, two shots, close together, the sound incredibly loud in the silent house. Sam swings his own flashlight and gun up, trying to see what spooked Dean enough to have him shooting, but the dust is swirling madly at waist height now and he can't see anything clearly.

"What was it?"

"I don't know. I something shiny, and then something that looked human. Or human shaped, at least."

They edge forward, carefully, Sam at Dean's right, careful not to get too close and keeping half a step behind his brother. Sam's light catches something and they both jump a little again, but Dean's light joins his and Sam suddenly realises what it is.

"Man, you shot a suit of armor." He moves forward and pokes a finger into the dent the bullets have made in the breast plate.

Dean flicks the light over the suit. It's dull, covered with dust and rusty in places. The face plate has been raised and something about the hollow blankness inside makes Sam shiver a little. Dean reaches out and touches the dent himself, fingers just brushing against Sam's.

"Jesus, it didn't even make a hole. What is this thing made of?"

"It's the curve of the metal, it deflects the energy of the shot."

Dean pans his flashlight up, beam slightly to the left of Sam's head. "Thanks for the lecture, Professor."

"Shut up." Sam still can't help the way he bristles when Dean mocks his education or love of learning. It's another thing they disagree on. Dean's not stupid, not by a long shot, but he has never shown much interest in learning anything that doesn't relate to hunting. Sam tries hard to remember that when Dean's deliberately playing dumb. But sometimes, he still surprises Sam with some comment or random piece of information. It's a trait that's both frustrating and intriguing.

Dean smirks, a toothy grin that's designed to be as annoying as possible. Sam turns away, his flashlight cutting through the dusty gloom, determined not to rise to the deliberate bait.

"Well, now that you've woken everything and anything that might be lurking in here, you want to start at the bottom and work up, or at the top and work down?"

Dean looks up at the staircase. "Neither option thrills me, I gotta say. Either way, with only one exit, we're risking getting boxed in."

"We've got to start somewhere."

"Yeah, I know. Fine, let's start down here."

Sam looks back down the long corridor and the rectangle of bright sunlight. It feels a long way away from the dark, claustrophobic room they're in. "OK. You want to stick together to check the rooms?"

"We'll be here for a month if we do that."

"OK. You want to take the door on the left, or the door on the right?"

"I'll go for door number one."

They separate and head for opposite sides of the room. The space is large enough that their lights barely reach from one side to the other, but they're within shouting distance.

The door opens easily and silently at Sam's touch. Now he's on his own, he suddenly realises just how quiet the house is. There's a sense of watchful awareness, though he dismisses the idea as fanciful nonsense as soon as he thinks it. But he can't quite shake the itch at the back of his neck that makes him feel as though someone is tracking his every move.

He steps into a decent sized room, full of old, mouldering furniture. There's a chaise lounge, a couple of high backed, winged armchairs and what he thinks might be a harpsichord. It's the very model of a Victorian drawing room, though he has the impression that it's purely for show, as if someone had once seen a picture of what a Victorian room should look like and copied it, down to the last detail.

He reaches out to touch the harpsichord-thing, but it falls apart under his fingertips, collapsing with a muted little tinkle as it shivers into a pile of rotten wood and ivory. Sam brushes the dust from his fingers and takes a cursory look around the rest of the room, careful not to touch anything else. He even shines his flashlight up the fireplace, but the chimney has obviously been sealed up at some point and he can't see anything but more dust and some dried out cobwebs.

Dean's already back in the main hall when Sam leaves the room. "Anything?"

Sam shakes his head. "Nothing but dust and more dust."

Dean snorts. "Yeah, same here."

They separate again and move onto the next rooms, methodically checking every room on the ground floor without finding anything but rotten furnishings and moth-eaten carpets.

One of the last rooms is right at the back of the house, just before a small passageway down to the kitchen, pantry and servant's staircase. They enter the room together, through an ornately carved pair of doors. The room is a huge, double storey library and reading room. The walls are lined with bookcases, stretching further back than their lights can reach. Unlike the other rooms, this room doesn't have quite the same air of decay and neglect.

Sam goes to the nearest shelf and runs his finger along the spines of the books there. There's relatively little dust here, which is odd, considering the rest of the house is covered in it. The shelves are full of books on divination, occultism, necromancy. It's the last that catches his attention. He stares at the book for a minute, sure there's a connection he's missing. He's barely aware of Dean, wandering around the other side of the room, examining the other shelves.

"Whoever owned this place had some dark ideas about reading material. Numerology, astrology, demonology. What the... The necronomicon? Jesus, what was this guy into?"

"It's a lich." The realisation hits Sam, sudden and obvious.

"What?" Dean turns around, beam of the flashlight dancing across the floor. He brings the light up and to the left of Sam's face, careful even in his surprise not to blind Sam.

"Whatever's haunting this place and killing the animals and anyone who gets too close. It's a lich."

"A lich? As in a walking skeleton? An almost impossible to kill, walking skeleton? That kind of lich?"

"Yes."

"Well, shit."

"That was pretty much my first thought as well."

"You know how to kill one?"

"No. I need to do some research, see what their weakness is."

"OK. Let's get out of here. We can figure out how to kill it and come back."

The house is silent around them as they leave and it's a relief to step out into the bright sunshine. They stack the bricks back up in the doorway as best they can and then head for the car. Dean has a smudge of dust on his cheek and Sam fights the urge to brush it away for all of two seconds. Dean freezes under his hand for an instant, but then he relaxes. Sam takes his time, fingers cupping Dean's face while his thumb smoothes over the sharp curve of cheekbone, long after the dust has gone. He's so caught up in the soft skin under his fingertips that he feels more than sees his brother's grin. He finally lets go and steps back, suddenly embarrassed.

"You, uh, had a bit of dirt. There. On your cheek." Damnit, he wasn't this nervous when he asked Jess out. Then again, he'd had to drink half a bottle of Jack Daniels before he'd got up the balls to speak to her the first time.

Dean's grinning. Not smirking, just... happy. There's a hint of teasing in his expression, but mostly it's amusement and affection.

"All gone now?"

Sam flips him off and Dean laughs. It's amazing how laughter transforms Dean's face and seems to smooth out the marks that frustration and pain have left. It's enough to make up for the inexplicable embarrassment.

They drive back to the hotel with the windows open and the stereo cranked up. Sam watches the fields as they pass, the land slowly coming alive as the season changes. He tries not to think of this as the calm before the storm.

He opens the laptop as soon as they get back to their room. He makes slow progress. He finds references to liches in ancient texts, and some mythology but nothing detailed. They're rare, even among supernatural creatures.

And Dean's right, they're nearly impossible to kill.

He looks up, rolling his neck to try and relieve the stiffness from bending too long over the laptop. Dean's sitting on the bed, good leg curled under him, bad leg hanging over the edge, foot resting on the floor. The guns are to his right, knives to his left. He's methodical and efficient, dismantling and cleaning the guns, one by one, before reassembling them and loading each with a full clip; silver, iron, lead. He cleans and sharpens each knife, testing their edges carefully after every dozen strokes on the whetstone. Sam is briefly hypnotised by the repetitive movement and the scrape of metal on stone.

"Find anything?" Dean doesn't look up when he speaks, concentrating on getting a decent edge on what looks like one of Sam's knives.

"Lot of stuff. Most of it contradictory or frankly terrifying."

"Anything that might actually be useful?"

"Well, we know that a lich used to be a powerful necromancer in life, who somehow found a way to survive death, right?"

"Yep." Dean licks his thumb and runs the pad slowly along the newly sharpened blade. It's obviously to his satisfaction because he lays the knife down and picks up another. Sam tries not to stare, forcing himself to focus on the few notes he's made.

"Liches can become even more powerful after death. They can raise the dead and create armies of zombies and skeletons."

The knife pauses and Dean finally looks up. "You're shitting me, right? Undead fucking armies?"

"I wish I were joking. You want the really good news?"

"It gets better?"

"Not really. You can't kill a lich in the normal way. If you destroy the body, it can just find a new host."

"So how do you kill it?"

"They store their souls in something called a phylactery."

"A what?" Dean tests the blade of the second knife, but presses a little too hard and opens a small cut on his thumb. This time Sam can't help but stare at the small bead of blood. When Dean sticks his thumb in his mouth, Sam can almost taste the iron tang and it makes his mouth water.

"Phylactery. It's any kind of vessel. The only way to kill a lich is to find its phylactery and destroy that. Then the lich can't jump to another body."

"Wait. It can jump bodies?"

"Only to ones that are already dead."

"That's gross. Reassuring on the side of not getting possessed by a several hundred year old bone bag, but still high on the yuck scale."

"You really are twelve, aren't you?"

Dean ignores that comment and starts putting the knives and guns and cleaning equipment away. "So, what is this phylactery thing likely to be then? A vase, a cup, what?"

"Something like that, yeah. And it's going to be hidden somewhere in that house. Liches are protective of their phylacteries, for obvious reasons."

"Well, if it's the only thing that could leave you vulnerable, you would be too. Any idea on how we go about finding it?"

Sam slumps back in his chair. "Not a clue."

"Awesome." Dean sounds as disgusted as Sam feels. "Any chance we can just salt and burn the place?"

"What if we don't destroy the phylactery and the lich just takes it and moves on?"

"Dammit. What the hell is it doing hanging out in that place anyway? I mean, this thing is a couple of hundred years old, existing in an abandoned English manor house in rural Ohio and sucking the life out of the local animals. What the hell for?"

Sam shrugs. "How would I know? Presumably the same thing it did when it was alive."

"Which was?"

"Summon the dead and use them to try and predict the future. Probably some alchemy as well."

"So, you want to go back now and just break whatever we can find, or you want to go back in a couple of hours and see if we can find the thing and hope it leads us to the place it's keeping its soul?"

"I'm not keen on the idea of tangling with this thing until we find the phylactery, but it might lead us to it and we need to find the damned lich once we've destroyed the phylactery anyway."

"Late night trip to the haunted house it is then."

Dean stands and starts emptying his bag, only to repack it all over again. Sam idly starts a game of solitaire. He doesn't realise that Dean's close a cup of coffee appears, virtually under his nose. He takes the cup and Dean moves around the couch and flops down beside Sam.

"You wanna put that black eight on the red nine."

"I know."

"And the red three on the black..."

"Shut up. I know." But he moves the cards anyway and bites back a small smile.

Half an hour later, Dean's dozing, head on Sam's shoulder and the coffee is cold. Sam shuts down the laptop with one hand so he doesn't wake Dean and then settles down as comfortably as he can, setting his watch to wake them in time to grab some dinner before they hunt down the lich.

Dean's sleepily belligerent when they're woken by Sam's alarm and his mood doesn't improve when he stands and his left leg almost gives way under him. He catches himself with a hand on the back of the couch.

"Son of a bitch."

Sam keeps his mouth shut and concentrates on repacking his own bag. Telling Dean to be more careful about that leg is a waste of breath.

Dean limps around the room for a few minutes, cursing under his breath and slowly stretching the leg, trying to coax tight muscles to loosen up. Finally he can walk with only the barest hint of a limp and he stops muttering under his breath.

They grab dinner at the little place down the road. The food is simple but tasty and for once, they don't have to rush.

It's early evening when they leave and the town is gilded by the golden light of the slowly setting sun. It bounces off the upper storey windows, turning them to brilliant mirrors, full of flames. The cold fire is beautiful, but it still sends a small shiver down Sam's spine.

By the time they reach the house the sun is hanging low, staining the sky and a few wispy clouds orange and red. As they drive past the iron gates, there's a second when the house seems to be wreathed in a demonic, bloody halo.

They park the car in the same place as earlier, grab what they need from their bags and slip in through the gates. The doorway is exactly as they left it and there are no footprints in the dust but theirs. They edge along the passageway, as cautiously as before. Just because it doesn't look as though anyone or anything has discovered their previous entry doesn't mean it's gone unnoticed.

Dean shines his light around the open space at the bottom of the staircase. Everything seems the same, until the light plays over the area to the left of the stairs. Sam knows there's something different almost immediately, but he can't quite put his finger on what it is.

They again split up and take the same rooms as before. Sam can hear Dean in the room across the hallway, and he can imagine the unholy glee on his brother's face as he takes several weeks of pain and frustration out on anything and everything that could possibly hold the lich's soul. They sweep through the rooms as methodically this time as they did earlier and it doesn't take much longer either. By the time Sam joins Dean in the library, Dean's slightly flushed, a crazy grin dragging his lips back from his teeth, and he's speckled with sparkling shards of glass and bits of what might once have been fine china ornaments. Sam doesn't bother asking how Dean's ended up with a cobweb in his hair.

Dean ought to look pretty stupid, and he does, mostly. But the faint stain of colour across his cheekbones and the hint of glitter every time he moves, also leaves him looking ephemerally beautiful and Sam can't decide if he wants to gently brush the cobwebs away and hold Dean close, or press his brother against the nearest wall and use his hands and mouth to wreck the illusion.

In the end he does neither because before he can make any kind of decision, Dean's moved away looking for more things to destroy. He's clearly having a great time and Sam's pretty sure that if he were to pull the crowbar from Dean’s hands and crowd him into the dark recesses of the room, his brother wouldn't stop him. He's tempted, because while it still feels odd to want Dean like that, he can’t deny the fact that he does and that what they've done so far has only made him want it more.

For a second or two he allows himself the indulgence of imagining it, of the way he might encourage Dean to curl a leg around Sam's hip; of how Dean would probably roll his hips, cock rubbing against Sam's through their clothes. Maybe he'd lick a stripe up Dean's neck, or let Dean sink his teeth into Sam's shoulder, sharp little nips that'd confuse his body until he couldn't tell pleasure from pain. Sam’s never really thought of himself as being particularly kinky, but since the first time he touched Dean in lust, he’s been wanting to do things that didn't interest him before.

He shakes off the thought and follows the faint glow of Dean’s flashlight, moving slowly towards the back of the library. He reads the titles of the books on the huge shelves as he goes. There are volumes in this room that he’d thought only existed in legend. Spell books and grimoires, some allegedly bound in human skin and written in human blood. The farther they go, the darker and more dangerous the titles become until Sam’s certain his skin is going to crawl right off his body. If he’d harboured any lingering doubts about what they were hunting, he doesn’t any more.

He finds Dean, flashlight clamped in his teeth, swinging his crowbar at a large, ugly and probably priceless vase. The thing shatters in a cloud of dust and shards and the sounds seems unnaturally loud in the quiet dark of the room. Sam turns to look over his shoulder, the sudden sensation of being watched making the hair on the back of his neck stand up. There’s no one behind him, but the feeling doesn’t subside and he’s certain that the lich knows they’re here, and it's only a matter of time before the thing comes looking for them.

Dean turns to Sam, pulling the flashlight from his mouth. "You want to take any of these books?"

Sam looks at the titles around them. There are books here that would be worth a fortune on the black market, but the havoc they could cause if they found their way into the hands of someone who had even half an idea of how to use them scares him to death.

"No. Leave them here for now. When this is done, we should come back and burn them."

Dean looks surprised, but when he turns and flicks his light over the shelves, the expression changes to one of understanding. "Yeah, I see what you mean." He shrugs. "Easier to just torch the whole place."

A sudden crash from outside the library makes them both jump, flashlights bouncing wildly. Sam turns to look in the direction of the sound, and when he turns back, Dean's got the crowbar and the flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other. Sam does the same and looks back at Dean, who nods. They move slowly and silently through the library, back towards the front of the house.

Chapter Text

As they reach the doorway, a muffled sound has them moving to opposite sides of the double doors, flashlights pointed to the floor and away from the entrance. They both lay their crowbars down and edge towards the doorway. Sam glances at Dean. They don't need any signals, any words. When they move, flashlights and guns coming up, pointing out into the darkness of the room beyond, it's as if they were the same person.

Like all these fight or flight situations, Sam tries not to think about what might be waiting for them. He tries to banish all thoughts of the lich, or its hypothetical undead army from his mind. It's pointless and distracting, but there's one small part of his mind that just won't stop imagining the worst, even when he has no idea what the worst might be.

The other reason he tries not to anticipate what they'll meet is because it tends to make him a little too trigger happy and he's terrified that one day he's going to end up blowing away some kid who was stupid enough to take a moonlight stroll through a gnome infested wood, or spend the night in a graveyard on a dare.

Or a pair of teenagers, wandering into a haunted house.

His flashlight picks out wide, startled eyes, before a light flicks across his face, half blinding him. His finger spasms briefly on the trigger, sending a sick sensation tearing at his guts before he forces his hand to relax. He lowers the gun, not all the way, just in case the scared teenagers in front of him aren't what they seem and risks a quick sideways glance at Dean. His brother looks as surprised as he is, although the expression is already starting to melt into annoyance.

"Who the hell are you?" The boy takes a step forwards, maybe trying to prove himself to the girl half hiding behind him, but he stops when Dean raises his gun a couple of inches.

"Who the hell are you?" Dean sounds pissed, but Sam recognises the worry underneath. Hunts are dangerous enough without kids and amateurs stumbling into the line of fire.

"I asked first."

"Yeah? Well I'm the one holding a gun. So, who are you and what are you doing here?"

Sam can almost see the gears turning in the kid's head, caught between backing down and losing face in front of his girlfriend, or pissing off a man with a gun.

"This place is supposed to be haunted. We just wanted to look around, see if there really were any ghosts here." He sounds as sulky as he looks.

Sam shares a look with Dean. "You haven't heard about those kids being found dead in the grounds, couple of weeks ago?"

The girl just shrugs. "Yeah. That's why he wanted to come out here."

Dean looks incredulous and Sam's sure he looks just as poleaxed. Dean lowers the gun until it's pointing at the floor and flicks the flashlight across the kids, like he's trying to judge how serious they are, like he can't believe they could be that naive.

"Two kids are found dead and you thought you'd check out the haunted house? Are you fucking insane?"

"What? It's not like there's really any such thing as ghosts."

"Right. So what did you think happened to those kids? What drained them dry and used them up?"

The guy just looks pissy, but the girl looks more thoughtful, although there's also a sense of confusion. Out of the corner of his eye, Sam sees Dean's hand twitch and he knows that his brother is fighting the impulse to slap some common sense into the idiots.

"Look, just get the hell out of here."

The boy opens his mouth, but he doesn't even get a word out before they're all startled by the shriek of rusty metal, scraping against rusty metal.

"What the..." Dean pushes past the kids and Sam follows, heading towards the front door, where the sound came from. The shape blocking the hallway to the front door seems familiar, but it's only when he gets closer that Sam recognises it as the suit of armour that Dean'd shot at the first time they were in the house. He realises that was what had been missing when they entered this time and he wonders where it'd moved to.

Dean looks back over his shoulder at Sam. All Sam can do is shrug. According to the myths, a lich is only supposed to be able to control the dead, not the inanimate, although the myths aren't always right, of course. Dean frowns, then turns back and edges slowly towards the armor.

He's within a couple of feet of it when a sudden creak makes him jump to his right, narrowly avoiding the heavy mace that the suit brings crashing down, faster than Sam would have thought possible. He's dimly aware of the kids behind them, their shouts and screams, but he's more interested in making sure that Dean's alright.

"Dean, you OK? Dean?" He gives the suit a wide berth as he moves over to check on Dean.

"Yeah, I'm fine." Dean takes the hand and stands, bending a little awkwardly to pick up the flashlight. That he managed to hold onto his gun isn't at all surprising. Dean straightens and shakes the flashlight, clicking it on and off a couple of times before it finally flickers reluctantly back into life, although the beam doesn't seem as bright as before.

"Great."

They jump again when the suit moves once more, swinging the mace back up. Once it's back in position, it doesn't move again.

"What the fuck is that about?" There's a note of hysteria in the girl's voice, although Sam doesn't blame her. It's not an everyday occurrence even for him.

Dean ignores her. "You think that's one of the lich's undead groupies in that armor?"

"Yeah, I'd say so. We're not getting out that way, at least not until we've dealt with the lich."

"And we're stuck with them while we do it." Dean jerks his thumb over his shoulder at the couple now huddled together by the bottom of the staircase.

Sam looks at the teenagers. They look freaked out and while he can't blame them, they're going to be a problem. He can almost see the moment when Dean gives serious consideration to finding a room somewhere and locking them in it, and the instant when he realises that leaving them would be even more of a risk than taking them around the house.

The girl takes half a step forward. "Look, is this supposed to be some kind of stupid prank or something, because it's not funny."

"No prank, no joke. We're all stuck in this place for the time being, unless anyone wants to try and get past Mr. Mace there."

"Well, if it's not a joke, what the fuck is going on?" She pauses and her voice softens "What did kill those boys?"

Dean throws Sam a look, but Sam just shrugs. He's not going to be able to make it sound any less crazy than Dean is. Dean scowls back at him.

"Look, it's going to sound crazy." Sam doesn't look at his brother and resists the urge to raise his eyes skyward.

"What, crazier than a suit of armor coming to life and trying to kill us?"

"Yeah."

"Oh." There's a long pause, then. Finally she takes a deep breath, glances over her shoulder at her boyfriend and then back. "OK, uh, can we just, maybe start over? I don't even know who you are."

"I'm Dean, this is my brother, Sam."

"OK, hi. I'm Jen, that's my boyfriend Alex," she points to the sullen kid. There's a note in her voice that makes Sam think that Alex might not be her boyfriend for much longer.

Alex obviously hears it too, because his face takes on an even more hostile look. Sam can already tell that he could be a real problem.

"So, now we're all introduced, explain to me why there is a suit of armor blocking the door and trying to kill us."

Sam hides a grin. Jen's got a hand on her hip and a determined look on her face. He hasn't made an in depth study, but he's pretty sure that most of the time, women handle finding out there really are monsters under the bed and things that go bump in the night a lot better than men.

"The thing that killed those kids, and that's been killing the animals around here for the past hundred years or so? We're pretty sure it's a lich."

"A what?"

"Lich. Liches were necromancers in life and sometimes, when a necromancer is powerful enough, he can find a way to cheat death. A lich is sort of one of the undead. It isn't really dead, but it's not really alive, either."

"What, like a mummy?" Alex's voice is scornful and dismissive.

"Not really."

Jen looks from Dean to Sam and back again. "You said a necromancer. That's someone who can raise the dead, isn't it?"

Sam nods. "Yeah. A lot of ancient cultures believed that the dead could see all times, past, present and future and necromancers would raise the spirit and sometimes the actual body, of a dead person and try and learn the future from them."

"But? I mean, there's always a but, right?"

"There's a price for waking the dead. They lack the energy, the life force that living people have, so to use them, you have to take some of that energy from somewhere else and give it to the spirit you want to talk to. The longer the person has been dead, the more life force you need."

"Like a sacrifice?"

"Don't be stupid Jen. This is all fucking nonsense." Alex is trying to sound as bored and unimpressed as possible, but Sam sees his eyes glance quickly at the armor and he knows the kid isn't half as nonchalant as he'd like them all to think.

"Really? Then how the fuck did that suit of armor come to life? This isn't Disneyworld, Alex and that wasn't animatronics."

Alex shoots Dean a dark look, resentful and vicious, and Sam upgrades him from probable problem to definite problem.

"A sacrifice, right?" When he and Dean nod, she pales a little. "Human?"

"Sometimes, if they wanted to raise an old spirit, or a powerful one, or if they wanted to raise an army of spirits. Mostly though it was just goats and chickens."

"An army? This thing has an army?" Jen takes a half step back, as if she's afraid that an army of the dead will suddenly materialise in front of her. Sam gains a somewhat grudging respect for her when she takes a breath and holds it for a few seconds, until the panicked look slowly bleeds from her face.

Dean waits until she seems calm again. "Well, no, this particular lich doesn't seem to."

"Except for that suit blocking the doorway." Jen crosses her arms and glares at them.

"We don't even know what's in there and one suit doesn't make an army." He can hear his brother's snort, but he ignores it.

"Fine. So, did you come here to kill it?"

"Well, you can't actually kill it, as it's already dead, but..."

"Yeah. That's the plan." Dean cuts across Sam's explanation and completely ignores the look Sam gives him.

"How, if you can't kill it?"

"The lich stores its soul in a vessel. If we can find and destroy that, then we can kill the lich."

"OK, so what does this vessel look like then? A jug, a glass, an urn, what?" Jen's taken everything in her stride and now she looks ready to actually join the hunt. Sam's always quietly impressed when bystanders get caught up in one of their hunts and actually manage to stay level headed and calm.

"No idea." Dean's grinning like a maniac again, but Jen just throws up a hand and snorts.

"Great. Somehow, I'm just not that surprised. So I guess we'll just have to break everything and anything that might possibly be holding the lich's soul then, right?"

"Jen, I'm telling you, these guys are crazy. It's just some kind of fucked up joke." He grabs her arm and turns her so she's facing him.

"Alex, don't be an idiot." She pulls her arm out of his grasp. "Even if they are playing some incredibly complicated joke, what the hell does it matter? They're going to break a few things. It's nothing you wouldn't have ended up doing anyway."

Sam catches Dean's smirk from the corner of his eye and turns just enough to glare at his brother. He's just honest enough to admit to himself that part of his disapproval is the fact that he knows that Jen is just the sort of girl Dean likes; strong willed, pretty, fiery, petite. He's still not sure enough of their relationship to know if it's exclusive, if Dean's willing, or able, to be faithful. He knows Dean can be, at least in the short term, but that was with women. He has no idea whether Dean would want the same thing with a man, with his own brother, as he has with the few women he's fallen for. Sam's beginning to realise just how many things he still doesn't know about Dean.

Something of his thoughts must show up in his expression because Dean's grin fades a little when he glances at Sam and he gets a questioning look on his face instead. He steps closer and Sam tries very hard not to tense up. He doesn't want to admit he's feeling a little unsure, and a little jealous of a girl whose last name they don't even know. But he is. Dear God, he is.

"Sam?" Dean's voice is low and intimate, meant for Sam's ears only and Sam wants to be as far away from this house and the teenagers as he can get. He wants to be in their room, with the curtains drawn and the door locked. He wants to lie in bed, his brother curled around him, face pressed into Sam's neck, promising him forever, the way Sam once did with Jess. It's not fair to compare them, the two people he's loved above all else, because they're so totally different. He can't help it though, wanting to know why, why them; why him. He hates that he can't just be happy to have found two people to love and who loved him. Sometimes, like now, when he doubts what they have and when he realises all over again that they're always going to have to hide some aspect of their relationship, he almost wishes that he'd spent the rest of his life lonely, and loveless, rather than fall for Dean. But he's not that strong, not that brave. He needs Dean too much to give him up now.

"You OK?"

He takes a breath, lets it out slowly and tries to concentrate on the job. "Yeah. Let's just get this over with and get out of here. The longer we stay, the more chance we've got of running into the lich before we can find the phylactery."

Dean watches him for a second, but he either finds what he's looking for, or decides to back off. He turns back to the teenagers, who are still arguing and Sam feels a little of the tension drain out of him. He feels relieved and shaky.

"Hey. HEY." The kids jump as Dean raises his voice over their squabbling. "Look, there's no other way out of this place, so you're just going to have to stick with us. Stay close and keep your eyes open and the noise down and it'll be fine." He glares at Alex as he speaks. Alex jams his hands in his pockets and screws his face up in what Sam thinks is meant to be a menacing scowl. It looks more like he's got a stomach ache.

"Yeah, we got it."

"Good." Dean nods towards the staircase and Sam moves to start up them. He's peripherally aware of the Jen and Alex following him, but he's too busy keeping his eyes on the heavy darkness beyond the reach of their flashlights, and both ears open for the sound of Dean's footsteps as he follows Sam and the teenagers.

He can't say it to Dean, but he's a little worried. They've done a lot of walking and standing around today and that can make Dean's leg ache and leave him with painful and sometimes crippling muscle spasms. Dean's footfalls are quiet, and Sam has to strain hard to catch them in between his own and those of the teenagers, but when he does, he can't hear any indication that Dean's struggling, although that doesn't mean he isn't. Dean's very good at hiding anything he sees as a weakness, right up to the time when he damn nears keels over.

The stairs lead up to long corridor, with rooms leading off of it. It looks very similar to the first floor, although if the first floor was open space, this is enclosed and claustrophobic. Their lights seem to cast shifting shadows and light up the drifting dust motes and fine cobwebs. Sam edges carefully down the hallway. The first door he comes to is on his left and he passes it silently, stopping on the other side and pressing his shoulder against the wall. Dean makes the kids crouch on the top step of the stairs and Sam hears him whispering to them; probably telling them that if anything happens, they're to head back down the stairs and find somewhere to hide. He leaves them and takes up his place on the other side of the door. They share a look and then Dean shoves the door open and Sam leans around the door frame, gun and flashlight held high.

There's nothing in the room but a moth-eaten bed and a bookcase filled with books that look as though they'll fall apart any second. Nevertheless, Sam slips inside the room and takes a look around while Dean hovers in the doorway. The only thing in the room of any interest is a dusty glass. He breaks it, just in case. Dean grins at him.

They reverse for the next room, Sam watching the hallway and Dean wreaking havoc inside the room. The kids are still by the top of the stairs, the boy still looking sulky and belligerent and the girl nervous, but curious. They're no longer crouching on the top step, but are now standing against the wall by the door of the first room. Sam thinks about telling them to get back to the top step, but in the end, he doesn't bother. They're in danger just being in this house, making them sit on the steps probably isn't going to make much difference at this stage.

Dean steps out of the room and stops next to Sam. "How do we know when we've destroyed the vessel thing?"

"Phylactery."

"Whatever."

"I don't know. I guess we won't know for sure until we meet the lich and try to kill it."

"Well, fuck."

Before Sam can respond, they're distracted by a sound further down the hallway. Sam feels the familiar burst of adrenaline rush through his body and he can sense Dean tensing beside him.

"What was that?" The kid takes a step toward the sound and Dean waves him frantically back, letting the gun drift just a little in his direction.

"Shut the hell up." He hisses.

Jen grabs Alex's arm and tugs him back. Dean looks at them and then at Sam. The noise comes again, the soft sound of someone or something moving about and Dean suddenly seems to come to a decision. He moves over to the kids.

"Look, we're going to see what that noise is. I want you two to get in that room, lock the door if you can and stay quiet."

"Like hell..."

"Alex, shut up. This place is creeping me out."

"I'm not going to be told what to do."

Dean's suddenly right in the kid's face, gun held out to the side, but high, so Alex can see it from the corner of his eye. "Get in the damned room." Whatever the kid sees in Dean's expression, it has the desired effect and he takes a big step backwards, away from Dean. Jen pulls him into the room and she throws Dean a nervous look before she closes the door.

When he turns back, Sam can't help but raise an eyebrow. Dean just glares back. Sam keeps his mouth shut and doesn't say a word. Dean has a notoriously short temper at times, but he's not usually so aggressive with people who stumble into their hunts accidentally. But since he's been injured, Dean's been more snappy and less tolerant than he usually is and Sam isn't about to call him on it in the middle of hunting a lich.

Instead, he follows his brother down the hallway, barely breathing in case he misses hearing something. They both jump when the sound suddenly comes from behind the door next to them. They share a slightly sheepish grin and then they take their positions on either side of the door. Sam throws it open at Dean's nod and then follows his brother into the room, gun ready, muscles tense with anticipation and a little fear.

A sudden movement in the corner of the room has them both firing a couple of shots. When the sound dies away, all that's left of the rat they just killed is a pair of hind legs and a tail, and a lot of red over the walls.

"Jesus." Dean wipes a hand over his face. "We just killed a rat."

For some reason, this strikes them both as hilariously funny and for a few seconds, they can't do anything but laugh, trying to hold in the noise as much as possible. They eventually manage to get themselves together, though Sam can feel the laughter isn't far from the surface.

Sam looks around the room. It's a decent size and there's a door within it that leads to a dressing room. The furniture, like the rest of the house is sparse and slowly falling apart.

"I'll check that room, you do this one." Dean tips his head towards the dressing room and Sam nods.

He hefts his crowbar, but his heart really isn't in it and when he turns, looking for anything that could be the phylactery, he finds Dean leaning against the door frame, watching him.

"OK, Sam, spill it."

"What?"

"You know what. What caused your pissy mood earlier."

"I wasn't in a pissy mood."

"Right. You normally look as though you're sucking lemons. Oh wait, you do."

"Haha."

"Come on Sam, I'd recognise that look anywhere. What got your panties in a bunch?"

"Nothing, I told you."

He goes to walk towards the hallway, but Dean's quicker than he expects and he grabs Sam's arm and digs his fingers in, almost painfully. "Damn it, just tell me what you think I've done this time."

"Don't be stupid."

"OK, so what is it you think I'm going to do?"

Sam's not quick enough to hide his reaction to that comment; he can tell by the way Dean's eyes narrow.

"You think I'm going to hit on that girl. Right there, with you watching. Didn't we already have this conversation?" It's not a question and Dean's voice is flat. Sam can't tell if he's angry or disappointed.

"I wasn't thinking that."

"Sure looks that way from here."

"I don't. It's just that, sometimes, I don't want to have to hide what we are. I don't want to have to pretend. We have to hide and lie about damn near everything else in our lives and I hate that we have to hide this too." It's not the whole truth, but the whole truth is a tangled mess of want and fear and uncertainty where things like 'right' and 'wrong' get twisted up and bent so far out of shape that Sam can't even find the words for all the things he feels.

Dean's hand drops until his fingers brush over the back of Sam's hand and his fingers slip briefly between Sam's. Like he did outside the bar a few days ago, Dean's managed to deflate Sam's anger and offer reassurance, just with one, simple gesture. It's so easy to see the face Dean shows to most of the world, and forget that there's a complicated man underneath who's nowhere near as clueless as he sometimes appears.

He misses the feel of Dean's hand against his, the touch so familiar. For all Dean's supposed aversion to displays of affection, he can't remember a time when Dean didn't touch him. He'd hold Sam's hand when they were kids and had to cross a busy road, offer hugs when nightmares woke Sam in the night. When they got older it was sparring, play-wrestling, wrestling for real, binding wounds and soothing hurts, whether it was a skinned knee or a scratch from a harpy's talon. He'd recognise Dean's touch anywhere. The feel of Dean's hands has always meant safety and comfort and home. And now it means something else, too.

Dean hasn't said anything, but Sam answers the question anyway. "It's fine. I'm fine. We're fine?" He doesn't mean the last bit to come out as anything other than a statement, but at the last minute his voice twists, just a little and there's a question mark that he didn't intend.

"Yeah. Always. You know that."

"Yeah."

Dean smiles then, bright and genuine. "Now can we go break stuff?"

Sam can't help the bark of laughter that drags from him. "Sure."

They separate and take opposite sides of the room. They end up making a race of it and Dean wins, mainly because he cheats and tries to trip Sam with his crowbar.

They stumble into the huge bay window, Dean's shoulder slamming into Sam's chest and nearly sending them both headfirst into the boarded up window.

Dean's grinning like a maniac again, only this time it's made even crazier by a thin trickle of blood running along his right cheekbone where he must have been caught by a sliver of flying glass. It makes him seem a little wild and a whole lot dangerous and Sam really wants to lap at the delicate line. They've seen so much blood; their own, each other's, other people's, that Sam, never, ever thought he'd find the sight or the smell or the taste appealing.

But it's yet another thing he apparently didn't know about himself, because he's suddenly got Dean pressed against the wall, a knee wedged between Dean's legs and he can taste the copper and iron twang as his tongue rasps over the tiny cut, again and again and again. Dean shudders against him, back arching, pushing into Sam, breath catching in his throat. Sam's close enough to feel it when Dean closes his eyes, lashes tickling Sam's skin and it feels so intimate, so trusting.

He leaves the cut, letting his lips trail sloppily over Dean's cheek until he finds his brother's mouth. Dean's been biting his lip, so hard that Sam would swear he can feel the indentations in the soft flesh as he licks Dean's lips, before Dean grabs a handful of Sam's hair and holds him in place so they can kiss, deep and intense.

Dean curls his bad leg a little awkwardly around one of Sam's, almost exactly the way Sam had imagined earlier, in the library, and makes a sound that Sam feels as much as hears, something low, filled with wanting and desperation and everything that Sam's felt since the day he realised that he wanted his brother in his bed, as well as everywhere else. He wraps his hand around Dean's thigh, using that grip and the wall behind to help keep Dean stable. He spreads his legs a little and rolls his hips, a gentle thrust that makes Dean suck in a breath around their kiss and arch his back again. His fingers tighten and he drags Sam's head back so he can attack his neck. When Dean bites, Sam grunts and his body jerks. He has to fling a hand out to brace himself against the wall before they both overbalance and hit the ground.

"Hey, how much longer are you planning on......Jesus fuck."

They're too tangled up in each other for Sam to actually jump away from Dean, but he does swing his head around, wincing as Dean doesn't loosen his grip on Sam's hair quickly enough and a few stray strands are yanked out.

Alex is standing in the doorway, his flashlight trained on the two of them. A stinging sense of shame washes over him, hot and sickening, along with the sense of satisfaction that someone, somewhere knows what Dean means to him and what he means to Dean.

"Alex, get the hell back here... Oh." Jen appears beside Alex, and her expression shifts from annoyance to surprise to something that looks far too much like curiosity for Sam's liking. He has to fight the urge to move in front of Dean, not wanting her to see him as he is, flushed and heavy-eyed with arousal.

Dean lets his head fall back, hitting the wall behind him with a dull thump. "Fucking great." His voice is low and throaty and far too intimate for the current situation.

"I thought you said you were brothers?" Jen looks far too calm and her eyes are flickering between Sam and Dean.

Sam no idea how to answer that question. He's caught between wanting to make to clear that he and Dean are an item and knowing that telling the truth is going to cause them a whole world of trouble.

"Christ, that's disgusting." Alex's face is scrunched up and his voice is full of loathing. Sam can't work out if it's because he thinks they lied about being brothers, or because he believes that they are. He turns away and leaves, almost running.

"Alex, come back." Jen throws them a look, then hurries after Alex.

"You wanted people to know." Dean's tone is rough with anger and a hint of fear. "You got your wish."

"Not like this, damnit." Sam pulls away, so quickly that Dean isn't ready and almost loses his balance.

"Not your perfect, picket-fence ideal?" Dean shoves past him, limping just a little. He leaves the crowbar on the floor and pulls his gun from the back of his pants, flicking the safety off with a practiced movement. The sarcasm in his voice is biting and Sam has no idea what to say to defend himself that won't make things ten times worse. Dean's not normally so cruel; his words are probably driven by fear and something Sam suspects is anger at getting caught, but that doesn't make them hurt any less.

Jen's waiting just outside the door, no longer looking curious, but scared and alone. "He's taken off. I tried to stop him."

"I don't suppose he's headed for the front door?"

"No."

"No, didn't think so." Dean looks tense and grim.

"Get in the room, and this time, stay there."

"I'm sorry, for Alex. I mean..."

"Yeah. I get it. Shut the door and stay put, OK?"

Before she can close the door though, a shout echoes down the hallway and Dean shares a sharp look with Sam, their argument forgotten in the heat of a hunt. Sam leaves his crowbar by the door and draws his own gun, shifting his grip on the flashlight as he does.

"What'll it do to him?" Jen's face is pale and worried and her voice is trembling, just slightly.

"Shut the door. Lock it if you can and we'll be back as soon as possible." Dean's trying to be soothing, but her expression is still scared. For a moment, Sam thinks she's going to refuse, going to insist on staying with them, but then she nods and closes the door quietly.

They inch down the corridor, giving each room a cursory search as they pass, the need to find the phylactery overshadowed for now by the need to find the kid before he's sucked dry by the lich or hacked down by one of its minions.

The rooms here are smaller than those downstairs and most are virtually empty, so the search goes quicker than Sam expected. He tries to recall the layout of the lower storey of the house, but although he knows it branches off towards the kitchen area, he can't remember exactly how it's laid out. The hallway finally takes a right turn, down another narrow passage. Their light doesn't reach far enough to see what's at the end of that corridor and Sam glances at Dean. He can tell by his brother's frown that he's thinking the same thing Sam is; they're being led into a trap.

They've got no choice but to go forward though, because they can't leave the kid in the hands of the lich, even if the chances are that he's already dead and drained.

Dean meets Sam's look. Years of hunting together have removed the need for discussions about who goes first and who shoots where. Sam knows that Dean'll take the lead and that he'll keep to the right, while Sam'll follow with one eye out for anything creeping up behind them and keep to the left.

He stays no more than half a step behind Dean as they inch their way down the hallway. There's no noticeable limp, but Sam can see the way Dean's squinting, making tiny lines fan out around his eyes. He's hurting, but Sam can't tell how much. It's not like he can tell Dean to let Sam handle it, because even the two of them are going to struggle against a lich. He'd offer to go ahead, to take the lead, but now isn't the time to repeat that discussion. He's worried though; for Dean, for himself, for the kid who's probably already in the hands of the lich. But that kind of worry can be a fatal distraction and he knows better than to dwell on it. Instead he shoves it to the back of his mind and tries to concentrate on the hunt.

Finally, their lights finally pick out the end of the corridor, which makes a sharp left hand turn. Dean glances at him and Sam flexes his fingers around both the flashlight and the gun, shifting his grip slightly, trying to be ready for anything that's waiting for them around the corner.

Two steps from the turn they don't even pause, just pick up the pace, moving more quickly and turning the corner together, the light from their flashlights bouncing wildly for a few seconds. They appear to be at the end of another hallway, shorter than the other and with only three doors leading off of it.

The doors to the left and right of the corridor are closed. The door at the end is partly open and there's a dim yellow light spilling out through the gap. As they move cautiously forward, there's the creak of a floorboard from behind the door. They both freeze at the sound, but though Sam strains to hear anything that might give them an idea about where the lich is in the room, silence settles over the place again. At least now they don't need to bother searching the other rooms. They're still cautious; after all, there might be other unpleasant surprises, like the suit of armor, waiting for them.

Sam holds his breath the entire way down the hall. He can't shake the feeling that something is going to come bursting out of one of the doors and attack them. Reaching the end of the hall without anything happening is an anticlimax.

He wishes that something had attacked them, because his nerves are feeling raw and his palms are itchy with sweat. He hates the anticipation, the mingled fear and excitement. He's not like Dean, he can't ride the adrenaline in the same way, can't find the sense of detachment and focus as easily. He doesn't enjoy the life or death buzz that Dean often seems to crave like a drug.

A loud thump from the room makes them both jump. It sounds far too much like a body hitting the floor for Sam's liking. He doesn't need to look at Dean to know that they're going to have to pick up the pace.

He stays just behind Dean, who's close enough to reach out with his flashlight and push the door all the way open. Sam keeps his own light trained in the doorway and his finger firmly on the trigger.

The light from within flickers and Sam guesses it's being cast by candles or old fashioned oil lamps, which means that they now have to add the possibility of an accidental fire to the list of dangers.

Dean's leaning around the door frame, flashlight panning from right to left. The room looks big and Sam realises that they must be over the kitchen and pantry area. This room must have been used as a storeroom more recently, as there are crates and mouldering boxes stacked against the walls. Dean moves forwards, slipping quietly into the room. Sam follows, sliding along the wall to the left of the door. Dean's the other side, light moving over what looks like an old metal bedstead, dusty and covered in cobwebs.

There's a wall of crates to the left, cutting the room in half, and Sam moves carefully towards them. Dean's shoulder brushes his when he takes up his place alongside Sam.

A muffled shout from behind the crates has them running. Sam reaches the gap in the crates first and he takes a step through. The space beyond is lit by several candles and for some reason, Sam's first thought is to wonder where the lich has gotten them, after so many years cooped up in this house. His second is that the lich is there, right in front of him. The thing is grotesque; nothing more than bones dried and yellowed with age, held together with desiccated sinew. The skull is covered with a mask of leathery skin and a few straggly clumps of grey hair. It's standing over Alex's limp body, sprawled across a bed, covered with rotting sheets.

He doesn't have time to make out whether the kid's alive or dead before the lich shrieks and flies towards him, bony hands outstretched. He manages to fire twice before the thing knocks his hand away, one hand squeezing his wrist hard enough to force him to drop the gun while the other wraps around his throat, skeletal fingers digging brutally into the sensitive skin.

He hears two more shots, but though the lich screams in what could be fury or agony, it only lets go of his wrist. Dean suddenly appears, launching himself at the lich, using his weight to pull the thing away from Sam and slamming both himself and the lich into the wall of crates. The precarious structure wobbles, then starts to fall, thankfully away from Dean and all those candles.

Sam rubs his throat, coughing and trying to suck in air through muscles that feel as though they've been crushed. Dean staggers back from the lich, favouring his bad leg. The skeleton crumbles slowly to the floor, it's neck clearly broken.

Dean limps over to Sam, fingers reaching out towards Sam's throat. He stops just before he touches skin.

"You OK?"

"Yeah." He can hear his own voice, raspy and rough and just that one word has him coughing again.

"We'd better get out of here, that thing is dead, but I don't trust it to stay that way."

"No, it'll just find the nearest body."

"Nearest..? Shit." Dean turns suddenly, almost losing his balance as he does.

Sam's confused until he looks over Dean's shoulder. Alex is still lying on the decaying bed, and now Sam can clearly see that he's dead. But even as he watches, he sees the body begin to change. The flesh starts to shrivel away, the once thick hair falling out as the skin dries and the expression on the kid's face becomes locked into a permanent, grotesque grimace.

"The phylactery." He croaks.

"What?" Dean looks at him as though he's lost his mind.

"We've got to find the phylactery." He has to stop as a bout of coughing takes away his breath. Dean's hand on his arm is a reassurance although he hates how much he wants it. "Unless we destroy the phylactery, the lich'll just keep coming back. I bet it's in this room somewhere."

"Fuck. Fine."

Sam picks up his gun and together they search the small area around the bed, but when that yields nothing, they move past the wall of crates. The body on the bed is almost completely skeletal now and Sam estimates that they've got just a few more minutes before it comes after them again. They got lucky last time, he doesn't think the thing will give them a second chance.

His estimate is wrong. He spots an ornate urn sitting on a dressing table, books and crucibles scattered around it like some kind of shrine and a surge of relief rushes through him when he realises that that has to be what they're looking for. He's taken barely a step towards it when he hears a choked off cry behind him and turns to find the lich has Dean. His brother is being forced to his knees, one of the lich's hands gripping his hair and the other around his throat. Sam knows just how much strength is in those bony hands and that the lich could choke Dean, or break his neck before Sam could reach them, or the urn. Dean's gun is on the floor in front of him, just out of his reach, although he can see Dean straining against the creature's hold on him.

Sam's rooted to the spot. Whatever he does, the lich is going to kill Dean. He knows he should go for the urn; should make sure that the lich can't kill anyone else. He can't do it, though, can't sign Dean's death warrant like that. Not even when Dean's staring at him, and his expression makes it all too clear what he expects Sam to do.

Dean's eyes suddenly flick away, over Sam's left shoulder and then the lich's head turns.

Sam spins to see Jen, crowbar in hand standing near the urn.

"The urn, smash the urn." He points, gesturing wildly towards the the alcove.

"What?"

"Smash the fucking urn." Shouting makes his throat feel as though it's on fire, but he ignores it and turns back to see the lich begin to tighten the hand that's around Dean's throat.

He turns back just in time to see Jen swing the crowbar. The urn explodes in a shower of shards and dust.

The lich screams wordlessly and Dean takes the opportunity to yank himself free, falling forwards as he overbalances. He snatches up the gun as he hits the floor and twists, already firing. He keeps shooting until the gun's finally empty. Sam doesn't even realise he's been shooting too, not until his own gun clicks on empty. The air is hazy with smoke and the heavy smell of cordite. The lich is nothing more than a collection of shattered bones.

"Alex?" Sam turns to look at Jen, looking scared and confused.

"I'm sorry. The lich..." He doesn't quite know how to tell her what happened, not when he's desperate to go to Dean and make sure his brother is OK.

"God..." She makes a sound that's halfway between a sob and a groan. She turns away from Sam and lets the crowbar fall to the floor.

He should go to her, offer her some kind of comfort, but he doesn't. He goes to Dean instead.

Dean's lying flat on his back, arms flung wide, the gun still gripped in his right hand. His eyes are closed, and he's breathing deeply, but slowly. He doesn't move when Sam drops to one knee beside him, but he does open his eyes. He looks tired; pale and drained and Sam would give anything to wipe that look from his brother's face; to escape the knowledge that he's probably helped put it there.

He stands and offers Dean a hand. He tries not to be hurt when Dean hesitates before taking it and letting Sam pull him to his feet. He drops Sam's hand once he's standing and moves away, towards Jen. Sam swallows bile and bitter jealousy. He doesn't need to watch to know that Dean'll put his arm around her and offer some kind of useless platitude that'll nevertheless make her feel better, because it'll be delivered with utter sincerity. He hates that even now, his first concern is whether Dean's flirting with someone.

He walks over to the remains of the lich. They've killed it and prevented it from claiming anyone else, but all he can feel is a sense of failure, because Alex isn't going to be going home.

The hand on his shoulder makes him jump, a little. Dean's right beside him and there's a small smirk on his lips, but it's forced and his eyes are dull and haunted. Sam knows that Dean'll take this loss even harder. For all the years he's been hunting and for all the people he's helped, his brother still can't bear to lose someone; still feels it like it's a personal flaw that he should be able to correct.

"You think whatever was in that suit of armor's dead too?" Dean's voice is almost as hoarse as Sam's.

"I'd guess so."

"Good. We should torch this place and get out of here."

"Yeah." Dean's grip tightens just a little and Sam allows himself a glimmer of hope that maybe they aren't as broken as he fears.

They both gently guide Jen away from the room, collecting their stuff on the way. It seems to take forever to reach the staircase.

When they reach the bottom, Dean's flashlight picks out the suit of armor, still standing in the doorway. He looks at Sam. Sam shrugs, then walks towards the suit, ready to jump out of the way if the thing tries to bring the mace down. But he gets close enough to touch with no sign of movement. He reaches out and shoves. The suit topples backwards, landing with a resounding crash. Whatever had animated it has clearly gone now that the lich is dead.

He helps Jen over it and takes her outside. He settles her in the back seat of the Impala. She's quiet and compliant and Sam spares a few minutes to worry about how she's going to handle this once the shock wears off. He has to leave her and hope that she'll stay put. He grabs a couple of gas cans from the trunk and heads back into the house.

Dean's waiting in the lobby area. He takes one of the cans from Sam and they silently move through the first floor, soaking what they can in gas. Sam leaves Dean to douse the library. He doesn't want to go near the books again. They're pure evil, but still, the temptation to take just one would be strong and he knows, oh so well, that the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions.

He waits by the front door until Dean joins him. Dean pulls out his lighter and a scrap of moth eaten cloth. He flicks the wheel and touches the flame to the rag. Flames leap up the material, throwing strange shadows over Dean's face. He watches the cloth burn for so long that Sam's afraid that he'll burn his fingers, but just before the flames reach his hand, Dean tosses the cloth into the house. It takes no more than a couple of minutes before the fire is raging and the heat forces them to move away.

They walk back to the Impala. Dean gives Sam the keys without being asked and slides awkwardly into the passenger seat. Sam checks on Jen in the back, but she's as quiet and semi-responsive as she was earlier. Sam looks in the rear view mirror as they drive away. He can already see that the blaze has started to consume the upper floor. By the time they're half a mile down the road, the sky is lit up with the orange glow of the fire behind them and the first signs of dawn in front of them.

The trip back to town is silent and awkward. Sam's voice is still rough when he asks Jen where she lives. She seems surprised by the question, but gives him accurate directions. When he pulls up, just down the block from her house she doesn't move for a full minute.

"What do I do? What do I say?" Her voice is barely above a whisper.

"Nothing. It's better if you don't tell anyone you were there." Dean's voice is quiet as well.

She laughs, bitter and brittle. "Yeah. Not like anyone would believe me anyway." She opens the door and goes to get out when Dean reaches out and catches her wrist.

"It gets easier. Not at first and it never goes, but... it gets easier. And I'm sorry that we couldn't save Alex."

"So am I." She pulls her hand away and gets out, shoulders hunching against the early morning chill. They watch her until she disappears around the side of the house, presumably heading for the back door.

"I'm sure she'll be OK." Sam tries to sound more positive than he feels

"Yeah. Maybe."

"Dean..."

"I just want to go back to the room, Sam. I'm not really in the mood for talking."

He doesn't have anything to say to that, so he puts the car in gear and pulls away. It's a short drive to the motel. As they climb out of the car, the sun is just clearing the horizon, orangey-yellow light slanting across the tarmac. It's another new day and the hopeful light seems horribly inappropriate somehow.

Dean heads straight for their room, leaving Sam to follow. He doesn't bother to bring their stuff in from the car. There'll be time for that later. He closes the door quietly and leans heavily against it. Dean's sitting on the end of the bed nearest the door, elbows on his knees and head in his hands. He looks so tired, so worn around the edges that Sam aches to be able to offer some comfort.

"We can't do that again, Sam. That kid died tonight because we got distracted. I can't... I can't do that again."

"So you want to stop? You want to go back to the way things were before? Because I'm sorry the kid died, I really, honestly am, but I don't think I can go back. I don't think either of us can go back." He walks into the room until he's standing in front of Dean. "Dean, I can't pretend we're just brothers anymore. I can't spend the rest of my life with you, wanting to touch you and not being able to. I know it's selfish but it's the truth." He kneels, tugging one of Dean's hands free so he can slide his fingers between Dean's.

Dean raises his head, eyes wide and scared and vulnerable in a way that Sam hates.

"Even if it means you don't get your 2.4 kids and your SUV and the family dog?" He's trying so hard to be detached, arrogant; trying to pretend that he doesn't care about Sam's answer. But Sam knows him too well. If Sam's jealous, then Dean's just as insecure.

"I don't care about that. I wanted it once, but I don't want it now. Not if it means we give this up. How we are now, that changes everything."

"I know. Believe me, I know. We're so fucked, Sam." He laughs, and it sounds like Jen's, cold, broken and Christ, he's shaking, fingers trembling against Sam's. "But not on the hunts. Never again. You understand Sam? I won't lose anyone else. Next time it might be you. I can't risk that." His fingers tighten on Sam's.

"Yeah. I understand." He does, this time, he really does.

Dean just looks at him for a long few seconds, then he gently cups Sam's cheek and pulls him closer. Sam leans in, letting his free hand rest on Dean's knee. The kiss is slow, careful, almost painfully intense and it makes Sam ache.

He has no idea how long they stay like that, clinging to each other with a quiet desperation. He only knows that sometime later, Dean pulls him up, his knees protesting all the way, and drags him into the bathroom. They shower, trading touches, gentle and reverent. When they're clean and dry, Sam follows Dean to bed, slipping between cool cotton sheets. He curls around his brother and buries his face in the back of Dean's neck. They're broken; damaged, both of them, but lying in the dark, clean and safe, he thinks that maybe, in time, they can be fixed. Maybe they can fix each other before they break each other so badly that they can't be made whole again.