Previously appeared in Rooftop Confessions 5 (2010), from GriffinSong Press
The Family Business
K Hanna Korossy
The sleek black car, gleaming in the light of the full moon, slipped into invisibility under the branches of a large weeping willow. Seemed a fitting choice of tree for outside a graveyard, Sam Winchester thought.
His brother Dean, sitting in the driver's seat, turned off the motor. Then the two of them just sat, pausing in the silence for, Sam thought, probably completely different reasons.
His was obvious: Jess was dead and buried. Dad had disappeared chasing the thing that had killed Sam's girlfriend and their mom. They needed to find Dad, both to make sure he was okay and to help him take down whatever the friggin' thing was that was murdering the women in their lives. Sitting there in the middle of Alabama, hunting a necromancer who had nothing to do with them and whom their dad had surely never crossed paths with, was a waste of time.
"Dean," he tried again, going for persuasive but wincing when it came out a little desperate.
"Give it a rest, Sam," Dean's drawl cut him off.
The unexpected weariness in his tone gave Sam pause. Sometimes he forgot that Dean was missing Dad, too, and that Sam was fairly lousy company in his grief. Not to mention the real reason Dean was leery about this hunt: their prey this time was human. Which was usually a lot more of an issue for Sam than for his brother; Dean tended to see even humans in the black-and-white, good-and-evil terms in which he viewed the world of the supernatural. But even Dean wasn't a killer, and the fact that their simple zombie hunt had become about stopping one very human Trent Seybold, was not making him very happy.
Sam sighed, fingers drumming on his knee once. He abruptly pushed his door open and climbed out. Maybe neither of them wanted to be there, but it was getting close to midnight and they might as well get the job done since they were there.
Dean joined him back at the trunk a moment later, and they loaded up in terse silence: handguns to deal with human prey, machetes and shotguns for any potential undead. Old Trent seemed to be determined to raise half the town's deceased population, and there was no telling if he had any reserves with him. Sam checked his ammo with the smooth proficiency of years of training—it really was like riding a bicycle—and tucked it away, then took the sawed-off Dean handed him.
For all the tension between them, they still worked together as a unit. Sam found himself wistful not for the first time over how much he'd missed his brother at school. You didn't grow up that in-sync with someone and then suddenly go it alone for years without feeling seriously handicapped.
Sam breathed out and squared his shoulders, scanning over the trunk lid what he could see of the moonlit graveyard. "Go in through the front, or split up and flank?"
Dean tilted his head toward him, eyebrow cocked in surprise. Whether it was at Sam being fully in the game or at the terminology he hadn't used in years, Sam didn't know, but the two of them hadn't grown apart so much that he didn't notice the tiny pleased quirk of his brother's mouth. Dean straightened, easing the trunk shut with one hand while the other gripped his own favorite shotgun. "How close do you have to be for the purification?"
Sam eyed the graveyard again. The map had shown it to be about three acres of "corpse farm," as Dean had colorfully put it. They had a ground purification and resanctification ritual from their dad's journal that should negate the necromancer's work, but the territory it covered had been vague. He grimaced. "I don't think it'll be enough to do it from the gate."
Dean nodded. "Then we stick together, go in through the front but keep our heads down, see how close we can get to Bent Trent."
Sam's mouth twisted. In tacit agreement, he fell into step next to Dean.
They slipped through the open iron gates and split up just enough to start darting from cover to cover while keeping each other in sight. Sam split his focus between watching his brother's back and keeping an eye out for their prey, adrenaline spiking his senses with an extra shot of clarity. He hadn't missed the thrill of the hunt at all, not the danger nor the odd hours nor the action. But he'd be lying if he said anything at school had ever felt as meaningful as ending evil and saving lives. Even his beloved academia seemed a little dry in comparison, so it was a good thing Dean hadn't asked if he'd ever missed it.
A soft murmur carried on the breeze. Sam saw Dean's attention perk at it, too, and they both paused to reorient. Dean's head finally canted one direction, and Sam nodded agreement. They started moving again.
And there, just on the other side of an old mausoleum, stood Seybold. The guy was in black robes, hands lifted parallel to the ground, chanting. Sam suppressed a snort; it would've been funny, the theatricality of it all, if two people hadn't already died.
Dean shot him a question in a look, and Sam nodded and crouched down, already pulling the ritual items from his pocket. This was definitely close enough. He set up the ring of hyssop and uncorked the chrism oil while darting glances up at Dean, who'd continued to make his way toward Trent.
And that was when all Hell broke loose. Or at least a graveyard's worth.
Midnight or not, Seybold had apparently gotten further than they'd expected. Either that, or he had a considerable army assembled already. Lumbering figures started to appear from all around, arms reaching to join them from the ground. Not good. So not good.
Dean abandoned stealth and rushed toward the necromancer. They didn't have to kill the guy, just take him out, and Sam knew his brother was more than capable of that.
That was all he had time to think before a zombie grabbed him from behind.
The earth was shifting all around them, the graveyard coming to undead-life. Even as rotting arms squeezed him tight, Sam could see his brother pull up short, looking back at him with an expression of alarm. Trent's arms were still raised, either oblivious or uncaring of their presence. But even as Sam grunted, then shoved back, he saw another one of the undead lumbering toward Seybold from behind.
Dean hesitated, gaze jumping from Sam to the necromancer and back.
Sam tried to shake his head that Dean shouldn't worry about him. The day he couldn't take a zombie down was the day he ceded bragging rights to Dean forever. Sam pivoted, raising his arms to break the zombie's hold while thrusting his elbow back.
It worked…sort of. Off-balance, the creature that held him stumbled back. One of his—her?—arms actually came off, and suddenly freed, Sam fell to the side.
Right into a roiling patch of fenced-off soil.
Dirt immediately spilled into his ears and mouth. His body sank partway into the ground before Sam even realized why: dozens of hands were reaching for him, pulling him down. The fence had apparently marked off some sort of mass grave.
Forget adrenaline; panic reenergized him. Sam started kicking and shoving his way out, reaching for the fence, maybe yelling for Dean, he wasn't even sure. He spat out grave dirt, gasping as a rotting face shot up in front of him and grinned. Then it reached out and shoved his head down into the churning ground.
No, no, no… Soil poured down his throat. Bony hands were clamped on his ankles and wrists, and more pawed at his back, his legs, tugging him down. No! His hands flailed, pushing at disintegrating flesh, and his feet couldn't find any targets. The smell of death filled his nose along with the graveyard loam.
Oh, God. He was being buried alive, dragged down into Hell.
Survival instinct made his struggles even more frenzied, and his head momentarily broke through the surface, just enough to hear a distant yell.
His chest hurt; he couldn't breathe. He sank back down with a cry, completely blind, decaying hands crawling all over his flesh. His mind was sputtering to find a way out, but his thoughts were fragmenting, splintering under terror and a body that was shutting down. He couldn't do more than instinctively thrash against his restraints, but he was getting weaker, movements sluggish and ineffective. Sam's mind gave a final reflexive gasp: Dean!
And then hands, solid and sure, gripped his shoulders and yanked him up away from the others.
He immediately began to cough, his lungs trying to expel dirt and take in oxygen at the same time. The bony hands still pulled at him from behind and below, but the firm ones wouldn't release their grip and pulled him tight against an equally solid chest. He hawked and gulped and tried to figure out how to breathe again while vaguely feeling the clawing hands detaching as he was jerked away. The lower half of his body was still buried, shoes long gone and jeans snagged and torn. But those unrotting hands that grasped him would not let him go.
"Sam. You have to climb out."
The voice sounded muffled; his ears were still full of dirt. But Sam tried to blink his blurry eyes clear to see the speaker, figure out what was going on. There was another jerk of his ankle, and he kicked back viciously even while he shivered and squinted up.
Dean. Dean had come in after him, also partly immersed in the dirt but hanging on to the iron fence with an unyielding hand. With the other, he held on just as tight to Sam. "Sam?"
He shook himself. "Yeah." His voice sounded as full of gravel as his throat felt. Sam reached for the fence, feeling Dean shove him closer, and managed to wrap a shaky hand around a metal bar right beside Dean's grip.
"Climb up. You can do it, Sammy."
Dean's hand was pressing against his back. Disintegrating arms still reached after him, but Dean let go of Sam to shove them back, breaking bones, twisting wrists to get him free. Sam weakly hauled himself up higher, second hand joining the first on the fence, his feet finally finding purchase on Dean's crooked knee.
"Go, Sam!" Sharp like Dad's voice, the command automatically fueled his determination. Sam set his jaw and hauled himself upward.
Dean pushed him from behind: lower back, rear, his leg. Sam braced himself against his brother's body for one last haul, finally feeling his body break free of the dirt and zombie hands altogether. God, he couldn't get out of there and to a shower fast enough.
Dean's grip shifted to under his knee, giving him one more weak shove to clear the top of the fence, then slipped free altogether. Sam glanced back to watch his brother follow him out.
And saw Dean going under, most of his body already buried as slimy, tattered hands reached hungrily to pull him down.
Déjà vu stirred in the recesses of frantic Sam's brain as he saw Dean's nose and mouth submerge.
"Dean! Help!" He was doggy paddling to stay afloat, but the water was freezing and he was already feeling so tired and heavy.
A shadow fell over him as his brother's head appeared over the lip of the well. "Sammy! What're you—? Okay, okay. I'm coming down, okay? Don't worry."
There was a splash, and Sam gripped onto the warm, solid body of his brother with stiff fingers. "I'm sorry." He was crying, scared and relieved at once. "I'm sorry, I falled in, Dean."
"It's okay." Dean gently unclamped his fingers and rubbed them, then wound an arm around his middle. "I'm gonna get you out of here, okay?"
He nodded jerkily, trusting Dean to do just that.
His brother ended up giving him a boost. It wasn't a deep well; climbing shakingly up onto Dean's shoulders, Sam could just reach the edge. It might have been more than most five-year-olds could do to pull themselves up out of a hole, but Daddy made sure they could do all kinds of things. He would help them now. Shivering and wobbly, Sam immediately scrambled into the house to get Daddy to pull Dean out.
Dean was quiet when their dad got him out, white and blue and not moving. Sam was even more scared than he'd been in the water, until Daddy pushed at Dean's stomach and suddenly Dean was spitting up water and shaking all over.
That night when they were curled up in front of the fireplace in pajamas and a bunch of blankets next to their dad, Sam thought he was the one who was shaking and crying, but…maybe not.
Dean had shoved him out then even though, in the process, Sam had inadvertently pushed him under.
He wasn't doing it again.
He sagged back inside the fence, making sure he held on tight with one hand while reaching back with the other. It took a moment of fumbling, but he finally grabbed onto the collar of Dean's coat and pulled.
Dean's arms knocked into him, fighting to the end even when he didn't know against what.
Sam chanced letting him go for a second to snag him under the arms instead, towing relentlessly upward as Dean had done with him a minute before. "It's me. Take it easy, it's me, Dean."
Dean was also sputtering, trying to see through dirt-encrusted eyes. But he had to have recognized Sam's voice; he was grabbing onto his arm now instead of trying to knock him away.
Sam groaned as he dragged Dean against the current, and the pull of a dozen hungry zombies. Finally, finally he was able to press his brother's hands against the iron bars. "Come on, we're getting out."
Dean let go of the fence and fumbled again to boost Sam out.
Sam gave a sigh of exasperation and moved Dean's hand back to the metal crosspieces. "Both of us, Dean. Now, climb out, man—I'm ready to get out of here."
Dean's face creased under the layer of dirt, but he began to haul himself up. As if he couldn't help himself, though, one arm kept straying over to pull at Sam's arm, his belt loop, finally his calves.
And then they were both falling over the fence, back onto the relatively stable ground of the awakening graveyard.
Sam dropped his head back. With the need to save Dean gone, his strength seemed to drain. He could now feel the bruises and gouged skin of all those grasping hands, the joints he'd wrenched as he'd fought to free himself. The graveyard dirt he'd swallowed and breathed in churned inside him, and he coughed out brown sludge as he squeezed his eyes shut against a swell of nausea.
Beside him, he could feel Dean clamber to his feet. It took about all of Sam's strength to turn his head and work his eyes open.
Several zombies were heading their way, arms upraised in classic Romero pose. A soiled suit showed one body had once been a man, a hanging white dress identifying another as a woman, but their hair had slipped off, their skulls visible. Not that it seemed to slow them down any as they lurched toward the Winchesters.
Dean stepped between Sam and the approaching threat.
He wanted to help. Get up and stand beside Dean, not behind him. Watch his back.
Sam had made it up to his forearms and knees, swaying and head hanging, when a scream broke the soft sounds of shuffling and moans that filled the air.
Sam lifted his head.
He'd sorta forgotten about Trent Seybold in the whole trying-not-to-be-buried-alive thing. The zombies apparently hadn't, though. With no regard for creator or master, the creature Sam had seen shuffling toward Seybold had not only reached him, but had been joined by another, and they were seriously ticked off. As Seybold sank to the ground, still screaming, Sam caught sight of glistening red and turned away, sickened.
He should go finish the ritual. He should find his gun. He should…try really, really hard not to throw up.
Dean shifted his feet apart, the heel of his boot nudging against Sam's elbow. Prepared to take on the advancing zombies even though neither of them seemed to have any weapons left.
Seybold's screams abruptly stopped.
And so did the zombies. One minute, it seemed the whole army of the undead was closing in on them. The next, with their animator dead, it was a field of motionless corpses. Dean had to jerk back to keep a particularly ripe body with only one arm and no face from taking Dean down with him.
Sam let his head drop again, watching sideways through his bangs and exhaustion as Dean cautiously leaned forward and nudged a body with his boot. "Is it…?"
"Dead." Dean angled a smirk at him. "Or, you know, re-dead. Whatever."
Sam snorted softly, shaking his head. Then pitched forward into the black dirt once more.
His mouth tasted gross. Jess always teased him about morning breath but kissed him anyway, but this was probably toxic. He swished his tongue around and grimaced. Almost tasted like…
Oh. Sam sank back into the bed. It probably was. And Jess was beyond caring.
He sighed, his heart once again taking on the weight of loss as it did whenever he remembered. He reached up to rub at his surprisingly clean face, then turned his head toward the muted light coming from the window.
Dean stood silhouetted there, his back to Sam, arms crossed, head bent just a little, like he was thinking and it wasn't good thoughts.
Sam took advantage of the private moment to study his brother.
It had been hard for him at Stanford, suddenly on his own in the foreign landscape of normal life. But Sam had had the diversion of school and new friends and a bright future. He couldn't even imagine what it had been like for Dean, left behind in their dark, dead-end world, his only distraction the need to learn how to hunt without the backup he'd always relied on. Sam was starting to get the picture now that it hadn't been as easy for his brother as Dean had played it off.
He'd logically expected the extra scars from their time apart, the additional lines around the eyes, the added muscle mass. But he hadn't expected the glimpses of loneliness, hurt, yearning. He'd grown up with a brother full of life and optimism and joy. It was only with adult eyes that Sam saw how much of that was an act, hiding the insecurity and pain within.
It was only now he had some inkling how much Dean had sacrificed along the way.
"You almost drowned in the well, didn't you?"
His voice, though weak and scratchy, immediately had Dean turning, arms falling to his sides. He frowned at Sam, half perplexed, half concerned. "Sam? Uh, you do know where we were last night, right?"
Sam scoffed, rolling to his side. Just as expected, a bottle of water waited for him on the nightstand. He reached out and snagged it, ignoring the dark splotches of bruises and scratches along his bare arm, and drained half before he dropped back on the bed. Every square inch of him ached. "When we were kids. I fell in that well, remember? You jumped in after me, pushed me out. But you almost drowned."
Dean's eyes darkened. He was quick; he'd probably already figured out what had reminded Sam of that now. "It was dumb—I should've gone for Dad instead of trying to get you out myself. Could've gotten us both killed."
"No," Sam softly disagreed, tucking a hand under the pillow as he watched Dean, "you were thinking of me. You knew I'd get out, and that was what mattered to you." What mattered still, whether freeing Sam from a well, a grave, or a hunting life that was suffocating him.
Dean shifted uncomfortably. "Cops found Low-Rent Trent this morning." He was already in motion, moving on literally and figuratively as he went to fill the coffeepot in the kitchenette. "They've already pinned the 'mass grave desecration' on him. Think he killed himself in some twisted game with the bodies."
Sam flopped back on the bed. "Great." He should probably feel bad they'd let Seybold die, but considering it had been the necromancer or them, Sam didn't have any regrets. He hoped Dean wouldn't either, but for all his brother's pragmatism, human evil sometimes got to Dean far more than supernatural. Another facet Sam only saw now.
"You hungry? You were kinda out of it last night…"
"Last night?" Sam frowned, trying to remember and drawing a blank after the last zombie went down and so, apparently, had he.
Dean cocked his head. "You don't remember? Complained all the way to the car about leavin' your purification stuff behind, then wanted to take a bubble bath instead of a shower." Dean's grin glimmered, momentarily real and undimmed.
Sam glowered back. He had no idea how much of that was true and probably never would; Dean was just as likely to make up a story to hide the fact he'd had to carry Sam back and clean him up. As if he hadn't grown up doing stuff like that for Sam.
It had taken college to teach him that not all siblings were like Dean. Some of his classmates had hated their brothers, or hardly knew them, or were just kinda friends. Nobody considered their sibling their best friend, knew they'd give their life for them, worried and cared for and loved them like Dean did him.
Sam had always felt the same way. But it was important now that Dean knew Sam got it, too.
He swallowed, then nodded at the newspapers piled on the table. "So, you found us a new job yet?"
That same pleasantly surprised look that Sam had seen at the cemetery darted across Dean's face, and it made him feel just as warm. "Uh, maybe? How're you on hodag lore?" He grabbed the paper and brought it over as Sam automatically shifted to make him room on the edge.
Maybe Dad had seen the same article. Maybe this would be the one where they'd cross paths, or find a clue as to what had killed Jess and Mom. Or maybe it would be just another hunt, saving people and hunting things with his brother at his side.
Sam could think of a lot worse.