Title: In Loving Memory
Genre: angst, character study
Characters: Sam, Dean, Jess
Rating: PG-13 for one dead body; lividity, evacuated bowels, etc.
Word Count: ~2700
Summary: 1x02 "Wendigo" tag -- Sam and Dean return to Blackwater Ridge to bury the remaining bodies. In mountainous isolation, they affirm their hatred for camping, swap M&Ms, and draw lines around who they are to each other (and who they're not).
Notes: Written for sendintheklowns's prompt for summer_sam_love 2011 Exchange. She wanted Sam, still reeling from Jessica's death, out of practice and on a hunt with Dean. The approach here's a little unconventional, but I hope you enjoy this, bb. Art by the amazing reapertownusa!
"I like those," says Jess, of the columbines with broken necks and muddy war paint where Dean's stepped through them. They're arctic blue under the Maglite, seas of pale flowers that extend up the mountainside, no matter how high or how deep they hike.
They--the three of them; sometimes, the two of them--find Roy's body, stiff and twisted, nestled in the columbines. When he fell from the tree, his skull pressed in, slid down, made his head look like the pale domed rocks that mark their distance from base camp. Smooth under his thin hair, and a jagged ridge where something's missing. Sam doesn't know if they find him where the wendigo left him; given the frenzied tangle of roots and mud and branches, Sam's betting not. But maybe that destruction was them, tearing into the wilderness, running and afraid. A different them: Him, Dean, Haley, and her brother (and not Jess. Sometimes Jess).
Dean's hands are an arctic blue under the Maglite when they pull Roy onto level ground. He grunts with the effort of turning Roy onto his side, chest first and legs dragging. He's on his own because Sam waits for a countdown one two three and Dean doesn't give him one. Dean grimaces.
"Are you okay?" Sam asks. His tone barely warrants the interrogative.
Sam removes Roy's boots. They're good leather, and sturdy. Unmalleable. Sam swears. Roy's foot is broken; it swelled before he died, and now it's an indistinguishable bulge Sam can't excavate from its ECCO skin, not even after filleting down Roy's laces and boot hooks with his knife.
"Just get your fucking light out of my face," Dean says, words out of place and long after Sam's flashlight is gone from his hands. Right now, Sam's got his light focused on Roy's not-foot. God knows what's wrong with Dean; apparently he's hurt enough or tired enough to give him better things to do than treat Sam like glass.
Sam is amenable.
He gives Roy's boot a sharp tug with both hands, and the not-foot gives way with a sick pop. Sam's left the flashlight to the columbines and mud for the maneuver, but the sound is all his stomach needs to get to roiling. Vague half-thoughts about all the dead he'd ever handled flush back like a firestorm, and he takes a deep breath. Tries not to taste the blood in the air.
He can hear Dean wrestling with Roy's jacket, trying to pull it from arms made mannequin by rigor mortis. He quickly turns to stripping the jacket with his hunting knife, hacking away at the thick material until it comes away in night-damp pieces.
"He'll have to sharpen that," says Jess. How could you possibly know that, Sam thinks, and Jess says, "Kitchen knives and sewing scissors. Completely different edges."
She picks limp columbines and makes an altar of Roy's boot.
"You know, I've never been to Colorado. Wanted to. Thought about it. Garden of the Gods, the mineral springs. It's prettier than Eden."
Sam's numb fingers work at Roy's belt buckle. He tries to snap Roy's belt off him like a whip, some smooth, professional movement, but it's stuck under his crushed hip. Sam jerks in vain for some moments, until his palms burn and his stiff shoulders feel stretched. Then he leaves it.
Sam unbuttons Roy's khakis to find he's soiled himself--fuck Dean for taking the head--and edges wet-damp pants from mottled thighs. Given the pattern of the bruising, Sam knows that where they found Roy now is certainly not where they'd left him. He hates that he still knows, is glad that he knows something. He doesn't even know anymore.
Nothing's prettier than Eden, Sam sighs--vain effort at distraction--and tries not to puke.
They have no water, no provisions, to wash it down. If he pukes. If he--
"You ever been?" says Jess. "To the Garden, I mean."
Sam doesn't answer, instead concentrates on not getting any Roy on him. When Roy is naked, Sam wipes his hands on the columbines and welcomes the mud.
Then liquid splashes into his mouth, and Sam's halfway to tossing everything he hasn't eaten today before it registers as kerosene. Dean splashes more onto Roy's bare crotch, thighs.
He's cutting corners.
"That's not how I remember doing this," says Sam. Because there's a ritualized notion of hunting that's come to life in his numb fingertips, memories of Dad's steps, procedures, 'kindnesses' that fall in sharp lines and delineated steps. How Sam was taught--how they both were taught.
"It's now I do this," says Dean, and there are no steps. Just a stream of practiced motion Sam almost doesn't recognize from his memories, which are manual-clean, idealized.
"What about the salt?"
"Gonna do that last," Dean explains. Does not explain.
Sam's bothered enough by the inadequacy of this to track its etymology: As long as the body burns, and the salt goes with it, that's really all you need. If you don't think the body's gonna burn, then the salt is wasted. And they didn't bring enough salt to waste. (Couldn't. Dean's favoring his left and so took the kerosene. Sam was on salt, but hell if he was gonna lift more than twenty pounds all the way to the backcountry.)
There's a part of that that makes him feel helpless, disorganized. Sam doesn't play percentages and never has. The path to his 3.67 grade point average is paved in tests he knew he'd pass; and if he wasn't sure, he'd study until there were no other options. He thought he'd left uncertainty behind--this is my future, this is my happiness, this is the life I'm going to share with you, Jess--but now he's not so sure.
"Cute," says Jess. "Punny."
"Hello?" says Dean.
The kerosene's pooling on Roy, a greenish glaze that makes him look the fever-warm he isn't. Sam fumbles for a lighter.
Jess has one. Old Zippo--classic. They bought it at a pawn shop they didn't think they'd go to. She'd whip it out for birthday parties, friends who needed lights. Sometimes just to see the flame. Sam watches her flick it on, put it to her lips until everything about her face is peach and red like nothing in Lost Creek. Then the fire swallows her whole and the memory burns to dust.
Sam's not fast enough. Dean's got the cap on the kerosene, he's dropped it haphazardly to the ground, he's got a lighter and is jumping back as the kerosene takes light before Sam even finds the cool shape in his pocket. No steps; just the rough spiral of motion of someone who's had a lot--a lot--of practice. Don't have to cross Ts and dot Is if you've done enough to know what they are without decorum. Hunting's not something you forget (and Sam's tried. He still knows every trick he's ever learned, waits paranoid in the dark, awake for moments that don't make sense) but it is, apparently, something that grows with you.
"Sorry," Dean says. He's lost his anger, or frustration, or whatever it was.
Sam doesn't know what Dean's sorry for, and he doesn't really care. They're gonna be here all night, because it's just the kerosene burning, not Roy. Once that goes all they'll have is a lukewarm corpse and a burnt skin. The smoke makes sparks at his eyes that turn into hot tears. Fucking great.
"You don't have to be here for this part."
Sam has nowhere else to go.
"I can-- So you don't--" Dean clears his throat, gestures toward the epidermal fire they have made of Roy. "I'm sorry."
"He doesn't understand," Jess whispers. She's still holding the boot. "When your girlfriend burns, fire doesn't remind you of her. Everything does."
Roy doesn't burn, like Sam knew he wouldn't. Dean douses him with kerosene again, says something about marshmallows (which used to be made out of bone dust and cartilage, says Jess), but Sam knows the second won't be any different than the first. They'll just run out of kerosene instead of salt.
Sam imagines camping out, campfire circle around Roy's corpse, and he can't stand it anymore. "Wait."
Dean waits a half-step later than he should--they're still out of sync and not quite listening to each other--but he pulls back to his mark.
"Help me turn him on his back again."
Sam grabs Roy at the hips, uses his khakis as mitts against the skin that slides and sloughs under his ministrations. Dean counts one two-- but Sam's already rolling. He grunts with the effort as Roy twists and leaves his head behind. Dean's boot shoves it so Roy's facing sky, broken neck tensile even with the rigor.
Sam cleans his pockets. Notes, business cards, receipts. Folded ads. Anything. He doesn't say a word, but eventually Dean catches on and empties his, too. Copy of the Collins's backwoods pass. Every gas receipt he's ever taken in his life. (But maybe not. Who knows how long Dean's been driving.) Gum wrappers, credit card apps, paper napkins. A couple matchbooks. Jacket's a treasure trove of everything Sam left behind.
Small twigs, next. There's nothing here that's not wet, but it doesn't matter. Sam will make it not matter.
A lot doesn't--not right now, in any case. Not without Jess. He figures rain shouldn't have the luxury.
"Remember that time we went camping in Napa, with my parents?" says Jess. She hands him a mossy stick and her hands are cold, peach-warmth leeched out. "We went on all those wine tastings. And then it rained, and my parents were miserable. The Boy Scouts next door fed us chili."
For the first time since Jess's last batch of cookies, Sam's stomach whines.
"M&M?" Dean offers, and hands him a stick that's too big.
The first light peters out as quickly as Dean's had. Roy's a little crispy, but still distinctly human. But that's all right. Sam is building him a pyre and at least now the tinder's dry. Sam tries again, and this time the fire lights and the branches catch, and finally Roy catches. The flames spread from the campfire on his belly until they become his everything.
"It's pretty when you think about it," says Jess.
It is not pretty.
Sam thinks of Jess, and it is not pretty. She is not pretty.
"That's not what they said at the funeral."
"Sam," Dean starts and does not finish. He pours salt, first into the fire-eaten wound at Roy's chest and then everywhere else. Up his nasal cavities, down his throat to the best of his ability.
Jess fills the wake Dean's silence leaves in Sam and she feels like blood, black and clotted at the back of his throat. She feels like tar. No one's pretty dead, Jess.
Maybe some day, Jess will be in loving memory. She will scale mountains and color columbines, wear white in a field of bronze grain, laugh and run in the ethereal moments of the dead. She will be the talk of family reunions, scrapbooks, eulogies given by a Stanford alum who knew her from some party, and knew her better in death. Who latched on to the tragedy, spoke emotively of how it changed his life forever and so on, ad nauseam. But right now, Jess is just dead. End of story. And that--
Sam dusts stray salt from his knuckles (Dean is as accurate with this as he was with the kerosene) and thinks, no one understands. No one understands that. Because he's in Lost Creek inhaling the ashes of some horrible, mangled body, instead of the scent of Jess's hair, apple-tart. His life is changed forever. Hell with the rest of them; his life has changed.
But not as much as hers has.
"Sam," Dean says.
And "I still like these," says Jess. She puts a columbine in her hair, even though it's mud-tracked and flat.
Jessica Lee Moore is dead, and the feeling is as transcendent, as heartfelt, as spiritual, as watching Roy rot under flame.
"Sam," Dean says again, as the smoke swirls up with the breeze, chokes him with its heat and acrid burning. Sam coughs. He feels tears in his eyes, like the slick of kerosene over Roy's arm. Jess grabs his hand.
"Take one for the team and eat a little, huh?"
Suddenly Dean's between him and the smoke, his hand turning Sam's (turning Jess's) upward. He pours M&Ms like a rainbow of words, condolences, he doesn't know.
"I love the blue ones," says Jess. She wraps her pinky around his, and squeezes. He can almost feel her against his chest, instead of inside it. He can almost listen to her breathe.
"Take the blue ones," he says to Dean. "They're your favorite."
Dean gives him a look like he couldn't give a damn what color his favorite M&Ms are, but takes one. When he first showed up, he treated Sam like he was never gone. Now he's treating him like he's never been. He shovels more M&Ms into Sam's hand, until the bag is empty. Then he throws it to the flames.
Something pops and hisses inside of Roy, and the flames shoot up. Dissipate like they never were. Roy burns a chlorine green at his base, but familiar orange elsewhere.
"You hurt?" Dean asks.
"Obviously," says Jess. "I'm sorry," she whispers at Sam's neck. I'm sorry.
"Sam." He picks up an M&M with hands that have been everywhere and holds it to Sam's lips.
"Dude, seriously. Leave it." He sidesteps Dean, stumbles on Roy's boot. The columbines Jess placed there are gone. The rest of the M&Ms melt in his hand, turn from rainbow to brown.
"Do you remember--" Jess starts.
"Leave it, Dean."
Sam's staring down his emotional blackout, waiting for the world to catch up with the way he feels--waiting for it to end, just behind schedule. Because Jess hurts like cement in his lungs and she doesn't stop. Let him run after lost kids and burn dead bodies and save complete strangers. She doesn't stop. And if M&Ms are words, Sam throws them to the fire, because whatever Dean can offer him doesn't even rate. And it's not his fault, it's not even something he can change, but Dean didn't know Jess and he hasn't known Sam. They don't know each other yet and Sam's not ready to figure that out, because all he can hear is Jess Jess Jess, fat and blood and muscle dripping from the ceiling. He can't. He doesn't think it'd matter either way, because--
Dean gives him a look like he's the one burning green and slaps him on the shoulder. He's gonna find the mine shaft, he says. Try to get those kids set up, the poor bastards. They have two more bodies to burn. Sam aches, and is done with burning, done with the hunt. He is done with aftermath.
"Sam, I don't--" Dean breaks off again, picks up the salt and the kerosene and leaves the grave of arctic columbines lit by Sam's Maglite. "Watch him, will you?" he says instead. Then he's gone.
Jess stays behind.
"He's there for you," she says.
Sam knows. Dean doesn't know how, and Sam doesn't know when, but he knows. He just can't care.
"Follow him. Or do you want to be out here all night?"
They're already going to be out here all night. "I hate camping," he says.
"You can see the stars when you lie back."
"It's cloudy. You can't see shit."
Jess shrugs. "You've seen worse."
Sam takes a deep breath of caramelized liver and burning flesh and warm mud and seeping Roy. At the edges he smells apples, columbines. Chocolate. He tastes his life mixed up and collision-coursed. And he doesn't taste death, something dark and beautiful and eternal and eschatologically divine.
It's just blue smoke, as the columbines around Roy catch and hiss, curl into themselves until they're gone, too.
And Jess says, "I liked those."
Also, go tell reapertownusa how awesome she is, and how beautiful her graphic is! Her post is right here. :D