Jess's funeral is awful.
Dean is awkward and quiet, fussing with Sam's hair, tie, and jacket, like he's worried that some of Sam's college friends'll decide he's an unfit mother and take Sam off to live with them like Ivy League CPS sleeper cells.
Any other day, Sam would tease him about it.
But today... today Sam isn't up to it.
People won't stop staring at him, won't raise their voices above a hushed whisper, won't come any closer than a few feet, leaving Sam in a hushed, isolated bubble of awkward, pitied sympathy broken only be Dean at his shoulder, silent and angry and the only real thing in this nightmare.
Everyone is sadder than Sam's ever seen them, crying and clinging to one another, hoodies and jeans gone in favor of unreal, uncomfortable formal wear that looks like it hasn't been broken out since high school graduation.
It's like Sam never really knew these people at all, or knew them in a past life.
Their names are the same, but their faces are too white or too red, lined by strange, alien sorrow and harsh, painful regret. Easy conversation is gone, jokes and laughter replaced by sad, stilted sentiment and hopeless, helpless confusion. There's no talk of classes or professors, of studying or partying or just hanging out. Just apologies, for everything and nothing, for strange, nonspecific things linked to nonexistent obligations and broken promises that were never really made in the first place.
These friends Sam has- had. Thought he had. They're all different, faded and blurred and disconnected from the world that Sam had in his head, the world that Sam knew.
All except Dean, solid and familiar and always right there grounding Sam, giving him a center of gravity, a focal point to order his world around. The one known thing in an unknown world.
But even with his brother at his side, Sam almost loses it at the church, at the sprays of lilies and the impossibly white casket. He knows what's in there. Knows what isn't. Knows too much, and it's still not enough. It wasn't enough to save her, and it isn't enough to avenge her, and what good is any of it if it couldn't protect her?
Then there's the picture of Jess, larger than life, and she's blonde and bright and smiling. Sam saw her like that just a few days ago. He laughed with her and tangled his fingers in her hair and kissed her like it was nothing, like he'd have the whole rest of his life to kiss her.
And now she's gone.
It's wrong and impossible and too much all at once, because she was just here and now she's not and it's awful and impossible and it doesn't make sense—
And then Dean is there, warm and solid and guiding him into a seat, holding Sam's world steady until Sam can manage it on his own.
("Just breathe, Sammy, in and out. Come on, you can do it.")
Jess's mom is white and shaking, like the slightest breeze could make her crumble, her husband a grim, black shadow at her shoulder.
And Jess's little sister…
God, Jamie looks so much like her, all long limbs and gold curls, and Sam has to fight the urge to turn away, has to slap down the sudden, mad impulse to grab this gawky, sixteen-year-old version of Jess and hold her close, to sob and apologize over and over again.
Because it's his fault.
No one says it. Not the fire department ("Old wiring. No sign of accelerants or forced entry to point to arson,") not anyone at the funeral ("Awful tragedy, for Jessica to be taken so young. She had her whole life in front of her,") not Jess's family ("She loved you so much, Sam. So much,"). Not even Dean ("Sammy. Sammy, listen. We'll get it. I promise. We'll get it,").
But this thing killed his Mom. It killed his mom and now it's killed Jess, and it killed her in the EXACT SAME WAY, and what do they have in common?
Nothing. Nothing at all.
Nothing except Sam.
It's his fault. He killed Jess. He killed her. He wasn't here to protect her. He didn't warn her about the nightmares. He didn't listen when Dad said connections like this would only end up with people getting hurt or…
God, he thought he was so smart, thought he could beat the system, outpace the awful things that chased them through the dark.
At least this way, when they drive out a few days later, Sam can tell himself it's the next step, not running away or giving up. That looking for this thing means chasing the research, chasing the leads, and if Bobby doesn't have anything workable at his place, then it's on to Black Water Ridge, onto the next lead they have on Dad. It's not running; it's chasing.
It's not giving up; it's closing in. Closing in on what took Jess. What took Mom. What burned away every good, pure thing in their lives and turned them into such awful, miserable wrecks.
Driving helps. Having Bobby in the back seat, comparing their notes with what he's been able to scrape together, makes pulling out of Palo Alto feel less like a retreat and more like an advance to the rear, to solid ground where Sam doesn't have to see the same people and pass the same places and smell the same awful, choking black smoke everywhere he turns.
They spend a few days at Bobby's, thumbing through battered, crumbling books and cramped, handwritten notes. It amounts to a little more than fuck-all, and Bobby promises that he'll keep looking as they toss duffles in the trunk and give Rumsfeld a goodbye scratch behind the ears.
No one mentions the dozens of calls made to John, all unanswered. No one says aloud that as long as their Dad stays hidden, so does their best hope of getting the drop on whatever the hell it is they're after.
They reach Black Water Ridge, and hunting helps more.
Sam sees the shadow in Dean's eyes when they learn about the three most recent missing hikers. A brother, sister, and their guide, all out looking for another party that disappeared. Taken just a few days ago. Dean blames himself. Sam only researches that much harder.
Because it's not Dean's fault. It's Sam's.
He knows that, knows he had most of the pieces a week ago in Palo Alto, and if he'd put them together right, if they'd left Bobby's a little earlier, if Sam had just gone to Black Water Ridge with Dean instead of leading that thing back to Stanford and Jess…
But it's too late for what-ifs now. Far, far too late.
At least being out here, tracking this thing that's taken so many people feels good. Useful. It doesn't fill the awful sinking pit in his stomach, the fear that he'll forget Jess just like he forgot Mom, the terror that grips him when he remembers how Dean's last hunt ended, how close he came to—
But Sam is with him now. Sam is right here, and he's focused and angry and determined that this time, he'll do it right. That this time, he won't screw up. He can protect Dean.
He can protect Dean like he couldn't protect Jessica.
It's going to be okay.
Having something concrete to do, having a puzzle to solve, a question to answer, helps almost as much as having Dean at his elbow, as safe and overprotective as ever, snarfing M&M's and playing air-banjo along with the "Deliverance" theme as they trek through the woods.
It's not hard to track the GPS coordinates from the missing hikers' backcountry permits, to find what remains of their campsite, to track the strange, bloody claw marks on the trees.
It is hard to find the body, broken and mangled beyond identification, though Sam feels a hell of a lot better hunting whatever could do that to a whole party of hikers with a rifle in his hands and enough ammo to put down a small dinosaur than without.
Whoever the man they found was, he believed in being over-prepared, something Sam is thankful for.
Of course, that's when he starts to put things together. That's when they start to hear things, see flashes of movement, always just here, just there, so that by the time they realize they've been lured off the trail – that the thing they're hunting has started hunting them – they're so hopelessly turned around there might as well have never been a trail in the first place.
And then Dean's voice is calling out, and the ground is giving beneath Sam's feet and by the time he climbs back up to where they were standing, he knows it's a wendigo they're hunting.
He knows it's a wendigo, and Dean is gone.
Sam's heart stops.
His heart stops and his world stops and everything just stops because this cannot happen again.
For a second he can't breathe, can't think, because he had Dean and all he had was Dean and that was okay, because it was Dean but he's gone now and that can't— it can't—
He tears through the dizzying panic, white-knuckles it until he finds Dean's trail of M&M's, candy-coated breadcrumbs that lead him to an abandoned mine and his brother – filthy and bruised, but breathing and pissed – ready to fight as soon as Sam gets the ropes off him.
They find the last two hikers to be taken tied up and dangling on the other side of the dark room. They're terrified and shaking, bone-thin, and they keep looking at the ragged, bloodstained ropes in the corner, keep running shaking, mangled fingers over a cowrie shell necklace and a beaten-up pack, bloodstained copy of "The Hero with A Thousand Faces" still tucked in the front pocket.
Sam remembers that they were out looking for their brother, one of the first hikers to go missing this year. He puts it together in an instant, realizes just what these two witnessed as they hung, trapped and immobile in the dark of the mine for the past few days.
Watching them, Sam gets hit by a sharp, angry punch of all the reasons he ever hated hunting: The pain and guilt of never being fast enough, never seeing enough or doing enough, of never being able save everyone.
Deaths are what put them onto cases. Even if they do get there in time, even if they solve the puzzle and salt the bones and pump the monster so full of silver it clinks when it falls, they're already too late. There's still that trail of carnage, still bodies in the morgue, still grieving families.
Still a pair of siblings with nothing left of their brother but a tattered necklace and a bloodstained book.
Sam shoves down the guilt, the blame, turns back to the goddamn job—
And then Dean leans back against the crumbling wall of the mine and just grins at him, flare guns spinning on his fingers like a gunslinger, and something hot and dangerous uncurls deep in Sam. And there's no peace, no quiet. Just obsession and darkness and determination that this, this right here?
This is the one thing that he will never, ever let go.
And Sam knows, knows from watching Dad for twenty years, that running, searching, pouring himself into the job? It's no way to live a life.
But it's a start.
And if this is what it takes to keep Dean? To have him safe and happy, his brother beside him as they track down Dad, steal his notes, and finally, finally get down to hunting whatever the hell killed Jess? Then none of the pitfalls of the job matter. Sam will do it.
He'll do it for as long as it takes.
Because keeping Dean safe? Getting revenge for Jess?
It's his war. His religion.
It's all he has left.
And that's Crash and Burn.
We're gonna take two weeks before posting the next tag. We're both traveling for DallasCon, and I shudder to think of what would get posted with us jet-lagged, coffee-buzzed, and possibly still swooning from extended exposure to J2, so for the good of the fic, we're on break until the new entry posted on Sunday the 29th.
As always, follow or check back, and never be afraid to tell us what you think in a review.
Thanks so much for sticking with us so far, and if you're in Dallas for the con, drop us a line. We'll be the Abaddon and Dead Jess drinking ostentatiously and talking loudly about Wincest.