In a Motel 6 on the western-most limits of St. Joseph, the cat grass dry and brittle in the ditches by the side of the highway, Jess wakes up to the sound of Dean screaming.
"Yelping," he insists later, in the way men do when they know they don't have a leg to stand on but need to argue anyway lest their testicles shrivel up and blow away in the wind. "Yelping. You know, the kind of involuntary noise you make when you stick your finger in a light socket? Yeah, that kind of noise."
"Nope," Jess responds, unwavering, shaking her head at his reflection over his shoulder. "It was a full on cheerleader in a slasher film scream."
Taking advantage of his ego as it crashes and burns, she shoulders him out of the way to study the abomination that covers her face. The spots are raised and scaly to the touch, dry flecks of skin powdering down onto the sink when she scratches at them.
"You know, yours aren't so bad," Dean offers after a moment or two of pained silence. "Kind of soft-colored, like, I dunno, Easter or somethin'." They are, a little bit: pale yellow on the sudden chalky white of her face, and she's starting to think maybe looking like a patterned greeting card isn't a complete nightmare, and then he adds, "They're like the color of come and piss, only the good kind of piss, the kind of piss where you're hydrated so it's all pale, you know."
Jess swears she can hear the creak her neck makes as she slowly swivels it to face him. He just gives her his best shit-eating grin, and she figures that's his revenge for the slasher girl comment.
"At least I don't look like I walked off the pages of Dr. Seuss," she grumbles.
He just lifts one shoulder, holds it a beat, and lets it drop, no bigger "eh" than if he'd said it. She straightens up so they're standing side-by-side, shoulders pressed together. They're the exact same height ("nuh-uh," Dean goes every time she whips that out to annoy him, "I'm taller in the morning. You stretch out at night, didn't you know,") a level that becomes negligible when she puts on a pair of heels -- which she doesn't often, on account of not liking them very much and being unable to run for her life in them. Sometimes when they're drunk, Dean will loop her black stilettos (Sarah lent them to her when she invited her for a night out and Jess just ... forgot to give them back) around the rearview mirror by the straps and they'll compose odes to the magic that heels work on Jess's boobs and butt and how it's saved their asses more than once. Otherwise, they're in a shoebox on the back seat, usually dumped under plastic bags of powdered donuts and Fritos, because Jess doesn't need help towering over people.
In high school, she'd been the star of the basketball team and the volleyball team despite having no natural proclivity for either, and she went stag to her own prom because the only date she could have taken whom she wouldn't tower over was Terry O'Dell, and everybody knew he smelled like garlic and wouldn't know how to wipe his runny nose if you gave him a diagram.
With Sam, though, she actually fit. And maybe she's shallow enough to admit that she prefers it when the woman is shorter than her man, but it was less that with Sam and more, they fit together, ankles and thighs and his hip in the accommodating curve of her waist and her shoulder notching into his armpit at just the perfect height for him to wrap his arm around her. She didn't feel like Godzilla around him.
"Well, yeah," Dean goes now, shrugging again. "But you gotta admit, the spots really bring out my eyes, don't you think?"
He puckers his lips up and smolders at the mirror, like Ben Stiller in Zoolander, and Jess throws her hands up and leaves the bathroom to give them some alone time.
Before she'd met Dean, she'd never handled a gun.
The closest she ever got was the story her mother told about the only time she handled a gun; her father and brother teaching her how to shoot down glass Coke bottles when she was little, and when finally she shot a rabbit through more squeezing her eyes shut and guessing than actual aim, she cried so hard they had to leave the corpse behind and she never went out with them again.
But Jess didn't go to Stanford because she's slow on the uptake, and the interior of the Impala still reeked like smoke when Dean pulled into a motel just outside Vegas, plunked down enough money for a week, and took her out into the desert to teach her how to shoot. Her height was an advantage when it came to kickback, and Dean let her wear earplugs the first few days; the crack-whip noise was putting them both on edge. At the end of the day, when they returned to the room, their eyes were red-rimmed and awful, and it wasn't because of the gunpowder, and they slept on beds facing away from each other, wordless and hollow as logs.
"You can't go home," he told her that night, driving in darkness with only the headlights of the Impala cutting cones of light into the nothingness of the California hills. His voice was flat and unkind, nothing in him of the intruder who'd smirked at her Smurfs nightshirt. "You know that, right? If you go back to your family, you'll just put them in danger, cuz he'll be gunning for you too now."
"He was looking at rings," she replied, like it was perfectly reasonable. She nodded out the passenger window. "I wasn't supposed to know, but he was looking at rings."
And they didn't say anything else that first night.
Jess's parents live in Redwood City, which is so close to Palo Alto that you could throw a stone in one city and it'd probably land in the other. All the cities in northern California are like that: you drove from one business district right into another and you changed counties while doing so; the metropolis sprawl only ended when you hit the salt flats or the Junipero Serra in either direction.
She has one sister, younger and a natural brunette, and a hypoallergenic bishon freze mutt named Pluto (who is actually a girl, but this didn't seem to matter to Jess and her sister, they wanted a Pluto,) and they still have her bedroom waiting for her, filled with all the debris of her twenty-two odd years of life growing up in one place.
She wonders what they all thought, when her apartment burned and no bodies were found. She wonders if they've given up on her yet.
It still hasn't sunk in, that this is her life now. It just kind of feels like the road trip she and Dean always tell people it is: like they'll do this thing, fighting monsters and slaying evil creatures and being the hero, they'll find the Yellow-Eyed Demon and vanquish it, they'll bury Sam at last, and after that, she'll go home and life will start again. It's the one irreconcilable difference between her and Dean: to him, this is life, and to her, this is the pause before life starts again, the static at the beginning of a VHS tape, the menu of a DVD on loop.
"So, hang on." Dean taps the end of his pen against the journal, a rapid fire click-click-click. "What time was that?"
"Umm," Jess drums her fingers on her knees, thinking about it. They're trying to pin down when, exactly, they might have triggered the hex. Curse of boils. Whatever it was that had them looking like a nauseous Bugs Bunny with the pox. "We walked in at eleven-thirty, right?"
"No, it was earlier than that, remember, we crossed from Mountain Time into Central."
"That's right," she bobs her head harder. "And have you changed the clock in the Impala for Daylights Savings yet? That was on Sunday."
"Aw, hell. No. What does that mean?"
Apparently that was the last straw for Jess's straight-forward research-oriented mind, because it just cut out and refused to juggle time that much.
Catching the look on her face, Dean waves his orange- and green-spotted hand in a "I give up" gesture. "Whatever, some time around lunch." And she watches from across the room as he writes exactly that in his father's journal. She's thought about offering, once or twice, to keep chronicle of what they fight and how they defeated it -- because if there's one thing she's mastered by her junior year in the wonderful world of academia, it's how to summarize things, complete with APA citations and a numbered outline -- but it always just seemed wrong, putting in her crisp, typewriter girl's handwriting in there with the Winchester scrawl. Someday, maybe, but Jess told herself it was something she was going to earn.
She's only spoken to John Winchester twice, and even then, it wasn't really to him. It took her most of the night to work up the courage, rolling off her motel bed and taking Dean's cell phone out of the pocket of the jeans he'd tossed over the foot of the bed. She called "Dad" with shaking hands, listened to a stranger's voice, and left a message after the beep: hi, my name's Jess, I was Sam's ... I'm ... I hunt with Dean, and I thought you should know that a job went south and did something to his heart and doctors say he's only got a few days left to live. He'll never say it, dunno if he even thinks it, but I do, and I think now's a damn good time for you to stop hiding from him, thanks, cool and polite as if she's just leaving a reminder about an overdue library book.
The second call was after Jess knowingly manipulated the reaper in Salvation into trading Dean's life for someone else's. It was the first human being she let die so that Dean would live, and her message to John that time was, fuck you, that's the second time you've left a son to die without his family.
"Where'd we go after that?"
"The Asian specialty store," Jess answers immediately. "Remember? You wanted to take the 36 straight on through till night-fall but I wanted some bao-bao so we swung wide to hit St. Joseph to find somewhere that might carry it?"
"Oh, right," goes Dean, sounding immensely unimpressed with her knowledge and desire for ethnic cuisine beyond Mongolian Beef with fried rice and the french fry ("it's not French, Dean, you can't get any more American than the french fry, stop being a douchebag." "Hey, now, those are fighting words!") He looks like he's going to make a comment, but Jess is already sitting up.
"Dean," she goes slowly. "Do you remember the old lady sitting behind the check-out?"
Dean's silence implies a negative, but he's not going to admit it.
Jess sighs. "Remember, there was that nice Vietnamese woman who was stacking noodle packages who came to ring us up, and then there was her mother or aunt or something -- I missed the exact inflection but she used a familiar form of address -- sitting behind the counter watching you and listening to you loudly mock every single thing with a funny name."
His protest is immediate, sounding pained. "There was no way I was going to pass up the fact that it said right on the box that Men's Pocky is thicker and creamier than regular pocky, okay. I'm only human."
She sighs again, heavier and more pointed than the first, and he lifts his hands defensively like it was a physical blow. "That's what I'm saying, Dean." She can't remember the Vietnamese word for witch off the top of her head, and she sends up a quick apology for the breach of political correctness she's about to make. "Insult the business of a strange little old lady, wake up next day looking like a member of Sesame Street? She's probably a hedgewitch."
"Well, son of a bitch."
When people think of the Midwest, big, sprawling metropolises are not exactly the first thing that pops into mind, but St. Joseph isn't anything to sneeze at (okay, the whole population only barely crests 100,000 people, but the sudden appearance of high-rise skyscrapers and civilization is startling after a couple hours of weathered farmhouses and the fireworks silos that dot I-29,) which is why Jess thought it likely to have at least one specialty store that had the steam-dumplings that used to be served up everywhere in California.
St. Joseph isn't anything like home, but as far as Jess can tell, there's an elementary school on every freaking corner, and traffic is a total bitch around 3:15.
"Do I want to know why you happen to have ski masks in your trunk?" Jess asks, slinking lower in her seat as the woman signaling to be let in behind them stares unabashedly at them in the sideview mirror. She's starting to think they'd be less conspicuous if they just drove around all polka-dotted.
Dean bumps his left knee against the door in beat with the Styx playing from the speakers. "Actually, we went skiing once. Yetis have absolute crap aim, but damn, they like to live in the middle of nowhere and cause trouble for ski lifts. I just never got around to getting rid of the masks," his voice takes on that tone that Jess recognizes, knee-jerk, the one that says, it was something me and Sam did together. I'll tell you the story some day when I think it won't shatter my ribcage with grief to tell it. "Never knew when they'd come in handy."
"Ah," is all Jess can think of to say to that. Up ahead, the light is already swinging around to yellow again, but the car in front of them only gets the opportunity to move forward then. Dean eases off the brake, and Jess waves cheerfully to the woman in the sideview mirror, black mask and gloves and muscle car in the field of minivans and SUVs with kids in soccer gear.
Outside the window, the trees have mostly gotten over their sudden spastic desire for death, but a few of them still retain their color, leaves swaying in bronzes and crimson reds above the sidewalks. The dead ones swirl around the front grill.
"What do you think it'd be like to make out in these?" Dean asks, apropos of nothing, and Jess rolls her head back against the headrest, laughing.
"Promise not to run over any small future productive members of our society and I'll show you," she says.
"Deal!" Dean's mask moves, and she knows without looking that he's cracking one of those ain't the world fine smiles, the ones he only gets at the idea of a good, greasy cheeseburger, or hours of open highway, or a girl with legs like a stairway to heaven.
The odd moments, the quiet moments, in which there are silences she can't avoid, she closes her eyes and open them on that night, a year ago. The fifth of November, her brain supplies like it's part of a macabre rhyme, when she rolled over, jolting awake when she hit Sam's pillow. She opened her eyes and a man stood above her, yellow-eyed and smiling.
She drew in breath to scream, he drew in breath to talk, but before they could do either, there was the sound of Sam, Sam, huffing a quiet laugh upon finding her cookies on the plate on the table.
She and the yellow-eyed man looked at each other for a moment, a moment that will be on the inside of her eyelids till the day she dies. She doesn't know what would have happened if Sam came home just a minute later. She doesn't think there's a worst-case scenario beyond what actually happened, but there's a scrim of peace in knowing that she won't know.
By the time Dean broke down the front door, Sam was already dead.
She escaped that night with nothing but a pair of pajamas pants that later they had to give up as lost after a fight with a poltergeist (they still live on in the rags Dean uses to wax the Impala,) and a shirt of Sam's that she was sleeping in. By wordless agreement, they took it off of her and folded it and put it in the glove department with the IDs and John's journal and the pistol; it's the only piece of Sam they can share.
Jess will never be the kind of hunter than Dean is and (she supposes) Sam was. She doesn't have the reflexes. She learns to shoot and throw knives and chant in Latin and sets up a program on their computer to help translate ancient Persian, but it's still something she has to think about, a oh, hey, slimy monster coming at my face, I have to do something now, where Dean just moves. Jess didn't grow up in the Impala, and she doesn't have this mismatched view of Americana he does that makes room for ancient Southeast Asian ghouls but not for prepackaged Vietnamese food and little old ladies' pride in their independent businesses.
The move she made from being an unwanted tag-a-long getting a crash-course in supernatural 101 to sleeping with Dean seems almost biblical in hindsight: man dies, man's brother takes man's wife into his house and into his bed as a matter of course.
She had an August birthday, and she wasn't going to bring it up at all, but when they checked out of the motel and got into the car, it was waiting for her on the passenger seat.
"It was the ring Sam bought you," Dean went, gruff and low and nothing like himself. He didn't look at her as she pulled the diamond ring out of the tiny box. "I wasn't supposed to know he did it, but there was only so many reasons why a man'd ask to pop into a jeweler's, you know."
"Why do you have it?" she'd asked, knowing instantly that it was the exact question he'd been hoping she wouldn't ask by the way he hiked his shoulders up around his ears. After all, she didn't peg Sam as someone who'd buy a ring to marry a girl with and then leave it in the car.
"I took it from him," Dean went, and let her draw her own conclusions from there.
It isn't the woman in the Asian grocery today, and when they push through the door wearing their masks and gloves, rattling the sleighbells attached to the doorframe, the balding man on the ladder changing a light bulb pales all at once and sticks his hands up in alarm.
Before he can tell them not to shoot or that he's calling the police or anything like that, there's a bright cackling coming from the little old lady behind the counter.
"Don't cover up my handiwork," she tells them, hauling herself up off her stool and hobbling over to get a look at them. "I want to see it!"
Jess glances sideways, but Dean's already stripping off his ski mask, revealing his Crayola-orange skin and the perfectly even green spots. She follows suit, and the man on the ladder shouts something, angry and exasperated, but she doesn't think it's directed at them.
The woman smiles wide. "That is good. Perhaps it will teach you to think before you speak, hmm?"
"We're really very sorry about that," Jess jumps in before Dean can say anything. "We meant no insult by it, honest."
"Of course you didn't, now that I've made you pay for it," the woman remarks acidly.
"Men's Pocky is serious business," Dean says gravely, and Jess entertains a brief fantasy of taking her stiletto and stabbing him in the foot with it. "I'll never suggest otherwise ever again."
"We're very sorry," she says again, and then thinks back to the boy she sat next to in Chemistry her sophomore year, who taught her four basic phrases, and takes a wild stab in the dark and says in Vietnamese, "Please?"
The woman's dark eyes dart to her, taking in all six feet of her from her boots to the hair that's mostly brown now, since she hasn't had time or any inclination to touch up her highlights. She rolls her lips between her teeth (the full set of them, and if that wasn't Jess's clue that she was a witch, nothing was.)
"Fine," she goes, giving her hand a sharp wave. "I will lift the curse. By the time you get home, you'll be able to wash it off like chalk and paint."
"Thank you, we really appreciate it," Jess goes, grabbing hold of Dean's elbow and all but manhandling him out the door, bells ringing loud behind their exit.
"I hate witches," Dean grumps, ducking into the driver's seat. The strange polka-dot pattern on his face is even more obvious in the sunshine, but when he jerks the rear view mirror towards him and scratches at one of the spots, it comes away under his nail, revealing his real skin tone underneath. Exactly as if it was nothing but paint.
"Yes, well, witches hate you," Jess goes, completely unsympathetic. "I swear, you go walking right into this stuff with a shit-eating grin."
"Damn skippy," Dean pumps his arm like Popeye, and Jess rolls her eyes.
Later, when they've scrubbed their bodies raw, Jess corners Dean up against the sink and goes, "you missed a spot."
He arches an eyebrow, letting her lean in until their features blur, and she bites at the corner of his mouth. They're matched up against each other, even, Dean's trained muscles to Jess's look-at-me curves, and it's easy to tilt her head and sink into the kiss.
Somewhere, some day down the line, Sam is waiting for them, yellow-eyed and smiling cold. She can almost hear it from here, the horrible sound his broken neck will make when it swivels to face them.
I always like it so much better when they come to my side willingly, but I guess I'll take what I can get, the Yellow-Eyed son of a bitch said to her on the fifth of November last year, moving around in Sam's body like it was trying to tug a shirt into place. It picked up one of her cookies and toasted her with it, smiling a smile she'd never see on Sam's face naturally. I'll be seeing you again, Jessica. Give my bests to the Winchesters. Two down, two to go.
Dean's mouth tastes like gunpowder, but then again, she supposes hers does too, now.