As She Hit the Open Road


Before the accident, Lia's biggest problem was finishing her Sociology of Consumption term paper after she helped Jeannie with her laundry but an oncoming truck knocked Lia straight out of her body and into a twilight nightmare - and now some thing from one of her mother's bedtime stories wants her heart.


Disclaimer: The Winchester boys aren't mine but I'd make Dean wear his boots all the time if they were.

Rating: M (Language, sex, angst, violence, noncon)

Pairings: OFC/OMCs, Dean/OFC (Het)

Warnings: There are no spoilers for the show but the story is dark. It includes scenes of violence, gore, and non-consensual sex with undertones of incest. Based on what I used as the big bad, it's AU - although few things would make me happier than for one to show up in canon. No dates are specified in the fic but I'm certain the events take place after the series run is over. Given that I wrote it for a Women of Supernatural challenge? Expect OCs. The boys do make cameo appearances throughout the piece, however, but the challenge was specifically designed to focus on a female character.

Miscellaneous: This was written for the spnxx challenge comm on Livejournal, based on the following prompts:

Sleeping Beauty waking herself up, Cinderella trading her slippers for something more comfortable, Snow White taking up metalwork.

"And though she be but little, she is fierce." - William Shakespeare

Apparently, these prompts only made sense in my brain after I added "Inanna's Descent into the Underworld" to the mix.

Beta: misskatieleigh provided just the right amount of tough love required to keep me on track whenever I started pulling out the flowery stick for no good reason. zelostmind provided me with lovely insights regarding the villain of the piece, how to make more sense out of the pivotal scene and many kind reassurances when I freaked out about my OCs. vaznetti reminded me of the most fundamental requirement for a hero's quest and provided additional help with plotting. Special thanks to embroiderama, without whom this would not have been possible; she picked up the pieces when the harder bits drained me completely. Everything that rocks in this story is because of them. The mistakes? Those are all me.


Cinderella stepped out of her glass slippers,
threw down that new apron,
put on a pair of old Doc Martens,
and stomped right out the door.
The prince was still chewing on his bacon
as she hit the open road,
said life is full enough of disappointment
to go kissing any toad.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

There were lights, a kaleidoscope of dizzy colors behind the metallic wrench that slammed her into the asphalt, and an ache sizzled behind her lungs with each diamond-edged breath that dragged through her. There was charred flesh and a high keening, the old washer woman at the stream twisting blood out of clothes with her tear-stained sing-song voice.

Even the moon was bleeding, a red haze across her eyes as she let her head rest easy.

As she let go.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

This is the story of a girl with six older brothers.

Her name was Gwyneth, all luck and skinned knees; able to recite the litany of her brother's names by the time she was three. Padrig, nearly a man in all of her memories. Nuerin, whose laugh could make the world perfect. Rhys, who sucked the juice from every apple. Deiniol, the balance point who sat between them all. Sion, with a fortune of his own that rivaled tricksters. Twm, the twin soul to her own.

They all lived together as brothers and sisters do in a white stone fortress surrounded by trees. Their father would take them on hunts, from the youngest to the oldest, and sometimes — when the moon was full — their mother would teach them dances. They played around the biggest oak tree they could find, leaving milk and honey for the Kindly Ones on special days and learning secrets known only to their mother, who whispered old stories of fortune and the heroes who save their princesses.

They were happy together, though no one was happier than Gwyneth — with her older brothers to protect her and parents who loved her like the she was the sun hung up in the sky. There were always flowers and there were always stories until the morning she stumbled into her parents' room. The house was quiet, her brothers arranged in a circle around the bed where their mother was dying, and Gwyneth burst through them; she flung herself onto the bed while her mother stroked her hair, her seventh blessing.

A good luck charm.

Their father mourned like fathers do but life went on. Her brothers grew into men, fine and strong — each with a gift she could trace back to their mother. Gwyneth grew up, too, but she didn't grow old; always small, always the baby, and always protected by men so fierce they could give the Dark Ones pause.

Even Gwyneth somehow found the thing inside of herself that everyone has to find to move past grieving into living, the promise of a dream in her mother's old herb garden. A hero's smile.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The doctor droned inside a hollow tunnel, his soft tones interrupted by her father's sharp voice.

"We're not turning off the machines. It's only been a fucking week!"

There was no arguing with Dad when he sliced through a conversation. Her father had intimidated stronger men than some young intern whose only crime was repeating the bad news given to him by a specialist. The poor man was talking about her brain activity being off, how it was 'weirder than anything anyone's ever seen.'

Mom usually stepped in when Dad was being Dad. This time, she didn't say a word about how he needed to calm down or that he should let the doctor finish what he was saying; she followed up the intern's pronouncement with a sharp intake of breath.

"Hey," Lia said softly, her voice rough in her throat as she started opening her eyes; the vertigo made her feel like she was falling backwards even though she was lying down. And every piece of her body ached. Head. Muscles. Fingers. Stomach. Skin. She had tangled with a truck and won. Well, sort of. The idiot who plowed into her while she was walking with Jeannie to the laundromat had roared off down the road with Jeannie's 'oh God, hang on' right in her ear.

At least she had an excuse now for not finishing her Sociology of Consumption term paper.

"Dad…"

He wasn't even listening, going on about how they were a strong family and all she needed was time to heal. Mom was demanding the name of the specialist who used the term 'weird' in his or her prognosis.

Lia coughed. "I'm awake, Dad. Mom?"

They ignored her.

Lia blinked, eyelids fluttering against the white light shooting through her head. Focus. Another rumble of nausea in her belly and she felt something solid on her back, hard like a barricade and cold like a slab of ice.

But she wasn't lying down at all, leaning up against the wall next to her bed with her arms folded across her chest. Dad was still arguing with the doctor and Mom was at his side, both of them looking more like thunderclouds than Lia ever thought possible. They were worse than teenagers most of the time, all over each other and grossing out Tom whenever they all went out for miniature golf.

Fuck me…

She wouldn't be playing miniature golf for a long time, judging from the broken thing on the hospital bed covered with wires and filled with tubes. Lia held her stomach tightly, fighting back a sob while she watched Lizzie massage her right hand — the only part of Lia's body that wasn't covered in bandages. Lia couldn't feel the pressure of Lizzie's tiny fingers, rubbing on her hand like it was a lamp full of wishes, and she leaned over just enough when her stomach contracted to avoid puking on her bare feet.

Lia wiped the back of her hand against her mouth before she started gagging again, bent over as far as she could go, but the body on the bed just lay there while Lia sank to her knees.

"Am I dying?"

Her voice sounded as tiny as Lizzie's little sobs but no one answered her; the doctor sounded like he was speaking in a whisper despite raising his voice to be heard over her father.

She rocked back on her heels, wrapping her arms around herself again like Dad used to do when she was ten. They were shadow-figures with auras, getting farther away the longer she tried to listen, and she wondered why she could still hear herself breathe; could still hear Dad's low growl against her back while he held her tight, telling her bedtime stories about monsters so that she could scare the pants off of her friends at slumber parties.

Who the hell told you that werewolves were a cliché, Lia? They are freaking badass. You got that?

None of it was real; it was morphine or whatever goddamn painkiller was dripping through her veins. They caused hallucinations — Johnny swore up and down for three days that there was a walking tree talking to the big oak in the back yard after he broke his arm, just like the walking trees in those old movies they used to watch over Christmas vacation, and that was just Percocet. God alone knew what kind of medicated cocktail was sticking her in La-La-Limbo-Land while she died.

Maybe that was a good thing — something to make her forget that she was dying.

The blinking machines reflected off the tracks on Lizzie's tear-stained face and Mom sat down on the chair next to the bed, pulling Lizzie up into her lap and burying her nose in Lizzie's curls. The machines were going crazy, a high-pitched keening, but Lizzie never let go of Lia's hand — rubbing it slowly, like it was the only thing that was important in the world, with fingers she couldn't feel as she curled up against the wall.

She closed her eyes but she couldn't rest easy, not while she could still feel herself breathe.

Not while she could still hear her father's muffled roar, just enough rope to hold onto.

"The machines are staying on. You listening to me, Doctor?"

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Rough hands hitched her up, digging underneath her arms, and something sickly sweet slammed through her — a smell like none she'd ever known before.

"Your grandmother made a bargain once, a life for each year stolen from her, but she did not understand the rules." There was a sigh, slow and patient as his vowels stretched around themselves and looped against consonants. "Your mother broke them entirely, with the help of a trickster and more than a little luck. It was a fool's bargain." He was laughing, scraping into her bones with a smile she could feel. "And now you are here, the promise delivered." Her heels dragged across the rough surface. "A dying daughter for a murdered son."

Lia choked back a moan; she wasn't about to let some asshole see her cry.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The greatest of them was called Rion and he sent his youngest child to Gwyneth's father wrapped in secrets and lies. Aeronwen ferch Rion was fashioned from bright shine and tattered enchantments, a creature of falsehood and dishonesty who whispered half-truths in her father's ear every night that Aeronwen shared his bed; lies about his sons' unnatural desires and untruths about the shame lurking in the green eyes of a girl who kept close to the shadows, all seven of them bringing despair upon the name they shared.

Their father believed the stories, intoxicated with the bansidhe's milk-white thighs and red hair so radiant it looked like new-minted copper coins in the sunlight. He banished the brothers from home during the planting festival on the very same day he took Aeronwen to wife — but it was her stepmother who scattered them to the winds with a curse upon their very souls.

Gwyneth screamed when the words rang home and her mother's name was the first blessing that she could muster. Instead of dying, Gwyneth's brothers gave shrill cries and the air was filled with white feathers as their arms turned to wings. Six white swans lifted themselves from the floor of her father's hall and flew through an open window like the sky itself was swallowing them whole.

Aeronwyn shrieked her rage as the last flew through the window, turning her flashing eyes upon Gwyneth.

But Gwyneth was already running out the door of her father's white stone fortress and into the night. She recited the litany of her brothers' names, calling to them silently as she ran and wishing the wind would carry them back to her even though she knew that wishes were hard won; they had no power without the heart's desire. When she could no longer hear the shouts of her father's men or the barking of his dogs, Gwyneth collapsed within the roots of the largest oak tree.

The Crone's moon hung dark in the sky.

Gwyneth did not recognize her mother's oak tree until she woke up. Arms encircled her and her mother's voice — as cool and soothing as every mother's voice in the world — brushed against her forehead with a soft kiss. Gwyneth couldn't make out her mother's features, staring into a face so bright that only the bare outlines of her mother's eyes could be seen. They used to be as green as her own.

'Your brothers cannot return home,' her mother said, 'Until their curse is lifted.'

The Kindly Ones had intervened when Gwyneth called her mother's name, opposing the sorceress' darkling magic with a counter curse. Aeronwyn's curse was meant to kill the brothers but a woman's plea had gainsaid her will and a woman's task could unweave the spell before the sorceress' plan could come to its fruition.

Gwyneth was the only daughter of their blood alive to perform the task. If she failed, her brothers would be called back home on the seventh spring to be killed. Until that time, on all but one night a year, her brothers would be trapped in the bodies of swans.

She agreed to the task, binding herself with a promise before she knew the bargain she had struck. Gwyneth had six winters to weave a garment for each of her brothers — shirts made of nettle. Her mother had taught her much of herbs when she was alive and Gwyneth knew that every nettle would cut into her hands, that the scars would roughen her skin

And, like all women's tasks, Gwyneth would suffer alone. She could neither speak nor laugh nor utter a cry until her brothers were saved. To speak but one word, to give one cry of pain, would unweave the spell and the magic Gwyneth had been given would be undone.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It was dark and it was wet and it was cold, hair dripping around her shoulders and it didn't matter whether her eyes were open or not because it felt like she was moving through ink — slow like molasses, with a chill that made her teeth ache every time there was a catch in her lungs.

Being dead sucked ass.

Lia stretched out onto her back, smooth stone underneath her fingers as she stared out into the black. There were no walls, just an echo in her ears that reminded her of the heartbeat she had once — slow and steady, the drumming in her veins. A snuffling noise, like someone was crying, and a scuttling sound of claws clicking against the floor accompanied the rhythm of her lungs.

And she was hungry, the throb howling against her spine as she listened; wishing she could hear the rumble of her father's voice or the way her mother's laugh made everything alright in the world instead of a wail that sounded like it was bubbling, wet and thick.

She sat up, a rush of lights behind her eyes as nausea poured through her. Dank air sent a humid coil that burrowed into her lungs and stayed there. It kick-started the pain in her chest, the one-two-three beat stilted against her ribs until a second gasp of air became one-two-three-four and the dark receded just enough for her to make out shapes.

Some of them might have had two legs along with the ragged outline of tattered wings or hands trailing the floor with long fingers tipped with their own set of blades; Freddy Krueger come to life with razor-thin knives scritch-scritch-scratching across the floor as it walked with a bent-over tilt.

One thin ray of light, cast with too much green to be natural, eddied down from what passed for the ceiling. Its illumination did nothing to set the pounding between her bruised ribs at ease, as bodies covered with the glimmering shimmer of fur blowing in a moonlight breeze moved side by side with things whose glittering eyes reflected back at her like almonds.

Whatever had killed her saw fit to let her keep her heart as a joke, locked tight within her chest instead of a box, and there was a deep chuckle as the rabbit ran out of its cage.

One-two.

One-two-three.

One.

One.

One.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When Lia was little, she used to sit on the stairs with her brothers and wait.

Mom would be curled up on the couch, reading one of her magazines with its shiny cover — something that Dad would laugh at and call scientific, like it was an insult even though it made both of them start kissing until Samuel made gagging noises. Sometimes, though, she'd look up from what she was reading and rest her chin on her hand, staring out the window whenever a car drove by.

But no matter how quiet they were, Mom would always hear when Bobby sneezed or Jacob sniffled and she would smile and make a big deal about figuring out where the noise came from, pouncing onto the stairs with a boo and a laugh. She'd stay there with them until Daddy's big black car roared up into the driveway and he stumbled through the door with Uncle Sammy's white face over his shoulder.

Uncle Sammy believed in hugs but it was always Daddy who held on the longest whenever they came home.

Other moms would have sent them to bed, would have told them that their father's business trips were normal and daddies went away from their families every day. Her friend Ashley's dad went on trips all the time and her mom never stayed up with her and Lia guessed she was lucky because Mom told stories while they waited.

She saved the special ones for when it was just the two of them.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The moment she was settled, Gwyneth started collecting nettles; cooling her hands as best she could in the stream and watering the plants with her silent tears. It hurt, her lips covered in scabs from all the times she bit down to keep from crying out. Even weeks later, with work-worn hands built from scabbed skin and cuts that healed, there was still the slash of the plant as its edges dug into her flesh — every turn of the wheel and every warp of her cloth brought a burn that never went away.

But it was not a life without blessings.

Gwyneth always had food to eat, left outside her cave in the night — normally fruit or, if she was lucky, a brace of rabbits with their legs tied together. The water in the stream was always fresh, always cool to the touch, and when the weather turned cold there were still things to wear. And because she was alone, there was no one to tell her that it was a delusion, that the Kindly Ones had not been protecting her, or that her task was simply the self-indulgent delusions of a discarded daughter.

When the sun sank beyond the horizon on the first anniversary of her brothers' curse, the wind beat in the sky and six swans alighted in front of her cave.

They did not understand why she said nothing, or why Gwyneth still continued with her task, and they all wished aloud that she would laugh or tell them the reason they roamed the night as swans. She could not even tell them that they had one night together, that they could only stay until the sun rose. All she could do was hug them and continue in her task. Twm brought her bowls of cool water for her hand while Rhys and Neurin cooked their dinner — and, all the while, she continued sewing the sleeves onto the first shirt. Padrig wiped her tears.

She finished the first shirt while they sat around a fire, telling old stories of when they were growing up until the wind called them away and she was alone.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Hell was a crematorium.

Dad would have seen the joke in that, laughing like a lunatic when he saw small metal ovens stuck into the walls. It made sense — even if it was a little perverse that the ovens never burned. That didn't change the fact that Hell was a crematorium full of creatures cobbled together from the skins of animals and the discarded parts of anyone's worst nightmare. There was moaning and wailing, all observed by the watchful eyes of metal ovens where no one burned and the doors were rusted shut.

In Hell, everyone was bathed in a sickly green light and she was one of two creatures in the whole place with smooth skin and voices that didn't crackle when they spoke.

Lia tried to resist eating but whatever had tricked her heart into beating had also tricked her stomach into believing that she was hungry. After the lion's roar pushed into her spine, Lia grabbed one of the bowls that was shoved in her direction and scooped the thick gruel into her mouth on cupped fingers; stopping long enough to hear the snuffle from the monster with porcupine quills and the face of a baby. It was staring at the empty trays with broken eyes and Lia offered it what was left in her bowl.

The thing scrabbled towards her and snatched the bowl from her hands, curling up around her leg with a scratch that made her shudder. It smelled like a cesspool, like crusty organisms were buried deep underneath its quills, but its breath was a wheeze that reminded her of blinking lights and the whine off the machines.

"You shouldn't help something until you know what it is."

The voice was dark against her elbow and Lia recognized the accent. The man's face might have been handsome if it weren't covered in so much oil and grime, the same way that his hair might have been blonde if it was unmarked by soot and ash. And he might have been from New York, if they were both still alive instead of being punished in the crematorium from hell.

"Why not?" she asked. It still felt like someone was scratching her throat with sandpaper every time Lia spoke.

"Because some of these things would kill you as soon as look at you," the man snapped. "The only thing that keeps you safe is that they're weak." But he was patting the baby-faced thing on the arm, smiling down at it.

Lia blinked. If some idiot was rubbing the damn thing, that meant it was probably safe. It was a moot point anyway. "What does it matter?" she asked. We're not turning off the machines. It's only been a fucking week. Even Dad wouldn't be able to hold off the administration if her body was that broken. She'd left behind a living will but the man across from her was looking at her like she was crazy anyway. "We're dead," Lia added.

He snorted. "Where the hell do you think we are?"

"Precisely," she answered.

She must have passed the test.

The porcupine creature clucked in the back of its throat, shaking its baby face from side to side. "This isn't Hell, kind pretty. You're getting fattened up for the Big Man."

"Big Man?" It sounded just like something from one of her mother's stories. Mom was pretty superstitious for a scientist, saying that you could find every true thing in the old stories — you just needed to know how to look hard enough to find it. The man shook his head, folding his arms across his chest and sinking down on his heels next to her.

"He holds court in the Tower by the Lake," the creature explained. "He needs you alive."

"Why would some Big Man holding court in the Tower by the Lake need a sociology major?" She said it loud enough that the room was full of gasps and groans and sharp-eyed stares, dizzying colors that watched her and shifted like the inside of a kaleidoscope; even the asshole sitting next to her placed a warning hand on her arm with a quick shake of his greasy hair.

"Because your heart is your mother's heart, and your mother's mother's heart," the baby-faced thing answered with a reedy-thin smile, teeth sharp pricks that should have pulled rubies from its lips. "A bowl full of wishes, just waiting to be cracked open and drunk."

Fuck…

A part of her was actually hoping for Hell, remembering that story Uncle Sam used to tell about her grandpa crawling his way out using nothing but a little bit of luck and sheer stubbornness. She'd always chalked it up as metaphorical, another one of his stories about monsters that he used to illustrated one of life's problems, because he only pulled it out when she was studying for exams or having a problem with one of her brothers that she didn't want to bring to Mom or Dad.

Now, she hoped that it was true.

The dead guy from New York stared at her like she was insane and he'd only think she was crazier if she told him that maybe things were going to work out after all, that they had a little bit of hope, because she was descended from a man who clawed his way out of Hell.

And she was going to find the way out even if it killed her all over again.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

She opened her eyes the second time they brought her to the room.

It still had the same sickly smell, like the bloom was fading from a rose and all that was left underneath was rot and decay. The walls were bare and she slumped to the floor the moment whatever was holding her up by the arms let go, her legs going numb from the shock of standing on them too long. Lia caught a glimpse of the lake outside the large picture window, blue against the big black desk.

The carpet dug into Lia's hands, sharp against her palms after too many days of feeling nothing but smooth stone. She had tried keeping track of time but it eddied and swirled around her, flickering like a hummingbird's wings and hiding in its shell when she stopped to breathe. Whenever she closed her eyes, Lia remembered the voice.

Your grandmother made a bargain once, a life for each year stolen from her, but she did not understand the rules.

Lia didn't understand the rules, either — stuck in a world that smelled like dying flowers and looked like antiseptic waiting rooms, where her shadow lay awake in the dark next to a man from New York who hummed too much and the only doors led to ovens that never burned.

Your mother broke them entirely, with the help of a trickster and more than a little luck. It was a fool's bargain.

"The promise delivered," she whispered. Whatever that meant. A dying daughter for a murdered son. Lia shivered, holding herself with her arms. She was trapped in a nightmare and retracing her steps only brought her back to that moment when the truck slammed her backwards and she hit the open road. How did a promise come out of a one-way collision with a truck?

Her question was answered by a door sliding open on the far wall.

"It was a promise made to me."

She turned her head, eyes focusing on the figure that glided into the room. He was tall, dressed in a black pinstripe suit — the white stripes as thin as one thread on the warp — but his hair was like no shade of red Lia had ever seen. It shimmered like his skin under the fluorescent lighting, as crimson as drying blood. The same color flashed in his dark eyes, as though he plucked death out of everything and added it to the rot of his inner sanctum, a barren room where he held court with Lake Michigan blinking like a jewel outside of his window.

The man sat down, dark eyes appraising her as he laced long fingers together on top of his desk. Lia had never felt so small, a tiny heap on the carpet while she looked up at him. She gagged. The smell was worse now that he had entered, dry like powder and choking up her lungs, and his hands were white spiders — twitching on the worn wood while he watched her expectantly, a gracious prince allowing his guest the first word.

He didn't even look like he was breathing, his chest still while he waited.

The only way out was to go farther in.

"A promise made by whom?" she asked softly, sucking in a breath. Her lungs hurt, full of his sugary corrosion.

"It is rare to find one whose command of grammar hearkens back to the days when your language was new and rules meant something." He smiled, leaning forward on his elbows. He had straight teeth, no sharp points like the things back in the crematorium, and he would have looked human except for his hair and his hands. Hair that looked wet and hands that were as dry as spiders and a chest that never moved, even when he was speaking. "I suspect that is another quality you inherited from your mother."

"Like my heart?" Lia demanded. "That's why I'm here, right? Getting fattened up for you? Because I have my mother's heart." He didn't deny it, his eyes going round with a slow curious smile as he looked down at her; she was his toy, all the more precious because she figured out the game.

Lia pushed on the ground and rose to her feet, stumbling as her legs went numb all over again, but she wasn't about to slump back down no matter how badly her legs trembled. "But not if I get out first." And wherever here was, it was closer to home than Hell. Lia recognized the downtown Chicago skyline when she peered through the window. She just needed to find a door and the potion that made her small enough to slip through the keyhole and then Lia would run like a rabbit all the way back to campus.

"And though she be but little, she is fierce."

She rolled her eyes, a slow burn creeping from the top of her head and spreading slowly down to her fingertips and toes. If she had a quarter for every time an idiot decided to quote A Midsummer Night's Dream, Lia could buy a semester's worth of textbooks without dipping into her grant money.

"My parents will find me."

"Your parents believe you are a broken shell. I switched their Lia for mine, bringing you into the Twilight Lands and leaving your father a changeling as a parting gift." His hair was moving on its own, blowing in a breeze that Lia couldn't feel any more than she felt her niece's hand. "Once the machines are turned off and the changeling dies, there will be no one left to fight for you."

"My mother will realize that thing in the hospital isn't me." Lia curled her hands into fists while her legs fought to crumble under his dark-eyed stare. Mom had already started following up on the clue, demanding to talk to a neurologist. The changeling's brain activity was 'weird' — even for a girl dying in a coma. Lia smiled. "And then my father will start looking for me. You're as good as dead."

It was as true as the sky being blue or grass being green.

Dark eyes flashed crimson and no amount of twisting could keep those hands from fluttering like broken birds on a black desk. The sky darkened outside the window and storm clouds rolled into view, until his thin shoulders stopped shaking underneath his pinstriped suit.

"That, little one, is the reason you are here," he managed. His voice took on a wild accent, smelling as much like rotting apples as anything — of green grass mowed down before it burned. "Your father's propensity for murder garnered the attention of many, those above and those below and the ones who live in the twilight between. He sidestepped his fate with your uncle's faith and your mother's luck and your family's penchant for bargains riding through both sides of your blood but there is no power protecting you from me. Your fate was sealed the moment he killed my son." He licked his lips. "There are rules. I invoked them."

"You're lying."

"You know that I am not," he returned. His voice was patient, explaining a math problem to a child that didn't understand the method. "All those trips your father takes? Did you never ask what he did, all those times he returned in the middle of the night with new cuts and bruises?" Even his smile was kindly, teeth hidden by plump lips that didn't look out of place no matter how thin the rest of him was. "My son was simply taking his pleasure in the chase and he was discriminate in his feeding but your uncle and your father tracked him down and slaughtered him in his own hunting grounds like he was nothing more than a dog." He snorted. "Humans. They thought a Lord's son was a pouka."

The room was so cold; if Lia could have scratched her way out, she would have ice crystals underneath her fingernails.

Do you believe in fairies, Daddy?

It made sense. Mom's green eyes watching out the window every night Dad was gone until the car roared up into the driveway. Dad's stupid self-defenses lessons and the hours he and the boys spent at the firing range. All the scars that Dad and Uncle Sam never tried to hide but would never talk about, their whispered conversations in hallways or the backyard — Dad looking pissed and Uncle Sam looking insistent. Whispers of 'no one else can save them' or 'I've been tracking this thing for weeks' or 'it's the real thing this time, Dean' and 'not some kids causing trouble for shits and grins' that Lia always ignored because she was just a kid and adults never made any sense anyway.

Well, I met your mom because of a pouka. Things kind of went downhill after she tricked me into keeping an eye on her and now there's you and your brothers.

"I'm guessing your son didn't fall far from the tree."

It was the wrong thing to say.

He grinned with his perfect white teeth and something came down hard on the back of her skull, nothing on his face to give away the blow but a pleasant smile like she'd asked about the weather and he was talking about lawn tennis. Her legs finally collapsed; the carpet rough against her cheek as she tumbled into a midnight so dark that it was peaceful.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The forest sent her protectors.

They were rough-looking men, dressed in dappled greens and grays, who stumbled into her clearing. The taller one had wild eyes and a shock of dark hair that rippled in the wind. The man with hazel eyes, short only in comparison to the dark-haired man he was leaning against, pitched forward with a moan and started bleeding on the grass in front of her.

Despite the thickness of her fingers, Gwyneth was a deft hand with a needle and she remembered her mother's lessons. The shorter man's wound was neatly sewn and the tall man looked at her with something like approval as she packed the wound with healing herbs and bandaged it. Gwyneth probably should have been frightened of them, dressed like hunters with the silence of thieves, but there was something in the way the taller man smiled that made her want to trust him.

And, when a pair of hazel eyes focused on the dark-haired man and the wounded one made a jest, Gwyneth knew that they would not hurt her. They spoke with the remembered familiarity of brothers.

The older brother, the one who had been injured, was called Griffin. He would tease her while she worked and he was never satisfied until Gwyneth cracked a smile, even when she did not look up from her loom or her wheel. The younger brother, Wynfor, knew something of herbs himself and he made salves for her hands that numbed the pain just enough that Gwyneth did not have to stop working every hour to put her hands in the stream.

They were good company, for all that they talked too much and she never spoke a word. While Griffin healed, he and Wynfor would speak of their adventures. Gwyneth was no fool and she pieced together their history as much from the things they did not say as the stories they told.

Her family was not the only one ravaged by a Darkling's magic. Her protectors were also victims, having lost their mother to a foul creature when they were but children. Their father had fallen recently in the fight to avenge her; Gwyneth recognized the dull edge of grief that marked their actions when they were unwary. But where she wove shirts to break a curse, they took up sword and spell to hunt the things that felled the innocent while they continued on their quest.

Gwyneth carried the burden of knowing this as silently as she carried her other secrets.

At night, Wynfor would shiver on his bed of rushes near their small fire while Griffin listened, having such dreams that his cries alone made Gwyneth's chest crack. She would wake up and put a cool cloth on his head, until he fell into a sleep that — while not restful — was silent. And then she would sit on the log next to Griffin, with a lapful of nettles to sort, while he kept watch.

Gwyneth fell asleep once and woke up with her head resting on his shoulder.

Griffin never asked her what she was doing. Unlike Wynfor, he just accepted that it was something she needed to do — just as he accepted her, the night she set her basket of nettles down by the log and took him by the hand. They lay down together under the stars, with nothing but air between them. Every brush of her hands across his flesh ached, and he shuddered wherever her scarred fingers touched, but she needed to feel all of him once the push and the pain subsided, wishing she could cry out his name instead of biting her lip against the lines of old cuts.

She remembered the look in Griffin's eyes when he realized the gift he had unknowingly given her, his body awestruck against the moon that hung above them in the sky. There might have been magic in that first blood, in the way that it spurred him into apologies until she smiled and touched his cheek. They danced their pleasure in the grass, his gasps and her unspoken promises.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Lia never thought it was possible to actually puke up her guts, even after her last round with the stomach flu, but vomiting was all she could remember doing since her eyes trembled open and someone started rubbing her back — one arm braced around her waist because she started falling over, elbows and knees going weak. It was hummingbird wings beating as strongly as her heart flickered in her chest, the rabbit trapped with nowhere to run, until finally it was just her stomach muscles contracting on their own because they'd been doing it for so long.

Her body curled into a half-sitting fetal position against what she thought was a wall. And there was no way she was waiting around before that thing with spiders for hands cracked her open, spilling her like some kind of oracle.

She had to get out.

"Here." It was a New York accent and something cold brushed against her lips. "Drink this." He sighed. "Slowly."

Lia sipped at the water, eyes adjusting to the green-grainy light. The baby-faced creature was coiled around her leg, looking up at her with a smile, and she realized it was keeping her warm. She brushed one hand against the quills, getting ready to pull back when they pricked her, but they were soft. Other figures, small and large and misshapen, were placed around her in a perfect semi-circle — growling in loops and whorls at other things marching back and forth in front of them.

She was being guarded.

"But…" she began, a stone dropping into a pond.

"Because you stood up to him," the baby-faced creature said. "To Rion."

It was more like making a fool of herself with the first temper tantrum she'd had since Anita Brown made fun of her Tonka trucks; she'd even pulled out the Daddy card, only to have it completely shot down. And these creatures, monsters from her mother's stories, were protecting her; seven of them in a semi-circle and not one of them looked like a Dopey or a Doc. Lia blinked, eyes filling with tears — she might have to get herself out but it didn't look like she was on her own.

"Why?" she asked.

A child's blue eyes watched her. The guy from New York coughed, leaning in close; his breath hot against her ear. "Because some of them remember being human," he whispered. She recoiled, going flat against the wall. "They're all here for a reason," he added, sinking back onto his heels and pulling away. "He takes things for power — bits of themselves freely given for a gift or a favor. And they change."

There was a price for every miracle.

"I used to be like you, once, but my mommy got sick. In the war," the baby-faced thing said. "And Gran knew some magic. She told me that I had to be brave for Mama." His voice wobbled and Lia hoped like hell that he was talking about the Iraq war because the idea of being stuck in a crematorium for that long, trapped in his porcupine-quilled body, was enough to make her chest crack open all on its own. The little creature thumped its chest with one clawed fist. "Matthew…" He grimached and shook his head. "Just…Matthew."

"Lia," she said, brushing one of her own tears off of Matthew's forehead. I used to be like you, once, but my mommy got sick. "Lia Winchester." She looked up at the guy from New York.

"Alexander Thomas Newbery," he replied automatically. And then he frowned. "You shouldn't be so free with your name, Lia."

She frowned back. "It's not like I gave you the whole damn thing, Alexander Thomas Newbery." Hell, she hated the whole damn thing for all that she was named after both of her grandmothers. Mom and Dad had picked out the most old-fashioned versions of the names they could find, which didn't seem fair and bordered on ludicrous given that Mom had the same problem with Penelope. Lia suited her just fine.

"Call me Alex."

"You shouldn't be so free with your name, Alex."

They stared at each other for about thirty seconds until Alex started laughing. Lia joined in, feeling the burn in her abdomen. Her 'ow, ow, ow' only made them laugh harder, her head suddenly resting on Alex's shoulder and Matthew moving onto her lap. He still smelled like a cesspool when he was close but Matthew fit in her arms just like Lizzie, with enough room for Lia's chin to settle on top of his head.

She told me that I had to be brave for Mama.

She squeezed Matthew tight to her chest.

"What the hell are you?" Alex asked.

"I'm a sociology major at the University of Illinois, plagued with six older brothers and more cousins than I can shake a stick at," Lia said. She didn't know why it was important for him to know that. "I used to think my dad restored furniture but…I'm still pretty sure my mom's a bioengineer. You?"

"A rich kid," he answered. "I was studying biochemistry at NYU." He started laughing again when she made a face — science put her to sleep — but then Alex's brow furrowed. "Wait a minute. There's a Dr. Winchester doing cutting edge cancer research out at Rice Laboratories."

"I know. That's my mom." It was a conversation meant for a small back table, eating peanuts together and sipping on their beers while some earnest young folk singer was wailing away on her guitar. Lia sighed. At least the lighting was appropriate — and he looked like any guy she'd meet in a bar, even if he needed a bath and a change of clothes. "Why are you here? You're…" She caught 'normal' right before it slipped out of her mouth.

"Human?" Alex provided. Lia nodded. "Well, you're direct," he observed.

"It's a family curse."

Alex sucked in a breath when she uttered 'curse,' one finger trailing the edge of the hole on the right knee of his jeans. "I'm a hostage, an only child being kept to ensure my father's good behavior. He's a zoning commissioner in New York and Rion has plans to move his base of operations there."

"That thing dabbles in real estate?" She didn't want to know what a thing like that needed a base of operations for, given that he seemed to be doing a brisk business in misery out of a crematorium and an office that was best described as beige.

"That thing is an Unseelie Lord," Alex replied. "Real estate is probably the least of it. He's been passing himself off as human for centuries. And the Unseelie live for power. It doesn't matter where they get it from these days." His brown eyes settled on her face.

Her childhood was full of stories about the Sidhe and even the goodly kind didn't have sparkly wings or dance around wearing flowers and cute little expressions like in all those Brian Froud books. Her mother would always say that hope diminished the Unseelie the same way that the dark moon stole luck.

They were supposed to be fairy tales, bedtime stories passed down from mother to daughter for three generations — all suddenly made true by Rion's eyes full of drying blood.

"He's not getting anything out of me that he doesn't take," Lia returned evenly.

"I really wish that you wouldn't make vast pronouncements like that." Her back stiffened when Alex slipped his arm across her shoulders but all they had left were the memories of how they used to act. She wasn't about to give them up to a place that smelled like it was already dying because of things like 'too soon' and 'strangers need to be cautious.' Comfort from strangers was comfort all the same. "This place has a way of twisting your words to get what it wants," Alex added.

"That's because the Twilight Lands are six inches left of center." Mom had called it a world of bright shine and tattered enchantments where even the Kindly Ones were capricious if you were impolite. If you don't follow the rules, Lia. She swallowed and looked down at Matthew. He was breathing slowly, his eyes closed as he rested his head against her chest.

It was the first time she'd ever seen Matthew asleep.

"I wish…" Lia began, hearing the gasps around her as the words slipped out. Lia swallowed. "I wish I had met you under different circumstances, Alex."

"Me, too." There was a smile in his voice that reminded her of Johnny when her brother was cracking a joke. "I'm guessing you clean up nice when you're not wearing a hospital gown."

"I'm usually not puking everywhere, either."

"Good to know," Alex said lightly. His chuckle was nothing like Rion's, a light thing in such a dark place. "But I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that you have a nice ass."

Lia tilted her head up to look up at him, a blush on his cheeks visible in what passed for light. She almost kissed him, hitching herself up to brush her lips against his because he blushed even darker after he realized that Lia was staring at him, but they were sitting in a crematorium surrounded by poor people giving up pieces of themselves and hoping for a miracle.

She told herself later that it was because of Matthew, sleeping in her arms. And later still, when it mattered most, it would be too late.


A/N:

The title of this story is from the Jim's Big Ego song "Prince Charming" as are the opening quotes.

More detailed notes are forthcoming at the end of the entire story.

This is the first of three parts. The story is complete and additional parts will be posted on subsequent days. Part two will be posted tomorrow, 8/15/07.