Word Count: 2,633
Rating: M (Adult subject matter)
Disclaimer: I own nothing in the following work of fiction.
Author's Notes: This one gets pretty dark. Hopefully you'll see it through before passing judgment.
-- For Kate --
It didn't seem to end. The darkness stretched on either side of me as I scoured the hallway. I had been here a thousand times; it was always the same, but at the same time I always managed to be surprised. Cold steel pressed into my tightened grip, grounding me with its familiar weight as I kicked down closed doors. A laugh, cold and chilling, echoed off the walls and in my head. It seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at once, taunting me. The laugh preceded a pained scream and I began searching in earnest. I didn't know what I was looking for, but the darkness was closing in and I had to find whatever it was. Around me the walls moved closer and I struggled to breathe, fighting to keep going. I fell to my knees, pushed by an imaginary weight, and I cried as my name was screamed somewhere in the darkness…
Jolting awake, I stifled the scream that wanted to escape and wiped the moisture from my eyes. A look at the clock revealed it was still early, but I could never go back to sleep after the nightmare. Usually I didn't wake up so soon after I had passed out. I'd only been unconscious for an hour or two. Must not have drunk enough I mused, rising from my rumpled bed sheets and padding out to the kitchen. A bottle of whiskey stood empty, forgotten beside a mostly full one.
"Hair of the dog," I muttered into the silence, taking a long swallow from the full bottle.
As I drank, I could feel the whiskey numbing the guilt, the pain, the heart ache. All the things I had no time for anymore. They were pushed farther and farther to the edges of my conscious mind as the bottle emptied.
Around me New York continued on, a steady heartbeat to my pain. It was still in my dingy apartment, but outside the sounds of life trundled on. A baby cried above me, a cabbie honked outside. Traffic moved like blood through the veins of the city. Knowing it was all still out there was enough. I no longer felt the need to be a part of it all like I once had. The four walls of my small, rat-hole apartment were the only place I felt like existing and sometimes not even there.
My father offered to put me up after I left my job. I took his support and threw it back in his face, just like I had to everyone else. He still came around, one of the few who dared, yet we mostly didn't speak. Once a month to loan me money to pay my bills, which was always declined. I hadn't been frivolous with my money when I had been working, never lived outside my means, and I still had a considerable inheritance left over from my mother. All which kept me afloat and independent for the time being.
After I left the police force I had put up the ruse of looking for another job for awhile, but eventually gave up, knowing no one would take me. I didn't want to be hired. It would become just a place where my reputation preceded me. I had quit to get away from it all. The stares and peripheral lingering glances; conversations that stopped as soon as I walked into a room. I knew what they were saying about me. How I was losing my mind and my grip on reality was slipping. Even Esposito and Ryan gave up defending me after awhile. Eventually I stopped caring, and started proving them right.
Montgomery was sad to see me go, but I could tell he thought it was for the best. I knew he had been taking heat for months about me; that he was the only thing standing between me and being fired. I was never cleared to return to the field and riding a desk while everyone gawked like I was a sideshow attraction was slowly stifling the will out of me. Even my legendary resolve crumbled under their scrutiny and I cracked. A dog can only be kicked so many times before it stops trying to get up, and I'd taken one too many blows. So I gave up; faded back into the woodwork. I made myself almost unrecognizable, until I began to look a bit like someone who was in the paper for awhile.
The bottle fell from my limp hand, clattering to the floor and rolling under my chair. I let the refuge of oblivion sink into my brain as the alcohol rushed through my tired body and soothed my tired mind.
A muffled shuffling made me stir and I fought a moan as sunlight pierced into my hang over. My head throbbed, everything hurt. On the outside it felt like even my hair had a hang over, but inside I was comfortably numb.
"Oh Katie Girl," I heard sighed from somewhere behind me.
I stood unsteadily on tottering legs, stiff from my stint in the rickety arm chair, and turned to the kitchen behind me. Lanie stood in the kitchen with a garbage bag, gathering up the empty bottles that seemed to pile up faster and faster.
"Hey, you're awake. Do you want something to eat?" she asked, leaving the bag by the counter and stopping at the table, afraid to get too close.
They were all skittish around me. I couldn't blame them. Even my father didn't attempt to hug me anymore. As if their touch could shatter my outside as much as my inside had been.
I shook my head, feeling my stomach revolt at the idea of food. Lanie always came every week to make sure I had food in the fridge. Most of it went untouched until she came the next time to throw it out.
"Coffee," I croaked, my throat still raw from the whiskey burn.
With a resigned sigh, she brought a Starbucks cup into view on the table and went back to cleaning up. For the first few months I had tried to dissuade her, but eventually, like everything else, I had stopped caring. She was as stubborn as I used to be and I knew that if she didn't clean and make sure I had something to eat, I wouldn't bother. It was just pile up like everything else in my life. A tangible reminder of my internal battle, fought and lost.
"Ryan and Esposito say hi. They said they would try to visit this weekend if they could," Lanie chattered on, mostly to herself as I half listened. "Oh and Martha left tickets for her opening night tomorrow. She hopes you'll come."
"Tomorrow!?" my head shot up from looking at my coffee cup. "I thought that was next week."
"That was a week ago," Lanie reminded patiently.
Time was beginning to get away from me more and more these days. It slid by without my acknowledgement or notice. The wheels were turning but I didn't dare look at the odometer.
"I have to go," I said, leaving the cup on the table. "I'm supposed to get Alexis from the train station."
Alexis was the one person in the world I cared about disappointing. She was gone away to school most of the time, so I kept up a brave front when she was home. The last thing she needed on top of law school was worrying about me.
"Sweetie, she got in this morning," Lanie explained, and I felt my face fall. "The boys picked her up and took her home. She's coming in an hour, so go jump in the shower and sober the hell up."
I nodded, still angry with myself, but did as I was told. The water was scalding hot, but I got in anyway. As the stream pelted my skin, boiling my hangover away, I let my mind wander briefly to happier times.
Alexis had been so happy when she'd gotten her acceptance to Harvard. There was no doubt that she would get in. She had worked too hard for her marks and to compile activities to beef up her application. Then there was of course the fact that she was who she was. When Alexis Castle set her mind to something, she made it happen; learning to fence, mastering the violin, getting into law school. Whatever she wanted, she worked damn hard to get it. It was difficult not to be proud of her. We all were. Even threw her a big party to celebrate.
With so many of Alexis's friends around, we had all huddled in the kitchen, out of the way. Ryan and Esposito had sipped their beers and kept a close watch on the gawky teen boy who had been holding Alexis's hand. The duo had sat at the kitchen table, within the boy's line of sight and barely blinked. Judging by the furtive glances he had kept throwing their way, the scare tactic worked.
Martha and her latest beau had been at the other end of the table, huddled in their own little discussion of things gone past. She had smiled demurely and rested an arm on the man's forearm, leaning in slightly to hear him speak.
Castle and I had been leaning against the kitchen island, observing the whole scene passively. I barely remember what we had spoken about, it had seemed so insignificant. He had mentioned his frustration that Meredith hadn't attended. Something about her not being the sole focus of all the attention. Our arms touched as we leaned and I remember feeling the warmth through my sleeve.
I halted the recollections like a runaway freight train as they strayed into painful territory. Things better left not thought about. With a glance to my watch on the counter, I shut off the water, having already stayed in too long. Drying off, I swept my damp hair into a ponytail and fished around in my dresser for some mostly clean clothes. Lanie obviously hadn't gotten her neat freakiness around to my bedroom yet. Usually when she was there, I was shuffled drowsily from room to room as she worked, until she finished.
I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror as I brushed my teeth and paused, wondering at the changes. My face had taken on a sunken look, making the lines of my jaw and cheeks even sharper. Haunted eyes looked out from the dark circles that only deepened with time. I couldn't even remember the last time I'd gotten a full night's sleep, without alcohol or pills.
"You don't look good, Kate."
I rolled my eyes and spit toothpaste into the sink.
"Thank you Captain Obvious," I muttered, glaring at the figure behind me through the mirror.
He smirked, that infuriating half smile and shrugged. "Just keeping it real."
"That's rich, coming from you," I scowled, shutting the tap off. "Leave me alone, Castle."
I slammed the bathroom door shut on his smug face and saw Alexis sitting at my dining room table. She had a politely curious look on her face as she watched me. Lanie turned from the counter, putting a mug down in front of Alexis and sitting down at another of the dining room chairs.
"Hey Lex," I said, glad my voice was only slightly hoarse. "I'm sorry I wasn't there to pick you up."
"That's okay," Alexis smiled brightly. "Ryan and Esposito let me turn on the siren."
I wondered if I had become so predictable that no one expected me to show up or if the boys would have been there anyway. It was becoming painfully obvious no one trusted me alone with Alexis.
"How's school going?" I asked.
"Good. It's keeping me really busy."
We lapsed into an awkward silence and I looked beyond Alexis to where Castle leaned against a wall, shaking his head. I threw him a glare and turned my gaze to the table.
"Gram wanted me to tell you her show starts at seven tomorrow night. She hopes you'll come."
The earnest look Alexis couldn't quite hide told me that Martha wasn't the only one. I sighed, not wanting to let her down. It had been more than a year since I'd last been seen in public and I didn't know if I could handle being out; especially under the watchful eye of the press.
"We'll see," I hedged, not wanting to refuse outright.
"Okay. I'm going dress shopping tomorrow afternoon, so if you want to come with me just call or well, you know where to find me."
I nodded, knowing that wouldn't happen. I hadn't been to their apartment since it happened and had no intention of doing so.
"Well I better go," Alexis said, standing up and rinsing her mug in the sink. "Walk me out?"
I glared at Lanie who seemed poised to object and followed Alexis into the hall. Castle leaned against a door across the hall and watched the scene with interest.
We walked down the stairs because the building had no elevator, and stopped at the lobby. Alexis turned, hitching her purse higher on her shoulder and pulled me into a tight hug. At first I was stiff, uncomfortable with physical contact after so long, but I felt myself sinking into the embrace. There was nothing like a Castle hug. All three had a way of warming you from the inside, like for a moment you could just let go and they would hold your problems for you.
"He wouldn't want you to be so sad, you know," she murmured into my shoulder. "No one blames you for what happened."
I curled my hands into fists at her back to keep from screaming and lashing out. She had no idea that I blamed myself more than anyone could. I didn't see how she could be so forgiving. It would have been easier if she hated me. Instead she clung to me, determined to keep me afloat no matter how much I just wanted to sink.
"Please come tomorrow," Alexis pleaded one last time. Then she kissed my cheek and walked to the curb to hail a cab.
I turned around to see Castle sitting on the steps, looking up at me.
"She's right you know," he said, raising an eyebrow. "I hate seeing you like this."
"Then leave," I growled, as he stood.
I closed my eyes childishly, but when I opened them he was still standing in front of me. Shaking my head I stomped back up the stairs.
"Don't you have someone else to haunt?" I tossed out to the stairwell.
"No can do Scout," he replied, from the top of the stairs as I reached my floor. "You're the one who won't let go. So until then, you're stuck with my charming self."
"Oh joy," I said, rolling my eyes and opening my apartment door.
Lanie was finishing up the dishes in the sink and looked up when I walked in.
"Who you talking to?" she asked, drying her hands.
I glared at Castle where he grinned up at me from the couch. Lanie looked skeptical, but finished putting the cups away.
"Alright, I'm going to get going. Please at least consider going out with Alexis tomorrow? Even if you just tag along while she shops. I know she misses you," Lanie said, stopping an arm's length away from me. "I'll see you next week. I'm working late shift so it probably won't be until the weekend."
I nodded, shoving my hands in the pockets of my jeans. Lanie looked for a moment like she wanted to hug me, but refrained, instead just taking the plastic bag and heading out the door.