Whiskey was a waterfall of dreamless sleep, whispered dirges in the dark and the fumbled prayer of a man who'd seen too much today, and wanted to forget all the twisted things that will forever dig into the walls of his mind, scratch just beneath the skin.
Damien's fingers against the shot glass were numb. He didn't feel the smooth glass, the splash of amber liquid as it spilled over the sides in his shaky grip. He knocked it back, gagging around the burn, remembering the way a woman who wasn't there twisted and crisped on the edges, curling inwards like paper set alight.
"That was…really, really," Barney said shakily, breaking the silence with nothing to say. Damien nodded along in agreement; really was the only way to describe it. Everything else was too close to a home he'd curled up around, the pages stiff between his fingers, reading light casting shadows on the walls. He used to pretend, in a corner of his mind, that those shadows were the monsters in the dark, the ones that had escaped through cracks in the surface of reality and he had to fight them back with the sheer force of his will.
He didn't think he would pretend anymore.
Or read Supernatural.
Or breathe the same.
"Awful, right? Exactly," Dean said with a faux brightness that bit against the civilian's ears, clawed at the remainders of their resolve. "Round's on us, guys." Barney thought he sounded like his father, an army vet with no tolerance for little boys who wanted to be soldiers, who dressed up as superheroes in garish colors and looked at other boys as they would at little girls.
A rough pat on his shoulder, a wince, another charming smile with edges like ice and fire, and something rolled sick and sweet and afraid inside of Barney's stomach. It clawed inside him, pushed at the cage of his chest until his heart felt the shadow of its stuttering frenzy, the near stop when a ghost had screamed and writhed in the darkness of a graveyard.
Damien stared into amber pools he wished he could submerge himself in, and felt the steady heat of the thin man beside him, the uneven breathing of his best friend, the shaky hands of his partner in the edges of his vision.
"See you around guys," Sam murmured, his eyes sliding off of Damien and Barney as if they didn't exist, only another part of the long blur of lives his world had corrupted, nightmares he had created.
Damien swallowed down his residual fear and tried to turn to see them off, his body stiff and resistant to his wants. The bar was dark, shadows slipping off of shadows and wrapping around the strangers that had saved his life, like they belonged to the blackness, the underside of the world, and he caught the soft brightness of blue eyes trained on green, the woman watching for some silent cue from the shorter man. The lingering look spoke more than either of them had in the time Damien had known them (the taller man already starting for the door, with his shoulders slumped in), though they were all nameless blurs of cocky smiles and grave dirt in his mind.
"Hey, how-how did you know how to do that?" he asked, his voice hoarse and worn, his body heavy and his mind clinging to the fragile hope that this was all a dream. The tallest of the two frowned, his lips moving soundlessly for a moment, trying out words Damien and Barney would never hear, before he seemed to find the safest route, the most stable ground.
"We, uh, we read the books," he supplied lamely, his eyes a perfect mask, impenetrable hazel. He and the other man turned, walking towards the door with the same purpose they carried with them everywhere, like they knew all the secrets the world had to offer, understood its arcane languages and signs.
The woman lingered a moment, her face a soft kind of bitterness, swept away in memories they couldn't see and times when things were simple and she rolled in the grass and tried to count the stars, before she'd seen past the veil. All hunters remember their awakening more so than they would like; they remember the way dead things screamed and how a shovel felt heavy in their hands.
"You guys did okay," she said finally, her voice a slow kind of music, that fell over you in drifts and made you remember all the things you'd left behind in your life; a father back in Berkley county who didn't like Nancy boys, a road stop on I-23 where the leaves fell like snow and blanketed the road in brilliant messages of fire, friends and family who had been set to sleep in an earthen embrace. "Don't go looking for this, you didn't do that well. But considering, you were okay." The smile she gave them was shaky and small, but it seemed to say more than others.
Barney's mouth set to working, but the words stayed lodged in his throat, refusing to be heard, to be given weight.
She raised her hand, half a wave, half an aborted pat on Barney's bony shoulder, and jogged away, her hair fanning out behind her, caught on a makeshift wind like wing beats. They watched her go with hollow eyes, another set of souls that had witnessed too much, another group of people tainted and stained by the touch of darkness she resided in.
Kat's weak smile dropped the moment she turned, the bitter scent of vomit still curling through her mind and reminding her of another she was meant to save, to prevent from being submerged in a world they couldn't control, to be haunted by things they only thought they saw on the edges of their vision. Sometimes she could still hear her sister scream.
Dean and Sam were waiting as patiently as they could just beyond the threshold of the bar, twitching with the need to have a blurring landscape moving with them again. Dean's face was a fractured mask, perfect to anyone who hadn't seen beneath it already and witnessed the twisted agony that festered just beneath the surface. Kat could nearly taste it when he met her gaze, the need to escape the reality of all his mistakes, sins, stumbles thrown back at him over and over. He couldn't keep seeing distorted mirrors of himself rambling their way through his most painful memories, couldn't glance at another 'Mary' or 'Azazel' or 'Sam'. Couldn't take the way people dressed as his brother trailed behind their Fake Dean counterparts like lost puppies and turned in time with a play Dean had written with his footsteps.
She couldn't understand what that felt like, resting comfortably on the surface of a story she'd only gleaned information from, but Kat could see the way pain curled in his chest and beat in its own rhythm. She could feel the way he jerked away from touch, instead of her, when she brushed against his arm as they began the short walk towards the front door, where an escape on four wheels called to a hunter who'd rather leave the past behind.
She couldn't understand, so she stayed quiet, and followed Dean, Sam at her side and faring no better, mind a river of tainted blood and choices that left him no better than an addict on the side of the road, a knife across skin instead of a needle into it. Mistakes that tipped the scales and mounted against him, sickly sweet and the flavor of a fallen hero.
Kat walked softly, the heels of her boots whispering against the hardwood and body poised and so careful not to touch Dean and sharpen all the memories already biting into his soul. It seemed like the brothers were bleeding into the air, both of their pasts nipping at their heels and their thoughts nearly audible in the spaces between them, in the words they weren't saying, silence like a scream.
"Hey Chuck!" Dean barked, snapping all the tenuous threads that kept them silent with a bitter casing to his words. "Good luck with the Supernatural books. And fuck you very much." He clapped the slight man on the shoulder and left him iced-over with a cold glare.
Kat trailed behind, stopped long enough for one last lingering look into eyes as infinite as the sky, her fingers twitching slightly with the anxiety his gaze pushed into her.
"I will find out," she hissed, finally, seeing past the thin veneer of nervousness and into a man who wasn't a man at all, some omniscient power that consumed and twisted the very fabric of humanity between his fingers. "Maybe I already have," Kat murmured to herself, a considering look washing over his thin frame.
She nodded to herself, chewed the inside of her mouth and swirled the notion around inside her head, turning back to follow Dean and Sam in one fluid motion that made it seem like she didn't touch the ground. Her steps ghosted behind the brothers.
She felt like she would pass through Dean if she touched him, phasing through as if she didn't have a body at all, as if she didn't exist. When she slammed into Dean's solid back in front of an unyielding door, she bit back a yelp of surprise, jerked back to the real world with a mumbled curse from Dean and the sound of a lock being forced. It stuck, seemed held shut by invisible hands on the other side, a metaphysical army barring it shut with the hands of so many men.
Trapping them inside.
Kat moved quickly, shoved Dean aside with a jut of her hip against his and the eccentric flutter of her hands, shooing him back as she kneeled before the lock, pick held nimbly in her fingers. Her thumb swiped over the metal, catching on the jagged teeth curved inward. She poked at it contemplatively with her lock pick.
"It's not locked, not welded on the inside, it's just not moving," she reported, eyes narrowed on the tarnished metal. "Something's keeping us in."
Her voice was grave, heavy and solid like the click of a lock.
"That's…weird," Dean said softly, tasting the words on his tongue and realizing their insufficiency, how little they encompassed that age-old coil of fear in his stomach that panged with lost innocence and children with hollow eyes and graves he passed over in favor of another. He hated missing things, even when grave dirt dug deep beneath his nails and he smelled faintly of lighter fluid and bones, and digging up children's graves for extra measure seemed like beating a dead horse.
"Definitely," Sam noted, digging his fingers beneath the window pane closest to him and trying to pry it open, stained glass bruising his skin with strange patterns of light.
Dean watched his brother with wary eyes, unsurprised when the window didn't budge and a pit slowly yawned open in his stomach, cold, coiled anxiety spreading slowly through his chest as he moved on automatic. He tried every window he could find, disregarding the beautiful pictures the colored shards made pieced together in favor of the night outside, the open air he'd tasted only minutes before.
Kat slammed her hand against the door, thick wood refusing to even shudder beneath the force, pick dangling uselessly from the lock's cradle. A snarl curled her lips borne from the carnal fear that writhed in her chest, whispered of mistakes and lives lost and the unknown she couldn't decipher. Dangerous and terrible in the arms of darkness, indistinguishable evil hidden away.
"Every exit's locked," Sam reported, fingers beginning to bruise in sharp lines from the edges of windows. "This is bad."
Dean leveled him with a flat look. "Gee, you think, Sammy?"
A scream tore through the uneasy softness blanketing the hotel, stormed through quiet laughter and the sound of shot glasses hitting the bar top, ripped strange fantasy from the seams and launched the hunters back into a reality they knew how to operate in. A hunt was easy to breathe around, a flavor of desperation they were acquainted with.
"Don't go in there," the Leticia Gore impersonator breathed, her voice a desperate crack of panic and her hands shaking, trembling. The hunters pushed through into the room. The same heavy feeling old hotels and inns often carry in their dark walls and dusty bookcases blanketed the area.
"Why'd you do that? Why'd you send my mommy away?"
The voice was the same whisper on the wind, cold breath down the back of a neck, toe-curling and skin-tingling, the hysterical edge to a fear you don't understand. The animalistic instinct to run.
The little boy stood in the center of the room, blood oozing steadily from a wound that no longer pained his earthly body and curling in nearly elegant patterns down across his neck and staining the skin red in its wake. His hands hovered close to his ears, as if he would press down and pretend the world wasn't real, and he could block it all out. Kat watched his eyes, so hidden inside of dark bruised caverns, flicking desperately across the three of them, skidding to a halt on her as if she could answer. Could wrap him up in her arms and sing him to sleep like, she imagined, his mother would.
"Because of the high and tight she gave you? How 'bout some thanks?" Dean asked, something constricting in his chest. "I'm just saying that a little gratitude would be nice once in a while." He thought of Stockholm syndrome and people who still loved family that was dark and twisted and belonged in the underside of the world, beneath the rug where all the dirt and grime was swept. Sam shot him a sharp look, but Kat's eyes hadn't strayed from the ghost. Their calm blue seemed shattered, like an azure sea had been frozen and smashed beneath the weight of the world itself.
"She was hurting people," Kat said softly, dropping to a squat to be on the boy's level, a hand reaching out without her knowledge, trying to bridge the gap between their worlds and offer him something he could hold onto. He was so lost, so bent up and twisted by the fabric of reality and stained red with a young death and she wanted to help him. She just wanted to help. "She hurt you. We couldn't let her hurt anyone else."
Dean thought Kat's soothing voice could lift a weight from his shoulders, could take the pressure away, tumbling over all the walls he erected so carefully with only the slightest falter in her inherent control. Her comfort would catch itself on the vulnerable side of him, stabilize inside his very soul and set about rebuilding him from the ground up, and he could so easily let her do it.
No one could see him broken, fractured and drawn out in long screams and dark webs that remembered Hell more clearly than what he had for breakfast that morning. As tempting as it was to imagine collapsing in the strong cage of her arms and admitting that he wasn't quite so strong, he couldn't let it happen. Any more than he could allow himself to love her, lust after her, chase dreams of laying kisses in her hair or on the tip of her nose to watch her crinkle her face like a rabbit. If something in him ached at the thought, reached out blindly for someone to fill that secret void in his heart Sam could never occupy, he would ignore it. Because that was what he did.
What he would always do.
"My mommy didn't do this to me! My mommy didn't hurt anyone!"
The boy's frenzied words made Dean think of school counselors staring down his bruises and asking about how close he was to John, what their lives were like and the justified anger that caught quick on his veins and made him burn from the inside. And the way he knew his father wouldn't hurt him, despite growing up around the cold, dead look in his eyes when he killed something, and the blood that so often stained his clothes irrevocably. It was just something he knew, and that would never change.
"We believe you, buddy," he said softly, watching an anxious confusion cast over the little boy's eyes, wondering who to trust, who he could lean on when he was so afraid. So much to fear without a mother's protection.
"Then. Who did?" Sam asked, his voice wary and seeping with hesitancy as he stared down the shadow of a boy, dressed primly in a uniform with blood crusted behind his ear.
Another scream, this one bitten to the tang of blood on a man's lips and his dying breath spent out on noise without syllables and high-pitched lightning without words. Kat thought she would hate for her last words to be wasted on a scream. She would rather lock it deep inside her chest until her veins were humming with the cry of fear and agony and panic, and say something in parting.
She'd thought about death too much, she realized, as she skidded around a corner of the darkened motel. The rug kicked up at the corner with her movements, the heel of her boot slipping dangerously on hardwood. She wondered how things might have changed if she didn't. If death was abstract and strange to her mind and the impossibility of its reality was like in the Disney films Bobby had pushed at her when she moved into his house, a temporary thing. Able to be reversed at the second when it seemed the most final.
The German man from the convention was splayed out, wound gaping a hello to the hunters and he wouldn't be brought back. No fairy tale ending or lover's kiss good morning. Only the lingering whisper of a final breath on his lips.
Kat tried not to wonder what he'd be doing, if they hadn't freed the boys from Gore's control. Would he be opening book four to the place he'd bookmarked for the thousandth time, just before his favorite part? Was he going to reread it again that night and pick up nuances and hints he'd missed before, find little twitches in his characters that gave them such perfect depth and made them real?
Dean and Sam stared down at pooling blood and frozen terror, a dream realized from the stiff pages of paper backs, never seen with living eyes, never traced over with the critical scrutiny only number one fans and editors could give. A plastic hook lay separated from his clawed hand, frozen in place and reaching back for its hold, a large-brimmed hat tipped near it with blood staining its dark felt.
Kat's eyes scanned the thick red and lingered on ripped skin and long hair draped awkwardly from the roots around his neck, disconnected from the flap of skin and angry red muscle and blood. She hated scalpings, hated that she'd seen more than one.
Her life was so messed up.
She was just glad no one could read her thoughts, see the scrolling details and comparisons of cut marks and how far back it went, the force it would take to rip that far, and leave most of it dangling by the barest threads. Not strong enough to make it real, to rip it from the whole and complete the shame in losing, the honor in adding the skin to a belt, in victory.
"Always with the sick cases," she muttered, forcibly stopping herself from toeing at his still-lax corpse, rigor hours away from creeping into muscles and the body was lax enough to roll with her motion, as if he would suddenly stretch out in a slow yawn and wake from his nap.
But no. Just another ghost to join the others, and play inside another realm she'd brushed against, thought about, tasted on the tip of her tongue and had the flavor dragged away by a clean intake of air. She breathed deeply, Dean following the movement with curious eyes, and tried to drag herself back to life by the tang of oxygen and the clarity of the night.
"Well guys, I guess we're out of time. Thanks for all the probing and rigorous questions…have a good night," Chuck finished lamely, an air of relief seeping into skin and affecting his body language, making his shoulders loosen for the first time since Dean had met him, the weasel-like features of his face fading back as the circles beneath his eyes became pronounced.
Kat bounded onto the makeshift stage with the elegance of a dancer, the feral tinge of a hunter in the roughness of it, a combination that left Dean reeling. He watched the way her thin body moved beneath the cage of her leather jacket, and noted the click of her boots in some secret part of his heart, to recognize it when the staccato played in the early hours of the morning, stop him from reaching for a knife if he heard it before fully waking.
She whispered low and fast in Chuck's ear, seemed reluctant to get too close, as if looking in his eyes would swallow her, lost inside a blue not as bright as her own. Deeper maybe, but Dean thought her eyes shown with something like white lightning. Something fierce and untamed.
"Wha- Holy crap!" Chuck shrieked into his mike, pushing it away from his face a moment later with hands that trembled, knuckles white and his eyes skating across every startled face in the crowd.
"Just keep them occupied for a little while longer, we need to keep these people safe," she whispered fervently. Dean watched the shape of her mouth as it formed the words, saw the texture of her hand gestures become frenzied and worried as Chuck grew agitated, some arcane anxiety in the way she leaned away from him.
"How the hell am I supposed to do that?!"
"I don't know! Just do it," she hissed, running a hand through her hair and the spotlight making heat crawl up the back of her neck. The weight of eyes on her was physical, the drawn-out touch of a monster trailing the tips of claws across her skin, so close to deadly.
"Who's that?" An audience member asked, head tipped to the side and fake mullet catching the shine of light. "New character?"
"Yes. Yes it is!" Chuck said brightly, wrapping a thin hand around her forearm with a grip strangely vice-like, solid as it held her suspended in place, on stage where time had no meaning and the seconds dragged by.
She locked eyes with Dean, her gaze wounded and open and desperate. He grinned, ran a hand through his short hair and mouthed 'We got this' and left her poised on the head of a pin, her jacket too hot to stay in and her skin white and marred beneath its concealing safety. It slipped from her shoulders like water against a pane of glass, rolled away with a stiff movement that left the leather slung over Chuck's stool and her fingers catching the ancient silver rings on her hands and twisting to give her something to do, to keep her from resting against the knife she kept on her, the gun.
"So," Chuck started again, seemingly revived by some manic energy writers must have bred into their souls. "How do you guys feel about angels? Because they're not as lame as you think."
Kat stepped slightly to the side as Chuck laid out the road already traveled by the two men ushering the staff into the convention room, the pair smiling cheaply at disgruntled faces and shooting amused glances at her when their eyes met. She looked uncomfortable, fit wrong inside her own skin and pulling at scars so few knew were real. The audience marveled in soft whispers at the careful application of her make-up, wondering how a character had garnered them.
The fans watched her carefully, traced their eyes down her thin and deceivingly delicate form, to rest on the corded strength of her arms. When she shifted, and a strand of her hair slipped along the white-cream of her collar bone, they could see the barest twitch of tightly packed muscles, and their gaze wrapped around her torso in an imitation of embrace. Their eyes fell against the gentle wrinkles in the black tank top that hugged her so tightly, and skimmed along the start of her jeans, caught on the rusty stains on the knees. They stopped on the well-worn scuff of her boots, and the tense hostility in her stance: defensive.
Time crawled by, measured by the increments of breathing, her own a forced steady and Chuck's a breathless whisper into the mike that made static rebound around the audience. She winced, tried to resist rubbing at her temples, and wondered if she could lull herself into a dream state to the rhythm of Chuck's ramblings. Should she bother to pay attention to the way his mind flitted from one subject to the next like an agitated bird? Bother to listen to the roundabout way he spoke, find a balance of hint and summary to introduce a character whose role was just beginning to unfurl before his eyes and behind them, twisting inside the strange fabric of reality his mind had created and the Winchesters had confirmed.
It must be terrifying to live like that, never knowing if your delusions had just bled through into the real world and tainted everything you thought you knew, perverse hallucinations that smelled of gunpowder and metal and every detail you'd ever written.
Kat's eyes traced the ceiling and she wondered if children played inside the walls, in the spaces between Here and Gone, if they played bloody games before Gore's son had been scalped by them, boys he considered playmates. She wondered about afterlives, and how much of yourself would be lost along the way without a purpose, kept only by the duty to protect the orphanage, the people inside it, from children without souls, selfish and black at the center. Inhuman.
It seemed clear now, the way Gore's son had looked believing, convinced in his mother's love in the way only children can be, even in death, untainted by the world and its doubts.
"So who's that? Are you going to answer us, man?" Someone asked loudly, agreement rolling through the crowd as if on newly broken waves in the morning, the gentlest of the day lapping against the shores, before whitewater and surf filled the shallows.
"This," Chuck said brightly, that enveloping gleam in his eyes that seemed to swallow everything burning just beneath the surface. "Is Kat. Kat, say hi."
She waved, unfamiliar heat crawling up the back of her neck to rest uncomfortably on her cheeks, her eyes catching the end of a snicker from Sam, towering over the crowd at the back, pausing in deep discussion with out how to make it out locked doors, finding a way to distract the fevered minds of murderous children.
"I think she'd be the best to answer the questions about herself. Go for it, Kat," Chuck proclaimed happily, eagerly twitching out of the spotlight, tension slipping from him as the shadow embraced his form.
Kat sighed, scrubbed tiredly at her eyes, and tried not to think about beds, about the weight of Dean's arms around her waist, anchoring her to soft sheets and easy dreams she couldn't remember in the morning, didn't wake from until the first crack of dawn split the sky.
"Who are you?"
"Where'd you get the scars?"
"Nice make-up, by the way!"
"Which of them do you fall in love with?"
"When do you die?"
"Okay, okay, alright," she snapped, looking up again with quick fire sparked in her eyes and spreading to her posture, pushing her shoulders back until the edges of her scars found depth, like the most delicate relief sculpture in Rome, carved from unrelenting white marble, split so easily by the right tools and etched into permanence.
The room fell silent, like a hand suffocating a speaker, the noise squashed down under her sharp eyes, hovering on the edge of uncaring and terrified and used to be being in the background. A stage was foreign, tasted like sweat and desperation, dripped from the brows of all the people that needed a crowd to feel like they were alive at all. She liked the shadow, night that wrapped around her easily, when she lived inside it for so long, forgot blue sky existed in the eleven years when metal sheeting and living ink-spots of shadow were her only entertainment.
But that wasn't bad.
That settled easy on her skin and kissed her goodnight in the easy way she used to sleep before she met the sky again, bent out from exhaustion and a stranger to dreams and nightmares alike. Her years hidden away had not made her hate the dark.
She loved it like only a hunter could, when it saved her from questions and the law and the glaring reality of her work; grave dirt flung beneath the sun never felt the same way beneath the vigil of a full moon.
"My name is Katherine, that's all anybody needs to know. The scars are my business, Sam and Dean don't know either, even though they wonder. Everyone wonders. Some say I was bitten, infected by a werewolf or some other creature and have been able to conquer it, tame the beast inside to my own will. Those people might be wrong, they might not. Either way I'm with the boys now, traveling, chasing something both of us had hoped was dead, both of us want to kill more than we can ever really explain. Once that's done, maybe I'll stay. Dean seems to like me well enough, since our pasts manage to share a twining road. Enough to make us pause and try to read out each other, anyway. As far as I know, I'm alive. But in this line of work, I have no illusions to the staying power of that sentiment. I could die at any moment. Hopefully I'll go saving someone else. Hopefully someone will bother to miss me." She paused, and the words seemed to taste bitter in her own mouth when she spoke them, a grim twist of her lips and a hard sort of memory in her eyes.
"But you can't get everything you want."