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memories of my melancholy whores

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'sex begins with a tongue, not a body,' meg whispers. but it's sam's body that's rigid against her ministrations as she slides against gray matter, twists herself into his brainstem. eventually his tongue collapses under her pressure, and she speaks to him with his own mouth.

'pay attention.'

Sex begins with a tongue, not a body. She drags this one up from a place called K-town, just south of fabled Jericho.

Hell burns memory out of you--every day is new. But this is an old, old pattern, and she revels in the familiarity of form and fat and muscle. It's her first in a long time. But now she's on a mission from someone not quite God, and humans are the vehicles of evil.

"I'm your biggest fan," she whispers, breathing the Midwest and smoke into the body's mouth outside the nohrehbang on 6th. The body drank it down; it saw no difference between her smoke and the wisps that trailed up from hundreds of cigarettes all down the street, catching red and yellow street light like small gateways back to Hell.

She can taste the spin of drugs and chemical backlash as she stews in the body's lungs, diffuses into blood, burns ownership into panicked tendons. The body tries to scream, but its tongue lolls back, stiff like the dead, and smoke bubbles up instead of words. Smoke courses through sinuses until it sits heavy in her optic nerve, teasing at the edges of her sclera. The body shudders, hands flapping in the air like limp scarves of skin (it has nails sprinkled with clear lacquer and precise curlicues: musical notes).

It used to be a singer. It thought in the patterns and situations of pop songs and karaoke subtitles, which explains how easy the catch had been. Now a demon is the one thing she knows of the outside world. It's fitting that it'll likely be the last she ever knows, as is so often the case. It's like a song that way.

She can feel the casual ease of her breaths as the lungs take in air, full and controlled. But even it can't scream. They never can--she makes sure of that.

She always takes the tongue first, black smoke working like marionette strings. She clogs their throat with the darkest, heaviest pieces of herself. Then the lungs pop, and their throat collapses, and the body crumples into her arms. The body becomes hers. The human it had once been is a silent, misremembered figure in the dark.

 

--

 

It takes more time than usual to master this body's tongue, loathe though she is to admit her failures. It spoke a language she didn't understand, something round and lilting and not at all the English she'd learned her first time topside--nor the French, the Spanish. Win-ches-ter was a hard word. Hyun-chae---Hwin-che--

She asks "Do you know any Winchester?" a hundred thousand times, up through the inland dust of California before she can even say the name. Before she begins to understand the answers. When she asks her question now, seated across from an Amy Hein from Jericho, California, she can taste that old accent on her words. Her jaw clicks.

"Are you from like, Japan?" asks Amy Hein. She fingers the pentagram dangling from her neck. Trifles, like the iron Jesus she ripped from her body's neck, that night in the smoky backstreet. The sort that won't save anyone.

"Los Angeles."

Amy nods, though it's clear that means little more than shopping in the Valley; West Hollywood, perhaps. Jericho's a small town whose history gets caught in the spokes every so often, halts the town's entire mechanism for living. It's been weeks now, and the town's still reeling from the loss of the boy, Troy; the escaped suspect, for whom the sheriff's vindictive notation reads Aframian nee Dean Winchester; the woman in white, hitchhiking to god knows where; and the collapse of the old Welch place, off Breckenridge.

"Troy's two uncles--could you tell me about them?" She staggers through the words.

Amy asks, "Why? Are you like...hot for them, or something?"

And she realizes how beautiful humanity can be. Her mind slides back to a world of nothing but sex and flesh and hot, hot breaths at her breasts (up until she came, and the sun came up, and the whore started crying, she'd been her dream; a dream made from fingers and teeth and clit--things, she thinks, are tragically missing from Hell's incorporeal landscape).

The flush of arousal must show on this body's pale, round face, because Amy smiles, puts her pentagram to her lips and nibbles at it shyly. "You are, aren't you."

"They're old friends of my father's." (Peace be upon him.)

Amy can't offer much, limited as she is by her human self-absorptions, but from what she manages, the poor sad thing, she knows this much: Sam will offer anyone a dimpled smile if he thinks it will earn him information. He combs his hair just so. He overshares--but just a little. Dean's in charge.

"And how does...Sam"--it's the first time she's thought of him by his human name; he is the Boy King in Hell, or nameless otherwise--"how does Sam feel about that?"

Amy shrugs. "Kinda like me and Troy I guess. I loved the guy, but come on. Total douche in bed; and always fucking horny. I was kinda torn up that he died, 'cause I mean--you know, who wouldn't be?" (And she nods, though she fails to see the connection in the least. Still, there's the mangled soul she's cohabiting this body with,l singing softly to itself in the language she doesn't know, crying, crying. But who wouldn't be?) "But I dunno. I guess I already wanted to go it solo a bit, maybe. That kind of deal. Assert my independence or whatever."

She knows about the apartment in Palo Alto; she knows about the girl. And perhaps she understands a bit more of these Winchesters. Enough for a con, enough to fly by--Sam, after all, overshares.

She can handle him.

"Did they give you that necklace?" It would be like hunters to do that.

Amy stops biting the pentagram. "No, Troy did."

"Here's to independence, then." She tips her glass in Amy's direction. "The food might be bad, and the beds might be hard, but at least we're living our own lives--and nobody else's."

Blind to sarcasm, Amy nods. Downs her soda.

She and Ji-Hye (the body's name, she's fairly certain now; perhaps she can make it hers) put Amy and her stagnating Jericho to their back with the faintest of kisses. Some people aren't worth the graves they'll one day call home.

 

That night, she watches from afar as the old Breckenridge house burns. She makes rings of charred carbon around her fingers with her twisted matches. Her hands still smell like gasoline. The smoke makes graves of the bottoms of the clouds, coating them black and sooty.

Then she heads east, with the storm. "Winchester" hammers the United States into a grid of sad fucks and bad mornings, in no patterns of logical creation. They wander like seeds, borne by the wind to far-off places. Dandelions grow where they land, like a scourge. There is no reason, nor Intelligent Design. The Winchesters just move. Indiana 1999 is the last time Dean Winchester spent more than two weeks in any given space. It's an old lead, but a promising one. From what she's heard, Dean Winchester cannot have stayed for a month without leaving marks behind. Perhaps its age is better, even, than the more recent reports. Lately, everywhere the Winchesters go, their witnesses end up dead. (Palo Also is a graveyard.)

Or they're Amy Hein, and stupid.

So east, but for the grace of God, goes she.

 

'too many things,' says meg. she doesn't give sam time to ponder how very stupid asking questions is. she speaks. he submits. end of story. 'things even your brother doesn't know.

'--not that it's difficult to fit that description.'

 

Ben is in the next room. Justin's been paid, sent home in the Corvette that discredits his need for the $40 Lisa blearily waves at him. (He gave the woman on Lisa's doorstep a hungry once-over, and winked at Lisa. "Same time next week?" he said.

"I hope so," said the woman on the doorstep. She has her fingers latched into Lisa's belt loops, knuckles knocking against Lisa's hips like river buoys. Cold. Soft. Cold.)

Justin speeds out of the cul de sac. Lisa collects herself. The woman on the doorstep waits, quiet and watchful the way she'd been at the bar. Not shy, though; it's like the silence is hers to command. The woman has nothing to hide. She's got haughtiness brimming up from her boots, slung against her hips. She's the kind of woman who knows what she's looking for. She's what Lisa's looking for.

"Sorry, I didn't catch--?" Lisa starts, once her inquiring mind catches with the rest of her, and she realizes she doesn't actually know the woman's name.

"Ji Hye," says the woman. "But you can call me Julia.'"

"Joo." And Lisa's glad the lights are out in the foyer, even as she's fumbling with her shoes and her keys and her scarf all at once, because the sound spreads across her lips like a balm and she feels like she's thirteen again. Thirteen is pre-Sex Pistols, but definitely post-curiosity. Thirteen is pretty good.

Thirteen is pretty drunk. Lisa tries for the key hook a third time.

"Here." Julia's hand is cold; her knuckles are cold marbles against Lisa's palm as she takes the keys, drops them onto the hook like she's been living here for years. Julia's cold hand finds its way to Lisa's neck, curled into the angel hair at her nape, as her boots come off.

Lisa curls into the crook of Julia's arm as she slides out of the same. She's shorter than Lisa thought, without the boots; she and Julia fall against the wall when Lisa tries to kiss her and finds her lips not there.

Shhhh: Lisa, into Julia's hair. She stifles a giggle. "My son's asleep."

"Your son?"

Lisa's sober enough for her stomach to drop. People cruising North Park bars aren't looking for strings. Slick fucks, no witnesses--kids aren't part of that equation. But they're part of Lisa's. She swallows. "My son. He's four."

There's a moment, the briefest rolling instant, where Julia walks out, and Lisa goes to bed alone again. Because that's the breaking point, where things get a little too real and cause and effect gets strapped down, naked in the room. This is where the night ends. It always does.

Then Julia says, "That's sweet."

Her voice doesn't sound that sweet, but she touches Lisa's breast--just above her heart, with her cold, cold fingers--and she doesn't leave.

Lisa's losing language. She doesn't brush Julia away immediately; now that Julia's here, and she's stayed this long, Lisa's beginning to realize how badly she needs the company. She'd feel pathetic if she weren't too busy memorizing Julia's clavicle.

"Does he have a daddy?"

"Somewhere. Last time I saw him, he was living in his car." These words chill in the foyer; their bodies tremble tiptoe shuffle to the bedroom.

Familiarize yourself, whispers Lisa. "Bottom drawer--the dresser in the closet." She points to a closed door down the hall.

Then she stops to check on Ben. There's socks on the floor and pizza on the bedside table (clearly, Justin's worth every penny). But Ben's asleep, face lit green by the nightlight above his bed. Lips puckered and ready for a kiss. And Lisa wants very badly give him that. But she's drunk, she's pretty sure, and Ben's a fitful sleeper at best. So instead she breathes in deep the smell of his room--Johnson & Johnson, pizza oil, crayons, and socks--and pulls the door shut with a soft click. She knocks her head against his door, rocks against the grooves, and breathes in hallway. If she puts her imagination to work she can still smell the baby soap.

It's been a long time since then.

There's a cool breeze at her neck, and Lisa snaps to attention. It's Julia. Julia, just inches from her back. Breathing through painted lips and teeth twisted into the semblance of a smile.

"I thought I told you to get ready," says Lisa. Suddenly, the proximity is distressing. Distressing, even though Lisa can close her eyes and all she'll see is dark skin and darker hair, pooling at Julia's breasts like a waterfall. This is wrong. This just feels wrong.

Julia smiles disarmingly, though it's followed by that same hungry look Justin had tried on her, on the doorstep. "I'm ready." And there's this moment where--

(Julia's eyes pool darker than black)

It's hard to let go of Ben's doorknob. To turn around. She doesn't know why, but the night's shifted left. It's dark alleys and cramped cars, too much to drink and not enough common fucking sense. Or maybe it's the sense, but not the smarts to follow it. Lisa's had enough experience to know the signs, but here she is. Here she is.

She takes another deep, stabilizing breath. Maybe she should--

Maybe Julia should go home, and Lisa should sit at the kitchen table with a quart of orange juice for company. She should comb her hair, trash her clothes (--they smell like smoke), sleep the night off and be ready for the PTA's bake-off tomorrow morning. Get back to life as scheduled. She's a grown-up now; she should know better. She knows she should.

But then Julia's stripped down to white lace and skin, and she's pulling back Lisa's sheets, and Lisa slips in, too. It's that easy to forget, or to forget to care. For the first time in her life, someone pulls Lisa out of that jacket without catching her hair in one of the many, many zippers, and that seems right. It has to be.

It's quick after that, Julia propped against the pillows, Lisa's legs splayed over her hips. Lisa nips a trail down Julia's torso, circling her breasts with her teeth and her lips and her tongue; her fingers play at phantoms, brush fleetingly against her sides. She can feel the contours of Julia's ribs as she inhales sharply, holds her breath until Lisa's hands find her pelvis.

Involuntary arch; Julia's hands (still cold) find her belt loops and pull down. Denim scrapes at her ass with a violence Lisa hasn't felt in a long time, and the bed creaks as she buys into Julia's machinations and kicks her jeans down to her ankles. Flick of her toes, and she might have heard them drop to the ground, but Julia's hands are on her hips and Julia's knees are pressing at her lower back, and they're both such a tangle of legs and sheets and cold, cold hands that the only thing Lisa really hears is her own gasp when Julia's hands dip down between her thighs.

Cold, cold hands.

 

Lisa's toes hit the iron bedframe. Arch. A tightness. Heat. Arch a tightness heat noise. Noise. Too much noise. Ben--you'll wake Ben. Quieter. Quieter. Like there's duct tape sealed into your lips, pulling at the cracked skin and making a suction that quiets all your screams (you're familiar with the feeling. It hasn't been that long. You remember. You loved it. Silly schoolgirl pretending to be avant garde, you like it.)

The time has come to master that silence. Master it now.

Pleasure bubbles in Lisa's throat, rumbles through her chest. Pleasure sprouts in her core like dandelions, big orange sunbursts between her legs and in her heart and under her eyelids. They move like weeds, and the feeling multiplies. She imagines dandelions between her teeth, bleeding milk onto her lips and gluing them shut. The stems swim through the glue, weave between her teeth, lock everything down.

Seen and not heard, small feats in the dark and the quiet that no one remembers. Feats that don't exist in the morning.

Lisa licks her fingers. Green-sour like dandelion milk.

(Arch. A tightness. Heat. Release. You're making too much noise again.)

 

--

 

"You're crying."

She is. She can feel the pressure in her sinuses, thickness in her throat. Like she's clogged with every promise she's ever made herself. "I told myself I wasn't going to be this person anymore."

(I promise, she tells her sister. To her mother: I promise. To herself: I promise. To herself: You lied.

Again.)

She draws a crackling breath through her noise. There's hot tears that feel like sand running down her face, making tracks to her ears. She can feel Julia's forever-cold fingers ghost along her pelvis, following the tracks of her stretch marks--the ones she's had since Ben, and all the cocoa butter in the world won't disappear.

Lisa's made of paths and tracks, and none of them haven taken her where she needs to go.

"It's just sex," Julia reminds her.

"That's the problem."

"Sex is never the problem."

Lisa laughs. "Sex is almost always the fucking problem." Which she believes only in halves. But the sun's nearly up, and she feels like the alcohol is pooling at her hairline. Her hair is a nest and her sheets are going to give her an entire extra load of laundry to do, and there's this thick bank of sweat and sex cresting her brow that she can't seem to surface out of.

Lisa closes her eyes. "I just--"

"You needed this."

"I need to be there for my son."

And Julia fills her sheets with the same lines Lisa's been feeding herself all this time; you are an individual. You are your own person. Empowering platitudes Lisa reads every day at the Y, on her way to the locker room. "You're here for your son. You're here for him every day. Tonight was yours. There's nothing wrong with that."

It's never just one night. It's never just one shot, or just one song, or just one fuck. Lisa knows herself. "I've been fucking around like this for ten damn years. It's never going to be--'just one night.' I know that."

Julia's fingers are walking the paths up Lisa's stomach. Paths wavering and tight, red like old bruises. "So tell me about them. The other nights. Tell me a bedtime story."

Lisa's face feels dry, like she's wearing mask made of salt. She can hear small feet padding down the hallway. Julia hears them, too. Her lips make an o o o around Lisa's breast.

 

"Mommy?"

 

'you never learn from your mistakes, sam.'

sam ignores her, brooding and sallow. he lingers pointedly below the threshold of consciousness. he can't know what she does in his visage. it will break him. he can't know. he lets the world fade from view, like an old scar. he lets her remake it in whatever image she so chooses, so long as his eyes are sewn shut.

'that's your brother's tactic, sammy. you see how well it serves him.' don't you, sammy darling? don't you?

 

Meg only wishes she existed outside herself. Then she wouldn't have to watch.

She can feel the callus forming on her thumb, from the rough hilt of the (her?) blade, if she tries hard enough. And sometimes she does--try, that is. It's like pressing a bruise. It's like pounding against a bruise until your skin splits open and you start falling out of your own skin.

Like your bruise is your entire world; you see in shades of black and purple and sometimes plum-red. You are a millimeter from the falls in any direction.

They are closing in.

Then they come, and you get caught, and-- And nothing happens. Because you are nothing.

Then it starts all over again. Maybe you hear a voice every so often, "No way I'm telling you. You could be some kind of freak!" It might be yours. And you're pressing at that bruise; the small coin-shaped one at your elbow, waiting for it to blossom before you, so you can feel something--anything--at all.

More often than not, what you feel is cooling blood, sticky between your fingers. Except this once.

Meg presses to the surface, and the blood coughs itself up her ruined throat instead. "What do you know about our dad?" she hears.

All she wants is someone to tell her it's going to be okay. She's going to be okay. She doesn't even care if it's a lie. She just needs--

"It's important," someone above her insists.

He's not listening. She was a person, once. Now she's nothing more than a bruise.

More capillaries burst, and she bleeds out under someone else's skin.

 

'you never look back, do you. you drive away and that's the end. you leave everything behind like dust.' meg settles into sam's neural pathways, pushes his will to the side like it's nothing. (it is nothing. it is dust.) 'i can see why your brother would hate you for that.'

 

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amanda crosses her chest and prays to God in earnest for the fist time in twenty-four years.

"When did you become such a Jesus freak?" Jason laughs. He prods her tummy in the place that makes her squeal, but Amanda keeps praying, eyes screwed shut. She prays so hard her eyeballs pulse with dandelion sunbursts and lightning lances down her spine. For a moment she's weightless, flying, and then Jason clasps his hands around hers.

He kisses her on the cheek. It's like a tether. I'm sorry, he whispers. Shit, I'm sorrry. This is about the--you know. The plane. Twice now; she went back to work the first time, willpower and resilience and all that, but not the second. Not ever again.

She's waiting tables now, in Richfield, Utah, at the restaurant Jason's parents own. Jason--he's studying up for the Air Force, but most days he's too busy playing at cardshark to remember that. He's got his hair cut short, neat and trim the way it'd be were he a soldier. But he's not. He never will be. He'll never fly. She can take one look at his fingernails, bitten to the nib; one look at his examination booklets, moth-eaten and mildewed from the time he forgot to close the window and the June storm blew in.

She knows the signs; she's lived him. She doesn't see herself ever leaving, either. She chokes back her despair and continues to pray. Jason's arm around her is a lost sensation.

PTSD, they say. Some form of dissociation; residual defense mechanism--she left her body when the plane dipped. Her mind left her body. And now it's having trouble fitting back in. That's what her therapist said; he seriously did. Calm and patronizing and reassuring, like she needs to baby-step her way to lodging a full on confrontation of fear.

It's not wayward defense mechanisms she has a problem with, and it's not the plane. It's not even flying. She can't ever tell anyone--not even Jason--she can't share what's truly eating at her insides like an acid wash. She's on her own. If that.

Because there are days when she looks in the mirror, and she thinks, my god, what if I'm not me? Sometimes her eyes are dark with shadow, when she's in the bathroom at 5am and the lights are out, because Jason's overloaded the circuits making Pop Tarts again. She sees eyes, full black, in her morning coffee, and she sees them in the thirteen potholes she counts on her way to work. On weekends, she wakes up wretchedly hungover, and can't remember anything past 9pm the night before. She doesn't remember the co-pilot's name that day; he was new. Nervous at the staff meeting. She just remembers two men with Church Latin still stuck between their teeth walking away. They leave her with a man draped with a blanket (he had green eyes, not black. Real green eyes, not flooded black. Not flooded black at all), who remembers nothing. They leave her with a secret she can't keep--but she can't tell it, either. It locks her tongue down and she says nothing.

On Sundays, she lies in bed and imagines her tears are filling her eyes up with black oil. Jason lolls his still-drunk tongue at her and waggles his drunk ass under the sheets. He laughs. She might too. But all she can think is, what if, what if what if.

 

What if it's you?

 

"Christo," she says to the mirror. On odd numbered days, she expects her blank expression to twist into a snarl, expects her eyes to pool to black. Expects those two men from the plane to kick down her door. It's you this time. It's you.

We're sorry, Amanda; it could have been anyone. This time it's you.

 

--

 

On Thursday night, she dials home from work. Jason picks up. He doesn't wait for her to speak. "I'm not high yet. I'm waiting for you, baby. The good stuff, I promise. You won't feel a damn thing after you toke up; it'll be great."

And she can't breathe. Because the last thing in the world she wants to feel right now is nothing. She looks around the bar; she's the only one on staff. They've all but closed. Bar curfew's 1am. "Can't. Late shift--'til like, three? I know, I know; Brad's an asshole. Call Callie and get her to come over and test it with you." She puts on her best telephone smile. Then she hangs up, and turns back to the bar.

They've only got the one customer tonight--an Asian girl sitting at one of the booths, tilting around a class of whiskey like she's wishing it was wine. Amanda sighs. She goes to the girl. "Can I get you anything else?"

"You look like you've seen a ghost," says the girl. Nothing prefaces the statement, and nothing succeeds it. The girl spits what looks like blood into her glass, and Amanda does her best not to panic.

"Christo," she says, because you can never be too sure.

The Asian girl flickers at the edges, and her dark eyes pool out like large, black insects.

You can never be too surprised. "Oh, God--"

Shhhhh--: the demon, into Amanda's hair as she pulls her in close by the tie of her waitress' uniform. Amanda falls right into her lap.

"I'm just here for a drink," says the girl, lips brushing over Amanda's nose. Her breath smells nothing of whiskey. Just smoke. "Just a little drink."

She pulls at the middle button of Amanda's shirt until the threads snap and the button vaults across the table. Eases the rest from their buttonholes before Amanda even has time to shiver.

When she does, it's only after the girl has her cold, cold fingers slipping under her underwire.

And she thinks, for a moment, that she should scream. She should pray. She should fight. Because she's being undressed by a demon while she's on the clock, and she should be doing everything in her power to stop it.

Instead she lets her shirt slip down her shoulders, shrugs out of her brastraps, and kisses the girl, all teeth. She braids her fingers into the girl's straight black hair and nips at her plump pink lips until she tastes blood.

She hadn't planned to go home tonight, anyway. She doesn't know what she has to go home to--too many mirrors, but that's about it.

Amanda rocks in the girl's lap, turbulent and vicious. Their tongues never stop fighting for leverage. And the girl's hands--her hands are everywhere. Nails scrape down Amanda's back like the girl's scrawling some black message into her shoulderblades, down her spine.

For the first time in a long time, all Amanda thinks about is herself. This body, this moment. She's all here.

Neither she nor the demon says one word, even though Amanda can feel the skin building under her fingernails and her own back is beginning to burn and she knows, she knows, that once the moment passes them by, she's going to regret this with every remaining piece of herself. And just like that, her mind snaps out. She gags on the girl's tongue, and arousal turns to stomach sickness, lurching and awful.

Does that girl, with the demon inside her--does she know what's happening to her? Is she crying? Does she watch herself look in the mirror, flash herself a jagged smile she doesn't know how to make?

The demon frowns, black smoke slipping between her teeth. "Wouldn't you want to know?"

Amanda takes a deep breath in, catches some of the smoke. It crawls down her throat like a centipede.

"You're all of yourself. But you don't feel that way, do you? You'll never feel that way."

It's never going to be like before; now you know your helplessness, and there's nothing you can do to change that. (More smoke.)

"One way or the other, wouldn't you want to know?"

 

Amanda doesn't say yes. She would, if she could, but that talent lies beyond her now, as ever. "Good girl," says the demon, with her tongue. The last thing Amanda sees before black curtains drop over her vision is the body of the Asian girl, wilted and crumpled at her feet.

Then she sees nothing at all.

 

'music. that's the best thing about being topside.' it's also the worst part about being back on the road with dean--isn't it, sammy. but you know what they say. driver picks the music. shotgun--

(--shoots his brother. roosevelt asylum, sammy. that's the big kid playground; what made you think you could play there?) do you want to play at that again?

i can arrange that, big boy. you don't even have to say the words. after what you did to me, in salvation--and in bobby fucking singer's living room, i figure it's only polite to return the favor. i've learned a thing or two, since then.

 

"This rune," Bela explains, using a tone Meg isn't fond of. She is all too British to be living in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Bela draws her rune in lipstick on the edge of the tub, idly. She's more practiced than she should be; but then, there are a good many things Bela is that she should not be.

Fearless is one of them. Clever is another. She has Meg tied down, boiling in a tub full of holy water. How Meg got there has been flushed from memory the way Hell burns them. Bela has had a little too much practice to be of this world, at least in her entirety.

Meg cranes her head, regards Bela at an angle. They say if you look at a prism from the proper direction, you can see rainbows--light refracted into its constituents. Look at a human and you can see their soul. Meg tilts her head and all she sees is sand in an hourglass, falling. That explains a lot.

"You sold it," Meg rasps.

Bela sighs. "One of the better deals I've made. As I was saying--this rune is everything you'll need. Brand it into your flesh. I can demonstrate it on you if you'd like. Suffice to say, I'm rather fond of the notion of letting you boil away in this girl you've broken."

"You humans." The words are like paper in her mouth, saliva drained to serve as lacquer and binding. She can't manage more. You think you know so much.

"Us humans," Bela says. "I know what you are, too. My boss will be happy to see you."

This woman doesn't know the suffocating heat of Amanda Walker's digestive tract. She doesn't know the prickling, electric feel of human blood, as it pools in odd dips and stops up atrophied muscle, and the body shits pale sulfur. Doesn't know that on hot days, human tissues bloat and sag in ways that make her memory of afternoons in Hell seem fonder.

"While we wait, who is it you're wearing?" says Bela. "Let's call it morbid curiosity, if we must."

Scimitar smile. Her lips stretch and split and the blood running down from her gums stings, salt-sharp and insistent like iron. "Versace?"

Hands at her shoulders, stronger than she imagined. Full plunge. She can see crosses dance before hers eyes, just before she goes down. Then she sees nothing but black.

Underwater, she stops seeing. She stops hearing. She doesn't stop feeling.

Bludgeoning sensation fills her from the inside out; from Amanda Walker's heart, all through her everything. She doesn't feel the swelling boil of the tub water for the sickening fire in her bloodstream. It feels like she's cracking apart from the inside out.

Up for air. Her shoulders are lost in thick dark hands; she realizes this dimly, now that she can feel her body (it's still her body) again. Under the holy water, confinement vanishes, and there are no concrete boundaries. No tethers. No safety nets.

"Who are you wearing?" Bela asks again, after Meg coughs herself back into existence. Her timbre is patient, but firm. Like she's talking to a mewling infant. Like she's unaccustomed to disappointment.

Meg bites her tongue; she can't get carried away by petty vanities. "No one, anymore. She's gone."

"Who are you wearing. I don't give up, if that's what you're waiting for. I don't play games I can't win."

"Amanda Walker, from Ritchfield, Utah. She was a waitress; a flight attendant before that. She's had three boyfriends her entire life, two summer flings--girls; Temecula, California. Sorority sisters." This last is a flood of mostly air. Her mouth is an idea sifting to the bottom of her consciousness. Her tongue is a viscous slop, hardening to cracked earth between teeth and jawbones. You can't trap me. "Whore." This last is a flood of mostly air. Her mouth is an idea sifting to the bottom of her consciousness.

"Again with the name calling." --A new voice. Male. Too cockney for Flagstaff, Arizona. "What was it you said last time? 1870, was it? 'Crossroads are for whores?'" Meg doesn't need to open her eyes to see portly Crowley, wearing a new suit badly. Expensive shoes, though of different sizes. Souvenirs from every host. Self-styled King of the Crossroads, master of no realms but the nexuses between them.

"If it isn't the cheapest of them all." She doesn't even know if her words are noise anymore; she doesn't know her body. She's a rolling mass, bleeding out into the holy water, being taken down to the invisible nothingness of atoms.

"I'm not fond of demons who fondle my merchandise, darling. But I like you--you're going by Meg now, is it?--I've got a lovely little crossroads in Indiana you're welcome to sublet. I can't very well have whores running around homeless, now can I. But it seems you're a little tied up at the moment. I trust you're enjoying your bath?"

Meg spits holy water.

Crowley's cheek sizzles, blackens with freckles where the water sears his vessel.

"Look at this filth. What I have to put up with." But Crowley retains his composure. He doesn't come closer, entertains a respectful distance from the tub of holy water, Meg notices, but his voice scrapes the bottom of its register when he delivers his next threats, tongue rolling and darting in and out with a sibilance befitting of his true character. "The Winchesters have Samuel Colt's gun. I want it. You and your petty obsessions won't interfere until I'm through. Otherwise I'll send you to Hell myself. You'll remember our brethren are none too fond of returnees."

He scrapes boiled skin from his face and flicks the residue left under his fingernail into Meg's bath. Straightens his suit. Leaves.

"Because I feel it's imperative you know, your pain is worth approximately 1.6 million dollars in Kashmir rugs." Bela rolls up her sleeves. "And the threats are most empty. I apologize. I'd have to call a hunter to perform an exorcism, and I'm none too fond of the breed.

"This will have to do." She picks up a silver chain from the rim of the tub and begins to thread it into Amanda Walker's mouth. Speak the magic words and it will turn to Hell in your belly. "Don't scream; the door's are all closed up here. No one will hear you."

She screams. And she can't hear herself, either.

 

'where would you like me to leave you, sammy?' asks meg, at the end of the third day. they're somewhere in minnesota; meg's long since stopped counting street signs. they are very far from dean.

she kicks the remains of what may have been a hunter, not days ago. his features are grey and bloated, and his carpet is stained with blood. so is sam's shirt. meg's fingers (or sam's, if that makes him feel any better. but it doesn't) itch where the blood has crusted under the nail. 'when i'm done riding you, where should i leave your body?'

whatever the yellow-eyed demon wants from him, he won't let him die. sam's sure of that. it takes meg a moment to figure out who 'yellow-eyes' is, but she does, and she laughs. she laughs sam's shy, awkward laugh and misses meg master's vocal range. (congregation choir and college glee club.)

'my poor girl from andover--meg masters? you dropped her off a building. but there i was, in salvation. using her. think about that, sammy.

think about how much we really need you. maybe all we need are your eyes in a jar of saline.'

 

Meg-in-Amanda wears road-beaten tennis shoes that feel the ground in a way Meg's flats and Julia's boots never did. There is a beat to the soil, a pulse to the cobbles. It's the difference between moving a human body and living in one.

This front door in Indiana, Meg actually remembers. She remembers kicking it shut and losing her boots and almost forgetting why she'd come, so alluring was the prospect of flesh, and sex, and power.

"Joo," she says, when Lisa Braeden comes to the door. And when this fails to elicit a response: "I knew Julia." It is only half a lie.

Lisa's hair is brushed; it isn't the monster Meg (or Julia) knew. She's not as pretty as she used to be. Responsibility warps her shoulders, stays her hunger. The impulsive, wild abandon that drove her three, four years ago is all but extinguished now, or dormant. She doesn't have sin seeping from her pores this afternoon. Nevertheless, her skin is olive dark and buckwheat soft when Meg touches her hand.

Lisa recoils.

She's still fun. Meg smiles her most genial smile--she's been practicing, but it still stings with violence at the edges.

Lisa's smiling, too; she's smiling the way humans do; not happy, nor hungry, but waiting. Waiting on someone else's actions. She combs her hair behind her ear and stands sentry to her home, barring entrance with her body. (Even though Meg knows every part of that; knows the shiny pomegranate worms that crawl across her hips, the white appendicitis scar. She knows the firm muscle below abdominal skin, the fat elsewhere. Knows the fine dark hairs that make a film over Lisa's body in a trembling, futile attempt to keep the world at bay--or at the very least, keep away Meg's fingers.)

"I knew Julia," Meg repeats.

"I didn't," says Lisa.

Meg takes a step closer. Lisa moves to step away, then thinks better of it. She stands her ground in the doorway.

"I'm looking for a yoga instructor."

"I have a contract with the Y downtown."

"She told me you're good on flexibility."

"I've seen people twisted up in ways you can't even imagine."

"I doubt that."

"Drop by some time. It's $137 per session." Then Lisa shuts the door. Before the blinds come down over the front window, Meg catches Lisa's kid--his name is something short and undescriptive--watching. She waves.

Lisa worries at the blinds; they're stuck. They fall down diagonal, jammed on the left side. The kid's still watching. Meg's still waving.

He lifts his hand, and he

 

'or maybe what we really want is your brother's heart on a spit.' your father's gone. your father told your darling brother to kill you. to kill you, sammy. mary's last will and love--you. maybe you're nothing.

maybe this is all about dean.

 

"I need to talk to your mommy." Meg tries not to fall hard on her iambs, damage calm the way her voice is wont to do. She screech of static and poor phone reception makes her voice harsh enough as it is. She waves at Ben. He has the phone in hand, and he's leaned up against the back of the couch, gaze fixated on Meg, lurking just outside. His mouth makes an o o o and his dark eyes widen. To his mommy? he asks.

No orders, no threats. She doesn't say the million things she's thinking (the small of Lisa's back; the square firmness of her biceps, firmness Meg wouldn't expect of people like Lisa; the puckered wet of her lips, stretched chafed skin of her palms made soft with lotions and salves that smell like old country plants Meg hasn't thought about in a long, long time). But she's still breathing sex and Meg is always fear. Lisa's not as pretty, maybe, but she's just as scared. Meg would fuck her on principle.

Chalk it up to the kid's astuteness he caught hold of any of that--he hiccups, and he must panic, because Lisa's voice rings clear from her landline: "Don't talk to my son."

"What did he think of us, the last time?"

Lisa sputters. Meg realizes her error. "Of Julia. You remember. That morning. She and I... Well, our differences are only skin-deep.

"--Don't hang up, darling. Trust me; you don't want to hang up."

There's the faintest click--and for a moment, Meg imagines Lisa sprawled between her own dining table's legs, head knocked against those strong (helpless) shoulders of hers, hands chafed raw under the sharp, thick plastic of the industrial cable-ties Meg's come to love so deeply.

But there's a blackness in her peripheral vision. There's Lisa's kid.

Front door's spread wide; he doesn't dare close it. It creaks when it swings back into its frame, that much Meg remembers.

He's got a metal tricycle with an explosion of dazzle-streamers on the handles: arterial red, adipose yellow, asphyxiating blue.

"Lisa."

"What do you want."

"I only need to pry a few pretty little words out of you. It won't be messy."

Ben tracks figure eights through Lisa Braeden's four square feet of perfect suburban landscaping. He carves out a guttural rumbling, phlegmy presence for himself the way Meg finds children so often do.

He knows he is not alone.

He does not know Meg.

He is so young, so new, that Meg can count his scars.

"Dean Winchester. Know him?"

Ben's calves strain to push the tricycle wheels through the weeds and whispergrass; he's caught. He gives up, and moves on. Inspects the neck of a decapitated dandelion.

Lisa doesn't answer. But there's a hitch to her breath that whines guilt, so maybe she does.

Ben runs inside to show his mother what he's wrought, sick-sour dandelion milk streaked across his palms.

Lisa takes the flowers in one hand, and touches her lips with the other. Meg kisses her own cold, cold hands, makes sure Lisa sees.

 

the dust of a thousand backroads. 'but i wouldn't worry, sammy. you're not the only one with secrets.' your brother's just better at keeping them. 'watch closely.'

 

Lafayette. Dive bar. Dean Winchester and a girl that looks about as much like Miss Joanna Beth as he can handle. Meg can see the it in his eyes: the faraway glaze of the walking dead. His thoughts are shambles, even if tonight his hands are not. He hikes her up the back wall and starts peeling off her camisole before the lurking gutter regulars have cleared away in shame. He's talking dirty, lips forming new meaning out of old platitudes. Or they would, if Meg cared enough to listen.

She doesn't.

But she must give credit where credit's due--he remembers this body's name, which is more than Meg can say. Alexis, it sounds like. She's stopped being so picky about her marks. Sometimes bodies are disposable.

She braids Alexis's fingers through Dean's hair, traces a faint scar that runs jagged, ear to crown. She doesn't feel anything but calluses at her hips and stubble at her braline; a wetness, now, hot and tonguing. She forgets what it's like to love a body.

Dean doesn't take down his pants and he doesn't let her move, and after a while their efforts fade to nothing. There may have been words exchanged; maybe the language of frustrated libidos only. Dean wipes his mouth, leaves looking worse off than when he came. He waves down something stronger than the beer Sam has waiting for him.

Sam.

Meg rolls the kinks from her shoulders, massages the back of her skull, raised and throbbing from her encounter with the wall. She pulls her skirt back to her waistline and re-adjusts her underwear.

Sam's looking at her. Rather, he's looking at the wake Dean leaves. She's just a part of that. He doesn't see her as anything else. He doesn't know.

He thinks he understands. He thinks it's about him. (Because everything is always about him. But again--credit where credit's due. Her father, oh holy one who art in Hell, so to speak, has gone to great lengths to make him feel that way.)

It's important to empower your children.

 

--

 

In west Texas, it's Sam Meg finds in the yellow moth-light behind the bar. She's not wearing Alexis anymore--Alexis hung awkwardly, sagged in all the wrong places--but some young lady touring America in a yellow suburban. Her name is Rebecca Warren.

"Little Becky," Meg corrects, when Sam sidles up and starts apologizing about a year too late. (Meg knows about the shapeshifter; the one in St. Louis. She heard it from Rebecca. Funnily enough, it's the first thing Little Becky thought of when she waltzed up to Alexis with a mimosa and realized Lexie wasn't Lexie anymore.

Lexie doesn't smoke. She opened her mouth to scream and Meg rushed right in.)

Sam is easy, too. He's tired, drunk, and scared.

Meg leaves Becky slumped against the Dumpster, and shambles away doggedly in Sam. It takes some work, to fill him out the way she likes, but she slides into muscle and nerves and makes her way all the way up to his epithelials in seconds. She hasn't quite figured out Sam's acoustics when she sidles back to Dean, but she sighs and frowns and stares at the Formica. She takes the beer Dean has waiting for Sam, and Dean is none the wiser.

After Alexis, and even Becky, Sam is like a homecoming. His dick is too much work, but given Dean's assessment of Sam's character, all cheap shots and half-hearted innuendoes, she and Sam are on the same page tonight. She'd laugh, if she thought Sam would, but glamour necessitates restraint, and Meg is a master. Sam Winchester is the Boy fucking Prince.

She can smell the sulfur in his blood already.

 

jess fought. she did. as much as she could; it's hard to fight a demon when--you know. when you're not expecting her to snap your wrists with her index fingers. it's hard to fight a demon when you don't believe in the monster that's killing you.

(you don't have that excuse, sam. stop fighting. it's useless.)

but jess. jess: she kept expecting to wake up; kept thinking, it's all a bad dream. just a bad dream. 'is this a dream for you, sammy?'

you know, jess saw you that night, from up there, on the ceiling. she saw you lie down. she saw you smile. and she thought--

she thought it was all a bad dream.

she thought she was waking up.

i know. i was there, in her head. listening. i know. over and over, the things she said: on ne peut pas mourir pour vous. on ne peut pas mourir pour vous. on ne peut pas mourir pour vous.

she died loving you, sammy. sweet little jessie moore died loving you--mrs. sam winchester. you only wish she died cursing the day she met you. 'because you do, don't you? you hate yourself for even thinking--'

(that this wasn't a pipe dream.)

'really. the women you choose, sammy. or the woman, maybe. you think you're done.

but maybe it'll just be you and me, all night long.'

 

Wearing Sam is better than fucking him. Being him is even better. There's things he does--nose-scrunch, tongue-roll, eyebrow-twitch--that Dean calls home. She does a thousand un-Sam things (she jacks off loudly--and unskillfully, but it's her first time; no one can fault her for that, right?--in the bathroom; she eats nothing but garlic for three days straight; she watches Dean sleep and she doesn't look away when Dean wakes up, regards her blearily, and reaches for the knife under his pillow before even saying good morning), and not once does Dean question her.

And it's funny, because she's spent years learning humanity. Generations. Epochs. She's learned language and facial expression, empathy and trust and carnal desire. She's learned family, and friendship, and bus routes, and mixed drink lists, and the names of all the punk rock independents east of the Colorado River. She's learned Lisa, and Amanda, and through them fear and disappointment. She's learned the anatomies, sensations of the human body.

All of this knowledge culminates in deceiving the Winchesters. For they are noble, and loving, and so many other things Meg's definitions must grossly exaggerate--unless it's the Winchesters simply underperforming. Because so long as she shuts up and follows, she's Sam. So long as she sits in the car and broods, and doesn't look like she's enjoying Black Sabbath. So long as she does her job. So long as she laughs at his jokes (but not all the time, or even most of the time; and never in earnest).

So long as she's not killing anything, she's Sam. That's the most Dean can hope for. She doesn't mind the act. She lets Sam try to scream himself hoarse at night, without making a sound. She watches Dean tear himself apart at night, dream shouting matches with his father, and wake up anticipating a death match with his brother. (She sees the way his knuckles tense. Before eight in the morning, Dean can probably kill his brother. Any later, and he's had too much time to think about it.) The Winchesters are the heroes, the Adversaries. They know more about being human than any demon could ever hope to glean from mere observation, imitation.

And yet--

Meg swims under Sam's patella, rubbing up against knee cartilage and fragile bone. Sam's knees have been the targets of much abuse. He knows them as well as Dean knows him. Meg would laugh, if she didn't dislike Sam's voice so much. But of all the heroes and demons and middling cohorts in the world, she's pretty sure she's the only one who's ever loved as a human is supposed to do. Lisa is close--Lisa is impenetrable. But Lisa is miserable. The Winchesters are somewhat further, laced as their conduct is by perpetual threat of murder and distrust, but for the most part Sam remembers that he could never harm his brother. Dean is certain he could never kill his brother. He'd die first.

But that's about to change. That is, after all, Meg's mission--not-quite God-given.

 

'what does your life mean to you?'

 

Jo goes by JB in Duluth, Minnesota. It's a better alias than Burt Aframian by wide margins, but in the end she's still the same lost girl.

She's got her name and what's hailed as the 'best mfcuckin mixx drink! .' inked into the support beam, just above her head. Her hair smells like strawberries and, with the blood smeared into it like that, doesn't look half-wrong. The bruise at her temple blossoms like a ragged leaf, blue veins beneath wan skin budding out like vines.

Tell me about your daddy, Joanna Beth. Tell me about how brave he was.

JB can field-strip a rifle in just under twenty seconds. She put Kelvin on his ass (though he was drunk). She walked in and told Jeb, I'm gonna work here. She never asks for anything. (Though she says 'no' plenty.) But here she is, all the same, limp under the bite of Meg's knife. And Meg thinks, it all comes to this. All the states and the waiting and the fucking and the hating and the loving and the leering laughing kissing come to this body, and this girl.

And Meg admits, as ill-fitting as Sam is, she can't help but love him dearly. She can feel him raging at the back of her mind, raging at something he doesn't understand and cannot control and yet--

Has some notion of what it is he thinks he's fighting. It's the most intellectual relationship she's ever had with a meatsuit. And then, Jo.

Little Joanna Beth. Unruffled JB.

She's going to cut JB's liver out.

 

'the hunter you killed?' his daughter won't be half as thrilled with you as ellen will. and you can't run from ellen harvelle; you know you can't. she will hunt you to the ends of the earth, sammy. and she won't even have the decency to kill you. only the weak kill.

the strong... inhabit. become. the strong live forever without ever being caught. so which are you going to be, sammy?'