On a heavy May evening that smells like wet concrete, Claire Novak falls to her knees. Her hands go to her throat. She gasps soundlessly, like an asthmatic. “Like a dying fish,” Hank tells her later. She can’t see. She can’t breathe. Her heart is being tweezed from her chest one fiber at a time, and when the last of it’s gone, she’ll die.
Eventually her sight clears and images swim before her again – Anne screaming into a cell phone, Hank pushing something under Claire’s head. Other faces she doesn’t know. Her customer from table seven.
Anne locks eyes with Claire and snaps the cell phone shut. Claire doesn’t follow the shuffling that happens next, but when her surroundings settle, she’s in the break room, spread across the lumpy, foul-smelling sofa. Anne’s talking, but Claire can’t tell what she’s saying. Eventually, though, she understands that Anne wants to take her to the emergency clinic.
“No.” Claire can’t remember why this is a bad idea, other than the obvious. “No insurance.” Anne frowns, but Claire keeps saying it, interspersed with, “It happens to me sometimes,” and apparently that’s enough. Anne sits her up enough to swallow aspirin and water and pats her shoulder. Hank comes by a little later; jovially, awkwardly concerned.
When Claire can stand on her feet again, Anne drives her back home. Rikki’s gone, probably with the boyfriend, so there’s no one to see Claire stuff toiletries and granola bars and bananas into a backpack and walk out the door.
Claire’s chest used to ache years ago. She ran away from home three times, looking to fill it, before she quit hoping and left for good. This is different, though, the old hollowness threaded through with a bright, twinging pain that steals her breath sometimes. She doubts she’ll even be able to sleep on the red-eye bus in from Charleston, but it’s already morning when she wakes. The ache has eased somewhat, but it’s still tender, a smoldering pain banked and waiting.
The hours through Alabama and Mississippi are endless. A man takes the aisle seat smelling of cigarette smoke, and she bums one off him at the next stop. It soothes her nerves some.
It’s another seventeen hours before she climbs off the bus in a gas station parking lot outside Joliet. She should have known she’d end up here. She doesn’t know if it means something or if it’s just chance, but either way the symmetry of coming back to her home state six years later for the same reasons she’d left it is, well. Fucking ironic, is what.
In those eternal hours on the road, she wondered if she’d even be able to find him once she got close. The pull in her chest has never been what she’d call fine-tuned. But these new twinges are sharper and more sensitive than the old dull ache ever was. She follows them down a dirty street under a gray sky. Sitting under a stark, blue-and-white sign that offers rest, hope, and salvation, in a faded hoodie and jeans with a hole in the knee, sits a man who looks like her father.
Claire stops a dozen feet away and waits for the picture before her to resolve into something she can deal with. The man keeps on sitting, staring unseeingly down the street, his hands buried in the pocket of his hoodie. Claire can’t remember ever seeing her father look so small, but it’s harder still to imagine the alternative.
Then the man turns and lifts his chin, and Claire knows. She approaches him. He looks up to see who’s coming, and she says, “Castiel.”
He squints. “Do I know you?”
Cold fury blazes through her, a whole-body ice cream headache so sharp she can barely see. “You son of a bitch.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. The unimaginable phrase fall easily from his lips.
Claire can’t find any words. She puts her thumb to her chest at the center of the lurking, nauseous pain and presses viciously. It nearly sends her to her knees, but she manages to keep her eyes on Castiel as his face as clenches with the same pain.
When the first wave has passed, Castiel rubs at his breastbone, wincing, and Claire allows herself a certain harsh satisfaction. Castiel stares at her. Finally he asks, “Claire?”
Claire sucks in a breath through her teeth. “That’s me.”
“You didn’t even recognize me. You don’t even know who the fuck I am.”
“I’m sorry,” he says again.
“Sorry doesn’t help me,” she spits. The words seem to strike him like blows, if blows could even begin to make an impression on an angel.
Then he heaves in a breath and pushes to his feet. He is not as tall as she remembered. As he rises, an odor rises with him, sour and unwashed. “Then what do you want from me?”
Claire takes a deliberate sniff, just to confirm. He smells of old sweat, like the man leaning against the wall of the gas station where her bus had pulled in, and he looks barely more kempt. “What’s wrong with you?” she demands.
His mouth stretches into a rictus grin. Claire takes a step back. This is not the Castiel she remembers, a hurricane contained in a paper bag. This is someone new. “Most things,” he says. “Why are you here, Claire?”
She lifts her chin and looks him in the eye. That terrifying smile slowly fades from his face, leaving only exhaustion. “You’re filthy,” Claire says.
Castiel glances down at his denim jeans with a hole in one knee, at his hoodie sweatshirt. “Yes.”
That alien stillness she remembers, that immovable, granite certainty: that’s gone. What remains is a listless inertia that would, Claire is suddenly sure, wear the rest of the afternoon away while Castiel stared at the tops of his sneakers. “Come on,” she says. She kicks at his shoe and then turns up the sidewalk; she looks back to see him staring after her, and she lifts her chin: a dare. And Castiel follows, like a dog on a leash.
Maybe he feels it, too. Claire pokes herself in the chest again, just to hear him stumble behind her.
Halfway back to the gas station Claire came from, she stops at a motel and checks them into a room. From the vending machine in the office she buys a bar of soap and a travel shampoo. She walks down the long row of orange doors to number seventeen, and Castiel follows along behind, unquestioning. She opens the door into a room with décor old enough to be retro and pushes the soap and shampoo into Castiel’s hands. “Do I have to show you what to do with them?”
His head drops; his shoulders hunch. His fingers close around packages. “No.”
While Castiel showers, Claire looks through the text messages on her phone. There’s one from Anne at the café, which Claire ignores. Rikki’s mostly given up; Claire answers her last one anyway with a brief, I’m here, I’m fine. Rikki isn’t so bad. She made Charleston bearable.
The bathroom door opens and Castiel steps out, in a t-shirt this time, and the same jeans. She doubts he has any others. She can’t tell that he has any belongings at all.
“There’s food,” Claire says. She points to granola bars and an apple on the bedside table.
Castiel doesn’t protest that he doesn’t need food, any more than he protested that he doesn’t shower. He sits on the edge of the bed opposite her and begins to eat. The two granola bars are gone in minutes and the apple cleaned almost to nothing just a little bit later. Castiel sets the core on the bedside table and twists to look at her. He looks better now, less beaten down. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“What?” Claire last saw her mother a year ago, the skin around her eyes bruised with grief, a drink in her hand, though she’d never even kept alcohol in the house until after Jimmy left the second time. Claire called her on her birthday, and that was barely a month ago. “What are you talking about?”
“Your father,” Castiel says. “It’s why you came, isn’t it?”
“I’m not looking for my father,” she says.
Castiel seems not to hear. “He died not long after you saw him last, at the hand of an archangel. I don’t suppose he found that much comfort.”
It’s no more than she suspected, when she last thought about it. It’s been a while. “I didn’t bus across the whole South and half the Midwest to look for my dad. I came looking for you.”
His brow creases. “Why?”
“Why do you think?”
“I don’t...” He shrugs helplessly.
Angry tears sting Claire’s eyes. She pushes to her feet. “Fuck you.” She stares at him for the longest time, the silence stretching out as he just looks back, wide-eyed and a little alarmed, like a startled kitten, and how dare he. “Just, fuck you.”
She stomps off to the bathroom and closes the door firmly behind her; she climbs into the shower and turns on the water as hot as she can stand. After she’s washed off the road grime, she stays under the spray until she’s red. Maybe he’ll be gone when she comes out. It doesn’t matter. She can find him, now, anywhere he goes.
She gets out, puts her clothes back on, and gives her hair a last squeeze with the towel. Then she stalks back out. Castiel is lounging on the bed, his back to the headboard and his head tipped back.
“You left me,” Claire begins, conversationally. She slumps onto the bed, on the opposite side but close enough to touch, if she wanted. “You son of a bitch. You wanted in, and I said yes, and then you left.”
Castiel opens his eyes. He considers her gravely and doesn’t speak.
“Don’t you know what it’s like, when you take one of us? Do you have no idea at all?”
It’s the most he’s sounded like himself since she found him, and it settles something in her. She takes a breath and tries to organize her thoughts, except they aren’t so much thoughts as an entire life’s worth of grief, collapsed into six short years. “It’s like... sunshine. And fireworks. Like when a thunderstorm comes in off the coast, the feel of thunder booming in your chest. Like seeing Venus on the horizon and thinking about how far away it really is.” Her cheeks burn; she sounds like any pining teenager. Like a very bad poet. Castiel doesn’t laugh. “You were bigger than anything I’d ever seen or felt or been. I thought I must have starlight leaking out my eyes.” Claire’s trembling, and where once there might have been starlight, now she feels the prickle of tears. “And then you left. And you never came back.”
Castiel considers his hands. “Your father felt differently about it. Being a vessel.”
“And yet he’s the one you took with you.”
“Do you remember that night, in the warehouse? He bargained for your life.”
Claire grits out, “He had no right. I had already made my choice.”
“You were too young to make it. I should never have asked it of you.”
Anger flares again. “And what about now? I’m seventeen. I take care of myself, a hell of a lot better than you.” She pushes to her feet and stalks around the bed to stand in front of him. “Am I old enough to decide what I want?” She leans down into his face, daring him to say no.
He looks her in the eye. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. Fuck you, fix this. Fix me.” Her plea is pitiful in her ears. “You left me. So come back.” She thumbs over the sore spot at her breastbone, the blinking beacon of pain that tells her: Castiel is on Earth again. Castiel. Castiel.
“I can’t,” he says again.
Not won’t. Angels are precise creatures; Claire remembers. “What do you mean, can’t?”
He looks lost now, peering at her as if he can will her to understand. “I thought you knew. I thought...”
“What.” Claire can barely breathe. Castiel’s hand goes to his throat, and the memory of past pain flashes over Claire. “What happened to you?”
“I was stupid,” he spits. “I was stupid and foolish and my grace was taken from me as easily as blood from a vein, and now I’m as you see before you.”
“And what’s that?” she asks, though she half-knows already.
Claire tells Castiel to stay put, and she walks out. She walks until her feet hurt, and then she follows a creek bank into a tiny urban wilderness of bushes and discarded beer cans. She sits on the bank and watches the brown water flow past.
He finds her eventually. He comes to her her, a week or six years too late, depending on how she counts. He sits next to her on the bank. After a few minutes, she can finally bear to look over at him, staring out across the same water she’s been watching. He’s flushed, and sweat shines faintly across his forehead. Human.
“How did you know I was here?”
In answer, Castiel brushes his thumb lightly across his chest. By some miracle of time or proximity, there’s only a mild tingle there now.
She asks, “How many others did you leave out there, besides me?” How many other broken shells have you left behind?
“Every other vessel I’ve taken is dead. Your father—” He hesitates, and Claire waits. “He was the first in a very long time. Centuries.”
“He left me, too, you know.”
“He didn’t mean to. He had no idea what I was asking of him.”
“I knew,” Claire says. “Better than you did, I guess.”
Castiel doesn’t argue. “I’m sorry.”
“You son of a bitch,” she says, softly. A passerby, if there were any, could mistake it for an endearment. She climbs over him and straddles his legs. “Why do you keep apologizing for the wrong fucking thing?” She slides her thumbs up his stubbly cheeks, and she kisses him on the mouth.
He grunts beneath her and pulls back. “What are you doing?”
“You owe me this,” she snarls. She grips his neck just above the shoulder. “Fucking kiss me.”
Castiel stares up into her eyes. For one long moment, she looks at his uncertainty and sees her dad, and she remembers how she used to ache with missing him. She bares her teeth; that’s an older grief than she can afford anymore.
Then the look in Castiel’s eye changes. Suddenly it’s all him beneath her now, sliding his hand up her jaw, kissing her like he knows what he’s doing. She heaves in a breath and pushes back, searching for the taste of him. She’s got her hands around the back of his head now -- this is my father’s hair, a punk-ass voice whispers – and she pulls him in. His hands skate over her shoulders. She licks and kisses and pushes in, still searching, because what she wants is him, but what she’s finding is teeth and tongue and the sharp intake of his breath.
She presses him down to the bank. He’s pliant beneath her, warm. She remembers brilliance, but not this animal heat and mass that gives when she shoves and pushes up against her when she gives.
For a while that’s all they are, just fumbling and tongues and saliva, but eventually Claire rocks back on her haunches in frustration. Castiel takes a heaving breath beneath her. His hand follows her up and presses against her chest like he’s trying to reach right in and touch the heat glowing behind her breastbone.
It isn’t enough. She can’t get close enough.
Claire sits up on her knees and pulls at the button of her jeans, then the zipper.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never done this before.” Claire shoves his hand away. He doesn’t have to know how fast her heart is beating.
“I’m seventeen.” She decides there’s no way she’ll get her pants off while she’s straddling him like this, so she climbs off to shimmy out of them. Her blue cotton panties follow. She turns around to see him looking at her, eyes wide and bright. She takes a deep breath and lets him see: this is what he left behind. Only, back then he’d have seen her soul, she supposes; now all he sees is her flesh, and he made it clear enough all these years that he didn’t want that.
The look in his eyes now muddles that clarity somewhat. She stalks over to him and sinks onto her knees. “I didn’t figure you for a perve.”
His eyes drop. His cheeks flush. “I’m sorry.”
She fumbles with his jeans, unfastens them, yanks them down his hips. Then his briefs. “No. More. Sorry.” He’s ready for her, which flushes her with obscure pride. She slides down onto him – not smoothly, because a few quick fucks in other people’s beds are not the most thorough education, but she gets there. This is my father’s dick, says the squirrelly inner voice, and Claire laughs, or maybe snarls, and she closes her eyes, and she rides the burn. She’s never done it this way before, but Rikki’s explanations were lewd and thorough.
A few minutes later Castiel arches beneath her with a choked cry and collapses against the bank. Claire stares down at him as he heaves in long breathes through a half-open mouth. His eyes are closed.
This, right now, this is as close as she’ll ever get to what she had.
On trembling legs, she climbs off of him. Suddenly, she can’t bear to look at him. She turns away and huddles bare-assed on the ground to look out over the creek again. Tears prick at her eyes, and this time she lets them.
Castiel shuffles around behind her. In a moment, his hand lands on her arm. “Claire?”
“Damn it,” she says.
“This was a mistake, I shouldn’t—”
“Shut the fuck up, Castiel. I’m fucking tired of your sorry. I’d do this every damned day if I thought it’d work.”
He scoots up beside her. He’s wearing pants again, she notices. “I don’t know what you wanted.”
She heaves a sniffly breath. Her throat aches with grief, a dam waiting to burst. “You.” Her voice cracks. “Just you. But you’re all—” She waggles a hand in his direction. “I was looking for an angel.”
“Ah. Well, that was your mistake. I’ve rarely been other than a poor excuse for one.”
The bitterness in his tone is new. Claire turns to him in surprise. With his arms wrapped around his chest, he looks breakable, and for the first time, the thought doesn’t make her angry. “You’re not how I remember.”
“I don’t imagine I am.”
Claire runs out of words then. Her throat still aches, but her eyes have stopped tearing up. She’s sore, inside and outside, and there’s a rock digging into her ass. “I’m hungry. Are you hungry?”
“Frequently,” he says, aggrieved.
“Now, I meant.”
“I know what you meant. And yes.”
“Let’s go eat.”
They end up at a diner – Castiel’s choice, not Claire’s. The waitress seats them in a booth with cracked vinyl seats, and Claire tells Castiel to order whatever he wants. What he wants is a cheeseburger slathered in ketchup. It’s still weird, watching him eat. He applies himself to his food with a single-mindedness that feels familiar.
“I don’t actually remember you that well,” Claire says. Castiel looks up at her over the top of his burger. He keeps chewing, eyebrows raised in what Claire chooses to take for polite inquiry. “I remember light. Completion. Purpose. Like you were everything I ever needed.”
Castiel swallows his bite. “I remember that feeling.”
It takes her a moment to understand that he’s not talking about her. She doesn’t know who he’s talking about. Or what. “But I don’t really remember you. Like, as a person.” I don’t remember you getting pissy about things. Or sad.
“You didn’t know me very long,” he points out.
She opens her mouth to deny it, but she has to stop. Eventually she settles on, “It felt like a long time.”
Afterwards, Claire heads back in the direction of the motel, and Castiel follows. At the door, she says, “I have the room for the night. Do you want to stay?”
Castiel doesn’t say he shouldn’t. He says, “If you like.”
Claire isn’t sure she’d go that far. She isn’t sure of fuck-all when it comes to him, now. Still, she unlocks the door and swings it open for him. They each take another shower, one after the other, and after Claire’s finished hers she sits on the bed and watches the last few minutes of a cop show. Just as the killer is caught, Castiel comes back out and sits on the bed. “Are you okay with this?” Claire says, waving the remote towards the TV. “There’s another show after it.”
Castiel shrugs and leans back against the headboard. Claire sprawls out on her stomach, but eventually she joins Castiel, kicking off her shoes and digging her feet under the covers. Through it all, Castiel watches the TV, taking in murder and interrogation and forensics without comment.
“What happened to you?” Claire asks finally. “Where have you been?”
There’s a pause. “I’ve been busy making a very long series of mistakes. Trusting the wrong people at every opportunity. The last one slit my throat and stole my grace, which I assume is now destroyed. He needed it for a spell.”
Claire stares at him. Her hand has gone to her throat, unasked. “I felt it. It felt—” She trails off. “I thought I was dying.”
“I thought I was, too. Again.”
“Again?” Claire stares some more, but Castiel offers no further explanation. Cautiously, she lifts her hand to his throat. She traces her fingertips above his Adam’s apple, along the place where she’d felt the knife on her own skin. Beneath the bristles of his days-old beard, the skin looks unbroken.
Castiel sucks in a breath. “He healed me afterwards.”
“I can’t imagine.”
Claire looks him in the eye. “I’m sorry, Castiel. For what happened to you.” Then, because she can’t help it, she adds, “I’m one of your mistakes, aren’t I. In your long list?”
He hesitates. “I regret your suffering, yes.”
Claire huffs. “Thanks, I guess.” She drops her hand to her lap. She feels empty: of words, of the fury she’s been holding onto so tightly. All she’s got left is the ache, ever-present, so familiar she thought it’d gone away. It deepens a little with each inhale, relaxes with each breath out. She’ll always have it. She’ll always be this.
Castiel’s fingers curl around hers. She grips them, like she used to hold her dad’s hand, years ago. Before she can think better of it, Claire shoves up against Castiel and puts her arms around him. “I missed you,” she says into his collarbone. His arm closes around her, and it sets the flood tide loose. Her eyes turn hot and wet, and her breath catches in the beginning of a sob, and she holds onto him and cries.
When her tears eventually ease up, Claire sits back, snotty and flushed with embarrassment. “I didn’t mean to do that,” she says, wiping at her nose. Then she realizes that Castiel’s eyes are glistening, too. “Hey.” She ducks her head to catch his eye. “Don’t, you don’t have to cry, too.”
He blinks at the tears. “I’d make it up to you, if I could.”
“I believe you.” She reaches over and squeezes his hand. God, they’re both such a mess. “You could kiss me, if you wanted.”
“I don’t see how that could possibly help, in the circumstances.”
Claire supposes the circumstances are some combination of her being underage and him being the spitting image of her dad. She swallows some more tears back and gives him a watery smile. “I’m already fucked up beyond belief. Don’t stop now.” When he still hesitates, she adds, “Please. If you want.”
And he must want, because he cups her jaw in his hand and presses his lips gently to hers. She kisses back, although she has to pull away after just a few seconds because her nose is still too clogged to breathe though. “Just a minute.” She pushes off the bed and goes to the bathroom for tissue. When she walks back in, she looks up from noisily blowing her nose to see Castiel watching her with a longing she isn’t sure how to read. She sits back on the bed. “What?”
In answer, Castiel presses his hand gently to her chest. The ache is still there, under his palm. “I’d forgotten.”
He shakes his head and leans in to kiss her. She pushes aside her questions and kisses back, putting her arms around his neck, freshly eager. She just wants to touch him. He’s here, and for the moment he’s hers, and her emotional tempest has worn her out.
He pauses every so often, asking if she’s sure, and each time she rolls her eyes and kisses him again. Eventually, instead of rolling her onto her back as she half-expects him to do, he works his fingers into her pajama shorts. A few minutes later he gets her off with a smug little smile, which she’ll have to ask him about when she gets her breath back again. She doesn’t think the angel she knew before had fingering in his repertoire.
It’s the last waking thought she has.
There’s a crack of bright morning light shining out from under the curtain when Claire wakes up. Castiel’s arms are loose around her. He stirs when she pulls out of them, but his eyes don’t open. She goes to the bathroom, pees, washes her face. She looks herself in the mirror. Her eyes are a little puffy from last night’s crying jag. Otherwise she looks... not terrible. Not brutally fucked up, which is how she remembers herself the last time she bothered to look. She’s not sure what that means.
Castiel’s awake when she comes back out. She sits on the edge of the bed. His hand creeps over her wrist and slides up her arm, and she smiles at it. It’s a weird feeling. Meanwhile her heartbeat is rabbity with suspense. “So what now? Are you—” going to leave again? “What are you going to do?”
He licks his lips. “I’ve been trying to get to Kansas. I have friends there. Sam and Dean – you might remember them?”
Claire does vaguely recall. She couldn’t recognize them on sight, she doesn’t think. There’s little room in her memory of that night for anything but Castiel. She swallows hard. “Okay.”
“You could come with me.”
Claire’s head snaps up. Castiel is gazing at her, eyes full of some emotion she can’t identify. “Do you want me to?”
“Claire, I’ve failed so many people, including you. I’ll very likely fail you again.”
She grips his hand with both of hers. “Just don’t leave me.”
“I’m not sure I can,” he says. With his free hand, he lifts a finger and pokes at his chest. Claire feels an answering twinge. The beginnings of a smile soften his expression. “And even if I could, would you let me?”
“No,” Claire says: a threat, a promise. “No, I wouldn’t.”