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Last Rites

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     Claire wakes in the circle of salt her father left, disoriented as usual, mind and body and soul still fighting to rebalance her. Her clothes are too immaculate for - what, must have been half a year? Too clean, and they fit too well on a girl who ought to have grown like a weed in that time. Her sneakers are off, though, sitting neatly next to Daddy’s bag. Her bag. He’s left new clothes, too, and a ziplock with three sandwiches. The sight of them drives her empty stomach immediately mad, but there are things to be done first.
      She sheds clothes as she makes her way over to the hotel bathroom. There is, of course, a full length mirror on the back of the door, and she moves up close to it as she shimmies her underpants down her legs, flinging them across the room with a foot. One hand on the glass to steady her, and the other pokes and pushes at her face. She pulls her eyelashes up, rememorizes the veins of her eyes. Counts her faint freckles, bites her lower lip and watches the white mark refill with red, smoothes the tip of a finger over every bit of skin. She is 15 - nearly 16 now - and has never had a zit.
     When she knows her face has not changed a single pore - and she refuses to think about whether this ought to be such a comfort as she makes it - she steps back and examines her entire body. The same flat chest, long legs, hips just beginning to widen. Maybe this time she’ll be on her own long enough to need to buy a bra.
      “I am Claire Novak,” she whispers to the mirror. “I am 64.5 inches tall, and... almost sixteen years old.” The last tilts her voice up in a question; she frowns at herself and goes to grab the calendar and cell phone Daddy will have left in the front pocket of their bag. It is June 3, 2013. Six months and 22 days, then, since they last traded. Daddy will have been pissed that Castiel was late about it. He must have hunted them down here, because normally Castiel gives her a bit of warning before a swap. Those 22 days mean she missed her eighteenth birthday, but that doesn’t matter anyway. She finds her day count in the back of the calendar. Seven days like this and she’ll be up to sixteen years. She’ll buy a cake, maybe.
      She digs her bag of toiletries out and heads back to the bathroom. She cranks the shower up to its hottest setting and while it’s heating she trims her hair to her shoulders. She steps into the scalding shower and washes her hair carefully, each strand shampooed and conditioned. She scrubs harsh soap over every inch of her, and then shaves her legs. She doesn’t need to - no hair has grown in since the November switch - but it’s comforting. Her hand slips and opens a shallow scrape on her knee, and that’s comforting, too. She sits and lets the water run over the cut until no more bright blood is swirling down the drain. She shuts off the water.
      By the time she’s dry and clothed, braiding her hair back loosely, her stomach is asserting itself again, so she eats the sandwiches. An hour later she’s on the floor beside the toilet, heaving them back up. Too much for her shrunken, grace-sustained stomach to hold.
      “Every fucking time,” she growls when it seems to be done. But next time she’ll do the same thing, and this time she gets up, brushes her teeth, grabs her bag, and goes to find a hamburger.

      Three days later Claire has settled back into her routine. She tracks Castiel to Montana, following her dad’s footprints, remembering how to hunt and avoid an angel. Then she waits.
      There’s a fresh Croatoan outbreak along the west coast, and damn, it’s spread since she last had herself. She’s finding hives of them every stop she makes up I-5, and it’s always hard to come down from that grace-high to knives and blood and sleepless headaches, so she finally holes up in a safe house and goes through the stuff her father left this time. Daddy’s entries in their journal are less and less about monsters, not even really about hunts. It’s all lists of infected towns, quarantined areas and Army-held camps. A guide to places she can safely sleep - and the dates he was last there, as a precaution. Phone numbers, maps of bright red X’s. In the trunk of their car: fewer guns and more syringes, more bomb cocktails, a vacuum-sealed bag of what is apparently the virus itself, and fuck, what has Dad gotten himself into now? She flips through the journal and finds his note.
           Claire,
      The guys at Camp Chitaqua are working on a cure, maybe. If the virus is still in the trunk, I didn’t make it over that way before it was time, and I need you to take it to them. Don’t let them give you another errand. Do something for yourself, baby, and don’t try to swap me out again before my turn is up. He already keeps you too long.

      There is a postscript, and she can see his shaking hand as he scrawled it out. I got your mom to go to Chitaqua in February. She wants to see you, when you get the chance. Probably best not to mention me too much.
       So she drives back across the country to the unlikeliest paradise in the world. Chitaqua is still being built up. It looks like they’ve done squat since she was last here - more piles of junk and still nothing resembling a hospital, and if that dumbass Chuck is still trying to run the place by prophet-power she’s going to lead a coup - but there are no croats for miles around and someone’s managed to build a greenhouse, and the second she’s in the gate Claire loses pounds of the tension she never realizes she carries. She can be useful here. She knows the stakes, she knows the routines, and nobody cares that she disappears for half the year and comes back looking no different. Except for Dean Winchester, but she avoids him and his brother anyway. Castiel has nothing to say to them right now, so she has even less, and they need to be worried less about their lack of angelic allies and more about the people dying all over the place.

      People like her mother.

      Claire finds Amelia in the clean graveyard - and thank that douche not-in-heaven, because she can picture all too well her mother possessed of something eating her from within, turning against her friends and family with no warning. The guy who is finally able to point Claire to the grave pats her shoulder awkwardly, says “sorry,” like he knows her, like he knew her mother. But the little grave marker says “Amelia Novak: ? - March 23, 2013,” which means her mother was here at most for a month. She died with no one there to know her birth date, with no one to even attempt to contact her estranged husband. The guy who pointed her to the grave - Rick, he introduces himself when Claire finds him in the cafeteria later - is surprised to learn that Amelia had a daughter.
      “Thought she was one of them unattached drifters,” he offers. “Had that look to her, I remember. No family or friends, no traveling group, just showed up with an anti-possession tattoo and a working car. She ran supply trips for a couple weeks after she settled in, and that was how it happened.”
      Friendly fire, he tells her. A band of croats outside the Costco they were loading up at, and a stray bullet hit her, and that was it.
      That night Claire prays for the first time in years. She hasn’t had to - the covenant was clear.
      “Castiel,” she says, sitting among the corn she planted last time she was here, now summer-tall and concealing. “You are a lying parasitical dick, and my mother is dead. So - no. You can’t have me anymore, and you can’t have Daddy. You will let him go, and then you will fuck off and stop lying to little girls and ruining families.” He doesn’t answer, but of course he wouldn’t. She knows he won’t listen, will have some justification running through her father’s brain. This is the challenge. It’s his warning.
      She grabs her stuff the next morning and drops the virus sample off for the researchers before marching straight out of camp. She hunted Castiel down before, when the world started going even more sharply downhill and she decided: fuck it, she was going to die anyway, so it might as well be as a vessel, so that Daddy could get some time in possession of himself. She can do it again.
      For weeks it’s the old tracking game, as though she’s doing nothing but keeping an eye on him to ensure the switch. But now she’s collecting as much holy oil as possible, stocking up on matches. She doesn’t have an angel blade, but if she can trap him and force him to release her and Daddy from their yeses then he doesn’t have to die.
      But the signs are less and less clear, and she can’t find him, and the old patterns of his travel don’t seem to fit. The weeks become months, and then one day she finds herself half a day from Camp Chitaqua, and no Dad, no Castiel, and she just wants to sleep. She buries the holy oil outside camp, and goes in.

      She gets put in a room with a girl named Riley, a student from Penn State, which went all croat early on and left Riley to shove a fire axe in her best friend’s face in order to escape. They get along pretty well. Riley doesn’t want anything to do with the patrolling or fighting, so they don’t really see each other during the day, but she works miracles with their increasingly bland food cache, and sometimes she brings Claire a little cookie or a bottle of wine. She finds Claire a bra, sympathizes with her through her first period - and those milestones are much less triumphant than Claire imagined. Of course the minute she gets her body to herself it has to cause her as much pain and embarrassment as possible. But it’s normal, and she finds herself needing less and less to catalogue every change she finds.
      Claire quickly settles into the permanent Chitaqua life. She’s so young - their excuse, not hers; she’s better than at least half of the supposed grownups here in a fight - that she only gets patrols a few times a week, and when she tries to go to Dean Winchester with the issue he only asks about the angels, where they’ve gone, where’s Castiel. Only he calls him “Cas,” and when Claire tries to explain how it works with herself and Castiel and Jimmy, he goes all bored-polite really quickly. He won’t even give her more patrols.
      She makes herself busy, though. When they don’t take her on patrol she gardens, learns to fix up trucks, makes piles of crude bullets, and bullies Chuck Shurley (much more likable when she’s around long enough to see how much work he does put into the place) into letting her gather the volunteers and materials to make a proper little health center. She doesn’t move on, but she keeps going. She can live like this; if it weren’t for Daddy being stuck with Castiel, this would be the best place for her. She can make it through this stupid apocalypse, and then she’ll find the angel.

      Castiel stumbles into Camp Chitaqua four months after she stops looking for him. The door to her cabin bangs open and she looks up with a smile for Riley, but it’s Castiel in the doorway, slumped against the wall and disheveled. Something’s happened, then; he needs to ditch Daddy and take her, and damn, she should have known not to get complacent, should have known that for all his evasion he’d come back the second he needed her. She takes a deep breath and finds that she can speak levelly.
      “What the hell are you doing here,” she says, a rejection. He studies her for a minute, and she has the sudden uncomfortable feeling that he doesn’t know her as well anymore, that he can’t read her.
      “I’ve… gone to ground is the saying, I believe.”
      “No shit. You got better at hiding from me.”
      “You gave up,” he says, somewhat wildly. Almost an accusation of his own. “You might have found me if you’d kept looking.”
      “You might have said something before you let me run around the country in helpless rage.”
      “I’m sorry about your mother, but I couldn’t do anything.”
      “Bullshit.” She gets up and goes to lean against the wall opposite him, hugging herself. “You promised to protect her.”
      “And I failed.” He sounds sorry but just looks exhausted, and she is scared. It’s not the tiredness of an angel. He looks like Daddy used to after he and Mom fought. He looks…
      “Where’s my father?”
      “I don’t know,” he admits, and she slides to the floor, shuts her eyes like she still believes in waking up from the nightmare.
      “When you say ‘gone to ground,’” she starts, and she still can’t look, not till she knows.
      “I lost my grace, Claire. The angels left and I lost my grace, and now I am human.”
      “And Daddy is gone.” She doesn’t wait for him to confirm it, doesn’t offer consolation or rage or any of the things he came here looking for her to do. She gets up, packs a bag, and walks past him, out the gates.

      South, she decides. A lot of croats in the south lately.