Claire spotted the unmistakable glint of light on metal and ducked down behind an overturned tree trunk; she balanced her pack more evenly across her shoulders as she counted to twenty and listened for footsteps. There hadn't been any reports of Croats being active in this area but she knew full well that meant nothing, and nine times out of ten something metal lying in the road meant a fresh kill no one had gotten the chance to loot yet.
When she got to twenty and beyond without hearing any movement she peeked her head out. As she moved she saw the glint of light again and crept toward it, staying close to the tree line alongside the road and keeping her eyes trained on the sharp curve up ahead. She brushed her fingers over the nine millimeter on her hip, glad she'd thought to bring it now. It was heavy and she was better with her .22, but it just didn't have the stopping power she needed if there was something hiding behind that curve.
Minutes crawled by with nothing jumping out and Claire told her racing heart to calm down. It was probably just a bumper or something else bounced off a car by the crappy dirt road; she focused on the fact that she could hear birds chirping and on the chipmunk scurrying by the edge of the road. When Croats were around the animals always knew first.
Still, she eased her gun out of its holster anyway. Better safe than sorry every time.
The metal turned out to be a loaded sawed-off 12 gauge shotgun just abandoned in the road. Claire picked it up and tested the sights, smiling to herself. She was a fan of shotguns. There was also a canteen, the strap broken like it had been ripped off but Claire didn't see any signs of blood or any kind of a struggle; when she moved to pick the canteen up she felt the ground start to crumble and jumped back, barely avoiding falling into the sinkhole hidden by the overgrown brush.
"Is someone there?" The voice sounded tired, with a low rasp that sank deep into Claire's stomach. "You can eat me, I don't even care anymore."
Claire shook off the sudden, cold paralysis, telling herself she had to be wrong. "Hello?" she said, finding a more solid patch of ground so she could approach closer. Croats didn't talk and demons didn't get stuck, and if there was something worse down there in that pit, well, she'd just have to deal with it. She finally got to the edge of the hole and saw a man sitting in the mud about twenty feet down. He looked up toward the sound and Claire felt her heart clench tight. This was the closest she'd been to Castiel in years and the beard was new and the hair was different, but the strangeness of something else looking out from her father's blue eyes was exactly the same. "Are you hurt?" she said, swallowing all that down.
"Just my pride," he answered, shrugging his shoulders. "Apparently I still have some of that left."
"I have rope," she shouted back, forcing her voice to work. "If I throw it down do you think you can climb up?"
"It's either that or starve down here, so I'll give it a shot."
She stepped back to the road and and unhooked the loop of rope from the side of the pack, clipping it around one of the sturdier looking trees. She threw the end down into the sinkhole and wrapped some of the length around her forearms, finding a stable patch of ground as close to the edge of the sinkhole as she could and setting her feet. "Is it long enough?" she called down.
"Plenty." She felt the rope go taunt and gritted her teeth, getting a better grip. She slowly backed up as she heard the sound of climbing come up from the pit. When she judged he was about halfway up the ground at the edge gave way with no warning; she heard a shout and the sudden weight at the end of the rope almost pulled her off her feet. She could feel the rope burning her hands and wished she'd thought to put on gloves; she crouched down to lower her center of gravity and keep herself from skidding forward, and while her shoulders ached she didn't hear the thud of anything hitting the bottom. After a second of scrambling she felt him find a grip and the pressure eased. "Thank you,"she heard, relief clear in his voice.
"No problem," she answered back, looping the rope around her arm one more time. "I'm stronger than I look." They went back to it, him climbing and her pulling, until she saw his head jut up over the lip of the pit. "Careful of the edge!" she called to him and he nodded, his face red and drawn tight with concentration. When he was about halfway out he found a good foothold and took a second to catch his breath. Claire couldn't resist the temptation any more. "You don't recognize me, huh?"
"No. Should I?"
He took a hard look at her; when their eyes met Claire felt a charge spark through the air, and when his eyes went wide she knew he'd felt it too. Claire guessed she should have expected it – they'd been one person, after all, for a little while what seemed like a lifetime ago.
"Oh," was all he said, alarm flashing through his eyes. "You're...um, not gonna drop me, are you?"
Claire sighed. "I could've just left you down in the pit if I wanted to do that." She set her feet again, wondering if it really had just been coincidence that made her turn left at that fork up the road instead of right. "C'mon. Let's get you out of there." It took another minute, including a scary few seconds when the ledge gave way some more and and they both almost tumbled down, but finally after one last heave she finally got him out; her legs gave out and she decided that lying down for a second sounded like a great idea. He crawled away from the edge and collapsed next to her, breathing hard. "Here," she said, waving the dropped canteen vaguely in his direction. "I think this is yours."
He snatched it with a groan of relief, downing she guessed at least half the contents in one long swallow. His jeans were spattered and stiff with mud and his hands shook as he tried to hold the canteen steady. "How long were you down there?"
"A little past dawn. I was doing a perimeter sweep when the ground went out from under me."
"Dawn?" The sun was already sliding past the tree line, the light fading. "Didn't anyone come looking for you?"
There was something sad and bitter in the twist to his smile. "Someone would have to notice I was gone first."
Claire hauled herself back up, coiling the rope. They had to get under cover; dangerous as the road could be during the day, only people who were tired of living let themselves get caught out at night. "There's an embankment a little bit up the road. I was gonna camp there for the night. C'mon." She helped him get to his feet, then she finished gathering up the rope and led him to the spot she'd found, glancing behind every so often to make sure he was following.
There was just enough room under the embankment if they huddled up, and it was a good spot, if she did say so herself. Only one way to approach, and a steep one at that; any Croat that stumbled on them would be heard long before it became a problem. "Are you hungry?" she asked, opening her pack. "I've got some MREs. I mean, they're pretty gross but beggars and choosers and all that." He took one without comment and wolfed it down like he hadn't eaten in days, even with his nose wrinkling from the smell. He did look thinner than he should be, his clothes hanging off him. "I have more if you want."
He gave her a little sideways look, shaking his head, and she looked away. The air was damp and Claire hoped it didn't rain; she hadn't been able to grab a tarp when she'd left. "I have these, too," she said, handing him a pair of heat packs, "since setting fires just brings everything around. You open them and they heat up, we found them in a camping supply store a month or so ago. You're supposed to put them in your sleeping bag but they work pretty well in your pockets, too." Her voice sounded strange in her ears. She knew she was rambling but the silence was worse than what might be hiding out in the dark.
"You're pretty prepared," he said, putting the packs in his pockets as instructed.
"Not really. I forgot the sleeping bag."
He slid a cigarette out of a case in his pocket and lit it, needing a couple of tries to get the lighter working. "So. Where are you going?"
Claire wrapped her arms around her knees. "I saw your group crossing the bridge yesterday when I was out checking traps. We're camped a couple miles downriver. You and...Dean, right?" He nodded. "I knew I recognized him, too. I saw you and I thought...." It all sounded so much dumber now that she was saying it out loud. "I thought maybe I could join up with you."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "How old are you now?"
"Almost fourteen," she said, more defensively than she'd intended.
He frowned for a second, like he was calculating something, then he shook his head. "Nah, that doesn't help. Years just blend together for me."
"Cas?" she said cautiously – she'd overheard Dean call him that and didn't know if just anyone could, but he didn't correct her. She swallowed hard. "My dad's not ever coming home, is he." He turned to look at her again but she just stared at a smudge of dirt on her boots. "My mom keeps saying he is but I don't even think she really believes it. I think it's just something she says."
He took a long drag on the cigarette. "No."
And she'd expected that, she had, but her chest still went tight anyway. "Because he's...because he can't or because you won't let him go?"
"Does it matter?" He let out a short, frustrated breath. "Look, what do you want me to say?"
Claire wished she'd brought a heavier coat. The temperature at night had been unpredictable lately; it was a good ten degrees colder than she'd expected and the heat packs hadn't kicked in yet. She'd barely started to shiver when she felt Cas settle his coat around her shoulders. "You need that," she sniffled.
"Just take the damn coat," he sighed. "It's not like anyone's going to fall over in shock that I managed to lose it." He lit another cigarette as she slipped into it. "And anyway, I'm not an angel anymore. I don't even know what would happen if I tried."
"I don't think you just stop being an angel." There was something almost grateful in the look he gave her. "If I pray to you, would you still hear me?"
"No one prays anymore."
"But would you?"
His brow furrowed. "I don't know. No one prays anymore."
"Dad would hate this world anyway." She huddled back against the embankment, pulling her sleeves over her hands. "I had a dream about him. My dad. When I was little Saturday was my mom's sleep-in day, since she had to get up so early for work and Sundays we had church. She said if either of us woke her up she'd kick us out and we could go sleep under the bridge," she said, smiling. "So me and my dad had a game. We'd get up really, really early and sit on the little loveseat and we'd watch my cartoons all morning, and whoever woke up mom had to make everyone breakfast." She indulged in a smug little grin. "I always won. It took me years to realize that he was letting me win because, y'know, no one's gonna let a six year old cook breakfast." Tears burned her eyes and she blinked them away. "Anyway, I dreamed about that. Haven't dreamed about my dad in years. Then that morning I saw you and Dean and your group and I thought, hey, maybe that's a sign."
"Isn't someone going to come looking for you?"
Claire felt guilt wash through her. She actually hadn't thought about that. "Maybe. I guess so."
"Dean won't let you stay," he said, a flat tone to his voice that said arguing wouldn't help
Claire tried anyway. "I can be useful. I'm a good shot. I set traps all the time. I can even cook a little, if you need that."
"It doesn't matter. We've had...really bad luck with kids. It makes everyone jumpy and stupid and he finally just said no more."
"You could come with us. We're heading south in a day or so."
"Too many hot zones south."
"Please, there's too many hot zones everywhere, like it matters." She picked at a stray thread on her sleeve. "I mean, it would be weird, and my mom would flip but she'd get over it, I think. We're a small group but we're pretty tight, and it's always good to have someone else who can shoot a gun. And if you fell in a pit we'd go looking for you."
Cas was quiet for a long time. "I can't."
She studied him, the dark circles under his eyes and the way his hands were still trembling long after the near miss. "Is he worth it?" He raised his eyebrows and she blushed. "I, um...saw you."
"You shouldn't spy on people," he said, but his lips quirked up like he was amused anyway.
"Yeah, whatever, like I'm happy about that mental scarring." She looked at him again. "So, is he?"
Cas let out a long breath. "You know how when you first try a drug, you feel like you're seeing color for the first time? And then gradually that fades, but you still keep taking it because you want to see the color, and sometimes you can almost remember it so you're hoping next time it'll work. After a while you realize if you go too long you get the shakes, and even if it doesn't feel the same you need it because you're sick without it. Eventually all that's left is the shakes, and the...I don't know, the ghost of the color, but even that's better than feeling sick." He frowned. "Actually, you probably don't know, now that I think about it. I'm bad at analogies."
"I know what it's like to want something that's bad for you," she said, throwing him a rescue line for the second time that day.
She shrugged. "I came out looking for you, didn't I?" His eyes softened for a second. The cigarette hung from his lips as he wrapped one arm around her shoulders, and she felt her eyes burn again. She pressed her knees closer to her chest. "Can we pretend?" she whispered, not able to look at him. "Just for a little while?"
"Sure," he said, the rasp smoothed out of his voice until he sounded like someone else entirely. It took a second before she could trust herself to breathe. "I don't want you running away like this again, okay? You're supposed to take care of your mom for me."
She nodded, not even trying to stop the tears streaming down her face. "Okay." He squeezed his arm around her and even if it didn't feel anything like snuggling on Saturday mornings, she didn't care. "I love you, daddy. I miss you."
"I love you too, kiddo."
He held her as she cried into her borrowed coat, darkness surrounding them as the sun slowly set.
Claire woke just past dawn, curled on the ground still wearing Cas' coat. She found the twelve gauge tucked under her arm, a box of ammo next to her bag and let out a shuddering breath. Then she closed up her pack again and shouldered it as she brushed dirt off the stock of the gun. It wasn't what she'd gone off looking for, but beggars couldn't be choosers, after all.
She stretched the ache out of her shoulders and adjusted her pack's weight across her shoulders. She hugged the coat around her for a long second before finally heading back to her camp.