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The bunker disappeared in the rearview mirror and then so did Lebanon, Smith County and then ultimately also Kansas.

 

When he crossed the state border over into Nebraska, Castiel had just about managed to forget the lack of any remaining understanding, respect, sympathy or friendship in Dean's eyes. There was enough pain in his very being, he had no room or desire to mourn a lost friendship now as well. Once upon a time, more than a decade ago now, that friendship, that bond he back then hadn't fully understood yet had been the reason why he had rebelled against Heaven, why he had his eyes opened to see the truth. Back then he had cut ties with his family for Dean because it had been the right thing to do.

 

And now it had been the right thing to cut all ties with Dean.

 

It had been the right thing to do to leave.

 

Dean wouldn't forgive him that Mary had died, Castiel wouldn't forgive him what he had done to Jack, what Dean's imprudent decisions had triggered in consequences. Dean had lost his Mum but Castiel had lost his son and not for a second in any of the last days had Dean even looked like he might be willing to consider that. Castiel had meant what he had said, he had tried to talk to him, tried to get Dean to understand what he was going through for years. For years he had tried, Dean had never listened, had never wanted to listened.

 

It was done now.

 

He felt awful for Sam who would no doubt have heard it by now but Castiel had turned his phone off, he needed time to think, time to be alone. He wouldn't cut Sam off the way he had ended all connections with Dean, he would figure out a way how to keep in contact with him, how to make sure that Sam was gonna be alright.

 

Just because Dean was dead to him, didn't mean that the same applied to Sam.

 

--

 

He didn't stop until he had left Kansas, he needed to put distance between Dean Winchester and himself as quickly as possible, once he was in Nebraska though he took breaks. An angel he might still be but his Grace was depleted to a point where he was almost half human, especially with Heaven locked.

 

He stretched his legs in between crossing Nebraska in the Northwest direction, he didn't need to stop for food or drinks, thankfully enough those basic human necessities were still suppressed by Grace. He stopped to rest though, didn't like driving through the night all alone very much, so two days after leaving the bunker, having crossed the border to Wyoming, Castiel chose a motel in the first bigger town he came across. He didn't want to see another small town that looked just like the other hundred places he had seen with people who weren't his family anymore.

 

Money wasn't a problem, Sam had never lost sight of the fact that Castiel would have a life after the Winchesters, after Claire, that he would still be there when they were long dust in the ground. And Castiel had always taken care to keep the account Sam had made for him under an alias well taken care of, with Sam's help, with Claire's help. He got himself a single on the second floor, set his bag down on the ground and sat down on the bed, he sighed, let out a long breath before he shrugged off the coat and the suit jacket and dropped back on the bed.

 

He closed his eyes and pretended for a while that nothing around him existed.

 

--

 

When he woke up a few hours later it was pitch black outside, the cheap clock on the nightstand read shortly after two am and Castiel felt wide awake. He sat up, leaned back against the headboard and fumbled his phone out of his coat pockets, a few deep breaths later he turned his phone on again.

 

There were three missed calls from Sam and one text message.

 

One missed call from Claire and one text message from her as well.

 

Castiel clicked on hers first. It was short, only a two liner.

 

'Sam called, explained to us what happened. I'm so sorry, Cas. Please call me when you read this. Please. Doesn't matter what time it is. I need to hear from you.'

 

Sam's message was quite a bit longer.

 

'Cas, I'm so terribly sorry that I wasn't there to do something, say something. He didn't even tell me until this morning and I chewed him out. It doesn't make up for what he did, not just last night but in the last weeks, months, probably even years. I'm so sorry that it came to this, I should have seen something...'

 

He wasn't angry with Sam. Not at all. Sam had listened, Sam had been there when Cas had needed someone to listen. Sam had always been there for Jack, right from the first day. Sam had pulled the trigger on Chuck not for himself, but for them, for his brother, for Cas and for Jack. And it wasn't fair that Sam was shouldering this guilt now as well, not so soon after he had to sacrifice Rowena and lost another person he cared so much about.

 

'...Regardless of how much it hurts, I understand why you left. I really do, Cas, he's gone too far and I don't know what it will take but he will come to regret it. It's a shit piece of comfort right now and I fully understand if you want to step out of our lives entirely. You deserve better, you've always deserved better. Just know that I'll always be there if you need someone to talk to, or if you need help. I don't have to involve Dean, he's not my keeper. I don't even have to actually involve myself if you don't want that, but I can get help your way wherever you are. Anything you need, man.

 

Please don't think ending your friendship with Dean means you have to lose me as well. - Sam'

 

He texted Sam back first before calling Claire, just to get that out of the way first.

 

'I appreciate it, Sam. I really do. I just really want some time now to be by myself, I need some time to think. You'll hear from me, I promise. Take some rest yourself, you need it.'

 

He had barely send the text off before Sam had already read it and was typing a reply.

 

'You got it. Text or call whenever you want, Cas. And take care of yourself now, take time for yourself.'

 

Assured that Sam understood, Cas pulled the pillows behind his back higher and used speed dial to get to Claire, it didn't even ring twice before she was picking up.

 

"Can you tell me where you are?" Claire's voice was frantic and loud and it strangely warmed Cas' heart to hear someone be so worried for him, it had been a long time.

"I'm in a safe place, Claire," he answered her and also grimaced because he hadn't put up any protection yet, he was just so tired, and with Hell and Heaven locked, he didn't have to fear a lot. His Grace was depleted but he was still an angel.

 

"Yeah, but where are you? Come on, Cas, I haven't slept at all since Sam called," Claire told him and Cas sighed, getting more comfortable in the pillows.

"I'm in Torrington, Wyoming." He gave Claire his location and closed his eyes, alone hearing her voice already helped so much, like a calming touch to the storm inside of him. He had lost Jack. Had lost Mary and Dean. Rowena was gone. His own Father had betrayed him so deeply. His own brothers and sisters had long since stopped caring about him.

 

Claire was silent for a moment but he could hear typing in the background, "that's not far from me. I'm in Rapid City, I was hunting a ghoul when... things went to shit." She hesitated a bit on saying the end bit, Castiel bit his lips, he didn't want to think back to that moment, not now. "Jody told me to stay put until we knew what was going on, that's why I'm still here. I can be... do you want me to come?"

 

His first reaction was to say no, there were surely other things she should be focusing on, and she hadn't mentioned 'we' so Kaia was still in Sioux Falls and he didn't want to keep them apart even longer. Claire liked hunting and he wanted nothing to do with hunting for a while. But then he gave himself a moment to really think about what he wanted, what he wanted, because he could do that now. And as he thought about it, he was reminded of how long it had been since he had seen Claire, and talking over the phone just wasn't the same.

 

"It's a long drive," he started nevertheless but Claire snorted on the other side of the line, "but I would love to see you, just please don't drive through the night. Take some rest first. I'm alright, Claire." He said and knew without a doubt that she wouldn't believe him at all, he could barely make his words sound believable to his own ears.

"No, you're not," Claire as expected disagreed with him and he smiled despite how awful he felt, "you're not alright at all. You're hurting but I will spend another night here. I'll come over tomorrow morning and you can buy me lunch."

 

"Sounds like a good plan." He replied softly and blinked away the tears in his eyes, all through driving in the last days he had told himself he wanted to be alone, he wanted to be only by himself to grieve, to let himself hurt but now he realized just how much that hadn't been fully the truth. He had just needed to get away from Dean, and also Sam. He had needed to get away from Dean period, and from Sam for at least a while, right now where they were both hurting so much, they couldn't help each other, they would only make everything worse.

 

He really wanted to see Claire now.

 

"Text me the address of your motel so I can throw it in the GPS on my phone, and then," Claire stopped again and Castiel waited her out, "do you need to eat? Drink? You told me you're not recharging anymore and from what Sam told me... you must have been using a lot of power in the last days. I mean... how human are you by now?"

"I'm still more angel than human, Claire, I don't need to eat or drink to get by," he explained to her and wiped away a tear running down his face. How many times had he talked with Claire about this over the phone in the last two years? How many times had he assured her again and again that he wasn't burning out as quickly as she was fearing?

 

And how many times had he hoped Dean would just ask once.

 

"You need rest though. You're getting exhausted faster," Claire pointed out and he could hear her walking, "I can hear how tired you are. So I'm gonna ask you again, are you okay, Cas?"

"No," he found himself answering this time, a little ashamed over how his voice cracked, "no, I'm not alright."

"Do you wanna talk?" Claire offered him, offered, not demanded, not ordered, she offered him the choice, and Castiel knew he needed to talk about what had happened but he couldn't yet.

 

"When you're here," he evaded a real answer for the moment and kicked off his shoes, "we can talk when you're here. I wanna know what you've been up to, as well." He hadn't had much time to talk to her in recent months, not as much as he had wanted to, with everything that had happened with the other world's Michael, Dean and Jack... Claire had seemed to never draw the short stick.

"Okay, me too. Get some sleep, or at least try, but put up some protection at least. For me, just so I can sleep tonight," she pleaded with him and Castiel assured her he would. "Thank you. I'll see you tomorrow. And Cas?"

 

"Yes?"

 

"You're gonna be alright." Claire said so matter of fact that Castiel couldn't hold back on the tears anymore, "you're not alone. You still got me." They said their goodbyes and goodnights and Castiel hung up the call, phone sliding from his grip as he let himself cry. So many people gone but Claire was still there.

 

--

 

A good hour later he had taken a really long hot shower and changed into some comfortable clothes, it was time to move on there as well a little. He held sentimental value to the trenchcoat and the suit, to Jimmy's clothes but Jack had found shopping such an interesting and exciting experience. He had a couple of outfits now, nothing too wild.

 

When he had introduced Jack to Claire, panicking on the inside over the two of them not getting along, he had been dragged into a Mall again and Claire had packed him into something she called Dad outfits. Castiel hadn't complained, they were comfortable and practical. He lined the door and the window with salt, drew a demon trap under the floormat by the door but didn't bother with anything warding him against angels.

 

Heaven was closed, the angels that remained on Earth were as flightless as him, no one could surprise him out of nowhere... well, one could but there was hardly something Castiel could do against it. You could block a human from being tracked by Archangels, you could block an angel from being found by other angels, Gabriel had shown that the Archangels could block themselves from each other but an angel would never truly have a chance at hiding themselves from their big brothers.

 

When he was done, hands washed and socks pulled off, he slipped into the bed again, turned off the overhead light and only left the bedside lamp on with its soft warm glow. He picked up his phone again and saw that he had gotten a message from Jody in the meantime.

 

'The door is always open for you.'

 

He smiled, and nothing about it felt forced or wrong now, it felt good to know that this one momumental decision hadn't meant he lost everything else as well. Strengthened by the warmth of comfort, he made that final step he needed to do still to start moving on.

 

He blocked all of Dean's numbers on his phone.

 

Then he switched on the sleep mode on his phone, set it to the side, turned on the TV and curled up on his side. He fell asleep soon after.

 

--

 

When it knocked on his room door late the next morning, Castiel was dressed but had taken a lazy start to the day, still relaxing on his bed, reading one of the books he had never had time for before.

 

"It's me, open up."

 

That book was forgotten though in order to hurry to the door upon that familiar voice, he unlocked the door and opened it wide. Claire took one look at him and then pushed him back into the room so she could step inside and close the door again. She dropped her bags off onto a chair and then came around to hug him, she had been doing it for a while now, no more stiff awkwards hugs, the real ones, the ones where Castiel didn't want to let her go anymore.

 

"Hey," Claire began as they had pulled apart again and she grabbed his chin in a tight grip, turning his face from side to side. "You look like shit."

"A lot has happened," he told her and scowled a little when she pushed him to sit down on the bed, she kicked off her boots and sat down cross-legged next to him.

"I gathered as much from what Sam told me." Claire snorted but then turned serious, expression dropping away to one of sadness, "so he's... he's really dead this time?"

 

He nodded, couldn't speak, couldn't say it out loud. It was awful to know that the way their lives had been since Jack had been born meant that Claire and Jack had only met in person once. One single time. He looked down at his lap where his hands were twisting around each other, as his Grace had begun to face, the first thing that had happened was him developing nervous habits, nervous human habits, and he wasn't sure if anyone had noticed it so far.

 

"I'm sorry. I know it doesn't bring much comfort but... he was one of the good ones and he..." Claire stopped for a moment when he flinched, eyes falling shut for that brief moment it took for him to swallow down new tears. "He didn't deserve to die like that, didn't deserve to die at all. And you don't deserve the shit you're getting, especially not from..." He held up a hand and she stopped immediately, went so far as to bite her lips.

"Please don't say his name." He asked of her without any heat because he just couldn't bring up any anymore, his anger, his disappointment was still there but the fire had burned out the moment he had closed the bunker door behind himself. "I'm trying to make a cut here, Claire."

 

"Got it. We're gonna call him Voldemort." She decided and he gave her a deadpanned stare because that was hardly helping anything. "Cas, I'm really sorry."

"I know, and it means a lot to hear it." He told her and smiled when she reached out to squeeze his hand for a moment, she gave him a smile right back and it wasn't a big one on either of their faces but it felt good to smile nevertheless.

"Are you okay enough to go out? I'm kinda starving." Claire wanted to know then, voice getting that small tinge of whining that told him she was in fact close to starving hungry.

"I am if you promise me we won't talk about me until later." He insisted and she nodded, right away, slipping down from the bed again and holding out a hand to pull him up, too. "I wanna hear what you've been doing first. And why isn't Kaia with you?"

 

"Noisy." Claire complained but also grinned and slipped back into her shoes, waiting patiently but also clearly not patient until he had put on some shoes, grabbed his sweater and his wallet before shushing her outside. "Kaia wants to try school, been going to some classes with Alex and Patience and realized she really likes it. And I'm usually not gone so long from Jody's, Rapid City would have been a two day job if... things hadn't happened." Claire explained it all to him as they walked away from the motel in the direction of the town to find a place for her to eat. "But we're good, I promise. She just doesn't want anything to do with the hunting business anymore and I respect that, she wants to try a normal life as much as she can."

 

"It's understandable. And your hunts?" He asked and pulled her left at a crossing where it looked like the town center was up ahead.

"Going well. But let's not talk about that." She immediately waved it away and though he would have been happy to hear her talk about what she liked doing, he also appreciated that she wanted to lead his thoughts away from the topic for the moment. "You know, Jody is making us do movie night now, you need to promise me to come to one. She has these really awful ones and we throw popcorn at the TV."

 

"I'll think about it."

 

--

 

After lunch, they worked a little more on avoiding the conversation they needed to have by dragging each other across town. Torrington, Wyoming, wasn't exactly a tourism epi center but it had some corners and places to see and Castiel liked watching humans in all corners of the world. They went about their lives, unknowing of the dangers of the supernatural around them, these people here hadn't known anything about the Apocalypse that had nearly rained down on all of their heads.

 

They hadn't know how close they had been to be overrun by ghosts and spirits.

 

They just lived their lives, they were happy, they were sad. They stressed out over parking tickets and rejoiced over finding their favourite chocolate on sale at the grocery store. Some of them had lost loved ones maybe, had spent time grieving and then somehow found the strength and the courage to keep living, to find joys in life again.

 

Castiel wanted to get there, too, one day.

 

He didn't want to give up, Jack wouldn't have wanted that, and Mary even less. There was more to life than Team Free Will and being Dean Winchester's best friend, it had been a hard lesson, a painful one, but Castiel had made it in the last months anyway. His entire existence in the last decade, longer even, had circled around the Winchesters, Dean in particular, and though he had told Jack that one day they would have to say goodbye and live without them, Castiel had never really thought about what he was actually gonna do then.

 

Granted it had happened earlier than expected now, and Dean and Sam weren't dead but Jack was, and still, Castiel had an empty map ahead of himself.

 

It was daunting as much as it was exciting.

 

--

 

When they returned to the motel and Claire got herself the room right next to his, their moods turned somber because it became obvious that they couldn't skirt around the topic any longer, otherwise it would get ridiculous and Castiel was sick about not talking about things.

 

They sat down, got comfortable on Castiel's bed and he told her everything, started in the middle and then swept back to the beginning. And maybe his story was actually a mess because he hadn't had any time to really process anything yet, some things laid so far back and others had happened just three days ago but Claire let him talk. She just let him talk and listened, she didn't interrupt him once.

 

When it all was out and he too choked up to continue anyway, Claire reached for one of his hands, squeezed it again like she had done this morning already. And then she didn't ask him about any details, she didn't ask him to clarify anything, she didn't ask him how he was feeling because that was laid bare anyway. All Claire wanted to know was "what do you wanna do now?"

 

"I don't know. I meant what I said, it is time to move on, but I don't know what that would entail. I needed to get away from Lebanon, and I was hoping the rest might come to me on its own." He confessed to her and Claire smiled, leaned back against the pillows, the remains of the pizza in her hands that she had ordered somewhere in the middle of Castiel's story time.

"You told me after that debacle in the other world, when you told me that Jack was basically human now and He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named," he threw a piece of pizza crust at her, "was taken by Michael, that there were places you wanted to show Jack when all of that disaster was over." He nodded, heart heavy because he had made so many plans with Jack to bring his spirits up back then. "So, I mean," Claire went on and she set the pizza carton to the side, not hungry anymore, "why not go there now. Why not go down that list? For him."

 

"Like a roadtrip?"

 

"Yes, and you wouldn't have to go alone... I could come with you." Claire prposed, her excited voice dimming a little, and for just a little moment she looked again like that little girl who had only known abandonment anymore. Unsure.

"Claire..." Castiel began, reaching out to gently squeeze her knee, "what about your hunts? What about Kaia?" He wouldn't force them apart, as much as his heart suddenly longed for that experience, longed to see the places he had wanted to show Jack not alone but with her. He wouldn't be able to swallow that she was separated so long from the girl she loved just to make him feel better.

 

Just to stay with him.

 

"Kaia will understand and you wouldn't be taking me to Jupiter, phones do exist." Claire nevertheless explained to him like he was that clueless angel from a couple of years ago still. She even rolled her eyes and Castiel scowled at her, prompting her to smile and that felt good, he couldn't remember the last times he had made someone smile. "As for hunting, that's still gonna be there after you're better. You're more important now than cutting down some vamps." As sad as it was she was right in that, just because Hell had been closed and knitted back together didn't mean the world wasn't without monsters suddenly.

 

"Claire, I..."

 

"Do you want to go on a trip?" She flat out asked him and Castiel didn't need to think long over an answer, long open roads, choices to make, no deadlines, no monsters, no death, no sacrifices. Seeing all the places he had once written down for Jack, imagining what he would say if he saw them, and to not do it alone, to have someone be there when the joy also brought sadness along.

"Yes... yes, I think I do." He answered her thus and Claire was grinning, clapped her hands like she couldn't contain her excitement already, even as her eyes remained serious for another moment.

"And do you want me to keep you company? It's totally fine if you don't, you haven't been allowed to really do what you wanted to for..." she squinted for a moment, like she was trying too hard to remember instances where Castiel had acted out of joy for something and not duty or necessity. She came to the same conclusion he did in his own head, "for forever now and I don't want to make you think you have to take me with you. It's not my choice to make, it's yours."

 

"I would love to have you with me. A roadtrip sounds like a good idea to start over." He told her and she gave a fistbumb. Seeing new places, meeting new people, making new good memories. Enjoying life without guilt, maybe Castiel should write it down somewhere.

"Sweet but I do have one condition." Claire braced herself in her own bouncing happiness, Castiel nodded for her to go on. "We would need to head to Sioux Falls first, I can't leave my car here and Jody would want to see us before we leave for long. And I want to say goodbye to Kaia face to face."

 

"Of course." That was hardly a hindrance for their plans and Castiel would enjoy seeing Jody and the other girls again as well. "Maybe Jody can help us create a route, and help make sure we're not forgetting anything we would have to pack."

"Sounds like a good plan," Claire grinned again and then lunged forward to hug him, Castiel weakly smiled into her hair and held her as well, tears prickling at his eyes once more.

 

"Thank you, Claire."

 

"Always."