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In The Beginning.

Claire is eleven and a half years old when her mother drops her off at Grandma Rose’s house, says, “Take care of your grandma,” kisses her on the head, and leaves.

Grandma Rose shakes her head incredulously. She mutters, “I don’t understand what’s gotten into that woman,” and she tugs Claire into the house as the sun sets and mosquitoes buzz.

Take care of your grandma, she said, Claire thinks as she kicks the wooden step leading into Rose’s house. Not the other way around.

Amelia drove over thirteen hours to bring Claire to the sun-faded bungalow in North Carolina, at the end of an unpaved street surrounded by swamp. She barely spoke a word throughout the whole trip, just drank gas-station coffee from styrofoam cups and played the radio too loud while Claire tried to sleep. And now Amelia’s behind the wheel again, pulling away instead of staying for dinner like Rose offered, and Claire’s watching the license plate get smaller and smaller until she can’t read the numbers on it at all.

 

Grandma Rose.

The first night with Rose is tough.

Claire loves her grandma, more than just in the way you’re required to love your family, and Rose at least makes an effort to be a proper guardian. She quits smoking for Claire, or tries to, and lets her crawl into the big king bed during nights when Claire can’t sleep to watch the soaps. She cooks dinner most days, and orders takeout on the ones when she’s too tired to break out the cutting board. Chinese or Indian, she’ll ask Claire, and Claire will shrug, and Grandma will pretend to be fed up and blow out a puff of breath from her bottom lip and make the strand of hair on her forehead fly into the air dramatically to make Claire laugh. It works, sometimes.

Claire goes back to school. She keeps to herself, focuses on the tile ahead of her when walking down the halls and doesn’t volunteer for any questions, but it doesn’t really matter what she does. Middle schoolers will be cruel regardless. Somehow it gets out that she lives with her grandma, and after that the teasing is inescapable. The pretty girls with the pastel backpacks and long, straight hair are the worst. They never truly bully her, not really, but one of them always volunteers to be her partner in gym class just to ask her where she shops for her outfits. Specifically to hear her answer, flushed, “I don’t.”

Grandma Rose asks her how she’s doing in class and Claire gives one-word answers. She hasn’t been talking much at all, really. Everything reminds her of her parents, and when she thinks about them, talking is the last thing on her mind. One of her teachers, Miss Callahan in English, has the same haircut as her mother and even wears the same ballet flats, and when Claire hears the soft, swishy click, click, click on the tiles and sees the teacher approaching, her throat closes up and she has to dash to the bathroom to calm herself down and regain her ability to speak before she can go to her next class.

 

Television.

“You wanna talk about it, hon?” Rose asks one night, after a near-silent dinner. Claire came home from school white-faced and wordless, having been forced during last period to read her piece on “A Story from My Family” aloud in front of the entirety of her Creative Writing class.

Claire shakes her head, and Rose watches her for a few moments, the flickering light from the television screen glinting off her glasses frames, then turns back to the TV.

“Fine by me,” Rose says, “whaddya want to watch? Gilmore Girls should be on right about now, I think.”

Claire tries to unstick her voice, but nothing comes out. She nods instead, and Grandma Rose clicks through the channels until she pauses at something that’s definitely not Gilmore Girls, and glances over at Claire. “Don’t tell your mother this,” she whispers conspiratorially, “but The L Word is one of my guilty pleasures. Those girls—whew!” she laughs. “The drama they get into!”

Claire feels the corner of her mouth twitch. She tucks her feet under her, drapes herself over the arm of the couch, and settles in to watch. “That’s Max,” Rose says a few minutes in, pointing to a tall, skinny man with a patchy beard. “She used to be called Moira, and then she became a man. This was a few years ago. I don’t like his character very much, I think they could have made him a bit more...” she sighs, “...sympathetic.”

Claire doesn’t say anything; she just watches the episode and listens to Rose’s narration, refusing to let her eyes close even when her eyelids are heavy and Grandma Rose's side feels pillow-soft underneath her head. It’s Rose who finally clicks the television off and leads her to bed.

 

Burial.

Grandma Rose never liked doctors. She thought they were all a bit full of themselves, and they charged too much, and more often than not you ended up dead after going to one. This meant that when she was prescribed anti-hypertensive pills the year she turned fifty-one, the prescription went unfilled, the pharmacy’s calls ignored. This lasted until the next year, when her son fought with her for three straight hours until she finally agreed to order the meds, which upon reception went promptly into her dresser drawer, never to be looked at again.

Rose is a strong-willed woman, whose conviction in her own beliefs is unwavering, and this happens to be the very thing that kills her. She dies of a massive stroke four days after Claire’s twelfth birthday; thankfully, it happens while Claire is still at school; and she’s discovered by her neighbor, who stopped by to drop off a casserole dish she had borrowed, and who grew concerned when her knocks went unanswered.

This same neighbor is the one to sit with Claire at the funeral, because although she didn’t know Rose very well, she liked her well enough, and she takes pity on the little blonde thing sitting stone-faced and pale in the first row of pews at the funeral.

With no remaining living relatives able to be contacted, Claire gets assigned a caseworker, Sandy, and a foster family. Amelia has a brother, one Seth Cleaves who lives overseas in New Zealand, and Jimmy was an only child. The social worker seems very concerned about this—wouldn’t Claire like to live with a blood relative?—but Claire squares her shoulders and pretends it doesn’t bother her at all.

 

The Robertsons.

Claire’s first foster home is very nearly unbearable: a young, childless couple, Rich and Gemma, who drink vegan milk and go jogging every morning and are otherwise utterly uninteresting. She’s miserable living with them, with their pristine countertops and minimalist decor and high, breathy voices. Grandma Rose’s house was cluttered, but at least the clutter had charm.

After a month, it’s unanimously agreed that Rich and Gemma’s house will Not Be A Good Fit, so Sandy, Claire’s caseworker, hems and haws for a bit until she settles on the next family: the Robertsons.

The Robertsons’ house is painted a bluish gray with buttery yellow shutters, with a little herb garden out back and a big yard of soft, green grass. The Robertsons themselves are a loud family, constantly clattering through doors and pounding on floors as the children run up and down the stairs. There are five in all, not counting Claire: Mrs. Robertson, with her waist-length red mane and striking ability to garner attention by whistling with her fingers; her husband, who does card tricks quite badly and has a deep, contagious laugh; and their three children, Betta, Nicky, and John.

Betta is a senior in high school, and her swishy red bobcut and silver backpack are all Claire can think about for weeks. Betta isn’t around much, not with her numerous friends and brand-new license to occupy her, so Claire spends most of her time with Nicky and John, who are one year older and one year younger than her, respectively, and who are both a little geeky but have a seemingly endless list of entertaining pranks memorized. The three of them take to each other instantly, and when they get sucked into passionate debates and computer game battles, Claire can almost forget about her parents and her grandmother’s death for a little while.

Mrs. Robertson makes pasta for dinner most nights, puttanesca and alfredo and fagioli, and her repertoire within the one category is so varied that Claire hardly gets sick of it. Mrs. Robertson lets her pick the music that plays in the kitchen while she cooks, and her fourth night there, Claire tries Pop Hits and 80s Classics until settling on a station that seemingly only plays Billy Joel songs, and Mrs. Robertson notices her tapping her foot and swaying a little to the music and smiles.

“He’s good, huh?”

Claire looks up. “What?”

“The station. Billy Joel. He’s good.”

“Yeah,” Claire admits, “he has a good voice.”

“I used to have the biggest crush on him in the 80s,” Mrs. Robertson says wistfully, and Claire laughs despite herself.

“What,” Mrs. Robertson says, pretending to be hurt, “haven’t you seen his picture? He was a looker, back in the day.”

Claire shakes her head, so Mrs. Robertson gestures upstairs with her soup spoon and says, “Up in my bedroom, under the bed. There’s a box of records in a cardboard box. Billy Joel should be towards the front. Go look.”

So Claire does, and clatters down the stairs a few moments later with Turnstiles clutched in her hand. “Ew,” she says, presenting it to Mrs. Robertson, “you liked him? He looks like Cousin Fester with a wig on. I guess standards were low, back in the day, huh?”

Mrs. Robertson laughs hard enough she has to wipe tears from her eyes, and the soup spoon she’s holding drips tomato sauce on the floor while she catches her breath.

 

Kitchen Meetings.

The Robertsons are the best foster home of Claire’s life. It’s after them that she starts to believe bad luck comes in threes.

She stays with the Robertsons long enough to see Betta go to college, after getting a 1570 on her SATs and staying up late almost every night to frantically finish extra credit projects. Claire stayed up with her about half the time, not out of any real need to complete her own assignments but just to hang out with Betta and watch her work. The weather turns summery, Betta’s coming home on break soon, Claire’s fourteen and ending seventh grade, and it all goes to shit.

In the beginning of June, Mr. Robertson loses his job at the ad agency abruptly, which means his wife has to go back to work. There’s a glaring gap on her resume, though, from being a full-time mom raising three children, and the job she finally gets in late August has terrible hours and worse pay. Her temper, normally only flaring up during the worst of arguments, gets shorter. Nicky gets his learner’s permit and starts driving, only to get into a fender bender on the way home from a friend’s house one evening, leaving him with a concussion and his parents with an insurmountable hike in insurance rates.

Claire’s foster parents invite her caseworker over and sit her down one evening and tell her, apologetically but exhausted, that they can’t keep her. Sandy says things like “mental strain” and “financial burden,” and the Robertsons say things like “I’m sorry,” and “We’re really so sorry about this, Claire,” and Claire stays silent. It’s not out of any sense of defiance—her throat closed up as soon as she caught on to what the adults were saying, underneath their euphemisms and overlong explanations; she couldn’t get a word out now if she tried.

 

The System.

What follows is a series of foster homes that get progressively worse as time goes on, each home only lasting a few months at most. Claire’s angry all the time; even something as little as someone calling her name can set her on edge.

She’s halfway through fourteen, and staying with an evangelical Christian couple, Martha and Luke. The bible-quoting and family values set her nerves on edge, so she spends most of her time ditching school to dick around the strip mall with a group of kids she likes. She wouldn’t exactly call them friends, but, well. At least they aren’t Martha and Luke.

It’s around this time she meets Polly.

 

The Muse.

Polly isn’t one of the local kids, a cousin or something of one of them, staying in town with her aunt for a while. She’s the only one in the group who’s the same age as Claire, so they naturally gravitate towards each other to sit and talk while the older kids get high in the parking lot. “Polly” is short for Polyhymnia, a name she tells Claire she got from her mother’s old classics textbooks.

“She was the muse of sacred poetry,” Polly says, waving her cigarette in the air abstractly. “And I thought, y’know, what better name to give myself, huh? ‘Cause isn’t all this—” she gestures at herself, her ankle length lacy skirt, biker jacket and high black boots, “isn’t all this sacred poetry, too?”

“Your outfit?” Claire asks, teasing. She leans back on the concrete wall, stares up at the cloudy sky. It looks like it’s going to rain.

“No, dipshit,” Polly says, swatting her with her free hand, “my whole. Me.”

“Eloquent.”

Polly makes a dramatic bow from the waist. “As always.”

Claire is suddenly aware of Polly’s eyes, deep brown and distracted; and her hands, with pianist fingers and chipped black nail polish. Suddenly Polly’s the most beautiful person she’s ever seen.

She wants to say something, to do something, to reach out and take Polly’s hand in hers, but when she turns her head, Cody and Antonio and Mariah are looking over at them, not quite watching but angled in Polly and Claire’s general direction as they talk. Claire shoves her hands in her pockets, defeated.

Polly looks back at her, a strange look on her face, and then says, abruptly, “Hey, you wanna get out of here?”

And that’s how they end up making out behind the dumpster, still close enough to the other kids that they can hear their voices from the parking lot, and as cliché as it is, when Polly cups Claire’s face in her hands to kiss her, Claire feels like she’s flying.

“I’ve never actually kissed a girl before,” she feels compelled to say when they finally stop to take a breath.

Polly grins. “Me neither. You’re my first.”

And huh, Polly’s gorgeous and kissing her is otherworldly, but something about being the first girl Polly’s kissed makes Claire wince. She pushes it aside though, tugs Polly closer and tangles her fingers in Polly’s dark hair and—

After that it’s easy. They spend most of their free time with each other—and most of their non-free time, too, for that matter, since playing hooky’s become routine—getting high in the backyards behind condemned buildings at the edge of town when they can’t go to the strip mall, luxuriating in each other's company.

It’s fabulous, it’s first love, and why on earth did Claire not think of doing this before, and then, just like that, it’s over. Polly’s still a visitor in this town, after all, and after two weeks her dad is coming to pick her up, so Claire meets her back at the strip mall to say goodbye. Polly ducks into the bathroom to change back into jeans and a t-shirt, and comes back out with her regular clothes stuffed in a plastic Chinese takeout bag. She kisses Claire, tasting like pot, and they tug at each other, clutching skin and hair for a few frantic moments, before they pull apart and Polly looks at her with eyes full of sadness but a half-smile on her face.

“I’m gonna miss you, y’know?”

Claire swallows. “Yeah. Me too.”

Polly quirks her mouth to the side, still holding on to Claire’s jacket, then looks around for a moment, eyes darting before settling back on Claire.

“One more thing,” she says, “before I have to hightail it back to Ammeh’s house.”

She pauses. Then—

“This isn’t a girlfriend-girlfriend thing, is it,” she says, gesturing between them. “And I’m not talking about me not being the girlfriend. I mean you.”

Claire doesn’t know what to say for a moment. She was preparing for it to go unmentioned, unacknowledged between the both of them. But of course, this is Polly she’s talking to. Slowly, she nods.

“Yeah. Thought so.”

“I wish we had more time,” Claire blurts out suddenly. “I want to know you. And I want you to know me.”

“I know,” Polly murmurs, tugging Claire closer. Claire realizes for the first time that Polly’s a few inches shorter than her, standing ever-so-slightly on her tiptoes to brush Claire’s hair out of her face.

“We’re not gonna see each other again, are we,” Polly says, and though her eyes are clear and tragic, her voice is matter-of-fact.

Claire shakes her head.

“Thought so. In that case—” Polly kisses Claire’s cheek, soft and gentle. “—I like you a lot, Novak. And you’ll get where you want to be eventually.”

Claire closes her eyes for a second, not wanting to watch Polly leave, then hears: “On that note, shit, I was supposed to be home five minutes ago, Ammeh isn’t so bad but if my dad’s already there I’m fucked—”

—and she opens her eyes to catch the last glimpse of Polly running away, feet pounding the pavement, backpack bouncing, already shoving a hair tie into her pocket. Claire stands there, completely still, watching Polly go and overcome with aching fondness.

She runs away from Martha and Luke’s house three days later, and she’s not sure exactly why she does it. But she feels secure in the freedom of running, of using Luke’s credit card to pay for a bus ticket and a bag of chips at the station. She doesn’t get far, but she’s got the beginnings of a method now. It won’t be hard to do it again.

 

Hair, Part I.

Claire chops off her hair in front of the group home’s grimy bathroom mirror one day when she’s fifteen years old. The mirror’s fogged from the last kid’s shower and she can barely see the back of her head when she twists her neck so the cut comes out terrible, hacked off and patchy and long in all the wrong places. She glares at herself in the mirror and spits in the sink, for emphasis, before storming out of the bathroom and squaring her shoulders as she passes the older kids in the hall. One of the girls looks up from her phone, eyebrows shooting up, and mimes sticking her finger down her throat and gags. Claire hardens her glare and stomps into the kitchen.

 

Hair, Part II.

One of the older girls in the home, Deja, is curled up on one of the ratty, stuffing-oozing couches, absorbed in a book, but she looks up when Claire comes in. “Hey, babe,” she says, voice low and gentle, “cool hair.”

Claire scoffs. “Don’t make fun of me. It fucking blows.”

Deja looks mildly offended. “I’m not trying to mess with you,” she says, “I think the idea is neat. The execution’s a bit harsh, though. Want me to try and trim it up for you?”

That’s—nice, actually. Relief flows through Claire’s body. “Yeah. Thanks.”

Together, back in the bathroom, they manage to turn Claire’s hacked-up half-bob into something that resembles a punky undercut, assisted by Jorge’s razor. “Do not tell him,” Deja hisses when she’s finished, hastily shoving hair cutting supplies into the cupboard, “he’ll have both our asses for sure.”

“Roger,” Claire says, unable to stop herself from grinning.

"Man, C," Deja says appraisingly, letting out a low whistle, "you look tight as fuck. Obviously that's entirely due to my expert skill behind the razor." She gives Claire a wink.

Claire, without stopping to think, hugs her tight. Deja lets out a little surprised “whoomp” sound, but after a second, she relaxes and pulls Claire in.

“Wanna walk to town or something? Show off the new ’do to the commonfolk?” Deja asks her after a second, holding her at arm's length, and Claire bites her lip to stop herself from smiling and nods.

“You look like a dyke,” one of the boys in the den says as they approach the front door, looking up from his homework for a moment to snicker at Claire.

“Takes one to know one, prettyboy,” Deja snaps back without missing a beat, and after they’re outside she and Claire collapse into each other with giggles. “What does that even mean?” Claire asks helplessly, and Deja just shakes her head through her laughter.

 

Catalyst.

Deja ages out of the system a few months later, packs up her bags, knocks shoulders with Claire in the hallway and gives her a hug. “I’ll see you, maybe,” she says, still smiling.

“You’ll be okay?”

“What kind of question is that? Of course I will. I’ve still got my job at McCleary’s, and I’ve got people who can help me, who care about me. I’m not just getting dumped in the streets.”

Claire doesn’t respond. Deja chucks her under the chin, forcing Claire to meet her eyes.

“Hey. You hear me? I’m okay. Promise.”

Claire manages to smile. She looks into Deja’s eyes, deep brown and electric, and sees Polly reflected back in them. You’ll get where you want to be eventually.

They hug. Deja leaves, waves goodbye over her shoulder and hikes the strap of her duffle bag up.

Claire starts going by “he” that afternoon.

 

Andronym.

The naming part is surprisingly easy. He parks himself in the local library one afternoon and dicks around on some pregnancy forums and baby name sites, but when it comes to him, it’s not from any of the “Best Baby Boy Names 2012” lists after all.

It’s almost obvious.

 

Interlude.

Running away from foster homes once he reaches his limit has become routine. He turns sixteen, then seventeen, then—

 

Isolation Room.

“Your father’s come to visit you,” the guard tells him, and he straightens, sits perfectly still on the cot. His heartbeat is already picking up, panicked and painfully hopeful at the same time. This could go a myriad of ways. Maybe it’s actually Jimmy Novak, maybe he managed to get away from that parasite of an angel and escape, maybe he’s back and oh, shit, that won’t be the happy ending it’s cracked up to be, he’ll have to explain to his father why he looks like this and how he’s not a girl anymore and—

The man walks in, and his heart plummets.

He can tell by the way the man holds himself, the way his hair is a mess and his tie is on wrong and his trench coat pockets are noticeably flat and empty: this isn’t Jimmy Novak behind the wheel. It’s Castiel.

He doesn’t take his eyes off Castiel, not even for a second. He just waits. Watches.

“Claire,” Castiel says, voice low and gravelly, and lets the door close behind him. “Hello. I like your hair.”

He squeezes his hands into fists, feeling his nails cut into his palms. “My name’s not Claire anymore.”

Castiel’s eyebrows go up, almost imperceptibly. “Okay. What should I call you?”

He feels a rush of anger, sudden and almost overpowering. How dare he. “James,” he spits, “like my father. James Novak, Junior.”

Castiel, the thing inside his father’s body, looks like James just shot him in the gut. He freezes, mouth left hanging slightly open, and the only sound in the room is the hiss of the ventilation. James feels a bitter, vindictive pleasure at seeing him like this, for once left without something to say.

Finally, Castiel gathers his words. “Oh. I understand.”

“You don’t understand a thing, so save it.” He hardens his glare. “My dad. Is he still in there?”

Castiel winces. “No. The human soul, it can only occupy a body while it retains a certain structural integrity. And this vessel, it was… ripped apart on a subatomic level. By an archangel.” His words are regretful, and James hates him for it.

“Why do you still look like him, then?” James challenges. “Couldn’t you have found another poor sucker whose life you could ruin?”

“I was reassembled,” Castiel says, not giving into James' accusations but still speaking relatively calmly. “I’m the only one in this vessel—this body, now. The only connection it has to your father is in appearance.”

James scoffs. “Now that’s just plain rude.”

Castiel doesn’t answer, looking back at him with a tight mouth and a crease between his eyebrows.

The silence is uncomfortable. James prickles with it. “Well, anyway—good talk! Get the fuck out of my life now, thanks.”

“Wait, Cl—,” Castiel corrects himself, “James—”

James whips around, seeing red. “What,” he hisses, “huh, what? You took everything from me—my dad, my mom, my shot at a normal childhood—hell, you even took my dad’s goddamn identity. So tell me, Castiel, what is it you want to take from me now?

“Nothing,” Castiel says, then again, with weight, “nothing. I came here to help you.”

“Yeah? And why’s that?”

“Because I’ve hurt you. Unimaginably. And there’s nothing I can do to give—what I took, back to you.”

“No shit,” James manages.

“But if there’s anything you need, anything at all,” Castiel continues, “tell me. And I promise I’ll do my utmost to help you.”

They lock eyes.

 

Long Story Short.

They go out to lunch.

 

The Restaurant.

“You’re not like you used to be,” James says. He’s cautious—doesn’t want to seem too friendly. It’s not like he’s okay with Castiel, after all, he’s just taking advantage of a free meal.

“How’s that?” Castiel asks. His not-eating shtick is a little creepy. He’s just sitting there, watching James finish his sandwich.

“You’re—I dunno. You’ve got more feeling. Before you were cold, and creepy, and all ‘do not be afraid’, that kind of thing.”

Castiel squints at him. “Well… I guess before, I was very self-assured. I was convinced I was on some kind of… righteous path. But there isn’t a righteous path, really. Just people trying to do their best in a world where it’s far too easy to do your worst.”

James cracks a smile. “That’s deep.”

By the time the waitress brings the check, though, he’s decided. He’s not going to stick with Castiel, no matter how much the latter wants him to play father-and-son. Castiel offers to help him, but James lets him down easy: no big fight, no scene. He just slips out the back and goes on his way.

He does take Castiel’s wallet, though. So. Maybe not that easy.

 

Holdup.

He nearly robs the convenience store. Nearly. He’s so close, and it would have meant so much, for Randy, for Dustin, and Randy’s a little weird but he and Dustin are the only people James has got nowadays. And Randy’s place is the only house James has ever lived at where they didn’t insist on calling him “Claire”.

But no. The store plan falls through. Castiel catches him, grabs him by the arm and just looks concerned, which makes him so fucking furious for a split second he’s blinded with rage. Then it passes, as quick as it came, and all he feels is fear, and then, relief.

 

Recognition.

Castiel takes him outside, where two men are waiting for them, leaning against a car. They look familiar, and James is trying to remember where he’s seen them before as Castiel talks.

“Dean, this is—James,” Castiel says, with a nearly imperceptible pause. “James, Dean.”

“I thought you said Jimmy had a daughter,” Dean says, and oh, yeah, if James squints, he can remember this man, this Dean Winchester, that he met eight years ago. That awful night when his father came home only to be taken away by the angels hours later, and James and his mother were taken by demons, and James was possessed by—he shakes his head to clear his thoughts, just as Castiel speaks again.

“This is his son,” Castiel says, and then, with weight, “he’s like you, Dean.”

“Oh,” Dean says, and then, “oh,” and he looks like he’s trying to say more but can’t, and a complicated series of expressions pass across his face: confusion and shock, to begin with, but then it morphs into something more complex that James can’t pick apart—is he dismayed? Angry? Ashamed?

James thinks he gets it, but he looks over at Castiel, then back to Dean, just be sure. “He’s—you’re. You’re trans, too?”

Dean opens his mouth, then closes it. The complicated expression fades off his face, settling. Finally he coughs, grimaces, and says, hand running nervously through his hair, almost too low to hear, “Uh. Yeah. I—am. That.”

Something flares within James, small in the pit of his stomach, spreading warmth through him. He almost smiles.

 

Limits.

The warmth doesn’t last for long. Castiel wants him to stay, to walk away from Randy, to leave Randy to die at the hands of those sharks, and what kind of person would he be if he took that advice? He raised himself better than that.

So he holds the gun on them, the Winchesters and their angel, and makes a break for it back to Randy’s house. And then:

And then, and then.

The shark, Salinger, gets his goonies to take James up to the bedroom. Salinger locks the door behind him, and James’ hands start shaking. This is it, he thinks, this is what it all comes down to.

“Randy called you ‘James’, huh, honey?” Salinger says, coming closer to the bed. “Funny name for a pretty one like you. But I think I understand the situation. I might be able to lend a hand.”

James doesn’t say anything, just tenses every muscle in his body up, squeezes his arms tighter around his waist.

Salinger’s in front of him now, reaches out a hand, strokes James’ cheek with his thumb. And James moves—he knees Salinger in the balls, runs for the door, and it’s locked, it’s locked. Salinger’s reeling, but coming back for him, and James clenches his fist in his other hand and puts his whole body weight behind the opposite elbow, shoving it into Salinger’s chest, wrenching under his ribs. But Salinger’s got his hands on James’ shoulders, and he’s throwing him down, and James is screaming—and then Castiel is there, the hall light illuminating him from behind and if he had wings he’d be spreading them now, feathers unfurling. He shouts James’ name, and in the moment that Salinger turns, James kicks him hard in the face, sending force right into his philtrum to break his teeth like one of the kids at the old foster homes taught him to.

It’s a blur, after that—he’s kicking Salinger’s body over and over, the sickening crunch of ribs breaking, and then he’s shuddering and heaving and Castiel is pulling him away, down the stairs and out of the house, and as he’s led through the doorway he catches a glimpse of Randy’s face, open and broken and empty and staring after him. And they’re in the car when Sam turns back, runs back to the house, and Castiel and James follow him, and—

Everyone inside is dead. Dean kneels in the middle of the room, covered in blood, a knife in his hand, corpses littered around him. Randy’s tossed aside like a broken doll, throat slit, glasses shattered. James screams, and screams, and screams.

 

Ethics.

Castiel books him a hotel room, and then, after thinking about it for three straight minutes, books the one right across the hallway for himself. “I don’t need to be babysat,” James grumbles, but there’s no heart in it. He’s too tired to protest any more.

Once they’re in their respective rooms, James starts feeling more like himself. There’s a lock on the door, and a clean bathroom to wash up in, and he gets changed and tries to figure out his plan. He’s obviously not going to stay with Castiel and the Winchesters, especially not when he’s still reeling from the images of the carnage Dean left behind flashing behind his eyes every time he blinks.

Castiel still doesn’t seem to grasp that, though. He comes in half an hour or so later, wanting to ask what their “next steps” are. James rolls his eyes. The nerve of this guy.

“This isn’t going to work, Castiel, and you know it,” he says, impatient. “You can’t just inhabit someone’s dad for years and then expect them to want to team up with you and Fight Against All Evil, happily ever after, the end.”

Castiel’s mouth thins. “I’m not in your father’s body anymore. This is wholly my form. And—I’ve found a home in it.”

That’s just rich. “Well, goody for you,” James says, “but that doesn’t erase the fact that it was my dad. My dad became your ‘vessel of self-discovery,’ or whatever the hell you want to call it. And now you’re still walking around with his face. I look at you and I don’t see you and your new, put-together self—I see his corpse.”

Castiel looks stricken.

Did he think James was over this by now or something? James lets out a huff of frustration. “We’re going in circles here. I don’t care how nice you are, or how much you try to redeem yourself just cause you feel guilty. You’re not some replacement dad, and you never will be.”

He pushes past Castiel, swinging his bag over his shoulder. “I’m leaving now, Castiel. I need to do this alone.”

He doesn’t turn around to see Castiel’s expression as the door slams shut behind him.

 

Liar.

He’s not thinking straight, that’s what he tells himself later. He’s not thinking straight, and that’s why he goes home with two strangers and agrees to let them kill Dean Winchester.

It makes sense, okay? In the moment, it makes total and perfect sense. He can’t kill Castiel, and James’ anger at him is much more complicated anyway. It’s windy and twisted and sometimes he can find the urge, deep inside, to think about forgiving him. That makes everything so much more difficult.

But with Dean it’s straightforward. He came, he saw, he ruined everything. He was snarky and funny and the same and many things, if not quite everything, that James aspired to be. And then he massacred a house full of people—mostly terrible people, granted. That alone isn’t damning. But he killed Randy, who was the closest thing to family and a stable home that James has had since… well, he can’t even remember the last one. It’s been group home after group home since Martha and Luke, when he was fourteen and met Polly. Dean took that stability away from him. In his anger, and his pain, it’s easier for James to simplify things; to put all of it on Dean and bring down the axe.

So he goes home with Brit and Tony, back to their trailer, and he sits by the fire and sips the hot toddy Brit made him from a canteen. When Dean calls, he puts on his friendliest, most I-forgive-you voice, and agrees to hear Dean out. Provided, of course, he comes to the trailer to do so.

And shit, once he’s done that, there’s no going back. Everything feels like it’s spiraling, escalating, imploding, all at once, even as the crickets chirp and the fire crackles and everything is outwardly, perfectly fine.

Dean comes. He parks his car, looks around, waits outside on the bench, and Brit and Tony are wielding a bat and an axe and approaching him from behind, and—

“No!” James cries out, and Dean’s eyes catch his for a split second, before he’s turning and striking the weapons from Brit and Tony’s arms, grabbing the bat and pressing it against Brit’s windpipe, bringing Tony down by the knees, a whirlwind of power and rage.

Dean doesn’t kill Brit and Tony. He leaves them cowering on the ground, alive and bruised but unharmed. But when he and James lock eyes, Dean’s shoulders tense and the axe handle still in his hands, something changes between them, and they both know it.

Dean killed James’ people, so James tried to kill Dean. It’s a cycle, James thinks. Where the fuck do we go from here?

 

Yellow Brick Road.

Castiel catches up with him, driving a few miles an hour alongside James in order to crane his head out the window to talk. Castiel looks so eager, his eyes so soulful when he asks what James is going to do next, that James can’t help the words from slipping out of his mouth: “I still gotta go it alone. But I could—maybe call sometime?”

And Castiel ducks his head into a smile, bids him goodbye, and drives away.

He finds cash in his coat pocket a few days later. He never pegged Castiel for a sleight-of-hand master; maybe it was angel magic, then. But it’s enough to pay for a few months of motel rooms, food, medical supplies. He’s got funds taken care of. He decides on his next move.

He’s going to find his mother.

 

Amelia, Part I.

He tracks down Ronnie Cartwright, bribes the bartender to ignore his baby face. He’s a day shy of eighteen, but he sure doesn’t look it. Cartwright calls him “sweetheart,” which he grits his teeth against and ignores, but his patience is wearing thin and Cartwright knows something, he can tell.

Then, in the back alley, in a last desperate attempt, he grabs Cartwright’s jacket and spins him around and says, “I didn’t tell you my mother’s last name,” and there’s fear on the man’s face and there’s a sudden forceful shove and a crack—

He wakes up in the hospital in a peach-colored gown, with a crick in his neck and a killer headache. He panics for a moment when he sees his bag’s gone, but a second later spots it on the chair across the room and sinks back into the bed. The nurses come in within a few minutes, calling him “Claire,” and his head aches too much to correct them. One of them gives him a juice box.

Then Castiel, of all people, shows up, and he’s got his boytoy slash grade-A douchebag Dean with him, and god, does that boil James’ blood. Just because James couldn’t bring himself to kill him doesn’t mean he’s in any way okay with Dean being around. Dean was supposed to be better than that, better than what he did. Just looking at him feels like the most personal kind of betrayal.

So: James bails on Castiel and the Winchesters the first chance he gets. He heads back to the motel he’s been staying at, valiantly managing to stay upright even as the post-concussion dizziness hits him in waves. When he clicks open the motel room door, though, there’s Sam; and can’t he ever get a moment of peace, for shit’s sake? Goddamn Winchesters.

He unpacks his stuff as Sam questions him, wishing desperately for this to be over and done with. “You came all this way just to tell your mom off?” Sam asks.

“She abandoned me,” he says, glaring, because these adults never understand anything. “She went off looking for my dad, for Castiel, when she should have been there for me.”

Sam sighs. “I’m not denying that, but—” he holds up Amelia’s last postcard, “—‘Claire. I’ll be home soon. We’ll be home soon.’ She left you, yeah, but James, it sounds like she wanted to come back.”

He stares at Sam. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying: let me help you. I can teach you to hack your mom’s credit card records, make it easier to trace her steps. Maybe she’s missing, maybe she’s in trouble, or maybe she’s just a—a dick who abandoned her kid. But either way, we can help you find her.”

That’s… not a bad offer, all things considered. James grudgingly takes him up on it.

 

Hot Topical.

After half an hour, Amelia’s cards are hacked and Dean and Cas are arriving back at the motel. James still feels that sense of intense annoyance whenever he sees the two of them. He probably won’t be getting rid of that for a while.

Castiel doesn’t give him much time to think about it. “Happy birthday,” he says, and passes James a gift bag.

James squints at it suspiciously, but takes the bag. What he asks is, “You got me a gift?” You remembered my birthday? is what he doesn’t.

Castiel twiddles his fingers, waiting for him to open it. “Yes. Dean and I stopped at the Hot Topical on the way back.”

“Wha—” Dean splutters. “I was not involved, let’s just be clear.”

James fights down a grin, in spite of himself. He pushes past the tissue paper, reaches inside the shiny little bag, and pulls out—a wallet. A wallet with “My Chemical Romance” printed on the side in sketchy, spikey white letters.

He raises his eyebrows, and gives Castiel an extremely skeptical look. “...Thanks?”

He may be less of an unfeeling dickbag, but Castiel apparently still isn’t the most socially adept. He doesn’t notice James’ tone, just smiles at him and says, “Of course.”

James slips it into his back pocket. So what? It’s not like he’s going to be rude and refuse a gift. It’s just a stupid wallet, anyway.

 

Freddie.

After they get the police alert about Ronnie Cartwright’s body, Dean, Castiel, and James all tromp back to the bar to investigate. “It's Bring-Your-Kid-to-Work day,” Dean explains to the skeptical police officer, with a thumb over his shoulder at James. The officer hmmphs and waves them on.

“Agents Clapton and Page? Really?” James says in an undertone.

Dean huffs out a laugh. “Don’t tell me you don’t know your history.”

“Oh, I ‘know my history,’ all right,” James says with an eyeroll, “I just think you’re a little freakin’ obvious.”

“Oh yeah, what would you pick then, if you’re so smart?” Dean says good-naturedly.

“For you and Castiel? How does Mercury and Hutton sound?”

It takes Dean a second, but he shuts up fast after that. As for James, he laughs, loud and long enough that the lady police officer glares at him in warning.

 

Mini-Golf.

“We gotta get out of here,” Dean grouses, after approximately one minute of sitting in the motel room once Sam and Cas have left. So they leave, walking towards Castiel’s car in the motel parking lot, and Dean finds a mini-golf place on Yelp that’s only a five minute drive away.

“I figure: what the hell, huh?” Dean says easily, seemingly perfectly fine with the fact that James is ignoring his attempts at making conversation. “I’ve never mini-golfed before, you’ve never mini-golfed before, so why don’t we make a night out of it? It’ll be good times.”

James scoffs. But he follows Dean to pick up golf clubs and balls, and they head to the first hole.

The game is nice, surprisingly. Dean and James rib each other for bad shots and at one point Dean mock-threatens to toss him into the decorative pond if James makes yet another hole in one. But even as he’s enjoying himself, James can’t push down the tension and frustration rising within him.

Dean picks up on it before he says anything. “What’s the matter? Not having fun?”

James huffs. “No, it’s fine. It’s just…” he trails off.

“What?” Dean says, curiously.

He really doesn’t want to get into it, but Dean’s giving him an opening. James, probably against his better instincts, takes it. “It just—it feels like all the adults I meet are constantly trying to make things better. There’s no making this better, why don’t you people get it? Castiel’s been trying for months—months!—to make it up to me. And—” he groans in frustration, “I know I shouldn’t forgive him! But something in me just—”

He cuts himself off before he can say more. Dean is quietly watching him, and he suddenly feels like he’s said too much. But then he realizes who he’s talking to, and continues.

“And you! You killed—you, you did that, in Randy’s house, and then I tried to kill you, and somehow going freaking mini-golfing is going to erase all that between us? I’m not stupid, Dean. Stop treating me like a little—a little kid.”

Dean lets out a long, low whistle. “Okay, now tell me what you really think.”

James glares at him.

“Kidding, kidding!” Dean says, holding up his hands in mock surrender. “But look, man, I get it. I do. But I don’t think any of us—me, Cas, Sam, anyone—is trying to just make you forget everything that’s happened to you. Definitely not Cas, that’s for sure. He knows as well as you do that this isn’t the kind of thing a freakin’—whatever the fuck, Hot Topic wallet—can fix. And as for you and me? The whole ‘paying a couple of maniacs to kill me’ thing? That’s water under the bridge. You can be mad at me all you want, kid, but the feeling ain’t mutual.”

There’s quiet for a few moments. James looks back up at him. He’s overwhelmed now, with this feeling of—something. Too much of something. His throat’s closed up, and he can’t bring himself to speak, so he just nods. Dean looks him over, claps him on the back, and says, “C’mon, let’s finish this thing, huh? I’ve got a few more holes to beat you by.”

James clears his throat. “Not a chance,” he says, and follows Dean across the course.

 

Defensive Maneuver.

Later, they’ve finished the course and are heading to the exit, and Dean’s being cryptic after his realization with the last hole, texting Sam as he hurriedly strides towards the stands to pay. At the counter, Dean gets out his wallet, checking the sheet on the glass with the posted prices.

The lady behind the booth smiles at them. “Father and daughter night out, huh?”

James carefully doesn’t wince. He’s trained himself not to have any sort of reaction to these sort of comments, and he’s ready to let it go and move on, but then Dean grimaces.

“Nope,” he says shortly, “he’s not my daughter.”

The lady just blinks for a second, mentally recalibrating. Then she says, unsure, “Uh—right. Have a nice night, guys.”

Dean nods curtly, already walking away, and James follows him back towards the car.

“Hey,” James says, jogging a little to keep up, “what was that for? I didn’t care about what that lady thinks, it was no big deal.”

Dean gives him a look. “Was it really no big deal, or are you just good at ignoring it?”

Huh. Caught.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Dean says. “You can pick your battles, sure, but you can stick up for yourself too, you know.”

“Like you’re the expert,” James grumbles. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Dean smile.

 

Kids With Guns.

“So the Grigori have gone rogue? And now they’re, what, eating people?”

Dean’s tucking a pistol into his belt, loading his go-bag. “Don’t know, don’t care. I’m heading over to Holloway’s to end that son of a bitch.”

James frowns. “Lemme guess, you just want me to stay here?”

Dean pauses for a second, standing over his bag. Then he takes out a revolver, turns it over in his hands, and passes it to James. James’ eyes go wide.

“Happy birthday,” Dean says. “Eighteen, right? You’re a man now; men shoot guns.”

James takes the gun, holds it flat on his palm before awkwardly slipping it into his jacket pocket. “Ugh,” he groans, but he’s laughing. “Get over yourself. That’s such a toxic mentality to have, and you know it.”

“Toxic,” Dean grumbles, and he’s laughing too. “Kids these days.”

 

Amelia, Part II.

When they find—

When they find Amelia, she—

 

Mother, Mother.

When they find his mother, she looks terrible; blood in her hair and sores and wounds on her arms. She’s covered in filth, and her eyes are rheumy and there’s a blank expression on her face, terror and fear gone, replaced by nothing but emptiness. James takes one look at her, and every thought of anger at her abandonment disappears. He runs towards her, falling to his knees in front of the cot where she’s sitting, and he’s crying already, tears welling in his eyes and starting to run down his face.

“Mom, Momma, I’m here—”

She tilts her head to him, face still blank. It takes her a long moment to summon up the ability to speak. “Claire?”

“Yeah. Yeah, Mom, it’s me, it’s Claire,” he says, and throws his arms around her as her face opens up, and she starts to sob, her fragile frame shaking underneath him, and she’s shuddering out, “I’m so sorry—baby, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay. It’s okay,” he mumbles, and then Dean’s hand is on his shoulder, warm and grounding, and Dean’s saying, “Ja—Hey. Listen to me. Stay here, okay? Do not move.”

“Okay,” James says, his voice breaking, “thank you. Thank you.” He’s saying it to Castiel, too, and he turns his head and locks eyes with Castiel to make sure he gets it.

He slips an arm around his mother’s waist, pulls her up, talking into her ear: “C’mon, stand up. Mom, it’s gonna be okay.”

Amelia’s still shuddering with her sobs, but she manages to get out, “Thank you, baby,” before the Grigori angel rounds the corner, huge and terrifying, and sneers at them, stopping them in their tracks.

“You know there’s no fixing her, right?” the angel says, and Amelia is gasping, knees buckling as she falls, hard, to the ground, and James snatches his revolver from his inside jacket pocket and aims, fires.

Bang. The shot rings out, lodges in the angel’s chest, but he’s still walking towards them, arms opened wide like he’s welcoming this, grinning. Bang. Bang. Bang. Then—the hammer clicks. James spins the gun around in his hands, horrified, but he’s out of bullets.

The Grigori laughs, delighted. “You really think that’s gonna hurt an angel of the Lord?”

He unsheathes his sword, raises it, and he’s right on top of James now, who’s crying out in terror, and—

“No!” Amelia yells, and she’s up from the hay, throwing herself between James and the angel, and there’s a wet shhk of metal through flesh and bone, and then James is staring at the gleaming point of the Grigori’s sword, emerging from his mother’s back.

Amelia crumples to the ground.

Someone’s sobbing, someone’s crying, “Mom! Mom, mom, no no no, Mom—” and in the background, Dean and Sam and Castiel are throwing the Grigori into walls, putting bullets into him, yelling with fury and getting slammed into floors. Something in James’ head forces him up, away from his mother bleeding out on the floor, and he catches a glimpse of the angel’s sword on the ground and he lunges for it. Dean and Castiel are dazed, on the ground, bloody and beaten and not yet recovered enough to stand. The Grigori’s back is to him. James takes his chance and stabs.

As soon as the angel falls, light pouring out of every orifice, charring his skin, James falls back to his mother. He can save her, Castiel couldn’t heal her before but maybe he can now, she’ll be okay, she’ll be—

There’s no mercy this time, like there was with Grandma Rose or with his father.

His mother bleeds out. She dies in his arms.

 

Departure.

It’s almost anticlimactic. It’s all over now; he’s newly eighteen and his mother’s dead, dead after nearly seven years of being out of his life. She looked almost the same as when she left him, when she was dying; dirty and wounded, sure, but her eyes were the same brown they’d always been. That’s maybe what hits him the hardest: she hadn’t really changed, not in any way that mattered.

Castiel and Dean know a woman—not a hunter, exactly, but familiar with the life—who’s willing to take James in. His throat’s tightened up again, he can’t say anything, and wouldn’t want to even if he could, so he just listens as Castiel and the Winchesters tell him what they think is best. For once he doesn’t fight them on it.

A call’s made to the woman, arrangements are finalized, and then they’re packing up their stuff from the motel and Castiel’s calling a cab.

“Jody Mills is good people, and she'll give you a place to crash until you get back on your feet. It's not forever, right?” Sam tells him outside the motel. James manages a nod.

Sam just looks at him, and when he doesn’t say anything, Sam continues, “Alright, then. Take care of yourself, James.”

Sam walks away, and James shoves his hands in his pockets and squeezes them into fists. It’s quiet, for a moment, with only the sound of Sam and Castiel talking, muted, in the background. Then there’s a tap on the car hood beside him, and he looks up, and it’s Dean.

“Hey,” Dean says, quietly. “You wanna talk?”

James tries, but nothing comes out. He closes his mouth, shakes his head.

To his surprise, understanding dawns on Dean’s face. “Oh,” he says, “oh, no problem. I—nevermind.” Then he fumbles around in the front seat of the Impala, pulls out a hastily wrapped present and hands it to James.

“Felt bad about taking the gun back,” he says by way of explanation. “You don’t need to say anything.”

James bites his lip, suddenly dangerously close to crying. He unwraps the gift: it’s a DVD of Caddyshack, the movie Dean quoted back on the links, and under that, a book titled The Enochian Myth. He gives Dean a watery half-smile.

“Yeah,” Dean says. “Do your homework before you do anything stupid next time, alright? And—try and let yourself have a normal life. Jody’ll help you. You deserve it.”

James nods.

“And you can call whenever, Cas ‘n’ Sam ‘n’ me will be around. Me especially. I know it ain’t always easy for—for, uh.” Dean stumbles over his words for the first time. “For guys like. Us.”

He can’t help it—James smiles a little. He nods again. His windpipe is still crushed by the grief of losing Amelia, but he fights to unstick his voice, and manages a hoarse, “Thanks.”

Dean claps him on the back, and the cab pulls up, so they load James’ bags into the back and Castiel comes over for a final goodbye.

“Um, James,” he says, “If you—if you need anything, ever, I'm… I just wanted you to know that…”

James nods, which shuts him up, and he pulls Castiel into a half hug. It’s over as quickly as it started. James instantly regrets it, but—Castiel’s face breaks into a smile.

He gives the Winchesters one final wave, slides into the taxi seat, rests his head against the cool glass of the window, and listens to the whine of the engine as the cabbie pulls away.

 

Sioux Falls.

The cabbie’s already been paid, so when the car pulls up at the house he grabs his bags and hightails it out of there, with a hasty “Thanks!” thrown over his shoulder. Castiel must have called ahead, because the woman—Jody—is standing on the front step, waving to the cabbie. He approaches, a little hesitantly.

“James, right?” She says warmly. He nods. “Nice to meet ya, hon. I’m Jody Mills.”

James doesn’t know what to say in response: you seem nice? Cool house? Thanks for giving me food and a place to live, hope you don’t live to regret it? He just nods his head again, and after a moment’s pause, she beckons him inside, explaining that she set up the bedroom on short notice, so it isn’t perfect, but they can go shopping this week at the Furniture Mart if he wants. “We’ll figure something out, don’t worry,” she says.

He tries to summon up a smile. It’s more difficult than it sounds, and he feels a little sorry for Jody. He wants to be appreciative, and to keep an open mind, and she really does seem like a genuinely nice woman. It’s just—he’s had a long day. And before that, a long couple of weeks. And he got a grip on himself somewhat during the car ride, but there’s still a gaping part of him that he’s barely managing to ignore and shove down that’s still reeling over his mother’s death, and—

Nope. Not gonna go there. Suck it up, Novak.

So Jody’s place is fine, really. At first he can’t stop thinking of it like just another group home. He meets Alex, who’s nice, if a little uncomfortable around him at first. She’s technically a few months younger than him, but she feels years older. Maybe it’s because she’s been living with Jody longer, and seems so much more at ease in Sioux Falls than James is.

The first few nights, Alex peeks into his room on the way to hers, wordlessly checking on him. At first it weirds him out a little, but after about a week, he’s used to it. She helps him decorate his room, moving the bed under the window and letting him pick out a boxful of books off her shelf. She dismisses the books as just ones she doesn’t read anymore, but James knows she’s full of shit.

In turn, he teaches her secretary shorthand, which he picked up a few years ago from the daughter of one of his foster parents. Alex catches him writing in it in his notebook, and asks, “Is that a secret language?” and one thing leads to another and before long they’re writing coded notes to each other across the dinner table, much to Jody’s chagrin. James braids Alex’s hair for her, too, since she can’t do french braids on herself and he’s surprisingly good at it, once he gets the hang of it.

 

Soup and Salads.

He walks in on her in the kitchen one day, a few weeks after he arrived, bent over the stove and reading aloud out of a recipe book.

“Whatcha doing?” he says, coming up behind her.

“Making soup,” Alex says distractedly, stirring the wooden spoon with one hand and valiantly struggling to hold the recipe book upright with the other.

“Soup?”

“Yes, dumbass. You’ve had it before, haven’t you? Tomato soup.”

James grins in spite of himself. “Can I help?”

“Hold this,” Alex says, pushing the cookbook into his hands and grabbing the saltshaker. She shakes it approximately ten times over the pot.

“That seems like a lot of salt,” James comments. “Secretly afraid one of us is a demon?”

“Shut up,” Alex says, with no real malice behind it. “Read me the seventh step.”

James obliges. “Stir in pepper… Did you already do the onions?” He checks. “Great, you did the onions. Add those, and put more olive oil.”

They continue this way, with James eventually claiming the stool near the counter. Alex has him fetch her ingredients and utensils, but doesn’t let him do any actual cooking (“Donna’s coming tonight, and I want full credit for the meal,” is her explanation). After Alex has done all she can for the soup, and it’s generating a heavenly aroma as it bubbles on the stove, they make the rest of the meal—James slices up some bread and toasts it with olive oil while Alex dices carrots for side salads.

“So Jody didn’t tell me much,” Alex says conversationally. “How come you’re here? You know, living with us instead of some other halfway house?”

James bristles a little. “What, you want me out?” he says, and it comes out more snappish than he means it.

Alex looks up in alarm. “No, no, that’s not what I meant. I was just wondering, cause, you know. We met each other through the Winchesters, and the stuff they’re involved in—I was just wondering. That’s all.”

He relaxes. “Oh. Sorry.”

“You don’t have to tell me, if you don’t want to,” Alex says, grabbing some lettuce out of its plastic bag and tearing up the leaves. “It took me a while to be able to talk about my stuff with Jody.”

“No—nah, it’s okay,” James says. “It’s just—a little complicated.”

Alex laughs. “I hear that a lot around here.”

“You hear the one about the guy whose dad got possessed by an angel and disappeared randomly one day, then came back months later only to pass the angel on to his kid for a night like some kind of heavenly parasite?”

“You were possessed by an angel?” Alex says, ignoring the salad to gape at him.

“Only for a little bit,” James says, “but yeah. Zero out of five stars, would not recommend.”

Alex snorts. “What happened to him? Your dad, I mean.”

“He’s dead now,” James says, surprised by how easily it comes out. “The angel didn’t kill him, but yeah, he died a few years after all that. At least, I think it was a few years. I wasn’t there.” He doesn’t think he could talk about Amelia in the same way. Thankfully, Alex doesn’t ask.

“I’m sorry,” she says, with genuine sympathy.

“That’s not the half of it,” he replies. “But what about you? What’s your sob story?”

Alex lets out a huff. “Oh man, where do I start? I lived with a family of vampires for most of my life. Never got turned myself, and I ran away a year or so ago. Jody found me, the nest went after us, Winchesters put ‘em all down.”

James looks up, alarmed. “That was your family, though! And they were all just murdered? How can you talk about them like that?”

Alex gives him a look. “Don’t fall into that trap. The vamps kidnapped me. They weren’t my family, I know that now.”

He doesn’t know how to respond to that, but luckily she saves him from trying. “Done with that toast yet? C’mere, help me with the tomatoes.”

He obliges. They finish the dinner in comfortable silence, and right before Jody comes home Alex puts on the radio. The sounds of “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” fill the kitchen.

 

Fruits of Labor.

James meets Donna that night; Jody brings her home for dinner and makes their introductions. He instantly takes a liking to her, Donna with her bouncy ponytail and endearing accent and habit of making exaggerated faces in response to everything Jody says. She asks James if she can call him “Jim,” which he discovers he’s surprisingly okay with, so long as she’s the only one calling him it. She winks, like he’s in on a secret.

They all eat Alex and James’ meal of soup, salad, and toasted bread, and Jody and Donna heap them with effusive, if a little unwarranted, praise. Alex blushes modestly and James rolls his eyes, and Donna surprises them all by breaking out a couple pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, brushing off Jody’s protests by insisting she got them half-price.

 

The Sleepover.

“Hey,” Alex says, around the time they’re all heading to bed, peeking her head into his room. “Wanna have a sleepover?”

“A sleepover?”

“Yeah, come toss your pillows and blankets on my floor and we’ll stay up really late until Jody comes in and yells at us. You down?”

James grins. “Absolutely.”

He drags his sheets and blankets across the hall to Alex’s room and sets up camp on her carpet. Alex clicks on her fairy lights, which are strung around the walls and give the room a warm, dim glow. Alex flops on her bed, puts her chin in her hands and looks down to where he’s sprawled on the floor.

“So ever since you mentioned it, I’ve been wondering… what was it like being possessed by an angel?” she asks.

“Wow, starting with the big questions right off the bat, hm?” James laughs. He thinks for a moment before answering. “Like every one of my senses was being fried, all at once. I could taste every color, see every sound. I couldn’t move, or control my body at all, or even move my eyes in a different direction. But I could hear and feel and see everything I was doing.”

Alex lets out a low whistle. “Wow.”

“That’s one word for it,” James agrees. “Castiel was a lot different back then. He’s still a dick, but back then he was a freakin’ dangerous dick.”

Alex laughs, and rolls over onto her back. “Man. Your stuff sounds a lot more poetic. Angel possession, demon fighting—I’d pick that over stupid vampires any day.”

“What, you’re not a Twilight fan?” James teases. “No Team Edward vs. Team Jared, or whatever?”

“It’s Jacob,” Alex says, cracking up, “and no. Sparkly skin? Come on. Those books were banned in the nest, and for good reason.”

“Dangerous propaganda,” James quips, and Alex says, “Exactly.”

Once their laughter has quieted, James sits up in his pile of blankets and asks, “So what’s Jody’s thing? Taking in waifs with tragic, supernatural backstories? She had to have gotten started somewhere.”

For the first time, Alex looks uncomfortable. “Oh, uh. I don’t know if that’s my story to tell.” She fiddles with the hem of her bedsheet. “Well, maybe…”

James looks at her, interest piqued. Alex sighs. “Her family died. Like mine and, I guess, like yours. She had a kid, a long time ago.”

“Oh,” James says, and he feels like a dick for not knowing. He says as much to Alex, who brushes it off.

“Don’t worry about it,” she says. “Jody’s pretty well-adjusted. She has her days, like we all do, but don’t feel bad about not realizing.”

From there the conversation turns to lighter topics, like Alex’s classes at school and her plans to become a nursing assistant. It’s not Jody, but Donna, who finally comes into their room around two in the morning to chastise them for not going to sleep. “I appreciate the bonding, kids, but Jody—despite what she’ll say to you—needs her beauty sleep. Go to bed.”

James guiltily climbs back into his own bed, yawning, but Donna’s rebuke doesn’t stop him from whispering across the hall to Alex, “Tomorrow I’ll show you how to do sutures, give you a head start for nursing school,” to which she whispers back, “Pretty sure that violates HIPAA or something.”

“That is totally not what HIPAA is,” James says, snickering.

“Shh!” comes Donna’s voice from down the hall, and James and Alex both finally shut up and go to sleep.

 

Rescue.

College doesn’t do it for him. It was never a conscious desire when he was younger and still with his parents, and by the time he was old enough to write applications and study for the SATs, it was the furthest thing on his mind. Jody helps him apply to the local community college, and he sits a few classes to appease her, but he can’t bring himself to care enough. He spends his free time looking for cases, studying mythology and legends and taking detailed notes, putting together a reference guide for himself should he ever hunt any of the monsters he reads about.

“You have so much energy, and such a good head for organization,” Jody laments. “Why can’t you put that talent into your schoolwork?”

But there’s no way around it. He’s got hunting fever; once he gets a taste of it, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. There are arguments, and cases, and tense nightly dinners. Eventually, the decision’s made: he’s going to hunt on his own. Sioux Falls will be his home base; he’ll keep in touch and touch in from time to time. Jody doesn’t like it, of course she doesn’t, but he’s nearly twenty now. If he wants to hunt, he can hunt.

So: he’s been on his own for a while. He had a few adventures, a lot of cases he thought were paranormal but were actually just -normal, another run-in with the Winchesters… it’s been a lot. He’s in Colorado now, coming off of a failed vamp lead, and a few days ago, he found a story in the local papers about a girl who was kidnapped off the streets. The girl’s older sister, who had left her alone for a few minutes to run back to school to grab her car keys, claimed that the kidnappers had pointed teeth and “wrong eyes”. It’s werewolves, all right. He’s ready for them.

For this case, he tries a new method of hunting: dress up as a mail carrier, trick the werewolves into letting him into their cabin, slice and dice. It’s effective, and he’s sweaty and breathing hard at the end but aching with pride. He checks on the little girl he rescued, looks her over for injuries and, upon assuring that she’s in good health, takes her outside to call her mother.

“Why do you look like a boy?” the girl asks him, moving on to non-werewolf-corpse-related topics of conversation as soon as they’re out of the cabin.

“I look like a boy ’cause I am a boy,” James says, feeling like an idiot.

But the girl just squints at him, and then nods. “Oh. Okay.”

He gets her home safely to her mother, concocts a hastily-spun explanation of him stumbling upon the cabin and managing to grab one of the kidnapper’s guns just in time, and slips away before anyone can question him further.

The moment he’s back in the car, his phone rings. The caller ID says it’s Jody, and he picks it up on the first ring.

“Hey, Jody,” he says, “what’s up?”

“James—it’s Sam and Dean—they’re missing. They were on a hunting trip, and I haven’t heard from them in a few days.” There’s a pause. Then— “It’s time to come home.”

She’s right. Once she’s hung up, he sets the GPS for Sioux Falls and drives.

 

Back Home.

He fidgets awkwardly in the front hall of Jody’s house, the sound of the door slam still echoing. “Surpriiise. Hi, Jody. Alex. You miss me?”

Alex smirks. “Not really.”

Jody doesn’t look at all impressed; in fact, she looks almost grim. Before he can wonder about it further, though, she gives him a questioning look and waves a hand at his face.

Oh, right. The blood. “It was just a, uh, werewolf. No big deal.”

Jody, slightly relieved, pulls him in for a hug. It’s nice, actually. He lets himself relax into her arms.

“I’m glad you made it home safe,” Jody says, “and there’s somebody I want you to meet. This is Patience.”

James turns. There’s a young woman standing in the hall, with dark hair and a tense expression. He realizes she’s wearing one of his hoodies.

“Hi,” he says, carefully. He doesn’t smile.

Warily, she replies in turn, “Hi.”

“Patience drove up from Atlanta. She’s been staying with us for a few days,” Jody says, attempting to break the tension.

“You’re a hunter?” James asks.

“Psychic,” Patience says.

“Cool,” he says, “you’re wearing my sweatshirt.”

Patience looks extremely uncomfortable. “Um, Jody said…”

“Is she sleeping in my room too?” James asks, suddenly pissed. He’d been feeling guilty about running off to hunt, but that feeling’s evaporating. This is like a slap in the face.

“Actually, the guest room is storage now.” Jody’s lips are pursed. James can’t tell if she’s annoyed at him or just in general.

“It’s fine,” he says, irritated, “I’m the one who left.”

There are a few seconds of tense silence. Then he claps his hands, making Jody jump a little. “So! Sam and Dean, what do we know?”

Jody leads him, Alex, and Patience into the living room, and plays for the three of them a voicemail recording on her phone. In it, Sam tells them they’re looking for a girl named Kaia Nieves, and then Dean cuts in and says they need to go. It’s only about twenty seconds long.

“That was three days ago. I haven’t heard anything since,” Jody says once the recording’s finished. There are a few papers spread out on the coffee table, and James picks one up that catches his eye. It’s a rap sheet, with mugshots of a young woman, looking exhausted and angry at the camera.

“What about her?” James asks. “The girl, Kaia?”

Jody sighs. “Yeah, I ran her name through the system. She was picked up for possession in Minnesota, and then she escaped from court ordered drug rehab three days ago. Warrant out for her arrest.”

“Check the rehab center and the local hospitals,” James suggests.

“Already did,” Alex says, and then, turning to Jody, “You going to be okay?”

Jody raises her eyebrows, but replies, “Yeah.”

Alex gets up and moves to go to the door, but James holds out a hand, stopping her. “Wait,” he says, “where are you going?”

“Night shift,” she says, and oh yeah, he forgot. She texted him a long time ago, early on when he started hunting by himself, that she was starting a course for CNA training. That was… what, a year and a half ago?

“So Sam and Dean are missing, and you’re bailing,” he says, irrationally angry at Alex now, too.

“I have a job, James,” she says, and then to Jody, “Good luck.”

Once the door’s closed behind her, James turns to Jody. “What was she talking about? Huh?”

“James,” Jody starts, but he cuts her off.

“If this is about me hunting alone, I know I should’ve called more, but I’m fine. I’m good! I’ve been safe, I promise.”

“No, you’re not!” Jody cries, voice breaking, and James feels his gut lurch. “Patience had a vision, that’s why she’s here.”

“I… I saw you die,” Patience says quietly.

James barks out a laugh, disbelieving. But Jody’s eyes are locked on his, dead serious, and his smile fades.

“James, she’s the real deal.”

“So every vision you have, it always comes true?” James asks Patience.

She frowns. “I don’t know. I’m still figuring all this out.”

That’s settled, then. “So you might be wrong.”

Jody’s face crumples. “James, this is serious, I’m trying to protect you!”

“That’s just it, Jody! When you say you want to ‘protect me,’ you just mean do the work for me. You’ve never seen what I can do. Sitting back and making the perfect plan, losing time, that’s how people end up dead!”

“And if you end up dead?”

They’re both on their feet, and Jody’s trembling. “I won’t,” he says, seriously.

“You can’t just run away from this,” Jody bites out.

“Watch me,” he says, and snatches up his jacket and storms out.

 

The Girl.

At the hospital, James finds Alex at the intake desk, looking over some forms and muttering to herself. He leans against the counter for a minute, but she either doesn’t notice him or doesn’t care, so he knocks his knuckles twice on the laminate to get her attention.

“Nice outfit, Al. Did you make sure to ask for the dorkiest uniform in the closet?”

“Oh, stuff it, Harley Davidson,” Alex says, not looking up.

James smirks. He leans over the counter towards her and says in an undertone, “You knew, then? About the whole vision thing?”

Alex scoffs. “Yep. And I knew how you’d react.”

“So, you have a job, but you still help Jody with cases? I thought you wanted out of the whole monster thing.”

Alex lets out an irritated sigh. “Look, if she needs my help with anything—the dishes, monsters—I promised to be there. For her.” She gives James a knowing look.

“Right,” James says, “there for her. Unlike me. You know, the way things were going, if I’d stuck around, she just would’ve worried all the time.”

Alex puts down her pen, making eye contact with him for the first time. “James. She never stopped.”

Neither of them say anything for a moment. Then Alex continues: “Anyway, I’m guessing you didn’t crash my job for a heart to heart. What do you want?”

James quickly recovers. “Two minutes in your system?”

They find the girl—Kaia—in less than one. She’s just been brought in, on the first floor, and James gives Alex a quick mock-salute before heading off. He waits outside Kaia’s room, looking in through the window blinds and watching the doctor talk with her.

The doctor’s saying something about keeping Kaia under observation when Kaia looks up, and she and James make eye contact. He’s struck by her appearance in person—she’s more vibrant than the mugshots, but the circles under her eyes are darker and more defined. She’s beautiful, but oddly enough, he’s not thinking about that. Just the intensity of her dark eyes locked onto his.

The moment ends when the doctor leaves the room, eyes passing over James in the hall. When he’s sure she’s gone, he comes into the room and leans against the doorway, and says, “Where ya going?”

Kaia’s already ripped the IV drip from her hand and is grabbing her plainclothes out of the hospital side table. She turns and glares at him, doesn’t answer.

“Hey, I get it,” James says, “If I had the cops on my ass, I’d be racing out of Dodge too.”

“Who are you?” she spits.

He gives her a wry smile. “I’m James. I’m a friend of Sam and Dean Winchester. You know them too, don’t you.”

“Leave me alone,” Kaia warns, and she’s finished collecting her things now, and pushes past him into the hallway, already breaking into a run.

“Hey!” he calls, turning after her, but she’s already disappearing down the hall. He follows her through the halls, out a door with a bright red “EXIT” sign, and bursts out into the parking lot. He’s about to say something, to call out to her to stop running, when she stops. There’s a huge figure in front of her, and he can’t tell if it’s covered in fabric or fur, but it’s making a sort of hissy, clicking sound, and Kaia’s petrified with terror in front of him.

His hand goes instinctively to his pants pocket, and he pulls out his pocket knife and clicks it open, lunging at the monster and stabbing down, hard, in its shoulder. But it’s not enough to stop it; the monster’s clicking gets louder and it hurls him off, and he slams against something hard a few meters away. The shrieking alarm in his brain gets louder, and he’s struggling to get to his feet as the creature turns towards Kaia, but then gunshots ring out, blam-blam-blam, and he whips around to see Jody coming out of the darkness, shotgun raised. The thing’s still not dead, though, and so, shaking off the lingering daze, he makes for the monster a final time, thrusting his knife down, down into its neck. Goo spurts out, and the thing thrashes beneath him, and finally the clicking noise gets slower, and stops.

Kaia is staring at him, wide-eyed, still frozen in place. James runs a hand through his hair and lets out a long breath.

“So,” he says. “Let’s talk.”

 

Porchstep.

Back at the house, James helps Alex and Patience load the monster’s body onto the worktable in the garage. Kaia opted to stay outside, and he glances out the door and sees she’s sitting on the front steps, arms around her knees. He steps outside, pulling the garage door down behind him, and leaves Jody and the girls to it.

“See one of those things before, huh?” he says, coming up next to Kaia and sitting a foot away from her on the step.

Kaia glances up. She’s not angry or on the defensive anymore, not like at the hospital. Now she just looks tired.

“In my dreams,” she says. “And not just one of them; those things, they—they travel in packs. They pick up your scent and they don’t stop.”

“So you fight them?” he asks.

“Fight? No, I run. But sometimes they catch me.”

He nods, and his eye catches on her bare wrist. There are jagged, angry scars, disappearing into the sleeve of her jacket.

“Is that how you got that?” He makes a gesture toward her wrist.

She nods. “I’ve got others, all over.”

“Me too,” he says, and pulls his pant leg up, showing her a circular scar on his skin. “Look. Ghoul bite. And this one—” he indicates a mark on his shoulder, “That was a bar fight with a vampire. Got thrown through the window.”

They smile at each other. Then Kaia reaches out, and lightly brushes her fingers across James’ forehead.

“And this one?” she asks, quietly. James had nearly forgotten about the little mark on his forehead. Alex had stitched it up for him.

“Heroic battle,” he says, “with the doorknob. I tripped.”

Kaia’s eyebrows shoot up, and she laughs, clear and unexpectedly light. When her laughter dies down, she and James are left looking at each other, waiting.

“Kaia, what happened?

So she tells him: about dreamwalking, about how it started after her mom died, about how everything she dreamt about in the other world could harm her here. That’s how she got the scars. She tells him that Sam and Dean found her, wanting to go to another world to save their mother—James makes a mental note to interrogate Jody about that, later—but she wasn’t strong enough, and something went wrong, and now the Winchesters are trapped in the Bad Place.

When she’s done, the exhaustion still hasn’t left her face, but she looks a little more at ease. Getting rid of the burden by talking to someone evidently did her some good.

 

Relent.

Patience has a vision of the beasts attacking the house, and panicking, insists they all leave the house before they get caught in an ambush. Jody evidently trusts her, so they all pack up and drive. James doesn’t try to fight her on it much. Kaia’s worry came back as soon as Patience told them about her vision, and he hates seeing her upset.

Jody and Alex take the park service car, Patience drives James and Kaia, and they meet up with Donna just past the South Dakota/Minnesota border. Donna’s bright and perky as ever, and she pulls Alex in for a hug.

“Get over here, Jim,” she calls, noticing him hanging back, and he gives her a grin and squeezes her and Alex tight.

While Donna’s showing off her backseat armory to the girls, Jody pulls James aside.

“James, I know you’re not going to like this,” she sighs, “but I need you to stay here and keep Kaia and the girls safe.” She pauses. “Just until we've checked things out, okay?”

He’s ready to fight her on it, to demand she stop treating him like a child who can’t get in on the action, but then he glances over at Kaia and holds her gaze for a moment.

Huh.

“Okay, Jody,” he says, finally. “I’ll stay.”

 

Connection.

Donna and Jody have been gone for only a few minutes when Kaia approaches him. He’s sitting in the back of the car, the trunk open, watching Patience and Alex where they’re standing in the weeds.

“Room over there?” Kaia asks, and he jerks up, startled, then nods. She sits beside him, and he scooches over a few inches, giving her space.

They sit in silence for a few moments, listening to the murmurs of Alex and Claire’s voices and feeling the cool breeze and warm sun on their faces.

“You’re scared,” Kaia says quietly, breaking the silence.

James looks at her, a little surprised. But she’s not wrong. “Yeah,” he says. He hesitates. “Jody always said I’d get myself killed hunting, and I would say to her, ‘Good.’ You know? If I’m going to go out, then that’s how I want to do it, doing something great.”

He sighs. “But Patience’s vision… It’s one thing thinking that you’re going to die young someday, but actually knowing it? For once, a part of me kinda just wants to sit back and let Jody handle it, you know? Stay safe. But…” he trails off, and then continues, “Dean and Sam saved my life. I can’t sit this one out.”

“Then don’t,” Kaia says sharply. He looks up at her. Her gaze is piercing. “If you go, I’ll go with you. Maybe together we can save them.”

Something lurches in James’ gut. Something monumental.

“Yeah,” he says quietly. “Yeah, okay.”

 

The Crack in the World.

When Jody and Donna don’t call at the predetermined check-in time, and are unreachable by cell phone, James gets antsy. He manages to convince Patience to give him the keys, and they leave the park ranger van by the lake where Jody left it, all four of them piled in Patience’s car.

Once they get to the shipyard, they stock up: pistols and knives for everyone, and James claims the flamethrower. It turns out to be an excellent decision, because when they storm into the shipyard, they find Jody and Donna trapped by two of the monsters. James torches them, only a little gleefully.

“I called, you didn’t answer. We worried,” he says, and Jody’s face breaks into a weary smile.

There’s a glowing light coming out of one of the doors, on a little elevated platform near where Jody’s standing. He squints at it, then realizes.

“That’s the door, isn’t it,” he states, and starts for the ladder to get up to the platform.

“James. James!” Jody calls, but he’s already climbing, on top of the platform and running into the next room. Kaia’s following him.

The crack of gold light is immediately blinding when he first skids to a stop in front of it. He blinks a few times, letting his eyes adjust and watching the crack come into focus. It’s mesmerizing, hovering in the air, and he takes a step towards it just as Jody runs in behind him.

“Oh hell,” she breathes.

Kaia turns. “What is it?”

“It’s getting smaller,” Jody says, and that settles it, there’s no time to lose; James strides forward, reaching out to touch the crack, but—

Jody grabs him by the arm and spins him around. “No! James, wait!”

“Jody,” he says, putting all the weight he can behind his words, “I know you’re trying to protect me. But I need to save Sam and Dean, and you have to let me.”

There’s a sadness in her eyes, deep and unvoiced. “I know,” Jody says, like her heart is breaking, and Donna is yelling from down below for help. They’re running out of time.

“Go,” Jody tells him, face drained of all color. He nods, gaze lingering, and turns to Kaia. She looks terrified.

“I’ll protect you,” James says, like a benediction. He takes her hand in his, and they step forward into the light.

 

Gold and Green.

The world is made up of swirling greens, and dizzying light, and then James blinks and his vision clears, sharpens. He and Kaia are in a clearing, surrounded by forests, and the golden crack of energy is sputtering, but still there.

“You okay?” he pants, and Kaia squeezes his hand.

“Yeah,” she says, almost surprised by the answer. She tugs him away from the crack. “Come on.”

Kaia must have a picture of this place in her head from all the dreams, because she knows to jump over every tree root, duck under every low-hanging branch. She leads James into the woods, until they hear voices.

“It’s Sam and Dean,” James whispers, and Kaia nods. They creep towards the shadowy figures, careful not to make any large noises.

“Do you hear that?” Sam’s saying, and James comes up behind Dean and uses his pocket knife to slice through the ropes binding him.

Dean whips around. “James?”

“The one and only,” James says, unable to suppress a grin, and he tosses the pocket knife to Kaia so she can free Sam.

“You’re my hero,” Dean says, rubbing his wrists.

Sam stumbles forward, shaking free of the ropes. “How did you get here?”

“The door,” James says. “It’s still open.”

“For now,” Kaia adds.

There’s a hissing sound, a deep, low growl, and then the ticking sound James heard back in the hospital parking lot starts again. They all freeze.

“Time to go,” Dean says, warningly, and the four of them break into a run. Kaia leads them back through the woods, and branches whip across their faces, stinging as they push their muscles faster. It’s like the roots of the forest are rising up to block their way, James thinks madly, as his toe catches on something invisible and he goes flying. He picks himself up, brushes himself off, and Kaia tugs him on the arm to keep going.

“Come on,” she hisses, and they run, and burst through a thicket of saplings and into the clearing.

The portal’s light is dying, and it’s still floating there, but just barely. James takes a step forward, moves to go back through the light, but his brain registers the sound of something, a barely-audible whoosh, and he turns, but before he can he’s being shoved to the ground, and—

There’s a dull thud, and Kaia’s lying on the ground beside him.

His brain doesn’t register what’s happened at first. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism, after his mother. It’s like he has a blind spot, right in the middle of his vision. He can see Kaia’s face, her eyes, her hand reaching out to him, and he thinks, Oh. That’s nice.

And then he blinks. And he sees for the first time the spear embedded in Kaia’s gut, and the blood pouring out, over her hands, over the grass, over everything, and it’s like he’s the one drowning. There’s nothing in his brain, absolutely nothing, when he lurches to his feet and lunges towards the hooded figure in the clearing, the one who threw the spear, but Dean grabs him by the shoulders and shoves him back, saying his name, over and over, and he thrashes to free himself from Dean’s hands but everything is suddenly gold and blinding, and then Kaia is gone and he’s collapsed on the factory floor.

 

Aftershocks, Part I.

He stops talking. Can’t, won’t, it makes no difference. He doesn’t say a word on the drive home; Donna takes him in her car so he doesn’t have to listen to Patience and Alex, and for that kindness he’s grateful.

Once they get home, he goes straight to his room, shuts the door behind him but doesn’t lock it. Jody comes in a few moments later, gives three soft taps on the door before entering.

“Hey,” she says, quietly. “How’re you feelin’?”

He doesn’t turn to look at her, doesn’t respond, doesn’t move or shake his head. He hears her sigh.

“This isn’t on you, you know. Not all of it; I told you to go.”

He shakes his head, smiles bitterly.

“You don’t have to do this alone, James,” Jody says seriously. “When you’re ready, if you want, we’re all here for you.”

She takes a few steps forward, rests her hand on his shoulder. “Okay?”

He manages to nod. Jody gives him some space.

 

Aftershocks, Part II.

He chases leads for a year. At first he has no idea where to start: he looks into research on alternate universes, on rifts, on nephil and archangel grace. He finds nothing of note, and so when he’s not burning his eyes out at three A.M. poring over old books, he’s hunting, burying himself in cases. He’s getting better at finding them now, and every scar he earns feels like a kind of penance. He told her he’d protect her.

 

Aftershocks, Part III.

When Jody gets the news that Kaia never died after all, that she was alive the entire time, James is in Yosemite, with no cell service or internet connection whatsoever. Ironically, he’s chasing a lead on a dark-haired woman with a spear and black cloak.

The universe’s cruelty knows no bounds. He’d shake his fist at God and all heaven’s angels, but knowing what he knows now, he’s a little old for that.

 

Easy.

And then:

Kaia’s home, and it’s like a miracle—she’s alive, and physically unharmed, if a little malnourished—and she agrees to stay with Jody and Donna for a while, at least while she gets back on her feet. James helps Donna clear out the guest bedroom and move all Jody’s storage boxes to the basement, and he and Kaia go to the Furniture Mart, and they pick out a bed and side table and fluffy carpet.

That’s not to say all’s perfect in Casa Hanscum-Mills, though. Kaia has dark circles under her eyes, and she doesn’t say much, just moves from room to room like a ghost. She flinches at loud noises, too, and checks all the locks in the house at night three times each before going to bed. Jody tells James privately to not worry about it. “She’ll take her time, just like you did, and just like Alex did,” she reassures him.

James makes the decision to take a break from hunting for the indefinite future, opting instead to stay in Sioux Falls with Kaia. Jody suggests he go back to school, but Sam calls him with some work to do, sorting through and organizing contact information for some sort of proto-hunter’s network, and he happily takes up the job instead.

In his free time, he and Kaia go on long drives; taking advantage of their newly free schedules. No more fighting to stay alive, no more hunting, at least for the time being. They deserve to try samples at every ice cream place within 50 miles of Sioux Falls.

James is hesitant—he knows that there’s something between them, that there was two years ago when they met, and if they’d had more time then and maybe were in different conditions, they could have been something. And now that they have the perfect conditions, he’s cautious. He doesn’t want to push her, to make the first move and force her into something she’s not ready for. He’ll give her time, and when the terror of the Bad Place is far behind them, then they’ll figure it out.

His plan turns out to be unnecessary. After a week or so, Kaia starts coming out of her shell, not hunching down into herself so much anymore. After recovering from the initial shock of being out of the Bad Place, she’s adjusting surprisingly well.

He asks her, one time, when they’re out on a walk, about two weeks after she came back. “How’d you do it? Stay sane, during all that time, I mean.”

“Who says I’m sane?” she says, and elbows him. “No, but honestly, I dunno. I just did. I was alone, yeah, but I’ve been alone for a long time already. I took it one day at a time. The monsters stayed away from me most of the time, which I didn’t expect. I think they realized their Kaia was gone, and I was the only one they had left.”

“Huh,” James says. That wasn’t the answer he’d expected. “But you’re happy to be gone, right?”

“Are you kidding me? Who wouldn’t?”

“Oh, sure, sure,” he agrees. “Just was a little concerned you maybe… never wanted to come back in the first place. Nothing here for you anyway.” He grins.

She rolls her eyes. “Yep, totally,” she says, voice dripping with sarcasm, “nothing here for me at all.” She snatches his hand up in hers and squeezes it, and a thrill, electric, reverberates through James’ bones.

They walk like that for a little, hand in hand, until Kaia says, “So. All we’ve been through and we still have only known each other for less than a month total. Tell me about yourself.”

“Oh, man, I wouldn’t know where to even start.”

“Alright, how ‘bout I ask, you answer, and then we’ll switch. How’d you pick your name?”

That’s an easy one. “It was my dad’s name,” he says. “James Novak, Senior. But I guess he didn’t become Senior until after he died. It’s alright, though. He doesn’t need to watch over the name anymore; I can do that well enough for both of us.”

Kaia smiles. “I didn’t know you were a Junior. It’s very fitting.”

He laughs. “I’ll take that as a compliment. What about you?”

“My mom helped me pick it,” she says. “She said if I had been a girl, she would have named me something with a K. So I got a book out of the library and found this one. She let me get it legally changed when I turned fifteen.”

“Man.” James whistles appreciatively. “What was your mom like?”

“She was wonderful,” Kaia says wistfully. “She was so good with all the, you know, gender stuff. She was so encouraging, and supportive, and she went to a parent support group so that she could unload the stress about my transition stuff without putting it on me.”

“She sounds amazing.”

“She was,” Kaia agrees. “When she died, I went to live with my aunt, who didn’t really get it as much—she thought I was just gay, which she would have been fine with, but she didn’t understand when I wanted to keep my hair long and still date girls. And when my aunt died, I figured the system would chew up and spit out kids like me, so I slipped out of police custody as soon as I could and ran away. I started getting the dreams around that time, too.”

Oh, shit. James feels instantly terrible for forgetting. “The dreams,” he says, “are you still getting them?”

“No, actually,” Kaia says, breaking into a beautiful smile. “They stopped in the Bad Place. I was terrified they’d come back once I got here, but—I don't know. When I was younger, they used to get really bad whenever I was already upset or scared. Maybe they’re gone forever, or maybe the fact that I’m safe and happy here is keeping them away. Either way, I’m grateful.”

“You’re happy here?” James breathes, thinking he must have misheard. After all she’s been through, she’s here, with him, and this is where she really wants to be?

“Yeah,” Kaia says, incandescent, “yeah, James, I am,” and then she surges forward and cups his face in her hands and kisses him.

 

Castiel.

Kaia’s been home for a couple months, and they’ve settled into a comfortable routine of closeness and familiarity, when James gets a call from Dean. He’s out for groceries when the call comes, so he listens to the message once he’s back: “Hey, James, just wanted to check in, let you know that, uh, we fixed it. All the problems with Heaven, Hell, the weird natural disaster-y stuff happening lately—that was us, and it’s fixed now. Jack, um… nevermind. You haven’t even met him yet, have you. Anyway. It’s a long story. I’ll tell you the whole thing next time I see you. But the point is, you don’t have to worry about all that shit anymore.”

Dean sounds miserable, and his voice is hoarse, even though from the sound of his message, he should be celebrating. In the recording, he clears his throat and continues, “And, uh. Also. I hate to be the one to tell you this, I’m really sorry, I am, but. You oughta know, and it’s probably best to hear it from me. Uh. Cas—” and here Dean stops, and there’s just breathing over the line for a few seconds, and then he continues, in a terrible voice, “Cas. He’s dead. He died—sacrificed himself—in the whole big fight, you might have heard about it from Jody or Donna. But he’s gone now. I just—wanted to let you know.”

There’s quiet, then the line goes dead, and a second later the phone beeps, the message over. James stares at the handset, feeling like he missed something, like he’s lagging a few steps behind and any second this is going to make sense. He listens to Dean’s message again, and again, and it doesn’t.

“He wasn’t my father,” he mumbles that night, into Kaia’s chest. He skipped dinner to hide in her room. “I hated him for so long. I think I still do. He killed—maybe not directly, but still—he killed my family.”

Kaia pulls him in closer in the dark. “Yeah?”

“But now he’s dead,” James says, and it’s a miracle he’s still getting words out. “And what the fuck am I supposed to do with that? I hate him. I hate him for dying and making it everyone else’s problem.”

Kaia cups his face in her hands and kisses him, gently, on the forehead. He leans into her touch, her warm hands and lips. “I’m so sorry, J,” she says, “and, you know—whatever you’re feeling, and whenever you’re feeling it, it’s okay. It’s okay for this to be complicated.”

He lifts his eyes to look at her, the side of her face illuminated by the sliver of light from the window, the rest of her in shadow. “I love you, you know,” he says, meaning it more than anything, and she squeezes him tight.

“How about we go to sleep, huh?” she responds, and he slides off to lie beside her in the bed, and takes her hand and entwines their fingers together.

 

Grow.

Kaia decides she wants to go to school, to Jody’s great enthusiasm. She applies to a few colleges with art programs that are within a few hours driving distance, and stays up past two in the morning more than once revising her essay. James is reminded, achingly, of watching Betta Robertson do the same thing at the age of thirteen. When her acceptance letter comes, James spins her around the room in delight and kisses her, and Donna takes the whole family out to the new gelato place in town, her treat.

James starts hunting again, but not nearly as intensely as before. He takes it slow, eases himself back into the game. He hangs around Kaia’s campus many afternoons, waiting for her to come out so he can drive her home and listen to her talk excitedly about her newest project. She’s been painting, beautiful landscapes on huge canvases that barely fit in the back of James’ car. One day she runs out of her last class to meet him, face ecstatic.

“I did it,” she cries, flinging open the side door and throwing herself inside the car. “I dreamwalked again!”

“You did?”

“It was completely different this time,” she explains excitedly, “I was working on an English assignment in the library, and then I just had this feeling, this bell ringing in my brain, and I leapt up and ran to the studio, just like that, and as soon as I was sitting in front of my current project I just started seeing this other place, not here, and not the Bad Place either. It was amazing.”

“Like that other man?” James asks, searching for the name. “David… something?”

“Derek Swan,” Kaia nods, “and yeah. Exactly like that. And I just—painted, and I wasn’t really consciously thinking about it at all, and when the pictures faded from my mind I had painted the whole thing in like, half an hour. It’s drying now, but I’ll bring it home and show you and everyone else tomorrow.”

“I’m so proud of you,” James says, and leans in to kiss her. She can’t stop smiling, so it’s not really a full lip-on-lip kiss, but that doesn’t really matter.

“I love you, you know,” he says, pulling her in and speaking into her shoulder.

“I know,” she says, and he can picture her biting her lip. “I love you, too.”

 

The Phone Call.

It’s January, and the phone is ringing.

Jody picks it up and answers, and James is already in the room, working on some hunter’s network stuff for Sam at the kitchen table, so he watches as her expression changes from curiosity to confusion to blinding relief. James is about to ask her who called, what’s the news, but she’s already saying into the phone, “Why don’t you tell him yourself?” and gesturing at James to come over.

Jody puts the phone in his hand, and he has a split second of clarity, of knowing what he’s about to hear before he hears it, but there’s no conscious thought involved, just awareness; he puts the phone to his ear and hears:

“James! It’s Dean,” and he’s breathlessly happy over the line, “Jody said I should tell you—Cas is back. For good this time. He’s alive—Jack, I forgot to tell you but he’s our kid, sorta, he’s the one who brought Cas back. It’s—well, actually, it’s another really long story, but—”

And James is laughing in relief, and Jody’s struggling to contain her smile, and Patience and Kaia are coming into the kitchen, looking concerned at first, and then when Kaia sees James and Jody her face breaks into a smile, too.

“I can’t believe it,” James says to Dean, “and I’m happy for you, Dean, I really am. I know how much he meant—means to you.” He can’t resist adding, “...If you catch my drift.”

He can practically see Dean’s smile. “Yeah, yeah, okay, shadchan. Pass me back to Jody, why dontcha?”

James obliges, and he and Kaia head out of the kitchen to let Jody finish her conversation. Kaia bumps her head against his, gently, and asks him quietly, watching for his reaction, “He’s back. You’re happy?”

“Yeah,” James whispers back, “Yeah. I’m happy.”

 

In The End.

One warm summer night, with crickets chirping outside, James and Kaia are lying on the couch together in the living room of. Jody’s taken Patience and Alex away for the weekend, so they have the house in Sioux Falls all to themselves.

Kaia’s been curled up against James for the last half hour now, dark curls loose and spilling into his lap. She’s asleep, or nearly there, and seeing her so calm, face open, utterly at peace in her vulnerability, makes James ache terribly, deep inside.

He threads his fingers through her hair, lets his fingertips brush the soft skin of her cheek. He’s so lucky, he’s so goddamn lucky, he thinks, just to be in this room with her. To be here at all. He found someone, someone he loves, someone who’s the same, a self-made woman to match his self-made man. It’s kind of like Adam and Eve, he thinks suddenly, and then, where did that come from?

If he, ten years ago, had met his current self, with his haircut and his security in his own place in the world and “Junior” at the end of his name—well, it’s not that he wouldn’t believe it, really. He’s changed, of course he’s changed, but his past self would see something in his eyes and know instantly they were the same person. But at the same time he’s come so far, and he’s lost and gained so much. He’s not that scared little girl anymore.

He created himself, in an act of reinvention, and that’s perhaps the most beautiful and meaningful thing he’s ever done, or maybe ever will do. He’s surrounded himself his whole life, unwittingly, magnetically, with people who have done the same: Dean; Cas, in his way; Kaia; and before her, Polly, who said this was all a kind of sacred poetry. He didn’t really get it back then, all those years ago, but he gets it now.

This is it. He’s made a home in the people he loves, in himself. He’s taking things one day at a time, finally. He has his father’s name, but he’s not trying to be his father, or to find him; he’s good where he is. He loves, yes; but more importantly, he loves himself.

This is what it’s really all about.