Actions

Work Header

How Sweet the Sound

Work Text:

Naomi's grace is gone.

Metatron did something to her that separated her from it, so she's falling and it's not burning up like she had expected. Instead, it's simply absent; it's been separated from her in a way she didn't know was possible. That galls her, that she made it her business to know everything and he still managed to surprise her. Her grace is gone and she's falling and that's all she can think -- she didn't know.

She lands in the middle of a forest, thrust violently out of heaven, forced down to Earth by a will that was not her own. Because she has no grace to make a mark, nothing exceptionally beautiful will grow where she fell. No one will ever know she was here, not unless they know what to look for: her footprints in the dirt, the broken twigs and crushed leaves. But eventually, time and the elements will dispose of that evidence, too.

The first thing she notices is the quiet. No angel radio. No thoughts but her own.

It killed her vessel, what Metatron did. It's tempting to tell herself the woman is better off that way than still stuck with her, but she resists. She's spent long enough rationalizing such things to herself, has gotten far too good at it, she knows. Instead, she feels truly sorry about that in a way she hasn't been in a long, long time. It's one of many things she has to atone for.

Next, she notices everything else.

She's fallen, quite literally, down into the mud, and if that isn't proof she had been on the wrong path all this time, she doesn't know what is. She had figured it out at the end there, though; she just didn't have time to do anything about it.

It isn't fair, she thinks. This isn't how she wanted her redemption to go.

She could have done so much good following her revelation, could have used her power and her influence to help get the other angels back on track, but instead that upjumped errand boy, the angel scribbling God's notes back when there were even notes to take, that asshole who hasn't been relevant in millennia, who disappeared and went so completely off the grid even she couldn't find him, honestly, the nerve of him--

She realizes her whole body is shaking, fingers clenching into the damp soil, and she's breathing quickly and harshly. That's something she does now, breathing. She isn't terribly thrilled by the novelty of it.

She wills herself to stop shaking, to breathe evenly, to unclench her fingers. She chokes down her bitterness and self-loathing, bolsters herself with her fierce determination and her desperate new faith in humanity, and she gets up and starts walking.

--

Naomi spends her first three hours as a human walking in the direction of what she hopes is the nearest town. She watches the angels fall and gets a sick sort of satisfaction from it. She thinks, good. At least I'm not the only one suffering.

By the time she arrives on the outskirts of civilization, it's the middle of the night and she's mercifully alone, at least for the time being.

She spends her fourth hour as a human walking the empty streets, picking abandoned coins off the sidewalk until the wait becomes unbearable, then heads to the nearest payphone. She gets one quarter, three dimes, and a nickel into the machine before she realizes she doesn't know Dean Winchester's phone number and doesn't have anyone else to call to ask for help.

Something starts like nuclear fission in her chest. She fights it for as long as she can, but in the end, she smashes the phone against the receiver so hard the plastic cracks, then turns on her heel and storms off.

Naomi spends the next hour really being human for the first time. She lets the reaction run its course, cries fiercely and bitterly out of pain and rage and frustration, until she feels exhausted and ugly and defeated.

It's only then that she retrieves her sixty cents from the broken phone and starts walking.

--

Naomi walks and walks for a number of hours she has no way of keeping track of, and to pass the time, she prays. Not to God, really, but just because she's so out of practice. She has a lot of things to work on.

Her prayers are vague and half-formed, pleas for guidance, for mercy, for hope. She prays that she'll know what to do, when the time comes; that some divine inspiration will strike and she'll be able to do something other than staying on the move as a dilatory tactic, as a means of giving herself time to think. She prays for an end to the new emotions surging through her, to the way she feels lost in a way she never has been before. She prays for help she isn't sure she deserves.

She prays a thousand prayers and all of them go unanswered, and it's only then, feeling ignored and lonely and desperate, that she realizes the true extent of heaven's cruelty. She feels a profound sense of awe for humanity's ability to continue believing in spite of everything. It's a trait she apparently does not possess.

The first few days are the easiest, while Naomi still looks like maybe she's just a businesswoman who hasn't had a chance to freshen up after a long trip, while she hasn't quite started cursing the hugeness of the world in earnest. She looks down because she can't bear the thought of looking up and justifies it by telling herself it's because money won't fall out of the sky. By the time she gets to the next town, she has a little over a dollar, which she uses to buy some granola bars she forces down with a cup of water before she keeps moving. In the second town, she half-collapses onto a bench, knowing she needs sleep but unable to bear the thought of what might wait for her there.

She barely registers the woman who sits next to her until she snaps her out of her reverie by asking, "Hey, you coming or what?" For a moment, she thinks she's imagining things, until she realizes she's at a bus stop.

"I don't have any money," Naomi replies, voice hoarse from disuse, and the woman frowns. She looks at the bus and back to Naomi, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth. Naomi realizes she's trying to calculate how much it will cost her -- financially, emotionally, socially -- to help her. She's too tired to be angry about it.

"I'd be lying if I said I couldn't spare a few dollars. C'mon." The stranger beckons to Naomi, and she doesn't know what else to do, so she goes. The woman pays Naomi's fare for her, which she appreciates, and then sits next to her in the back but doesn't try to make conversation, which she appreciates more.

When the other woman gets off at the next stop, she presses a twenty into Naomi's hand, and the brief brush of her fingers against her palm is at once so comforting and so unfamiliar that it nearly cripples her with loneliness. Still, she somehow manages a quiet "Thank you" before she leaves.

It gets worse after that, as her clothes get dirtier and her hair gets wilder, as desperation and sleep deprivation set in. She expects nothing and is owed nothing, but it still hurts when people avoid her on the street. The few who give her sympathetic looks or words of encouragement or spare change do so only at a distance, careful to avoid direct contact.

She seethes with frustration at how cruel and petty humans can be before she catches herself. Really, she thinks, it's not that bad as far as punishments go.

She's done worse to her kin, and worse than that to humans. She's done far, far worse.

--

Naomi ends up, eventually, at a shelter for women and children.

She always made it her business to know everything, before, because it was only with a full knowledge of a person or an angel that she could know their weakness, could get in their head and bend them to her will effectively.

When she enters the shelter, when they sit her down and ask her if she has a place to go, a home to return to, and she says, "I can never go back there," they don't ask her why not. They take her at face value, and at face value she's alone and scared and hurting. They help her. They let her wash up, they feed her, they give her clothes, they start on the paperwork that will let her become a human on paper as well as in the flesh.

She smiles wryly at that, the bureaucracy of mortality.

They have a doctor on site, and Naomi tiredly consents when they ask her to strip out of her clothes for an examination. There are bruises on her arms and legs and back from when she landed, and when the doctor asks her what happens, she says, simply, bitterly, "I fell." The doctor doesn’t push it any further, just looks at her with pity she doesn't want and compassion she wishes she didn't need. It makes her feel like throwing up.

She doesn't, though. She shovels down the food they give her, the first warm meal she's ever eaten, and then, for the first time in her millions of years of existence, she sleeps.

She dreams of drilling into an amalgamation of every angel that she ever subjected to her ministrations, rerouting, reprogramming, rooting around in their control panel until she finds the key combination she wants. When she finally locates it, their eyes go blank, and she stands back, satisfied.

That's when they turn the drill on her.

She wakes up shaking and sweating. She can sense the panic setting in, the feeling familiar to her only because she used to see it in the eyes of her brethren as they slip slid under her control. She closes her eyes and clenches her jaw, trying to will herself to breathe evenly, and thinks, where's the reset button, I hate this, I hate this.

--

The people at the shelter are good people.

Naomi is already learning that not all people are good people. She suspects it's not so different from the way not all angels are very good angels. She knows a lot about not being a very good angel.

They take her fingerprints, make her press each one onto a piece of paper. She knows they'll run it through a database to see if she shows up. Not just as a missing person, but also as a criminal, because they give her the benefit of the doubt, but they're not fools. It doesn't matter. Her vessel predates the existence of their police system, just like most of her crimes.

The woman helping her through the process is wearing a cross around her neck. Naomi smiles wryly at that. Want to read about my sins? she wants to ask. Just pick up a Bible.

She misreads the smile, returns it with the obliviousness of one who could not possibly make the connection between the woman sitting before her and the vengeful angels of her so-called scripture. "Ready to fill out some job applications?" she asks, and places more forms in front of her, helps her fill in her fake name, her shiny new social security number, this temporary address.

Naomi manages to keep a straight face through the questioning about job history, management experience, character references. She does her best not to lie. There's no reason to make things harder for herself than she already knows they're going to be.

--

The shelter sets her up with a job at a grocery store. They walk her there, the first day, lead her like the lost thing she is and pass her off to become someone else's problem.

"So," the store employee says, once Naomi is seated uncomfortably in a plastic chair in a back room. He's wearing a tag that reveals his name is Greg. "Time for some training videos."

That's all the attention she warrants, apparently. Greg sits her in front of a television set and presses play, leaving her to watch hours of grainy, outdated videos about the store's products and policies. She tries desperately to remain conscious and focus on the droning voiceovers and awful roleplaying instead of on the way the legs of her chair are uneven, causing it to tilt back and forth at the slightest movement.

As if one day of this wasn't enough, Naomi spends the entirety of her first three days of gainful employment watching videos. She expects something more than that, somehow. Some kind of hands-on training. But no. On the fourth day, Greg offers her an ill-fitting vest and waits as she slips it on over her shirt.

"Time for you to head out to the floor," Greg says. Naomi has no idea what it means.

It doesn't take long to figure it out, though. He sends her out into the store, instructing her to find another employee to shadow, to follow around until she learns all the things the videos didn't teach her. That's when she realizes what she's going to be doing here. Despite the fact she knows more and has done more and has seen more than any human that ever did or does or will exist, she has no proof she has any of the skills necessary to do anything other than menial tasks. She's going to be doing nothing more than placing items on the shelves. She won't even get to work the registers.

Naomi supposes that's fair. She's not sure she should be interacting with people that frequently, either. She's not sure she could stand to fake smiles at them all day long.

She doesn't seek out another employee as Greg instructed. The work is easy enough that she can manage by asking questions of other employees only when absolutely necessary. Only when it takes her so long to find where something goes that she gets frustrated and gives in.

It doesn't take long before she has to seek help less and less frequently, though. The aisles are organized in a pleasing way, foods placed in logical sequences. The meats with the cheeses. The breads next to the jam and peanut butter. All the paper goods in the same aisle. She prefers it this way, going through the motions mechanically, working on her own as much as possible. She doesn't know how to interact with these people, these creatures who used to be under her care. It doesn't matter that she didn't really see it that way for a very long time and completely messed it up, anyway. It doesn't even matter that they aren't her responsibility any more. It's enough that she still sees them as something separate from herself.

Naomi sits on her own when she eats lunch in the break room. The only conversations she participates in are ones of necessity. She learns her coworkers' names and habits by observing them indirectly, watching them interact with people who aren't her. She's curious about them in a detached sort of way. She sees them every day, after all. But she's not curious enough to want to try to engage with them. She isn't sure they have anything in common, anyway. She wouldn't know what to say.

She stocks the shelves and she keeps to herself. It's the same thing every day. In the mornings, the shelves are full, everything is lined up nice and neat, all the prices are labeled. As the day progresses, as people filter in and out in a steady stream, chaos descends. People come in and take things off the shelves and put them in their carts and knock off the price tags, sometimes on accident and sometimes on purpose. Sometimes they pick food up to examine it and put it back crooked or on a different shelf or in another section of the store entirely. Sometimes they leave raw meat or eggs or frozen vegetables in the canned goods section and by the time she finds them, they've grown warm and she has to throw them away.

By the end of each day, even with Naomi and dozens of other employees doing constant damage control, every aisle has gaps in the shelves. Everything needs to be restocked again. It's a constant flow, goods coming into the back of the store through the trucks and shifting out to the store floor and into her hands and onto the shelves, then into carts and into plastic bags and into people's cars and to their homes. Fruits and meats and cakes and canned goods and all the other thousands of things they sell are constantly disappearing and needing to be replaced with other identical things.

This is what she does. This is the process of which she is one miniscule component. She does her part between whatever hours they choose to schedule her, sometimes seven to four and sometimes ten to seven and sometimes three to midnight, and then she goes back to her borrowed bed wearing her borrowed clothes under her borrowed roof.

She feels detached from it, like she can't quite convince herself all of this isn't temporary, just like the full shelves and the borrowed housing and the brief exchanges with customers, the directions to particular aisles she gives to people she will never see again. The idea of eternity, once so intrinsic to her very existence, has become almost unbearable, so she tries not to think about it. Instead, she tries to think of maybe someday working the registers or the deli counter or the bakery, just to be doing something else.

She stocks shelves for months, perfectly, meticulously, everything in its exact place. She does this for slightly more than what she knows is called the minimum wage but which is barely enough to scrape by on. She keeps a record of her pay in a spiral bound notebook she purchased for seventeen cents when they were on sale. She deducts her expenses meticulously and tracks exactly how much she could spare per month in order to be somewhere other than this halfway place.

It takes Naomi four months before she feels secure enough in her budgeting to move out of the shelter. She gets her own apartment, a place on the third floor within walking distance of the store. It's small and unfurnished and a little unfinished around the edges if you look closely enough, but at least it's hers.

She thinks if she could lie to herself about the fact she was doing the right thing so long she ended up actually believing it, that maybe this is like that. Maybe if she tells herself she'll be all right, one day it will be true.

--

Naomi reminds herself every day that she wants to believe in humanity. She really does, but the humans make it very hard sometimes.

When she's stocking the shelves, it's as though she becomes invisible. Parents yell at their children for no good reason right in front of her, shameless despite the fact she's witnessing the entire exchange. Adults fight with one another, sometimes with their words and, on a few rare occasions, with their fists. Her coworkers complain at one another and about one another; they gossip and grumble about their families and roll their eyes when they talk about their friends. It wears on her, day after day, week after week, until she feels like she can't stand it any more.

She recognizes, distantly, that right before she fell she had had this revelation, had seen humanity as this beautiful precious creation to be treasured and protected. In a moment of blinding charity, she had known that both humans and angels have their flaws, that heaven in its righteous fury and its bloodshed wasn't at all superior to the creatures eking out an existence down on Earth.

But that bright flash of inspiration feels like it's fading with every passing day. It's becoming harder and harder for her to see that light when every day is a reminder of everything that came before, the thousands of years of watching humans in their own struggles, building things up just to tear them down, fighting pointless wars, hating each other for any reason imaginable. Never one cohesive whole, always even more fragmented and contentious than her and her siblings -- maybe not any farther from God, but certainly not any closer.

Naomi watches these day to day disagreements, these minor battles and microcosms of tragedy, unfold before her, and she hates it. She hates that she feels like she owes something to humanity as a whole even though so many of its constituent parts clearly don't deserve it on their own merit. She's willing to admit she was wrong about a lot of things, but there are some she can't let go of. She thinks of Egypt, remembers the plagues in rapidly fading clarity. She knows the children she killed were innocent. She knows. But not so for everyone. Not so for the people her actions were truly meant to punish. Those people -- the things they did were horrible. She has always known this, knew it even before. They treated people like objects, like property, like less than themselves in ways that make her new human stomach turn when she thinks about it.

She reviews everything she ever did on orders, every difficult and bloody and inhumane thing, and tries to decide if she would do it differently, if she had the chance. She finds that she thinks the ends still justified the means. That she was always working for a better world. Because it is -- it's better than it used to be. She knows this from personal experience.

The past is easy, as it turns out. It's the present and the future she's having a problem with. She tries to examine them in the same way and finds she doesn't understand the ends or the means, doesn't get what she's supposed to be doing here, what she's supposed to be accomplishing. If this whole ordeal is supposed to be turning her into something better than what she was, she isn't sure it's working.

The alternative, of course, is that there isn't any point. It's been a long, long time since God last made an appearance, so long that it was fading from her memory long before she fell. It's entirely possible God has no plan for her. It's possible he never did. It's possible that just as she didn't have humanity's best interests at heart, he doesn't have hers at heart. Maybe he feels nothing for her at all and now she's stuck here to do nothing and be no one.

She's not sure which possibility is worse.

She realized, right at the end, why Metatron's plan to expel the angels from heaven was so horrible. She realized what it would mean, sees her worst fears played out in all the infighting that she sees on the news even if humans don't know how to see the signs, the inevitable casualties as humans get caught in the crossfire or consent to being vessels without being truly informed. She thought she was afraid on their behalf. She realizes, now, that she was also afraid on her own. She realizes how much self-interest was involved in her change of heart. She knows exactly how much she hates feeling powerless and purposeless.

She has to figure out how they all handle it. She has to know. She wants the secret to how the people she works with every day get out of bed every morning and come here and don't look like they hate everything.

The coworker currently stocking shelves just down the aisle from Naomi is what people might describe as "an older woman." She's maybe in her fifties or sixties; older than many of the other employees, certainly, but billions of years younger than Naomi. Still, she's worked at the store much longer than Naomi has. There's a "15 years of service" pin on her nametag.

"Jessica," she says, and immediately regrets fixing her eyes on the pin as she speaks. It makes her look like she only knows the name of this woman she's been working with for months because she's staring right at her nametag. She knows there's nothing she can say now to make it look like this isn't the case, even if it's the truth, so she continues instead. "How do you do it?" Naomi asks.

Jessica raises an eyebrow. "Do what," she says. The look she has is...it's withering, Naomi realizes. It makes her feel foolish and small, she who was once so immense this building could not have contained her glory, who was light and sound and fury and--

But it doesn't bear thinking about. "This," she says, gesturing to the store, to the world at large. "The same thing day after day. People being awful to each other, to their children. To us."

Jessica just shrugs. "I suppose it's pretty hard if that's the kinda stuff you see every time you look."

Naomi can't imagine how it could be anything but hard, given the circumstances. She doesn't know how she could avoid seeing those things in all their terrible ubiquity. "So what do I do?" Naomi asks.

"I dunno," Jessica says, infuriatingly calm and disinterested. She shrugs again, committing only one shoulder to the effort as she returns to placing cans of tomato paste into their assigned space on the shelf. "Look for something else."

Naomi is fairly certain that was no help at all.

--

Naomi is shelving the wheat bread a few days later when Jessica tracks her down.

"Follow me," she says, a small smile on her face.

Jessica leads her a few aisles down. There, amongst pallets full of chips and nuts and beef jerky, is a gruff-looking man singing softly to a little girl, who giggles and claps her hands and tangles her fingers in his beard.

"See?" Jessica says. "Just have to look." She nods in satisfaction before leaving Naomi to stand in the aisle, considering.

From then on, Naomi does her best to seek them out, these small moments she can witness in her seeming invisibility. She stocks the shelves and she watches people as she does it. The customers don't stop doing all the annoying or infuriating things she's grown to hate, but it certainly isn't all they do.

An awed child asks about one of her coworker's tattoos, and the woman enthusiastically shows the tiny human the butterflies and flowers that decorate her entire arm. There are teenagers who ride carts down the aisles and look worried when she catches them, but they're so delighted by this simple thing that she can't bring herself to stop them. (Later, when she does her own shopping, she looks around furtively before getting a running start and jumping onto the back of her cart, coasting past the eggs and milk and orange juice and cracking a small smile at this indulgence.) There are people who unexpectedly find family members and friends in the aisles and greet them enthusiastically, wrap them up in hugs, kiss their cheeks.

On one particularly good day, when Naomi feels like the delightful things have outweighed the discouraging, she sits outside eating her lunch. There's a stray cat that hangs around the back of the store, and today it's meowing plaintively, eyeing her sandwich.

When she finishes eating, she goes back inside and buys food and a ceramic dish with her employee discount and spends the rest of her break watching the creature eat from a respectable distance. It's wary of her at first, as it should be. After a few more days, though, it warms up to her, lets her pet it.

She feels, somehow, like she's tricking it into trusting her, but she continues anyway. She likes the simple affection, the low expectations.

--

One day, the store manager catches Naomi feeding the cat and tells her with insincere regret that they can't be encouraging strays hanging around. They're unsanitary and unsightly, he says, so she needs to chase it off or call the pound.

Naomi looks at the cat once the manager has retreated back inside. "Hear that?" she says. "They're kicking you out."

The cat seems unperturbed by this news. It flicks its tail and stays sitting exactly where it is, even when she picks up the still half full dish of food and takes it with her when she leaves.

The cat is still there when Naomi gets off work. She starts walking off and swears she can feel it staring at her. She only makes it a few dozen steps before she finds herself glancing back over her shoulder. She was right. It's looking right at her. She rolls her eyes.

"Well," she says, "come on, then."

The cat makes a small trilling noise and runs to catch up. It walks beside her all the way to her apartment building and up the stairs and through her front door and settles itself on her secondhand couch like it's been there all along. As if it's the one inviting her into its home and not the other way around.

The cat ignores Naomi for the rest of the night, but it's waiting for her the next morning when she gets out of the shower and purrs after she pets it a little. It's comforting, somehow. It makes it a little easier to get dressed and head out the door.

--

One day, Naomi finishes restocking the charcoal in aisle seventeen, and as she rounds the corner to the next, she bumps straight into a customer.

Before she can make an apology, he's saying her name.

She knows his voice. She knows the exact frequency of his grace, though she can no longer sense it. She knows the feel of his forehead under her fingertips. She knows the sound of his screams.

She knows his name. "Daniel," she says, bile rising in her throat.

"I thought you were--" he says, and stops. "I don't--" He is already backing away.

"I mean you no harm," she says. He looks doubtful. "I've seen them," she adds, guessing at what it is he fears, "on the television. I've seen what they're doing. I suppose I'm in no position to judge. But I wouldn't give anyone over to them."

By the time Naomi is done speaking, Daniel has stopped backing away. He shifts on his feet, like maybe he's no longer convinced she's going to do something terrible to him. He says, "Fishing line?"

She shakes her head. "You'll have to try the Walmart down the street. Sporting goods."

Daniel nods. "Thank you."

Naomi sighs. "Go in peace, brother," she says.

"I'm trying," he says, quietly. And then he walks away, leaving Naomi standing in the store, wondering what exactly it is she's witnessed.

--

Naomi doesn't know what it is that makes them change their minds.

Maybe they see her interacting with people in something resembling a reasonable way. Maybe they notice the precise hours she keeps. Maybe they simply see her doing something other than glaring and that's good enough. At any rate, the powers that be here in Naomi's little world decide she's smart or pleasant or maybe just harmless enough to do that all the time while also handling money and bagging groceries. They make her a cashier. Greg informs her of this like he's giving her a gift, but she would prefer to think she earned it.

At the end of her first day in her new position, which involved, unsurprisingly, another set of training videos, Naomi comes home and makes herself eggs and toast for dinner. She eats it on the couch, letting the cat lick the plate when she's done. She tells the cat about her promotion quietly, absently, as she pets it. She's pretty sure the cat neither understands nor cares, but saying it out loud pleases her all the same.

The next day, Naomi uses the additional three dollars she earned that day to buy the cat a toy. It's thrilled by this simple thing, this piece of ribbon attached to a plastic rod. The cat is entertained by the fruits of her labor. She decides that's good enough for her.

--

Working as a cashier is different from stocking the shelves. It's still monotonous in its own way, Naomi supposes, but it's monotonous in a different way, at least. There are new things to learn and to do, a new set of people to interact with. It's a minor change, a pedantic distinction, but she finds it's one that matters.

Every person she rings up has a different set of items. There are so many possible combinations that they may as well be infinite. She's never going to see all of them, at any rate. The things people are buying tell a different story every time. She tries to picture what that story might be, sometimes; she tries to give people some credit, to imagine them with depth and complexity.

She's a good cashier, too. She's fast and accurate, is told by her new managers that she's learning quickly, doing an excellent job scanning so many items per minute, counting out change exactly so her register is never short. She finds it satisfying in spite of herself.

Naomi does her best to show interest in the customers, too. Even if at times it's largely out of self interest because it keeps her from wallowing, when she focuses on interacting with customers, they respond to that. Before long, there are regulars who come on the same day at the same time and who recognize her. They’ll seek her out at her register, will wait in a longer line for her to help them because they know she'll do a good job bagging their groceries or will remember their favorite brand of cigarettes or will very patiently scan their coupons or will just listen to them talk or complain or ramble on about whatever they please.

She used to know all of her siblings so well, needed to know exactly what buttons to push to get them to bend to her will. It's nice, in its own way, to be using those skills differently, to be using them to connect with people instead of to break things apart.

It isn't much. But it's something. It's more than she had before.

--

They make Naomi a manager just before the Christmas rush she hears everyone talking about in despairing whispers.

She's more excited about it than she thought she would be. It makes her wary, gives her pause. She wants more power than she's had in the months since she fell, but far more than a few months of experience have shown her what humans can do with even the tiniest bit of control. She knows that even at this store there are managers who are incorrigible jerks, who use their position to get away with treating people below them poorly, to wrangle favors they don't deserve, to take advantage of others. She knows, too, what she can do with control. Back before, when she was someone else, something else, somewhere else, she started with only the tiniest bit, after all.

Maybe this time she can get it right, though. She's determined to try.

It's extremely satisfying, actually, helping frazzled people find what they're looking for. Naomi feels accomplished. She's great at this job, at memorizing where everything is and directing people to their destinations with ease. She tells a young woman who's clearly on the edge of some kind of breakdown that she can go online and see which aisle everything is in and plan out her route so she can get in and out of the store as quickly as possible. She tells others the best time to come to the store if they want to avoid the crowds. She directs parents with crying children to the most patient cashiers; she sends people who look sad and lonely to the coworkers she knows are upbeat and outgoing. She puts in special orders for regular customers, getting them the particular flavor of soda or type of bread or uncommon spice they've been after for ages, and takes pleasure in how much it delights them. She handles disputes quickly and efficiently regardless of the circumstance or the severity; she has to call the police, sometimes, and she remains calm and collected through it all because this is nothing compared to dealing with unruly angels.

Naomi isn't surprised that she does well at this job, that her attention to detail and her intense focus result in less items going missing, whether by accident or otherwise, in fewer slips and falls, in greater efficiency. The reactions of her coworkers surprise her, though. She always thought they feared her at worst and tolerated her at best, but when the holidays come around, some of them pass her small items wrapped in shiny paper, little things like colorful pens and creative refrigerator magnets and scented hand lotion. Some of them don't offer her material objects but give her hugs instead, smile at her and wish her happy holidays. She treasures all of them, these gifts unlike any she has received before.

These people are petty and they hold asinine views and they're emotional and biased and -- and they're thoughtful and caring and generous and kind. They're contradictions. They're not always wonderful, but sometimes...Sometimes.

Maybe someday she'll be like them, too. Maybe in some ways, she already is.

--

It's a testament to how long a year seems when you live it as a human, Naomi thinks, because it takes her an embarrassingly long time to recognize Hannah.

She's at work, running through her daily routine, headed to the front of the store, when a woman she passes in the aisle just...freezes. She tilts her head to the side as if contemplating Naomi, stares at her a little longer than is socially acceptable. Naomi waits patiently. She's used to people having a hard time asking questions sometimes.

When the woman finally opens her mouth, she says, "Naomi?"

Naomi smiles. She likes it when people take the time to read her nametag, when they show her the courtesy of calling her by her actual name instead of shouting some condescending term of endearment. They mean well, humans, but they don't get everything right. Misogyny is still alive and well. Sometimes people simply call out "hey you," which she likes even less. For someone who goes to the effort of treating her like an equal, she's willing to let the staring slide.

"Can I help you?" Naomi asks.

"What are you doing here?" the woman demands. Her hostile tone throws Naomi off, forcing her to rethink the situation. It's a strange thing for a customer to ask. She's wearing her nice clothes, her vest, her nametag. She obviously works here. She doesn't need to justify her presence.

When she wonders who would recognize her, other than the regulars, she realizes that the possibilities are really quite limited. So limited, in fact, that she thinks she really should have known right off the bat. She should have immediately seen the explanation in the woman's awkward posture, her standoffishness, everything that was just a little unusual about her.

Then again, Naomi has seen so much of humanity now that perhaps it isn't so strange she simply assumes they are the default. She's seen people in all kinds of shapes and sizes and colors, people who are loud and bright and others who are harsh and brittle and others who are quiet and bitter, people who have their shit together and others who are falling apart and no one seems to notice, people who see things that aren't there and others who see things that are there but no one will believe them, people who are kind or rude or snide or sad or all of those things but at different times, people who won't meet her eyes and people who stare too long, people who demand to be shown the way to the canned goods or who timidly ask her to point them to the restrooms, people whose voices are slow and steady or fast and breathy or shaking and stuttering.

Really, angels with all their quirks are not so different from humans in all their infinite variety. When Naomi finally manages to switch gears enough to speak, she's really just making an educated guess.

"I apologize," she says. "I'm afraid I can only see your vessel. May I ask your name?"

"Hannah," her sister says, terse. "I thought you were--"

"And your vessel?" Naomi asks. It takes her by surprise. There was a time, just the blink of an eye ago when you take her entire existence into account, when she viewed humans as tools at best. Now, though, it's automatic, thinking about the person buried beneath that grace, that person hidden away below the angel.

Hannah clearly does not understand this. She narrows her eyes. "What about my vessel?"

It's too late to go back now, to brush it off. Naomi sighs internally. "What's her name?"

"I don't see why it matters," Hannah says. Flat. Unimpressed.

Naomi smiles at her, genuine but practiced, almost effortless after over a year spent in customer service. "You could learn a thing or two from her, I suspect." She says it as gently as possible. She knows what her voice sounds like when she's passing judgment. She works to make it sound like anything but that.

"No, thank you," Hannah says, lips a tight line. Naomi has learned a lot about Hannah just from this exchange. She remembers that, the self-righteous assurance, the callous indifference. Hannah picks up where she left off before the interruption. "I thought you were dead. We all did. After Metatron…" Hannah hesitates. Naomi reads volumes in her hesitation, knows she's calculating how much she should share. Trying to figure out how much she already knows. Naomi stays silent. She's found she learns more that way, if she gives people a pause they want to fill.

"I thought you were the leader we needed," Hannah says. "And I thought--I thought Castiel was that, too." She twists her face into a grimace. "But he lied to us, too. He abandoned us. He chose--" Hannah looks around her, at the people milling about at the end of the aisle, up by the registers. "--them. Over us. I don't understand why he would do that. What's one human life against all of heaven? Against restoring order, reopening the gates?"

It's not the whole story, Naomi knows. But it's enough of it. Enough to see that Hannah is lost and looking for a leader. Looking for answers wherever she can get them, even from a fallen angel in the stationery aisle of a supermarket. There's part of her that wants to try to explain it to her, to take her by the shoulders and shake it into her. There's another part that wants to take Hannah by the hand and lead her. She can't do that, though. She can't be that. She can't meddle. She's had enough of that for many, many lifetimes.

"Maybe you should ask him yourself," Naomi says. She sees some of Castiel in Hannah, already, some of that same stubbornness, that earnestness that drew the other angels to him. She sees the potential. She knows Hannah could use some cracks in her chassis, could stand to let a little light in.

Hannah looks skeptical. She looks like she was hoping for something else, for something more. She asks Naomi, "Are you coming back?"

Naomi sighs. "That depends. Are you going to drag me back if I say no?"

Hannah hesitates, as though she's trying to decide if Naomi is angel enough to go back, anyway. If millions of years spent as part of the heavenly host is enough to make up for a year of being human.

Naomi weighs her options while Hannah does the same, contemplates a different set of decisions. She knows that even if Hannah offered to take her back, presented it as an option instead of an ultimatum, she would have to cannibalize another angel's grace in order to return. She isn't going to do that. She's not going to go down such a road again. She would rather die.

"How about this," Naomi says, before Hannah can make the choice for her. "I need to get back to work. I have a break in about an hour. How about you think about it, and we can talk about it more then." She's curious what Hannah will do, but she's also interested in preventing herself from being stabbed while on the job. It would be a huge mess to clean up. It would create a lot of paperwork. It would terrify her coworkers and her customers alike. She's relieved when Hannah nods reluctantly and heads for the door.

When Naomi goes on break, Hannah is gone. By the time she gets off work, Hannah still hasn't returned. She isn't sure what it means.

--

Naomi is on edge for a while after that, both at work and at home. Her mind tells her this is irrational, but apparently her body hasn't gotten the message.

Her muscles tense involuntarily, as though she's expecting Hannah to show up at any moment, as though she's certain their next encounter is inevitable and will go far less smoothly than their previous one.

Nonetheless, there's a part of her that wants Hannah to come back, a part that's stupidly, dangerously hopeful that Hannah will return, that this time will be different, that she'll be able to hold onto at least this one connection with who she used to be. It's foolish, but sometimes Naomi’s mind wanders. She entertains a fantasy where Hannah comes back and Naomi is somehow able to convey all that she's done and learned, everything about humans that the angels never bothered to think about or notice before.

In her ridiculous daydream, Naomi is able to explain to Hannah how even though they fight and hate and destroy, people also stand up for each other and help each other and care about each other. This fictional version of herself tells a hypothetical version of Hannah about the wealth of experiences she's racking up. How even though humans repeat "the customer is always right" like a mantra, when a customer was yelling at one of the cashiers to the point the girl was almost in tears and Naomi told him he could leave or she would have to call the authorities, people had started warming up to her afterwards, after doing something so simple as protecting someone from bodily harm.

In this fantasy, Naomi tells Hannah how attached she's grown to her cat. How satisfying it is to wake up in the morning and turn the pillow over to press her face against the cool fabric. How much she loves Jalapeno Cheddar Cheetos (Crunchy) even though they make her mouth burn something awful. She tells her imagined Hannah how one day in early February, some young girls had set up a table out in front of the store and loaded it with boxes in an array of colors. How when she went out on her break to investigate, the women watching over them were happy to explain all about the Girl Scouts of America and all the great things they do and support and represent. How she talked to the kids and they seemed so thrilled to be addressed like equals, how they suggested which boxes she should buy and took her money and carefully calculated her change and handed it back to her and looked very proud of themselves, rightly so. How she had liked the cookies, too, in their variety of flavors, chocolate caramel coconut and mint and shortbread and chocolate peanut butter.

Instead, Hannah shows up with her face set in a frown and her brow furrowed. The first words out of her mouth are, "Metatron was lying to us, too."

Hannah says his name like it hurts, like she's eaten too many spicy Cheetos. It would be almost comical, except Hannah is side-eyeing Naomi like maybe she's reevaluating her, too. Like maybe Hannah idolized her once and now has reason to doubt. It hurts, even though Naomi wishes it didn't.

"I'm sorry," Naomi says, because it's a thing people say to each other, even when it won't fix anything.

Hannah looks down and away. "He chose to lock Metatron up," she explains. "Castiel. He chose not to kill him, even though he killed Dean." She looks forward, then, raising her chin, setting her jaw. "I respect that. I was wrong to doubt him. That's something to aspire to, this justice. Not through death, but justice all the same."

It sounds good to Naomi right up until Hannah takes the next step, extends the train of thought a little bit further.

"Anyone who chooses to kill other angels deserves to be punished," she says. "No angel's...whims. Are more important than another's life."

It doesn't matter if the comment is directed at her, if Hannah suspects this life Naomi has carved out for herself has come at a cost with a body count.

"What are you going to do?" Naomi asks, bracing herself for the answer. On some level, she's frightened of it, of this logical leap she understands, of the fierce, cold determination she sees in Hannah, of the purpose she knows she can't curb.

"Hunt them down," Hannah says, with conviction. "Bring them home."

--

Naomi goes to work and does her job and tries not to watch the news.

She doesn't want to hear about deaths and wonder if it was Hannah. She doesn't want to feel like she's failed again, like she squandered away her chance with the one angel with whom she was still in contact, like she couldn't do anything to stop her history from repeating itself by someone else's hand. She keeps wondering if Hannah will ever come back and if she does who she will be, if she will have become an avenging angel sure and certain in her terrible purpose.

She tries to keep it to herself, to remain impassive, but her coworkers notice the shift in her mood, anyway. People she's helped by petitioning for raises and assisting with difficult customers and sometimes simply by being someone who listens without judgment -- they don't know everything about her, not even close, but they know enough. They ask her if she's all right, and when she assures them she's fine, when she dodges their questions and refuses to give them the whole story, they ask her if there's anything they can do to help, anyway.

Naomi is touched by it, this outpouring of support from her coworkers even though this is something so far out of their control. It takes some of the edge off her worry. A small miracle.

--

The next time Hannah shows up, she waits awkwardly for Naomi outside the store.

Naomi is relieved to find that Hannah seems more curious and less hostile, this time, as she tells Naomi about her mission, her hunt for rogue angels. Hannah tells her about finding Daniel and Adina down by the river, and Naomi swallows down the lump in her throat, tries not to think of Daniel here not so long ago, interested in anything but violence.

When Hannah says she doesn't understand what she's feeling, Naomi tells her, because she's learned what it means to feel regret. She tries not to hate Hannah for repeating her mistakes.

Hannah is here and having doubts, though, and that's something. That's more than Naomi could have hoped for. If she can't give Hannah a second chance, if she can't trust her to figure out the right thing to do, then what hope is there for her? If she can't provide that to others, then what does she deserve for all the time she spent making mistakes and not feeling the slightest remorse?

“Come with me,” Naomi says, and Hannah follows.

They walk to Naomi’s apartment together in silence, Naomi watching Hannah watch the world. She looks critically at the cars rushing by, the people milling about on the sidewalks, the weeds pushing their way up through cracks in the cement. She trails behind Naomi up the stairs to her door, following her inside, but once there, she simply stands awkwardly in the entrance.

Naomi sighs. “Make yourself at home.”

Hannah squints at her appraisingly before obediently moving to look around Naomi’s tiny apartment. She sits briefly on a chair, wanders around in the bedroom, flushes the toilet, examines the contents of the fridge. She even tries and fails to pet the cat, who obviously wants nothing to do with her. When it hisses at her and runs off, she looks up at Naomi, clearly affronted, as though expecting an explanation for this rude reaction.

“You’re smiling,” Hannah says, like it’s an accusation.

Naomi hadn’t realized. She can feel her face fall as she shrugs.

Hannah moves to perch on the couch, still casting her eyes about the room as Naomi sits down next to her.

“Is that what this place is to you?” Hannah asks. “Home?”

“I…” Naomi starts. It had come so naturally that she hadn’t thought about it, the way she referred to this place as her home. She has just enough faith left to believe that means something. “Yes, I suppose so,” she says.

Hannah tilts her head, frowning. "Do you want to stay here, then?" Hannah asks, not incredulous and accusatory like before, but genuinely curious.

Naomi says, with more bitterness than she intends, "I think probably I deserve to stay here whether I want to or not."

Even as she says it, she realizes it isn't entirely true. She’s learned a lot, lately, about how nothing is as black and white as she thought. Nothing’s that simple. Certainly there are pains and frustrations and annoyances. She’s experienced her fair share of those. She isn’t denying that.

But there are other things, too. There are her coworkers with their bright faces, their tattoos like artwork painted on the canvases of their bodies, their excited voices as they talk about their families and their hobbies and their plans for the future. There are parents who look at their children with pure love and adoration. There’s the pleasure of lying down to sleep in a soft bed and drinking a cool glass of water on a hot day and the comforting purr of her adopted cat. There’s the silly cat magnet one of the younger cashiers gave her at Christmas, there’s the way a few of her coworkers gave her hugs on the day her ID and therefore the store's records say is her birthday, there’s the way sometimes customers will shake her hand or pat her shoulder after she's helped them. There are Girl Scout cookies, especially the mint ones. Things she enjoys. Things she holds dear.

“No,” Naomi amends. “That’s not right. If this is what I deserve, it isn’t always a punishment. I don’t...I don’t know what I want,” she admits. “I don’t know where I want to go or what I want to do. But if I have to stay here...it wouldn't be the worst thing.”

For a moment, Hannah looks like she’s going to argue. She seems to catch herself, though, closing her mouth before leaning against the back of the couch. “Castiel said something similar. That the chaos here produces good things. But even if that’s true, how could anyone prefer that over the order heaven offers?”

There’s a part of Naomi that wants to try and explain, that wants to say heaven is anything but orderly, and when it has been, it has been at great cost. It’s order paid for in blood; it's a fragile thing that comes crashing down so easily. There's another part of her that wants to invite Hannah to stay, to listen for as long as she needs until she finally understands that loving things is not a zero sum game.

But just like everything, Naomi knows it isn’t that simple. This is something Hannah has to learn on her own time and in her own way, just like Naomi is still trying to do.

When Hannah sighs as though in defeat and says she has to go, Naomi doesn’t argue.

--

The world, it seems, is keen on responding to Naomi’s tentative fondness by putting her faith in humanity and in herself to the test.

There’s something going around, some kind of stomach flu that's circulating through the local population. Naomi’s coworkers already get sick more often than they should because of the constant contact with so many different people, but in recent weeks it’s become even worse. Employees have been calling off constantly, and while Naomi certainly can't blame them for getting sick, the epidemic is nonetheless frustrating as a result of all the problems it creates.

Two weeks in, everyone is tired and overworked, their foul moods made even worse when they’re harassed by customers wondering why they don't open more registers. Naomi fights the almost constant urge to shout at them, to vent her frustration at her inability to cure her coworkers like she would have been able to before, to scream that their petty frustration at having to spend a few extra minutes at the grocery store is nothing compared to her rage and grief at that loss. She wants to break down so badly that she shakes with it, but she can't allow herself that satisfaction, so instead she smiles politely, does her best to calm people down, apologizes to them for the wait, and gets on a register herself to help whittle down the lines.

Naomi makes it to the last day of a very long week, and right before she’s about to clock out and go home, one of the cashiers breaks down into tears for reasons she won't explain. Naomi doesn't even know what's wrong with the girl, has no reason to be as upset as she is by the outburst, and yet she's inexplicably on the verge of tears herself. She wants to rage at the ridiculousness of it, but instead she does her best to be comforting, whispering calm reassurances until the young woman regains her composure and says she's okay to get back to work.

It's exhausting, dealing with everything and caring about it so much. By the time she clocks out to go home, she feels completely drained.

Her walk home feels much longer than usual, her feet dragging as she follows the familiar route. She wants nothing more than to turn off her alarm and collapse into bed.

Needless to say, when she finds Hannah standing at her door, her first uncharitable thought is that her timing really leaves a lot to be desired.

Naomi feels like she has nothing left to give, but she invites Hannah in, anyway.

Hannah follows Naomi to the couch, readjusting herself several times until she sits in stiff mimicry of Naomi’s relaxed posture. She clasps her hands in front of her and says, “I’m trying to understand.” She pauses, and Naomi lets it hang, waits for Hannah to say whatever it is she came to say.

“I tried to love him,” Hannah says. “I tried to love Castiel in the way he loves humanity. I tried to understand what makes it worth it, all the pain and sacrifice. I tried.”

On this particular day, it's hard for Naomi not to respond cynically. She wants to say: It's not worth it. Caring is so difficult. Having feelings is so tiring. Why would you wish that upon yourself?

Instead, she listens.

“I thought I cared for him,” Hannah admits. “Not in...not in the way we’re supposed to care for our brothers and sisters. I thought I felt something for him like he feels for humans, because I cared enough to do something foolish.”

This time, Naomi finally speaks. She says, softly, without judgment, “What did you do?”

Hannah grimaces. “He was hurt,” she says. “I was...worried. He’s worked so hard to help us, and I thought...I suggested using a rogue angel's grace to replenish his. I thought certainly he could put it to better use, but he turned it down.” She pauses to frown down at her hands. “And later, I reached for him. I sought him out in that simple way humans seek contact and comfort from one another. He turned me down then, too. I thought what I was feeling was shame and disappointment. Anger that he had chosen his human family again. I thought I was starting to understand.”

She probably isn’t far off, Naomi thinks. There’s more emotion flitting over Hannah’s face than Naomi has ever seen before, but they’re not the same as what she sees every day. They’re pale imitations. She’s intimately familiar with the difference. “What changed your mind?” Naomi asks.

“I saw what Adina felt,” Hannah says. “I witnessed the enormity of her rage at us for having killed Daniel. I watched Crowley kill her.” Her voice goes quiet. “He killed her and gave her grace to Castiel, and I realized that if he had died, I would never have felt anything so intense as what I saw in Adina.” Hannah folds into herself as she looks over at Naomi, eyes pleading. “I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong.”

Naomi doesn't know how to tell her that it's not that she's doing anything wrong. It's simply that she doesn't have the right equipment to care, that even with her clipped wings there is too much angel in her to understand. She isn’t cruel enough to want to explain that to her. Instead, she stands up and heads to her kitchen.

“I know you don’t need to eat,” Naomi says, as she sets some water to boil, “but I do. You’re welcome to stay.”

Hannah doesn’t respond, but neither does she move from her spot on the couch.

Naomi makes herself a cold sandwich and warm tea. She offers Hannah a cup, and they sit together on the couch, Hannah sipping at her drink carefully, wrinkling her nose.

“What do you taste, when you drink this?” Hannah asks.

Naomi takes a slow sip. “Flowers,” she says, smiling softly. “Crisp apples. Rich earth and light breeze.” Even though Hannah didn’t ask, she adds, “I feel it seeping into my limbs. It makes me feel calm. Relaxed.” She takes another drink, savoring it. “What do you taste?”

Hannah frowns down into her cup before taking another sip. “Hydrogen,” she says. “Oxygen. Carbon, potassium, nitrogen…”

Well, Naomi thinks, there’s the problem in a nutshell.

--

The days following Hannah’s departure pass in a blur, each blending into the next like they did back when Naomi was first learning to be human. She feels like she’s waiting for something to happen, something vague and indefinable, something important.

When Hannah shows up at Naomi's door in the early hours of the morning, something soft and sad in her eyes when she steps inside and says, “I can’t stay long,” Naomi realizes she’s been waiting for Hannah to say goodbye.

“I saw her husband,” Hannah says, after she’s seated in what Naomi has started to think of as her spot on the couch. “My vessel’s husband. I finally realized what I’ve been missing. The depth of care between them is so vast. So human. And yet it bleeds over, sometimes. It was there between Adina and Daniel. And it’s there, I think, between Castiel and Dean Winchester. Do all humans feel such things? Such...love?”

“It isn't just that,” Naomi says. “It’s so much more.” She finds herself smiling in response to Hannah’s look, her mixture of awe and disbelief. “It's also the love of a parent for a child, of a child for a pet. It’s the love people have for complete strangers and for music and for books and for all kinds of things. And it’s a million other things besides. An endless spectrum of emotions to experience.”

Hannah considers her curiously. “Do you feel these things, now, too?” she asks. “Do they belong to you, now that it’s just you in this body?”

Naomi reaches out tentatively, and when Hannah doesn’t retreat from her, Naomi touches the side of her face gently, presses a tender kiss to her cheek. “Yes,” Naomi says. “I think so.”

Hannah closes her eyes. “I know these feelings don’t belong to me,” she says. “Perhaps they’ll always be a mystery to me. But...that doesn’t make them wrong, does it? It doesn’t make humans less than angels, that they feel these things. But how can I stay in this body, knowing that? How can I continue to hunt our brothers and sisters down? How can I make the others understand?”

“As much as I want to tell you what to do,” Naomi says, stroking a thumb across Hannah’s cheek, “I can't. You need to make that choice on your own. But I trust you to do what's right.”

Naomi starts to turn away, hand dropping from Hannah’s face, when Hannah catches her hand.

"Caroline," she says. In response to Naomi's puzzled look, she explains, "My vessel. Her name is Caroline." She puts Naomi's hand back against her cheek and leans into the touch as she holds it there.

“I know what I’m going to do,” Hannah says, leaning her forehead against Naomi’s. “I’m going home.”

--

Naomi doesn't ask Hannah to stay.

Hannah is going to go, and she's going to be a better leader than Naomi was. She's going to make things right.

Naomi knows Hannah won't be coming back, that she's sworn never to take another vessel, made that promise to Naomi and to herself and to Caroline.

Even if she hadn’t, Naomi wouldn't be able to understand her true voice, not any more. But she prays anyway. She whispers to her about events both significant and inane, confesses her fears and her doubts but also her hopes. Hannah might hear her or she might not. Naomi will probably never know either way.

But Naomi keeps praying to her anyway, even knowing all that.

It's a very human thing to do.