It’d been a long time since Cole had actively tried to find Clara. There was something about childhood best friends that had stuck though, and while he’d tolerated when he’d been moved around from place to place, dealt with isolation and intimidation like it was the norm, it’s never stopped him checking from time to time.
But he’d been running for so long, the last few years just filled with guilt and anger and his own mistakes that he’d stopped thinking that Clara was the right place for him to be, that he’d be welcome there given what he’d done. The complexities were something he’d given a lot of thought to, and while he was sure his mere presence was harmful to Clara’s very being, he’d caved on the anniversary of his departure from Dripping Springs, broke out his tarnished map and scrying crystal, wrapped the woven bracelet around it and searched.
It hasn’t come easily, which he supposed was due to his lack of practice just as much as Clara’s location. It taken him longer still to find out why the scry never sat on a specific place, arriving in Atlantic City to feel the magic in the air before he managed to locate the sanctuary city.
His grandmother had talked about them before, in some ways he hoped that Prue had found her way to one if it was indeed that safe. Summerview was everything and nothing he’d expected, and while he didn’t want to ask around, he’d found out that Clara worked at a bar, the Long Way Down, he’d been told.
Not knowing if she was working or when she might finish if she were, Cole didn’t want to serve as a distraction, even this late into the evening when he’d been walking all day and was starting to feel those hunger pangs again, he just took a spot outside the bar, with his cigarette smoke cooling around his hand, mostly free of his influence, waiting for the familiar and so unfamiliar face of the last person he really trusted in the world.
Clara was exhausted. Though she'd spent a weekend in her unicorn form recently, she hadn't done it enough so her human-lag was pretty intense. Maeve had taken pity on her and told her to clock out early, they were overstaffed and she wanted to keep busy and keep her bartending skills sharp. Clara had appreciated the reprieve and had grabbed her bag and jacket, wrapping it around herself as she headed out.
She stopped, though, before she pushed the staff door open, feeling emotions on the edge of her consciousness that she hadn't felt for a long time. Everyone felt different and she tended to remember the people she had gotten particularly close to. Rubbing her forehead, she realised she had to be even more tired than she thought if she was hallucinating the echo of someone she hadn't seen in years. Not that she'd stopped thinking about him or worrying about him. Wondering what had happened.
Calling a goodnight to her colleagues, she stepped out of the back entrance and headed up the alley beside the building stopping dead still when that feeling got stronger. Anxiety and exhaustion that wasn't hers tugging in her chest. She approached the figure almost cautiously, heart in her throat.
It couldn't be, could it?
He should've been more aware of his surroundings, especially since he wasn't in a familiar area, but zoning out, letting the smoke float into the air, he'd just let his mind drift. It'd been a long time since he'd been around anything resembling familiar, and a long time since there was something comfortable in his life. Seeking out Clara was something of a change for him really.
So someone uttering his name, a voice that he'd started to forget if he was honest, pulled him from the steady ebb and flow of his mind wandering. Flicking his cigarette away, pulling the air density around it to snuff the end, Cole rubbed the palm of his hands on his jeans, "Hey," it was still a little nerve wracking, catching sight of Clara, years later, where they'd both outgrown their baby fat and slammed through puberty into adulthood. He'd grown into his limbs finally, his hair was still curly, he was still gangly in ways.
And Clara was still this beacon, this warmth and light and comfort, just standing there. "Long time?" He tried not to be too self conscious -he'd seen her in her own form, she'd seen him bleeding and crying, what was there to be nervous about? But he'd never really looked underfed, never been scarred (his hand automatically wiping at his face at the thought), and he knew she'd pick up on his emotions easily given how horribly open he was. "I um... I hope you don't mind, I didn't want to--- I mean, I didn't want to come in and upset you."
Clara's chest tightened a little when the person confirmed that he was exactly who she thought he was. It had been such a long time, he'd grown up - grown tall - but he still carried around with him that same sadness, that same bone-deep fear that had her wanting to fling her arms around him and hold him tight until it went away. It had never worked when they were younger, but it hadn't stopped her from trying.
"Really long time," she said, voice catching a little. Waves of nostalgia and affection and concern and everything in between had her rocking forward slightly, lower lip between her teeth as she looked over his face - what had happened there, he had a scar she didn't remember and he looked so thin - watching, trying to see if a hug would be welcomed, if he would push her away or stiffen and if he would, she wouldn't have moved.
But there was a flicker across his face, that lingering self-consciousness that tugged on the edges of her mind that made the decision for her. She stepped closer, cupped his cheek with one hand before she looped her arms over his shoulders carefully in a hug that turned, once it had started, into something fierce.
"You'd never upset me just by turnin' up," she mumbled against his shoulder, "Christ, never thought I'd be seein' you again."
The lean in to Clara's touch was almost instant, she tended to broadcast her movements, and Cole had never really flinched from her, never had a reason to. He couldn't really remember the last time someone had touched him and it hadn't been to cause pain, couldn't remember someone trying to comfort him in so long. Several years really.
Sinking into Clara's hug was second nature, even with years separating their last communication, his arms wrapping around her waist to hold on tight. He was overly self-conscious about absolutely everything, worried about all of it and how she might react to anything he shared with her, about anything she asked and he had to answer honestly, because lying to Clara wasn't even an option. "Yeah, I wasn't sure, but I couldn't think of anyone else I'd rather see."
Home wasn't an option, and his mother wouldn't want to see him, so the only person he could think of was the only one he'd really been safe with. "You look good," he had to tug back just a little, "I mean not quite like I remember, but mostly." Still bright, still beautiful, still like home.
As soon as Cole’s arms came fiercely around her waist, hugging her tightly, Clara did the same, allowing herself to just cling to him for a moment, breathing him in and knowing he was right here. Safe. Though she had a feeling safe wasn’t something he had felt for a long time. Safe had never been something he had truly experienced when she had known him.
She rolled her eyes a little affectionately as he complimented her and she let go with one hand to gently brush his hair away from his forehead, nudging her nose gently against his. “I- well, I kinda grew up a lil,” she pointed out. “You got tall, man.”
Almost hesitantly, her hand cupped his face again, letting her thumb just gently brush over his lip. “Maybe once you’ve had somethin’ to eat and a good nights sleep you can tell me what happened? Guessin’ you ain’t got anywhere to stay right now?”
The closeness, even with a little distance, was appreciated, and Clara's easy acceptance of his turning up made the anxiousness that was resting in his stomach settle down somewhat. He had an inkling of an idea that it wouldn't be the worst decision, to find Clara again, but all the voices in his head tended to argue with that, tell him things wouldn't go well, that he'd be shooed off, that she wouldn't even remember him. Reasonably speaking, he knew it was just in his head, and not true, but it took a while to settle.
They had both grown up a lot, maybe not in the best ways in his case, but he could see a little more confidence in Clara maybe. "I finally grew into my arms." He wasn't just as gangly, maybe still all long limbs, but he at least looked like he belonged in them now. He tried not to be overly self-conscious about the scar, although if anyone would understand the real story it'd be Clara. Most of the time he just told people he got it in a fight and that was the end of that.
"Um, I saw the inn on my way through town, but I haven't gotten a room yet, I sort of wasn't focusing on anything else." If he were honest it'd take a while for him to sleep, but the mention of food and a nights rest was appealing, especially since his stomach growled loudly to remind him he had done little but snack all day. "I could go some food though."
Nudging his nose with hers again, Clara slid her hands down his arms until she took hold of his hands, squeezing his fingers gently and just looking at him having taken half a step backwards. Squeezing his fingers again, she let go of one hand so he could grab his stuff but refused to relinquish the other.
"Y'all are not stayin' in the B&B," she told him with a slight frown. "I mean- my apartment's kinda full but you can crash in my room. Or somethin', I ain't lettin' you stay somewhere strange when you're new to town."
She adjusted how her bag was sitting on her shoulder and tugged gently on his fingers. "Let's go get somethin' to eat. I've been workin' all afternoon so I'm real hungry." Her smile was soft, but bright, her affection for him clear as was her delight at having seen him again.
Cole just leaned in a little to bump his forehead against hers, the easy and casual contact still something of a lost art for him, even his mother wasn't terribly affectionate physically, and while his grandmother had tried, it'd been a good few years since he'd seen her either.
He couldn't help the huff of amusement, his fingers twisting around Clara's as her Texan twang hit him, bringing back all kinds of memories. He didn't want to just come out and tell her that staying with her would be his preferred outcome, because it was taking a lot for granted and throwing himself into every corner of her life out of nowhere. "If you're sure." But that was kind of pointless too, for all he might not want to impose, it wasn't like Clara wasn't going to adamantly offer.
It wasn't like she'd changed that much.
He'd worry about getting his bag back from her after some food, but the prospect did seem practically idyllic right then. "I could probably eat a whole cow right now." And he made a point to stay way from 'horse', because that was just a little bit rude.
"Pretty sure the diner'll do enough food to settle you down for now an' when we get home you can get yourself somethin' else. Got Lucky Charms stocked on top of the fridge." She winked, hoping that Cole still loved cereal. She remembered many a day sitting under the tent they'd made in her room eating bowls almost spilling over with cereal, he was the only other person she'd ever met who loved it as much as her.
With both her bag and Cole's, Clara started tugging him properly away from the bar and down the street towards here she knew the diner was. She squeezed his fingers and grinned back at him.
"An' course I'm sure, I just gotta text my housemate 'cause he's a werewolf and I- uh, sometimes he gets a lil' territorial over our space an' stuff. It ain't gonna be a problem but it's better to give him a heads up. He's had it rough recently."
And he had, the full moon, his injury, her unintentional reopening of emotional wounds that he'd kept hidden under lock and key... She paused, thinking about Sam and how she still felt a little guilty about that. She really hadn't meant to just open the floodgates and then have to help him shove them closed after processing those emotions in a short space of time to settle them back down.
"He knows about me, too," she told Cole. "But I ain't told anyone else. Sam- found out by accident 'cause he came home real hurt and I couldn't help myself."
There was a lot to take in, and while Cole was fairly sure that Clara would never turn anyone away, he was still a tiny bit overwhelmed at how things were turning out. Open acceptance and affection were horribly missing from his life for a long time, and he had trouble taking it when it came. He couldn't tell if it was just Clara's nature, part of her aura as a unicorn, or just because she was there before things went to utter shit in his life.
He wasn't exactly sure how he felt about a roommate though, someone else he didn't know being around him, it being their space. Which is what it was, Clara and her roommate, Sam's, place. But he didn't want to fight too much on staying with them, because he knew it'd be a while before he'd sleep in a strange place, with Clara there'd at least be an element of safety.
But if Sam had a rough time, and knew about Clara, it meant there had to be a pretty strong bond there, and Cole had no intention on getting in the way of that. "Um, yeah, I mean, I can keep mostly outta the way until he's comfortable, no problem." Cole chewed on the unmarked side of his lip, trying to push down the mild discomfort so that Clara wouldn't have to worry about it. "Maybe a burger or two and I'll just be ready to pass out anyway."
Clara felt the uncertainty, the discomfort and squeezed Cole's fingers again. "Sam's a good guy," she reassured him. "He won't mind, I promise. I'll text him when we get to the Diner an' then you can tell me about what brings you here an' we can have a proper catch up?"
Because if Cole was going to be here, and back in her life, she was going to make damn sure that he knew that with her he was - and always would be - safe and secure and he'd never have to worry. About anything.
"If you're plannin' on stickin' around," and she hoped he was, "then welcome home. Proper tour tomorrow, mind."
Not having to voice concerns, say how he was feeling, work out how to articulate certain things, it was something he'd appreciated when they were younger, but he sometimes wished that he could've shielded Clara from some of his feelings all the same.
If Clara was sure that Sam wouldn't mind, that things would be okay, then he'd take that at face value. She knew her friend better after all. "Proper tour tomorrow, and you can ask whatever you want." Even the subjects that Cole maybe wasn't overly comfortable with. It wasn't like he intended to hide anything from Clara.
"I... I wanna stay, for a while, or longer, but yeah." Maybe trying to find something like home here would work.
“Long as I’m here,” she told him, “you’ve got somewhere you can stay.” And she meant it; she’d spent a long time wondering what had happened to Cole after his dad had moved them away and the years, it seemed, hadn’t been kind to him.
But now there was a chance for him to start over somewhere new, somewhere where people would accept him for who - and what - he was without any judgement, and somewhere where, maybe, finally, he could feel safe.
Even if she had to carve him out a safe space herself.