When Claire Novak is seven years old her parents take her to the beach — a proper beach, not on a lake but on the actual ocean.
She spends all day in the water, from dawn until dusk. Daddy teaches her how to float in the salt water, his hand buoying her up at the small of her back, and she builds sandcastles and pokes jellyfish and lets the waves knock her around until sundown when she collapses onto her towel and her mom lays aside her novel and her dad scrubs a hand through her hair and shakes out the sand and she laughs and ducks away from him. She already hurts all over from a sunburn and she's drifting off to sleep despite herself, despite the promise of ice cream Daddy made at lunchtime that she's still half-holding onto at the back of her mind; but all the same, she's pretty sure that day is as close to perfect as she thinks she's ever been.
That is, until the angel.
The demon spits at her, black eyes glinting and hard as it paces outside the unbroken line of salt. "You're like a fucking beacon, girl," it says, boots thudding hollowly on the porch. "You stink of them. Of him. If I don't get you, I can promise you someone else will."
Her mother pulls her close, back away from the door, already fumbling out numbers into the phone. Claire cocks her head and watches the demon. It's in her blood, she remembers someone (him) saying through her lips, with her tongue, and she knows that she will never be free of this weight, of the memory of that blinding immaculate grace slicing through every cell of her body. Every night in her dreams, she rails at the angel, screams why did you take this away from me, how could you do this to me? It was my choice to make, mine!
He never answers, but his eyes are always sad.
She stares at the demon levelly, and it flinches.
The end is near and she is tired, so tired, and her nails are caked with dirt and blood and she doesn't know how much longer she'll be able to stand without collapsing. She's lost sight of the boys and Bobby and she wants to crawl into her mother's lap and cover her ears and be done with all of this. She's too young; it isn't fair.
The angel who wears her father's face grasps her shoulder and cups her cheek in his hand. His touch is both alien and familiar; it is a tender gesture that is as awkward as it is well-intended, but he is at least trying and Claire knows that he means it.
If she closes her eyes, she just might be able to believe the lie.
"I'm sorry," he says in her father's voice, and she sighs, breathing in smoke; there is nothing but black emptiness behind her eyelids.
"I know you are," she says. She tastes bitter iron-and-salt in her mouth, and she opens her eyes.
And see, the weird thing is this:
Life goes on.
The Winchesters manage to fend off the Apocalypse, and the world returns, mostly, to how it was before. There is still school and soccer and math homework to deal with, and as cheerfully as her mother smiles and as hard as she works to make things seem bright and okay, Claire has seen (the skull beneath the skin) all things dirty and monstrous and luminous and wonderful about the world, and everyday life seems faded and gray in comparison. She can't go back to normal; she doesn't know how to, and anyway the world doesn't seem to want to let her be normal. Weird things are attracted to her like moths to an open flame — wraiths, poltergeists, garden-variety assholish demons. She gets a reputation in school as the weird girl; half her friends avoid her now, and she becomes far more acquainted with the hunters in her area than she ever expected to.
Her mother is doing her best to move on, but Claire doesn't forget. Claire cannot forget, when the evidence of everything she's been through is still thrumming through her blood and her bones.
When she is eighteen, she stumbles upon something approaching grace in the backseat of Terry Lennox's rusted gray beater. The moment is achingly fleeting, and she rakes her sweat-sticky hair away from her face and pulls her shirt straight, trying her best to bite back the disappointment:
She knows she won't find it like this.
It is Thanksgiving weekend during Claire's first year of university and she is home for the weekend, making as much noise as possible to fill up that empty echoing house, pretending that they are still a happy and functioning family unit. She goes with her mother to church on Sunday without a scene, though she has mostly lost her taste for organized religion since — well, since her father, to be honest. It's not that her faith is lessened in any way (and how could it be, with all she's seen, all she knows for certain), but her mother wouldn't get it.
So, she goes to church.
But they're barely half an hour into the service when she can't stand the empty words and she is jiggling with nervous energy and to stop herself from screaming, finally, she slides out of her seat and into the aisle. Her mother gives her a wide-eyed and faintly angry look, and she mouths, just getting some air, jabbing her thumb to the back door.
He is waiting for her outside.
It is still hard, after all this time, to see him wearing this body. There is nothing left of her father in there, she is certain of it, but it doesn't make it any less strange and itchingly wrong.
She stays under the overhang of the roof, out of the rain. Her breath is already white in front of her. "What are you, stalking us?" she says at last. "You know everyone in there knew my dad. It's probably not a good idea for you to be hanging around here."
He lifts one shoulder slightly. "I was in the neighbourhood," he says, and she almost smiles, and she wonders if he's grown a sense of humor. But his face grows serious, and he fixes her with that unearthly stare that is so indescribably weird coming from her father's eyes. "Jimmy wanted me to look after you both. I promised I would."
That leaves her speechless, and she looks down at the wet pavement and finally manages to say lamely, "Well, it's creepy."
"We keep our promises, Claire," he says, and his voice is low and reproachful.
She sees that tan overcoat on his shoulders (dry, of course, one of the perks of being an agnel), and she remembers that last night with her father, that still-warm coat tucked around her as she slept in the back of the Winchesters' car, the collar smelling faintly like his aftershave. She sniffs, and shoves her hands deep in the pockets of her jacket. "I guess it's the least you can do," she says, curling her hands into fists against the fabric, "after everything you did to us," and she knows she's being a brat but hey, hasn't she earned it by now?
There is a warning look in his eyes, but he doesn't say anything, just lifts his chin and stands next to her silently, watching cars roar by while the rain drips off the roof.
It is almost, but not quite, comforting.
That night at home in bed she remembers those first few hours of driving, afterward, her mother's hands trembling on the wheel, breath hitching in the quiet dark as yellow stripes tick by on the road. She remembers holding her hand up against the sickly orange streetlamps, half-expecting to see light shining pink-and-gold through her fingers. She remembers leaning her head out the open window and grimacing at herself in the mirror as her hair streams pale in the wind, like she might see all of God's glory spilling out from between her teeth.
Claire knows she'll spend the rest of her life chasing grace, but she doesn't hold out much hope that she'll find it.