Dr. Abandonato and his assistant are having a heated discussion with Col. Covington in the hallway.
"We have no idea when we'll find another. It's in our best interest to –"
"No," the colonel says. "If there's one, there are dozens. Maybe hundreds. You'll have another."
The thinned armor around Annie's heart shatters into a startled flock of birds as she dashes into Mitchell's cell. Someone has placed him on the cot and his skin is waxy and pale as the moon.
She falls to her knees at his side, the words spoken outside ringing in her head like a death knell.
He opens his eyes and she sees her own reflection in their glassy depths. She takes his hand with a smile and his eyes start to crinkle only to be snapped shut as he lurches forward and gags. Annie leans back and for a moment, nothing happens. Then foamy blood spills out of the slits in the mask and she gasps.
Backing up, she leaves room for the doctor to come in, but all he does is peer through the grate in the top of the door. Covington says something snippy and the two get in an argument.
"Someone help him," Annie shouts. "Please!"
The men outside quiet and there's a chime, like a button. Mitchell's face buzzes as the mask shifts then falls off and clatters to the floor. He stares at it in bewilderment for a moment before vomiting again, covering it with dark blood. Annie can do no more than rest her hands on his back as he retches up what he so preciously needs.
The wild birds of her heart-armor have all scattered to distant roosts and she can hardly think.
But when he's done and she's helping him ease back onto the cot, Annie can't stop grinning because she can see his face again. Properly. The outline of the abomination is still etched on his cheeks and his lips are bloodstained but she can finally see him. Even if they only took it off because dying animals are no longer dangerous.
The men shuffle away, leaving only the guards, and she uses her sleeve to wipe off his face. He watches her expression as she does so, then tries to say something about a broken rib piercing him inside but she hushes him.
Looking around, she finds his heart on the floor in the corner. It is dull and dingy but comes alive in her hands, glowing and beating. She dusts it off and gives it back to him with a smile then sits down on the floor beside him.
"I can kiss you now," she says.
His eyes are stormy and flickering with confusion and she knows that despite Herrick's prediction, they only have minutes. Running a hand through the down of his cropped hair, she presses her lips to his. They are cold, even compared to hers, but he closes his eyes and kisses her back.
His heart rests between them and grows louder with each beat.
"Annie," he says with a smile, as if he just likes the sound of her name.
"Your Annie," she says, taking his limp hand in hers and kissing each knuckle. "And I always will be."
He squeezes her hand and confesses that he felt her ripped from his soul when she was taken from them. That from that moment on, she was his everything. That he would endure all of this again and again and again if it would make her happy. That he wants her to bury his heart next to hers.
Then the pain in his belly starts short-circuiting his thoughts and he can't quite answer her plea for forgiveness. He can feel the blood rising in his throat and doesn't have the strength to retch again.
"George loves you so much," Annie says as the birds of her heart dart about in a wild panic, for finality has discolored his hazel gaze.
She presses his hand to her teary cheek and his eyes look so sad that she lets out a sob. "We can't be made for this kind of suffering," she gasps. "There must be another life. And I swear I will find you in it."
His heart beats louder and slower and they pretend that they can't hear it as they kiss again, but it is getting harder to move his lips and he's freezing.
Annie doesn't know the words but hums the song his mother did in his memory.
"Annie," he gasps, as if in warning, then trembles and strains as his heart lets out dull, erratic thuds.
His death throes are the worst thing she has ever seen, but she sets herself aside and continues to hum, running her fingers through his hair. The part set outside of herself notices that his heart has flickered and gone out and has crumbled into cold ash, but the rest of her is happy to ignore this information.
He is so peaceful and still that he looks like he's sleeping, so Annie keeps humming and caressing his head. Because no ghost has stepped out of his body, and no door has appeared, and the reality of what has happened is already trying to choke her.
George has his face buried in the armrest of the couch as he gasps for air, his body shaking. Nina absently runs a hand along his spine, tears slipping down her cheeks. George sobs loudly again and Eve starts crying in the other room.
Annie stands before them in a grey shawl, shifting uncomfortably, her cheeks moist. "He loved you, George. So very much."
George screams his dead friend's name into the upholstery.
"I didn't know vampires could die like that," Nina says numbly. She looks vulnerable and Annie is reminded of the little girl she must've once been, frightened and abused. She wonders if Nina has always had to have someone to blame, just as her mother blamed her.
"Had he been stronger, he would have survived. But they wore him down," Annie says quietly.
"Was it… painful?" Nina asks.
Annie holds her chin higher. Her specter is thin, for her not-body dimmed and faded some the moment she finally pulled herself off of her lover's corpse. She needs no armor for her heart anymore, because her heart is now buried beside the ash of Mitchell's in her grave. "Yes. He suffered. They tortured him. They beat him."
"Oh God," George whines, and Nina tries to get him to sit up straight because he's hyperventilating.
"George, look at me," Nina says. "Take slow, steady breaths."
George does his best to comply but his whole body is flushed and stuttering. "I should have tried harder. I don't even remember what the last thing was that I said to him. Oh God, I'll never see him again, will I?"
Annie shakes her head pathetically. "There was no ghost."
"No ghost?" George repeats incredulously.
"We don't know if that means anything, necessarily," Nina tries to soothe.
"He isn't suffering anymore, George," Annie says, wiping at her cheeks. "He wanted this. He's finally free."
"What freedom is there if he ceased to exist?" George asks.
"He's not in pain anymore," Nina reiterates.
"That's right." Annie nods. "And he was in pain for nearly a hundred years." This is what she tells herself nearly every minute, because her mind and soul are shredded raw and she can't process much more than that small comfort.
"Mitchell," George sobs and Nina hugs him, resting her chin on his shoulder.
"There's something else," Annie adds, her voice strong. "They knew what he was. They know there are more of his kind. So… I think you ought to move. Because you're the first people they're going to look for in their search for others."
Nina nods but George has hardly heard her. "Where… where is his body?"
"They kept it. It's probably in a thousand pieces under a microscope by now."
George whimpers. "They've denied him even that dignity."
"I'm afraid so."
Nina fixes Annie with apologetic eyes. "Thank you."
Annie hesitates but nods.
Later, she lies in Mitchell's bed and cries so hard that all of the lights on the street go out.
They find a cottage in the country where Eve will have her own room. It's a fixer-upper but George doesn't mind the idea of working on the house. It gives him something to focus on. Nina gets a job at the local hospital and George takes care of his daughter, rather relishing the title of stay at home dad.
Annie helps him when she can, though not having a body leaves her renovation skills rather lacking. The spring breeze comes in through the window and Annie looks out at the glimpse of the sea in the distance.
"They say you can see Ireland out there on clear days," George remarks, readying his hammer.
He doesn't miss her dreamy voice. "An old wives tale, I'm sure."
"Still… it's nice to know that it's close."
George offers her a small smile, even though her glazed eyes are turned away from him.
She tells herself that Mitchell not having a soul is a good thing, for she caused his death and can only imagine the level of betrayal he would feel. He never forgave her, after all. And she wouldn't deserve it if he had. With him no longer existing, he is safe from her harm.
Some of the newspaper lining the floor around where they're working kicks up in the breeze. Annie's feathers are ruffled by the rattling and as she drags the leaf back, she notices an article about a waste management worker's body having been found in a vat of cement.
Her door arrives one night months later, when the family is settled into their home and it has been made tight for the winter. She is sitting in an armchair beside the fire, thinking of Mitchell's dead sisters and toying with her curls when it appears.
She heads upstairs and holds Eve one last time, thankful that the little girl is not a werewolf. Then she slips into George and Nina's room and kisses them both on their foreheads.
George stirs. "Annie? What is it?"
"Nothing," she whispers. "I love you."
"Love you, too," he mumbles before falling back asleep and Annie smiles.
When she opens her door and steps through, she expects to see the familiar drab halls of Purgatory. Instead, her knitted boots step onto grass and rolling green countryside. Stone fences.
She smiles when she realizes where she is, but her hope dims when she sees no sign of humans other than a cottage in the distance.
"Annie," a familiar, husky voice whispers in her ear, and she turns around to find John Mitchell waiting for her with coal-black curls bouncing in the wind, and the widest, most carefree smile that she has ever seen.
Thank you all so much for your support!
I gave myself several creative challenges while writing this story, and one of them was to have "Annie" be the only word Mitchell ever says in-scene. I didn't set out with that goal but as I started writing, I realized that her name was the most powerful thing he could ever say, for she is the most important presence in his life and that one little word can encompass so much with each new context.
Thank you all once again and please keep your eyes peeled for future stories! :)