I tried to make this short. I really did. Instead, I accidentally wrote a novel. Enjoy!
1. Guardian Angel
Annie is in the woods and the mist swirling around the tree trunks reminds her of an enchanted forest. A bird starts chirping overhead, its song echoing in the grove, and she smiles, her brow slightly furrowed because she can't remember how she got here or why. There was something about carrying Eve through a white door and George's grateful smile then…
Then the ground beneath her shakes and the air cracks, making her squawk, covering her head. The boom is followed by another and the birds cry out in alarm. Silence settles and she slowly straightens, eyes wide.
She flinches as a repetitive popping erupts in the distance. Machine gun fire.
Men shout and scream and the gunfire grows more intense, followed by another boom. Mortar.
Heavy footsteps thud on the dead leaves and she stiffens. There is nowhere to hide for all the trunks are young and thin. Three men weave into the grove, their olive uniforms splattered with mud, their rifles at the ready.
Annie is standing right in front of them yet not a one has noticed her.
Still dead, she thinks.
The tall one in the center holds up a fist, stopping the others. They look to him for his command and at a nod, fix bayonets. Even at a distance, she can see that the one who finishes first is a blonde with crystal blue eyes and has a perpetual impish curl to his lips.
Bayonets fixed, the three exchange hand signals then split up. The sounds of battle continue in the distance and she wonders if these men intend to circle around behind the enemy. Speaking of, who was the enemy?
As the soldiers disperse, she steps closer to one in the center to examine his uniform, but history was never her strong suit. And she can't very well ask him which war this is. He is busy readying ammunition, his head bowed, and as she approaches, she notices just how much his hands are shaking now that he's alone.
He fumbles, dropping a handful of cartridges. "Shite."
Cold water bursts from her chest and trickles through her hope. "Mitchell?"
He snatches up the bullets and wipes them off on his pant leg, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath in an attempt to steel himself.
"Mitchell, it's me. Annie." She smiles as she moves directly before him, but her expression fades when he doesn't react.
Still a ghost.
The woods to the east erupt with an explosion, blasting dirt and leaves in the sulfur-saturated air as a shell lands close by. Mitchell grunts and shoves the bullets into his pocket before adjusting his helmet and hunkering down, creeping forward.
And then it hits Annie that she was sent into the heart of the Great War and that Mitchell is about to stumble upon Herrick.
"Oh God," she gasps, then dashes in front of the young man. "No, no, stop. Mitchell, listen to me. You have to stop."
The soldier ignores her, swallowing hard and ducking past a pine bough as he makes his way through the grove.
Annie grabs his shoulder then shoves at him but his human body feels like a rock and her arms like wisps of smoke. No matter how she tries to summon her corporeality to stop him, he doesn't even blink. After several minutes, the sounds of battle are muffled by a hill and a voice drifts to them on the wind. It's barely discernible from a bird and Annie isn't even sure she has heard it, but Mitchell has frozen, his body tense like a hunted wolf's.
Soldier's ears, she thinks.
Mitchell's eyes are wide as he scans the green.
Taking a deep breath, Annie tells him to wait there then pushes ahead, hunting out the voices. It takes longer than she thought, but she comes upon a clearing wreathed in mist. In the center, the unmistakable form of Herrick argues with another as they hold a wounded soldier at their mercy. She ducks behind a tree to hide. It's one of the men Mitchell just split from.
"You can whine all you like," Herrick says to his fellow. "But I get the first drink."
The soldier's skin is ashen and his side is a red blossom. He weakly tries to drag himself away but it's no use. Herrick grabs him by the collar and drags his body over, looks him in the eye, then hisses as his fangs protrude and his eyes turns black.
The wounded soldier doesn't even have the chance to scream before he is being fed upon. Annie brings her hands up to shield her eyes but stops just short of her lashes.
The other vampire, who she now recognizes as Seth, fidgets and watches with hungry, blackened eyes that dart up at the cracking of a stick. "What was that?"
"Mitchell," Annie breathes, and her ghost body is suddenly full of buzzing.
Seth readies his rifle.
Annie gasps then pops to Mitchell's side without even realizing it. She stares up at him in shock for a heartbeat, and then realizes that he's only yards from the clearing.
"Stop," she shouts.
But of course, he can't hear her. And with every step he takes, the air in Annie grows colder and colder. Is this her punishment? Was she sent here to watch the keeper of her heart be bitten as some sort of reminder of her uselessness? What had she done to merit her own hell?
You failed him, a voice whispers in her head. That's what you did.
Mitchell wipes at a bead of sweat escaping from under his hood, his wiry frame tense as he nears the clearing.
The tears on Annie's cheeks are coating her ghostly skin with frost. "I couldn't save you, my love," she whispers brokenly. "No matter how much you wanted me to. I let you wither away. I let you die."
He pauses, crouching low as the mist obscures his view through the trees, furrowing his brow. Despite the fear and sleeplessness that clings to him, despite how ageless he looked as a vampire, he is infinitely younger now. True youth: innocence. And Annie can only shake her head and bite her lip as it is about to be ripped from him.
"I'm so sorry," she whispers, then collapses against him in a hug she knows he can't feel.
He starts to straighten to continue as the mist clears, but he hesitates, as if he has heard something in the distance.
Annie searches his face, clinging to the front of his uniform, cursing the heavens and all of creation that he can't see her. Leaning in to his ear as he adjusts the grip on his rifle, she whispers. "Turn around, my love. Turn around." Mitchell furrows his brow.
She presses her lips to his cheek, and to her surprise, he sucks in a lungful of air and falls onto the seat of his pants. Annie stands above him, too afraid to hope, as his wide eyes frantically scan the trees, looking for someone.
Annie glows with sunlight inside. He felt her.
Herrick's voice drifts to them and Mitchell rises. She wills with all of her being for him to not fall for the trap of an English voice and approach. But even as a clear sentence and a laugh are heard, Mitchell takes a step backwards. Then another.
Annie grins, nodding, sending a gentle breeze his way.
The leaves rattle around him and it's all the excuse he needs to break into a jog and leave this place behind.
Annie is left alone on the edge of the clearing. She tilts her head upwards, letting her tears fall amidst the distant gunfire. "Thank you," she whispers, though she isn't sure just who or what she is thanking.
"What do you mean you saw someone?" Herrick's voice asks.
Annie pushes past the fronds and narrows her gaze as she catches sight of the man, his chin bloodied. The now-dead soldier lies at his feet.
"May have been a Hun," Seth says, suddenly submissive.
"Still," Herrick replies, dragging the back of his sleeve across his chin. "Better safe than sorry."
With a nod, the two break into a run, heading for the grove.
"No…" Annie breathes. "No!"
Her body buzzes again, like a hive is in her chest, then she pops to Mitchell's side. He has slowed to a walk and is heading back the way he came, looking ridiculously unperturbed.
"Mitchell," Annie screeches. "Mitchell, you have to run. They're after you. It's Herrick, Mitchell. Herrick!"
His only response is to lift his chin a little higher and hum softly, as if he isn't even aware that he is doing it.
Annie is about ready to snog him to try to get his attention again when leaves are kicked up in the distance. The humming stops as his entire demeanor shifts as he readies his rifle, looking behind him. Annie can just glimpse either Herrick or Seth through the trees, and when she spins around to see if Mitchell has seen them, he is gone.
Furrowing her brow, she glances around then a piece of bark falls through her. Looking up, she spots the young man scrambling up an old pine as silently as he can.
Annie smirks. "Clever boy."
Hoisting her ghost body into the branches after him is an easy task, and the two are nestled against the trunk twenty feet up by the time the vampires are in view.
Mitchell presses his cheek against the trunk, biting his lip to keep quiet as the two men pause beneath him, hunting for any sign as to where he went.
"I can smell him," Herrick hisses, and any worry that Mitchell would be tricked by their language and uniform vanishes when she sees the troubled look on his face. He doesn't have to have a ghost at his side to recognize a predator.
"Then he can't be far," Seth says. "But this time, I want a taste."
"No, this one's mine," Herrick says. He takes a deep whiff. "I can taste his decency. He will be far more fun to corrupt."
The other vampire grunts noncommittally and Mitchell closes his eyes hunches his shoulders, as if trying to make himself smaller. Annie's heart breaks and swells at the same time at the sight and she rests a hand on his shoulder.
Herrick hisses in frustration then leads his companion in another direction, tracking the original route Mitchell had taken to this spot.
The young soldier doesn't open his eyes until the noises of the other two have long since faded. Then he lets out a gasp, as if he's been holding his breath, and he sags against the trunk in relief. Annie rubs his shoulder, breathing a sigh of relief as well.
Later that night, Mitchell and the rest of his unit are huddled together under a leaky, makeshift roof, sharing blankets as it rains. Rats scamper past, and though Annie is startled by the rodents, the soldiers don't react. Not even when one starts inspecting someone's booted foot as if it were a morsel of food.
"Do you believe in God?" Mitchell asks, his voice breaking the silence.
The young man whose shoulder is pressed against his raises his brows. He is called Felix, though given his Irish lilt, Annie suspects it's a nickname. She recognizes him from earlier in the day, for his impish expression is unmistakable. They are the two survivors of a failed reconnaissance.
"I suppose," Felix says. "Why? Don't you?"
Mitchell shrugs, his gaze distant. His cropped curls are unruly and his face is still splattered with mud. His accent is thicker than it ever was in England, and at times makes it clear that English isn't his first language. The difference makes it easier for Annie to see the man before her as someone separate from the man she knew.
"Maybe not God, exactly. At least, not how they talk about him in church."
Felix nods. "Yeah… hard to believe he'd turn a blind eye to this hellhole."
"'Cause there is no God," another soldier offers from the opposite side of the hovel before taking a drag of a cigarette. "Not for us."
Mitchell glances at him but instead of turning broody, his expression becomes wistful. "But what about… guardian angels?"
The other men are quiet and Annie smiles. That resilience, that hopefulness in his voice and eyes is her Mitchell.
"My mam says I toppled over on the hearth once," Felix says. "By all accounts I should've fallen straight in and been burnt. But somehow I wasn't. I was only two or so, so I don't remember. But she always says it was my gran." He's quiet for a moment then shrugs. "Suppose it could be true."
Mitchell nods, his gaze distant again, his eyes almost dreamy. Yes, Annie wants to whisper. But everything else she wants to say is so knotted up by the sweet look on his face that she can't even form a thought. For she feels that it has been a very long time since she has seen him and his presence is soothing her soul.
"Why?" the blonde-haired lad beside him asks, and from his accent, he sounds like he's from one of the northern counties of Ireland.
"It's just that…" Mitchell hesitates and bites his lower lip before looking to his friend. "I thought I felt something today."
Felix furrows his brow. "Like what?"
"Like…" His cheeks flush and he doesn't finish, which makes Annie blush in turn. "Anyway, I just had the strongest feeling not to be somewhere, and then afterwards, there were these strange men, talking like cannibals, and… I just can't help but feel that I was, somehow, spared."
"Hm," Felix grunts. "Maybe it was your gran, too."
The fact that both are too tired to comment on the mention of cannibalism tells Annie that they've already seen enough war to not question the darkness of men's souls.
"Maybe." Mitchell's eyes are distant, and Annie wonders if he's trying to hold on to the sensation of her kiss.
She still doesn't remember how or why this has happened, but she now knows beyond a doubt that she is here to be his guardian angel.
What did you think?
Feel free to picture Felix as Dean O'Gorman. Thanks to The Hobbit, I can't separate him from Aidan Turner in my imagination!