Annie was fast learning that nothing about the afterlife was as she had expected it. She thought that she had learned that lesson years ago, and yet she still found herself surprised to be standing in the middle of what looked to be an old hotel corridor. The kind of hotel that had once been posh, but now just seemed a bit sad.
Her hand was still firmly clasped in George's and for that she was grateful. There had been a moment as they passed through the door that she had worried that they would be separated.
"Which way, do you think?" He turned to look up and down both ends of the corridor.
Each way led to perpendicular halls, with doors and more turns interspersed along the way. She had a brief moment of panic. There were too many choices, too many places to look. There was a feeling deep within her that made her want to hurry through, that told her that this place was unsafe.
She closed her eyes to try to ground herself. Panicking would not help her find Mitchell faster.
Without opening her eyes, she turned on one heel. "That way." She looked to see George shrug and nod. It was as good as any place to start looking.
Annie set off at a jog, eager to start their search for Mitchell, now that their search for the door was over. She was halfway down the hall before George's hushed voice stopped her.
"What're you doing?" He was standing with one hand on the knob of a door, only a short distance from where they had appeared.
"I'm looking for Mitchell." She gave him a dubious look, answering him in a matching whisper. "What are you doing?"
"Actually looking." He rolled his eyes before poking his head through the doorway.
Whatever it was that he had seen had him closing the door again swiftly. He waited only a moment with his back pressed to the wood before hurrying to catch up with her.
She turned to head off again when he reached her side and paused for only a moment before turning left at the end of the corridor.
"Do you even know where you're going?" She could hear the tinge of hysteria that was distinctly George.
She shook her head in answer. There would be no way for her to explain what was driving her.
The hall ended at the doors to a lift and she pushed the button to call for it. Standing in the hotel that wasn't a hotel, waiting for a lift that may or may not come, it was all too surreal.
As tense as she was, Annie was still taken off guard when the doors opened and two men were waiting inside. Two men with milky eyes and sticks with rope.
George let out a shout and shoved Annie behind him. She could hear him muttering but did not have the wherewithal to focus on his words.
As the men stepped forward, George stepped back, pushing her with him. She called his name, hoping to snap him out of his stupor. Death was inevitably a traumatic experience, perhaps she had passed through too many doors to find the presence of these men terrifying any longer.
Annie ducked under George's arm to face their pursuers. "Where's Mitchell?" She would take their appearance as a confirmation that she had been on the right track.
"So good of you to visit us Annie." The one in front smiled a decaying smile, still stalking forwards as she and George moved back. "Saves us the trouble of coming to get you."
The second man had his eyes trained on George. The hall was too narrow for the men to try a flanking maneuver, but she feared that they were being herded. She had not come all this way to be stopped by a couple of un-dead dog catchers.
"You can take me to Mitchell now or I can go through you." George had stopped speaking and Annie took that as a good sign as well. She planted her feet, refusing to give an inch more, and was grateful when George stepped up beside her.
"What she said." He threw in for good measure, even if his voice still held a squeak.
The men chuckled but did not draw any closer. "We've been watching you Annie. We know what you've done. There's a room here, all ready, with your name on it."
The sound of their voices grated on her nerves.
"What?" It took her only a moment to understand what they meant. "That was completely an accident." Her voice sounded defensive even to hear own ears. She spoke to George as well as the men in front of them. "And I helped Emrys cross over, so really, it's not that big of a deal."
George nodded and faced forward before whipping around to look at her again. "Wait a minute. Did you kill someone?"
"I told you it was an accident, and he was old anyway." Annie straightened from her defensive posture to face George. "I thought he was a vampire coming after Eve, what was I supposed to do?"
"I dunno," he took on a mocking tone, "not kill little old men?"
She huffed at her friend in outrage and the men took that opportunity to attack.
It was not hard to avoid the catch poles and Annie rammed her knee into the gut of the man that ran for her.
When George noticed that she had made it past their assailants he yelled for her to keep going.
This could be her only opportunity. She wavered in indecision. "I can't just leave you on your own." She watched as he grappled with the smaller of the men. Clearly the were not used to their query putting up much of a fight.
"I'll be fine." He landed a punch to the man's nose and sent the catcher sprawling. "I'll be right behind you."
The other catcher was beginning to rise and she turned and ran when their eyes met. She truly hated to leave her friend behind, but she had to trust that George knew what he was doing.
As the doors closed on the lift she turned to watch her friend as he fought, hoping that this would not be her last memory of him.
When the doors opened again it was to show a darkened hallway. Annie moved forward with cautious steps, peering ahead as best she could. Every so often she would pass the red illumination of emergency lighting but their muted glow gave her no comfort.
She had passed two intersections with no sign of anyone, friend or foe, and her pace increased as adrenaline pounded through her system.
A door opened as she ran by. She had no time to react as she was grabbed from behind and pulled against a solid body.
Kicking and clawing at the form that held her, Annie was desperate to break free.
It was the sound of the voice more than the words spoken that caused her to go rigid.
"We've been waiting for you Annie."
She was almost afraid to say the name out-loud, fearful that to speak it would make it true. "Herrick."
His chuckle was a harsh sound in her ear. "Do you have any idea how long I've been trying to stamp out the last of our John's humanity?" He did not wait for her to answer and she offer one. "But I see it now, the clever bastard. He doesn't have it anymore."
Annie renewed her struggle, with little success. "That's not true. You're wrong."
He laughed again, a low and humorless sound. "You misunderstand me. He no longer has it within him." His grip tightened to a painful degree and he moved one hand to lay over her heart. "It's here." He paused a moment and she could hear the smile in his smug voice when he spoke again. "And now I've got it right in the palm of my hand."
He was pulling her backwards, away from where she had been heading and towards one of the many doors along the corridor. Her mind raced with panic, searching for a way to break free. "Shouldn't you be burning in eternal damnation?" Maybe if she could keep him talking she would be able to find an opportunity to escape.
"You're not overly bright, are you?" He did not slow his pace, or loosen his grip. "There is no Heaven, no Hell." At this he scoffed. "Faith, belief, it's all a load of rubbish, a trap for the weak minded. This place is only a punishment for those who believe they should be punished." The next words were whispered into the shell of her ear. "For those that know better, this is a paradise."
He freed one arm to reach for the door knob and, grasping at what hope she could, Annie brought her foot down hard on the instep of Herrick's foot. He swore and loosened his grip just enough for her to slam her elbow up and into his face. His roar of pain echoed down the empty hallway, but Annie was already running.
She could hear the pounding of feet behind her and Herrick's voice caught up to her, taunting her. "If he's here, it's because he wants to be, Annie. That's how it works. A Hell of his own making."
Every connecting corridor looked the same, every door remained unmarked, and doubt began to claw at her. She still had no idea where she was going and she could hear Herrick gaining on her. Deciding to take her chances, she turned down the next hallway. Her plan had been to choose a door at random to slip through, but her body refused to slow down. Panic had set in and her legs would not stop their flight.
She heard another door open. There was an awful sounding thud and then a body dropping to the floor. Heart pounding in her ears and breath coming too fast, Annie risked a glance over her shoulder and nearly tripped on her own feet trying to stop.
He was dressed in an old army uniform, but she would know him at a glance.
She called his name, more to hear the sound than to get his attention. Her vision was blurring and she wiped at the tears, afraid that if she blinked he would be gone.
He looked up at the sound of her voice and she heard her own name in return. It had been years since she had heard her name pass his lips.
It was a replay of her rescue from Purgatory; she ran to him, he stumbled to catch her and then they were together. The ache that had been a part of Annie for so long now eased. She held him to her, not able to pull him in close enough. She had forgotten the smell of him. There had always been the knowledge that she missed it, but not the memory of what she had been missing.
She pulled back enough to see his face and no further. That serious brow, those dark eyes, his beautiful lips. They moved together, meeting in the middle in a kiss that had been a long time in coming.
They were not safe, not yet, and it was not the most romantic of places to hold a reunion, what with Herrick still laying at their feet, but for Annie it was perfect.
Mitchell broke away first and leaned his forehead against hears. "You have to leave." His voice was strained; broken. "You don't belong here."
He pulled away, though to do so looked to pain him, and led her by the hand back the way that she had come.
She let him guide her for a few steps before responding. "You don't either."
He kept his silence and when she tugged on his hand he refused to look at her.
Afraid that her efforts would be all for nothing, she tried again. "I'm serious Michell, I came here to get you."
At that he stopped and turned to her, the look of anger-tinged disbelief plain on his face. "You came here? On your own? How stupid can you be, Annie? You never should have come."
She could feel her hackles rising. "Don't call me stupid. I'm trying to rescue you."
His tone was derisive when he spoke. "And a grand job you're doing of it, too."
He turned away again, more dragging than leading her along at this point.
"Stop it, just stop." All of this had the flavor of days long past. He had pushed her away before and she would not let him do it again. "Look at me." When he did not stop she dug her heals in and pulled. "Mitchell. Look at me." He was turned to face her, but still would not meet her eye. "You don't belong here."
"I do." He shook his head. "You know I do." He flashed his eyes at her for a second before looking away again and she could hear the plea in his voice. "But I need you safe."
She squeezed his hand where she still held it in her own. "If you stay, then I stay. That was the deal, remember?"
His eyes pinched shut and he was near to begging her. "Annie, please."
Soft and gentle, her answer was out of place for where they were. "Do you trust me?"
When he refused to answer she moved to stand in front of him. She freed her hand from his grip to lay both on the sides of his face. "Do you trust me?"
His voice, when he spoke, was a whisper and he finally opened his eyes to look at her. "You know I do."
The smile that she gave him was one she had not been able to find since she had lost him, the one that was his alone. "Come home."
He searched her gaze, desperate to accept what she was offering him. "I don't deserve you."
She pressed her lips to the corner of the mouth. Not a kiss of desperation, like the last one, but an act of absolution.
"I don't care." She whispered into his skin.
"If you two are done having a domestic," George had finally caught up with them, "can we maybe go now?" He slowed to a stop beside them and gave Mitchell a once over. "What the hell are you wearing?"
Mitchell let out a laugh, the first Annie had heard from him since long before his death, and he moved to pull George into a firm embrace. She finally let her eyes take in all of her lost love. Gone were the skinny jeans and fingerless gloves that she had always associated with Mitchell, and in their place was the great coat and uniform of a soldier, the clothes that he had died in.
The sound of the lift dinged in the distance and Annie watched as the catchers emerged.
"Guys," she reached for Mitchell's arm and raised a hand to point at the oncoming threat.
George turned to face the men, ready to continue his brawl from earlier. "As frightening as they look, they're actually a bit of a disappointment when it comes to fighting."
As the two men passed one of the side corridors they were joined by two more catchers, and then another, and another.
"All the same," Mitchell grabbed George by the arm and began to back up, pushing Annie behind him, "Maybe we should just find another way out."
The three turned as one to run but only made it a few steps before Herrick was in front of them. More catchers stood at his back, boxing in the trio.
Annie found herself sandwiched between her two friends, with the distance closing fast between them and being captured.
"No." It was a whisper, but the sound reverberated inside of Annie and grew in strength. She had not come so far only to have her love ripped away from her again. And they would use her to hurt him. Her fear turned to anger and it was all consuming it its righteousness. She heard someone calling her name but had eyes only for the ones who would dare to threaten her friends, her family.
It was instinct after that. Annie raised a hand in either direction and hurricane winds whipped through the corridor, pushing back their assailants. There was a new light growing in the dark space around them and it was a moment before Annie realized that she was the source. George and Mitchell were still beside her, their eyes wide and mouths agape. She saw Mitchell speak her name, but could not hear it. Her gaze traveled past them to the door they had stopped in front of and she moved towards it with a purpose.
Mitchell reached out to stop her but George caught his hand and held him back. Their rising voices were a hum in the background of her mind but she did not care to make out the words. They were done here and it was time to go home.
The door opened with ease under her hand and there were no tormented souls behind it, no horrifying scenes being depicted. She could see nothing past the light that escaped the doorway but she knew that this was the way out.
Turning back to the hall she could see the catchers recovering, could hear Herrick screaming obscenities at them. Mitchell was still frozen where he stood watching her, but George was quick enough to react. He grabbed Mitchell by the arm and dragged the other man to the door. Together, the three left the darkness behind them. Together, they went home.
When Annie came back to herself she was sitting in the front room of the B&B with a mug a tea heating her chilled fingers. Mitchell was knelt on the floor in front of her and, though Annie could see his lips moving, she could not hear the words. The fog lifted from her mind bit by bit and she could take in more of the room; George by the bar with Eve in his arms and Nina curled into his side, full cups on the surface of every table and counter top to be seen.
"Please Annie. Come back to me."
She could feel Mitchell's fingers combing through her hair and his face lit up when she finally focused on him.
"There's my girl." The smile he gave her sent whirlwinds of butterflies fluttering through her belly.
Mitchell pulled her into his arms and Annie buried her face in the crook of his neck. Oh, how she had missed him, everything about him. A thought occurred to her that had passed her by during their reunion. "I can feel you." She puled back to caress his face; the bridge of his nose, the softness of his eyelids, the fullness of his lips. "Properly feel you."
Perhaps it was too soon, too rushed, but there was still a trace of excitement coursing through Annie from their adventure and she sealed her mouth over his in a kiss.
A groan came from George and a scolding for improper behavior in front of a baby. Annie chose to focus on the hum of surprise-turned-pleasure that passed from Mitchell to her. She could feel his hands fisting in the cloth of her top and she buried her fingers into the locks of his hair, so much shorter than she was used to it being.
He pulled away to rest his head against hers. "I still can't believe this is real."
There was a hesitance to his voice, a longing that made her question his meaning.
They had not moved from where they had started, she was still sitting on the couch with him kneeling in front of her. It was odd to look down at him and she stood and offered him her hand.
It was a relief when he accepted. There was a lingering fear that he would choose to close himself off again, that he would pull away from her as he had in the past.
George and Nina said not a word as the two passed them and she led up the stairs and to his old room. There was a feeling of homecoming as they settled on the bed together. He was no longer a vampire and they were something more than ghosts, but she pushed aside the part of her that yearned to touch him. Once upon a time he had asked her to go slowly and she would not cross that boundary until he invited her, not yet anyway. Even still, she reveled in the feeling of laying in his arms again.
One of her hands had landed over his heart, from habit or chance it did not matter. There was no heartbeat beneath her fingers, but the memory of a heartbeat was still there.
"You can talk to me," her voice was quiet and she did not move to see him face, "if you want."
The long breath that he let out was a heavy one and he rolled to curl around her. It was a long while before he spoke and when he did it was quiet and stuttered. Annie held her breath for fear that any disturbance would make him stop.
"I saw things while I was there. Memories, could-have-beens, would-have-beens." She felt him press a kiss to her hair. "I saw you, I saw this house." His arms flexed around her, pulling her into him even more until there was no space left between them. "I've been through this before Annie and it always ends the same way. With me back in that cell, alone." He moved one hand to brush the hair away from her face and pulled back enough to look at her. "It's never been this real before. I don't think I'll survive when this all goes away."
Annie swept the backs of her fingers down his cheek and placed a chaste kiss to his lips. "This is real." She did not know what to say to make him believe it. "Herrick said something to me, when I came to get you." At the mention of the other man's name Mitchell's whole body tightened up. "He said there is no Heaven or Hell. He said that if you were in that place it was because you wanted to be." She watched as his brow scrunched up in confusion and she pressed on before he could speak. "I think I understand it now. This place, where you were, it's all the same. We go to where we think we should. If that makes any sense." She shook her head at the jumble of her words. "What I think is, if you believe that you should be here, then nothing and no one can take you away."
There was a shine to his eyes and she could see that he wanted to trust what she was saying. She had never met anyone that carried so much guilt, it was beginning to make her worry that he would fade away, as Gilbert had; that he would return to the place that he feared, only because he could not allow himself to be happy.
"I wish," she paused, unsure of how to put into words what her desire was. "I wish that we could try again." Her own eyes were wet when she met his gaze. "I wish that we could start over, together. Live a happy life, normal or not, I don't care. A clean slate."
He pulled her back into him and she clung as if her hold on him would keep him from disappearing. With her face hidden in his chest, Annie did not see the light at first. It was Mitchell's startled exclamation that caused her to turn and look.
A new door had appeared against the wall. One that she had never seen before.
They had both sat up and Mitchell grabbed for her arm when Annie moved to get a closer look. She could hear the fear in his voice when he begged her not to go closer, and it was a shock. She had seen him scared before, but always in an abstract way, always behind a strong front. His mask was completely gone now and his eyes implored her not to go near the unknown.
But there was a pull in Annie, a feeling that told her that she could trust where this door would lead her. It was her turn to be the brave one and so she turned to kneel on the bed, taking both of his hands in her own.
"Together?" She moved to the end of the bed, never releasing his hands. She held his gaze with her own and backed towards the door. When they were standing in front of it, she broke his gaze and let go with one hand to lay it on the wood of the door. "It's warm."
So unlike the door that had led her here. There was a promise emanating from beneath her hand. This portal was a beginning, not an end.
She looked up at Mitchell again and was happy to see that the fear had dissipated. His own hand was against the wood now and a small smile was tugging at the corners of his mouth.
She squeezed the hand still held in hers and he turned his head to look at her.
"Together." It was a statement this time and he nodded in affirmation.
There was no telling how long the door would be there, there was no time for goodbyes for their friends downstairs. But the little family was together again, George and Nina and Eve, and Annie had no doubts that they would be fine.
Hand in hand the two left the B&B. Together, they left to start their second chance.