There was the scent of growing things, green in Mitchell’s nostrils, cool and welcoming. The air was full of evening moisture, none of the slightly stale perfume of Headquarters, and Mitchell realised that he was in one of their special places, brought via the Door, and through a Doorway that he supremely hoped no other member of Nightshift had ever found. This was the middle of the Forest of Dean, and once, long ago, hardly even a fading tang in the atmosphere any more, a Cavalier had once crawled out here to die.
It had been a noise that had brought him out of his stupor, Mitchell thought, the echo of it was still making his nerves jump, but now the blood-mists were beginning to clear, he could begin to think again, at least in a limited way. And then it came again, a scream, as though from an animal in such pain it was barely able to articulate its misery. Mitchell swayed then, desperately trying to work out where the noise was coming from, before beginning to tear through the trees towards it, branches slapping at his leather coat, and catching in his hair.
Mitchell had run a long way before he found him. George. His partner and his friend. Among other things.
George had finished the transformation before Mitchell arrived in the little secluded dell, and he didn’t quibble, because he knew that was the way George preferred it. George was ashamed of what happened to him every month, even though rationally he knew he couldn’t help it, and that it wasn’t his fault - he’d been cursed through unhappy accident, that was all. But Mitchell knew that he was ashamed nonetheless, and tried to do all he could to help George cope through the one night every month that the change occurred. They had a routine now, after all this time, and several secret hideaways that they kept stocked with supplies.
Mitchell didn’t try to approach the stricken figure lying on he ground, or at least not empty-handed. He went to the nearby rotten tree bole and pulled out a waterproof canvas bag before raiding it for the blanket it contained. Mitchell grabbed a handful of chocolate bars too, knowing that George’s energy would desperately needed to be replaced. It took such a toll on his body, not to mention his mind, that Mitchell’s heart ached in sympathy every time.
He went over to George and crouched beside him, tenderly wrapping the blanket around his naked form. There were streaks of unmentionable fluids coating George’s arms and legs, but as ever, Mitchell didn’t care, and with the blood-rage still hovering, like a crimson veil in his mind, he barely even noticed. George was shivering, like he always did after transformation, and he turned towards the warmth the blanket represented - and not Mitchell, of course not, since he didn’t have the body warmth he’d had when he was alive. But it didn’t mean that Mitchell couldn’t appreciate the gesture though, didn’t mean that it wasn’t also Mitchell that George was turning to, since he wasn’t as insecure as all that, not after all they’d been to one another.
It did mean that this was the only time he could show how he felt properly though. Mitchell tried not to think about their situation the rest of the month, of how fucked up it all was, of how George’s secret was really both of theirs, and of how much he missed him, when George was right there all along, and in his true form. Mitchell was a very selfish person. He couldn’t help it, he was glad that George’s curse couldn’t be lifted - as far as they knew. If he couldn’t have this, ever again, he wasn’t sure he could cope - he wasn’t sure his willpower would hold. He needed George.
Carefully, Mitchell ran a hand over George’s hair, just lightly stroking the sweat-matted brown strands. He didn’t know why George looked like this as a human, pale and muscular, with short brown hair, when his canine form was pure Cwn Annwn - perhaps it was part of the curse? But it didn’t matter. Mitchell loved this George, everything about him, from the hollows of his hip bones, to the slight swell of his soft belly. From his shoulder blades, pointed and soaring like wings, to the sweet rise of his cock, lying half-hard against one tense thigh. He leaned forward, not wanting to disturb, but wanting to be closer, to breathe in the forest scent of George, his animal muskiness, which was different and more exciting now, after his transformation, then at any other time. It was intoxicating, overlain as it was this time with the scent of George’s blood. He was transformed, but some things remained the same, and his injuries had transformed with him. They weren’t very serious, Mitchell was relieved to see - and it was easier to tell without all the fur in the way.
George moaned a little then, and Mitchell clutched him closer, cradling him in his arms, and smiling at him as George came back to consciousness. One eye opened a crack, then rolled a little in self-deprecation and embarrassment, as usual. George hated that Mitchell saw him like this, hated that he became so helpless when usually it was George protecting Mitchell. And Mitchell didn’t know how to tell him that he loved George as a human, with his hints of vulnerability under that veneer of bravado, and with all his insecurities on show. Their relationship as humans seemed to be so fragile compared to the heavy basic friendship he had with his Cwn Annwn partner. The love was always there, of course, but it was different. So very different.
George reached an arm out from his blanket to snag a chocolate bar, and Mitchell closed his eyes as the rich aroma of chocolate joined the metal/sweat/musk cocktail that was making him so happy and so frustrated all at the same time. He only opened them again at a gentle touch to his face, George’s soft palm lightly cupping his jaw.
“Hey, what is it?” George asked, his voice higher-pitched than Mitchell’s but rougher, as though it was rusty and unused, which Mitchell supposed it was.
He opened his eyes and turned to face him, watching him through the haze of his dark hunting-eyes, and George gasped, then grinned, wicked now. Laughing.
“Blood-mist is it? Your eyes are blacker than a goblin’s jockstrap.”
“Something like that,” Mitchell muttered, leaning into the feel of George’s hand on his skin. It was so hot, so full of life.
“Yeah, well. You’re not the only one. Not exactly blood-mist, but close enough. I bloody well did it, Mitchell! I beat that cocky bastard - I won!”
And as simply as that, they were both laughing, euphoric in the face of almost certain doom. Mitchell felt as though his pulse was beating in his throat, which was impossible, so maybe he was only reflecting George, wonderful George. And George was throwing his arms around Mitchell’s neck, and then pushing at them both until they were giggling helplessly and rolling over and over, the blanket trapped between them, tumbling to the bottom of the hollow. They rested at last in an utter tangle, with George on top, his legs resting naturally in the cradle of Mitchell’s hips, smiling down at him in delight.
And then, at last, finally, he lowered his lips to Mitchell’s and kissed him, biting a little, because he knew Mitchell liked it. And Mitchell surged up into the kiss, clasping George closer with one arm, the better to grind them together, to hear the start of George’s moan vibrating in his mouth and to feel him beginning to thrust back, just as hard, just as desperate for every inch of skin against his own. There were still far too many clothes even though one of them was naked. Every second it took for Mitchell to strip gloves, shirt, t-shirt, and jeans, was a second too long away from his George, who smelled so delicious, who was his friend, and partner, and who felt like life and warmth, and everything in between.
They only had until dawn. It was never enough. Even as Mitchell rutted against George, reaching down between their bodies to take them both in hand, cocks slippery with sweat, George hot and heavy and new made, even then, Mitchell had begun to count the hours they had together, had already begun to mourn them. But he was a vampire. Perhaps it was inevitable - his was a species who were made for regret, who were born in blood and pain and death. Mitchell could feel his orgasm rushing at him already, with all the inevitability of the tide, or the moon. Mitchell hurriedly bent and suckled at George’s skin, kissing down his neck, before pausing at the juncture with his shoulder, where his ruff would be in canine form. Where Tully had bitten him at least once, and the delicious smell of blood was strongest. He buried his lips and tongue there, tenderly lapping at the blood, tasting and smelling and being surrounded by George, only George, and when he could hold it back no longer, muffling his cry in George’s shoulder, his fangs descended and grazing the skin, but not giving in to that final millimetre. Even as his release spread warm between them, and his hand grew slack, George reached down and squeezed Mitchell’s hand in his own fist, onto both their cocks, and so it was still both of them that rode out George’s final seconds before he too came with a cry, high and keen, like the wolf he sometimes was.
They were sticky and filthy and lying on a woodland floor all covered with leaves, but Mitchell didn’t care. As soon as he felt capable of moving, he pushed himself off George, so as not to crush him, until he was lying flat on his back and could look up through the flickering leaves above him. He reached out a hand until he found George’s strong grip, and then folded his fingers around it, letting his index finger uncurl and rest on the pulse point. Feeling George’s heart beating.
Mitchell heard a soft chuckle then, just louder than the breeze, and turned his head towards it. George squeezed their joined hands.
“Bloody hell, I swear that gets better every time.”
And Mitchell grinned, at his most wide and blinding, feeling his heart too full for more.
“Wait an hour or two and I’ll show you something better - technically you’re a virgin right now. And I want to show that virgin arse of yours a few tricks.”
“Ooh, promises, promises - old man.” George giggled like a boy, all filthy glee, and Mitchell loved it. He began to roll over, planning to teach him a lesson, since people who were as ticklish under the ribs as George happened to be, shouldn’t tease other people. Just because a bloke might have seen the turn of a couple of centuries, didn’t make him old.
And then there was a soft pop, as gentle as a soap-bubble bursting, and three sets of eyes were staring at each other in consternation, before one of them, in very short order, flinched away, leaving the person they were attached to blushing rosily.
“I didn’t know ghosts could blush,” George offered, conversationally, and Mitchell shrugged. He was too bemused to be annoyed, but he had a feeling anger might be on its way. This ghost had no right to be snooping on them, even if George had saved her life. He didn’t even want to think about the amount of power Annie now had over them, if she cared to use it. And it wasn’t much comfort to realise that she probably didn’t even know that yet.
“There’s such a thing as privacy,” Mitchell said, his tone stiff and cold, “I know that in your current condition you can go anywhere you like, but that doesn’t mean...”
George took his hand again and Mitchell shut up. He knew his eyes had turned black again with the shadows of the blood-mist, he could feel it. He hated that all his emotions were still so close to the surface.
“Could you, umm, I don’t know – maybe put some clothes on?” Annie said at last, sounded almost stifled, “And I’m really, really sorry. I just got bored. No-one would talk to me, and although there was a lot of rushing around, no-one would tell me what was going on. And then I realised that I could still sort of feel George, even though he wasn’t there – and I just... followed the link.” She looked around. “Where is he, anyway?”
Mitchell glanced at George, who grimaced and shrugged. They’d have to tell her – it was possible her casual well-meaning chatter back at Headquarters could drop them in it even further.
“You’re looking at him,” George said, abruptly, “It’s a moon curse – I get to turn human once a month, ok? So clothes are kind of optional.”
Annie laughed, a little nervously, and waved her hands.
“And you two are...together? Once a month you get to... do things. Or maybe not just once a month, who am I to judge? I’m all new to this supernatural life, perhaps it’s all perfectly ordinary; animals, people, ghosts... Or whatever it is that you are, because that thing you do with your eyes is not normal!”
Her own eyes were getting a little wild, and Mitchell noticed the breeze in their forest dell was picking up. She really was shaping up to be the most powerful ghost he’d ever seen.
“I’m a vampire,” Mitchell offered quickly, before she went on some more and gave him a headache. “Not everyone working with the Cwn Annwn is, but enough are.”
“Including our boss,” said George, gloomily, “Herrick.”
Mitchell began tugging his jeans on, and throwing a t-shirt over his head. George wrapped himself in the blanket, toga-style.
Mitchell went on, “And no, none of this is ‘normal’. Look, we’ll get into trouble if you tell anyone – you remember the pack? If they knew George was different, even a hint of it, they’d tear him into pieces, like they nearly did you.”
Mitchell hated pleading and he hated feeling helpless. But he rounded on George rather than letting himself get angry at Annie, and instead he concentrated on organising him, impatiently helping him to tug the blanket into place, before pulling his own belt free and wrapping it around George’s waist. It didn’t look elegant, but it did the job. George batted casually at his hands and exclaimed, “Oi, I can do it – contrary to popular belief I’m not actually a girl. Or a hound either, at least not at the moment - see, actual hands! I just don’t see why you human-types are so bothered by clothes anyway.”
It made Mitchell smile, fond and exasperated in equal measure – that was his George all right, even before the moon curse. He reached out and smoothed down a wayward cowlick despite the protests and George hissed like a kettle coming to the boil. The familiar actions were comforting, and teasing George was always fun. But it had, after all, been a hell of a day.
His fussing was punctuated by a sputter of suppressed laughter from Annie, who he’d almost managed to forget – the ghost seemed to almost fade into the background in that way.
“Sorry, but you two are so sweet together!” Her hands were in front of her face and she was peering at them through her fingers. “I really didn’t mean to interrupt - especially as it seems a shame that you only get one day a month.”
And therein lay the heart of the matter. Mitchell looked at George, to find him looking back. Neither of them seemed comfortable, but Mitchell smiled a little lop-sided smile anyway, and George ducked his head, like did when he was a hound, and looked pleased.
“We take what we can get,” said Mitchell, heavily, at last. And it was true. “Oh, and that reminds me, I’ve got your pentagram here, George.” He reached into his pocket and drew out George’s silver chain, that he kept for him the rest of the month. It was a powerful talisman of concealment, and they used it when George was human and vulnerable. Just in case.
“Thanks.” George drew it over his head, and let it dangle against his naked chest. Mitchell reached out and ran a finger along the silver where it lay snugly next to George’s skin. Annie coughed.
“I’ll just be going now. Leave you to it, and all that.”
And just for a moment Mitchell felt fond of her too. It was so unusual to just be themselves. To be in front of another person who knew everything about them and with no need to hide away. It was almost liberating. He pulled George closer, with one arm around his neck, while the other was still toying with the pentagram, but he found himself smiling at Annie, who tentatively smiled back.
“Yeah,” said George, “We’ll see you back home, right? Look, that reminds me, while I’m still human, I’ve got something I need to ask you...”
“Well, isn’t this touching.”
It was like watching a stone being dropped into a pool of clear water. What was still and calm beforehand became agitated and choppy. Ripples spread and grew, edging outward in waves of emotion, and of action. Mitchell felt himself go light-headed and cold, and George actually growled for all he was in the wrong body. Only Annie actually moved though, spinning around in the air, so speedily and so surprised that the cohesion of her form began to degrade, making her appear like a smoky picture in a high wind.
“Herrick!” George’s fists were clenched and he had bared his teeth just as he did when he faced down Tully. Mitchell held on to him, because he could feel all his muscles tensing, and he didn’t trust George not to fly for Herrick’s throat - and in his present form Herrick would tear him to pieces. Mitchell couldn’t allow that to happen.
Herrick was grinning his most shit-eating grin, the one that made him look just a little bit insane. Even his Cwn Annwn, Seth, had his tongue flopping out of his mouth in a crazed doggy grin.
“Isn’t this nice?” said Herrick, expansively, gesturing around at the whole forest. “A colleague dropping in for a chat with some old friends. And some new ones too, apparently. Although I feel I already know Annie so well. How is Owen? Have you visited him yet? He’s shacked up with some orange bitch called Janey now, did you know? Do you care?”
Herrick’s voice was rising in volume and pitch as he walked towards Annie, and she was fluttering, her whole manifestation wavering out of focus, like a mirage in a heat wave. Just as Herrick was about to reach her he stopped short, and very deliberately, very calmly, he shouted “Boo!” into her upturned face. She vanished. Winking out of existence like a candle flame. Herrick laughed.
Mitchell saw red. How dare he? How dare Herrick fuck with their ghost? Annie belonged to George - who was head of the pack, no less. Herrick might be their Nest Captain but it didn’t give him the right to come in and treat their people like dirt. Like less than dirt.
Mitchell knew that he was over-reacting, because it wasn’t as though Annie could die like this, from fright. The Cwn Annwn could destroy her, or she go of her own free will to the Other Side. But it wasn’t really Annie that Mitchell was reacting to, or was scared for - it was the man in his arms, the ordinary human bloke with no special powers of any kind, not any more. He would bleed a beautiful red, Mitchell thought, despairing, but he didn’t want to see it, not ever, and certainly not if he could help prevent it. Not even if he had to pray to the gods he’d left so far behind.
“I warn you, Herrick,” he began, “You have no right...”
“Rights!” Herrick laughed again, a little madly, his pale blue eyes opened wide, and his skin flushing a blotchy pink, “You haven’t any rights - look at you! The pair of you - you’re a disgrace. Well, you’re a disgrace, Mitchell - George here is more of an abomination. And I’ve been looking forward to this for a very long time.”
“Look, I don’t know what you mean. This man’s name is Joe...” Mitchell tried, his bravado paper thin, and knowing that George was still tense, even though he was quiet and letting Mitchell do the talking. For now.
“Really?” Herrick asked, “Did you really not know? Well, there’s a thing. And here I thought I’d been so terribly obvious in tracking you down, and that you were being so careful and suspicious for my sake. I’m hurt.”
His round doughy face had been oddly cheerful, but now it turned ugly. “I’m hurt, Mitchell, that you’d prefer to fornicate with a filthy animal then associate with your own kind. That you have chosen to abandon me. I selected you specially for this life, and you agreed with my choice - because everyone has a choice, Mitchell, you know that. You remember yours, I know you do. And now you have one more - the choice of watching your... creature die, or of joining me and proving your loyalty once again.”
Herrick let go of Seth’s ruff to rub his hands together as he stared at them, just as a gourmet chef might do upon contemplating a particularly delicious banquet. His eyes slowly bled black until the colour covered the whole eye, and his fangs descended, giving him the look of some kind of demon. Which he was, Mitchell realised, Herrick was so much more of a monster than he himself would ever be, particularly if he could have George at his side, keeping him sane.
“No,” said Mitchell, finally, calm even through the blood-mist, the frenzy it provoked sometimes, completely absent. “I won’t give George up. You’ll have to go through me to get to him.”
Seth growled then, as Herrick dropped his hand back to his ruff in warning. He looked only slightly put out himself, his lip curling in mild disgust. “That’s your decision? It’s a little disappointing. Because for you, Mitchell, I could be a patient man. Please don’t be such a fool.”
Mitchell shifted George behind him, without letting go of him. He was stiff in Mitchell’s arms, passively resisting. Even as he allowed Mitchell to move him, George whispered, “Don’t do this - it’s not the only way. We could run. I could tear Seth to pieces on any other bloody day. He’d never dare face us like this if I wasn’t human.”
But George was human. They wouldn’t be in this situation if George wasn’t human, and Mitchell couldn’t just ignore that, didn’t even want to really. George’s humanity was the most wonderful thing. Not to mention they’d never be able to outrun Seth, and Herrick knew it. It was a nice idea, but George was clutching at straws. Besides, Herrick knew their secret - he’d never let them go now.
Mitchell began to walk forward, purposefully and deliberately. Herrick began to circle, but Mitchell moved with him, not stupid enough to put himself closer to Seth’s jaws than he had to. Conversationally, trying for a distraction although without much hope of its success, Mitchell asked, “How did you find us? Was it George’s talisman? I forgot to put it on him straight away.”
“Oh no,” Herrick grinned, “It wasn’t that. I thought you’d realised - I followed Annie. That was so very convenient, by the way, I thought it might even have been a trick. But apparently not. Maybe I was wrong about you, Mitchell.”
The first prickles of anger crept across Mitchell’s shoulders, like spreading goosebumps. It was just bad luck then, that had him about to fight for his life, and George’s. He absolved Annie of any involvement, because Mitchell didn’t think Annie would do anything for Herrick willingly. Of course, no Cwn Annwn could follow another through a Door, but Annie could sense George because they were linked, he’d fought for her and they were bound. And Seth could follow Annie, because any sky dog could easily follow the trail of any ghost. It was just unfortunate - the worst luck in the world.
Oh well. He’d had a good run - in 1918 he’d thought he wouldn’t live out the year. Plenty in his platoon had not. And here he was, still around nearly a hundred years later. He’d had a good life really, a worthwhile job to do, and he’d known love. What more could a man ask for?
Herrick was ready for him, of course, but Mitchell feinted and dodged, using his superior height and reach to gouge great slashing attacks where he could, before dancing out of Herrick’s reach once more. Mitchell was younger than Herrick, and therefore quicker, so it was possible he could tire him out, although vampire physiology didn’t work quite like a human’s did. But it was the only hope he had. If Herrick once managed to grapple with him, Mitchell knew it was all over, Herrick was stronger in close quarters than he was, and his frame heavier. If he pinned him then Herrick could tear his throat out at his leisure. He couldn't let that happen or George would die.
There was a bruise on Mitchell’s chin now, where a flailing roundhouse had caught him, but Herrick too had blood dripping from his cheekbone from Mitchell’s nails, hardened and more pointed than a real human’s. Herrick was snarling, his face distorted, any pretence at the urbane man he usually portrayed gone beyond recognition. Mitchell sidled sideways, looking for an opening, before suddenly becoming conscious of another’s presence behind him, just as George shouted, “Look out!”
He ducked and rolled sideways, before coming face to face with Seth, who had been trying to creep up on him - he was far too cowardly to try anything else. Mitchell stared from one to the other, assessing the situation, trying to think of a clever ruse maybe, anything to help, but it was still impossible odds, facing both Herrick and his hound at the same time. If only Seth hadn’t decided that it was worth risking his sorry hide. Mitchell coughed and spat onto the ground at Herrick’s feet - he refused to give in to despair, that was all. He would sell his life as dearly as he could, if that was the only thing left for him to do.
Then just before Seth sprang - Mitchell could see when his haunches tensed, and braced himself for the blow - George threw up his head and howled. It wasn’t the kind of noise that should ever have left George’s throat, Mitchell didn’t even know his human throat was capable of making it, but Seth was thrown back in his tracks, as though he’d hit a wall. The noise was the warning howl of the pack leader, an ululating keen that was the ultimate sound of Cwn Annwn authority, and it sent Seth reeling, without a blow even being struck. He cowered low to the ground and slunk away, whining, all thoughts of fighting gone. It was in his bones and blood, Mitchell knew, the sound hard-wired - Seth wasn’t strong enough to challenge the pack leader, so he wasn’t strong enough to withstand the cry either. Thank god for instinct. Mitchell would have laughed if he’d had the energy to spare from watching Herrick.
Even Herrick seemed disgusted. He aimed a kick at the departing Seth and growled much like a hound himself when he missed. Instead it meant he whirled back to face Mitchell with new determination, and a new level of anger. Herrick was dressed in the formal way he usually chose; a suit and tie, a black coat. All of it was rumpled and askew, stained in places now, where Mitchell had inconveniently bled on it. They made an incongruous pair, Mitchell thought, absently, his mind a whirl of fragmented images and feelings. He could still smell George on himself though, and that was comforting, the smell of his blood mingling with Mitchell’s own.
But he knew he was tiring. Mitchell hadn’t had any solid food for at least the last day, and he hadn’t fed on blood for much, much longer. He was on the wagon and sworn off feeding from humans, after all, like all Nightshift agents, but it seemed to him as though Herrick wasn’t tiring at all. It crossed Mitchell’s weary mind that maybe Herrick hadn’t been abstaining in the same way. If he was to risk an attack like this, hidden away in the woods, there had to be a reason - perhaps it wasn’t just George the abomination that Herrick wanted to destroy, maybe it was more like George the hearty meal that Herrick was interested in.
It didn’t matter. Mitchell had to defeat him, and the rest was only speculation. It was just... that Mitchell was beginning to think that he couldn’t win. That it was impossible. Each blow he dealt, Herrick seemed to brush off. Each time Herrick tried to grapple him, it was getting harder and harder to slip out of his grasp. Mitchell tried a new feint, desperate to try and tear open a vein, at the very least, or an artery if he could, to slow the man down, to weaken him, but he must have misjudged it, and Herrick struck, quick as lightning, grabbing Mitchell by his t-shirt and yanking him into his grasp. It was a parody of a loving embrace, Herrick only interested in holding onto Mitchell long enough to tear out his throat. However much Mitchell strained against him he couldn’t seem to break free, Herrick was as strong as an ox. He could hear George’s voice, as though from a long way away, shouting in anger, high-pitched and despairing, but Mitchell couldn’t spare the attention. Herrick’s fangs were almost grazing his skin. The only thing he could do, which would only put off the inevitable for a few seconds, was to unbalance Herrick, to throw his weight off, maybe even knock him to the ground. They would both be helpless for a few seconds, and Herrick would still have the upper hand, but it was the only thing he could think of.
He did it anyway, deliberately allowing his legs to sag, and then when Herrick was off-balance, shoving hard, sideways, and toppling both of them. Mitchell desperately tried to get away, slithering through the leaves, but Herrick’s grip was like rock; his t-shirt tore a little but not fast enough. Herrick hissed, then caught hold of his hair, dragging him back along the ground towards him, his jaws gaping wide and teeth shining like knives in the moonlight. Mitchell kicked out, and tried to brace himself on the loose forest floor. It didn’t work.
It was a shitty way to go, Mitchell thought, but maybe inevitable. He should have died a hundred years ago on a muddy war-torn battlefield, he had died in a way, and now here he was, on another battlefield, this time maybe losing his life for good. He wished he could say goodbye to George. He wished he could live. He wished...
Herrick’s grip on his hair, on his shirt, was suddenly broken. He was wrenched away taking a hank of Mitchell’s hair with it, and tearing his t-shirt even further. It happened so suddenly that Mitchell couldn’t grasp what was happening. There was a wind battering at his face, like a storm wind, suddenly rising up from nowhere, whipping leaves and twigs into his face. He wiped his eyes as tears streamed from them, squinting into the maelstrom, and then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the freak hurricane winds ceased, like they’d been cut off with a switch, and all was quiet in the forest again.
Mitchell sat up. The stillness was an uneasy one, full of small animals crouching terrified in their burrows, rather than the freshness after a storm. And where was Herrick? Things weren’t over between them, not by a long way. He wouldn’t let a little thing like a freak storm stop him from finishing the job. The first thing Mitchell saw was Annie, standing over him, looking terrified, with her hands held out. Her dark skin looked paler than was normal even for a ghost, and she was trembling slightly, Mitchell could see it in her hands.
The second thing he saw was Herrick, many feet away across the clearing, upright against a tree. That seemed strange, why wasn’t he immediately trying to tear his throat out again? Then Mitchell noticed there was something on his chest, a dark something, like a stick, or a wand. Or perhaps it was more like a low-lying tree-branch that had punctured right through his chest... Mitchell swallowed, watching as thick sticky trails of blood began to bubble from Herrick’s body, from the wound, and from his mouth. Mitchell realised that the crazy man was trying to laugh.
Fascinated and horrified by turns, Mitchell realised he couldn’t leave him there alone. He didn’t trust Herrick not do something to come back from this. So Mitchell dragged himself to his feet, standing for a moment in front of the frozen Annie. He took her hands in his, and quietly said “Thank you.” He stared into her eyes, which only seemed to be capable of watching Herrick’s body where it hung from the tree. He hugged her anyway, briefly, but she didn’t move.
He walked over to Herrick, but stayed well out of his reach. The blood trails were slowing down now, oozing and turning black in the moonlight, and Mitchell could even find a horrified sort of pity in him as he looked at Herrick hanging there. It could so easily have been him. If he didn’t have his partner, and even a new friend who’d stuck by him, who’d saved him, then their roles would have been reversed, Mitchell was certain.
“I’m sorry,” he said, at last, his voice low, not knowing what else to say.
Herrick’s mouth moved in a horrible blood-stained parody of a grin. “No you’re not. But I was right, you know. I should have known.”
“What do you mean?”
“On the wind. I should have sensed the shift in power. In the earth and water, in my bones. Because I was right.”
“I don’t understand,” said Mitchell, aching and unsure, and impatient with Herrick’s theatrics.
“Long live the King,” whispered Herrick, his tone fond, like a father embracing a prodigal son.
And then burst, with a sound like a sigh, his body coming apart into its constituent particles, exploding in a cloud of black powder that slowly dispersed on the gentle woodland wind.
“Oh my god. I killed a man. I can’t believe it. Mitchell, I’m a murderer. Although - is it murder? Or was it self-defence? I did save a life - not mine, of course, but I did save you, didn’t I? Would it count in a court of law? Oh - what am I going to do?”
Annie’s last wail was more highly-pitched than George at his most high-strung, and Mitchell winced. He finished wiping himself down in the little stream that ran nearby - the last thing he wanted was to have powdered Herrick on him any longer than he had to - before getting heavily to his feet and holding Annie gently by the shoulders.
“You did the right thing,” he said, slowly, looking into her anxious eyes. “Herrick would have done the same to me in a second. You did save my life, and I’m very grateful. And there’s no such thing as a court of law for us. As Nightshift - well, we’re it.” He let go of her, and wiped himself down with his torn t-shirt, before throwing it away in the bushes.
“What is it with you and nakedness, anyway?” said Annie, her tone strangled, but closer to her usual cheerfulness, and Mitchell grinned at her.
“Just lucky, I guess.” Then ducked as she aimed a swipe at him.
They walked back to George, who was sitting down, still wearing his blanket, and looking moody. Mitchell went to run his fingers through George’s hair, but he moved his head away at the last minute, and Mitchell only caressed the air. The events of the evening felt a million miles away already, yet Mitchell knew that this wasn’t going to be their special place any longer. How could it be? This place would always be tainted by death now. There was a yawning chasm opening up in the pit of his stomach. Perhaps their relationship would be tainted now too. Maybe that’s why George wouldn’t let him touch him?
Mitchell sat down next to him instead and began picking at the loamy ground, digging at it with a little twig, determined to out-wait George. They might be a vampire and a kind of werewolf, but they were still just blokes - neither of them were any good at talking about this stuff. About problems, or feelings. Mitchell tried not squirm as he waited. After a hundred years, you’d think he’d be better at this sort of thing.
Eventually, George bumped his shoulder, and Mitchell bumped it back.
“Sorry,” said George, his voice low. “I just... I hate being helpless. I couldn’t do anything to help you - not one bloody thing. I had to watch while you were nearly torn to pieces, Mitchell. How do you think that made me feel? When I’m... like this - I’m useless.”
“Don’t say that.” Mitchell wanted to reach out more than ever, wanted to wrap George up and never let him go. But he supposed that might be part of the problem. “You’re not useless. I love it when you’re like this. We’re only us, properly, when you’re like this.” He ran his fingers though his hair, in frustration, disordering the filthy mess even more. “Do you know how jealous I am that you get to be human, when I’m never going to feel like that ever again? My god, I’ve nearly forgotten what it’s like to have a heart that beats. To have warm blood running through my veins. I envy you, George, so fucking much.”
George laughed, a little bitterly. “Well, don’t worry, you won’t have anything to envy soon. I hope Annie will be able to help us with that.”
“What? I don’t understand. What do you mean?” Annie appeared from within a tree a few feet away, and stood hovering, wringing her hands.
She really was extremely good at not being noticed when she wanted to be, thought Mitchell. Although it was kind of her to let them have their talk almost privately, for all the bloody good it did.
George frowned. “Have neither of you wondered why I set all this in motion? Why I stood up to the pack in the first place and rescued Annie? Because this was all my fault, and don’t think I don’t know it.” George wouldn’t look at them, wouldn’t look at either of them. Mitchell found his hand creeping out but pulled it back before he could touch George’s elbow.
“Why, George?” he asked, gently. Annie stared at them both, her eyes huge in her face.
“Because she’s the most powerful spirit that I’ve ever sensed, that's why. Even back then, newly born, still weak in your powers, Annie - I could feel it, all the Cwn Annwn could. That’s why now, only one day later, you were able to destroy Herrick when Mitchell couldn’t. It was why I risked everything to save you.” George turned to Mitchell at last, a pleading expression on his face. “Don’t you see, Mitchell - she can break the moon-curse. I know she can. Don’t you know what that means?”
But Mitchell was reeling at the revelation - why had he not thought of that? He’d been so busy not thinking about the future, just living each month as it came along, that it had never occurred to him that George - a Cwn Annwn with little natural instinct to think past today - could have been planning ahead all along.
“Yes, I get it. I understand.” Mitchell wrenched himself away from George’s side and stood. His heart might have been breaking now, if he had a heart. “It means that you don’t have to be helpless once a month. It means you can go back to being normal. I don’t blame you for that. How could I? Congratulations.”
“No!” George’s cry was agonised, full of pain and frustration both. “You don’t get it, do you?” He jumped to his feet, the blanket slipping dangerously, and seized Mitchell’s hands. “Look, did you mean what you said? About envying me. About us only being us when I’m human. Mitchell, look at me - did you mean it?”
Mitchell looked at George’s broad palms, and strong fingers holding his. He curled his own hands around George’s, and stretched out his index finger until he could feel George’s pulse in his wrist. Like he always did. He swallowed, once, twice, before he could trust himself to speak calmly.
“I’ll miss you, ok? I know you’ll be right there, by my side - but it won’t be the same. You can’t laugh at me properly when you’re Cwn Annwn. I can’t tickle you in the same way, or feed you chocolate, or tease you. You can’t... you know. Kiss me and stuff.”
They stared into each other’s eyes, like a pair of idiots - but Mitchell didn’t want to look away first. He loved George, of course he did, but he couldn’t say that, now could he?
“You know,” said Annie, breaking the spell, such as it was, “I didn’t know vampires could blush?”
And George laughed then, like a hyena, his stupid braying high-pitched giggle, but all shaky, as though with relief, as though he hadn’t been quite sure...
Mitchell threw his arms around George and squeezed him tight. George was protesting, and laughing, and complaining all in one breath. There was moisture forcing itself out of the corner of Mitchell’s eye, but it was probably the wind so he ignored it. “Sorry,” he whispered into George’s ear, “I know it’s selfish but...” And then he buried his head into George’s shoulder so he didn’t have to look him in the eye any more.
“I still want to break the moon-curse,” said George, over his shoulder, and Mitchell tensed, he couldn’t help it.
George slapped him lightly. “Don’t be even more of an idiot than you can help. If you want me to stay human then of course I’ve got to break the damn thing. Annie, will you help us?”
Mitchell shifted, so he could see Annie, but he didn’t let go of George. He would never have to let go of George again. He was conscious of a sort of slow-spreading happiness, that he was finding hard to believe in, but couldn’t deny. Herrick was gone, George wanted to stay with him as a human, and if he did, then... well. That changed everything.
“Since I’ve killed a person for you, I’m sure I can handle sorting out a tiny little curse.” Annie was almost breezy about it, and looking tougher somehow, more confident. Being needed seemed to be doing wonders for her self-esteem. Mitchell wondered what her life had been like before, when she was alive.
Annie spread her fingers out, and pantomimed cracking her knuckles. “What do I have to do? I must say, being dead is considerably more exciting than I was expecting.”
George looked slightly unsure all of a sudden, and Mitchell squeezed his arm. He smiled at him fleetingly, and then straightened himself, obviously determined.
“I need something that has never known the touch of moonlight. If I have that, even just to hold once, then the curse is lifted - and I can choose the form that I want to take permanently. Cwn Annwn or human. That’s all. I’ve been researching it.”
Mitchell was confused. “But isn’t that easy? We’ll bribe a goblin to go and get a rock from the centre of the earth.” But George was shaking his head.
“No, it’s not that simple. When the Earth was being formed, nearly every part of it was exposed to moonlight, because the Moon was being formed at close to the same time, and magma oceans move everything around. I’ve thought about this. I think the curse is clever, I think it needs something that has never been in this world, so it can never have been contaminated. And, of course, that’s almost impossible.”
He stared at Annie, who was looking nervous. “I think,” said George, “That I need something from the Other Side.”
“What?” said Annie, “I’m not sure...”
“You’ve seen our Doorways, I know, but ghosts have different Doors, all of their own. I don’t know what’s through them, but I know that hardly anyone ever comes back.” George stared at Annie with an entreating look on his round face. “Only the most powerful of ghosts could go through the Door to the Other Side, and then come back again...”
There was a silence. Mitchell realised he was clutching at George hard enough to bruise, and loosened his grip. Annie was seeming more insubstantial, when just now she’d been more solid. It wasn’t a promising development.
“You don’t have to,” said George, in a small voice. “We can’t make you. I wouldn’t want to.”
“I think,” said Annie, slowly, “That I’m not strong enough. For that.”
Well, that was it then. Mitchell turned away. He let go of George, even though it was the last thing he wanted to do, given they only had an ever-diminishing number of hours left together for this month. Instead, he began picking up stray bits of clothing that George had torn off him. He found one of his fingerless gloves and stood with it in his hand, rubbing the wool between his fingers, staring at nothing. He was a vampire and he should never have forgotten it; happiness, true contentment, all of that rubbish, was alien to his kind. What had he been thinking? Still, the two of them rubbed along ok, didn’t they? Nothing had really changed. Herrick was dead, but George was still a werewolf. Werehuman. Whatever.
He didn’t want to look at her. Annie’s tone was plaintive. Mitchell got the impression she might have been calling his name for some time. He looked over his shoulder, not trusting himself to offer more. She was looking earnest, serious in her intent. Her dark brown eyes were shining with sincerity.
“Yet. You didn’t let me finish. I’m not strong enough for that yet.”
George came and stood at Mitchell’s other shoulder. He reached out an arm, and laid his palm against the back of Mitchell’s neck. It felt hot against his skin - Mitchell wanted to duck his head into the caress, like it was he who was the hound, and not George at all. Instead he held himself even more stiffly. Then George wrapped his other arm around Annie, bringing them all together into an awkward sort of semi-hug. He was looking so eager, Mitchell thought.
“She’s only a day old - give her time. Don't be so impatient.” George was so excited, it made Mitchell want to smile - in spite of himself. “We’re going to be such a good team, I just know it.”
“And I need to learn so much - all about your world, and whether I can join the Nightshift officially, how I can kick Afterlife arse... All sorts of things!” said Annie, catching George’s enthusiasm.
Mitchell paused for a second, watching their eager faces. “And I suppose I’ve got to figure out who’s going to be Nest Captain now Herrick’s gone.” He couldn’t quite bring himself to be the life and soul of this little party, but he could stop sulking. Maybe.
“It’s going to be brilliant!” said George, and kissed him.
Mitchell stared into his beloved face, his lips tingling deliciously, and then looked across to Annie’s glowing features. He could swear she had sparkles in her eyes. Mitchell shrugged, he could be the better man, he knew when he was beaten.
“Yeah, alright,” said Mitchell, at last, gruffly, before giving in and hugging them both far too hard. “We’re going to be brilliant.”