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Arrogant boy, love yourself so no one has to

“Annabelle? Annabelle, please answer me”, he murmured, dark and worried, as he stood leaning over her in the dim afternoon light. He was too late; it had taken too long. He could have saved her, but he had been too late. “Don’t leave me - not now...” He gently removed an auburn curl from her dirty cheek. “I should never have left you. It’s all my fault. Forgive me, Annabelle.”

She turned on her head, still deep in the magical world of sleep. He took her hand gently, and placed it in his own. Dried brown blood still lay around her knuckles and nails, as a proof that he hadn’t been there for her; no matter how much he tried to get her clean, it just wouldn’t go away.

He remembered how he had found her, how he had been so sure she was dead. She had laid under one of the oak trees, with her arms spread around her like the wings of an angel. Her cap had fallen off, and her dirty hair had laid under her head, scattered, shimmering in the moon’s dim light. Her left arm had glittered bright red without the darkness of the gray uniform jacket. He still couldn’t believe she had gone to fight in the war. Of all the things she could have done, this was what she did! He would never really understand.

“Annabelle”, he whispered again, softly, like a father rocking his baby to sleep. “Wake up, Annabelle. Come back to me.” But it would be hours until the girl again opened her eyes.

It was still light outside, that was the first thing she noticed. The large, broken window reflected the sun’s sharp rays and made the room come to life. She tried taking a deep breath, and then slowly breathed out again. It still hurt, even if the pain wasn’t that bad anymore.

Hesitantly, she looked down at her shoulder. The sight she was greeted by made her furrow her eyebrows, and bite her lip. The blood was gone and replaced by cleaned skin and white bandages. Gently she laid her hand on top. The pulsating heat wasn’t there, and her skin felt cool and smooth against her hand. She was just about to laugh for herself when she heard someone say her name. She turned around, afraid of what she would see.

“John”, she whispered, as a flood of memories came over her. “John.” This time she said his name harder, angrier, but at the same time questioning.

“Miss Annabelle!” She saw how a smile was reflected on his broken lips, and she took a deep breath. “You’re awake.” He came towards her, too fast for Annabelle to really react. He gently placed his hands on her wounded shoulder. “How are you? I can help you with the pain”, he murmured, as he looked for where the bullet punctured her skin.

“You’re supposed to be gone”, she breathed, too shocked to come up with a better answer. “You left me. And you never even said goodbye.” She continued, her eyes blank, staring at the bare wall. Suddenly he turned his gaze down, and his joy was replaced with sadness and regret.

“No excuses in the world can make it right, Annabelle, I know that.” Annabelle looked doubtfully at him; he who had caused her so much pain and sorrow during a time of her life when she was supposed to be happy.

“Then look me in the eyes and tell me the truth: did I ever mean anything to you?” His bright green eyes didn’t leave hers for a second, and it scared her.

“I cared about you, Annabelle. I still do.” Annabelle looked down and nodded vaguely. If only she hadn’t been so young and naive.

“Then you should have made that more clear. I’m sorry, John, but I already have someone else who is waiting for me.” Then Annabelle turned her back to John and slowly began walking out of the room, not really sure whether or not she had done the right thing.

The sound of the birds’ bright singing made Annabelle want to sing along. The sun was still shining, and the clear blue sky didn’t even have a trace of clouds. She was grateful for everything that John had done for her, but she felt that she had to leave.

She still didn’t know if she would find the army and once again go to war, or if she would escape and finally get to come home. It had been so long since she had been home, that she didn’t know if it was where she really belonged. She realized that the house wouldn’t be as she remembered it, and that thought haunted her. Was mother still there? And Katherine? Had Adrienne and Simone and all the other servants left, leaving the rest of the family alone to face their fate? Had Sam and Dean come home? Where was Rebecka?

Or, she thought, were they all dead?

She needed to come home and see the ones that were left, but also, she had to go to Killian. Her promise to him haunted her, and the thought that he might be dead broke her heart. No, she couldn’t go back to the war, she understood now. There were so many things that she wanted to do, and she had gotten her revenge now. She had done what she had to do, and now she was free. She had avenged her father’s name, and Killians, and was now free to do as she wished. She was free to return home.

She was so caught up in her own thoughts and memories that she didn’t hear him coming.

“Miss Annabelle?” She turned abruptly at the sound of his voice.

“I would prefer if you left me alone”, she said, and turned back to re-enter the world of her imagination, because in that moment she preferred her own imagination rather than the reality.

“No, Annabelle, you have to listen to me.” He walked towards her, so that he now stood before her. “They are coming. Sherman has taken Atlanta and they are coming. Hood himself has retreated; we have lost, it’s over. We have to leave. Now.” His words made Annabelle look up at him, her eyes calm and full of sorrow. His words didn’t make her care, not even for a second; not for as long as they didn’t prevent her from getting back to her family.

“We don’t have to go anywhere. You may go if you want to, but then I'll stay here.” She saw his jaw tightened, but she just simply didn’t want anything to do with him anymore.

“It was wrong to let you go before, Annabelle. I will not leave you, not again. So yes, we have to go. I’ve already packed what’s most important. Two horses are saddled the best I could, and stand on the other side of the house waiting for us. Everything is ready. Come on, Annabelle.” She took a deep breath and stood up. She still wore her uniform, even though the entire left arm was torn off which was considered inappropriate for someone like her.

“My freedom is worth more than that, John. I’m done with you”, she said, her voice sharp but proud, and then expected that he would leave her. Without looking at him, she could hear him sigh, loud and annoyed. Then he went over to her and grabbed her right, healthy arm. She tried to fight him, but the pain in her left shoulder only got worse. Eventually she gave up. Frowning, she tore off her arm from his grasp.

“I’ll come with you, then, if you insist”, she muttered with her eyes dark, “but only if you promise not to talk about the war anymore. Not to mother, not to Simone, not to anyone.” He gave her a charming smile; the same smile Annabelle had seen so many times before, and she took that as a yes.

“Where are we going? Home?” His voice sounded happy, but at the same time stressed. Annabelle shook her head. If she was going with him she wasn’t going to let him decide where.

“I want to return to Mrs. Ericsson’s cabin. To Alice”, she said calmly and honestly. She refused to tell the whole story about Killian and her promise, for she had a feeling that John would disagree. She, who didn’t know that John had visited Alice before and knew exactly where the house was, thought that he would decline and suggest some other destination. Therefore, she was rather surprised when he cheerfully nodded at her.

“As Miss Annabelle says.” Her face got twisted into an angry grimace and she slapped him in the face, rather loosely though, since she was still weak.

“Damn it! Don’t call me Miss!”

It was too quiet. There were no birds singing, and there was no wind sweeping through the trees. Annabelle got the thought that they were coming for her, and she urged her horse to gallop faster, closer to John. She imagined how they, the soldiers she fought side by side with, hid and crouched behind trees and bushes along the road, just waiting for her.

Traitor, they echoed, along with words like murderer and girl. They thought of taking her, she imagined, and force her back to the battlefield.

Her right hand was drawn to the wound. Still sore, but she couldn’t quite understand how she had survived. She shouldn’t have, she realized. You didn’t survive a wound like that, especially if the wound got infected and you lost a lot of blood. She tried not to let her imagination drive her crazy, so she tried to convince herself that all that mattered were where you got shot and exactly how much blood you lost.

However, she knew deep down that it was God who wanted her to live. If there even is a God, she thought, and felt both relieved and embarrassed of her thought. She was no longer sure about her faith and religion. She should be happy anyway, though, given that she was actually alive, and not dead like so many others, but Annabelle wasn’t happy. Not anymore. She doubted if she ever would be happy again.

She didn’t keep count of how many days they traveled, only that they went north. John had thought it was safer, because according to him the Yankees were busy raiding Atlanta. John had said that the city was burning, and sure enough, Annabelle had seen the dark gray, almost black smoke behind the thick forest. They tried to stay as far away from the war as possible, and rode mostly along the forest’s crooked paths, with only the sound of horses’ rhythmic gallop behind them. None of them spoke, which Annabelle preferred, but sometimes it was almost as if the tense silence was worse.

“John?” Annabelle said later, when one of the days slowly adopted into night. “Are we there yet?” She heard how he stopped his horse, and how the eternal sound of clattering hooves became slower and slower. She did the same. It was much easier to hear each other without the incessant clatter of horses’ hooves in the background. She slid off the saddle, but still held on to her horse tightly. “John?” He sighed deeply, and Annabelle raised her left eyebrow.

“I don't know, Annabelle”, he said quickly, tired, and Annabelle lowered her gaze.

“I just want to-” She took a deep breath, “I just want to get home.” She said the last word very low, but John still managed to hear it.

’“Home? We are heading to Mrs. Ericsson’s cabin, Annabelle, to Alice, have you forgotten that?” She didn’t answer, because she didn’t find any appropriate words. “Or have you changed your mind? We can turn back, if that’s what you want. It is up to you, Annabelle. You get to decide.” She hadn’t changed her mind, but to say it out loud would be like admitting that her home was no longer where it once had been.

“I meant home to Alice, John, nothing else”, she murmured with downcast eyes as she got back up on the horse, and hoped that their discussion was over and that they would continue their journey in silence. John nodded, and it was again quiet between them.

Later, when the darkness and the moon had taken over after the sun, John’s voice was heard again, dark and quiet.

“It’s not forbidden to cry, Annabelle. Not anymore.” Annabelle didn’t answer, and her cheeks remained dry. She still remembered his words, those he had told her for what seemed like so long ago.

I’m not weak, John. Not anymore.

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