“Who are you?” Beth asked, stumbling away from the gravestone. “What do you want?”
“Hey, easy now. You don’t need to be afraid.” The man stepped around the grave, holding his hands up slightly in a sign of peace. “My name is Cynder. What’s your name, child?”
She hesitated for a moment, then turned her face down so she wouldn’t have to look him in the eye and murmured, “Beth.”
“Beth, why are you crying? You seem quite distressed.”
“I just…” She sniffled and rubbed her arm over her face, then glanced back up at him, once more taking in the fact that he had wings on his back. She stared at them for a moment, then said quietly, “Are you… an angel?”
Cynder smiled and slowly knelt down in front of her, folding his hands together on his knee. “I am indeed.” His wings fluttered slightly as if to demonstrate that they were real.
Beth gazed at him for a moment longer, then whispered, “What do you want with me?”
Cynder’s expression grew rather solemn and somewhat sad, and he leaned back a little. “I wanted to make sure you were alright, child. You seem awfully distressed. Tell me, what’s wrong? Is there anything I can do to help you?”
“I… I don’t know.” Beth turned her face away from him, suddenly feeling ashamed that she was seen crying at all. “I don’t think anyone can help me.”
He gazed at her for a long, silent moment, then he reached out one hand and rested it on her shoulder. She flinched at his touch but didn’t pull away. Cynder sighed a little and withdrew his hand. “Beth… Bethany Shepherd, you poor, poor girl.”
Beth looked up at him, her eyes growing wide. “I didn’t tell you…”
“You didn’t need to.” He smiled a little sadly at her and stood, stepping away from her while still speaking. “Your mother died, is that right? And this is her grave?” He turned to indicate the headstone that Beth had been kneeling in front of. “And now you’re all alone. That must be terrible for you.”
“I… I have my grandparents, though.” She turned her face away from him, feeling a lump forming in her throat again and trying hard to swallow it. “They take care of me.”
“But they’re not kind to you, are they? They don’t treat you fairly. You just want to get away from them. Am I correct?”
Beth bit her lip, not wanting to answer him. He was absolutely correct, but she felt ashamed to admit it. Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes once more and she tried so hard to hold them back. Cynder glanced at her from over his shoulder and his wings shook, the black feathers ruffling.
“Do you miss your mother?” he asked after a moment.
“Yes,” Beth said quietly, just barely holding back her tears.
Cynder stepped toward her slowly and knelt down beside her once more, whispering close to her ear, “Do you want her back?”
Beth glanced up at him slowly, swallowing the lump once more as she met his amber eyes. “No… I don’t. She… she said…” She turned her face away, coughing a little and choking on her breath, still trying so hard not to cry. Cynder remained still and silent, waiting for her to compose herself to finish what she was saying.
“She said… she killed herself… because of me.”
Cynder’s eyes grew wide and he laid his hand lightly upon her shoulder. “Oh, you poor child…”
Beth pressed her face into her hands, no longer able to hold back her tears. Every sob hurt, seeming to rattle her heart against her ribcage. Now that she had started crying again, she found she couldn’t stop.
Arms wrapped around her, along with something soft and strong. It took her a few moments to compose herself enough to look up and see what was happening. Cynder held onto her, and one of his large black wings was curled around her almost like a blanket. She shuddered a little but didn’t try to pull away.
Cynder smiled down at her; a kind smile, not a cruel or heartless one like she had seen so many times before from so many people. He laid one hand on her face, brushing tears away with his fingertips and whispering quietly to her.
“You poor, poor little thing. So young and innocent to be suffering so. It isn’t fair at all, is it? But perhaps… I can relieve some of your pain. I could grant you a wish.”
“A wish?” She sniffled a little, peering up at him. “What kind of wish?”
“Whatever it is that your heart truly desires. I can make it come true for you. All you need to do is tell me what you want.”
Beth took in a shaky breath, pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes and rubbing at them. “I don’t know what I want, I just… I want to stop hurting. I want…” She nearly broke into another bout of sobs before managing to get out, “I want someone who actually cares about me. I want someone who will love me.”
“Someone to love you?” Cynder gazed down at her for a long moment, then he laid his hand on her cheek, stroking lightly for a time before whispering, “Yes, I could make such a wish come true. If you want it…”
“Please,” Beth whispered, her hands still pressed into her eyes. “I don’t want to be all alone anymore.”
Cynder breathed deeply for a moment, then he hugged her a little closer to him, whispering into her ear, “There’s just one thing. With any wish I grant you, there comes a price. You may be willing to pay it, but it is rather steep.”
Beth slowly peered up at him, taking her hands away from her eyes. “What price?”
Cynder leaned in a little closer to her, his amber eyes glimmering, and he held his hand out to her. “It’s… rather simple, actually. It’s not even something I have to take from you now. It’s when you die, whenever that may be, I would ask for your soul.”
She swallowed, her eyes growing wider. “My… my soul?”
“Yes. There’s not much more to it than that. It wouldn’t be so bad. As I said, it wouldn’t happen until after you’ve left this world, and I would in no way be doing anything to speed that process up. What do you say?”
Beth stared at him for a long moment, then looked at his hand, as he still held it out to her. Her heart thumped rather painfully against her chest, and just as she was thinking of turning away from him, his wing curled around her a little more, the feathers feeling soft and warm. Comforting.
She slowly pressed her hand into his, her arm shaking slightly. Cynder smiled down at her and curled his long, slender fingers around her.
“Yes,” she whispered somewhat hoarsely. “I’ll… I’ll give you my soul, if you can give me someone who will love me and take care of me.”
“I shall, child.” He pressed her a little closer to him, wrapping both arms around her in a warm hug. “I will be your guardian angel. I will love you and protect you, until you find someone else and no longer need me. But if that day never comes, then I shall always be with you.”
Beth trembled in his arms for a moment, then pressed closer against him. His hug felt warm, safe, and loving. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been hugged like that, or if there ever even was such a time. He tilted his head slightly as he gazed down at her, running one hand through her hair.
“I am your guardian now,” he said quietly. “No one can see or hear me other than you, unless I decide otherwise. I shall protect you from danger and I shall never leave your side. You’ll never have to feel lonely again.”
“And you’ll love me?” she whispered, her voice slightly muffled. “You’ll take care of me?”
“I will,” he said with a smile, curling his wings more protectively around her. “And I shall never abandon you. That’s a promise. If I ever break that promise, then I forfeit your soul. You have my word.”
Beth slowly wrapped her arms around him, seeming a little shy at first, then tightening her grip. “Will you take me home? It’s getting cold out here.”
“Of course.” Cynder stood slowly, lifting her into his arms. Beth pressed in closer to him, curling her own arms around his neck. He smiled at her, whispering for her to hold on tight, then he jumped into the air, stretching out his large black wings. Beth just closed her eyes, feeling the wind whipping past them as they flew through the air, but she didn’t want to look. She felt the flight, though, like air pressing through her ribs and straight into her core. It was simultaneously terrifying and comforting.
All too soon, they were landing. Beth glanced up slowly to see they were in front of her house. Cynder set her on her feet and gave her a gentle nudge. “Go on. You’ve been out for a while. You don’t want to make your grandparents worry, now, do you?”
Beth looked down and sighed a little. “I don’t want to go back in there, though.”
Cynder laid his hand on her shoulder, giving her a reassuring smile. “You don’t have to worry anymore. I’m with you. Everything will be alright.”
Beth took a deep breath then nodded her head, opening the door and stepping inside. Cynder followed after her, a wide, slightly dark smile on his face.