"Fantastic news, Philip." Those are the words that live forever etched in Phil’s mind, the words that form the path of his existence and lead him to the person who makes it all worthwhile.
Angels, he will one day explain to the most important person in his life, are loosely comparable to RPG characters. Essentially, he'll say, angels all do the same thing: existing to serve and protect, to watch over the human race with the kind of ethereal love and care that mortals themselves lack. Yet more specifically, every angel has a role they must fulfil, a particular duty handed to them on the day of their creation, similar to the class given to a character by their player in a video game.
But unlike the duties of wizards, warriors and mages, the duty of angels would more commonly be described as less violent and, arguably, more challenging.
On the day of his creation, Phil discovers he's been handed the most dangerous and daunting task an angel can receive; he's going to be a Guardian. The Elders crowd around him, congratulate him on being given the most rewarding job of all, as they put it: the responsibility of guarding a human, keeping them out of harm’s way for as long as they should live. A Guardian angel.
In his first few seconds of life, Phil is overrun with joy and excitement at this prospect. His euphoric beaming and jubilant laughter are met with rare joyousness from the Elders, whose vicarious delight on Phil’s behalf lightens the air and warms the atmosphere.
Then, however, Phil pauses and hesitates in his excitement. He bites his lip, shuffles on the spot and immediately asks what is regarded as the most ridiculous question the Elders have ever heard.
"When do I get to see my human?"
It doesn't work that way, they tell him. There are billions of people on Earth, they say, and trillions of angels waiting their turn; did he really think they would just give him one? Embarrassingly, the answer to that question is yes, a fact that Phil keeps quietly to himself.
He's told that when the time comes, he'll know.
"How long will I have to wait?" Phil asks, disappointed.
A while, is their response.
True to their word, 'a while' passes with no news. Another while passes, and Phil remains human-less. PJ, another Guardian, is eventually told that he's ready long before Phil is, that they can see it in his eyes that he's mature enough and responsible enough to take on the role he's been blessed with. Phil is happy for PJ, because PJ has waited just like he has—but he's also frustrated, because PJ was created quite a while after he was.
To pass the time, he loiters with the other angels at the edge of their world, looks over the humans on a daily basis and watches their lives disappear as quickly as they come, his mind cluttered with thoughts about what his own human will be like. His fingers curl softly over the fence separating himself from humanity, the only barrier keeping him safe from stumbling into the seemingly bottomless ravine below where the image of Earth lies free for Phil’s viewing. So many cities and towns where humans live obliviously, all there in plain sight. Their homes are not dissimilar to those of Phil’s world, an endless city bustling with not people, but angels, with its own apartments and cafés and greenery.
He finds himself drawn to specific humans, sometimes. There's a girl in Vietnam that he watches frequently between the ages of 14 and 57, diligent and ambitious and determined to boot, until one day he just loses sight of her. There's a boy in Kenya that Phil watches whenever he's bored, because the boy is creative and funny and everything Phil wishes for most in a human. There's a girl in Italy who he's drawn to because she's far more religious than Phil thinks he ever will be, and it makes him think she'd be a much better angel than he is, too.
That last girl, unfortunately, is hit by a car a short while after Phil starts watching her. He knows she's not his human, but in that moment, Phil wishes that she was. He wishes he could have saved her.
Finally, after what feels like an eternity of waiting (and maybe it really has been), Phil knows that it's time. On this day, Phil's standing with PJ, just watching. More specifically, they're watching PJ's human—an English 22-year-old with dreams of being a comedic actor, cursed with a nine-to-five job that barely gets him by—when Phil gets a sudden sense of urgency he's never felt before. It's whiplash after a car accident, vertigo on the roof of a tall building. It's a need to protect, and Phil has absolutely no idea who it's for.
His throat is dry, so he swallows before he speaks. "PJ," he croaks, grasping at his friend’s shoulders in an attempt to steady himself. Lost in delirium, he misses with every attempt until PJ ends up grabbing his hand himself. "PJ, let me see my human."
Within about three seconds, PJ's face fluctuates between shock, panic, and uncontainable excitement. He raises a hand and claps it almost brutally on Phil's back before saying, "That's all on you, buddy."
And then Phil realizes that yes, it is. He tells himself to look for his human, and he does. Within no time at all, he’s brought to a hospital in the same country he had just been staring down at, even though just moments before he’d had no idea where to look, and almost automatically he knows which room he should be looking in. Instantaneously, he feels the room materializing around him; he's not physically there but he's there, standing at a woman's side as she gives the final push before her baby boy enters the world. PJ is gone and Phil doesn't give a damn.
"Fantastic news, Philip," Phil hears from behind him. He doesn't turn around. He knows that it's time.
"Daniel," the boy's mother names him. And with that, Phil learns the name of his very own universe.
Daniel—or Dan, as he prefers—turns out to be what many of Phil's peers would call a handful. Phil isn't sure if he can argue with that fact, because while Dan is a kind soul, he's excruciatingly difficult to keep out of trouble, through no fault of his own.
His childhood years are uneventful, unsurprisingly. Dan doesn’t fight, or cause any scenes. As a child, he makes friends with ease, enjoys school as much as any infant can, and makes it through primary education without committing any major felonies. Any worries Phil has about Dan’s developmental stages are quelled quickly, both by Dan’s unexciting behavioural patterns remaining unchanged for years at a time, and by PJ’s endless reassurances that “Yes, your human is a happy, healthy and completely normal boy. Stop asking.”
These years of peace naturally come to an end when secondary school begins. Dan’s environment changes, yet his character remains the same, a social crime among teenagers that leaves him ostracised and, to Phil’s dismay, incredibly low-spirited. For Phil, Dan’s sudden shift in attitude is akin to watching an illuminous light flickering and fading away as its energy burns out. Bruised knees and bloody elbows are wounds that Phil can fix. Soothing the soul is an entirely different matter.
And now, Dan’s soft exterior and pliant personality make him a daily pit-stop for bullies, and his questionable social skills leave him very nearly friendless. His teenage hormones clash with strict parenting, resulting in Dan shutting out his family in favour of the company of his laptop. He finds solace from his troubles in loud music, social media, and an unholy amount of selfies.
By all definitions, Dan is indeed a handful. And Phil loves every inch of him.
"You don't need to protect him from everything, Phil," PJ tells him one day as they observe Dan together, watching him collect his P.E kit from the rubbish bin that someone has viciously dumped it in. Dan shakes his bag vigorously, sighing as a rotten banana detaches itself from it and falls gracelessly to the floor, and Phil winces a little.
PJ frowns, adding, "Personal growth and all that nonsense."
Phil's scowl perfectly relays his inner feelings to PJ even before he opens his mouth to speak. "I think he's had more than enough 'personal growth' by now, Peej," he grunts, turning away from the sight of Dan's crestfallen face to fold his arms and groan. "I have half a mind to find that boy's Guardian and give him a right—a stern talking to."
PJ smirks at his slip up and slides fluidly into the space next to Phil, just before giving his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Try to relax a bit,” he says. “Dan's only young. You think this is bad, just wait until he's at university raising Hell at three in the morning with all the other hooligans."
Phil can't help but laugh, although gloomily. "I guess," he says. The uncertainty in his voice makes PJ offer him a sympathetic smile. “I just worry about him.”
“Well, that’s your job,” PJ replies, raising one shoulder in a half-shrug. “You can watch over him, and you can worry about him, but you can’t always help him.”
In a rare act of flippancy, Phil snorts and rolls his eyes. “Speak for yourself,” he retorts. Nevertheless, the exchange cheers him up. Despite PJ being younger than Phil (and Phil is rather young already, for an angel), his advice never fails to act as a pick-me-up.
Phil exhales slowly before continuing. “I’m going to be the best damn Guardian this world has ever seen. Nobody is messing with my human and getting away with it.” PJ purses his lips, withholding a jibe, and Phil elbows him playfully when he catches sight of it.
He turns back to look for Dan and finds him in the boys’ toilets, fixing his fringe and looking unmistakably morose instead of walking to the lesson he’s already five minutes late to. Dan stare wordlessly at his own reflection, mentally correcting flaws that aren’t even there, and Phil’s eyes soften as he watches. He wonders how long it will take for Dan to see himself through Phil’s affectionate gaze.
When Dan is done, Phil purses his lips in thought and spins swiftly on his heel to look back at PJ. “Is it sacrilegious of me to put bees in those boys’ bags?” he asks casually.
Next to him, PJ very nearly chokes on his own laughter. Phil smirks at the sound, prompting PJ to give him a not-so-gentle shove as he struggles to speak through his spluttering.
“Yes,” PJ confirms. Phil fakes a disappointed pout in response. “But I guarantee you it would be hilarious. Although I’m not sure how the Elders would feel about that one, if I’m being honest.”
“I think I’d actually be crucified,” Phil sighs, wrenching his gaze away from Dan as he abandons the mirror to reluctantly approach his next lesson. “It would be fun, though.”
“Maybe not bees,” PJ suggests with a sordid grin. “Maybe just a hole in their bags. Or an unfortunate incident involving seagulls and a horrific amount of bird poo on their way home.”
“You’re an evil genius.”
“I know. You didn’t hear it from me, though. I don’t fancy losing my Guardianship while my own human is still on the loose.”
After a lot of deliberating, Phil opts for a double dose of a week’s worth of detention for Dan’s tormentors, plus an unscheduled thunderstorm at the end of the day just moments after Dan makes it safely onto his bus. Phil times it to make sure that Dan sees all the unfortunate happenings he has planned for his perpetrators: a phone falling into a deep puddle, a sudden trip face-first into a muddy patch of grass, and most impressively an actual encounter with a bee sting that neither Phil nor the weather had even accommodated for in the first place. He is verbally crucified for it as a result – Phil spends a decent amount of time being lectured on his ‘incredibly un-angelic and morally corrupt’ behaviour – but it’s all worth it to see the way Dan tries and fails to hide a smile behind his hand as he watches.
That same night, Phil takes an impromptu trip into Dan’s room. It’s something he’s made a monthly habit of, simply basking in Dan’s presence as he goes about his daily life, completely oblivious to Phil humming to himself beside him. He talks to Dan as if the conversation is anything but one-sided, asking about his day even though he’s seen it all and complimenting him on his hard work at school. It’s times like these, in Dan’s cripplingly small room lit only by the light of his buzzing laptop, that Phil lets himself forget. He forgets that he’s a Guardian and forgets that Dan will never know that he exists.
It’s a habit that Phil knows he should grow out of, but indulging himself for a few more years couldn’t hurt.
When Dan finally clambers into bed at a time that would make his mother weep, Phil stays until he’s assured that Dan is asleep. His deep, uninterrupted breathing acts as Phil’s personal lullaby, flooding his body with exhaustion and blurring his vision. Before he leaves, Phil’s eyes give a final sweep over Dan’s body, as if looking for some form of terrible injury he has somehow missed. When he’s finally satisfied that Dan requires no more attention from him, Phil soundlessly presses a hand to Dan’s cheek and cups it, brushing his thumb over smooth skin and too-early hints of rough stubble.
“Good night,” Phil whispers into the quiet of the room. “Tomorrow will be better, I promise. I’ll look after you.”
Phil’s made the same promise every night for years. He means it every time, but with each day it gets harder. Being a Guardian getsharder, life for Dan keeps getting harder,andit’s getting a Hell of a lot harder for Phil to keep it together without feeling like a nuisance and a failure. He’s letting Dan down in ways that Dan doesn’t realize, and never will. It’s Phil’s own personal burden to bear.
But tomorrow will be better, Phil thinks, rubbing his eyes out of sheer tiredness. Dan has faced some forks in the road, but he’s got a whole life ahead of him. With enough luck, Phil plans to be there every day until his very last.
He hadn't reacted fast enough. He's failed his human, and he's failed himself.
Dan is sprawled out in the middle of the pavement. The man that had attacked him is long gone, so Dan is all alone with not a single soul to help him, and Phil is leaning over him, crying. Dan is unconscious, and even if he wasn't Phil has no inkling as to whether he would even be able to hear him. But he talks to Dan regardless, whispering words of encouragement to make him hold on to the slither of life he's still grasping, still fighting for. He takes Dan’s hand and strokes his hair out of his bloodied face, all while whispering the Lord's Prayer in as many tongues as he can think of. He uses Dan's weak breathing as a reminder that it's not over yet, that Dan is still alive and that miracles happen, sometimes. Yet the desperate sound also reminds him that Dan hadn't even reached his 19th birthday before Phil had completely and utterly failed him.
The rain drips mercilessly onto Dan’s frozen face, running crimson streaks down his otherwise unsullied skin. Though the rain and the cold are nothing but empty thuds on Phil’s trembling form, the flickering streetlight illuminating the bloody pool beside Dan’s body is enough to make it all feel real. It’s undeniable proof that this isn’t just a hopeless nightmare.
After what feels like an eternity, the sound of a woman screaming wrenches Phil out of his despair, piercing through both the cold air and Phil’s very soul. It's a small relief, but a relief nonetheless. She calls for an ambulance, and the waiting begins.
In the span of time between Dan being loaded into the ambulance and him arriving at the hospital he was born in only 18 years ago, Phil pleads with the Elders.
"He's not ready," he begs, hands clasped together turning his knuckles slowly white. He's still crying, so his words are jumbled and hard to understand. "It wasn't supposed to happen—I was meant to stop it, and I just—“
But if it's meant to be, then it's meant to be, are the Elders' closing words. Even Guardians cannot protect their humans from their ultimate fate.
No, Phil thinks, because he knows that this is wrong. He knows, just like he'd known 18 years ago that Dan was his human, that this is a mistake, that Dan has so much life left. He can't let Dan die because of his own failure. It's just not how it works.
So he waits, albeit impatiently. He lingers by Dan's side as the doctors operate, sees Dan's parents and brother pacing restlessly outside his room, waiting just like him. But he isn't waiting for the end of the surgery, for Dan to wake up. He's waiting for him. And at around 3:40 in the morning, when Dan's family are asleep and the doctors have called it a day, he comes.
Phil knows when Death arrives even without looking away from Dan's motionless form, because the room turns ice cold, as does Dan's face. He does look away, though, and they lock eyes - Phil's bright and blue, his more like empty holes – sending tremors through Phil’s entire being.
Phil takes a very, very deep breath. It's difficult, because the cold air feels like it’s freezing his insides, and briefly Phil thinks that it may have done him more harm than good. He stands up straight, making sure that his body is blocking Dan's as well as it possibly can. Then, with faux confidence and a trembling voice, he takes the plunge.
"You've made a mistake."
If Death has heard him, his face certainly doesn't show it. Rather, he pulls out his List from under his robe and scans the names written in perfect cursive; names, and next to them, their owners’ causes of death. The angel hums to himself and, momentarily, Phil thinks that they might be safe.
He's wrong. "Daniel James Howell—attempted mugging?" Death asks, as if he's just asked Phil for the weather or the time of day.
For Phil, it's like a knife straight through his heart. His legs turn to jelly, barely keeping him upright in his fear, and his hands don’t fare any better in comparison from the way they tremble and shake. Still, he raises his chin a little and fights it.
"No," he says. "No, it's not him."
Phil doesn't know if he's the first Guardian to pick a fight with one of the most prominent angels in their lore, but there's no harm in trying. It's futile, of course, because angels know everything, especially angels as old and wise as Death himself. Besides, he hasn’t asked Phil for confirmation or permission. He’s asked only out of pure formality and tradition.
Phil swears that he actually hears a sigh before Death says, "Move."
"No," Phil repeats, with more force this time. He's not sure how long he can stall for, or even if his efforts are meaningless, but as long as there's a chance that Dan can pull through, it's worth it. Even if the chance is as slim as Death’s own skeletal finger.
Phil’s thoughts are interrupted by the sound of a heart monitor sounding the tone of a flat heart rate. The sound smothers him, robs him of his breath and leaves him feeling disturbingly close to drowning. Phil feels as if his world is ending, until he looks over and sees Dan's own heart monitor is still showing activity. Still beating. Still fighting. The sound is coming from the room to the left.
Phil wastes no time in taking advantage of the blessing he's been given. "Well?" he bites, breaking the silence. "Don't you have somewhere else to be?"
He can't tell if Death is unmoved or simply dumbfounded at Phil's bravery and stupidity. Death’s face is far too expressionless for Phil to come to any sort of conclusion, so he acts as if he's already won and turns back to look at Dan. As he strokes Dan's knuckles in an attempt to soothe his nerves, he hears Death's parting words as he melts away.
"Fine. Have it your way."
Death disappears, and almost as if on cue, Dan's eyes flutter open. Phil feels his heart soar.